The riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: Under-fire Moriyasu brings unexpected glory for Japan

Moriyasu

One would not say that this is the biggest of stages and the pressure is on. Nor that a coach whose team is facing one of the toughest opponents in the world, two teams that won the FIFA World Cup in 2010 and 2014, would be so calm and composed.

But no matter the result, no matter how his team plays, Hajime Moriyasu has the pen in one hand and a small notebook in the other one, scribbling whatever thing he just witnessed on the pitch at Qatar 2022.

With an allure of a maths teacher and a three-piece suit worn with class and style, but also with the utmost respect of his rivals, Moriyasu just provided one of the biggest surprises ever in the 92-year history of the FIFA World Cup.

Not only Japan qualified from the first place in a group containing Spain, Germany and Costa Rica. The Asian powerhouse came back from behind against both European sides, after being thoroughly dominated in the first halves of both matches, to secure two 2-1 wins that propelled Japan into the Round of 16 at Qatar 2022.

“We are reaching the global standard. We are showing our capability from Asian football. When we conceded a goal, we continued. You have to be persistent, then you can go. We need to be tough until the very last minute and then we can grab this moment,” said Moriyasu after the win against Germany.

Only a week later, the “Samurai Blue” did it again, this time against another powerhouse, Spain, who looked in total control. Japan had a combined total of 498 passes in their two matches played against Germany and Spain. Their opponents had 1879. But the Asian side still won, 2-1.

It was thanks to an amazing effort of the team, but also thanks to Moriyasu, who was under heavy criticism after his team lost the game against Costa Rica, 0-1, sandwiched between the two against the European powerhouses.

But also thanks to Moriyasu, a coach which was a target for fans and media alike before the start of the tournament, being on his way to become unemployed, as a failure to progress to the Round of 16 at Qatar 2022 would have been a signal for a new coach.

A former midfielder, a true dynamo in the middle of the pitch, Moriyasu knows a thing or two about having the honour to represent Japan on the biggest of stages, as he played for the side for four years, between 1992 and 1996, featuring in 35 matches. However, he did not have the honour of representing Japan at the FIFA World Cup, with the “Samurai Blue” missing the final tournament berth in 1994.

After retiring from his playing career in 2003, he started coaching and featured at Sanfreece Hiroshima and for the Japan U-18 team without any success. But when he came back at Hiroshima in 2011, he swiftly energised the team and delivered amazing performances, winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.

His stock grew and after being relieved of his duties in 2017, he took over the Japan national team, but also the Japan U-23 squad, which he led at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, missing out on a medal after finishing fourth.

Having already featured as an assistant coach for Akira Nishino at the 2018 FIFA World Cup was huge for Moriyasu, who definitely learnt a thing or two about man-management and how to approach games where Japan are underdogs.

But his direct style of addressing the fans always made him a coach that was not always popular. However, the results, which saw Japan finish second at the AFC Asian Cup in 2019, their best finish since 2011, kept him in place.

“I cannot forecast the action of Moriyasu. He is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” wrote the Japan Today outlet before the game against Spain. But the Japan coach got the better of everybody.

Reacting immediately both against Germany and Spain to lift Japan from the dead were trademark Moriyasu moves, confirming his status as one of the finest tacticians the Asian country has ever produced.

Against Germany, Moriyasu put on Ritsu Doan in the 71st minute and he scored four minutes later. Takuma Asano, the second scorer, was also a substitute who entered the second half. The story repeated itself against Spain, where Doan needed only two minutes to score his goal after entering the pitch.

“The draw was very hard for us, but we thought about nothing but winning. Spain and Germany are one of the best teams in the world. We still have a lot to learn. We dedicate this victory to all Japanese and Asian people,” said a humble Moriyasu after the win against Spain, one of the biggest in history for Japan.

Now, Japan’s coach aims higher. This is the fourth time the “Samurai Blue” qualified for the Round of 16 in seven tournaments. But they never made it to the quarter-finals.

“In terms of a finish, the new aim for us is the last eight. The players are showing us a different and new view of being able to fight on the world stage. I would like to set a new record of the last eight or better,” concluded an ambitious Moriyasu.

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