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Kuala Lumpur: In recent memory, Asian nations have performed admirably at the Olympic Games’ men’s football competition, with Iraq’s fourth-place finish in 2004 followed by Korea Republic beating Japan to claim the bronze medal and the continent’s second top-three finish eight years later.

But you have to go back almost 50 years to find the first medal winners from Asia when, on this day 49 years ago – October 23, 1968 – Kunishige Kamamoto bagged a brace at the iconic Azteca Stadium in Mexico City as Japan saw off hosts Mexico 2-0 to win an unlikely bronze.

The build-up

Japan travelled to Mexico to appear at their fourth Olympic Games, with quarter-final appearances in 1936 and 1964, their previous best performances.

The team were made up of amateurs and, as Kamamoto admitted, the players had not considered the possibility of achieving something that would see them write their names into the history books.

“In 1968 all of us had to go to work in the morning, then we’d go to football, and then go home,” said the 73-year-old former Yanmar striker who remains Japan’s all-time leading scorer.

“We didn’t get anything at all for winning games. Players now get appearance fees and win bonuses, but in the old days our pay from the company didn’t go up if we won. We were just the same as any regular salarymen.

“Before we went, we hadn't been thinking about getting a medal or even thought, ‘We want to get a medal’, as we didn’t think we’d be able to win at that level.

“We thought maybe if we could get out of the group and into the quarter-final, the same as at the Tokyo Olympics [four years earlier], that would be okay.”

A stunning start

Paired in a tough-looking Group B with Brazil, Spain and Nigeria, Japan’s tournament opener were against the West Africans and they could not have had a better start as Kamamoto’s hat-trick in a 3-1 win transformed the atmosphere in the camp and the team began to set their sights higher.

“It changed after that. We realised if we played with a strong defence and a quick attack we could win,” admitted Kamamoto.

“The goals we scored were all from quick attacks, just me and [Ryuichi] Sugiyama and then a goal. When I scored, none of my teammates were in front of the goal with me.”

Quarter-final qualification

Having made such an impact in the team’s opening game, Kamamoto was a marked man in the following match against opponents who had more than enough attacking talent of their own: Brazil.

Fernando Ferretti gave the South Americans an early lead and, although Japan stood firm after that, they were unable to fashion any chances for their main man up front, meaning the heroics were left to super-sub Masashi Watanabe, who levelled in the last 10 minutes for a 1-1 draw.

A goalless draw with group winners Spain – coupled with Brazil’s 3-3 scoreline against Nigeria – meant Japan took the runners-up spot and advanced to the quarter-finals for the second successive tournament.

Exceeding expectations, defeat to the champions

Next up for the Samurai Blue were France, and Kamamoto returned to scoring form, netting twice before Watanabe added another in a 3-1 victory in Mexico City as Japan’s amazing run continued into the last four and a date with reigning champions Hungary.

Despite still being very much in the game at 1-0 down at half-time, four second half goals saw Hungary cruise into the final – where they claimed their second consecutive gold medal – leaving Japan licking their wounds and facing hosts Mexico in the third place play-off.

“In that game it wasn’t me that Hungary stopped, it was Sugiyama,” Kamamoto recalled of the 5-0 defeat. “They knew the way the passes to me were through Sugiyama, and they made sure I received none.”

A date with destiny

Official records suggest there were over 100,000 fans in the Azteca Stadium for the Mexico clash, although Kamamoto dismisses such claims and believes it was more like 80,000.

That still wasn’t a bad crowd for the salarymen from Japan, though, and it was the biggest Kamamoto ever managed to win, putting Japan 2-0 up with a first-half brace.

“Towards the end of the second half, with around 10 minutes to go, Mexico missed a big chance and everyone started chanting, ‘Japan! Japan!’” he said.

“In those days there were only one ball, so when you were under pressure you could kick it high up into the stand.

“When we did that, the fans would throw it back as quickly as possible, but at that point they stopped and started playing volleyball with it, as if to say, ‘the game’s over already’.”

And it was. Japan had achieved the unthinkable, winning bronze against the hosts – and all odds – with Kamamoto crowned as top scorer, with seven goals.

The aftermath

“The players went to the Imperial Palace after coming back and received congratulations from the Emperor, and on the way out they we were given cigarettes,” Kamamoto recalled.

“One box of 20 cigarettes each, wrapped up in the Emperor’s chrysanthemum paper. I gave them to my dad and he was delighted.”

The triumph was heralded as a landmark moment in the development of the Japanese game, and is a large part of the reason why the Olympic football tournament is still followed so keenly in the country today.

While the women’s side claimed silver at London 2012, the men have failed to pick up a medal since 1968, with their fourth-place finish, also in 2012, to Korea Republic the same year the closest they have come to emulating the feats of Kamamoto and his peers.

Photos: Kishimoto, Masahide Tomikoshi, Getty Images, Japan Football Association