Culture, No.2  Aug. 5, 2010


Photo : Men's Soccer Japan Representative
Members of Japan’s national team (at May 30, 2010 match against England) ©J.LEAGUE PHOTOS

“In terms of how we played, I have no regrets at all. The players were really wonderful, and they’ve been truly proud of being Japanese and also representing Asia as a whole. They played until the end and I’m proud of them. But I didn’t manage to get them to win. That’s my responsibility. I wasn’t determined enough.” So spoke Okada Takeshi, coach of Japan’s national football team, at a press conference following his side’s defeat in a penalty shoot-out to Paraguay in the round of 16 at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.

While Okada’s remarks may have been tinged with disappointment, the performance and results of the Japanese team at this summer’s tournament were certainly worthy of praise. Japan had progressed to the last 16 only once before, when it cohosted the World Cup with South Korea in 2002. What is more, the pretournament expectations of Japanese soccer fans could hardly have been lower, with many predicting the team would be eliminated at the first hurdle by losing all three of its group-league games. Led by coach Okada, however, Japan managed to match such teams as England and Portugal in progressing from the group stage to the round of 16. This was a truly historic feat.

Far away in Japan, people’s opinions of the Japanese team and of Okada rose exponentially as the competition progressed. The TV ratings for live coverage of the match against Denmark are reported to have averaged 30.5% in the Kanto region, peaking at 41.3% at 4:58 AM. For a broadcast in the small hours of an ordinary weekday morning, these are extraordinary figures. A graph tracking Okada’s approval ratings on the Yahoo! Japan FIFA World Cup website, meanwhile, recorded support of 93% for the national team coach on the day after the team’s crucial clash with Denmark.

By way of contrast, just after Japan’s final warm-up match on home soil, against South Korea on May 25, support for Okada stood at just 16%. The public’s view of the coach turned 180 degrees in the space of just one month.

Sport is a winner-takes-all world, of course, so it might be argued that this turnaround was merely a natural reflection of the team’s improved results. Nevertheless, I cannot help but sense something unusual in the intensity with which the public and the media reversed their opinions of the Japanese team and its coach. There is nothing wrong with losing oneself in the joy of victory, of course. Yet I think the team’s unexpected success merits deeper consideration. Here I will examine what happened to the Japanese national team during that extraordinary month, reviewing the three matches that proved to be key turning points.

Rock Bottom: Japan 0-2 South Korea, May 24

Japan’s World Cup team could hardly have been in worse shape in late May 2010. No doubt many fans would rather forget the team’s final home practice match against archrival South Korea, in which Japan was soundly defeated 2-0. The performance was so poor that, in his post-match press conference, Okada hinted that his position as coach might not be entirely secure (though he later claimed that the remark was intended as a joke).

Let us look at Japan’s starting lineup for the South Korea match: The goalkeeper was Narazaki Seigo. The defense was (from right) Nagatomo Yūto, Nakazawa Yūji, Abe Yūki, and Konno Yasuyuki. Two defensive midfielders, Endō Yasuhito and Hasebe Makoto, were flanked by Nakamura Shunsuke on the right wing and Ōkubo Yoshito on the left. In attack, Honda Keisuke played in the hole behind the lone striker, Okazaki Shinji. Tanaka Marcus Túlio, usually a shoo-in at center-back, was injured, while Uchida Atsuto, who had for some time been Japan’s regular right-back, was left out over fitness concerns. Otherwise, the team that took the field against South Korea was Okada’s trusted, first-choice eleven.

Okada is a coach who sticks with his players, come what may. He continues to pick even those who are struggling to find their form, with the result that gaps in both experience and motivation inevitably open up between the regular starters and the reserves. This loyalty to certain players was criticized repeatedly because it effectively made some members of the lineup irreplaceable, which in turn meant that they were overused and prone to fatigue (Endō being a prime example). Observers also complained that it created positions, specifically in central defense, where the back-up players who might have to step in at any moment remained untested.

When the Japanese World Cup squad was announced on May 10, notable absentees from the list of 23 names included last season’s J. League (Japan’s professional football league) most valuable player, Ogasawara Mitsuo of the Kashima Antlers, and the league’s leading scorer, Maeda Ryōichi of Jubilo Iwata. “The players I have chosen are not necessarily the best twenty-three individually but the best suited for the occasion,” remarked Okada, reflecting his strong tendency to select players who can adjust to his preferred playing style rather those with the best club form. As a result, the squad contained almost no surprises and consisted entirely of those who had contributed to the team until that point, including Nakamura, who was selected despite a dip in form since his return to Japan from a stint in the Spanish league.

Returning to the match with South Korea, it appears that Okada intended to select his first-choice starting lineup and to employ the tactics and style he had been perfecting during his tenure as coach–namely, switching rapidly between defense and attack, pressing the opposition all over the pitch, and quick passing in midfield. The Koreans were superior in both individual skill and team cohesion, however, and once they took an early lead, the Japanese never looked like finding their rhythm. The concession of a second goal from the penalty spot only added to the gloom. With the World Cup fast approaching, the 2-0 defeat left a heavy cloud of anxiety hanging over the Japanese camp.

The players could not hide their disappointment. “The things we’ve worked for until now are slipping away little by little,” lamented Nakamura, while a frustrated Honda said, “We can’t carry on as we are,” and Hasebe observed, “We need faster players, players who can take opponents on.” Confidence and hope, therefore, were conspicuous by their absence when the squad departed for its training camp in Switzerland a few days later.

Out with the Old: Japan 1-2 England, May 30

The first big turning point for Japan occurred in a practice match against England played in Austria on May 30. Okada used this game against a big European team as an opportunity to attempt a major change of direction.

The starting lineup for the England match was: Kawashima Eiji in goal; (from right) Konno, Nakazawa, Túlio, and Nagatomo in defense; Abe in a holding role in front of the back four; (from right) Honda, Hasebe, Endō, and Ōkubo in midfield; and Okazaki as the lone striker. Okada also switched the formation from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1, a system that makes it easier to form a defensive net to smother opposition attacks. But what attracted most attention were the abrupt changes involving key figures who had previously formed the backbone of the team.

Specifically, Kawashima replaced Narazaki in goal; Hasebe took over the captain’s armband from Nakazawa; and Nakamura–until then the fulcrum of the team’s attack–was dropped to the substitutes’ bench. For a coach who had for so long kept stubbornly to the same tactics and lineup, replacing the goalkeeper, captain, and number 10 in one fell swoop was an extraordinary transformation.

Asked to explain the changes, Okada replied: “We can’t afford to be held back by the mood so far or the way things have been going.” Most observers, it should be noted, assumed at this stage that Okada’s decision to leave Nakamura on the bench was a precaution designed to rest a player still bothered by an injury to his left ankle.

Japan took an early lead against England thanks to a goal from Túlio and managed to hold on to this lead for 65 minutes. Although England won the match in the end courtesy of two late own goals, Kawashima displayed his shot-stopping prowess with a series of fine saves, and Hasebe put in a true captain’s performance, inspiring the team with his commitment.

None of this changes the result, of course. Japan lost, and England coach Fabio Capello, for one, was decidedly unimpressed by his opponents’ defensive tactics, complaining that at times Japan seemed to be playing with nine defenders. Nevertheless, from a Japanese perspective this match undoubtedly served to lift much of the gloom that had been weighing so heavily on the players and fans alike. At the same time, it dramatically energized the team by giving players who had been resigned to spending the World Cup on the bench a chance to shine and switching some players into new roles.

A path to success in Japan’s opening World Cup match against Cameroon thus came faintly into view. For Okada, however, there was still an unresolved issue: what to do about his number 10. At this stage he still believed that Nakamura would regain his form and fitness for the big matches ahead. Yet he was also acutely aware that, if he employed the counterattacking style that worked against England, there would be no place in the lineup for Nakamura, a passing midfielder. Two weeks remained until the Cameroon game, during which Okada would continue to wrestle with this tactical dilemma.

Photo : Okada DirectorJapan’s coach, Okada Takeshi, at the press conference following the England match © J.LEAGUE PHOTOS

In with the New: Japan 1-0 Cameroon, June 14

The moment football fans across Japan had been awaiting with bated breath arrived on June 14 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Before the kickoff of Japan’s match with Cameroon, we witnessed a scene rich with symbolism for the Japanese team. The players on the pitch linked shoulders to sing the national anthem, “Kimigayo,” in full voice. On the sidelines, the substitutes, coach Okada, and all of his coaching assistants joined shoulders, too.

“The players asked me before the match if they could stand with shoulders linked at the national anthem,” explained Okada after the match, “and I was happy to oblige.” There had been a steady stream of media reports warning of a “team breakdown” and a “rift between the coach and the players,” but at the moment that their World Cup adventure began, at least, the Japanese starting eleven, reserves, coach, and staff were united as a single team. The same could not be said of the Cameroon squad, where tension between leading players and the coach meant that the team was unable to play to its full potential. No matter how devastating its individual talents, a team cannot achieve anything unless it is united. In that sense, although Japan may not have the same wealth of talent as Cameroon, the team’s cohesion gave it an advantage.

Of course, Okada’s choice of formation and players was a major factor in the victory. The starting lineup for the Cameroon match was Kawashima in goal; (from right) Komano Yūichi, Nakazawa, Túlio, and Nagatomo in defense; Abe in the holding midfield role; (from right) Matsui Daisuke, Hasebe, Endō, and Ōkubo in midfield; and Honda as the lone striker in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

The first thing to note is the use of Honda up front, rather than in his usual midfield position. Honda boasts both a physical presence honed in Europe and an exceptional desire to score goals that marks him out from any of his teammates. Yet he has no great talent for holding the ball up and does not possess the pace to get in behind a defense. In other words, he lacks the qualities traditionally required of a lone striker. Despite these deficiencies, Okada decided to place his most goal-oriented player in the position closest to the opposition goal.

The other point to note is the relegation of Nakamura to the bench, not because of fitness worries but because Okada deemed him unsuited to the team’s transformed game strategy. Nakamura’s regular position is on the right of midfield, but here Okada decided to deploy Matsui, who is quicker than Nakamura, scraps for the ball high up the field, and, above all, was in good form. This decision was vindicated spectacularly 39 minutes into the match, when Matsui provided the pinpoint cross from which Honda scored Japan’s winning goal.

Thinking back, the question of whether Nakamura and Honda could play together had been debated in the media and among Japanese fans ever since Honda first came to prominence in 2009. In terms of playing style, personality, and status in the team, the two are very different. The problem is that one or the other must be given the leading role in orchestrating Japan’s attacking play. Okada concluded that the job at the heart of the team’s attack should go to his rising star, Honda, at the expense of the more experienced Nakamura.

Few now question the rightness of this decision. Japan’s subsequent progress and Honda’s individual development into a fearsome attacking force went hand in hand, culminating in the team’s success in qualifying for the knockout stage by beating Denmark 3-1 in its final group match. By a twist of fate, the Denmark game was held on June 24, Nakamura’s thirty-second birthday. On this day of personal celebration, Nakamura was watching from the sidelines as Honda fired a magnificent free kick into the Danish goal. “Out with the old and in with the new” may be the way of the world, but it was hard not to feel a certain irony at the two players’ contrasting fortunes.

Stroke of Genius or Stroke of Luck?

Okada retained the same starting lineup and kept Honda as the lone striker for all four of Japan’s World Cup matches, including the round-of-16 match with Paraguay. But when did he settle on this strategy?

The answer is June 10, the day before the World Cup opened, when Japan played a practice match against Zimbabwe at its South African base camp in George. Until then, Okada had never tried playing Honda as a lone striker. Four days later, he was using this tactic in Japan’s opening World Cup match against Cameroon. Generous observers might describe it as a stroke of genius; less generous ones as a shot in the dark. By the time this article is published, the celebratory atmosphere surrounding Japan’s performance will have died down, and a dispassionate debate over Okada’s second, two-and-a-half-year spell as national team coach will have begun.

I would like to close by giving my own thoughts on Okada’s record. To be sure, there were some problems in the way that Okada managed the team during his tenure. Time, money, and talent were undoubtedly wasted on occasion. Yet what is required of a national team coach, more than the steady development of a “project,” is results. No matter how smoothly a coach may build a team or how many practice matches that team may win, a coach will be branded a failure unless he can produce results in the competition that counts, the World Cup.

Okada made considerable sacrifices, such as enduring fierce personal criticism as the team misfired, and benefited from unexpected breaks, Honda’s rapid progress being the most notable. In the end, though, he achieved results of which he can be justly proud, and this should be sufficient to deflect any criticism of his term as coach. Results are everything in sport, and all of us in the Japanese media can only applaud coach Okada’s achievements.

The Japanese national team’s adventure at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa is over. The team had trouble scoring, put the emphasis firmly on defense, and displayed little of the footballing beauty that marked the eventual winners, Spain. But thanks to this team, the Japanese people were able to experience a sense of national unity that has rarely been seen in recent years. In that sense, Okada and his players were a wonderful team that will live long in the memory.

Translated from “Okada Japan o sukutta ‘girigiri de no shinkyû kôtai,'” Chûô Kôron, August 2010, pp. 126-33. (Courtesy of Chûô Kôron Shinsha) [August 2010]