DOHA, Qatar — The second-biggest upset of the 2022 World Cup so far was a product of soccer’s globalization.
Germany, a longtime superpower, bossed long stretches of its Wednesday opener here at the Khalifa International Stadium.
But in an exhilarating second half, the Germans were stunned and beaten by a brilliant Japan team that their own Bundesliga helped create.
Ritsu Doan, current employee of German club SC Freiburg, came off the bench to net a deserved equalizer in the 75th minute.
Takuma Asano, current employee of German club VfL Bochum, came off the bench to score an astounding winner, and earn a 2-1 victory.
They were two of seven players from the German top flight, but in Japanese blue, who turned the game on its head in the second half. Another one, Maya Yashida, said he’d gone to FC Schalke this summer specifically “to understand German football, German culture and the opponent.”
“It's not only one reason, but this is one of the reasons why I came,” and “of course” it helped on Wednesday, he said.
Others have taken their games to the next level in an increasingly multicultural league. And that league, by extension, has helped propel the Japanese national team to breathtaking heights.
“They are fighting at a very strong, tough, prestigious league, so they’ve been building up their strength,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said of his Bundesliga players. “So in that context, we believe that these leagues have been contributing for the development of Japanese players.”
Twelve years ago, Japan drew 19 of its 23 World Cup players from its domestic league, the J-League. In 2022, it’s drawn 19 of 26 from abroad, from many of the most competitive club circuits in the world. Those leagues have increasingly welcomed foreigners throughout the 21st century, because of their talent, and also because of the same globalizing forces that have shaped society more broadly.
The trend has widened the gap between the top five club leagues and the rest. But at the international level, for national teams, it has arguably had the opposite effect.
Japan has been one of the chief beneficiaries. It didn’t even qualify for a men’s World Cup until 1998. It didn’t win a game that year, nor did it win one in 2006, nor in 2014. But all the while, it was producing better players, and Europe was accelerating their ascents.
The Samurai Blue, as the team is known, came to the 2014 World Cup with a few European stars, but still with a roster half-full of J-Leaguers. It was in 2018, with seven Bundesliga players in the squad, that their depth began to show. They reached the Round of 16, and nearly stunned Belgium. Their rise was very real, and ongoing.
In 2022, though, and specifically on Wednesday, they rose to a new level — and did so, not coincidentally, with the German Bundesliga as the most-represented league on their 26-man roster, even more so than the J-League. It has helped nurture players. It has also gifted them familiarity.
“They have so [much] information. They give it to the staff,” winger Takefusa Kubo said of his Germany-based teammates. “And that's one of the reasons [for] the victory.”
“I think the players of Germany know each other, and know how they play,” winger Kaoru Mitoma said. “This did good things for us, and we prepared based on this.”
It also gave them belief. As Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada said last week, they drew strength from the fact that so many “share the same stage” as the heavily favored Germans.
“I think we’re on an equal footing with them now,” he said.
When asked after the match whether they believed they could win, Mitoma, who plays for Brighton in the English Premier League, said: “Of course.”
There were, of course, other factors on Wednesday. In the first half, Japan was nearly overrun. At halftime, they tweaked their formation — “because,” as Yashida explained, “[Jamal] Musiala and [Thomas] Muller were in the pocket every time, and we were struggling to catch them.”
Their solution was perhaps counterintuitive. They replaced a winger with a defender, and went to a back five. But the new shape wrested control of the game away from the Germans, and allowed Japan to punish Germany’s wastefulness.
“I think we had the game in our hands,” German forward Kai Havertz said. “And it slipped out of our hands very fast.”
Or, rather, it was ripped away by a Japanese team that deserved every last ounce of the three points; by a Japanese team that is not a fluke, and can do more of the same.
This, a few players said, was the best day of their careers, and perhaps the best result for the Japanese program, ever. But will they celebrate?
Perhaps a bit, but their coach, former national team player Moriyasu, has told them: “The most important thing is how you finish the tournament, not how you start. You have to keep going.”
“How will I celebrate?!” Yashida asked, restating the question with an incredulous smile. “Nothing! Rest, recovery, train!”