Football (Japan) Lost In Translation . . . Relaunched 2012!
Japan Football: Zaccheroni, Samurai Blue, and general J chatter
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[WCQFinal] Japan 1-1 Australia @ Brisbane June 12 2012
The clash between Japan and Australia last week was certainly a highlight that capped an interesting 10 day period of World Cup Qualifiers. It had all the rivalry, pedigree and drama that colors memorable games -- and in these internet-reliant times, launches thousands of blog entries and tweets.

Let me Rant for a Teeny Second

Needless to say, "Khalil Ibrahim Al #Ghamdi" was trending that night. If you watched the game, you know why. His judging of what was in itself an entertaining battle between two Asian forces distracted focus and devalued the game. Though everyone had their two cents to voice about how something needed to be done about Asian refs, my verdict is that he as an individual should never be allowed to call competitive events. He goes far beyond "inept" into "actively damaging" territory.

I shudder in horror at the thought that this man earns his living as a teacher. He used his whistle like an abusive educator uses a heavy wooden ruler, with a misguided notion that penalizing players would help him gain authority or respect. So busy was he with his whistle, he had been surprised to be informed by his colleagues that the yellow card to Milligan 11 minutes into the second half was in fact the second shown to the player. I won't even get into the other calls, except to say that Al Ghamdi looked intimidated in his role and completely out-of-depth.

And I wish the media would just come out and say "wrong" call instead of "controversial". It's not controversial if everyone knows it was wrong.

Okay. Enough venting.

Two Ships in the Night



On the very surface, the media built up the match as one not to miss (and rightly so). The Rivalry was a definite theme latched on to by both nations' media.

But turn a page, and the pitch at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium was a stage for two very different stories.

Less than 24 hours before the game, Socceroos captain Lucas Neill tweeted "Japan favourites, in form and full of confidence. I'm happy with the underdog tag. Brings out the best in us.." He repeated these sentiments at the press conference as well, as if to deflect the mounting pressure the media was placing on the team and its aging roster, particularly after witnessing Japan's 6-0 undoing of Jordan. Many were dismissing them as anachronistic, lacking a clearly defined style, disappointed by the goalless draw away in Oman just days earlier. Luckily for Australia fans, the team was full of very experienced players who knew to keep their eye on the main prize -- a ticket to Brazil. Neill admitted they would have taken the 1 point going in to the match.

The men in blue took the stage with a completely different mindset. With two years to go until WC2014, Japan is in the midst of developing what will hopefully turn into a distinct Japanese style. It is a theme with which the national team had continued to painfully struggle under previous coaches like Zico, Osim, and Okada. Though the ticket to Brazil is obviously a priority for the team in the short term, ultimately the squad's gaze is directed further -- past the group stages into the final eight or higher. Japanese players all voiced their intention to fight for the full 3 points from Osiek's men. This was not only to sit comfortably in the group table, but also as an individual milestone set in their developmental journey.


Highlights



It was a heart-thumping effort by both teams, each playing to their strength. We had everything from strong breaks by Australia, superb saves, shots bouncing off frames, a last-second clearance, beautiful variety of corners and short corners, a Marseille-roulette by Honda, sigh-inducing chances, and the integrity of two teams who truly want to play well.

After the game, Shinji Kagawa summarized the players' feelings by saying it was a game really worth playing -- a game he really got something out of. Other Japan members have also mentioned they were really starting to enjoy their football as well.

If you are eager to read about it, here are some great writers who have done the job eloquently:

Espn/John Duerden
Goal.com/Matt Bloomberg
FoxSoccer/AP


The Way It Ended

Honda wins a free kick, sets the ball, takes a breath, lines his sights on the goal:
June12HondaFKbefore.jpg
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Referee blows the whistle to end the game, forcing Honda and his teammates to raise their arms in question and disbelief.

June12HondaFKafter.jpg


A mother watching the game with her little son tweeted: "My son just turned to me and asked if this game was To Be Continued next week..."

Yes, adorable. And a little sad to imagine the little boy spent the next few days wondering what happened to that last free kick. Snatched out from under our noses like Lucy jerking the ball away from Charlie Brown.


Who doesn't like a good cliff-hanger at the end of a television drama's season?

This Australia game resulted in the highest television ratings average so far for 2012 in Japan, with a 35% share. At the moment of the final whistle, the ratings had climbed to a momentary peak of 45%.

Both teams were studies in contrast as they meandered towards each other to exchange handshakes. Cahill trotted over to a still nonplussed Honda to exchange jerseys. And while the relief emanating from Osiek's features and his emotional words of pride at his team illustrated just how worried they had been going into the game, you could see the members of the Samurai's gazes already preoccupied, mentally reviewing the game and coming to terms with the result.


The Road Ahead


This game came at the perfect time and place for Zaccheroni. A difficult away game, the third and last in a series, an experienced and tough opponent who knew how to use a simple aerial approach, awful pitch conditions and a ridiculous referee.

None of it was un-expected. Japan were well-aware of the possibility for all of it. So the question is why they were unable to manage it better. Captain Hasebe pointed to their poor away performance as one big issue they need to address. The other of course is the lack of depth in the bench in terms of defense. The centerback position had been an achilles from the moment Zaccheroni decided not to keep Nakazawa and Tulio -- the cement wall that made a huge contribution in Japan's result at the South Africa World Cup. Though I may understand why Zaccheroni removed them from his immediate call-up lists, Japan's shaky handling of Australia's long-ball approach left many wondering if at least Tulio should be called back. (Though he won't.)

Thanks to the bouquet of yellows Japan received, the roster is dripping with cards, and this will give (force?) Japan the much-needed opportunity to really put the bench to the test.

And let's not forget the power of a strong bench, especially during big tournaments. One of Japan's biggest strengths is the incredible team culture, and the ability of the non-starting players to keep their motivation and momentum high while prepping themselves both mentally and physically for a sudden appearance during any long-haul schedules. A full analysis has to be done on what can be done about the back line, given that any World Cup opponent bent on capitalizing on Japan's weakness will utilize the same strategy.


Though the little boy may have had the wrong idea when he asked if the game would continue next week, the theme of To Be Continued does seem poetic and appropriate.




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