Japan prove that Asia has a lot to give

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre discusses Japan’s superb showing in Russia and why an expanded World Cup can only be a good thing for Asia.

If there’s one lesson to be gleaned from Japan’s last-gasp defeat at the hands of a Belgian side that they’d matched for long spells is that an expanded World Cup is absolutely, fundamentally, a positive thing for the long-term growth of the game.

Barely four days after Korea stunningly knocked the defending champions Germany out of the FIFA World Cup, Japan raced into a two-goal lead early in the second half with only another goalkeeping error from Eiji Kawashima allowing the Belgians back into a contest that they’d struggled to control as expected.

A second from a corner and then a stoppage-time winner from a fast counter handed Belgium a scarcely deserved 3-2 victory in what – despite the loss – was easily the best performance that any of Asia’s quintet of nations turned in at Russia.

Having already claimed the scalp of Colombia and then come within the faintest margin of stunning the world’s third-ranked nation, Japan didn’t sit back and scrap their way to way to this result against Belgium but rather, for long spells, went toe-to-toe with their more illustrious opposition.

Whereas other so-called smaller nations may have chosen to sit back, wait for their moments on the counter or battle their way to penalties this was a display full of character, belief and a desire – as Akira Nishino has said all along – to play football the Japanese way, as Keisuke Honda told FOX Sports Asia after the defeat.

“We were not afraid to play against Belgium and we showed that for 90 minutes but unfortunately we couldn’t win but I’m proud of the team because we played aggressively and all Japanese people I think are proud of us.

“We don’t have physical ability but we have good technique in midfield and the Japanese league also has these qualities so the players can play in Spain or Germany or leagues where they want to keep the ball.

“We gave European clubs a message today that they should bring more Japanese players and I hope that after this World Cup that’s what will happen.”

“Today we showed the growth of Japanese football and while I might finish my national career, I’m happy because many young players are following us and they will make new history for Japanese football.”

What it also showed is that Asian nations can compete, challenge and contend, even against the global footballing elite.

Following on from Saudi Arabia’s win over Egypt, Iran’s defeat of Morocco and an impressive Australian display in a narrow first up loss to France, Asia showed at this World Cup that not only do they belong but that also they can compete with the very best.

That they’re doing this whilst continually being denied the opportunity to gain exposure and greater experience with a meager slice of the qualification spots is nothing short of remarkable.

One of the main factors behind the rise of the so-called European ‘minnows’ is that they’re handed chances to compete at major tournaments due to an unequal allocation of spots.

The only way that Asia can continue to improve will come with the chance to experience more moments precisely as this – the chance, when the spotlight shines brightest, to match wits with those that have been afforded these opportunities for decades longer than Asia has.

As Maya Yoshida told FOX Sports Asia post-match, it’s vital that those who are handed the chance continue to impress to justify greater slots.

“We knew that we were the only Asian nation to reach the second round and that we were in the minds of many Asian people and that if we lose every time in the group stage then the places for Asia will get smaller and that’s a huge difference for Asian countries.

“We need to go through to the next round constantly with more teams.

“Iran was very close and Korea beat Germany so not only Japan but also other Asian nations need to improve a lot.”

That’s exactly why an expanded World Cup is a positive for the region as Asia has shown in this tournament – the opening day aside – that they aren’t here simply to make up the numbers but that, given the chance, experience and exposure, that they can push the very best all the way.

It’s also worth remembering that until 1986 Asia didn’t have a single direct qualification spot and that number wasn’t doubled for another four editions.

It’s also little surprise that the rise in Asian nations being competitive at the World Cup coincided with an increase in spots that began with the four nations that gathered in Korea and Japan in 2002.

How are nations supposed to improve if they aren’t handed these precise moments to do so?

It’s exactly why the expanded tournament in 2026 will be a positive to spread the ‘wealth’ that Europe has dominated for so long in terms of access to the tournament and as Japan showed in this outstanding performance against Belgium, given the opportunity Asia can match the world’s best.