japan hit it into the Round of 16
Having never won a World Cup match outside of Asia, you could be forgiven for not tipping Japan to go very far at South Africa 2010. The only time that they have made any impression on the tournament was when they were co-hosts along with South Korea in 2002. On that occasion, the team advanced to the second round with victories over Russia and Tunisia along with a draw to Belgium. However, their dream was ended in round two with a 1-0 defeat to Turkey.
Manager Takeshi Okada oversaw an impressive qualification campaign that saw them ease to second place in their group. However, he will face a much sterner test in this group stage with the dangerous Netherlands alongside competent teams in Denmark and Cameroon. If they are to have any chance of progressing, Japan will need to beat the unpredictable Cameroon in their opening match. They will then look to avoid defeat against Denmark in the final group match which may just be enough to secure an unexpected qualification.
The majority of the Japanese squad is majorly unknown to supporters based in Europe. However, players such as Shunsuke Nakamura and Makoto Hasebe are two of the few that play in Europe. Below is a shortlist of players that the Japanese manager is likely to pick from.
Marcus Tulio Tanaka
The Japanese are not expected to make any impact at all going into the 2010 World Cup and that’s hardly surprising considering the lack of players that play in the top european leagues. The nation has an outside chance of qualifying from the group in 2nd place. However, the most realistic outcome is that they won’t progress beyond the group stage.
Takeshi Okada, Japan’s head coach, at their match with Cameroon.
2010 World Cup Teams
He was Japan’s coach at the World Cup, but who could take Takeshi Okada seriously? Japan reach the semifinals? A team that had never won a tournament game away from home? Okada’s prediction of reaching the semifinals seemed foolish. He became a laughingstock.
And yet, Japan has surprisingly reached the second round, where it will face Paraguay on Tuesday in Pretoria. Japanese fans are no longer booing the team or calling for Okada to be fired. Instead, 40 percent of the nation is watching matches that begin at home in the middle of the night and end around sunrise.
The most feverishly stricken are jumping into rivers in celebration, as 50 people did in Osaka after Japan’s stunning 3-1 victory over Denmark on Thursday put it into the Round of 16.
“He has a hard personality, no smile, his own decisions always,” Ushiki Sokichiro, who is covering the World Cup for Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, said of Okada. “He was notorious before. Now, in Tokyo, he is famous.”
And not yet satisfied. Okada, who is 53, wears glasses and flavors his remarks with lectures on religion, philosophy and history, has kept urging his team onward to meet his own unlikely forecast, saying, “We have to go for more.”
This moment of deliverance for Okada is as remarkable as it is unexpected. Japan’s buildup to the World Cup was dismal. After it lost to a second-string Serbian team, 3-0, in an April exhibition, Okada was criticized as “a bad joke” by Tatsuhito Kaneko, a columnist for the newspaper Sports Nippon. Kaneko said that a prediction of reaching the World Cup semifinals was “like ordering the current national team to walk on the moon.”
Fans signed petitions and answered polls, calling for Okada to step down as the coach. Then things got worse. In late May, after a 2-0 defeat to the fellow World Cup competitor South Korea, Okada seemed to offer his resignation to the Japanese soccer federation before saying he had spoken carelessly.
Even his players questioned Okada’s shift from an attacking style to a defensive posture in the days before the tournament. Marcus Tulio Tanaka, a Brazilian-born defender, told his teammates to think for themselves, saying, “If we play as the coach told us to play, it can hardly help us to show our stuff.”
Okada coached Japan in the 1998 World Cup, where it was bounced out in the first round, scoring one goal and losing all three matches. Japan was a co-host of the 2002 World Cup with South Korea and reached the second round under another coach, the Frenchman Philippe Troussier. But that was at home. Japan had never won a World Cup match on foreign soil.
And according to common wisdom, it did not seem likely to do so in South Africa with Okada returning to take charge in an emergency after his predecessor had a stroke.
Troussier accused Okada of overreaching, of wanting to play a beautiful possession game like Spain or Brazil without the caliber of players of those teams. Japan still had the “same stupid mentality” that it had under Okada in 1998, Troussier told Reuters in May, adding, “Okada has confusion in his head.”
There was no confusion, Okada told reporters. South Korea reached the semifinals in 2002, so why not Japan in 2010? He said he predicted a finish that balanced his realism and his idealism.
“I thought if I targeted the title, the players wouldn’t get serious,” Okada told reporters before the World Cup. “But if I targeted the quarterfinals, they wouldn’t get motivated.”
As the tournament opened, Okada benched Japan’s most prominent player, the creative midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, and played with a lone striker in Keisuke Honda, a peroxide blond whose skill is authentic even if his hair color is not. Honda scored the only goal of that match, against Cameroon, and Japan won a World Cup game away from home for the first time.
“This is not an achievement at all,” Okada admonished his players. “What’s coming next is the point.”
After a 1-0 defeat to the Netherlands, Okada switched tactics, playing a more assertive attacking style, and Japan routed Denmark with its one-touch passing and two goals on free kicks, including one by Honda. While many teams complained about the official World Cup balls, Japan and South Korea simply practiced with them until they grew comfortable with their speed and trajectory.
The semifinals still seem a reach for Japan, which will face Spain or Portugal in the quarterfinals if it defeats Paraguay. Yet Okada’s prediction is now taken for what it was — motivation, not madness.
Japan remains transfixed. The final group match with Denmark started at 3:30 a.m. Tokyo time, and fans gathered to watch in cafes, bars and stadiums around the country. The team at Honda’s former high school watched in its uniforms. After the victory, Prime Minister Naoto Kan sent a note of congratulations, saying, “Everyone in Japan is proud and has been inspired.”
Critics are now eating their words. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager who formerly coached in Japan, called the Japanese national team “quite a lightweight” before the tournament. At a dinner with Okada in April, Wenger told him, “If you get out of this group, they will have to build a statue of you in the middle of Tokyo.”
Perhaps it is time to hire a sculptor.