National team manager Takeshi Okada vowed to get straight back in the saddle after his public dressing-down on Monday. After the beating he has just taken, a period of quiet reflection might be a better option.
Okada had to suffer the indignity of a vote of confidence from JFA president Motoaki Inukai after Japan’s poor showing at the East Asian Championship, but it was just the latest bloody nose after two weeks of calls for his resignation, ferocious criticism of his methods and boos cascading from the stands.
The most frequent charge leveled at Okada has been his rigid inflexibility, and there was plenty of evidence of that at the Tokyo tournament. The opening 0-0 draw with China was shocking not because it came against a team that had fallen at the first hurdle of World Cup qualifying, but because it suggested Okada and his players had learned absolutely nothing in their two years together.
It took midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara less than a week after joining the squad to identify a lack of variety in the team’s attacking play, and South Korea manager Huh Jung Moo explicitly targeted Japan’s ponderous buildup as the weak link to exploit. It seemed everyone could recognize what Okada could not — that his team is too slow and predictable to make an impact at the World Cup unless things change.
The manager seemed surprised by his players’ lethargy, but after a seemingly endless treadmill of games he should have seen it coming. While most European and South American teams will head into the World Cup after only a handful of matches this year, Japan will have played 11.
When Okada came up with the idea of targeting a semifinal appearance in South Africa, he gave the reason that the players felt no real attachment to the national team. They arrived, went through the motions and then returned to their clubs, he explained, and so by setting a specific goal he could instill a spirit of responsibility.
But that spirit now appears to have been worn thin by the drudgery of so many fixtures, and the manager would do well to reconsider his intention to call up his European-based players for the March 3 home game against Bahrain.
As an Asian Cup qualifier where both teams have already clinched their spots, taking place just three days before the J. League kicks off, why not give everyone a break and name a squad of university students?
Sunday’s 3-1 defeat to South Korea was not Japan’s finest moment, but it was at least a reminder of the value of a competitive game in the truest sense of the word. Okada’s men had to do more than just pick their way through a defensive minefield, and few teams have offered such a challenge over the past year.
The occasion demanded the same urgency that will be required when the World Cup begins for real, and Okada’s management skills were also tested when Yoshito Okubo’s injury and Marcus Tulio Takana’s red card forced him to react as the game unfolded.
After all the recent setbacks, now he must prove he can be just as flexible in the months ahead.