Japan’s Samurai Blue ready to enter the fray once more against Croatia

<span>Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Samurai Blue is more than just a nickname to Japan. To hear the veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo speak on the eve of their last‑16 tie against Croatia was to receive a rousing education in how it relates to 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 they go into battle they polish their weapons and improve their technique. But if they are scared in battle they will not be able to use their weapons or their technique properly. It is the same in football. Tactics and technique are important but if you are scared on the field they are useless. To maximise all the tactics we have been practising in the last four years we need courage. The Japanese samurai is famous around the world and we would like to fight like samurais. Tomorrow we would like to showcase how courageously we fight.”

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No prizes for guessing who delivers the team talks in the Japan dressing room. The manager, Hajime Moriyasu, was considerably more restrained than the former Internazionale full-back, stressing the need for courage but also for his players to “be themselves”, adding: “They should not be so tense that they forget what they are doing. They have shown their ability and now they can see it produces results.”

Yet there is substance behind Nagatomo’s rallying cry. Japan have come from behind to beat two of the past three world champions in Qatar and did so with only 27% possession against Germany and 18% against Spain, the lowest figure in a World Cup match since 1966. To fight, to never give in, have been hallmarks of their progress to the knockout phase.

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“There is 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. Coraggio 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 at this World Cup. We came through the group stage as No 1. We are very confident now. We don’t need to shout ‘coraggio’ any more.”

Japan need to erase painful memories from their football history on Monday, however. Samurai Blue have reached the last 16 of a World Cup three times and three times they have tasted defeat, each one harder to take than the last. After a 1-0 loss on home soil against Turkey in 2002 came a penalty shootout 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’ve never forgotten that battle with Belgium; it has always remained with me,” Nagatomo said. “Sometimes I will just suddenly remember something from that game. The last four years were very tough for me but we have overcome those 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. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Moriyasu said lessons had been learned since 2018 and that Japan have improved because of individual development. That in turn, he believes, has enabled Japan – along with South Korea – to be standard bearers for east Asia on the global stage. But his sights are much higher.

Japan’s manager said: “In order for Japan to win the World Cup we have been strengthening and nurturing youth players. At the same time the Japan football association has a target of contributing 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, the Croatia head coach, believes there are parallels between the teams in terms of character and as two proud football nations succeeding in upsetting the established order.

“We reached the final 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 are on equal ground. There are 4 million Croats and the results we have achieved in the last couple of years on the world stage is a miracle. We have become a world force and when we deliver great results at a World Cup we know we are bringing 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 looking to bury the last of the samurai.