Keisuke Honda was typically forthright about the need for change in the development of Japanese players after the Samurai Blue’s 2-1 loss to Bosnia-Herzegovina last week, and Japan’s all-time top goalscorer Kunishige Kamamoto is in full agreement with the AC Milan star…
Vahid Halilhodzic wasn’t in the best of moods after Japan’s 2-1 defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina on Tuesday night, and he sent out a warning loud and clear to the players who were found wanting as Mehmed Bazdarevic’s side flexed their metaphorical and literal muscle in Suita.
“If players want to be in my first team, including those based overseas, they need to be in good physical shape,” he said. “If they can’t prepare 100% then I won’t call them for the final round of qualifiers. They won’t get 100 chances.”
Much of Halilhodzic’s chagrin was reserved for the lack of physicality in the team – in terms of the nous to use your body to win free-kicks in dangerous positions as much as not being so easily intimidated by a team of Bosnia’s size – but the mentality of the side was once again a topic of discussion post-match.
With a knee injury keeping him out of this game and the 7-2 drubbing of Bulgaria, Keisuke Honda watched both matches from the bench with his coach, and while he had some words of praise for debutant Yuki Kobayashi – who looked undaunted and confident in his 16-minute cameo in Osaka – the AC Milan man had some choice words about the situation in youth development in Japan.
“Personally, I think that if there aren’t many more players like Yuki coming through the system then Japanese football can’t make it to the world class level,” he said.
“Japanese development – not soccer coaching, we have to think about it on a wider scale – if programs aren’t fully implemented to help with the development of people, not just in football but in all Japanese sports, then those players won’t emerge. In Brazil, in Africa, in Italy there are many players like that.”
The day after the game I had the opportunity to speak to Kunishige Kamamoto, and he shares Honda’s concerns.
“I often say this, but the fundamental difference between Japanese and European people is the difference between agricultural people and hunters,” Japan’s all-time record goalscorer said.
“If we don’t have many players coming through who have a strong motivation to score goals and win games – players like Keisuke Honda – then ultimately we won’t be able to beat the strongest teams in the world.
“In Europe, in South America, in Africa, people were originally hunters. They didn’t have things in their homes and so had to go and find them. I’m not talking about now, this is a long time ago; it’s in their blood.
“Japanese people, on the other hand, were able to grow vegetables and so on in their gardens or the fields outside their houses. The rains would water them and the sun would nourish them. And if the weather wasn’t good today you could always do it tomorrow.
“But for people in Europe and so on, you had to hit it now [acts as if he’s aiming a bow and arrow]. You have to go for it yourself. That’s the difference between agricultural and hunting peoples. Fundamentally the way of the thinking, the blood, is different. There are very few players like that in Japan, players like Keisuke Honda.”
Kamamoto feels that this ingrained mentality is not helped by the fact that competition is not encouraged at a young age in Japan.
“Losing makes you want to do better, but Japanese children don’t really think too much about winning or losing. You know school sports day in Japan, they have races but no winners and losers. That’s how children are raised in Japan, and that way of thinking is already implanted in people by the time they are adults at 20 or 25.
“If you win you should be applauded, but if you lose you should be admonished. If you don’t have that then it’s not possible to compete against the best teams in Europe.”
Such a non-competitive culture is what the 1968 Mexico Olympic bronze medal winner thinks caused Takuma Asano to opt to pass rather than shoot when the chance to equalize fell his way right at the death against Bosnia.
“If there’s someone else there then they pass – if there was no-one there he’d have gone for it,” the 72-year-old added.
Halilhodzic was likewise stunned that the Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker didn’t go for goal himself.
“I think Asano could have scored that chance easily, but he chose to look for the pass,” he said. “He’s still only 21 but he had other chances too. Perhaps it’s just a lack of experience, although in the Bulgaria game that wasn’t the case.”
The Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker is entitled to an off night, and we shouldn’t forget that he has demonstrated a ruthless streak in front of goal several times already in his fledgling career – for both club and country. As Honda and Kamamoto suggest, this is about more than just one player and a fudged split-second decision, though, it is about a deep-seated and recurring issue.
“The score was 2-1, but Japan also had plenty of chances,” Kamamoto concluded. “The biggest problem is when you don’t convert those chances, and that is a problem which has been around for decades.”
How to change it is something that has to be addressed if Japan truly wants to challenge at the highest level of the game.