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The Best Rivalries
ForeverInOurShadow.jpg On June 17, 2009, Japan played Australia away in the second leg of the World Cup Final Qualifying round. The Samurai Blue had already drawn at home against the Asian newcomers in the first leg, and by the time the final whistle blew in Melbourne, Japan supporters were not only treated to a 1-2 loss but were also forced to endure the cut from an opening salvo by Socceroos supporters -- "Nippon: Forever in Our Shadow".

It was strange at the time to witness this as a Japan fan. We had by now gotten accustomed to angry booing and anti-Japan banners from neighbors in China and Korea. Needless to say, the politically-bent motivation behind a lot of the bad blood felt...well, irritating and distracting. The spectators who came to these games for the sole purpose of demonstrating against Japan were missing the point, were missing out on the real fun of the game, the chance to improve the level of Football in this continent. I wrote an article about it after the East Asian (EAFF) Cup final back in 2005 (to read a copy of it, click here).

The Rivalry

"What had we done to be insulted by Australia?" might have been an understandable initial reaction. But after a little time, it started to sink in. Oohh, I see. This is what it's like to be in a pure footballing rivalry. No politics, just football history -- sure, some of it was heartbreaking history, but that's part of the drama we love so much.

Confederations Cup 2001: Japan 1-0 Australia (Knockout round)
World Cup 2006: Japan 1-3 Australia (Group round)
Asia Cup 2007: Japan 1-1 (PK 4-3) Australia (Knockout round)
WCQualifier 2009: Japan 0-0 Australia (1st leg)
WCQualifier 2009: Japan 1-2 Australia (2nd leg)
Asia Cup 2011: Japan 0-0 (Ext 1-0) Australia (Final)

With a recent history like this, all full-on matches with no friendlies to speak of, it is only natural for a rivalry to grow -- one with pride in our own and a certain degree of respect for the other.

My friend John Duerden just wrote a great article about it on Fox Sports today, and it reminded me of that moment.

The banner displayed by the Aussie fans back in 2009 still remains in our memory -- so clear, and easy to understand for Japanese supporters even with a high school level English, and so very purely football. In fact, I know for a fact that the Ultras Nippon members are currently trying to work out a good banner to display in Brisbane for tomorrow's game -- trying to find an appropriate and elegant comeback for that giant yellow message. Reading their tweets of ideas, you get a sense of their enjoyment of the rivalry, how they are relishing the upcoming battle they will do Down Under.

The Japan Convergence

What makes it even more enjoyable is the mix of J-league based players that have been called to the Australian team. One Samurai superfan heading to Brisbane, who is also a dedicated Sapporo supporter, was devastated when he realized he had forgotten to pack a sign and the Sapporo jersey he had prepared to wave at Consadole defender Jade North. And of course the four other J-leaguers listed on the roster are no slouches either. Probably the most famous in Japan is Josh Kennedy, who has shown time and again what a class act he is at Nagoya Grampus.

The Australian team has been undergoing some transformation recently with the addition of these Japan-based players. Their moves to Japan clubs have added technique and creativity to the Australia game, resulting in a more three-dimensional style that mixes power and athleticism with skill and style.

And let's not forget how familiar Coach Osieck is with the Japanese style and mindset, having two seasons managing at Urawa Reds under his belt.

According to Australian news sources, the Australian team are confident about their physical prowess and advantage over the smaller Japan side. Some Japan papers are reporting that Australia may plan to attack on Nagatomo's side -- utilizing Kennedy's towering height to get long feeds past the InterMilan sideback. There is speculation over whether Alberto Zaccheroni will replace the very-in-form Maeda with the supertall Mike Havenaar to compensate for height. Or whether Uchida will be replaced by the younger and less-experienced but faster and physically stronger Hiroki Sakai on the right.

The countdown has begun. I hope it turns into the best of games. Watching the Euros this weekend has been eye-opening and inspiring, and if there ever was a chance to see a good game in these Asia qualifiers, this would be one.

Final random thoughts:

Two pieces of news that I heard were a little disappointing. One is that apparently the Suncorp Stadium we'll be using on Tuesday night was just the venue for a big rugby match played in the rain a few days ago. Though stadium officials are promising to smooth out the pitch, I don't have high hopes for the pitch condition. The second is that there is a rumor that the game will not be broadcast on any "regular" Australian network television channel. I wonder if this is true. (In Japan we'll have a choice between two channels, one is the national broadcaster and one is a network.)

So far the two previous broadcasts of the games against Oman and Jordan broke the tv ratings record for all television programming broadcast so far in 2012. The Oman game received a 30% average while the Jordan game had 31%. Though I couldn't help smiling when I heard Keisuke Honda's reaction to this news: 30% means only 1 in 3 people in Japan watched the game -- that's not that high.
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