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Asia Feature: When Lionel Messi Arrived And Japan Came Of Age

When Japan hosted Argentina last Friday it marked the biggest football game played in Japan since the final of the 2002 World Cup.

Tickets sold out in less than an hour and the Saitama Stadium 2002 was packed and vibrating with energy hours before kick-off.

The sub-plots for this game were countless: the debut of Alberto Zaccheroni on the bench, the return to Japan of Shinji Kagawa after his Borussia Dortmund had defeated Bayern Munich only a few days earlier, the absence of both of Japan’s center-backs and of course the presence of possibly the best player in the world, Lionel Messi.

The Barcelona talent’s popularity is of course huge in Japan as well. His moves and his touches during the game were feared by the Japanese supporters but also accompanied by a mix of spontaneous cheers and gasps; he once carried up the ball upfield through four Japanese defenders and as the mega-screen showed a slow motion replay, most in the stadium forgot the game was continuing and preferred to re-watch Messi’s skill, still holding their breath.

In fact, fans wearing Messi’s Albiceleste jersey in Saitama probably outnumbered those sporting Keisuke Honda and Atsuto Uchida equivalents.

There were a few thousand supporters chanting and playing music for Argentina, many of them Japanese. They clearly picked the worst possible night to show their support for the visitors...

Victors | Zaccheroni's men were full of confidence

The Samurai Blue were immense.

Picking up where they left it in South Africa and in the two previous friendly games, they played compact and with an enormous spirit and sacrifice. Messi was still capable of setting the stadium alight but even he had to succumb when the third or fourth Japanese player still managed to recover and put a leg or a foot between “the flea” and the goal defended by Kawashima.

Japan’s effort was perfectly embodied in the performance by Shinji Kagawa. Even though the former Cerezo ace has quickly established himself as a star in the Bundesliga, on Friday, instead of trying to compete with Messi, he often showed the tactical maturity and humility necessary to cover whenever Nagatomo pushed forward.

But the most impressive quality shown by Japan was a buoyant self-confidence.

For those who have been following this team since the beginning of Japanese professional football (back in 1992), it was impossible not to compare this game to one that was played between the same two teams in 1995 and ended with Argentina burying a naïve Japan 5-1. The boys in blue have certainly come a long way since then.

So, 2010 might really go down as the year when Japanese soccer came of age. Yet, on the way to this amazing season’s epilogue (the Asian Cup, which will take place in January), there is one more reason to be exited yet concerned: tomorrow's bout with South Korea in Seoul.

Before the World Cup, an indecisive Japan succumbed 0-2 in a training match played at home against the Koreans - we’ll see now if “Zac’s Japan” has what it takes to take the return the favour.

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