Japan saluted a new era for its national football side Friday after they stormed into next year’s World Cup with a comprehensive 2-0 win over rivals Australia.
Local media paid tribute to Japan’s “generation next” after goals from Takuma Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi on Thursday evening secured a sixth successive finals appearance for the ‘Blue Samurai.’
“Changing of the guard,” raved the Nikkan Sports daily, alongside a photo of senior players Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki watching the game from the bench.
Meanwhile, a centre-spread in the Asahi newspaper also credited Japan’s young players under the headline: “New generation lead us to the world stage.”
The excitement of the previous night’s celebrations even trickled through to normally impassive Japanese government officials.
“They have never progressed through the Asian qualifiers after losing the first match,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular briefing at the prime minister’s office. “They began from a difficult position but they shattered that jinx beautifully. The young players showed what they can do during (last year’s) Rio Olympics. This is the result of a team following the coach’s philosophy through hard work. I hope they aim high at the World Cup.”
Fans took to the streets following Japan’s victory as they became the fourth side to qualify for Russia next summer and the celebrations went on into the night in many bars across Tokyo and other major cities.
The sheen was taken off the moment however by concerns over the future of Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
Reports suggested the Franco-Bosnian was facing the sack if his team had lost to Australia; after the game, however, he said he had considered leaving Japan for “personal reasons.”
The Japan Football Association (JFA) has clarified there has been a “family matter” at stake but insisted Halilhodzic would travel to Saudi Arabia for Japan’s final group B game on Tuesday.
Halilhodzic had come under fire after Japan began the final round of Asian qualifiers with a shock 2-1 home loss to the United Arab Emirates.
After the match against Australia, he said: “To the journalists, maybe not all of you but I’m sure that some of you wanted me out of my job… I might remain, I might not. But in either case, I want to praise the team. I’m very proud of them tonight.”
“I might remain, I might not. But in either case, I want to praise the team. I’m very proud of them tonight”
He added: “I have been facing a major issue in my private life,” said the 64-year-old. “You might not know, but because of that problem, before the match I was thinking of returning home. It’s a major issue that I have. But I felt I had a responsibility to the supporters of the team, and when all the criticism started I tried to stand strong because that is my character.”
Halilhodzic took a gamble in the eyes of some by including 21-year-old Ideguchi and 22-year-old Asano in his starting lineup, but both players repaid his confidence with well-taken goals, Asano’s coming on the stroke of half-time and Ideguchi’s eight minutes from time.
“The young players played today and got the experience, and that helps to revitalize the team and provide competition for places,” said Japan captain Makoto Hasebe. “None of the players have grabbed their ticket to the World Cup yet.”
Australian hopes of reaching the tournament now hang slightly in the balance. Level on points with Saudi Arabia, they now must look to beat the group’s bottom side, Thailand, in their final qualifying match on Tuesday. If Saudi Arabia beat Japan on Wednesday morning, in Jeddah, second place – which is enough for automatic qualification – will be settled on goal difference, with the third-placed team going forward to a play-off. The outcome may, therefore, depend on the Socceroos putting a few goals on the scoresheet in Melbourne following a dismal 2-2 against Thailand in Bangkok last November.
Reporting from Agence France-Presse