Wednesday, May 17, 2006

#22: Blues


Where? Archipelago in Northwestern Pacific Ocean.

How Big? Decent sized. About the size of California. Incredibly densely populated. About 40% the population of the US in about 4% of the space.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook... Well, it seems we learn a lot about Japan, so there wasn't much new in the CIA entry. The longest lifespan of anyone in the World Cup (only tiny countries are ahead overall). After Japanese, Korean, and Chinese ethnic groups, the largest in Japan is... Brazillian? Really. It seems a large group migrated there in the 1990s for jobs. Then there's this, which I couldn't believe. Japan's public debt is one of the largest in the world. 170% the national GDP, 3rd largest in the world and nearly three times the US's. Surprised me because people always used to talk about the trade imbalance with Japan, and I guess it's counterintuitive.

Geopolitical importance? Despite the large public debt, and an economy that has faced difficulties lately, Japan is still one of the most important economic nations on earth. In fact, it's third larges, after only the US and China - amazing because it's only a fraction the size of each and has only limited natural resources. At the same time, Japan requires a lot of imports just to feed itself.

Something fun about Japan... Go to It's definitely fun.

Why are you predicting this team to go out so early? Aren't they supposed to be good?

I guess this is the first real disappointment of my list - or at least the first team that a lot of people are predicting to advance.

Japan's soccer tradition is recently emerging. The J-League started in 1993, and since then soccer has been growing in popularity, almost to Baseball and Sumo levels. The national theam has improved dramatically and become one of the elite teams in Asia. Japan qualified for the World Cup in 1998 and automatically as host in 2002. 1998 was kind of a disaster, as cups often are for debutantes. They lost all three games, only scoring one goal. 2002 was much better, as they won two and drew one of their group matches, though they sat in the easiest group in the cup by leaps and bounds. They bowed out to Turkey in the first knockout round. In the Asian Cup, Japan has had more success recently as well, winning 3 of the last 4 cups.

Qualifying for Germany was more difficult in the games than it looked on paper, but Japan still ran through the group failing to take full points just once - in Tehran. Japan didn't have to play in North Korea because of politics, and took full points in a match in Bangkok.

There's no question that the J league is responsible for Japan's improvement on the international stage, and the bulk of the national team plays there. Some players have set up shop in Europe though, like the veteran Hidetoshi Nakata at Bolton (selling plenty of Reebok jerseys) and Junichi Inamoto, who bounced around after signing with Arsenal back in the day (to sell a lot of jerseys).

The one to watch is Shunsuke Nakamura, a midfielder and creative playmaker who plays most of the time at Celtic. He's small and gets pushed around (one big reason why I think Japan will struggle). But he's also quick and gets the ball forward well. Watch for him whenever a free kick is within striking range.

I think Japan will have a roller coaster trip in Germany, with a good amount of scoring. But inevitably things will be disappointing for Japan. Their success in 2002 was partly bouyed by favorable crowds and a light schedule. People forget how bad they were in 1998. Expectations for Japan to advance are probably misguided. This team is a lot like the 1998 USA team that finished last out of all 32.

In the opener, Japan's experience actually helps against the amped up Aussies. Japan concedes a goal, but stays focused and uses skill in the midfield to score twice in the second half and open with a 2-1 win.

In the second match, against Croatia, Japan scores twice in the first half, but hubris sets in. Croatia start using its size advantage up front. It works, and Japan has no answer. Croatia scores three times in the second half, including the clincer in stoppage time. 3-2 Croatia. Japan is stunned. They went from securing advancement to staring down elimination in 45 minutes. Croatia and Japan played close in 1998, but a Suker score late sealed it.

And after all that, Japan has to play Brazil. Brazil has already clinched a spot in the knockout round, but still outclasses Japan. Robinho makes a mark with two goals. 2-0 Brazil.

A step back for Japan, but the future's still bright there. 2010 should be much better.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Japan would be a mid major team that has great run one year, getting to the Sweet Sixteen, and then follows it up with a great regular season the next year, only to get a good seed and bow out early. Gonzaga from a few years ago seems right.

Savor it, Japan. Not gonna happen twice this year.