Japan's National Team: 1997-98
|In 1998, Takeshi Okada was a young, inexperienced and virtually unknown coach who had quietly provided support to the less "technical" Shu Kamo. When Kamo was fired to take responsibility for a sudden slump in form, and Okada took over the reins of the national team, he seemed to face a nearly impossible situation. Japan had finished the first round of World Cup qualifiers with a win, a loss and two draws from four matches. The top team in the group would qualify, while the second place team would get a playoff against the second place team from west Asia.
Apart from the challenges in terms of winning matches, Okada inherited a team with severe internal divisions. The biggest split lay between Kazu and his Verdy Kawasaki teammate Tsuyoshi Kitazawa, on one hand, and Kashima Antlers defenders Yutaka Akita, Naoki Soma and Akira Narahashi on the other. The two groups differed in every way, whether it be their approach to the game, their characters and childhood backgrounds, their club teams, and the like. Shu Kamo's inability to enforce discipline in the team had allowed these differences to fester into actual animosity.
Meanwhile, some of the younger players, especially midfielders Hiroshi Nanami and Hidetoshi Nakata, were put off by the rivalries among the other players. They particularly began to resent the fact that Kazu used Kamo's laid-back style as an excuse to act like the annointed "leader" of the team. Whatever his talents on the field, Kazu was starting to lose goodwill among his teammates off the field.However, Okada also had some built-in advantages when he took over. Most of the public had given up on the team, and thought that Japan would bomb out in the qualifying stages once again. Many of the Japanese players responded well to this type of pressure. With their backs to the wall and nothing to lose, the defenders in particular -- and no one more than young goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi -- tended to turn in their best performances.
Okada got one additional break, which would probably be crucial. In the first match he coached, against Uzbekistan, Kazu received a fairly serious leg injury. Naturalised Brazilian Wagner Lopes, who took his place, scored a goal to secure a 1-1 draw. In subsequent matches, Okada had an excuse to leave Kazu off his roster, and as a result, was able to get the team to coalesce into the form they had shown earlier in the Kamo years. Japan went into Seoul knowing that a loss would send them out of contention, but the team responded with an inspired match and a 2-1 victory. This restored the team's confidence, and they demolished Kazakhstan in their final qualifier 5-1 to finish second in the group.
Japan's second-place finish qualified them to a playoff against Iran for the final spot in the Asia group. The match was played in neutral Malaysia, and a huge crowd of Japanese fans, their hopes restored, followed the team to Southeast Asia to cheer them on. Japan got out to an early lead, but Iran came back with two goals and seemed to be in control. But a late header by Shoji Jo knotted the score and sent it into golden goal extra time. With time running out, the speedy Masayuki Okano flasked out of the steamy Malaysian night to sink the winning goal and send his countrymen into hysterical joy
Unfortunately, Japan really had no chance of success in their initial World Cup appearances. Facing Argentina and Croatia, two of the top teams in the entire tournament, their prospects were miserable to begin with. As it was, the team acquitted themselves respectably, losing just 1-0 to both powerhouses, though their disappointment at just falling short against Croatia produced a letdown that carried through to their match against Jamaica, which they lost 2-1. Despite having done all that anyone could have expected of him as a "caretaker coach", Okada was assigned the blame for Japan's swift exit, and in the face of harsh criticism, he resigned shortly after returning to Japan.
But Okada would have the last laugh. Written off as a loser because of his failure at WC2002, Okada was banished to obscurity, and had to struggle in various assistant capacities before landing a coaching job with a weak second-division club, Consadole Sapporo. Yet just six months after taking the reins of the club, Okada had whipped them into shape, and Sapporo were at the top of the second division and headed for promotion. After two years of coaxing top-flight results out of what was otherwise a J2 team, Okada "retired" at the end of 2001, only for Consadole to go into an immediate tailspin and fall all the say to the bottom end of the J2 over the next three seasons. Soon thereafter, Okada was coaxed to take the head coach position at the talented but disorganised Yokohama Marinos. He immediately turned the team around and took them to consecutive league titles over the next two seasons. By 2007, he was viewed as one of the most effective Japanese coaches in the country, and when Ivica Osim was felled by a stroke, in late 2007, Okada was named to take over the National Team for a second time.
As far as his skills as a national team coach, Okada deserves credit for doing a fine job in what was basically a no-win situation. Though he took a great deal of criticism as the coach who dumped Kazu from his squad on the eve of the 1998 World Cup, his later results with Sapporo and Yokohama proved his ability as a coach beyond any doubt, and when he got a second chance to lead the Samurai Blue to glory, he achieved success in the eyes of everyone, in Japan and worldwide. But that is another chapter. . . . .