Saturday, 21 July 2018

 

Dream? or Nightmare?

 Japan 0 - 1 Poland 

Date: 
June 28, 2018
  Location: 
Volgograd, Russia

Japan 0

0 1H 0
0 2H 1

1 Poland

 

Scoring Bednarik (59')
Tomoaki Makino  Cautions  
     

  A bunch of ridiculous jokers
  TBA


The moon is soaring high in the black velvet sky, glittering in ripples of silvery delight on the surface of my garden pond. The dream continues, and perhaps we ought to be celebrating  success in this delightful June predawn. But the taste in my mouth is bitter, and never did I think it possible that I would be sitting on the edge of my chair strenuously willing Senegal to score the equalising goal that would have sent Japan home from this World Cup. The "play-it-safe" farce that Nishino Japan put on this Thursday in Volgograd should never be tolerated again! Have people forgotten the Agony in Doha? Is this the sort of thing they view as "fair play"? If I were anywhere within reach of coach Nishino at this moment, he would be walking around bent double, with his hands between his legs for the next six months. I have never witnessed a display by the Samurai Blue that has left me feeling so thoroughly ashamed in all my half-century of existence, and I pray to all the Gods greater and lesser, throughout the archipelago, that I never witness such a display again. 

That is the last you shall ever hear of Japan's third Group match at this World Cup. It will never be discussed again, except as a lasting anvil on which to pound anyone who suggests that Japan should abandon its pursuit of "The Beautiful Game" and play these calculating follies that leave the fan wretching in disgust. Never again!

Despite their utterly revolting charade against Poland, the Japan National Team can at least breathe a sigh of relief, and perhaps cock an eyebrow at every so-called "football expert" who declared just two weeks ago that they did not stand a chance of getting through their group, and would be very lucky indeed to score a single goal or claim a single point. Regular readers of JSoccer.com will not be perusing these pages to read some sterile analysis of the team's performance; certainly not with regard to the unmentionable performance put on against Poland. Nevertheless, readers probably will be dropping in to seek answers to the questions that are finally beginning to bubble into the consciousness of football fans around the world: 

- First, at a time when most of the world was predicting absolute disaster, how could we possibly have known that Japan would be able to clear its Group ?
- Second, was the May 30th prediction that "Japan will win the World Cup" a mere shout of defiance and bravado, or could it possibly be something this writer actually believes?
- And most importantly, what accounts for Japan's impressive performance against Colombia, Senegal and Poland, what are the underlying strengths of this team, and how will they match up against their Round-of-16 opponent?

To resolve all of those questions would take more time that a bleary-eyed reveller like myself can spare, on such a fine night as this. But all will be answered in time. For now, the second question is the easiest to address, even though there may not be a single, clear and unconditional answer. Those who have read the article posted on this site exactly one lunar cycle ago can see for themselves that there were still a number of uncertainties. Critical questions weighed on the minds of all Samurai Blue fans, and many were mentioned by name in that article. The most crucial of these related to the personnel coach Akira Nishino would use as starters in the World Cup, and what type of tactical play he would adopt. Let's back up and begin with a summary of the situation Japan faced in late May.

One of the reasons that most "outsiders" (those with limited knowledge of the Japan National Team) dismissed the country's chances at this World Cup was the fact that just two months prior to the tournament's start, the JFA fired coach Vahid Halilhodzic and replaced him with his assistant and the then-JFA Technical Director, Akira Nishino. Most viewed this as a sign of chaos, and saw little hope for Nishino to cobble together a team in time for the start of competition.

But those who follow the team more closely were aware that Halilhodzic was one of the main factors holding the team back. It wasnt so much his tactics or approach -- his focus on winning one-on-one duels and playing a conservative but "responsive" style were not what this writer views as the most ideal (even some of his own assistants worried that they were not a good match for the players available). But they were moderately successful in qualification. The real problem was that Halilhodzic was a poor judge of talent. The combination of his own conservatism, pressure from the JFA and team "sponsors" (the corporations that pump the most advertising money into the JFA), and a poor ability to spot talented youngsters kept the team from developing over his three years in charge. Halilhodzic did experiment a lot, but for those who follow the Samurai Blue closely, it was clear that he was not naming a squad that could be described as "the best Japan has to offer".

Even the appointment of Nishino did not completely "fix" this problem. Japan has certain ingrained, institutional problems that have been a burden on team success for at least the past decade. But this is not the time or place to discuss them in detail. The upshot is that -- if Japan was to do well in Russia -- Nishino needed to make major changes in the starting lineup. Many people were aware that Japan had a wealth of talent available, if only it was put together in the proper order. Knowing coach Nishino's past accomplishments, I was HOPEFUL that he would adopt the personnel strategy he settled on from the June 12th friendly against Paraguay. In my May 30th article this caveat was presented clearly, even to the point of naming the players who had to be replaced and/or inserted. 

So clearly, when I made the prediction it was an expression of hope, and only minimal conviction. But the success Japan achieved in the four matches since then demonstrate what true fans of the Samuari Blue have known all along: This team is far better than the results of the past three years might indicate. 

But that is only half of the answer. More than a few people are inclined to snort derisively if someone expresses the belief that Japan can win the World Cup. Keisuke Honda found that out personally, when he expressed that hope at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. "You cant be serious!" the press scolded. And at the time, this writer was one of the few to publicly offer a defense of Honda's optimism. As I noted at the time, it seems rather "biased" that Honda would be criticised for such a statement, but nobody would blink twice if Gary Lineker (or Gary Neville, or Gary the Gardener. . . ) made such a prediction about England. 

Yes, it is true that the odds are long, but the most wonderful thing about this sport we call "The Beautiful Game" is that almost anything can happen. If you lack the belief in your ability to win games, you probably will not win many games. This is a basic truth in any sport or endeavour. So when Honda said he was aiming to win the World Cup, he was proving to anyone who might have doubts that he understands the nature of sport. If players approach the World Cup with the idea that victory is impossible, and that they should try to just "make a good showing", or perhaps claim one upset victory, why even bother to go to Russia at all? 

The answer is yes. I truly do believe that Japan will win this World Cup. Yes, the odds are long, and each step along the way will be a formidable challenge. But this team has strengths and qualities that set it apart from most of the other teams in this World Cup. Knowing what those strengths are, and seeing them develop with each passing day, those of us who truly believe in Japan's destiny recognise it as a legitimate, and achievable goal. The fairy tale is taking shape as we speak. The first chapter has already been written into the record of sports legends, and the cluster of believers gathered around the bonfire to witness the next act grows steadily in number. 

Over the next day or two, we will present a more concrete analysis of Japan's Group Round performance, to address the other questions listed at the start of this article. It should already be apparent to even casual observers of the Samurai Blue's Group H success that this team relies on group qualities - coordination on both defense and attack, a good chemistry throughout the squad, and a clear understanding of what role each player is expected to fill -- in order to defeat more fancied opponents. There are still many issues that must be addressed if Japan is to overcome the more talented and multidimensional opponents ahead of them. But the pieces are falling into place one by one.

The moon is dropping lower in the sky, and the night has gone silent. The past is dead and buried, and most certainly not lamented. All one can do is pray that such a thing never happens again. Though the leaves rustle and the magic of this midsummer's night lingers, I can no longer hear the laughter of Oberon, Puck and Titania; Osako, Inui and Nagatomo, or any of the other sprites who lifted my spirit into the realm of dreams this past fortnight. But the dream is still warm and comforting in my breast. Another chapter awaits.

Now I hear England-Belgium call
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands if we be friends,
And Matsu shall restore amends..