Kashima Antlers demonstrated at the recent Club World Cup that Japanese teams and players are more than capable of holding their own on the world stage, so maybe we should stop underestimating them… (日本語版はこちらです)
Kashima Antlers’ outstanding achievement of making it to the Club World Cup final – and then giving Real Madrid a proper match once there – rightly attracted plaudits from across the globe.
Domestically, too, their efforts earned plenty of praise, and it it would be great if their impressive showing helped reverse the tendency of many fans and media in Japan to underestimate football in the country.
Kohzo Tashima has been repeating the mantra of ‘international standard’ since becoming JFA president in March, insisting that the domestic game needs to aim for the highest quality at every level.
He is right to do that, and one area which can still be improved upon is self-confidence. There is often far too much self-effacement in the coverage of Japanese teams, and while it is usually expected that Asian rivals will be overcome, the default position against opponents from further afield is still that Japanese teams are intrinsically weaker.
In several respects, of course, this is true. The very highest level of teams and players in Europe – such as Madrid – are a cut above and all-but beyond reach. That is unlikely to change as long as there is such financial disparity, though, and the world’s elite are also in a different league to the opposition in their respective domestic and continental competitions.
Still, six-and-a-half years on from the Samurai Blue proving at the South Africa World Cup that they are very much involved in the third bracket of international teams – they are not going to win the trophy, unlikely to progress to the latter stages of the competition, but have a realistic chance of making it beyond the group stage – an unnecessary meekness remains.
‘What do you think about our development?’ ‘How can we improve?’ These are good questions to have in certain situations, but sometimes it isn’t necessary to automatically adopt a subordinate position.
The responses of Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and his players ahead of and after last Sunday’s final in Yokohama were instructive of this fact. When asked for his thoughts on the development of Japanese football, Zidane looked a little confused.
“I think it improved a very long time ago, it didn’t happen in the last several years,” the France legend said. “There are Japanese footballers playing in Europe, in big clubs – Japanese managers and coaches helped them to get to that level.”
His players were similarly nonplussed when pressed for reactions on Kashima’s impressive display in the final.
“It’s an impossible question,” Casemiro said when asked why Real had struggled to control the match. “It’s a game of football, just one game. Kashima play good football, and we knew that in a one-off game we would have to try until the end. Antlers are a good side, that’s the reason they made it to the final.”
Of course, very few people had expected Masatada Ishii’s side to run Madrid quite so close and their performance is one that will go down in Japanese football history, but a runners-up finish wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima came third last year – only losing 1-0 to River Plate in the semi-final – and, as Zidane pointed out, Japanese players are increasingly demonstrating that they can hold their own in Europe’s strongest leagues.
The Japanese fascination with placing foreign teams on a pedestal was nicely countered by the approach of Club America coach Ricardo La Volpe.
The Mexican team provided the perfect example for Kashima, playing with confidence and poise against Real in their semi-final and demonstrating that there was nothing to fear when facing one of the most famous teams in the game.
“I always tell my players not to think about the uniform or which country the team they are playing is from as that is irrelevant,” La Volpe said. “What we have to think about is the team’s play style, not the uniform they are wearing or the individual players.”
Kashima did just that in the final, illustrating that while there is still ultimately a gap in class, it is not as vast as many seem to imagine.
“I think us having made it to the final means something,” Ishii said after the game. “I think it means Japanese football has improved to a world-class level in a short space of time.”
Even so, the Kashima coach still referred more than once to the disparity in the respective teams’ histories. “For other clubs participating in this tournament they have a longer history than the J.League,” he said. “Some clubs have 100-year histories.”
That shouldn’t be used as an excuse. Europe and South America will always have more history, and when J.League teams have clocked up 100 years’ worth their rivals overseas will be approaching their second centuries of existence.
Japanese football still has room for growth, but it is not as inferior as many seem to think. Kashima’s bold and disciplined display at the Club World Cup was just the latest example of that fact.