I, like Whitney Houston, believe that children are the future. Therefore, we need to make sure they are coached properly and learn from the mistakes of their elders.
Last weekend I was playing football with some friends in Yoyogi Park and our group – which was made up of Japanese, English, French and German players – was joined by five or six junior high school kids who were having a kickabout nearby.
The numbers matched up so we made a straight game of it – gaijin and ‘oldies’ versus the Japanese youngsters – and it goes without saying that we decided to take it easy, with some of my team more than twice the age of our opponents.
That didn’t last for too long though, as they were outstanding. Their touch, awareness and composure was of a level far above that of players of 14 or 15 in England, and the match soon descended into a simple pattern: they would get the ball and pass it, then pass it again, then dribble round a couple of us and pass again, leaving us bemused and dizzy.
However, despite the fact that they were much, much better than us, the scores ended up fairly even as they seemed to have no real desire to put the ball in the net (well, between our bags).
At some point in their tricky attacks one of us would get lucky and block the ball before hoofing it away from our goal in the hope that a teammate could get to it before one of them and score.
While our approach was a little cruder and certainly not pleasing on the eye, it was rooted in a simple fact: to win a football match you need to score goals.
The complaint that Japanese players will not take a strike at goal unless they are almost in it is a common one, and ‘shoot!’ is certainly the word that I find myself shouting the most at J.League matches. While some will point to the recent 5-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia as evidence against this, I would counter that a) the Saudi team were absolutely disgraceful and barely showed up, and b) all five of Japan’s goals came from inside the box.
The worrying thing for me, though, and something that was driven home by the game in Yoyogi, is the fact that the problem doesn’t look likely to be going away anytime soon.
Before last season’s Super Cup between Gamba and Kashima I watched the game between the J.League Under 18s and a Japan High School XI. In this match I noted that the players were exhibiting the same good and bad points as their seniors who took to the field after them. Likewise in the recent High School championships, where the majority of players displayed fantastic technical ability but very little spontaneity or flexibility.
Japanese players often seem to me to be almost pre-programmed, and just try the same things over and over and over again regardless of the end result. A full-back or winger, for example, having been told to get to the by-line and get a cross in will do this ten times out of ten, even if an opportunity were to present itself for him to cut inside and maybe take a shot. A goalkeeper will never spot a quick counter-attack and launch the ball upfield if he has been instructed to play it short to his full-backs.
Likewise, it is rare to see players take the current score into account and adjust their approach to the game accordingly. The final between Takigawa ni and Kumiyama provided a good example of this, with Takigawa almost forfeiting their victory by refusing to close the game off at 4-1. Instead of shutting up shop they continued to play the same attacking style and Kumiyama very nearly made them pay for it, scoring two late goals and making Takigawa work much harder than they needed to for the trophy.
Every country has its own style of football; that is one of the things that makes it the most popular sport in the world. In order to compete at the very top, players and, perhaps more importantly, coaches, need to be willing to make adjustments though. The fact that the next generation of Japanese players are committing the same mistakes as the current crop suggests that this is not happening at the moment, and is something that needs to be addressed.