The inflation of the Blue Samurai
Forget the stagflation that has been the bane of the Japanese economy for the past two decades. In football, inflation has been steady. Twenty years ago, the first ever J.League season was just getting into its stride. In 1998 came a first ever World Cup appearance. In 2002 was the debut win on the global stage with 2010 bringing a first overseas victory. For most countries, it's too early to say what happens in 2014 but Japan is on the brink of Brazil and already dreaming of a lengthy Samba stay. Japanese football has come a long way in a short time.
Philippe Troussier was the man in charge of the team that reached the second round in 2002. The Frenchman was in Tokyo this week to give his opinion on why he thinks they are now one of the top 15 teams in the world. "When I was national team manager, Japanese players already had great technique and passing skills," he said. "But at that time the global image of the Japanese team was that the players were naive, and that they could be pushed around physically. Now, with changes to the FIFA rules taking away a lot of the physical aspect of the game, Japan's technical style has prospered."
There will certainly be a contrast of styles on Tuesday evening as Australia arrives in Saitama desperate for points in the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. The fact that Australia still likes to get physical against Japan is more a reflection on the Socceroos than the Samurai Blues. Regardless, the fact is that in Group B, Japan are way out in front with 13 points from six games, six ahead of Jordan in second and seven clear of next week's opponents who have played a game less.
The schedule in the final round - the top two of the five get Brazilian berths - favoured the East Asians but they still took advantage in clinical fashion. It started with a 3-0 home win over unambitious Oman on June 3, 2012. Five days later Jordan, (un)freshly arrived from their opening game thousands of miles away, were thrashed 6-0. Then, coach Alberto Zaccheroni was able to take his men south to Australia, on paper the toughest of the eight games, to arrive before a host still en route home from a gruelling trip to the Middle East.
After a satisfactory point down under, Iraq were dispatched at home in September to give Japan ten points from four games and total control of the group, especially as rivals were all taking points off each other. And then in November, when Shinji Okazaki scored a last-minute winner in Oman, the soft sand of Copacabana beach seemed as close as the nearby desert. A defeat in Jordan in March, amid missed penalties and laser beams of greater accuracy, was just a stay of the team's smooth execution of World cup qualification duties.
And so to Tuesday at Saitama Stadium where a point would be enough to seal the Brazilian deal. Despite the fact that the two teams have developed an interesting rivalry since the 2006 World Cup, it would be a surprise if it didn't happen. Japan enter the game as the overwhelming favourites. Much has changed since 2006 when Australia came back from a goal down to win 3-1 in Kaiserslautern and end Japan's German campaign before it had barely begun.
Troussier knows better than anyone that there is much more to the rise of Japan than any rule change. A nationwide youth development program was put into place even before the J-League kicked off and the effect is being seen around the world. The well-travelled Frenchman was happy to see his stars head to Europe, encouragement that has been amplified by Zaccheroni. Fourteen of the squad called up for this match have jetted east from Europe, a higher figure than the traditionally far-flung Aussies who still have plenty of players out west but no longer at the big clubs. Shinji Kagawa has just won the Premier League title, Yuto Nagatomo has finished another season with Inter while Keisuke Honda will have his pick of the best leagues in the world when he leaves CSKA Moscow either this summer or at the end of the year when his contract ends.
Those are the household names but there are plenty of big ones. Atsuto Uchida, Makoto Hasebe and Shinji Okazaki are experienced performers in the flavour of the month that is the Bundesliga. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima did what few Asian shotstoppers do –took his gloves west and is now with Standard Liege. Defender Maya Yoshida moved to the English Premier League with Southampton and settled after a shaky start. The likes of Hiroki Sakai and Hiroshi Kiyotake also went to Germany along with a number of others, and are adding to the general level of competition in the Samurai Blue squad.
Zaccheroni arrived from Italy in the summer of 2010 and told the press to call him Zac. At the moment, they would call him anything he wanted. It has been evolution for the Italian, taking over from Takeshi Okada who led the team to the last 16 in 2010. Six months in and the Asian Cup was sitting back safely at JFA House. The fine-tuning has continued. The team is settled.
In friendlies against supposed weaker opposition, Zaccheroni has sometimes played around with alternative formations, laying foundations for plans B and C. It was a 3-4-3 against Bulgaria on Thursday that ended 2-0 to the Europeans. The fact that it didn't work doesn't mean that it won't work.
And Japan are no longer afraid of the global superpowers. A 1-0 win over France in Paris last October is testament to that, even if a 4-0 defeat to Brazil a few days later showed that there is still much to do.
The lack of a genuine goalscorer has been an Achilles heel for years. The central defence is another area needing work, but Japan will get plenty of almost-competitive action this summer against the likes of Brazil and Italy at the Confederations Cup. A feel for the country and the stadiums ahead of 2014 will also be no bad thing.
On Tuesday, Japan should become the first team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. It is becoming something of a tradition after doing the same in 2006 and 2010. These days however, it is not about how early the team gets there, but how long they stay. Football inflation in Japan is continuing to rise and it's hard to know just when it will stop.