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HeraldScotland:


In 2005, the Japanese Football Association commissioned a document entitled The Pledge for 2050. Contained in the pages was a blueprint, one that laid out in detail how the country expected to win the World Cup by the year 2050.

Ultimately, that dream will have to wait for at least another four years after Japan's last-16 defeat by Croatia but then there is a reason why a strategic view has been taken: there are no shortcuts when it comes to achieving greatness. Over time, the JFA plan has been modified and adapted. Achievable goals, such as reaching a World Cup semi-final place by 2030, have also been set. 

It is interesting to note that when the Scottish Rugby Union unveiled a similar plan in 2012 aimed at lifting the Rugby World Cup, they gave themselves a four-year timeframe. We are now six years in advance of that target and Scotland have not finished higher than third in a Six Nations nor progressed past the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

The Japan FA were, instead, realists. They knew that creating a lasting legacy would take time and could not just be treated as a bit of PR spin to garner a few cheap headlines. The foundations laid were deep: JLeague rules state that all clubs who play in the division must develop their own academy and have at least two youth teams – nothing too out of the ordinary in that, of course, but they are also required to field a minimum of two players from that academy in their starting line-up and at least one who is under the age of 21.

The aim, claim representatives, is to produce a league that is among the top four in the world by 2030. Helping to move towards that goal was the coaching structure they put in place. The JFA have nearly 600 centres of excellence around the country and close to 50,000 coaches working on their World Cup mission.

Speaking in 2005, Kohzo Tashima, then the technical director of the JFA but now its president, said: “You think we are dreamers and will laugh now but we are going to make this dream come true.”

Some 16 years on, and after another last-16 exit, Japan appear no closer to their World Cup goal but they are clearly on the up as one of the most exciting footballing nations outside of the traditional superpowers, a statement that is evidenced by an exodus of players to Europe. At the most recent count, there were 16 players featuring for clubs in the continent's top five leagues.

Finally the penny seems to be dropping with those in the mainstream, too. Rio Ferdinand made clear his admiration for Daizen Maeda during his half-time analysis of the Celtic attacker's performance against Croatia yesterday.

"You wouldn't want to play against that,” said the Manchester United legend on BBC. “He's running around, making it difficult for you, with and without the ball he's an absolute nuisance. The first minute of the game, he's closing the keeper down. You know you're in for it now and that's the catalyst for the others to come in behind.”

While the analysts and commentators on BBC and ITV wake up to the realisation that Japan is an emerging football nation, followers of Scottish football have known for 18 months about the depth of talent in the country. 

While Maeda's inclusion in Hajime Moriyasu's squad raised plenty of eyebrows in Scottish football he has shown over the past fortnight exactly why he is so prized by his managers with his tireless running and ability to find himself in good positions to score – even if he does not always manage the feat. His Celtic team-mates Kyogo Furuhashi and Reo Hatate missed out on Japan's final 26, of course, which further underlines just how prolific the Japanese production line has been in recent years.

There is still some way to go, however.

What yesterday demonstrated for Japan was that there is no substitute for experience. Their players' legs turned to fondue in the shootout under the lights at the Al Janoub Stadium yesterday evening. Having dominated for 120 minutes against Croatia, they found themselves in relatively uncharted territory having faced just one previous penalty shootout at the World Cup – against Paraguay in 2010 – which they also lost. Perhaps the clearest sign that you have arrived as a major international force is an ability to win regularly on penalties. One thing is certain: the Japanese FA will be putting a plan in place to address it.


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