With four AFC Asian Cup wins, Japan stand alone as the continent’s most successful football nation.
When the 2019 edition of the competition kicks of in Abu Dhabi on January 5, the Samurai Blue will be looking to add a fifth title to their impressive list of triumphs, all of which were achieved in the three stripes of adidas.
Here, FourFourTwo Arabia looks back on an unrivalled continental legacy.
AFC Asian Cup 1992, Japan
In 1992, a decade before the country would go on to host the World Cup finals alongside South Korea, Japan had no international football heritage to speak of.
The country had never reached the World Cup and had only played once at the AFC Asian Cup, in 1988, when they were knocked out at the group stage.
Hosting the tournament in 1992 would prove a turning point.
But it almost didn’t come to pass for Dutch coach Hans Ooft’s team. After two draws against the UAE (0-0) and North Korea (1-1), Japan were three minutes away from exiting the tournament when Kazuyoshi Miura scored to secure a 1-0 win against Iran, and progress to the semi-finals of the then eight-team competition.
A dramatic 3-2 win over China set up a final against reigning champions Saudi Arabia in Hiroshima.
Takuya Takagi scored the only goal of the match on 36 minutes; Japan, playing in their distinctive adidas blue and white kit, were AFC Asian Champions for the first time in their history, and a new continental giant was born.
AFC Asian Cup 2000, Lebanon
A formidable Japanese team coasted through the 2000 AFC Asian Cup group stages, though the latter stages of the competition proved uncannily similar to the team’s triumphant 1992 campaign.
French coach Philippe Troussier’s team beat Saudi Arabia 4-1 and Uzbekistan 8-1 before a 1-1 draw with Qatar ensured they progressed to the quarter-finals of the 12-team tournament as group winners.
Iraq were easily dispatched, the 4-1 win setting up another semi-final with China. Remarkably, Japan beat their neighbours 3-2, just as they had done in their last four clash eight years earlier.
The final in Beirut, too, proved a carbon copy of Japan’s previous triumph, Shigeyoshi Mochizuki scoring the winner in another 1-0 win over 1996 champions Saudi.
Two years later, Japan would reach the World Cup round of 16 – where they lost 1-0 to Turkey – to confirm their status as one of the superpowers of Asian football.
AFC Asian Cup 2004, China
Japan, led by Brazilian legend Zico, entered the 2004 AFC Asian Cup in China as one of the favourites, and the reigning champions easily progressed from a group that included Iran, Oman and Thailand.
The quarter-final clash with Jordan proved one of the most memorable of the tournament. After a 1-1 extra time draw, Japan edged a dramatic 4-3 penalty shootout win in which seven spot kicks were missed. Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s was the decisive kick.
The quarter-final, however, had nothing on a stunning semi-final against Bahrain that provided seven goals, each one result-changing.
The two teams had shared four goals as the match entered its final stages, and Naser Abdullah looked to have settled it when he gave Bahrain the lead on 85 minutes.
But as the clock struck 90, Yuji Nakazawa scored with a spectacular diving header to take the match into extra time. Three minutes into the extra period Keiji Tamada scored the winner in one of the Asian Cup’s greatest ever matches to take Japan, in their, by now, classic adidas blue tops, into their third final in four tournaments.
The final against China at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing proved an ill-tempered affair, with goals by Takashi Fukunishi, Koji Nakata and Keiji Tamada confirming 3-1 win over the hosts.
Japan had retained their title and equaled the joint record held by Iran and Saudi of three AFC Asian Cup triumphs.
AFC Asian Cup 2011, Qatar
A year after a heartbreaking round of 16 penalty shootout exit to Paraguay at the 2010 World Cup, Japan were back in business at continental level under Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
A 1-1 draw against Jordan and two wins against Syria (2-1) and Saudi Arabia (5-0) meant yet another Japanese march into the quarter-finals as group winners.
In traditional Samurai Blue style, the last eight clash with Qatar was a classic.
Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa had twice cancelled out Qatar leads before Masahiko Inoha’s 89th minute winner secured a semi-final spot.
In Kagawa, Japan had a bona fide world superstar; a Bundesliga winner, face beaming from adidas billboards and films, he would go on to win the English premier League with Manchester United and play in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Leading 2-1 in the semi final, Japan were seconds away from a fourth final when South Korea’s Hwang Jae-Won scored a 120th minute equaliser to take the tie into a penalty shootout.
Japan scored three to Korea’s none to set up a final against Australia.
That too went into extra time after a scoreless 90 minutes, before Tadanari Lee’s superlative volley won the cup for Japan with 11 minutes left.
With four AFC Asian Cup wins, Japan’s footballers are now peerless among their continental rivals.