As much as I hate to admit it, after two decades of rapid progress, football in Japan, at least for the men, seems to be regressing. After reaching the last 16 in the World Cup in 2010 they have consistently disappointed on the world stage, and flopped badly at the Asian Cup earlier this year.
Conversely, the women’s game seems to continue to go from strength to strength. I have to say I was mightily impressed by some of Japan’s performances at the recent women’s world cup in Canada. In the end, Japan, as defending champions may have been disappointed to only come away with second place, but in all honesty they exceeded the expectations of many commentators, myself included. They conclusively proved that their 2011 triumph was no fluke.
From my own perspective, I loved cheering them on. After all, let’s face it, baring a succession of major upsets, Scotland is unlikely to be gracing any world cups (be they women’s or men’s) again anytime soon, hence Japan is my team from here on out.
Looking ahead to the Olympics next year, the Nadeshiko certainly have plenty to be positive about.
It really is remarkable how women’s football, especially in Japan, has progressed so rapidly. I remember about 15 years ago watching women’s football for the first time, as a young sports writer in Scotland, and cringing as one of my colleagues commented that it was “like watching two people playing FIFA on the playstation, without knowing how the controls work.”
As things stand now, in an international context, women’s football in Japan is far more entertaining than the men’s game. These women are technically better, they function more cohesively as a unit and they also seem a lot fitter than their male counterparts. What’s more, they have a fire and a passion in the way they play that has been all too lacking in recent Japanese men’s national teams.
So what can the men do to up their game? Here are 5 lessons I think the Samurai Blues can learn from the Nadeshiko:
If you don’t shoot, you can’t score
As a long term fan of the Japanese national team, one of the single most frustrating elements of the men’s team has been the apparent lack of an “out and out goalscorer”. Instead, the onus has been on creative midfield players like Honda, Kagawa and before that Nakamura to step up and get the goals that take the team forward.
However, I think this is as much due to a lack of confidence as it is a lack of the appropriate personnel. If you look at the Nadeshiko as an example, they attack with guile and flair, and aren’t afraid to pull the trigger the moment they get a sight of goal. Compare this with the men, who frustratingly floundered in Brazil last year as they tried to pass the ball into the net. Clever interplay in the midfield means nothing, if you can’t turn it into goal scoring opportunities.
Don’t be scared of bigger and stronger opponents
I recall watching last summer’s men’s World Cup, when Japan took an early, and deserved lead against the much fancied Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, the Ivorians upped their game in the second half, and the introduction of former Chelsea star Dider Drogba proved ultimately decisive as Japan crumbled to a 2-1 loss. Much was said in the papers over the following few days of how the Africans had almost “bullied” Japan into submission, with their obvious advantages in height, power and sheer bulk.
For me, this is something of a mental block that the men’s team needs to get over. Again if you look at the Nadeshiko, at the recent world cup they certainly weren’t intimidated by bigger and more powerful teams like Sweden, or even England. Whilst it is true that the physical differences are far less pronounced in the women’s game than they are in the men’s I still believe the battle is, for the most part a mental one. With modern training methods, and the right diet, I believe the gap between the European and South American sides, and their supposedly weaker Asian cousins is closing. It is no longer the obstacle that many commentators in the men’s game perceive it to be.
Stop whining and get on with the game
This is perhaps a comment on the men’s game in general rather than Japan specifically, but I think the Nadeshiko are a prime example of how it should be done. They never enter into needless backchat with the referee or other officials, they never feign injury or try to get opposing players yellow-carded through playacting. Even when decisions seem to wrongfully go against them, the Nadeshiko keep going and playing in the right spirit. This is something all of men’s football could learn from. Whether it was players diving to win pentalty kicks, fighting with their own team-mates or even biting opponents, there were many times in Brazil last summer when the men’s World Cup seemed less like a sporting spectacle and more like a badly written pantomime.
Fitness and teamwork can overcome
For all their great achievements, Japan are seldom regarded as having the most gifted players in the women’s game. If you look at individual ability, I believe that the US, Germany, Cameroon and possibly England too have individual players who are more skilled than any in the Japanese team. But somehow Japan still made it all the way to the World Cup final this time around and are rightfully counted amongst the favourites for medal success in the Olympics next year.
So how do the Nadeshiko so consistently punch above their weight at international level?
It’s very simple. Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. The Nadeshiko are the embodiment of this ideal. For too long the Samurai Blues have relied on individual brilliance to carry them through. First it was Kazu Miura, then it was Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura. Today Keisuke Honda seems, at times to carry the whole team almost single-handedly. The Samurai Blues need to learn to form a better and more cohesive unit. Perhaps going back to using a homegrown coach is the best way to achieve this.
A winning mentality brings its own luck
Taking the recent World Cup as an example, many will say that the Nadeshiko rode their luck at times en-route to the World Cup final this time around, as indeed perhaps they did in their extra time victory over the US in the 2011 World Cup Final. But somehow that night, and on many similar occasions since, you always knew that Japan would win through. There is a tenacity, a fight and a huge sense of self-belief in this team that I haven’t seen in the men’s side for quite some time. In the end, somehow, they always seem to grind out the result.
As a lover of the beautiful game, I hope and believe that Japan’s women’s national team will remain a formidable force for some time to come. Hopefully, with the right leadership, a bit less prima-donna behavior and some good, old-fashioned hard graft, the men will join them at the summit of the global game someday. In the meantime, congratulations Nadeshiko, your ongoing success is a beacon of hope to all budding soccer stars across Asia. Here’s hoping you bring home the gold from Rio next year!