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Japan impressed despite falling short of Okada’s goal

by Andrew Mckirdy

In the end, national team manager Takeshi Okada got neither the semifinal he craved nor the quarterfinal that looked there for the taking. When the dust settles on Japan’s 2010 World Cup campaign, however, the overall feeling will be one of pride rather than regret.

Okada’s men are on their way home after losing on penalties to Paraguay on Tuesday, but their contribution to the tournament has been positive. The 3-1 first-round win over Denmark will live long in the memory not only for Japanese fans, but for everyone who witnessed that hugely impressive performance in Rustenburg.

A tournament that threatened to be an ordeal for Japan instead became an occasion to savor. Preparations had been so bad that the manager offered to quit just two days before leaving for training camp in Switzerland, but it was the spirit of togetherness forged there in the mountains that laid the groundwork for success to come.

A new, cautious game plan emerged to earn Japan its first World Cup win on foreign soil in the opener against Cameroon, and from there the team grew in confidence with each game. A narrow defeat to the Netherlands exorcised the doubts that had lingered since losing 3-0 to the same opponent in a friendly last year, before blowing Denmark out of the water with the kind of panache Okada had been striving for since he took the job.

That it could not continue against Paraguay was a shame. Japan looked more tentative against the South Americans, and the feeling remains that a repeat of the cavalier spirit that dismantled Denmark would have done the same to Gerardo Martino’s side in Pretoria.

Keisuke Honda, the undoubted star of the campaign and one of the players of the tournament, was stifled by the Paraguayan defense, and Japan’s midfield had trouble retaining possession. The tension was palpable with so much at stake, and one bold thrust of inspiration might have made all the difference.

Could Shunsuke Nakamura or Takayuki Morimoto have been the man to do so? Unfortunately, World Cup elimination prompts endless questions that cannot be answered.

Better instead to celebrate what has been an undoubted success for Japan, and a personal vindication for Okada. Poor results, stubborn selections and outlandish proclamations have given critics plenty to get their teeth into, but the manager has rolled with the punches, learned from his mistakes and proved many people wrong in the process.

The J. League has also emerged with its reputation enhanced. National team defeats to Serbia and South Korea using only home-based players prompted much soul-searching in the domestic game this year, but the likes of Yasuhito Endo, Yuto Nagatomo and Yuji Nakazawa have proved that Japanese players do not need to move abroad to compete on the world stage.

Self-doubt is not a new phenomenon, but anger and disappointment had been steadily turning into apathy before the tournament began, and the cost of slinking out unnoticed in South Africa could have been very high indeed.

Instead, this World Cup could turn out to be a timely panacea for the Japanese game.