While known as one of the powerhouses of the AFC confederation today, Japan were very much an unknown quantity around the time when the qualification for Italia ’90 began. It had only been a year prior to the World Cup qualification that they had taken part in the Asian Cup of nations: In 1988, Japan had qualified for the continental tournament for the very first time. It could well be argued that they had not had to negotiate the toughest of qualification groups, although you can only beat what’s in front of you. Finishing runners-up to group winners Kuwait, the Japanese had qualified at the expense of Jordan, Malaysia and Pakistan. In the tournament proper, held in Qatar, they hadn’t fared too well, finishing bottom of their five nations group, and thus bowing out at the first hurdle. Considering this was the ninth edition of the AFC championships, it was, by current day standards, quite remarkable how Japan had never previously qualified.
Japan’s ‘football claim to fame’ had been the bronze medals in the 1968 Olympic Games held in Mexico. They had finished ahead of Brazil (!) in the group stage, second behind Spain, and then toppled France 3-1 in the subsequent quarter-final. Kunishige Kamamoto had run riot in the goalscoring department, notching no less than seven times, making him leading scorer of the tournament. They had lost to eventual winners Hungary in the semis, but had recovered in time to win against the host nation in the third place play-off match.
With their participation at the 1988 Asian Cup of nations, and with the country due to stage the next event four years later, one could claim that Japanese football was finally looking to get out of the doldrums. Could reaching their first ever World Cup even be a possibility? Despite recent progress, it did seem too much of an ask. The qualification process was a long and difficult one, and there were several nations ahead of them in the continental rank who surely were better equipped. However, a fine scalp in the shape of an away win at China in the qualification for the 1988 Olympic Games in October ’87 had boosted their confidence. Ultimately, the Chinese would go on and qualify for the competition proper in South Korea.
For the inaugural group stage in the Italia ’90 qualification, Japan had been placed in a group with Indonesia, Hong Kong and North Korea. There was little doubt that it was the latter which would be the biggest obstacle for Japan.
In June and October ’88 respectively, Japan had lost home friendlies against China (0-3) and South Korea (0-1). They had four friendlies in ’89 prior to embarking on the qualification itself, one early in the new year, and three during the couple of weeks leading up to their first qualifier:
20.01.1989: Iran 2-2 Japan
Goals: Maeda 2
Line-up: Matsunaga – Horiike, Ihara, Sano, Hirakawa, Hasegawa, Hashiratani, Asaoka, Sasaki, Yoshida, Maeda
05.05.1989: South Korea 1-0 Japan
Line-up: Matsunaga (c) – Horiike, Ihara, Kajino, Mori, Hasegawa, Mochizuki (Asaoka 65), Hashiratani, Oenoki, Sasaki, Maeda (Kurosaki 77)
10.05.1989: Japan 2-2 China
Goals: Kajino, Maeda
Line-up: Matsunaga – Sintoh, Ihara, Kajino (Horiike 72), Mori (Hirakawa 69), Hasegawa, Hashiratani, Mizunuma (Maeda h-t), Sasaki, Natori (Oenoki 75), Yoshida
13.05.1989: Japan 2-0 China
Goals: Maeda, Yoshida
Line-up: Morishita – Horiike, Ihara, Kajino, Mori, Hasegawa, Hashiratani, Oenoki (Natori 78), Sasaki, Maeda, Yoshida (Mochizuki h-t)
National team coach at this point was Kenzo Yokoyama. Aged 46 coming into the qualification, he was a former international with nearly 50 caps from the 60s and 70s. He did seem to favour playing with a libero and a pair of centre-backs, and would also play with either a single or a pair of forwards.
World Cup qualification
22.05.1989: Hong Kong 0-0 Japan
Line-up (3-5-2): Matsunaga (c) – Horiike, Ihara, Kajino – Mori, Hasegawa, Hashiratani, Oenoki, Sasaki – Maeda, Yoshida
28.05.1989: Indonesia 0-0 Japan
04.06.1989: Japan 2-1 North Korea
11.06.1989: Japan 5-0 Indonesia
18.06.1989: Japan 0-0 Hong Kong
25.06.1989: North Korea 2-0 Japan
23.07.1989: Brazil 1-0 Japan