Kuala Lumpur: In the modern era, no Asian men's team has enjoyed the success on the international and Continental stage as that of the Samurai Blue in the period from 2000 to 2011.
Beginning with their second AFC Asian Cup title at Lebanon 2000 and culminating in Qatar 2011 with their fourth, and including two FIFA World Cup Round of 16 finishes, Japan enjoyed a period of dominance and records that few have accomplished before and since.
While their three Asian Cup championships from four tournaments is the physical evidence of their success, Japan also achieved record finishes at the FIFA Confederations Cup (runners-up) and the Asian Games (gold), while their efforts in the World Cup and Olympic Games were also, at the time, new milestones for the national side.
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Prior to the new millennium, results did not suggest that the Samurai Blue were about to become Asia's powerhouse. While they had won their inaugural AFC Asian Cup title in 1992 with home advantage, they suffered a disappointing quarter-final exit to Kuwait at the 1996 edition in the United Arab Emirates.
Similarly, a maiden World Cup appearance was achieved for the 1998 tournament but it was a chastising experience as three defeats from three, including a 2-1 loss to Jamaica, sent Japan homeward.
The arrival of Philippe Troussier, to replace outgoing coach Takeshi Okada, was the catalyst for change. However, it didn't immediately go to plan.
A group stage elimination from the 1999 Copa America resulted in criticism from the Japanese media and may have influenced the French tactician to take the reins of the Under-20 side at the 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Nigeria.
There, with a squad that included such future stars as Yasuhito Endo, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto and Naohiro Takahara, Troussier's side went all the way to the final only to lose to a star-packed Spain side that featured Xavi, Carlos Marchena and Iker Casillas among their number.
Boosted by the performance in the FIFA youth tournament, Troussier continued to oversee his young charges at the Summer Olympics the following year in Sydney and helmed the side to the quarter-finals, a tournament best, before defeat on penalties to the United States.
A month after their defeat in the last eight in Australia, Japan were touching down in Lebanon for the 12th edition of the AFC Asian Cup.
"After arriving for the 2000 Asian Cup following the Olympics, I went to Beirut and saw the trophy on display," recalled Troussier in an interview with the-AFC.com back in November 2018.
"When I saw it I had a feeling: This cup is for us. I believe in signs, and so I believed in the beginning of the tournament we would win."
Troussier's premonitions proved correct and after a dominant showing in the group stage, Japan eliminated Iraq and China PR in the knockout rounds before edging Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final to be crowned Asia's kings for the second time. Dynamic midfielder Hiroshi Nanami was named MVP while Takahara and Akinori Nishizawa netted five each for the free-scoring side.
"We played so well; the best defence, the best attack," said Troussier. "We played 3-5-2, a new modern approach to the tournament, and, of course, it was a positive step towards the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
"Winning the AFC Asian Cup like we did helped us prove that Japan football is alive and kicking, and made Europe sit up and take notice.
"The performance of Japan at such a high level tournament showed to Europe that Asian sides could not be taken for granted and would compete at the upcoming FIFA World Cup, and that turned out to be the case."
A year prior to the 2002 FIFA showpiece, Japan hinted that they were ready to mix it with the world's best, topping a 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup group that included Brazil before overcoming Australia in the semi-finals to set up a date with France.
While the Samurai Blue suffered a 1-0 loss to the French in Yokohama, their efforts will have only enthused the Japanese public further ahead of what was to be the first World Cup to be held on Asian soil.
Co-hosting the event with Korea Republic, Japan banished memories of their 1998 disappointment by topping their group with wins over Russia and Tunisia and a draw against Belgium. A narrow 1-0 defeat to Turkey in the Round of 16 brought an end to their run but the Samurai Blue had achieved the nation's best-ever finish within the competition.
Following the World Cup, Troussier departed and Brazilian legend Zico took the helm. Despite lacking coaching experience, Zico's role in the J.League as a player and technical director with Kashima Antlers meant he had a great understanding of the Japanese game with his first Continental challenge coming with the side's AFC Asian Cup title defence in China.
As in Lebanon, the Samurai Blue eased through the group stage although now it was future Celtic legend Shunsuke Nakamura pulling the strings for a side mainly made up of domestic-based players. By contrast, the knockout stage could not have been tighter with Jordan only defeated on penalties and an extra-time Keiji Tamada strike needed to see off a brilliant Bahrain side.
The final was the match-up that most would have been hoping for pre-tournament: the hosts China versus holders and archrivals Japan. In an emotional rollercoaster of a tie it was Japan who came out on top of a 3-1 scoreline at Beijing's Workers Stadium as they became the fourth side to retain their title and first since 1988.
Back-to-back AFC Asian Cups and a last 16 finish at the 2002 FIFA World Cup had seen Japan ride into the new millennium on the crest of a wave, but they were to come crashing back down to Earth at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Having taken the lead in their tournament opener against Australia, the East Asians conceded three goals in the final 10 minutes as victory turned to defeat in dramatic fashion. It was a bitter pill to swallow and, after a scoreless draw with Croatia, a 4-1 loss to Brazil confirmed their elimination in what proved Nakata's final game as a professional footballer.
A year later at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup in Southeast Asia, and under the guidance of Bosnian coach Ivica Osim, the Samurai Blue were able to inflict some kind of revenge on Australia, ousting the Socceroos on penalties in the quarter-finals
However, they fell to Saudi Arabia in the last four as their bid to become only the second side to claim three Asian Cups in a row ultimately ended in failure, before a penalty shootout defeat to Korea Republic saw them finish fourth.
But Japan's mini slump in the mid-2000s did not mark the end of their golden era. Instead, under Okada, who was reappointed following the departure of Osim, they began to rise to the fore once more, advancing to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa for their fourth successive appearance at the global showpiece.
While the likes of Nakata Takahiro and Ono were no longer part of the squad, experienced campaigners including Nakamura, Endo and Inamoto remained to guide a talented new generation of players that included Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Yuto Nagatomo, among others.
And they did not disappoint, Honda scoring the only goal of the game against African champions Cameroon on his World Cup debut as Okada's side got off to a perfect start.
Defeat to the Netherlands followed but Honda, Endo and Okazaki were all on the scoresheet as Japan responded in style to claim all three points against Denmark and book a last 16 date with Paraguay.
A clash against resolute South American opposition who had impressed but looked far from formidable in the group stage saw Japan enter the last 16 perhaps not as favourites, but undoubtedly with a fighting chance of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time.
In what was their first World Cup knockout round game outside their homeland, Japan may well look back on the match at Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld Stadium with a sense of regret.
Dausuke Matsui had rattled the crossbar with what was the closest either team came to breaking the deadlock during 120 minutes of action before Paraguay eventually prevailed on penalties following Yuichi Komano's miss as the Samurai Blue exited despite impressing along the way.
Nevertheless, the 2010 competition had been a successful one, with a new crop of players delivering an exciting brand of football, achieving a pair of excellent results along the way and offering plenty of optimism for the years ahead.
Okada stepped down following the 2010 World Cup before Takashi Sekizuka led a young Samurai Blue side to their first-ever gold medal at the Asian Games as Japan ended the decade on the high.
Former AC Milan, Internazionale and Juventus manager Alberto Zaccheroni had taken over the side in the summer of 2010 and his first task was to reclaim the AFC Asian Cup title, with the 2011 edition in Qatar marking the Italian tactician's first major tournament at the helm.
The three-time winners needed a late Maya Yoshida equaliser to rescue a point in their opener against Jordan, but an Okazaki hat-trick in a 5-0 win over the Saudis sent them through to the knockout rounds.
Having missed out on the 2010 World Cup, Shinji Kagawa was the hero in the last eight, scoring twice in a 3-2 win over hosts Qatar before Japan edged past East Asian rivals Korea Republic on penalties in the semi-finals to set up a final date with familiar foes Australia.
While Japan had eliminated Australia at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, the victory had only gone some way towards avenging the defeat at the 2006 World Cup. The final in Doha, though, offered them a real chance of payback on Asian football's biggest stage.
A tight contest was eventually decided in the 109th minute as substitute Tadanari Lee's sweetly struck volley from Nagatomo's delivery from the left proved the only goal of the game as Japan won an unprecedented fourth AFC Asian Cup title and third since the new millennium.
"It is a great victory. We have a really great team," said Zaccheroni. "They were united and won the title against such strong opponents.
"I knew Lee would do it. What is great about this team is that even players who started on the bench could produce results on the pitch."
Unbeknown to Zaccheroni, though, that Japan team would not go on to bigger and better things and, instead, the victory at Doha's Khalifa International Stadium brought the curtain down on the glory years.
Group stage elimination at the 2014 FIFA World Cup spelt the end of the Italian's tenure, before the Samurai Blue's quarter-final exit at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup saw them lose their grip on the Continental title.
A third World Cup knockout round appearance in 2018 followed by a runners-up finish at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup hinted at better things to come, although today's team has some way to go to rival the achievements of a generation that dominated Asian football by being crowned Continental kings three times in 11 years.
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Photos: AFP, AFC
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