While removed from one another by several time zones and (at least) a pair of lengthy flights, not to mention distinct sporting traditions, the respective home nations of Rowdies' teammates Takuya Yamada and Evans Frimpong, Japan and Ghana, do share one trait.
Since qualifying for a first World Cup recently by competition standards, both have become fixtures of the event—expected members of a diverse parade of nations that is liable to shed its skin and reveal a new quilt of flags every four years.
As if spurred on by the lingering heartbreak of the “Agony in Doha,” where the Japanese national team vying for the 1994 tournament missed out on a historic first appearance by conceding a goal to Iraq on virtually the last kick of the qualifying campaign, Japan has earned a berth in every subsequent World Cup, beginning in 1998—five in total.
Similarly, the Japanese national team commands a significant following in Yamada’s East Asian homeland. In the past two decades, Japan has not only co-hosted a World Cup with South Korea but also repeatedly qualified for the quadrennial tournament with room to spare.
Last year, the Samurai Blue became the first of 32 nations to earn a berth in Brazil. Simultaneously, the nation witnessed the rise of a once-fledgling professional league.
Much in the same way the establishment of MLS has abetted the growth of soccer in the United States, the J-League has helped the sport blossom in Japan.
“One thing is that we built a professional league (the J-League), and it’s been around for 24 years now,” Yamada said. “So that helps a lot; so many foreign players come and give us so much experience.”
Yamada, who will turn 40 shortly after the World Cup, is not just the elder statesman of the NASL, but one of a select few players in the league to have been capped for his country. In 2003 and 2004, near the end of an accomplished career with J-League club Tokyo Verdy, Yamada made four combined appearances for the Japan national team.
When asked about the experience, he answered rather sheepishly, reducing his role to that of a benchwarmer.
Still, his strong ties to the national team, which date back to cheering club teammates on ahead of their trip to France in 1993 for Japan’s World Cup debut, endure. To his surprise, Yamada, who knows a trainer and “a couple of other guys” who are still a part of the national team, heard from the squad in recent months. The Japan FA was interested in scheduling a pair of final World Cup tune-ups in—where else—Tampa, Yamada’s adopted home since moving from Japan in 2010.
“[They] asked me about the facilities, the weather,” Yamada said. “I pushed them and told them, ‘Tampa’s great, you have to come here.’ So they decided to come to Tampa! That’s a great thing for me.”
As eleventh-hour barometers go, the two contests—one against England's and Italy's opponents Costa Rica and another opposite 2012 African Cup of Nations champions Zambia—should provide an extremely accurate reading of what Yamada and his compatriots can expect from the Samurai Blue.
Despite failing to register a win on foreign soil in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, Los Ticos nevertheless qualified comfortably and promise to offer stern resistance to England, Uruguay, and Italy in Group D. The Costa Ricans, an indomitable force at home, will be keen to prove they can find the same form on neutral ground, where the ensuing World Cup will play out.
The Zambians will likely offer a glimpse into what the Japanese can expect from Ivory Coast, their first opponent in Group C. Zambia held the Elephants scoreless in the 2012 African Cup of Nations final and then prevailed in penalties.
Japan will hope the Chipolopolo can offer a blueprint for victory against another African side, Ivory Coast, with Yaya Touré, Didier Drogba, and the rest of a hugely talented team that has garnered an unwitting reputation for underachieving.
A week later, Japan must tackle a group which also features Greece and Colombia.
Yamada acknowledged the draw could have been much more daunting. Still, the seasoned veteran preached the importance of a cautious and measured approach if the Samurai Blue are to advance past the Round of 16, a stage they have reached twice but never eclipsed.
“It’s not super tough, but it’s always hard in the World Cup to get points,” he said.
“So the first game against Ivory Coast is the most important game. I hope we do well. We have some good players, but mentally we are sometimes down and up—our young players especially.”