On Nov. 19 in Doha, in its final match of the year, the Japan national team turned in one of its best performances of 2008 to beat Qatar 3-0 and consolidate second place in World Cup final Asian qualifying Group 1.
As a statement of intent for the year ahead, it ticked all the right boxes. The goals — an opportunist poacher’s finish, a howitzer long-range strike and a header bludgeoned in at the back post — were taken with ruthless efficiency, and the opponents swept aside by a passing game full of fluidity, efficiency and purpose.
But for manager Takeshi Okada, there was no danger of becoming complacent. The previous 12 months have been more than enough to remind him that in international soccer, nothing can ever be taken for granted.
After leading Japan to its first-ever World Cup appearance in 1998, Okada returned to the job in December 2007 when his predecessor, Ivica Osim, suffered a serious stroke.
With the third round of qualifying games for South Africa 2010 looming (the stage at which Japan entered the competition), there was little time for Okada to stamp his own imprint on the side. But while a routine 4-1 win over Thailand in February raised hopes of a smooth transition, Japan’s next qualifier, a dismal 1-0 defeat in Bahrain almost two months later, brutally exposed the cracks.
“When I started I didn’t know the players I was working with, but I thought I would try them out in the third round of qualifying,” Okada told The Japan Times and other members of the Tokyo Sports Writers Club last month.
“I thought what I was given was good enough to get through the round. Then we lost to Bahrain, and that was a big turning point. I began thinking I shouldn’t be so permissive, so I decided to make the team as I wanted it to be.
“From the Bahrain game onward I came up with a team concept, and it wouldn’t change regardless of the opponent or the situation. There was a lot of trial and error, and we have done well in some games and badly in others, but there has been a steady, gradual improvement since then.”
That improvement has come in fits and starts, but there can be no doubt Japan heads into the new year in an excellent position to qualify for a fourth successive World Cup.
There have been other setbacks along the way, most recently two dropped points at home to Uzbekistan in October, but Okada prefers instead to dwell on the positive legacy of adversity.
“We are what we are because we lost against Bahrain,” he said. “Those things happen. Not everything goes right in your life.
“The thing is how you overcome that failure. What I can do now is go the way I believe is right, and in that sense I have to appreciate Bahrain for making me think this way.
“If you look at the game against Qatar, it seems that we did almost too well. But if you look at what we did closely, there hasn’t been an improvement of anything specific since the Uzbekistan game, simply a move in the right direction. Our performance against Qatar came as a result of our performance against Uzbekistan.
“Next year we are ready to take the next step, and that’s why we are preparing already in December. It’s inevitable that this is a time to look back on what has happened, but we always knew this wasn’t going to be an easy job.”
That job has been made more difficult by what Okada has identified as a lack of feeling for the national team among his players.
“When players make the official World Cup team, then they think ‘this is my team,’ ” he said. “But during the course of qualifying, especially when players are called up for a friendly match, they feel like, ‘OK, I came here just because I was called up,’ ‘I play this way because I was told to,’ or ‘the game is over (win or lose), now I go back to my club.’
“The national team will never improve that way. It’s not too late for the players to start regarding the national team as ‘their’ team when they are called up to the final World Cup squad, but you don’t have much time until the first game. You can’t improve enough.
“You have to think the national team is your team, and I felt that strongly when we lost to Uruguay (3-1 in an August friendly). They just played somebody else’s game, not their own team’s game. Fighting to stop that has become one of my philosophies.”
But just as Okada strives to instill some visceral passion in his players, so the manager is trying to harness his own emotions. One charge often leveled at Japanese players is that they do not have the instinctive nous to go with their technical ability, but Okada knows he is not above such criticism himself.
“I used to be friendly with the manager of the Honda bike racing team, and he told me that racing generates a lot of technological advances,” he said.
“He told me that if you are asked to make things, it is difficult to do. But if you are competing in the race and lose, you come to think why you lost and what went wrong.
“He explained that those kind of circumstances give rise to technological advances. When you are under constant pressure, you feel like you have to rise to the challenge.
“I have great confidence in my ability to talk about theories and tactics, but you don’t just play the game with theories. I wondered how you tell your players what you want without theories, and gradually I’ve learned to channel my feelings and instincts into the job.”
When, shortly after taking over, Okada stated his belief that Japan could finish third in South Africa, his comments were taken with a pinch of salt. Whether the progress his side has made this year is enough to justify a repeat statement, as Okada did recently, is still highly debatable.
The manager, however, is in no mood to tone down his bullish rhetoric.
“You think you can’t be compared with Ronaldinho, but there is no reason why you can’t be,” he said. “How can you say Japanese players can’t play like Ronaldinho? There’s no reason why not.
“You shouldn’t feel your opponents are strong before you take them on. You need to have confidence in yourself.”