Japan's National Team: 1995-97
Shu Kamo took over the national team at the end of 1994, shortly after Falcao had been sent packing amid acrimony and disorder. The job of putting the team back together and dispelling the bad feelings that lingered both on and off the pitch would be his most important challenge, and one that would continue to bubble just beneath the surface until the end of his stint as head coach. His first, and most important contribution to the Japanese national team was to get the players thinking and playing as a team.
Okada's ability to massage egos and create a sense of friendly camaraderie in the locker room was essential in dispelling the acrimony that had developed during Falcao's reign, both on and off the field. Almost immediately, the results became apparent in terms of performance, as Japan managed a number of surprising results including draws against teams like Scotland, Uruguay and Sweden.
Like Ooft before him, Kamo benefited from the low expectations of most fans and league officials, as well as a general improvement in the quality of players in the domestic league. For the first time ever, the Japanese coach had a broader pool of potential national team members from whom to choose. Selecting the national team members had actually become a difficult job, whereas in the past, the same players were usually tapped for every match. In the end, though, this factor would come back to haunt both Kamo and his successor, Takeshi Okada
A number of key players emerged for the Japanese national team during Kamo's reign. Yutaka Akita, a big and burly stopper who emerged as Japan's premier stopper, both for the national team and at Kashima Antlers, took over from the aging Tetsuji Hashiratani alongside "Mr. Marino" Masami Iihara. Akita and Iihara complemented each other well, since Akita was very strong in the air and Iihara was good at breaking up an opponent's drive on goal with a well-timed tackle.
Japan also developed a style of play that would characterise the team until the end of World Cup 1998, relying heavily two of the most mobile side backs around. Naoki Soma and Akira Narahashi were both tireless runners who could go from end line to end line for the full 90 minutes. While they were good defenders in their own right, their most important value to the team lay in their ability to overlap on the wing and create a scoring opportunity with a pinpoint cross.
As Ruy Ramos began to show his age, youngsters like Tsuyoshi Kitazawa, Motohiro Yamaguchi, Hiroaki Morishima and stepped in to create fluidity at midfield. Whereas the Japan teams of old had relied mainly on solid defenders and an occasional counterattack, the Japanese style from the mid-1990s increasingly relied on coordination and pressure at midfield as the central theme of play.
While Kazu remained Japan's top scoring threat in the front line, players like Takuya Takagi and Masashi Nakayama also began to make their mark. Though Nakayama would bear the stigma throughout his career of having a poor touch of the ball, he was a consummate finisher, deadly in the air, and with the hint of cocky arrogance that distinguishes all great scorers. In addition, a youngster who was setting the J.League on fire at JEF United -- Shoji Jo -- appeared as an understudy to the two veterans. Kamo Japan seemed to have all of the elements needed to finally get to the top of the heap in Asia, and win a ticket to the World Cup.
However, Kamo's very strengths proved to be his downfall. When he arrived in 1995, his easygoing nature and desire to avoid conflict was useful. He did a good job of massaging egos and getting players to work together on the field, but he never pushed his own personality or developed a commanding presence of his own. Eventually, this lenient style of leadership was tested. During the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup, Japan had a few bad matches, and seemed to stumble. Rather than pulling together as a team and fight to overcome the adversity, the national team fragmented into bickering cliques, each of which blamed the others for the team's poor performance. As the team moved into the second round of qualifying, their performance began to get worse and worse. Draws to the UAE and Kazakhstan, and a loss to South Korea put Japan on the brink of elimination. In panic, the JFA searched for an acceptable scapegoat, firing Kamo and replacing him with his assistant, Takeshi Okada.
"-" Denotes players that were not named to the team in this year.
"0" Indicates that the player was named to the team in this year,but did not appear in any international A matches.