An Impressive Result
Coach Okada’s publically stated goal was to be in the top four in the world. The team obviously didn’t reach that goal but judging from Okada’s comments and ear-to-ear grin, I think that he knows that the 2010 campaign was a success. As I mentioned in a previous post, Okada probably used the top four as a stretch goal so that if and when the team made it to the knock-out stages they wouldn’t suffer a let-down in motivation. It’s true that with Paraguay as our round of 16 opponent, Japan had the chance to make more history and make it to the quarterfinals. We were one penalty shoot-out away from achieving this goal, but it wasn’t to be.
I’ve heard a lot of comments from fans saying they wished that Japan got to play just one more game. Even Okada said the exact same thing. But let’s rewind a month and remember the dismal condition that the team was in. Japan was coming into the world cup on a four game losing streak that included a demoralizing loss to its main rivals South Korea, Okada has publicly brought up the subject of his own resignation, and the team was scoring more goals on itself than against its opponents. The media had written the team off and many of us fans were angrily booing the team off the field.
In that state of mind there were probably many fans who were hoping that we would just win one game. A win would be historic in that it would be our first on foreign soil. It took South Korea decades to do this and I’m sure people were anxious that the same would be true for Japan. But somehow Japan converted its one chance against Cameroon and held off a never-ending attack from Cameroon to make history. We then lost to Holland 1-0, but that put us in a position to get into the knock-out stages with just a tie against Denmark.
Against Denmark, Japan played the most beautiful football that its fans had seen in a long time. What surprised me most was the attacking spirit that persisted throughout the game. In a game against a superior opponent where a tie would suffice, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Japan settle back into its defensive shell and hope for a couple counter attacks. But the opposite happened. Japan kept attacking the Danish goal no matter what the score was, and Japan prevailed 3-1. Three games, four goals, and most importantly, two victories. Who would have ever imagined that would be possible with this team?
No More History
From a historical point of view, Japan surpassed a number of major milestones. They won their first game on foreign soil, made it to the knock-out stages for the first time on foreign soil, and did both for the first time with a Japanese coach. While these milestones may seem insignificant from the world’s point of view, they are extremely significant for Japan because of their short World Cup history and inferiority complex. Japan’s media places a lot of attention on such accomplishments and not attaining these milestones puts tremendous pressure on the team. By knocking out these historical achievements, future Japanese World Cup teams will not have to fight the mentality that Japan is not capable of achieving such objectives. Instead they can believe in their country’s abilities and look to blaze new trails. Sure, there are still new histories to be made, but all new histories will be respectable achievements for any team in the World Cup, let alone Japan.
With the success of the team, a number of Japanese players have received offers to play abroad. GK Kawashima has already flown out to Belgium to meet his new team Lierse and rumors abound about Nagatomo, Endo, Honda, Abe, and others. I’ve always been a proponent of Japanese players moving to Europe and playing against tougher, more seasoned opponents. The J-league is improving, but if Japan wants to compete at the international level, players have to experience what it’s like to play in Europe on a weekly basis.
But, the word “experience” is the key word. Japanese players sometimes have a history of being transferred to European teams then not playing in many games. The player then rots on the bench until being transferred back to a J-league team. I hope that over the next few weeks when the transfers are completed that the players select teams not only by the size of the club and contract, but also by considering how they will fit in and whether they will play. And once they do get on the pitch, I hope they play a little more selfishly than they are used to. As Nakata said, “When you’re abroad nobody takes a Japanese soccer player seriously. Because of this, you just have to score. Then people start passing to you. It’s really simple abroad. Those who can’t score can’t make it abroad.”
With Okada stepping down after the World Cup, one of the biggest factors determining the success of the team in Brazil 2014 will be who the JFA selects to be the next coach. The JFA has decided that it will wait until August before deciding who should coach the team. Hopefully, Japan’s success at this World Cup will show some top level coaches the potential the team has to do well in Brazil. With the JFA’s budget and the team’s high profile, it is likely that Japan will get a top level coach. Also, as I mentioned before, since Japan no longer has the historical pressure to win for the first time with a Japanese coach, the JFA will feel free to find a foreign coach to lead the team. Currently, the top runners for the job are Kashima Antlers coach, Oswaldo Oliveira, current Chile coach, Marcelo Bielsa and Argentine, Jose Pekerman. Not a bad short list.
As for Okada, he seems satisfied with his life work but wants to step away from football for the time being. Jokingly he has said he will become a farmer. “When it’s sunny I will farm. When it rains I’ll read a book.” Whether he leaves football for good is still up in question and the JFA has suggested that since he is the only Japanese coach to ever win at the World Cup, they may create an advisory position for him.
Whoever the next coach is, one of the toughest challenges for Japan is finding good competition. By fighting for qualification in Asia, Japan plays an attacking style against usually inferior teams. Then in the World Cup, they play superior teams and have to play with a more defensive minded approach. The disparity between the Asian opponents and World Cup opponents is too large. Asian teams such as South Korea and Australia and North American teams like Mexico and the U.S. face similar problems. Not surprisingly these teams seem to hit a glass ceiling at the round of 16. I mentioned before that players need to gain experience in Europe, but the same goes for the Japan National team. I hope the JFA and the new coach begin scheduling more matches with the best teams in the world. And instead of playing these games at home, I hope more are scheduled abroad so that the players can experience the difficulties of playing in hostile foreign environments.
Keep in Touch
So this will be my last post for the time being. It has been an absolute pleasure to have experienced this wild wide with all of you. Thank you to everyone who has read the blog and special thanks to those of you who have commented. Your insights and thoughts added so much to my enjoyment of writing this blog. As I’ve mentioned in the comments section recently, I am looking into continuing this blog in some form or another in the near future. I think it’s a bit of a shame that there isn’t much English-language material out there covering the Japan National team, but I hope to change that somehow. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to chat, ask questions, provide feedback or be updated on the future of this blog. Thanks and keep supporting the Blue Samurai!