It’s the biggest single-sport event in the world. And just as soccer is the “world game,” the FIFA World Cup tends to consume the entire planet every four years. Japan will be making its fourth consecutive appearance in the tournament, and right around now, we should be feeling a buzz of anticipation around the country. But it just isn’t there.
Japanese fans can be forgiven for feeling jaded. The 2006 World Cup was a big blowout. Sure, the Zico-led Japan team was expected to lose to Brazil, and the point they won against Croatia was a surprise (especially, one assumes, to the Croatians), but the capitulation against Australia was a demoralizing blow. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been, though: while Australia may be an “Asian” team (well, in FIFA’s world), they could really be classified as European.
Still, however much you try to gloss over the past, the plain truth is that Japan invariably performs below expectations at the World Cup. Once, the country at least had high hopes; now they have none. According to bookmakers Ladbrokes, only Honduras, New Zealand and North Korea have worse odds in the World Cup, and most pundits are of the opinion that Japan will be hard-pressed not to come bottom in their group.
So what’s gone wrong?
Much of the blame can be laid at the door of coach Takeshi Okada who has simply failed to get the job done. One thing that many people forget is that the international game and the domestic game are entirely different. Being a great domestic player doesn’t mean you’ll be a great international player, and the same holds true for managers. You only have to look at the England team to see that: Sven Goran Eriksson, Don Revie, Steve McClaren and Graham Taylor were all superb at the club level, but emerged from their stints as England manager with their reputations in tatters.
Likewise, Okada’s standing in Japan is second to none. He spent a year in Germany learning how to coach, took Japan to the 1998 World Cup, took Consadole Sapporo into J1, and won back-to-back J.League titles with Yokohama F Marinos. But his reign as Japan manager can only be considered adequate.
In truth, Okada hasn’t improved the national side. He relies too much on the same players, is unable to see the defects in some of his team, and is reluctant to experiment in terms of selection and tactics. In his defense, the level of coaching in Japan is poor across the board, and many of the players are damaged goods to begin with.
So who can save Japan? At the back, the central pair of Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka are definitely worthy of the shirt. Nakazawa is willing to die for the cause, while Tulio also has fantastic competitive drive (although he’s definitely one of Japan’s top drama queens). In midfield, Shunsuke Nakamura has the skills to compete with anyone in South Africa, and the ever-improving Keisuke Honda has the ability to change games. Both are deadly at free kicks, so striker Keiji Tamada’s inability to remain in a standing position around the box should prove useful.
Forward Kisho Yano has also earned his place, but he’s largely untried by Okada and probably won’t start initially. Catania’s Takayuki Morimoto similarly lacks experience playing with Japan, though he has plenty of confidence as a Serie A striker. And that’s about it in terms of inspiration. Kengo Nakamura, Yasuhito Endo and Daisuke Matsui all have wonderful skills in midfield—if they decide to put those skills to use. Otherwise, the squad lacks inspiration, and perspiration alone won’t cut it against Cameroon, the Netherlands and Denmark.
In fact, the only buzz around the Japan team is the rumor that Guido Buchwald will replace Okada after it’s all over — which, in case you haven’t worked it out yet, will be around 5:30 a.m. on June 25.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today