Japan's National Team: 2006-07
The Osim Era, at least in its official form, was a very breif and tempestuous period for the Japan national team, but one that provided fans with some hints that football in the country was preparing to move to the next level. Sadly, it was cut short after a less-than-impressive performance in the 2007 Asia Cup, and as a result, it is likely to be viewed by history as something less than a "success". Nevertheless, Osim injected some very useful strategic vision to the team at an important time, and set it on a course towards greater self-confidence and maturity. Furthermore, Osim's guiding hand is likely to continue to help direct the team, behind the scenes, during the Okada Era which followed his stroke and convalescence, in late 2007.
The Osim got off to a slightly rocky start, though this should be no surprise when you consider the circumstances. Following Japan's distressing collapse at the 2006 World Cup, in Germany, there was a great deal of angst in football circles which had to be dispelled before the new coach could start building a new team, and some bureaucratic bungling by JFA Chairman (or as he prefers: "Captain") Saburo Kawabuchi made things even more difficult than was necessary. Kawabuchi returned to Japan a day ahead of the rest of the national team, and upon his arrival at Narita Airport, he told the press that his first order of business would be to "start discussing terms with Coach Osim in order to start rebuilding the National Team as quickly as possible". In later comments, Kawabuchi claimed that he had "accidentally" let slip the name of Osim, and had intended to just say "with the top prospects for Zico's replacement". However, our own impression of the original statement -- both its wording and its timing -- suggest to us that Kawabuchi was deliberately throwing the press a bone, in the well-intentioned belief that this would get them to focus on the future, and not subject the returning NT members or Zico to the sort of hazing and media sniping that we saw in 1998 (an experience that left many people very bitter, and prompted coach Takeshi Okada -- one of the best coaches Japan has ever produced -- to resolve never to be involved with national team activities again, for the remainder of his coaching career).
If this was indeed Captain Kawabuchi's intention, then it worked like a charm. By the time the national team arrived at Narita Airport, nobody was particularly interested in discussing the matter. Everyone was busy digging for stories on Osim. To give Kawabuchi the benefit of the doubt, then, you could say that he achieved a relatively graceful end to the Zico era, though at the expense of a smooth transition to the Osim Era.
The problem was that the JFA had not yet approached JEF United to request permission to speak with Osim. Since Osim was under contract to work for JEF United through the end of 2006, this comment could easily be construed as "poaching" (in the sense that it is being used in UEFA circles). And regardless of actual legality, it was a comment that JEF United was bound to view as offensive. How dare the JFA simply "assume" that JEF would let Osim out of his contract? It is not entirely clear what the situation was within the JFA when Kawabuchi made his comments. There are some suggestions that staff members were expected to contact JEF United and make a formal request to negotiate with Osim as soon as the Brazil match was over. Thus, it is at least possible that Kawabuchi was unaware that he was acting improperly, in releasing Osim's name. As is typically the case for Japanese bureaucracies, nobody will clarify the sequence of events, or admit "who" screwed up. But it is obvious that someone failed to follow proper procedure, and at the very least, Kawabuchi was guilty of opening his mouth before checking with his staff to make sure that the contact with JEF United had been made.
In any event, this resulted in a six-week interlude in which everyone was reasonably sure that Osim would be installed as Japan's head coach, but all parties concerned had to move slowly and cautiously to ensure that nobody "lost face". Practically speaking, Osim started to operate in "national-team coach mode" several weeks before his official appointment, but because of Kawabuchi's failure to follow proper procedure, several weeks were lost before he could really start the job of cleaning house and building a new national team in his own image.
Incidentally, from the very start, "Osim Japan" was forced to deal with some less-than-optimistic omens. When writing (or pronouncing) the name in Japanese, the coach's name is written in the katakana characters and pronounced "Oshimu". As it happens, there is a Japanese verb with the same pronunciation, making the words "Oshimu Nippon" a sentence, or an declaration given in the imperative tense. This is not the best of coincidences, because one possible meaning of the statement "Oshimu Nippon" (in English) would be: "Regret, Japan!"
In retrospect, these words proved to be a poignant and accurate bit of symbolism: "Oshimu Nippon" was a concept that looked very promising at first, but failed to gel in its first major test on the international stage, and then was tragically and suddenly consigned to history, before it could flower into anything of real significance.
Apart from the unfortunate nuances of the word "Oshimu", the other early signs were encouraging. For one thing, Osim tried to set the tone for his reign with comments aimed at dispelling unrealistic expectations. This might risk fostering pessimism, since there is a very deep-rooted aspect of the Japanese character which seems to actually enjoy disappointment, and to wallow in despair. However, in many ways that was preferable to the sort of blissful self-delusion which prevailed in the latter stages of the Zico Era.
Osim's very first act was to name a squad made up almost entirely of youngsters with limited (or no) previous national team experience. This was a very refreshing and encouraging step, because far too many "casual fans" and tabloid journalists seem addicted to the myth -- and it *IS* a myth -- that Zico put together the best team Japan had to offer, and that no collection of Japanese football players will ever match the competitiveness of this "golden generation".
While it is true that there were a number of highly talented midfielders in Zico's squad, and they achieved the greatest international success in NT history (a second-place finish at the 1999 Youth Championships), by 2006 anyone who watched occasional J.League matches could see that these players no longer represented the best that Japan had to offer. Several of the biggest names on the team had already lost starting spots on their club teams to younger and more talented teammates.
Furthermore, even when the so-called "golden generation" was at its peak, they never had any competent strikers. Atsushi Yanagisawa and Naohiro Takahara spent a combined six years playing for overseas clubs, and scored just six goals between them -- an average of less than one a year. By comparison, Sota Hirayama scored eight goals in Holland, in his very first season as a professional player. Even Yoshito Okubo, whose 18 months in Spain were generally viewed as a "failure", scored five times during that period. At that pace, he was on track to score 3-4 times as many goals as Takahara and Yanagisawa combined . . . and in a more competitive league. Other strikers such as Seiichiro Maki and Hisato Sato were just coming into their prime, while teenagers such as Takayuki Morimoto and Mike Havenaar were lurking on the horizon.
If anything, the Osim Era promised to be the time when Japan would finally shake off its reputation for being unable to finish off their scoring chances. Though the younger generation may not have gained the sort of fame that players like Nakata, Nakamura, Ono and Inamoto had at the same age, they show signs of being more "complete" players, who may be able to achieve superior results on the international stage.
In short, Ivica Osim took over the Japan national team at a time when its potential for improvement and advancement had never been higher. The J.League had become a solid, established league with a cash flow that even many European leagues would envy, and profit levels that can ensure a strong influx of talent in both the player and coaching ranks. Furthermore, the footballing "culture" has now become well established, ensuring that kids coming into the talent pool (many while still in their early teens) already possess solid skills with the ball and often several years of coaching to develop their appreciation of basic strategy and team play. The raw material that coach Osim and his coaching staff had to work with were superior to that of any previous generation . . . even the so-called "golden generation". Searching for a suitable catchphrase to reflect this fact, many dubbed the players who reached their prime in the late-00s and early 10s as the "Platinum Generation."
Unfortunately, for all his vision and ambitious plans, Osim was unable to make the transition to a new generation and a new team in time for the 2007 Asian Cup. With only nine months to prepare, he never was able to make the full transition from the "Golden Generation", and as a result, failed to get the results he might have hoped for in Asia's top tournament. Japan performed fairly well in the early stages, but suffered an untimely goal drought in the second half of the semifinal match against Saudi Arabia, and then remained goalless in the 3rd/4th place playoff against Korea despite long stretches of total domination.
Tragically, as Osim and his assistants were sorting through the lessons of that tournament and beginning the next phase of team reorganization, Osim was felled by a serious stroke, while climbing the stairs in his home in Chiba. Unconscious for over a week and bedridden for several months thereafter, it was clear from the start that he would not be in a condition to lead Japan into the World Cup qualification campaign, in early 2008. The JFA decided to name a new coach -- Takeshi Okada -- to replace the recuperating Osim.
Yet for all the "regrets" that the Osim Era may have brought, it clearly marked the first step in another phase of growth and development for the Japan National Team. Osim's vision of a uniquely "Japanese" type of football was badly needed at that point in history, and it is highly unlikely that Takeshi Okada could have achieved the results he did in South Africa had Osim not done such a good job of laying the foundation.