Out of the shadows

During the qualifying campaign for the last World Cup Japan were lagging way behind Australia, and the Socceroos were well aware of their superiority. Things are a little different this time around…


“Nippon: Forever in Our Shadow,” read the banner in Melbourne in 2009.

Australia certainly had the better of things in the early exchanges of the ever-developing rivalry with Japan, and having inflicted that painful 3-1 loss in Kaiserslautern in 2006 and wrapped up top spot in the qualifying stages thanks to another Tim Cahill brace four years ago it was hard to argue with the sentiment.

A lot has changed in four years though, and while it may be a stretch to say that the shoe is now on the other foot, the Samurai Blue are certainly matching Australia blow for blow.

The Australians paid plenty of reference before and after the game to the fact that Japan haven’t beaten them in regulation play for 12 years, but that is clutching at straws. As they found out at Saitama Stadium as Keisuke Honda rifled home his 91st minute penalty, not all matches are won or lost in 90 minutes. Doha in 2011 and Hanoi in 2007 also demonstrate that point.

Stats are always the most flexible of weapons anyway, and they can easily be manipulated to tell you what you want to hear. If you look at the most basic figures, for instance – wins, draws and losses – the two nations are dead even: six wins apiece and eight draws.

Nippon: Forever in our shadow

It’s true that Japan haven’t beaten the Socceroos in six attempts in World Cup qualifying but, if we ignore the two matches from 1969, they have never needed to. The sides are usually the two favourites in their group and thus would settle for a share of the spoils when they come face-to-face. Australia have only won once themselves in recent times, and that was the “in our shadow” game at Melbourne Cricket Ground when the result was irrelevant and both teams were already assured of their places at South Africa 2010.

This time, too, a point was enough for Japan to stamp their ticket to Brazil – even a loss, it turned out, would have seen them through as well, albeit in slightly underwhelming style – and would also leave the Socceroos’ fate in their own hands, with two home games to come.

“A point’s a massive point here,” Japan’s former nemesis Tim Cahill conceded after the game. “[Our performance] gives us the confidence as a group to know that we can play good football. This is a hard stage to play on and also difficult circumstances.”

Captain Lucas Neill also admitted as much, although his satisfaction was tinged with disappointment having come so close to snatching a huge victory.

“How do I feel?” he responded to the obvious question. “I’m feeling like before the game I would have taken that point but as the way the game played out I think we deserved all three, so it feels like two points dropped.”

Even so, he concluded that a draw was good enough when considering the esteem the current Japan team are held in.

Saitama Stadium, June 4th, 2013

“They’re a fantastic team, this is a very tough place to come and get points. This is a talented team, arguably the best Japanese team we’ve faced for a long time.”

I asked if he felt they had strengthened mentally since themselves experiencing that harrowing reverse at the 2006 World Cup, which also came late in the game.

“Not that late,” he laughed. “91 minutes. I don’t know if they were ever going to fold. This team is playing with a lot of confidence. They’ve got guys now playing at the best teams in the world, especially in Europe, their J.League is fantastic, it’s at a high standard and every year you can notice an improvement.”

The Socceroos have witnessed that improvement firsthand over the past few years and Cahill’s comments demonstrated that it is no longer the Australians having things all their own way.

“Congratulations to Japan, they’re a fantastic team. I think it’s the first time they’ve qualified at home and now we need to look forward and push on and join them in the qualification.”

The Samurai Blue are on their way to Brazil, and as they jet off to start preparing at the Confederations Cup Australia still need points. Who’s casting a shadow now?

6 Responses to “Out of the shadows”

  1. 1 Andy/Roarchild
    June 12, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    I think the forever in our shadow was always just banter with no real substance to it.
    Japan had knocked Australia out of the 07 Asian cup and I don’t think either side has ever dominated the other.

    Prior to the 06 World Cup clash Japan were favourites.
    But following that 3-1 comeback Japan deserve to be the victim of at least 10 years of ribbing/banter. I am pretty sure that is the main reason we keep picking all these old guys from 2006. They may be slow and full of arthritis but it’s the perfect excuse to talk about Kaiserslautern.

    From about 2016 references to that result might start to get a little bit stale.

    Suck it up for 3 more years Japan.

  2. June 12, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    That pic of Aussie blokes & Japanese girls sum that up: Japan and Australia like each other too much to create a working rivalry. There’s the common enemy of West Asia. Even I, after six years of animosity on the Socceroos, respect Australia too much and see them as foil to Iran & the Arab nations.

  3. June 12, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    Japan and Australia like each other too much to build a working rivalry. I hated Socceroos so much because of World Cup 06 and well, I lived in Melbourne, where the sense of pride for them are evident (as opposed to the British self-depreciating love for their national teams). Many Asians from Jeddah to Sapporo do see them as “foreign invaders” and the anti-Socceroos feeling is quite high in China, which actually has no history of rivalry.

    But perhaps because of the Asian Champions League, I’ve come to accept them as one of the East Asians, and appreciate their passion and interest on football, compared to the Chinese and Southeast Asians’ half-baked efforts. I’ve come to accept Australia as a friend of Japan and South Korea in the continental rivalry against the West Asia, off and on fields.

    As few people have testified, your Japanese girls-Aussie blokes picture sum that up. Australians and Japanese have things in common – high income, lifestyles, and social outlooks. They won’t take pictures together with Iraqi fans. Heck, they won’t take pictures together with Chinese supporters.

  4. June 28, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Having now seen the last 4 Australia v Japan qualifiers ( 2 in Japan including the recent game in Saitama) I think the rivalry is fantastic and the atmosphere generated by that rivalry is superb.

    In self less self promotion, see my pictures from Saitama that also spell friendliness.

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