How a schoolmate's goal against Jamaica brought Japan into the football world
The World Cup used be a very distant dream for us Japanese. Even when Kazuyoshi ‘Kazu’ Miura , who had become a professional player in Brazil, came back to Japan ahead of the inaugural 1993 season of the J.League, saying that he had come home to take Japan to the World Cup, it still seemed a “foreign” tournament which would always take place without our country in it. That’s what I felt until that day, 26 June 1998.
It was some seven months earlier that Japan actually confirmed its qualification for France 1998 via the Asian Football Confederation play-off. However, by then I had left Japan and was based in England, where a Far Eastern country advancing towards its first World Cup appearance didn’t really matter, and understandably so. In addition, the internet wasn’t what it is today and what we now know as social media didn’t yet exist. Japan at France 98 didn’t feel real enough to me initially.
Back then, what the general public in England knew about Japanese football must have been limited to it being where Gary Lineker went to finish his career and where a certain “Arsène Who?” came from to become Arsenal manager. None of our 22 World Cup squad members were playing in Europe at that time. I believe the only time the Japan national team was actually in the news was when Kazu was referred to as ‘Japanese Gazza’ in the British media when he was omitted from the final squad at the very last minute and sent home from France.
Even after the tournament began, I remember watching a BBC programme in which Hidetoshi Nakata, then a rising 21-year-old playmaker, said in a prerecorded TV interview, “It’s not like Japan have 0% chance of winning the World Cup,” and Lineker was only too quick to point out that Japan had no chance in reality. It was as if we were not really in the World Cup even if the team was physically there in France.
At the same time, I must admit that it was hard to argue with such a view about Japan in the World Cup. In our first two 1-0 defeats, to Argentina and then to Croatia, we were all about disciplined and organised defence but were devoid of expression, inspiration and, more importantly, the joy that is to many, including myself, what football should ultimately be about.
However, on that day, something happened inside me. My perception towards Japan in the football world changed while watching our third game in Group H, a 2-1 defeat to Jamaica.
I wasn’t at the stadium in Lyon. I was watching the game on a not-so-big TV screen in a pub near Soho Square in central London, and Japan still went out of the tournament as the bottom of the group losing all three games. But there, I witnessed Japan making a mark, albeit a small one, in the world of football. After going 2-0 down, we scored a goal, the greatest joy in the game of football – our first World Cup goal.
To non-Japanese eyes, it might have looked a mere consolation late in the second half. It was quite a simple goal, too: a cross from the left was headed back across and the ball was met in the six-yard box. Yet, to us, it was a goal screaming, “We’re here in the World Cup!” I also happened to make my presence known in the pub as soon as the ball was in the back of the net by shouting, “Yeah!” and punching the air with delight… alone.
What made that goal extra special to me was the fact that it was scored by a player who was in a year below me in our high school in Japan – Masashi Nakayama. I had known since the eighties that he was a talented footballer with an eye for goal as he had been in the school team since Year 1, which was not always the case at our school, known nationally for its strong football team.
But then again, it was a pre-J.League era without a career path for a professional player in Japan. Nakayama went to university and then got a job at Yamaha Motor, albeit mainly to play for the company’s football team which would eventually become Júbilo Iwata in the J.League. Now, that boy from the same school, one of us, had just scored the county’s first-ever World Cup goal. It made me feel that Japan had really made it at the World Cup and that it had taken a long time but our distant dream had actually come true.
A few other customers nearby started chatting to me, approaching with a jokey, “Congratulations!” I was there with my ex-colleagues, two Japanese, one Welsh, one Indian and one Iraqi, none of whom were really into football. So, I naturally engaged in a football chat with those I just met and, to be honest, I hardly remember the remaining 15 or so minutes of the second half. But I do remember an Englishman said to me, “You have to play football in the last third of the pitch, too,” and I happily accepted his point of view about the way our national team played in the tournament.
On that day, right there in a London pub with a pint glass in my hand, having a casual conversation about Japan’s goal, players and the World Cup itself, I felt Japan had finally became a small part of football world. That experience also gave me a personal hope.
I was in between jobs, having decided to take my first step to become a freelance writer in England by saying goodbye to seven years of Japanese “salary-man” life in the previous month. The sense of belonging and the sheer excitement provided by Nakayama’s goal at France 98 made me feel that I, a Japanese from the world of “soccer”, was now entitled to talk about football with people in its motherland. As I left the pub after a few more pints, I was thinking that my own dream, too, might come true one day.