Japan’s World Cup Weapons Are Age and Clean Play

As an American, “football” to me always meant American football with shoulder pads and a lozenge-shaped ball, so my knowledge of “real” football only emerged after marrying a German and raising a soccer-obsessed son.

Having never understood the differences between the various European, Champions and Premier Leagues, I’m usually left out of our family’s football conversations. I regained some household clout after watching the women of “Team Nadeshiko” capture the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Frankfurt; it was a particularly emotional victory because it was the first Asian team to win a FIFA World Cup trophy, coming just three months after the Tohoku earthquake.

While Japan’s men’s team, the “Samurai Blue,” is hoping to get through Round Two for the first time, it finds itself in Group C with Colombia, Greece and Côte D’Ivoire, all of whom have higher FIFA rankings.

Still, Samurai Blue enters the World Cup as the Asian champion, and 2014 will mark its fifth consecutive World Cup appearance — no other team in its group has qualified five times in a row. Plus, Brazil has the largest Japanese population of any country outside Japan, so the team can count on a vaguely hometown crowd. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the team is known for its clean play — Japan has never received a red card in a World Cup tournament.

Like the country itself, the team’s demographic skews old, with an average age of 27. (England’s average age is 26.) Although only one team this old has won the cup since 1950, the hope is that Samurai Blue will make up in experience what it lacks in youth. Just as corporate Japan has been shifting productive capacity abroad in search of growth, many Samurai Blue team members now play for top European clubs, including Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United, Keisuke Honda at AC Milan, Yuto Nagatomo at Inter Milan and Shinji Okazaki at Germany’s FSV Mainz.

Japan’s fans will be hoping Samurai Blue’s new manager, Alberto Zaccheroni, can generate “Zacchernomics” to mirror the success Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has had with “Abenomics.”

After more than 15 years of deflation, Abe adopted the looser monetary policies associated with the West to help Japan enter a sustained period of inflation and growth. Consumer prices are rising and real gross domestic product is expanding by more than 3 percent. Corporate profits have surged by better than 70 percent, the Nikkei stock index is up, property prices are increasing for the first time in six years and wage growth for large companies is at its fastest pace since 1999.

Abenomics has primarily been on a mission to shift the deflationary mindset of the apocryphal Mrs. Watanabe to an inflationary one — and so far it seems to be working. Although structural reforms still need to be put in place, the Abe government has made significant progress on tax reform, agricultural liberalization and corporate governance; it’s even mulling immigration reforms to alleviate labor shortages.

Since the 2010 World Cup, Japan’s football league, known as “J-League,” has expanded at a faster pace than Japan’s economy. The J-League started in 1993 with only 10 clubs; today there are 51. J-League attendance and revenue have grown at compounded annual rates of 5.7 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively, since 1999. Japan’s real GDP grew at an annualized 5.9 percent in the first quarter, the fastest pace since the third quarter of 2011; the government is aiming at an annual average 2 percent expansion in the coming decade.

Just as Abe declared “the time has come to fight deflation,” it is apt that Team Japan has chosen as its World Cup slogan: “Samurai, the Time Has Come to Fight.”

Kathy Matsui is the chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs.

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