It is fitting that the high school championships conclude in January, as they are essentially a starting point from which to lay the foundations for bigger things to come…
The All Japan High School finals were the perfect way for me to dust off the cobwebs and get back into the swing of going to matches after a few weeks out of the routine.
As with players in pre-season I was a little rusty, and my first trip to Kokuritsu for the semi-finals was not the smoothest. First there was a problem with my accreditation, then I was told off for taking pictures in the wrong place at the wrong time, before I finally forgot to return my AD card when leaving the ground.
All in all it was a bit of a nightmare, although, as every player will tell you, while every game’s important it’s better to get the mistakes out of the way now than when the season’s up and running.
For the players taking part in the competition, too – fittingly, as they are all students after all – the tournament should be viewed largely as part of their ongoing education and preparation for the future
Of course they all want to win, but for anyone seriously wanting to make a career out of football the high school championships should serve as a starting point from which to progress to the professional ranks, not the peak of the mountain.
Thankfully the coaches of both finalists seemed to share that perspective, and an emphasis was placed on what had been gained from the experience over the three weeks of the competition.
“We really wanted to enjoy the game at National Stadium and didn’t give up until the very end,” Hiromi Matsuzaki of champions Hosho said. “It was a difficult match but everyone played with a smile. I’m very happy.”
He of course dodged a question about which player he thought had stood out for his side – “all of them” being the hopelessly predictable response – but did propose that the triumph would have a knock-on effect for youngsters back home.
“Children in Miyazaki will start to think ‘we can do it, too’,” he suggested. “The players taught them that.”
The idea of learning and setting an example was also touched upon by Kyoto Tachibana’s Kazunari Yonezawa, who spoke of his pride at working with such talented players – commending in particular the senior members of the squad.
“The third year players could lead and help the younger players grow. I think that everybody grew as people, and that makes me very happy.”
The sheer scale of the tournament in terms of media coverage and large attendances means it undoubtedly serves as great preparation for any budding J.Leaguers, but the process itself is also invaluable.
Teams spend a prolonged amount of time in each other’s company away from home and friends and family, training together every day and knowing that each game could be the last.
“In the Prince League we focus on showing our good points,” Yonezawa explained. “In a tournament though, we are well aware of the fact that we cannot lose. Both have good aspects for the players. In the tournament every game is like a final. That has a good effect on the players on and off the pitch.”
Matsuzaki, too, commented upon the difference between the regular season and the finals.
“From league games to a cup tournament is difficult. In the league draws are ok but in tournament football they come with the opportunity to still win on penalties,” he said, with his side having triumphed in four of their six games that way. “In league games you don’t aim for one point but it is important to take three.”
For me the story of one player in particular best demonstrates the point of the tournament. Tachibana’s Keiya Sento was hugely impressive and played with a confidence and elegance rare in one so young, seeming to thrive on the attention afforded to him as a standout player for his side.
He finished as joint top scorer and looked for a while to have scored the tournament-winning goal; then he missed the penalty which cost them the title.
He certainly won’t think so at the moment, but that miss may well be far more beneficial to his growth than if he had been the hero of the day. What is vital now, however, is how he reacts to it.