14
Jun
14

Target practice

Footballers talk a lot of nonsense but they’re also asked some pretty stupid questions… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/06/14/post43728/)

Football Channel,  June 13th, 2014

Pre-match comments from players and coaches are, along with those men waving red sticks at Japanese road crossings already ably controlled by traffic lights, among the most pointless things in existence.

Bland platitudes for journalists to slap into their ready-made preview templates abound, one of the most obvious negatives of our 24-hour news culture. We are trapped in an inescapable cycle: fans and the media need (or should that be want?) new content every day – or, thanks to Twitter, every hour, minute, second… – while players, on the whole, can’t stand being asked the same questions over and over again and are becoming increasingly adept at saying nothing while seeming to say something. Or, in the case of Keisuke Honda, just saying nothing.

And who can blame them? Imagine being asked about your health, targets, and thoughts on how things would go/had gone before and after every day at work. Or for that insufferable ‘message for the fans’.

In the build-up to the World Cup this process is turned up to 11 with everyone headed to the tournament being grilled for a month before the first ball is kicked about things they realistically can’t talk about in much detail. Thoughts on the opposition? ‘They’re a well organized/physical/attacking team.’ How’s your condition? ‘Getting better every day – I’m sure I’ll be ready in time.’ Target for the competition? ‘We’ll take it one game at a time and want to win them all.’

This last question, in particular – and I’m as guilty as the next journalist of having asked it to several of the Samurai Blue players – is one of the most inane. There is no right way for the players to answer, with ridicule greeting overzealous targets and accusations of lack of belief being leveled if the bar is set too low.

It has hardly been made any easier after Takeshi Okada was so widely derided for offering an honest assessment of where he thought his squad could finish in 2010. (In hindsight his semi-final target wasn’t far wrong. Had they got the rub of the green in their penalty shoot-out against Paraguay they were a single victory away from making the last four. Yes, they would have needed to overcome Spain, but the eventual champions only squeezed by Paraguay courtesy of a David Villa goal seven minutes from time – the margins at the World Cup can be incredibly fine.)

National Stadium, March 2014

Honda is never afraid to make a bold statement though, and in one of his rare chats with the media has gone on record as saying he thinks Japan can succeed Spain as the world champions this year – a claim he reinforced last week.

“Yeah,” he said when asked by Kyodo News if he still believed they could triumph in Brazil. “I am very eager to surprise the world so we just (have to) believe in our style and ourselves. We will see at the World Cup.”

A few other players have followed his lead – albeit more out of a sense of duty than because they actually believe it, as you feel Honda may genuinely do – and Maya Yoshida’s slip-up at the team’s send-off at Yoyogi Gymnasium demonstrated how little should be read into pre-tournament predictions. The centre-back was on autopilot and fumbled his lines, saying he wanted to “win the World Cup” before checking himself and correcting that to “win games” as the 7,000-plus fans in attendance shrieked their excitement. What the players say isn’t necessarily what they mean.

This is not just an issue in Japan, of course, and England players have been asked for as long as I can remember if they can win the trophy. This time is no different, even though nobody realistically ranks Roy Hodgson’s men among the favourites in Brazil.

“We don’t want to make up the numbers,” Daniel Sturridge was quoted as saying by the BBC. “That doesn’t mean we will win the World Cup but we are winners and we will do our best.”

Wayne Rooney offered a slightly more honest appraisal, although he too refused to rule out the possibility of becoming world champions and almost got ahead of himself. “I’ve got absolutely no idea how we are going to perform,” he told The Mirror. “We could have a massive impact on the tournament, go all the way to the final and surprise everyone. All I can say is that the potential and quality we have got in this squad is really exciting.”

He’s right, potential, games and goals are exciting; footballers’ comments about whether they think they can win a competition or not invariably aren’t. So perhaps we should just stop asking them.

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