51st Minute, Junichi Inamoto, Japan v Russia, 2002 World Cup Group Stage
It wasn’t until the 1998 World Cup that Japan played their first World Cup finals match. Japanese football had been hindered for many years by the lack of a professional league. In 1993 the league was launched and it improved the fortunes of the national team almost instantly but the team just missed on qualification for USA ’94.
In 1996 it was announced that Japan would co-host the 2002 World Cup alongside their great rival South Korea. It was therefore important for the Japanese to gain some World Cup experience, something their Korean neighbours certainly weren’t lacking. They finished six points behind South Korea in qualification for France ’98 and they faced a play-off in Malaysia against Iran to qualify for the finals. The loser faced Australia in an inter-continental play-off. Japan came from 2-1 behind to win 3-2 with a golden goal in the 118th minute, a win that sparked wild celebrations throughout Japan where the sport was finally growing.
The 1998 campaign in France didn’t go as well as they hoped, they lost all three matches but all were by a narrow margin. The lack of goals was the biggest worry as they suffered 1-0 defeats to Argentina and Croatia and were disappointing in a 2-1 defeat to Jamaica.
Under French head coach Japan looked in good form as the World Cup edged near. They won the Asian Cup in 2000 and followed it up with an impressive performance in the Confederations Cup where they finished as runners-up to World and European champions France.
Japan started the World Cup with an entertaining draw against Belgium where they looked very good going forward. It was a result and performance they looked to build on. Russia were their next opponents who had beaten Tunisia in their opening game. Japan’s fanatic and loud support and their frenetic attacking play proved a potent mix and the Russians struggled to deal with it.
Inamoto grabs his second goal of the World Cup to put Japan 1-0 up…
What Happened Next?
Japan beat Tunisia and won the group but they fell behind to Turkey after just twelve minutes in the second round match and despite dominating the game thereafter couldn’t find an equaliser.
Japan will play in their fifth World Cup in a row this year.