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Japan's World Cup Footprints
I've done one big entry to briefly touch on the highlights and progression of the Japan National Team over the past. It is not edited, and there are still some items I want to fix/add, but it's taken me so long to dash off already I figure it's probably better that I post it now and get things moving on this blog.

If you notice errors, or would like to add anything, please feel free to share! The comments I make below are the general present-day wisdom of the mainstream at least as I understand it or asm unlazy enough to describe. Of course you can debate everything from different points of view, but I've only included what I find is the basic take on some of Japan football's most memorable events.

Before the Beginning

Though Japan joined FIFA back in 1929, for the next five decades the only significant dents made by Japan were at the Olympics. A 3-2 win over Sweden at the Berlin Olympics, a Best Eight finish at Tokyo, and of course the legendary Bronze medal at the Mexico games.

Mexico Landmark

The achievement of Japan in Mexico was, needless to say, huge. Dettmar Cramer, a young coach in his 30s from Dortmund, Germany, was invited to this country to keep Japan from being a complete embarrassment when Japan hosted the games in '64. He had to begin his training of the players in a difficult post-WWII environment with the most basic of the basics: how to kick the ball.

Cramer continued to build and polish the team for eight years, culminating in Mexico. During the group stage, the players were told to draw one of the games though they had every chance at winning -- this was so that Japan would avoid playing Mexico who had the advantage of playing on home turf. The plan proved sound, as Japan avoided an encounter with the hosts, and instead won the quarterfinal against France 3-1. In the semi-finals, they were outplayed 5-0 by gold medalists Hungary. But in their unavoidable encounter with Mexico for the Bronze, the drama really played itself out.

mexicoolympic.jpgAs time ticked by, the home crowds grew more disgusted by their own team and began to root for the little team from the Far East. By the end of the game, the crowd was roaring for Japan to win, seats were being thrown down from the stands, and an effigy of the Mexico coach in a body bag was being carried among the crowds. For the Japanese team though, this glorious 2-0 finale with a medal to boot had just about sucked every last drop of blood and sweat. After the game, the players were all suffering from dehydration and exhaustion, vomiting instead of celebrating, bundled in their beds.

If you are familiar with some of the top brass in the JFA today, you will note that JFA Chairman Kawabuchi and Vice Chair Kamamoto were the two top players from this squad -- then teen-aged Kamamoto was the top overall scorer in Mexico with 7 goals, and is still considered the best Japanese striker of all time. And coach Cramer is now refered to as the "Father of Japanese Football."

A Jump Start

After Mexico, there was a certain degree of stability with regard to Japan's participation in World Cup qualifiers. Before then there were many qualification rounds from which Japan withdrew. But despite the ability to participate in the qualification process, it became apparent that no way was Japan going to do better than that without having a proper professional league.

In 1993, football in Japan was given a spectacular push forward when the J-league was established. You all know what a glitzy and almost ridiculously extravagant affair it all was. But it did do the job of attracting a quick fan base. Not only that, the value of bringing in famous players from outside Japan was a key ingredient in defining and instilling "professionalism" in the player mentality.

The Swell Before the Fall

If Mexico showed us "Yes we can," and the start of the J-league showed us "Yes we care", it was the Tragedy At Doha that showed us that the world stage was a beast not so instantly overcome. The J-league had a succesful start, but there was still a lot to be learned by the Japanese footballing community. The JFA was aiming to make a bid for hosting the World Cup in 2002, a first for an Asian nation, and more and more attention was being paid to football in the country.

The JFA invited Dutchman Marius Johan Ooft to take Japan to the 94 U.S World Cup. Ooft had by then coached the Dutch national youth team, and also knew alot about Japanese football having coached/managed teams like Yamaha (now Jubilo) and Matsuda (now Sanfrecce) during the pre-professional era. The JFA went out of their way to find a non-Japanese manager, because they wanted someone who would be able to weather criticism and be unafraid to make harsh/difficult decisions without being swayed by public opinion. When he first took on the national team, the players had felt a little taken aback that Ooft started them on three very basic points: Eye contact (instant nonverbal communication between players on the pitch), Triangle (during possession, for players to position themselves in order to give the ball holder more than one option for passing), Small field (maintaining a compact formation, shrinking the distance between the forward and defense lines). Of course the players scoffed at first, their immediate reaction being that they knew all that. But Ooft soon pointed out to them during games and practices that these simple standards were not being met. In subsequent games, during the Dynasty Cup (East Asia Cup), Ooft further won over support and loyalty from all involved by making some very specific and public predictions about how, for instance, an upcoming game against China would be played out. He accurately foresaw when China would lose their rhythm, and even went as far as saying that the Chinese home crowds would grow frustrated and turn on their own team. Japan beat North Korea, China, and Korea.

This "Ooft Magic" gave Japan the confidence to believe in themselves going into the World Cup qualifiers. The qualifiers, which all took place in Doha, started tensely with a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia and a 2-1 loss to Iran. Japan was able to steady things with a solid 3-0 win against North Korea, but it was the 1-0 win over Korea that rocketed expectations to the stratosphere. At this time, Korea was Japan's biggest rival, the mountain that needed to be climbed in order to see anything beyond. So the fact that Japan controlled the game and appropriately got the necessary win was historic.

So what happened? Well, it boiled down to experience. After the win against Korea, the jubilant mood was bursting from the Japan squad. Though playmaker Ramos was screaming at his teammates to calm down and not get ahead of themselves, most of the player comments after the game was colored by their premature assumption that their ticket to the World Cup was in the bag.

Made Our Beds

The Tragedy at Doha was not only a tragedy for Japan, but in the grand scheme of things was one for opponents Iraq as well, since there was great hope of them advancing to the tournament as well should they win, not to mention what we later learned of the physical punishment waiting for them back home under the Hussein regime. Iraq played the better game, despite the fact that they were victim to numerous bad judges. Even the goal from Nakayama looked in retrospect to be off-sides. Regardless of the refereeing, the fact was that Japan was 2-1 at 90 minutes.

tragedyatdoha.jpgWith only minutes of injury time left before the final whistle blew, it was up to Japan to know how to carry out those remaining minutes. But they did not have the experience and the street smarts to hold it together. Forward Takeda made a bone-chilling error in passing that allowed Iraq a quick attack. Japan scrambled, and somehow managed to deflect the ball out for a corner. Though the level of focus should have been at peak during this moment, the players allwed themselves to be relieved instead. That difference in focus allowed Iraq to catch Japan off guard with a clever short corner that ended with a header and a 2-2 draw.

Right at that moment, I can imagine the silence that must have greeted every tv set tuned into the game in Japan. I remember even the tv commentator was at a loss for words, >>Click to see the video clip of the post-game feed from the studio, where no one is able to speak. The players all fell to the ground in shock. Korea went through to the Cup having led the group in goal difference.

So if anything, the general wisdom about the Tragedy at Doha (also refered to as the Miracle at Doha in the Korea media, because if Japan had maintained the 2-1 lead, Korea would not have made it to the U.S.) is that it exposed Japan's inexperience. From the way the players got ahead of themselves after the Korea game and made assumptions about going to the World Cup, to the inability of the players to switch play style/strategy according to how much time is left on the clock and what the score is, to the lack of initiative of the coaches to help the players out by making a player substitution to use up the clock, to the fact that the players were unable to remind each other to maintain their focus in those crucial final minutes when the CK was taken -- all that in retrospect, and perhaps the kind of lesson that can only be learned with a disappointment as great as this.

This was a charismatic squad though, and the experiences of these players continue to play a big part in present day Japanese football. With a couple exceptions I still regularly see each of the players even now, either as players like Gon Nakayama and Kazu, or as coaches like Ramos and Hasegawa, or as football media persons like Horiike and Kitazawa. A few more of them are currentlyl going for their coaching licenses, so we may see them coaching at J clubs in the future as well.

Mine, Mine, Ours?

Having dropped the ticket to the U.S. World Cup, there was that much more pressure for Japan to at least make it to France 98. Japan had been winning over FIFA support for hosting the 2002 event, but Korea stepped in with a bid of their own, increasing their position by pointing out the fact that Japan had never even qualified. The rivalry between Korea and Japan was made even worse by internal politics at FIFA. The split was getting ugly, and in order to smooth everything over, the only option from FIFA's point of view was to present Japan and Korea with the idea of co-hosting.

Of course it was a bitter pill to swallow for both countries, but to decline would have been impossible. So grudgingly, the plans went forward.

In the meantime, Japan still needed to get to France to save any modicum of face before they welcomed the world as hosts. For this, the JFA signed Paulo Roberto Falcao -- the same Falcao who stood with Zico in the Brazilian Golden Quartet. The JFA wanted someone who could bring something different from Ooft's Europe-style contributions, someone who had first-hand experience battling through the toughest games at the highest levels.

Too Soon For Bossa Nova

Falcao rocked the media with his player selections. The first task he set himself was to watch more than 20 J-league games; from what he saw with his own eyes, he chose his players. The result was of course a squad full of fresh young players who were hitting their groove. Falcao's vision for the Japan team was based unsurprisingly on the Brazilian philosophy that leaned toward a very attacking style. But the youth and inexperience of most of the players, and the cultural differences in mentality made the task of integrating the Brazilian method extremely difficult.

Where Ooft had been very specific about what each player's responsibilities were with regard to where and how they move and the overall team strategy, Falcao wanted the players to be more creative and move according to the needs of the game. It became evident soon after that the gap in the level of experience made Falcao's vision incompatible with the Japanese football at the time. Falcao's efforts were further hindered by chronic injury problems hounding his players. As more players got injured, Falcao had to resort to calling back more of the players from the Ooft era for a quick band-aid fix to the squad. Still, there appeared to be no glimmer of hope, and after only 9 games, he was axed.

Back to Kamo

In January 1995, Shu Kamo was hired on to take the reigns after Falcao's departure. Tension was high, and shrill voices complained that the biggest factor in Japan's recent problems was the lack of effective communication between the manager, the players, and the federation. In smooth out those deficiencies, the JFA decided to go with a Japanese candidate. And of the pool, Kamo had the most convincing career sucesses. During the JSL days, he had made a name for himself by taking then Nissan (now Marinos) to the top of the league, the JSL Cup, and the Emperor's Cup.

The lack of convincing success during Falcao's short tenure made people look fondly back at the days of Ooft. So there was a great expectation for Kamo to put together a team based on the Ooft squad. When Kamo made his first team selection, he did not disappoint: players like Ramos, Horiike, and Tsunami were reinstated. In addition, he called up uncapped players who were showing quality in the league like Soma, Okano, and Fujita.

Kamo's basic strategy revolved around "zone press" defense -- when the opponent had the ball, Japanese players would swarm around the holder, win the ball back and make a very fast attack. The very nature of the strategy is a physically demanding one, and during the first few games against countries like Nigeria and Argentina, they recorded big losses. But Kamo adjusted by gradually phasing out the Ooft-era players, and introducing quality younger players like Soma, Yanagimoto, Morishima, and of course the elegant Nanami.

Though the results in the following year were on paper good (they recorded 0 losses against Asian opponents), there was still a lot of criticism about the fact that the team. At the Asia Cup 96, they were knocked out by Kuwait in the quarterfinals. Kamo continued to try different players under public pressure, but it did not seem to change the fact that the team could not create quality opportunities in important games. This was also when the media picked up the term "ketteiryoku busoku", which roughly translates to "lack of finishing ability" and you can imagine is still a favorite of the media to this very day.

A Second Tragedy Avoided

In the final qualifying round for the France World Cup, Japan kicked things off in deafening style in front of 50,000 at Kokuritsu stadium with a 6-3 win over Uzbekistan. But the following away game against the UAE ended with a disappointing goalless draw, despite having the majority of control. And at home against Korea, Japan first took the lead but allowed Korea a winning goal in the final moments of the game. Away at Kazakhstan, Japan again took the initial lead but gave up the full 3 points during injury time.

The situation looked bleak, and with the World Cup 2002 on the horizon, and fans getting impatient with the squad's inability to hold their games together, things got very heated. A large crowd of supporters surrounded the Kokuritsu stadium in protest after the draw against Kazakhstan, and players like Kazu had to walk the gauntlet of frustrated voices and thrown eggs upon his return to the country.

In retrospect, many still wonder if the JFA should have moved sooner. Either way, they were forced into a corner, and there was no way out but to fire Kamo even at that late date.

In Kamo's place, current Yokohama F Marinos manager Okada, who had been coaching the team next to Kamo. With four games still to play in the second leg, Japan had the chance to control their destiny. In order to assert control over the team, and fast (he only had 7 days until the next game), Okada made it very clear to the players that he was the absolute voice -- he prohibited players from coaching each other during practice, directing them to follow only his direction.

The second leg was a hairy ride. The top team in the 2 groups automatically qualify, and the 2nd place teams from the 2 groups would have to play for the third spot. Japan allowed Uzbekistan to equalize in the second half, then failed to win against the UAE. With this result Japan had to cross their fingers for favorable outcomes in other matches in order to gain a 2nd place ranking within the group. It was Kokuritsu stadium again, when Japan beat group leaders Korea 2-0; then a 5-1 victory over Kazakhstan allowed Japan to pass through to the final match against Iran.

Just Get There

As we've seen in competitive matches through history, you never know what's going to happen and the slightest difference in mentality or conditioning can prove to be one's undoing.

The Joy of Johr Baru may just have been one of those games. Iran was the stronger team. Japan took the lead at the end of the first half, but were overwhelmed by Iran in the second. It took Iran 14 minutes of the second half to take a 2-1 lead. Right after Iran scored, manager Okada took a risk and suprised all by substituting both his forwards, Kazu and Nakayama, for Jo and Lopez-Wagner. This decision proved to be a good one, as 13 minutes later it was Jo who scored the equalizer.

johrbaru.jpgThe extended period was a period of frustrating missed shots followed by the joy and shock of having won. Okada pulled the ace from his sleeve by putting in Japan's most attacking player in Okano -- he had never made an appearance during the qualification process until this moment. Over and over again, Okano received passes from especially Hide Nakata and then proceeded to choose to opt for limp passes instead of taking a shot. The weight of the nation's irritation seemed to bear down on Okano, but he gloriously redeemed himself when he slid home the richocheted ball from a Hide Nakata shot. It was a golden goal, and the game ended there 3-2.

Unfortunately for Iran, the logistical situation had worked against them -- obviously the distance they traveled was far greater than Japan, and after Iran scored the second goal, it seemed they were playing more defensively, reserving energy, than is their norm. Iran is an attacking team, and perhaps the switch to defense played into Japan's switch to hyper-attack.

Hi, We're New

France 98 was more about the "getting there" than actually being there. It was a learning process for everyone involved, including the supporters who got tangled in frustrating ticket problems. Japan's squad listed familiar names like Hide Nakata and Shinji Ono, but big news was the last-minute cut of the reserve players in Kazu, Kitazawa, and Ichikawa. For all his accomplishments, Kazu has never been to a World Cup.

Hide Nakata proved to be the catalyszt that got the team playing with more creativity during the qualification process. A year before, it was all the team could do to feed long balls to the forwards; but putting Hide in allowed for quality in midfield, a central brain. Ono of course was extremely young and subsequently did not get much play time.

Overall, France 98 was a dose of reality. We were in the same group as Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica, won 0 games, and scored only 1 goal. But it was not an embarrassing performance. We gave Argentina a lot of trouble in the first game, with the 3-back defense line led by captain Ihara. But it was keeper Kawaguchi who really saved the day time and time again with his aggressive style. In offense though, Japan was ineffective, and none of the players could bring something to the pitch that could change the momentum or the rhythm of the game.

Against Croatia, Japan played a much better game, creating some very good chances. But experienced Croatia did not panic and maintained a defensive strategy perhaps to save energy. When Croatia did score off an interception of a Hide Nakata back-pass, I remember a few of the Japan players fell on their backs in disappointment with arms and legs thrown wide. It was the clear difference between the two teams' experience and mental strength. The same could be said for the game against Jamaica, where Japan created even more and better chances but did not find the goals they needed.

This first expedition into World Cup territory ended aptly for Japan. We didn't have the same degree of international game scheduling as our opponents, we did not have the creativity for better chances, we did not have substitute players who could change the flow of the game, and as a nation we sent them off with not enough demand for raising the bar.

Welcome to Japan, World Cup

I mentioned earlier that FIFA had to force Japan and Korea to compromise with Co-Hosting the Cup. Initially there was a sense of disappointment, but the world was going to come knocking, and we soon were too busy preparing.

And at the end of the day, this co-hosting gig turned out to be a great catalyst for bringing goodwill between the two nations, especially among the younger generation. Before we were so aware of Korea as rivals, but now both countries have so much more expectation to address, and we haven't even bothered to schedule friendlies for years. Korea "beat" Japan at the 02 World Cup in terms of the level of ferver they created for their side. I did admire the degree of passion they showed for their team, and I've read many articles in Japan that give credit to the Korean supporters for taking their NT to such unexpected heights during the event.

Do It, My Way

Philip Troussier's time with the National squad is still debated on occasion when reminiscing football fans get together. But the general opinion after all this time is that the team was fun to root for, but Troussier's strategy (the Flat Three plan) had its limitations. And those limitations were reached during the World Cup.

Troussier raises the Asia Cup, Japan wins FinalThere were two general philosophies that Troussier ruled by: Flat Three, and Do as I say. Flat Three of course refers to the off-sides trapping strategy using a very high defense line. Do as I say is more of a culture Troussier established. The players were not there because they were special, they were there because they fit into his plan. If they did not listen to his direction, if they disagreed, they were thrown out of practice. Troussier expected a great deal of physical hustle in the European fashion, and was extremely brutal in the way he interacted with the players -- using extremely harsh words as well as dropping in a few sweet comments as well. Overall, his focus was not on the individual, and in years after, we hear stories about insulting remarks he made to various members of the team. Of course, insults can be highly motivating, and I only assume he was of that school. But he also took great control over how and when the players ate and slept, butting heads often with Hide Nakata who ended up being the voice for the other members. Troussier also admitted in recent years that he may have completely misunderstood Ogasawara's personality and attitude, sheepishly commenting that he was apologetic about not being able to see through to Ogasawara's true quality or intention. In his first two years, Troussier made enemies out of the JFA (especially Kamamoto) and the media, and at the end of his first two years there was talk that he might be let go.

Troussier Japan made a dynamic impact on other countries, though. They had a kind of style that came on strong and left an impression, and many people felt that power. It was also the era when the "golden midfield" of Inamoto, Hide Nakata, Ono, and Nakamura came together. Troussier, having been the coach for U-20 Youth squad that came in second at the World Youth in Nigeria and the U-23 Sydney Olympics squad which made it to the quarter-finals where they lost a PK shootout against the USA, was aggressive in the way he wove in young players. His job of course was made easier by the simple fact that there was a lot of class-of-their-own players in that young generation.

Limit of Infiniti

But the Japan national team hit a bump in the road in their first game against Belgium, when Belgium easily analyzed Japan's strategy and used it to their advantage.

The Flat Three strategy is a simple concept that is difficult to execute. It worked for Japan as a defensive team because the players were used to being told what to do given the culture of obedience in Japan. For most of Troussier Japan's successes in Asia and during friendlies, it worked. But against strong countries, during a very competitive situation where the opponent is prepared with detailed analysis, it could be easily exploited. What the Flat Three demanded was for the 3-back defense line to immediately raise their line in response to an opponent attack. Of course, the timing of raise is important, and needs to be instantaneous. But also it is important to absolutely clear the ball. The other ingredient was for a compact field, with defense-leaning midfielders putting on aggressive pressure. The left side was more attack, the right was more defense.

What happened during the Belgium game was that Belgium hauled bals in to the defense line, and though the defenders got to the initial ball, one mistake in clearance spelled fatal. Teams at the top level do not only attack with forwards, but will send up midfielders and defenders according to the momentum of the play. And in the one example I am discussing, the mediocre clearance allowed for a Belgian (I think) midfielder to reach the ball for a quick shot.

Who's the Boss

Remember this Miyamoto mask?Masked Miyamoto, who had to go on in an emergency after defender Morioka got injured at 71 minutes, came out of that game feeling unconvinced about the degree to which Flat Three should be used as an absolute. After the World Cup, he shared that the biggest clue to answering his own sense of unease came from watching the big match between England and Argentina. After getting the lead from a penalty kick, England decided to switch strategy to a heavy defensive game. They succesfully endured, and made a big step in getting past the group rounds.

Having watched this, Miyamoto said that it convinced him that pulling the defense line back a little more closer to their own goal (we're talking a matter of several meters) would be beneficial to the team. That if a historically powerful country like England can find moments in which to pull back defensively, it is not out of the question for Japan. And during a post-training sauna meeting with teammates like Inamoto and keeper Narazaki, the team decided, behind Troussier's back, to ignore their manager's instruction and play the way they felt would be more effective for themselves.

The next game against a Russia showed us the result of that mutiny. Troussier was yelling from the sidelines to the defenders to push the line up, but the players did not budge. And perhaps Troussier felt that if his usually obedient players were ignoring him, it was not going to be worth screaming at them during halftime. He did approach Miyamoto during the break with a quick word to raise the line, but pressed no further. Japan won the game 1-0.

Japan went on to win the game against Tunisia 2-0. But Troussier had a surprise up his sleeve for the finals round against Turkey. He took out forwards Yanagisawa and Suzuki, and put Nishizawa and midfielder Santos up top instead. It was a complete surprise for the team, and while the players were trying to figure out what they were doing out there, they allowed a Turkish cross to go in from the right and gave their opponents the lead at 12 minutes.

Here, the word "experience" is again often used. Japan was not outplayed by Turkey, but they were out-gamed. Turkey had the know-how to use their opportunities well, put on physical pressure to not allow Japan freedom, and safely protect their lead to the end. It was the kind of disappointing loss where you walk away knowing the team could have done much better. Many of the players from that game walked away with a feeling of incompleteness. If they had walked off the pitch knowing they played their absolute best, that they had used every ounce of sweat and energy they had in them, but still had been out-played, it is less disappointing. In sports, all you can do is know you put in your absolute all.

The term we often throw around to describe this state in Japanese is "fukanzen nensho", incomplete combustion.

The Zico Reaction

Next post will discuss Zico Japan's style and philosophy, followed by an individual bio on each player.
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