Whether Takeshi Okada’s offer to resign as national team manager immediately after this week’s defeat to South Korea was serious or merely a gesture of apology, the effect is still the same: The growing sense that Japan is heading for World Cup humiliation has now been endorsed by the team’s own leader.
Okada’s comments after the 2-0 loss on Monday suggested he had placed his fate in the hands of Japan Football Association president Motoaki Inukai less than three weeks before the tournament begins, saying: “I have just spoken to the president and asked him if he wanted me to carry on. He said continue.”
One day later, however, Okada had changed his tune, denying that he had ever intended to walk away and suggesting he had simply chosen his words carelessly.
It is certainly conceivable that his conversation with Inukai deep in the bowels of Saitama Stadium was nothing more than a ritual exchange of culpability and reassurance, a formality heavy in symbolism but light in meaning.
Inukai would never accept his resignation so late in the day, and Okada surely knew it. After all, if the president spared his job at a crisis meeting following defeat to the same opponent in February, he was hardly likely to sanction change two days before the squad flew to Switzerland for a pre-tournament training camp.
But if Okada had this in mind when he issued his mea culpa, he should have paid more attention to the effect it would have on his squad. When a manager essentially admits that he has no faith in his ability to lead the team, the impact on confidence and morale when he then remains in the job is not difficult to imagine.
If Okada was not serious about offering his resignation, he should simply have kept quiet. If the same logic had been applied throughout his two-and-a-half years in charge, however, he would not now be fielding endless questions about his increasingly fantastical target of reaching the semifinals in South Africa.
The biggest mistake Okada made in setting that goal was not the pressure it would heap on his players, but the light in which they would see him.
Okada has spoken over the past year of how he has gradually been able to persuade his players that a place in the last four is attainable, and sure enough they routinely adhere to the party line whenever the question arises in interviews.
Privately, however, they must have harbored serious doubts all along. And if the players cannot take Okada’s grand project seriously, they are hardly likely to regard his every word as the incontestable truth. This latest faux pas can only have weakened his authority in the dressing room further.
Japan’s chances of progressing past the group stage in South Africa have taken a heavy beating over the past six months, but that is no reason to simply give up. If Okada wants to prove he feels the same way, he needs to impose his leadership now more than ever before.