TOKYO (AFP) – Japan saluted its national football side Friday after they stormed into next year’s World Cup with a comprehensive 2-0 win over fierce rivals Australia.
Local media paid tribute to Japan’s “generation next” after goals from Takuma Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi on Thursday secured a sixth successive finals appearance for the Blue Samurai.
“Changing of the guard,” raved the Nikkan Sports daily alongside a photo of senior players Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki watching the game from the bench.
“Japan break jinx,” led the Sankei newspaper, referring to Japan breaking a hoodoo by qualifying despite losing their opening game for the first time.
Meanwhile, a centre-spread in the Asahi newspaper also credited Japan’s young players under the headline:
“New generation lead us to the world stage.”
The excitement of the previous night’s celebrations even trickled through to normally impassive Japanese government officials.
“They have never progressed through the Asian qualifiers after losing the first match,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular briefing at the prime minister’s office.
“They began from a difficult position but they shattered that jinx beautifully. The young players showed what they can do during (last year’s) Rio Olympics.
“This is the result of a team following the coach’s philosophy through hard work. I hope they aim high at the World Cup.”
Fans took to the streets following Japan’s victory as they became the fourth side to qualify for Russia and the celebrations went on into the night in many bars across Tokyo and other major cities.
But the sheen was taken off Japan’s joy by concerns over the future of Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
Reports suggested the Franco-Bosnian faced the sack if his team had lost to Australia, but after the game he revealed he had considered leaving Japan for “personal reasons”.
The Japan Football Association (JFA) clarified that it was a “family matter” but insisted Halilhodzic would travel to Saudi Arabia for Japan’s final group B game on Tuesday. Local media reported Friday that a relative was battling illness.
Halilhodzic has come under fire since Japan began the final round of Asian qualifiers with a shock 2-1 home loss to the United Arab Emirates.
But JFA president Kozo Tashima gave his backing to the former Algeria coach.
“He has steered us through in that manner so we want him to stay,” he told reporters. “We very much hope he continues until Russia.”