Samurai Blue and the Socceroos: The Early Years

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Group F Australia v Japan - World Cup 2006

are – according to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott – ’s closest friends in Asia. They are one of ’s largest trading partners, with recorded trades dating as far back as 150 years, large tourism and economic ties and a high rate of migration between the two nations.

On the football pitch, it’s a slightly different story.

The two nations only began playing in the same confederation once Australia joined the AFC in 2006, but the Samurai Blue and the Socceroos have faced off in 24 encounters over the last seven decades – their first meeting in the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne a taste of the competitive rivalry that has so far seen seven wins each and just two scoreless draws.

The 1956 Summer Olympics match ended 2-0 to Australia, with Frank Loughran earning a penalty for Graham McMillan to convert and scoring one of his own in the second half, a chipped effort after finding space to cut in from the wing. Company-employed athletes outnumbered student players in the Japanese Olympic side for the first time in its history, as Japan slowly began to build a true sports following. Several years later, German coach Dettmar Cramer arrived in Japan and, after becoming enamoured with their desire to learn, stayed longer than expected to help educate and develop Japan into a football nation.

The next series of competitive matches came during the lead up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, when Japan traveled to Australia to play a three game tour in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. The number of supporters for the visiting side was so significant and vocal in the first two games that it led to Australian great Johnny Warren stating that “It would have been better if we had been playing in Vietnam or Korea.”

Despite an injury to Warren in the first game, an Australian side with Ray Baartz, Les Scheinflug and Ron Corry ultimately drew 2-2 and won 3-1 respectively in the first two matches. The third game – a 3-1 win for Japan in Adelaide – marked both Japan’s first win against Australia and 23-year-old Japanese star Kunishige Kamamoto’s fourth goal in matches between the two sides; a record that would not be matched for the next 41 years. Kamamoto and Japan travelled to the Mexico Olympics later in the year and showed off their rapid football development with a bronze medal finish, drawing with Brazil and knocking out France along the way.

Japan and Australia were to meet again twice the following year for qualification for the 1970 FIFA World Cup, where a joint qualification round saw AFC and the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) sides compete together. Japan failed to win any games in their group with Australia and Korea Republic, setting the tone with a 3-1 loss to Australia that ended with an own goal from Aritatsu Ogi.

The two countries had to wait until the 1990s before their next series of official matches, starting with Australia’s first invitation to a Kirin Cup tournament in 1994. Both nations were starting to gain real momentum in their football worlds; Japan had recently launched the J-League, and more of the current and future Australian national team were beginning to move from semi-professional National Soccer League in Australia to ply their trade in Europe. The increasing strength of Japan’s national team became evident across a series of games in the decade, with a mix of emerging and established players like Hidetoshi Nakata, Kazuyoshi Miura and Shoji Jo helping to guide Japan to the first of consecutive World Cups.

The first two games of the new century – a 2001 Confederations Cup encounter and an ill-fated attempt at starting an annual AFC-OFC Challenge Cup – proved that Japan, led then by Philippe Troussier, had become a class above an Australian side that had stumbled at the last stage of qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. It was a sign that Australia needed to step up their development if they were to truly compete on the world stage.

Largely considered to be fielding their best generation of players in several decades, Australia qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, their first since 1974. A long-awaited return to the international stage brought together an entire nation, introducing a large portion of the population to the sport for the very first time. In addition toa swarm of Australian fans at the game itself, over seven million people were glued to TV screens across the country to watch the Socceroos played their opening game in Kaiserslautern against Japan, who had become the dominant nation on their continent.

Despite some early half-chances by Australia – mostly through Middlesbrough striker Mark Viduka – Japan took the lead when a Shunsuke Nakamura cross evaded everybody to meet the back of the net within the first half hour. The Japanese fans rejoiced – for close to an hour, Samurai Blue looked ready to claim three points from their first game. Then, in the 84th minute, following a scramble from a long Lucas Neill throw-in, Tim Cahill found space to shoot past Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi for the equaliser, scoring Australia’s first ever goal in a World Cup final.

The horror became nightmare for Japan as Cahill again struck home for Australia in the 89th minute, this time just outside the penalty area. Their fate was sealed two minutes into additional time when John Aloisi ran with the ball between Yuichi Komano and Tsuneyasu Miyamoto and into the penalty area, scoring Australia’s third to secure the win.

Every Japanese and Australian fan remembers where they were when Cahill scored those two goals and the rivalry between the two friendly nations has continued building. The current New York Red Bulls man eventually met Kamamoto’s goalscoring record between the two sides, scoring his fourth in 2009 during a World Cup Qualifier. He could very well become the outright leader in Tuesday night’s friendly between the two nations in Osaka.

As Australia went on to join group winners Brazil in the Round of 16, Japan crashed out of the tournament without a win. Despite the long competitive history between the two countries, Germany 2006 was in many ways the start of what has now blossomed into one of the continent’s top rivalries.