Japan had no European-based players in their squad when they made their World Cup debut in 1998. Now they have more from German clubs alone than from their domestic J-League.
Japan kick off their seventh straight World Cup campaign against Germany in Doha on Wednesday, and expectations have never been higher.
The Blue Samurai have gone from tournament newcomers to grizzled veterans over the past 24 years, thanks in no small part to a growing exodus of talent to European clubs.
There are only seven J-League players in Japan’s squad for the Qatar World Cup. Of those, Yuto Nagatomo played for Inter Milan, Galatasaray and Marseille before returning to Japan from an 11-year stint in Europe, while Hiroki Sakai also played in Germany and France.
The rest of manager Hajime Moriyasu’s squad all ply their trade in western Europe, and Nagatomo believes the experience they have gained can only help Japan’s cause.
“We have a lot of players who are with overseas clubs, and they are used to tough matches,” said the 36-year-old, who is the first outfield player to be named in four Japan World Cup squads.
“We have players who play in the Champions League or against strong teams like Bayern Munich. When you compare it to before, we feel more established now.”
Japan have had players starring at European clubs before, but never in so great a number.
Eight of this year’s squad are based in Germany, three in France, two each in Spain, England and Belgium, and one each in Portugal and Scotland.
Such is the current strength in depth that players of the caliber of Celtic pair Kyogo Furuhashi and Reo Hatate missed out on selection.
Nagatomo thinks playing in Europe has given Japan’s younger generation a maturity beyond their years.
“When I played in my first World Cup, all I was thinking about was myself,” said Nagatomo, who made his World Cup debut in South Africa in 2010 and has played every minute of Japan’s campaigns since.
“It feels like now there are a lot of players thinking about the whole team, even if it is their first World Cup.”
– new generation –
Japan go into this World Cup with a host of fresh faces, with 19 players appearing at the tournament for the first time.
The generation who formed the core of the team for the past three World Cups — Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Makoto Hasebe — has largely been put out to pasture.
Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima is still around for his fourth World Cup, although this time as a back-up.
He believes Japan can “show something different from previous World Cups”.
“In 2010, we had I think four players who played in Europe. Today it’s the standard that we play in Europe,” said the 39-year-old.
“We know the Champions League and some players play at big clubs — Arsenal, in the Premier League, Bundesliga.
“This experience brings us more experience for the national team, so I think it’s a really good thing for us.”
Japan had six players in the group stages of this season’s Champions League, while Daichi Kamada won last season’s Europa League with Eintracht Frankfurt.
Takehiro Tomiyasu plays regularly for Arsenal and Kaoru Mitoma is making a name for himself after joining Brighton in the summer.
Nagatomo, who made 170 league appearances for Inter from 2011 to 2018, believes the battle will be won in the players’ heads in Qatar.
“At the World Cup, it doesn’t matter how good your tactics or your technique is, what really counts is your mentality,” he said.
“If you don’t have the right mentality, your tactics and your technique won’t count for anything.
“That’s what I’ve learned from the last three tournaments.”