By Sean Carroll

Both the European Championship and Copa América get underway this weekend - tournaments at which some of the world’s best players will do battle to be crowned champions of their continents.

Vissel Kobe’s Thomas Vermaelen is one of those who will be striving for glory having been called up for Belgium, one of the favourites to lift the European trophy. The 35-year-old’s presence in the Red Devils squad makes him the latest in a long line of J.LEAGUE stars to be involved in a major international competition, and ahead of Belgium’s campaign opener against Russia we’ve taken a look back at some of the standout campaigns from days gone by.


1998 FIFA World Cup France

The global showpiece in 1998 holds a special place in the hearts of all Japanese fans, with it being the first time the Japan national team participated in a World Cup finals.

The Samurai Blue sadly lost all three of their group games against Argentina, Croatia, and Jamaica, but Jubilo Iwata’s Masashi Nakayama still managed to write his name in the record books in France by scoring the country’s first goal at the World Cup.

Japan were 2-0 down in their final match against Jamaica when Naoki Soma - now manager of Kashima Antlers - sent a long diagonal pass into the area towards Wagner Lopes, and after he nodded the ball invitingly back across goal the onrushing Nakayama was on hand to slam home and create history.

Plenty of other J.LEAGUE players enjoyed that summer as well. Patrick M’Boma of Gamba Osaka, for instance, was part of the Cameroon side that narrowly missed out on a place in the knockout round after drawing with Austria and Chile and losing to Italy - also notching his country’s goal in the 1-1 stalemate against La Roja.

Elsewhere, Nagoya Grampus legend Dragan Stojković and Željko Petrović of Urawa Reds shone for Yugoslavia as they progressed to the Round of 16, with captain Stojković finding the net in a thrilling 2-2 draw against Germany.

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Nakayama’s Iwata teammate Dunga and César Sampaio of Yokohama Flügels enjoyed the tournament the most, however. César Sampaio scored the first goal of the competition in just the fifth minute of Brazil’s opening game against Scotland, before also getting his name on the scoresheet twice against Chile in the Round of 16. His central midfield partner Dunga played a pivotal role in the team’s march to the final as well, with the captain playing every game and scoring the Seleção’s final penalty in the semi-final shoot-out win over the Netherlands.

Brazil would ultimately have to settle for a runners-up finish after losing the final 3-0 to hosts France, but there can be no doubt that J.LEAGUE players left their mark on a fantastic tournament.

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2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan

The first co-hosted World Cup in history saw Japan and South Korea savour the backing of their fans, and J.LEAGUE players performed vital roles for both teams.

All but four of the Samurai Blue squad led into battle by Philippe Troussier played in the J.LEAGUE, making history as they emerged unbeaten from the group stage to progress to the knockout round for the first time. The team drew an end-to-end opener with Belgium, 2-2, and then picked up victories over Russia and Tunisia, with Takayuki Suzuki of Kashima Antlers and Cerezo Osaka’s Hiroaki Morishima amongst the goalscorers.

The journey ultimately ended with a 1-0 loss against Turkey in the Round of 16, but by that point Tsuneyasu Miyamoto - ‘The Man in the Mask’ - had also carved out legendary status for himself.

Forced into action in the 71st minute of Japan’s opener against Belgium after captain Ryuzo Morioka went off injured, Miyamoto struck a fearsome figure on account of the black face mask he was wearing to protect a broken nose. He slotted into the defence effortlessly and marshalled the Samurai Blue back line to consecutive clean sheets as they beat Russia, 1-0, and Tunisia, 2-0, and although he couldn’t quite inspire Japan to further glory, his efforts to that point ensured he left an indelible mark on World Cup history.

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South Korea went even further in the competition than their co-hosts, with a handful of J.LEAGUE players featuring as they progressed all the way to the semi-finals.

Yoo Sang-chul, who sadly passed away earlier this month, and Hwang Sun-hong played their club football for Kashiwa Reysol, Choi Yong-soo was with JEF United Ichihara Chiba, and Yoon Jong-hwan, now manager of Chiba but then a player with Cerezo Osaka, were all in the squad, while one of the tournament’s breakout stars was Park Ji-sung of Kyoto Sanga.

Hwang and Yoo both scored as South Korea got their campaign up and running with a 2-0 win over Poland, before Park struck the only goal of the Taeguk Warriors’ final group stage game against Portugal to seal top spot.

After stunning Italy with a 2-1 ‘golden goal’ win in the round of 16, South Korea then eliminated Spain after a penalty shoot-out at the quarter-final stage, with Park one of the five Korean players to make no mistake from 12 yards.

That was to be as far as Guus Hiddink’s side would make it, however, but despite losing to Germany in the semi-finals and Turkey in the third place play-off, South Korea’s J.LEAGUE contingent had done themselves proud.


2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa

An Asian nation was once again making international headlines in 2010, as North Korea qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1966.

The Chollima were dealt an incredibly difficult draw after securing their place in South Africa, however, being placed in Group G with Brazil, Portugal, and Cote d’Ivoire. This meant North Korea’s J.LEAGUE duo of Chong Tese and An Yong-hak would have match-ups against the likes of Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Didier Drogba, and ahead of the first of these tests Kawasaki Frontale striker Chong provided one of the most memorable scenes of the competition as he wept with pride during his team’s national anthem.

North Korea made a real battle of that opener against Brazil and went in scoreless at half time, although they ultimately fell to a narrow 2-1 defeat. Unfortunately for Chong and Omiya Ardija midfielder An, both of whom played every minute for North Korea at the competition, that was to be as close as they would come to any points, and the following two games were lost 7-0 to Portugal and 3-0 against Cote d’Ivoire.

Nevertheless, the pair had given their all and flown the J.LEAGUE flag on the biggest stage and against the best players in the world, in the process gaining priceless experiences they will cherish for the rest of their lives.

This tournament also saw Japan create more World Cup history for themselves, as they progressed to the Round of 16 at an overseas finals for the first time.

Kawasaki Frontale’s Eiji Kawashima shone in goal, the centre back pairing of Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, of Yokohama F.Marinos and Nagoya Grampus, respectively, were immovable at the heart of the defence, while Gamba Osaka’s Yasuhito Endo - still going strong in the MEIJI YASUDA J2 LEAGUE with Jubilo Iwata at 41 - and Shinji Okazaki, then of Shimizu S-Pulse, both found the net in a 3-1 win over Denmark in their final group stage game. Those contributions helped ensure Takeshi Okada’s side qualified from Group E, along with the Netherlands.

Endo scored again in the penalty shoot-out after Japan’s Round of 16 encounter with Paraguay finished 0-0, but it wasn’t to be for Japan, who were ultimately eliminated, 5-3, after Paraguay converted all their attempts.


1995 Copa América

It isn’t only at World Cups that J.LEAGUE players have left their marks, and in 1995 an incredible half-a-dozen progressed all the way to the final of the Copa América in Uruguay.

Jorginho and Leonardo of Kashima Antlers, Shimizu S-Pulse’s Ronaldão, César Sampaio and Zinho from Yokohama Flugels, and Dunga, captain of Jubilo Iwata and the Seleção, were all involved as Mário Zagallo’s men sparkled in Uruguay.

Ronaldão, Zinho, and Leonardo all found the net as Brazil won their three group games without conceding a goal, before Dunga converted one of the penalties as rivals Argentina were eliminated in a shoot-out in the quarter-finals. After overcoming the USA 1-0 in the semi-final, the final against Uruguay also went to penalties. Despite Dunga, again, and Zinho both converting their spot-kicks, it was ultimately the hosts left celebrating.

Two of that J.LEAGUE contingent did make up for the disappointment two years later, however, when Dunga and César Sampaio went all the way to glory at the 1997 edition in Bolivia.


1996 UEFA European Football Championship

In 1996, Mladen Mladenović was an all-action midfielder for Gamba Osaka, finding the net 11 times in 20 appearances for Josip Kuže’s side. That summer, the Croatian was also in action for his country as they competed in the European Championships for the first time as an independent nation.

Mladenović made his first appearance in England as a substitute in Croatia’s second group stage game against Denmark, a 3-0 win, and then started the following game, a defeat by the same score against Portugal. The team were already assured of a place in the knockout stage by that point though, and Mladenović again came on as a substitute in the Round of 16 clash against Germany.

That was sadly to be the end of the road for Croatia, however, as they fell to a narrow 2-1 defeat to the eventual champions.

2013 Africa Cup of Nations

2020 MEIJI YASUDA J1 LEAGUE top scorer and Player of the Year Michael Olunga is perhaps the first player that comes to mind when J.LEAGUE fans think of the Africa Cup of Nations. The former Kashiwa Reysol man did indeed feature at the 2019 edition and found the net twice in Kenya’s 3-2 win over Tanzania, but the Harambee Stars sadly lost their other two games to finish third in Group C and miss out on the knockout stage.

There is, however, another J.LEAGUE player who made an even bigger impression on the competition.

Wilfried Sanou first arrived in the J.LEAGUE in 2010 when he signed for Urawa Reds, but in 2013 he was playing for J2 side Kyoto Sanga when he was called up to the Burkina Faso squad for the AFCON in South Africa.

Sanou came on as a substitute in Burkina Faso’s opening 1-1 draw against Nigeria, and then started the next match, a 4-0 win over Ethiopia. Sanou missed out as the team made sure of top spot in Group C in their next game, but was back in the starting 11 as Togo were defeated after extra time in the quarter-finals.

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Things didn’t end there either. Despite being drawn against powerhouse Ghana in the semi-finals, Les Étalons triumphed on penalties without Sanou, before he was again used as a substitute in the final against Nigeria, which was narrowly lost, 1-0.

Even so, it was a truly remarkable journey for the Kyoto utility man, and another moment of pride for the whole J.LEAGUE family.