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Asian Classics: Japan's 'Miracle of Miami'

Tuesday, July 21, 2020
1996 Atlanta Olympics-- The Japanese men's soccer team celebrates after finishing their match against Brazil without conceding a goal.

Kuala Lumpur: In what became known as ‘The Miracle of Miami’, 24 years ago on July 21 Japan’s hopefuls overcame the might of Brazil to chalk up a historic result at their first appearance at the Olympic Games in more than a generation. looks back to the football tournament at the 1996 Olympic Games and Japan’s remarkable victory over the then world champions.

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The heat roiled around Miami’s Orange Bowl despite the late afternoon kick-off as Akira Nishino led his team out for their opening encounter of their 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games campaign.

Japan’s men were appearing in the Olympic football tournament for the first time in a generation, the country finally ending an agonising barren spell that started after the legendary Kunishige Kamamoto led his team to the bronze medal in Mexico City in 1968.

The task handed to Nishino and company in their first game could not have been tougher because on the other side of the field in this opening Group D encounter stood the mighty Brazil, a nation whose pedigree was unquestioned and whose desire for Olympic glory was significant.

For a country that had two years earlier won its fourth FIFA World Cup title, the ignominy of having never won Olympic gold was almost too much to bear.

The Japanese, meanwhile, had every reason to be in awe of their opponents, not only because of the array of talent on display but as a result of the role a succession of Brazilians had had in the development of the professional game in their homeland.

The links between the two nations on the football field were deep, having most recently manifest themselves in Ruy Ramos – who was born in Brazil before taking on Japanese citizenship – at the heart of the country’s 1992 AFC Asian Cup-winning side and in the J.League’s most glamorous team, Verdy Kawasaki, in the earliest days of the J.League.

The legendary Zico, meanwhile, had come out of retirement to play for Kashima Antlers in the first years of professionalism in Japan while Leonardo, Zinho, Dunga and Jorginho – all members of the 1994 FIFA World Cup winning side – were playing in the nation’s nascent professional league.

And while the connections ran deep, the threat posed by the Brazil side facing Nishino’s men that day was significant from a team boasting current and future stars of the global game as the country sought to finally deliver a first-ever Olympic gold medal.

Such was Brazil’s determination to end that remarkable run of failure they had enlisted the great Mario Zagallo to lead the team, calling upon the first man ever to win the FIFA World Cup as both player and coach. And Zagallo, who played in Brazil’s 1958 and 1962 World Cup-winning sides before coaching the team that claimed the title in Mexico in 1970, had chosen the very best talent available.

Defensive stalwart Aldair and striker Bebeto, both of whom were members of the 1994 side that won the World Cup in the United States, were central to Zagallo’s plans, as were up-and-coming stars Juninho, Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo.

But perhaps the most potent of all was the young man who sat on the bench at the start of the game at the Orange Bowl, only to terrorise the Japanese defence following his introduction later in the game.

Ronaldo had already established himself as one of world football’s hottest prospects and had featured in Carlos Alberto Perreira’s squad in the United States in 1994, picking up a World Cup winner’s medal without playing at the tournament.

In the two years since he had shown scintillating form for PSV Eindhoven and, shortly before making the trip to the United States in the quest for Olympic gold, it was announced the youngster was to take his talents to FC Barcelona.

That he was left on the sidelines for the start of the opening game, however, said much about the quality Zagallo had at his disposal. Brazil’s status as gold medal favourites was well warranted.

The Japanese, for their part, travelled to the United States with domestic expectation rising after Nishino’s team secured the country’s first Olympic participation since that unexpected bronze medal win 28 years earlier. But, having been drawn to face Brazil, Nigeria and Hungary, their task looked daunting.

Japanese football was in the midst of a new era, however, and optimism was in the air. Just three years earlier the J.League had been born and, with the country awarded the co-hosting rights for the 2002 FIFA World Cup less than three months earlier, there was growing confidence within the sport in the country.

“At that time I felt there was a lot of pressure because Japanese football had not been to the Olympic Games for a long time, around 28 years,” said Nishino recently.

“Three years before that tournament Japanese football had tried to turn the domestic league into a professional league and that meant expectations were very high.”

Nishino’s side boasted talent of its own. Yokohama Flugels’ Masakiyo Maezono had established himself as a bona fide star of the J.League with his busy style and a deftness of touch around the penalty area while Hidetoshi Nakata was an icon in waiting. Despite that, though, the Japanese fell far short of their more illustrious opponents.

That did not stop Japan going on the front foot early in the game with Nakata steering a left wing cross from Ryuichi Michiki wide in the opening minutes. But before long the Brazilians were attacking in incessant waves.

Savio and Bebeto tormented the Japanese defence while Roberto Carlos tried his luck with several of his trademark free kicks, yet goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and his backline remained resolute.

So dominant were the Brazilians that Japan barely ventured beyond their own half and Nishino’s team was fortunate to reach the interval level and still in the game.

The superiority of Zagallo’s side continued into the second period. Bebeto and Juninho were thwarted by Kawaguchi while poor finishing undermined the favourites’ hopes of making a winning start to the campaign. Even the introduction of Ronaldo off the bench did little to break Japanese resilience.

And then, with 18 minutes remaining, came the shock of the day. A rare foray down the left via Michiki caught the Brazilian defence napping and a hopeful ball into the centre resulted in a disastrous mix-up between Aldair and goalkeeper Dida. The ball fell kindly for Teruyoshi Ito and the Shimizu S-Pulse midfielder was left free to roll his effort over the line.

The goal sparked euphoria on the bench and among the Japanese fans in the crowd of 46,713, although it only offered brief respite from a Brazilian barrage that intensified as Zagallo’s team looked for an equaliser.

Bebeto’s free kick was pushed to safety by Kawaguchi and Juninho shot wide before Rivaldo’s set-piece attempt sailed over the bar. Aldair then saw his header cleared off the line as the Brazilians edged closer and closer to Japan’s goal.

But somehow Nishino’s team held out, referee Benito Archundia blowing the final whistle to hand the Japanese one of the finest results in the country’s football history against a nation that had played a significant role in the development of the professional game at home.

As celebrated as the result was, however, the historic win was to count for little. A 2-0 loss in their next game at the hands of Nigeria was to prove fatal, with a late penalty conceded as Hideto Suzuki slipped in his own area before handling the ball, leaving the Japanese needing to win handsomely against Hungary in their final game to progress.

That ended up being a task beyond Japan, who exited the tournament despite notching up a 3-2 victory over the Hungarians, with Kenichi Uemura and Maezono scoring in the 90th and 91st minutes to seal the three points for Nishino’s team. The Japanese had fallen short on goal difference.

“That was the first time at an Olympic Games that a team was able to collect six points but was still eliminated in the group phase,” Nishino, who went on to lead Japan to the Round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup in 2018, said.

“I think that group was a Group of Death because we were drawn with Brazil, Nigeria and Hungary. We had six points, equal with Brazil and Nigeria, and at the time we felt we deserved more.

“But if you look at the latest edition of the World Cup, in Russia, in the group stage we picked up only four points but we were able to make it through to the knockout rounds. This is football.”

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