Japan's National Team: 2008-2010
Although Takeshi Okada has been a part of the Japanese football scene for decades, and even played for the National Team in his younger days (27 caps in FIFA "A" matches and one goal, during the early 1980s), it is hard to start any discussion of his coaching history anywhere other than that fateful day in early 1997, when a bespectacled, nerdy-looking nobody was pushed in front of the microphones and handed what every other coach in Japan viewed as a death sentence. Japan had just completed the first round of World Cup qualifiers with one win, one loss and two draws from four matches. Only the top team in the five-team group would qualify for the 1998 World Cup, while the second place team would get a playoff against the second place team from the pool of West Asian countries. Not surprisingly, this pathetic record cost the previous coach, Shu Kamo, his job.
Takeshi Okada was a young, inexperienced and virtually unknown coach who had been brought in to the national team coaching staff by Kamo, who probably selected him as much for his quiet nature, lack of credentials, and ability to fade into the background (allowing Kamo to bathe in the spotlight) as anything else. Though none of the JFA brass really thought Okada had the skills to manage a national team, Japan faced a nearly impossible situation, and nobody else was fool enough to accept the poisoned chalice. So with very little fanfare, Okada was tossed into the malestrom of international football.
At the time, just about everyone associated with the game assumed that the team would fall apart mentally and emotionally, lose their next two or three matches, and then Okada could be tossed into the dustbin of history to be forgotten once and for all. The Japanese ethos seems to adore tales of valiant failure, such as the so-called "Agony at Doha", but it has no place in its heart for those who -- however hard-working and diligent --simply arent good enough to make the grade. With his nerdy mannerisms and John Lennon-style round spectacles, most people assumed that Okada belonged in that latter category, and the sooner he left the stage, the happier everyone would be
Of course, that is not quite how things worked out, as we discuss at greater length in an earlier section of this review of Japan NT history. Okada led Japan to its first-ever appearance at the World Cup, and while "public perception" at the time saw Japan's first World Cup appearance as a failure, anyone who is familiar with the 1998 Argentine and Croatian national teams can tell you that Okada Japan's actual performances at France 1998 far exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations. Although the failure to overcome Jamaica in the final WC match is usually identified as the reason why Okada stepped down in disgrace, the fact of the matter is that -- at the time -- nobody in the JFA really wanted him around. He lacked the experience and the name recognition that a national team coach needed, and though it might have been more difficult to dismiss him, had he won a World Cup match, it seems highly likely that his ouster was being planned even before the team left for Europe.
In all fairness to the JFA, that probably was the right decision at the time. While Okada proved his detractors wrong in subsequent years, by leading Consadole Sapporo to the J1 and then leading the Yokohama Marinos to two consecutive league titles, the fact is that in 1998 he was still a young and inexperienced man, unprepared both strategically and emotionally for the enormous strain of managing the Japanese national team.
Ten years on, Okada not only has a much more complete grasp of the technical end of his job; he also has learned how to negotiate the tricky political maze of Japanese football bureaucracy, and has endured a fair amount of media scrutiny and pressure as a J.League coach. Though Okada's relationship with the press is likely to be as uncomfortable as Ivica Osim's, at least he has a good idea of what to expect, and has developed his own way of handling clueless sports writers.
In terms of his coaching abilities, Okada certainly did not have the technical breadth of a guy like Osim. However, he has always demonstrated a keen awareness of his own abilities and limitations, as well as those of his players. Perhaps therein lies his greatest strength as a coach -- in addition to recognizing each player's shortcomings, he is a genius at identifying the role that each player CAN effectively fill, and then designing a game plan which allows them to use their abilities effectively, while not being exposed too badly for their weaknesses. This skill is probably more valuable when coaching a weak club team than it is when coaching at the highest level. However, any coach who has the ability to maximise the contribution of each of his players is bound to enjoy some success.
The most common criticism of Okada has been that he prefers simple, and somewhat defensive tactics. At least in the past (not only in the 1998 World Cup but also at his club teams) this sometimes leads to conservatism and "unimaginative" play. The worst case scenario would be for Okada to get rattled by a loss in the first WC match, become obsessed with avoiding any sort of mistakes or risks, and impose a strategy that saps the imagination and fluidity which are generally the Japan national team's greatest strengths. However, to make up for some of his own weaknesses, Okada hand-picked former Ventforet Kofu boss Takeshi Oki to serve as his top assistant. Oki is arguably the most imaginative strategic thinker in Japanese football circles, and his preference was always for bold tactics that exploit carefully calculated risks. Though it sometimes seems that Okada is too cautious by nature to fully implement the strategies developed by his right-hand man, there were a few glimpses of progress in the direction of a unique style, which could be described as "Japanese total football".
Unfortunately, as "Okada Japan II -- The Sequel" moved towards its international date with destiny, the script began to unravel and Okada's response was to return to his bedrock principles - cautious, defensive and unadventurous. This had repercussions that defined the team's performance in South Africa, in June 2010. Some might say that it contributed to the successful results in the pool round, but there is no question that it cost Japan a chance for even greater glory, when they deadlocked in the Round-of-16 match with Paraguay and lost on penalty kicks.
Things started to go wrong in late 2009, though at the time, only a few people really sat up and took notice. First of all, in the final months of the year - after participation in the World Cup was secured - the JFA lined up some opponents that clearly had little interest in performing to their potential. Belgium, Scotland and Togo - all teams that had been eliminated and were starting the process of building an entirely new team under a new coach - showed up in Japan with a bunch of uncapped pretenders, simply went through the motions, and allowed the Samurai Blue to post results that were far more impressive in a newspaper headline than they were to people who bothered to watch the matches. Not only did this give players and coaches a sense of complacency, it also allowed Okada to convince himself that some of his pet favourites were good enough to play at the international level (though most trained observers had serious doubts).
The year 2010 got off to a torrid start, with Japan losing the East Asian Chapionships on home turf, while allowing both China and South Korea to kick them up and down the pitch. Even Hong Kong, who they beat 3-0, provided clear evidence that the Samurai Blue were not ready for a serious test. No one except Okada himself can say exactly what happened next, but it seemed that the coach fell into a sudden panic, and refused to accept the clear evidence that his favourites were not competent to carry the team through the group phase in South Africa, much less advance further. Time after time he applied exactly the same strategies, and time after time the result was the same. But the end of May, when Japan lost a second consecutive match to Korea on home soil, the situation was chaotic and most of the public - that is to say, those with only a passing interest - had written the team off completely.
But these failures in the run-up to the World Cup masked a few things that remained positive. First, Japan had a very deep and very experienced pool of players - mainly veterans from the "Golden Generation" and a few budding stars who had seen only breif action, like Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo. Second, the players had a good rapport within the squad, which gave them a strong sense of mutual responsibility and empathy. Finally, though Okada's strategy in the months leading up to the World Cup was clearly not working, the team did have a "fall-back position". Since most of the players had been on the squad from the time that Okada first took over, they all had experience with the cautious, ultra-defensive game plan he had used in his first few months at the helm.
When Japan arrived in Switzerland for their pre-World Cup preparation, Okada seems to have re-examined the entire strategic base of his team. Perhaps the clear mountain air (and the absence of constant pressure from the media) allowed him to sort things out. In any event, Okada Japan dramatically revamped its approach in the two-weeks leading up to the big show in South Africa. A friendly against England - lost 2-1 but only because Japan scored two late own-goals on defensive miscues - restored a bit of confidence, and when the first match against Cameroon kicked off, the Samurai Blue were a very different team from the one Okada had cultivated over the previous two years.
Opinions on the results from South Africa vary widely. It is impossible to deny that Okada Japan performed far better than expected in the months leading up to the big event. Though they were knocked out by Paraguay on penalty kicks, in the round of 16, Japan's play was certainly close to World Class, and there were even a few flashes of brilliance. But the style of play adopted was so negative, and so unadventurous that it earned the team a reputation that Japanese football really does not deserve. Furthermore, there are a large number of critics (the Rising Sun News among them) who are convinced that the team could have gone further if Okada had been just a bit less "shell-shocked" by the events of early 2010, and was willing to take just a few more risks.
At the end of the day, though, Okada's second stint in the director's chair has to be viewed as a success. A qualified success, perhaps, but at least Okada kept Japan on course in a positive direction, after Osim's sudden collapse in 2007 threatened to set the team back by years, or even a decade. He laid a solid foundation for the coaches who will follow him, and earned respect and recognition for Japanese football, from all corners of the globe.