Eternal challengers

There remains a divide between the challengers and the champions at the World Cup, and for the former to bridge it they have to break down the mental barrier they’re in part responsible for building… (日本語版)

Japan’s defeat to Croatia in the Round of 16 at the World Cup in Qatar was hugely disappointing, but when looked at in the cold light of day it of course can’t be considered a surprise.

Teams like Japan, Senegal, and the USA aren’t supposed to still be around in the latter stages of the competition, and the fact they were all eliminated at the first knockout hurdle – along with fellow upstarts Australia, Poland, Switzerland, and South Korea – was only in keeping with the natural order of things at this level.

At least, that’s how the established nations look at things, and this difference in attitude is perhaps the biggest obstacle countries looking to break into the very top bracket of the world game need to overcome.

Since 1986 only eight non-European or South American teams have progressed to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, with South Korea (when co-hosting in 2002) the only one of them to have gone one step further and reached the semi-finals since 1930 – when USA made the last four of a 13-team tournament.

The European and South American hegemony is itself also a pretty exclusive club, and aside from South Korea only 15 countries from UEFA and CONMEBOL have made it to the semi-finals of the competition since 1986.

Coaching, player ability, and tactical approaches all naturally play a part in this, but at the highest level of the game such differences are incredibly fine and what it ultimately comes down to is attitude. The ‘smaller’ nations all too often don’t approach games considering themselves as equals but instead challengers, instantly handing their opponents the initiative and thus encouraging the cycle to perpetuate.

While teams like Japan become preoccupied with setting new checkpoints to tick off, those at the next level consider anything other than tilt at the title as failure.

“Are we excited about being in a quarter-final? Of course. But when you’ve just been to a final and a semi-final it feels a little bit different to the first quarter-final,” Gareth Southgate’s right-hand man Steve Holland said ahead of England’s quarter-final clash against France, for instance. “I’m not being arrogant. We want more.”

You could see this difference in assuredness as Japan’s Round of 16 tie wore on against Croatia, and especially during the penalty shoot-out. Croatia had been there before, seen that, and done that. For Japan this was their moment, the game in which they would either achieve their oft-cited target of a first ever quarter-final appearance or fall at the same hurdle for the fourth time.

This in turn produced a situation whereby Japan’s players looked utterly wracked with nerves as they stood on the brink, while the Croatians remained serene and looked fully in control – to an almost unnerving degree, as if they already knew the outcome.

And, in a sense, they did. The rarified air of the quarter-finals and beyond at the World Cup belongs to a select band of teams – they are one of them and Japan are not.

Of course, this set of circumstance isn’t only true for the Samurai Blue, and plenty of other countries also find themselves experiencing a mental block once they arrive at a certain fork in the road. Mexico famously exited at the Round of 16 at seven consecutive tournaments before being eliminated in the group stage this year, for example, while Switzerland’s hammering by Portugal in Doha was their fifth exit at the same juncture in six appearances since 1994.

Are these targets helpful, then? Probably not. Maybe instead of building them up in the minds of the players it is instead better to just adhere to the age-old stereotype of taking one game at a time and focusing on how to beat the opponent in front of you irrespective of the stage of the competition you’re at. After all, why does it really matter what your fellow countrymen did 20 years ago when football was a very different game and none of the same players were on the pitch?

Indeed, Morocco made it to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history by backing themselves from the first to the last whistle against Spain and then dispatching their penalties with icy composure – none more so than Achraf Hakimi, whose audacious panenka beyond Unai Simon with the decisive kick will be replayed for decades to come.

That’s how you do it. You need conviction. You have to believe you belong there, that this is your stage as much as it is Spain’s or Belgium’s or Croatia’s.

There’s no easy solution to this conundrum – if there was the situation wouldn’t exist – and it is of course something of a chicken-and-egg situation. Once you’ve overcome a hurdle it loses its aura and becomes easier to clear again. Getting beyond it for the first time is less about formations and pass completion rates and xG and more to do with attitude though – and that is something which is incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to teach. It is instead ingrained through experience. Not just in the cliched sense players spout about “learning from this defeat”, but long beforehand.

In order for Japan to move up to the next echelon the focus shouldn’t just be on who coaches the team or who pulls on the blue shirt or what system they play. It needs to go deeper than that. It comes from how players and coaches are raised – in a footballing sense and as people – how they approach challenges, and how they carry themselves every time they step onto the pitch. They need grit and drive and arrogance from the very first time they kick a football.

Until they have that, they will keep being edged out by those that do.


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