Japan Under-23s Olympic campaign ended in disappointment with defeat in the bronze medal match to rivals South Korea but there were plenty of positives to take from the tournament, on and off the pitch…
The London Olympics provided a great opportunity for Japanese football to add to its growing reputation overseas.
I travelled back to the UK to see Takashi Sekizuka’s men take on Spain, Morocco, and Honduras with an English journalist whose knowledge of the team was minimal, and thousands more spectators who knew absolutely nothing about the side.
My growing familiarity with Japanese football means I increasingly miss or don’t pay attention to the things that distinguish it, and so it was very interesting to watch people watching Japan.
Football at the Olympics isn’t ordinarily taken very seriously in Britain, with the underage aspect and fact that we don’t usually enter a team meaning it rarely makes the headlines.
While there was a little more attention this time because of the fact we were hosting the tournament and had a side competing I was a little worried that Japan’s games in some of the nation’s most iconic venues would be played in front of half-empty stadiums and disinterested spectators.
These doubts were soon laid to rest upon arrival at Hampden Park in Glasgow for the team’s opening game, with 37,726 supporters crowding into Scotland’s national stadium.
While there were, of course, some fans from the participating countries, the majority of the crowd had turned up in the hope of being entertained, and so instead of the fans singing repetitively to cheer on the teams – the typical style of support in Japan, which is often unrelated to the action on the pitch – it was up to the players to win those in the stands over.
At Hampden, for instance, most people were there in expectation of seeing tournament favourites Spain cruise to a comfortable victory against the unknowns of Japan (the guy at reception when I checked into my hotel had even seemed surprised that Japan played football and assumed it was a given that they would lose).
However, as a Kensuke Nagai-inspired team went toe-to-toe with the Spanish the atmosphere shifted and the crowd took on a pro-Japan stance.
In fact, so impressive was Japan’s performance that the majority of the crowd stayed behind after the final whistle to applaud the team off the pitch after their 1-0 triumph.
This standing ovation wasn’t just because they beat Spain but also because of the way they continued to attack them and play fairly, without resorting to gamesmanship or time-wasting activities.
Running down the clock by keeping the ball in the corner, exaggerating injuries or making multiple substitutions are not appreciated by British audiences, and even though our players don’t always abide by those guidelines playing fair is hugely respected in the UK.
While the Under-23’s had made a lot of friends in Glasgow things didn’t start quite so well in Newcastle though, with the locals not taking to Japan’s passing game and refusal to “get rid!” or “get stuck in!” – acts that are very popular in the English game.
The team’s perseverance paid off though, and Maya Yoshida’s imperious performance at the heart of defence and the forward players’ constant probing at the other end meant that Nagai’s winner and exuberant celebration against Morocco were enthusiastically received by the St. James’ Park crowd.
It wasn’t just the performance of the players during the game that went down well, however, and the post-match bow to the fans – a staple for regular Japanese football watchers – endeared the players even more to the Geordie fans, who it could be argued aren’t used to being treated with such respect by those they support.
The most significant aspect for me, though, was the way in which the Japanese supporters were also quickly taken to by the host nation – particularly in Coventry.
Their enthusiasm, good-humour and, again, respect for others was a breath of fresh air for the locals, and the fans were certainly the highlight of the drab 0-0 with Honduras.
They posed for pictures, cajoled their hosts to join in with the chants and cleaned up after themselves – shocking my companion in the stadium – but, most unbelievably of all, they even managed to win around the jobsworth stewards who tried to get them to sit down and be quiet.
If you ask me, that achievement alone is surely worthy of a gold medal.