Experience sharpens Japan's edge

Japan had no European-based players in their squad when they made their World Cup debut in 1998. Now they have more from German clubs alone than from their domestic J-League.

Japan kick off their seventh straight World Cup campaign against Germany in Doha on Wednesday, and expectations have never been higher.

The Blue Samurai have gone from tournament newcomers to grizzled veterans over the past 24 years, thanks in no small part to a growing exodus of talent to European clubs.

There are only seven J-League players in Japan's squad for the Qatar World Cup. Of those, Yuto Nagatomo played for Inter Milan, Galatasaray and Marseille before returning to Japan from an 11-year stint in Europe, while Hiroki Sakai also played in Germany and France.

The rest of manager Hajime Moriyasu's squad all ply their trade in western Europe, and Nagatomo believes the experience they have gained can only help Japan's cause.

"We have a lot of players who are with overseas clubs, and they are used to tough matches," said the 36-year-old, who is the first outfield player to be named in four Japan World Cup squads.

"We have players who play in the Champions League or against strong teams like Bayern Munich. When you compare it to before, we feel more established now."

Japan have had players starring at European clubs before, but never in so great a number.

Eight of this year's squad are based in Germany, three in France, two each in Spain, England and Belgium, and one each in Portugal and Scotland.

Such is the current strength in depth that players of the calibre of Celtic pair Kyogo Furuhashi and Reo Hatate missed out on selection.

Nagatomo thinks playing in Europe has given Japan's younger generation a maturity beyond their years.

"When I played in my first World Cup, all I was thinking about was myself," said Nagatomo, who made his World Cup debut in South Africa in 2010 and has played every minute of Japan's campaigns since.

"It feels like now there are a lot of players thinking about the whole team, even if it is their first World Cup."

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