Sunday, 17 February 2019

 

 Poetic Justice

 Japan 3 - 0 Iran  

Date: 
January 28, 2019
  Location: 
United Arab Emirates

Japan 3

0 1H 0
3 2H 0

0 Iran

Yuya Osako (56') 
Yuya Osako (67')
Genki Haraguchi (90+1')

Scoring
 
Hiroki Sakai
Yuto Nagatomo
Cautions Ibrahimi
Amiri
Azmun

  Shuichi Gonda; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Yuto Nagatomo; Gaku Shibasaki, Wataru Endo (Tsukasa Shiotani); Ritsu Doan (Junya Ito 73'), Takumi Minamino, Genki Haraguchi; Yuya Osako 
 TBA


 As the old cliche would have it, "football is a lot like life" . . .  or perhaps, "life is a lot like football." Both have a funny way of conveying important lessons in such a simple, direct and poetically meaningful way that one cannot suppress a small chuckle of sheer delight, and appreciation for the karmic justice of the universe. On Monday evening, the Beautiful Game provided football fans with a resounding display of this principle, and the most magical part of this lesson was that the entire contest -- every single detail of every thing that took place over the full 90 minutes -- could be encapsulated in a single, ten-second sequence of resounding relevance.

From the outset of this contest, Iran adopted the most cynical, calculated and unapologetically unscrupulous approach to play, opting to defend in depth and upon winning possession, immediately launch long balls behind the Japanese defense in the hope that their tall, speedy strikers could get into space and then -- if unable to beat their defender by skill and craft -- to dive theatrically and count on the raucous home crowd to cow the referees into awarding a dangerous free kick.

To be perfectly fair to Chris Beath and his all-Australian officiating team, they did a far better job of dispensing some degree of nonpartisan justice than any other group of match officials at this tournament. Yet even they were visibly unwilling to do anything that might draw displeasure from the Iranians and the extremely partisan crowd. One also feels some responsibility to give the Iranians credit for the football they played over the course of this tournament. Having watched most of their pool matches and the quarterfinal against China, I will be the first to argue that Carlos Quieroz' men are capable of far less cynical and far more beautiful football than what we saw on Monday. Perhaps the veteran Portuguese coach suffered a moment of self-doubt, and decided not to try to match Japan at their own preferred style of play. Or perhaps he, like his players, felt that the cynical approach made more sense in a setting (the AFC's showpiece competition) where politics and perspicacity are usually more effective than fair play. Whatever the case may be, the style of football Iran adopted against Japan was akin to a heavy metal club - simple, blunt, direct and brutal.

As already noted, the entire 90 minute match was encapsulated in a single play, which unfolded in the 56th minute. After a series of threatening set play opportunities by Iran, including a hand ball call against Hiroki Sakai at the edge of the box (which would have massive repercussions later in the contest), Japan finally broke through the midfield press with a steal by Gaku Shibasaki and a slicing through pass that sent Takumi Minamino off on a gallop behind the Iranian defense. Just before he reached the penalty box, Minamino was shoved over from behind. . . . 

The Iranian defenders immediately feared the worst, and five players reacted instantly by swarming towards the referee to plead their case, apparently oblivious to the fact that Mr Beath had not yet blown his whistle. While Iran played the referee, Minamino played the ball. Rather than trying to accentuate the shove, or roll about on the grass in feigned agony, the Salzburg shadow striker bounded immediately to his feet, and chased the ball as it rolled towards the left corner flag. Osako also continued to play on, shadowing Minamino's run and then setting up in front of goal to give his teammate the biggest possible target.

Suddenly realizing that the ball was still in play, the entire Iranian team panicked scrambling madly back towards their goal. But nobody had the presence of mind to either obstruct Minamino's cross or lay a body on Osako. Minamino fired a pinpoint line drive across the face of goal; Osako glided onto it and met the ball with a glancing header that nestled in the back corner of the net.

After recovering from the immediate shock of Japan's opener, Quieroz seemed to realise that his Route One game plan had failed utterly, and for about ten minutes, Iran stopped trying to simply boot the ball into Japan's box and began exchanging passes to create openings through skill and guile, rather than brute force. But before their speedy and sparkling runs could produce any result, Japan delivered the killing blow. Once again Minamino was sent into the clear, this time by deft backheel from Osako. Taking the ball almost to the end line, Minamino cut back and tried to fire a low pass in front of net for Osako. But Morteza Pouraliganji slipped as Minamino made his cut, and fell on his back. The attempted cross slammed into Pouralinganji's arm, and the Samurai Blue players all began waving and shouting at Mr. Beath.

In anyone has doubts about how eager the referees were to please the home crowd (and presumably the West Asian cabal that controls Asian football), one only has to watch how much time Mr. Beath spent in making absolutely certain that the call would create no controversy. Pouralinganji's hand ball was obvious to even the fans in row 98Z at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, and despite furious protests from the Iranians, replays should have left no doubt at all in the minds of anyone with functioning eyeballs. Yet the Australian official went to the VAR screen and watched long and hard before finally approving the PK.

There have been some stories in the press that seem desperate to create some sort of controversy where none exists, suggesting that the hand ball was accidental. Indeed, it was. There can be little question on that point. The problem is that just fifteen minutes earlier, an Iranian striker had let loose with a blistering drive straight towards Hiroki Sakai's head, and as Sakai instinctively ducked out of the way, the ball hit his upper arm (well within the "cylinder" of his body). Having just awarded a free kick to Iran at the edge of Japan's box for that incident, there was simply no way that Beath could dismiss Japan's PK shout and avoid serious questions about his impartiality.

 After Japan's second goal, Iran had only one way to get back into the contest, and that involved a return to the same blunt, direct, physical strategy they had adopted at the start. But Japan's defense put on its best performance of the tournament, heading every high ball away from danger, and denying Team Melli any chance to get a shot away. As the clock ticked over into injury time, Genki Haraguchi put the final exclamation point on the result, breaking away on a three-on-one and then firing home from the left channel.

There is much more to say about Japan's performance in this tournament, particularly in terms of analyzing individual player performance and . . . hopefully . . . dispelling some misconceptions that have been making the rounds in the international English language press. However, those comments can wait for tomorrow. For now, all a fan of the Beautiful Game can do is bask in the joy of success and enjoy the contortions that pro-Iran journalists are performing in an effort to put some positive spin on the result, for Iran. After the Japan-Saudi match, I concluded with the observation that Japan won, but football lost. On this occasion, the Beautiful Game was most definitely the winner, while the weaknesses of cynicism, gamesmanship and ugly one-dimensional play were exposed for all to see. 

It was a very good day for football.