Saturday, 21 July 2018

 

The Dream Begins

Japan 2 - 1 Colombia

Date:
June 19, 2018
  Location:
Mordova Arena, Saransk, Russia

Japan 2

1 1H 1
1 2H 0

1 Colombia

Shinji Kagawa (06')
Yuya Osako (73')

Scoring Quintero (39')
Eiji Kawashima  Cautions Junior Barrios
James Rodrigues
  Sent Off Carlos Sanchez

  Eiji Kawashima, Hiroki Sakai, Gen Shoji, Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo; Makoto Hasebe, Gaku Shibasaki (Hotaru Yamaguchi 80'); Takashi Inui, Shinji Kagawa (Keisuke Honda 70'), Genki Haraguchi; Yuya Osako (Shinji Okazaki 85')
 David Ospina; Santiago Arias, Davinson Sanchez, Oscar Murillo, Johan Mojica; Carlos Sanchez; Jefferson Lerma, Juan Cuadrado (Wilmar Barrios 31’), Juan Quintero (James Rodriguez 59’), Jose Izquierdo (Carlos Bacca 70’); Radamel Falcao 


Once every four years, a window opens in the dark sky of the summer night, and a football drama plays out on this starry stage, for lovers of The Beautiful Game all over the world. Some may claim that the magic of World Cup football has died -- that in this age of millionaire players and billionaire clubs, there is not enough purity, not enough innocent wonder and childlike belief to conjure up a drama that can be called truly magical. But a cool summer evening still retains the misty cool quality that spawns our dreams. And as long as humans still know how to dream, football will still be capable of stirring their repressed imaginations, and reviving the magic. 

Although he may not have been a football fan, Shakespeare certainly understood the capricious character of the season . . . a period of dreamlike haziness, when the days are so heavy and the sun so cruel, yet the nights pass so swiftly that you can be whisked from sunset to sunrise almost as soon as you close your tired eyes. The rules of logic seem to melt away in the mist that settles onto the grass in those early hours before dawn. Football will always be the savoured sport of summer, mirroring the elements with its long parching periods of sweaty frustration, when fans thirst for even a brief taste of action. Yet every now and then, a magical evening unfolds -- a celebratory festival of suspense, joy, heartbreak, drama, humiliating blunders, lurid farce and ecstatic triumph. And when the first light of dawn creeps over the weary bodies of the revelers, they are left wondering if what they witnessed was truly the golden glimpse of perfection, or if it was all just a Midsummer Night's Dream.

But some dreams are meant to be. The serendipitous power of the football gods intervenes in our mundane, monochrome world to ensure that every World Cup must contain some moments of sheer beauty, magic, and improbable technicolor wonder. This is why they call football "The Beautiful Game". Even the searing frustration of seeing your favoured team outplay an opponent in every corner of the pitch, for a full 89 minutes, only to lose a 1-0 decision has a certain emotional beauty. And those moments when players seem to cast off their mortal flesh and stride like Titans across the green fields of Elysium, to perform athletic miracles before your very eyes -- those moments live in memory for a lifetime.

This is why I will always expound my passion for the Beautiful Game, even in the most frustrating dark night of defeat. Since that day when a wide-eyed young child snuck downstairs in the predawn half-light to fumble through the channels of an old, black-and-white TV, only to be rewarded with the flickering sight of a Golden Boy streaking down the wing with the ball glued to his ankles, I have been an unredeemable football addict. A fool for The Beautiful Game. Even now, my skin prickles and a chill runs up my spine at the memory of the announcer's ecstatic cry, when my childhood hero swung his long leg and sent a surge of opiatic joy through my heart: "DAAALLLL-GLEEEEEEEEEEESHHH!" Once you have fallen under the spell of this most beautiful of drugs, you never even wish for a cure. 

Although football has been my passion for roughly half a century, my love affair with the game was further consummated some 25 years ago, when Japan launched its first professional league, the J.League, just a few years after I had made this country my permanent home. While I may not be as thoroughly immersed in Japanese football as I was over the 15-year period that I operated The Rising Sun News, I still set my clock by the kickoff times of my favourite teams. I still spend weekend days (and nights) rooted in front of a TV or computer screen, shouting a mixture of abuse and encouragement at every twist and turn in the contest. So naturally, when a World Cup summer arrives, every mundane and mendacious concern relating to our frustrtatingly busy modern world recedes into the distance, so that I can bask in the beauty of a Midsummer Night's Dream

Back on May 31, when I posted an article on this very site, entitled "Why Japan will WIN the World Cup", it generated almost no response, and the few who did reply seemed more inclined to offer commisserations for my obvious pain and frustration, or at best, kind words to encourage my valiant yet clearly pointless optimism. 

To be fair, the article itself offered plenty of reasons NOT to take it seriously. After all, the article appeared just one day after Japan's friendly loss to Ghana, just a month after the head coach had been replaced, and just an hour or so after the final 23-man roster for the World Cup had been announced. As I made clear several times in the text of that discussion, the prediction of a Japan triumph -- even one that involves just reaching the latter stages of the knockout round -- is based on many assumptions which could not have been taken for granted at the time. The most critical of these were personnel-related. The only way that Japan can succeed in defeating world-class opposition is to remove players who fall short of world-class quality from the lineup. And for reasons that I do not want to waste ANY time discussing in this glorious Morning After, the Japan National Team has an unnecessarily large number of such players. Until the JFA and Japanese fans in general outgrow their fascination with pretty faces and aging icons, this will always be a hurdle that coaches have to clear before they can even start trying to build a winning team.

But my experience of watching Coach Akira Nishino for the past two decades -- from his time as a player and coach at the Hitachi amateur club in the old JSL through stints as Olympic NT coach, Kashiwa Reysol gaffer and then league-winning manager of Gamba Osaka -- reassured me that he was capable of separating the blossoms from the thistles. Sure enough, the teams he has selected for both the final friendly against Paraguay and the opening World Cup contest eliminated the most obvious pretenders from the field. With Kashima's Gen Shoji in the centre of defence and Getafe's Gaku Shibasaki linking attack with defense, Japan is a more competitive team today than they have been in at least six years. Just as importantly, the aging but still influential Keisuke Honda has been spared the sort of draining physical challenge that he is no longer capable of shouldering, and assigned the key job of coming off the bench to stabilize the team in the second half, and organizing them for the critical final stages of the contest.

In short, coach Nishino has fulfilled even the most optimistic assumptions laid out in that May 31st article, and thus greatly reduced the uncertainty that still prevailed when it was written. The Samurai Blue team that entered the fray against Colombia was the best that Japan has available . . . or at a minimum, the best that one could possibly hope for, so long as sponsors like Kirin are able to ensure that aging and ineffective personnel have "guaranteed spots" in the 23-man roster.

Once the coach finally put together a team that at least comes close to reflecting "the best Japan has to offer", my optimism was fully justified. Some are bound to fall back on the "ten-man Columbia" explanation, contending that the Samurai Blue would not have performed as well against a full-strength opponent. Well, one of the beautiful things about this game is the way that fate -- Puck-like in the misty cool of a summer evening -- occasionally reaches down and tosses mischief into the mix. 

But it was not the hand of Puck (or even of Carlos Sanchez) that turned this contest in the Samurai Blue's favour. It was a surging run by Yuya Osako, the often-overlooked but selfless and highly intelligent centre forward, that turned the contest on its head in the third minute. Even if Sanchez had not blocked the goal-bound shot by Kagawa, collecting the rebound from Osako's parried attempt, the contest would have stood at 1-0 after three minutes. If anything, the sending-off and subsequent penalty gave Colombia a mental respite, and a stronger sense of purpose. 

More importantly, the red card took a serious toll on the officiating competence of referee Damir Skomina, who bent over backwards for the next 87 minutes to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that he was not showing any favour to Japan. Most will point to the foul he called on Hasebe in the 38th minute, when Falcao threw himself into the Japan captain and rolled thatrically around to win the free kick which created Colombia's equaliser. But that was just one call of dozens that should give the FIFA officiating committee concerns as they evaluate the "Men in Black". Some of the non-calls he managed to justify in the second half -- when Colombia players were kicking the Samurai Blue almost as frequently as they did the ball -- will surely see Skomina dropped from consideration for any knockout round duty.

The point I am attempting to make here, in my typical long-winded style, is that Japan received only a very small benefit from the red card. The positive impact was largely confined to the lack of Colombia pressure in the final 20 minutes (no doubt due to fatigue). In the first half, Colombia may even have benefitted from the call, since it prompted some of the Samurai Blue players to let their game-faces drop (most disturbingly, Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui, though Kagawa and Osako were also guilty). With just a bit more intensity of play, Japan could (and SHOULD) have scored a second goal before the break. 

While the attacking midfield deserve at least some criticism for their slack play in the 30 minutes or so following Japan's opening goal, the rest of the Samurai Blue put on a solid performance. Yuto Nagatomo was the most dangerous attacking threat for much of the first half, and probably deserved Man-of-the-Match honours. Osako not only set up the opening goal and scored the second, but also played a key role on defence. It was his lunging intervention to block a shot by James Rodrigues from inside the box that took the last puff of air out of Colombia's sails, and sealed Japan's victory.

The two most critical contributions for Japan, though, came from Gen Shoji and Gaku Shibasaki. Neither one was a sparkling, standout performer in this contest (though most overseas observers recognised their quality with ratings matching those of Osako, Nagatomo and Kagawa). The reason their play was such a critical factor is that these two late additions to the squad replace individuals who have been a source of weakness for the Samurai Blue since the start of the Halilhodzic era. Today is not a time for grinding axes or taking pot shots at underperforming players, but anyone who has read my comments on the Japan NT over the past two years will know exactly what I mean. By replacing these weak links, and by shifting Keisuke Honda to a role that better suits his status as an aging but still influential contributor, coach Nishino has transformed the team into the sleek, confident,  internationally competitive unit we saw on Tuesday evening.

Tonight, I lie back and stare at stars that may be millions upon billions of miles away, yet I know they were placed there for this very reason -- to twinkle down on my happiness on this most joyous evening. As we bask in the sweet intoxication of Japan's victory over Colombia, no possibility seems too far-fetched. This is the most well-balanced and comprehensively solid team Japan has ever put onto the competitive field of play. And since they have had only two months to develop a team chemistry, there is every reason to expect them to improve as this magical summer advances. 

No longer can you pour scorn on the notion that Japan might possibly win this World Cup. It is still a monumental challenge, to be sure. Most of the world's football fans will nod graciously at the result, and turn their attention back to Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Belgium . . . . But the scent in the air has changed. Some things happen simply because the world needs an occasional glimpse of the improbable -- a moment of magic to remind us all how much goodness, and beauty, and human happiness can be found in even the most simple of daily events. 

If this is indeed a dream, then I am determined to cling fast to it, to dream on and on, long into this magical summer night. Even as the brief cool of morning begins, to fade, I will cling tightly to my pillow and not to release my grip on sleep until I have drained every last drop from this intoxicating Midsummer Night's Dream. Tomorrow may jolt me back to a cruel reality, and Puck may laugh from the edge of the stage, making sport of my folly, and my tears of disappointment while proclaiming: "Lord! What fools these mortals be". 

For now, though, I can only lie in the fragrant grass and breathe in the aroma of dreams. You may call me a fool, for a fool I am. A fool for the beautiful game. I continue to believe in the dream. And dreams can be contagious.

If you, too, are desperate for some colour and beauty in this grey life... if you, too, yearn to dance with the faeries upon the Midsummer Night's Stage... if you want to stand in the breach with the Samurai Blue, and valiantly battle against the cold, calculating certainty of oddsmakers in some London bookie's cold gaudy office... why not join the Japanese football revolution? 

Join me in the dream. I know that you, too, truly WANT to believe.