02
Jul
10

The end of the road?

In the end Japan took it right to the wire, and were just a penalty shoot-out away from a dream quarter-final meeting with Spain. Yuichi Komano was the unlucky man who failed to convert from 12 yards, his spot-kick cannoning off the crossbar. Just six inches lower and who knows what might have been…?

Several people were asking why Komano – a full-back – rather than one of Japan’s more attack-minded players was taking a penalty in the first place, but I think this is an entirely redundant question.

Firstly, every single professional football player should be able to make what is essentially a 12-yard pass. The law of averages means that sometimes the ‘pass’ won’t make it to its intended target, but a player’s specialist position should not impact upon their ability to carry out such a simple skill. Of course, a short pass to a teammate in open play does not carry the same pressure as a penalty kick with a place in the last 8 of the World Cup at stake, and this provides the second justification for the Jubilo Iwata man stepping up to the plate.

The main difficulty with penalties is dealing with the psychological stress of the act, and some players just don’t fancy it. Komano must have raised his hand when Takeshi Okada asked for volunteers, and for this he should be commended. In fact, such spirit being shown by the ‘unsung’ members of the Japan squad is what endeared them to me during their time in South Africa.

Throughout the World Cup I had found myself looking forward to – and having my mood affected more greatly by – Japan’s games much more than those of my country, England. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this was, but it sunk in during a conversation I had with a Japanese friend on Wednesday night.

We were discussing the successes and failures of our respective countries and the debate turned, as is so inevitably the wont of such exchanges, to the best English and Japanese players in South Africa. We concluded that it was impossible to name the best player from either squad – for very different reasons.

We couldn’t single out England’s star player because, well, they hadn’t had one. All of them had played well below the level expected of them – perhaps because they were jaded, not mentally prepared or just not as good as we had all thought them to be.

It was impossible for us to pick a Japanese player either though, because, to our minds, they had all excelled. Running through the team we could not recall a particularly bad mistake or performance by any of the players who had been given minutes on the pitch, with each of them doing all that was required of them.

As a result, I realised that I had found myself identifying with and willing the Japan team on more than England because I felt a closer affinity to them; as perennial underdogs, they were putting everything into every match and taking absolutely nothing for granted.

There is a close relationship between supporters and players in Japan and I was amazed, for example, to see so many fans watching the first time I attended a J.League training session. Also, the players greet their supporters before and after each match and, although, rather like the pre-match handshakes routine, this ritual loses some of its meaning owing to the fact it is obligatory, the players’ acknowledgement of those in the stands does create a far greater feeling of togetherness. Contrasting this to the ever-growing gap between Premier League players and their fans was one of the reasons I became attracted to Japanese football.

Of course, watching sport is a social activity, and I am sure that the fact I am living and working in Japan and watched all four of their matches with Japanese supporters had a big influence on my desire for them to achieve.

Being in the pub with these supporters I was able to see the closeness they felt to their team first-hand though, and I sensed that many of them truly felt that the players were actually representing them on the pitch.

This was never truer than when the dejected figure of Komano appeared on screen after Paraguay’s decisive penalty had been converted. Rather than booing, the entire pub burst into chants of his name; they knew how much he, and the whole team, had given and wanted to show their appreciation in the only way they knew how. It was a moving and fitting end to a wonderful tournament for Japan and one that I sincerely hope they are able to build upon in the future.

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