Japan’s Samurai Blue ready to re-enter the fray against Croatia | WC 2022

Samurai Blue is more than just a nickname for Japan. To hear veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo speak on the eve of their last 16 tie against Croatia was a rousing lesson in the character of a national team fighting to reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.

“To use the analogy of the samurai,” the 36-year-old began, “before going into battle, they polish their weapons and improve their technique. But if they are afraid in battle, they will not be able to use the weapons or the technique properly. It’s the same in football. Tactics and technique are important, but if you are scared on the pitch they are useless. To maximize all the tactics we have practiced over the past four years, we need courage. The Japanese samurai is famous all over the world and we would like to fight like samurai. Tomorrow we would like to show how bravely we fight.”

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the past 12 years, the Guardian has reported on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is brought together on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football website for those who want to delve deeper into the issues off the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

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No prizes for guessing who is doing the locker room team talks in Japan. The manager, Hajime Moriyasu, was considerably more reserved than the former Internazionale full-back, stressing the need for courage but also for his players to “be themselves”, adding: “They shouldn’t be so tense that they forget what they do. . . They have shown their ability and now they can see that it is paying off.”

Still, there is substance behind Nagatomo’s rallying cry. Japan have come from behind to beat two of the last three world champions in Qatar and did so with just 27% possession against Germany and 18% against Spain, the lowest in a World Cup match since 1966. Fighting, never giving up, have been hallmarks of their progress to the knockout stage.

“It’s an Italian Word”coraggio‘ which means courage, Nagatomo said. “Before the first game against Germany, I shook hands with all the players and we shouted ‘coraggio‘ together. Courage has manifested itself in our play. We are united as one, and that is Japan’s strength. I think we are the most united team in this World Cup. We came through the group stage as No. 1. We are very confident now. We don’t need to shoutcoraggio“more.”

However, Japan must erase painful memories from its footballing history on Monday. Samurai Blue have reached the last 16 of a World Cup three times and three times they have tasted defeat, each harder to come by than the last. A 1-0 defeat at home to Turkey in 2002 was followed by a penalty shoot-out defeat by Paraguay in 2010. In 2018, they led Belgium 2-0, but Nacer Chadli completed the Red Devils’ comeback with a 94th-minute winner.

“I have never forgotten that match with Belgium; it’s always been with me,” Nagatomo said. “Sometimes I just suddenly want to remember something from that game. The last four years were very tough for me, but we have overcome the challenging four years and we have grown mentally and physically. I have participated in a World Cup four times and as far as I can see this is the best and strongest Japan team in the history of the World Cup.”

Ao Tanaka scores the winner against Spain.
Ao Tanaka scores the winner against Spain. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Moriyasu said that lessons had been learned since 2018 and that Japan has improved due to individual development. He believes that this in turn has made it possible for Japan – together with South Korea – to be the standard-bearers for East Asia on the global stage. But his sights are much higher.

Japan’s manager said: “For Japan to win the World Cup, we have strengthened and nurtured youth players. At the same time, the Japan Football Association aims to contribute to Asian football by sending Japanese coaches to many countries in the region. It is great that Japan is contributing so much to the development of Asian football, but unless we can win a World Cup, we cannot lead other countries.”

Zlatko Dalic, Croatia’s head coach, believes there are parallels between the teams in terms of character and as two proud footballing nations succeeding in disrupting the established order.

“We made it to the finals in 2018 because we believed in ourselves, we never gave up, we never surrender and we are prepared to fight,” he said. “I think we have similar mentalities and we’re on the same page. There are 4 million Croatians and the results we have achieved in the last couple of years on the world stage are a miracle. We have become a world force, and when we deliver good results at a World Cup, we know that we bring great joy to our country. We are the smallest country with the smallest population in the last 16. We are here against the odds.” And wants to bury the last of the samurai.

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