When you see international competitions and the ways in which they’re shaping up over the last few years, you get the sense that they are a little in disarray. The World Cup is set for a change in 2026, expanding to 48 teams and perhaps switching for the worse. The Asian Cup expanded in their most recent edition, while the Gold Cup along with the African Cup of Nations are set for change this summer. The European Championships already implemented their change in 2016.
Expansion is a hot topic in international football, where even friendlies have been swept under the rug in favour of the Nations League, as seen in North America and Europe. So what has CONMEBOL, South America’s governing body for football, been doing? The federation hasn’t had the best of times recently, with the mishaps during the recent Copa Libertadores final between River Plate and Boca Juniors and corruption within the federation being rife.
A South American nation hasn’t won the World Cup since 2002, despite going through a few great generations of footballers, while the Copa América has seemingly lost the aura of old, with the most recent edition in 2016, hosted by the United States of America, coming off more as a marketing ploy than a football tournament.
With 10 members, their next edition in 2019 will be of 12 teams, so how are CONMEBOL managing this? One would imagine they would be better off keeping it at 10 teams and implementing the format until 1991, where two groups of five squared off before the final. However, CONMEBOL opted for the more money-generating and controversial invitees, roping in two other nations from outside the region and expanding the tournament to 12 teams.
Geography would suggest featuring countries near the continent, bringing in the likes of Guyana or Jamaica, but with the Gold Cup coinciding and the federation’s obsession for including external nations, they’ve gone for others. Recent editions have seen the likes of Canada, China, and Spain invited, but they all declined. The United States of America have featured thrice (excluding the competition they hosted in 2016), while in the 2019 edition, surprise Asian champions Qatar will be featuring for the first time.
Qatar will be joined by the side they beat in Abu Dhabi to win the Asian Cup, Japan. That means this edition will host 10 South American nations and two Asian teams.
Ideally, one would imagine that there’s no connection between Japan and South America, but there’s actually a lot of history between the two. Especially considering the fact that the 2019 Copa América will take place in Brazil, Japan go way back with the country. The ties started centuries ago, long before football was given a religious status in Brazil.
It was in the 16th century that the two nations first had contact. Portuguese explorers reached the city of Nagasaki in 1543, using Brazil as a stopover during their journey. This would happen often, before Japan decided to isolate themselves while later on in 1822, Brazil would gain independence from Portugal, thus ending this side to the relationship. When Japan entered the Meiji period – an era which changed the country from a feudal society to an industrialised Asian power – Brazil saw the potential benefit and signed a treaty with the Far Eastern country.
The Meiji period is one of the most important and significant eras in Japanese history because it drastically changed the mentality and daily habits of the overall population. It was a forced move to avoid colonisation from European superpowers, however, it did face some backlash. The economy changed immensely and that affected many businesses, especially those in rural areas. Around the same time, Brazil abolished slavery (in 1888), so workers were highly needed.
Enter Kasato Maru, a Russian ship which became Japanese property after the Russo-Japanese war. Originally used during the fighting itself, it became a passenger ship and brought Japanese immigrants first to Hawaii, Peru and at last Mexico. Its most important trip came in 1908 when the first official group of Japanese immigrants travelled from Kobe to the Port of Santos for a 52-trip day that was an important moment in history.
Those 781 people that travelled became workers in coffee plantations in São Paulo, as many of them made money and returned home. Many followed that path, but several others also opted to stay back in Brazil as the flow of an immigrant workforce never stopped, thus seeing a large Japanese population in the region. This happened because many found it easier to settle there, with money flowing in well and cultures coming together.
The Kasato Maru was bombed during the Second World War, but Nipo-Brasileiros are still widely in existence. Today, Brazil holds the largest Japanese community living outside of the Land of the Rising Sun, with an estimated 1.6 million people of Japanese descent living in the country, most of whom are based in São Paulo. Despite the immigration ending several decades ago, the Japanese heritage, culture, and customs are still widely evident.
Japan playing in South America has been seen before, with the country accepting the invite to play in the 1999 Copa América in Paraguay, as they looked to grow as a footballing nation following the implementation of the 100-year plan.
1999 was a different period for the Japanese national team. The Samurai Blue had just qualified for their first World Cup a year prior, losing all three matches and scoring just once, but were keen on change. It was indeed a step ahead, having slightly missed out on the 1994 World Cup.
In Paraguay, however, Brazil were the defending champions and came in with a point to prove having lost the World Cup final a year prior. Japan came in with changes, most significantly, in the form of their coach. They replaced Takeshi Okada with Philippe Troussier, the man who led South Africa at the World Cup in 1998 and was tasked with doing the same in the Japanese-hosted tournament in 2002.
Several players that played in France a year ago remained in the side. Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and Seigo Narazaki in goal; Masami Ihara, Naoki Soma, Yutaka Akita in defence; Hiroshi Nanami as the number 10; Shoji Jo, Masayuki Okano, and Wagner Lopes, the Nipo-Brasileiro as the forwards. However, several household names such as Hidetoshi Nakata and Kazuyoshi Miura were left out, while an up-and-coming Shunsuke Nakamura wasn’t considered either. Japan were alongside Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay in a relatively complicated group.
The first game is often considered as the most important, and it’s against Peru, who like Brazil, has a cultural history with Japan. The story of immigrants from Japan to Peru is slightly different from the one with Brazil, because of wildly incorrect rumours of Peru being “full of gold”. 798 Japanese people took the leap of faith in 1898, and several settled there. Over time, the anti-Japanese sentiment was strong, but there was still room for them to prosper, as evident by Alberto Fujimori, a Peruvian of Japanese descent became President of the country in 1990 and was re-elected in 1995 until 2000.
The clash between the two on the football pitch was an entertaining affair, ending 3-2 for the South Americans, who were aided by a brace by Roberto Holsen. The other two games didn’t go too well for them either. Paraguay smashed Japan 4-0 which included a brace from Roque Santa Cruz, while the last game against Bolivia provided a bit of hope, as a 1-1 draw condemned both sides to elimination at the group stage.
There was a lot of historical context to Japan’s participation in South America’s premier cup competition, but the football was slightly disappointing. Nonetheless, it was a good experience for several of their young players and a good test against international opposition ahead of the 2002 World Cup which was set to be jointly-hosted by them and South Korea.
Following Japan’s participation in 1999, CONMEBOL never gave up on the idea of having them back for the Copa América one more time. They tried intensely in 2011, and the Japanese Football Association even strongly considered sending a team to Argentina for the tournament, but those plans were scuppered following the devastating earthquake in March 2011 that heavily affected the schedule of the J.League and left the country in disarray that affects them to this day. The JFA immediately declined the invitation and focused on rebuilding.
The CONMEBOL President, Eugenio Figueredo, tried again for the 2015 edition, which was set to be held in Chile. This time, however, the JFA thought it would be best to decline once again and focus on their 2018 World Cup qualifiers. The federation’s persistence finally paid off, as in May 2018, Japan finally accepted the offer. With no scheduling conflicts this time around and with the World Cup qualifiers in Asia set to commence in September 2019, this was a chance to test themselves against South America’s finest once again.
What can we expect, though? Qatar, the other invitee, have decided to stop their domestic league in preparation as they look to build on their Asian Cup win and form a formidable outfit ahead of their World Cup debut in 2022. The J.League, however, hasn’t included a break for the competition, instead of adding a break for 2020 ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games. Initially, there were whispers that there wouldn’t be any J.League players flying to Brazil, but those plans, too, have been changed.
With the Olympic Games in mind, the coach, Hajime Moriyasu has called up many youngsters to the squad. The average age of the team is 22.3 years old, with a majority of the roster being filled with J.League players. The likes of Koji Miyoshi, Hiroki Abe and Daiki Sugioka are all included. Amongst the 23 in the squad, 17 of them have never previously featured in the team. Midfielder Kota Watanabe has been called up despite playing in Japan’s second-tier with Tokyo Verdy, while forward Ayase Ueda is still attending Hosei University (although, he is registered as a special player for the Kashima Antlers).
Amongst the six players who had previously represented Japan, only three of them have more than 10 caps. Eiji Kawashima, Shinji Okazaki, and Gaku Shibasaki are all experienced names. The most significant call-up, though, is Takefusa Kubo. The Japanese starlet, who even played at La Masia, has been highly touted locally and in Europe and recently signed a deal to join Real Madrid. Often hailed as the future of Japanese football, he is one to keep an eye out on.
There are several factors to keep in mind. Japan’s squad will be much younger that played in 1999; the tournament will be in Brazil with Japan kicking-off in São Paulo, where they were very well-received during the 2013 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup; they are paired with Uruguay, Chile, and Ecuador and with the possibility of three teams qualifying from a group, they would feel they have a good chance of doing well.
Japan have a history with Brazil, they have an unconventional history with the Copa América and as unlikely as it may seem on the face of it all, Japan have a vast history with South America which will see them getting a homely feeling whenever they are in the region.
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