Japan had targeted – and were widely expected to achieve – a berth in the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup finals. They didn’t make it, so I spoke to those who had been there before to find out what went wrong… (日本語版はこちらです： http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/07/15/post46691/)
Brazil booting Colombia off the park; Holland all-but-bypassing midfield and launching direct, powerful attacks; Germany reverting slightly to type and re-adopting the ruthless, organized football they have spent the best part of a decade trying to move away from: if this World Cup has demonstrated anything it is that teams cannot stick to one rigid way of playing in order to achieve success.
Japan, meanwhile, meekly departed the competition at the group stage, picking up just one miserable point as they stubbornly, naively persisted in their aim to showcase their “own football”. So impressed was the watching world that Paolo Bandini of the Guardian, in his match report of the inept 0-0 with Greece, described the Samurai Blue as, “a squadron of cautious drivers following Alberto Zaccheroni’s tactical satnav.” Hooray for Japanese football!
Of course, it’s very easy for those of us looking from the stands or our sofas to criticize the players and coaches so I decided to ask some of those who’ve made it past the group stage at the World Cup finals what they thought of Zac Japan’s disappointing campaign in Brazil. They weren’t especially impressed either.
Tulio – immense at the heart of defence with Yuji Nakazawa as Takeshi Okada’s side swept through the group in South Africa in 2010 – was the most forthright in dismissing this year’s showing.
“Ah,” he said when I asked for his thoughts after Nobuhisa Yamada’s recent testimonial, barely letting me finish the question. “Japan’s way of fighting was wrong. Even though you know the opposition are capable of overtaking you, you have to go for it. Japan doesn’t have that ability yet.”
How about the constant assertions of wanting to play their own football?
“Of course it’s impossible,” the 33-year-old responded sharply. “Even Brazil, even other teams like Holland cannot play their own football. Of course Japan can’t play their own football. It’s the World Cup. It’s not something that can be taken that lightly. You have to rise to the occasion, if you don’t you can’t win.”
Shinji Ono, one of the most gifted players in Japanese football history who has achieved success in Holland and, most recently, Australia, as well as helping the country to its first ever knockout stage at a World Cup in 2002 was similarly disappointed, and drew a comparison between Japan and Costa Rica, who he said had impressed him as a result of every player playing for the team and giving everything they had.
“I think [the main thing Japan lack is] mentality, a strong mentality,” Consadole Sapporo’s newest signing told me. “[Costa Rica] know what they have, they all know what they can do. The Japanese players also know [their capabilities] but they couldn’t show it on the pitch. That was the big difference between Costa Rica and Japan.”
Ono, too, was keen to stress the importance of winning games, rather than showcasing a certain brand of football. “Of course we need results. Sometimes you cannot get a good result [playing the way] you want.”
Yuki Abe, who was drafted into the starting line-up to add further steel at the 11th hour four years ago, felt that this year’s team were missing a certain bite and desire when it came to battling for possession.
“[They lacked] tenacity to get the ball; that sense of ‘I’m absolutely going to win this ball,’” the Urawa Reds captain said. “I was involved in several camps [during Zaccheroni’s reign] and I don’t really think the team played the way we did then.”
For Tulio the key frustration was the naivety at the back. “The defence [was the biggest problem]. One goal difference; you can’t underestimate the weight of one goal. I think these games – whether it was Cote d’Ivoire or Greece – made us feel the importance of just one goal – especially at the World Cup.”
Ono also referenced the inability to manage the game correctly after taking the lead in the opener against Cote d’Ivoire – a defeat which Abe described as the most important factor in Japan’s elimination.
“We were 1-0 up and then we conceded two goals in four minutes,” the former Urawa, Feyenoord, and Western Sydney Wanderers man said. “That is not good so we have to learn what we have to do after going 1-0 up. Maybe if they learn about this then we will get better and go up the next step.”
More players appearing regularly for European sides is one thing Ono believes will help to make Japanese players more streetwise – but he was keen to stress that they have to be playing every week. “The next step means that if players are going to Europe they have to play from the starting eleven. That’s important, to keep playing in every game. Then they have more confidence to bring to Japan.”
Of course, even that would only bring Japan on to a par with the majority of the teams they are competing with for a place in the knockout stages of the competition. For Tulio the fundamental issue which needs addressing is for Japan to realize where they sit in the hierarchy of the world game.
“In South Africa we focused clearly on setting the base from defence, you have to do that. If you concede one goal you absolutely cannot concede again. We’re Japan, that will always be the case.
“You have to go out there and puff out your chest; we’re not yet able to compete at the same level as these teams.”
Bravery was certainly in short supply this time around, and the fawning response the team received on its return to Japan does not help matters. These are not idols or pop stars, they are football players who massively underperformed at the biggest competition in the game. They did not deserve to have thousands of screaming fans welcoming them home at Narita.
In fairness the players looked suitably embarrassed by that hysteria, and hopefully they will have learned from this year’s chastening experience. That kind of acclaim needs to be earned, and as Costa Rica – as well as Mexico, Australia, Algeria, and USA – can attest to, that comes from leaving everything you have on the pitch, not just the aspects of your game that you want to show off.