Japan was hoping to use participation in this summer’s Copa America as a learning experience, but the saga that led to Monday’s withdrawal should hopefully provide a lesson in itself.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, Japan Football Association president Junji Ogura finally admitted defeat in his organization’s attempts to send a competitive team to Argentina for the July 1-24 South American championship, turning down the invitation after failing to secure enough players from European clubs to compensate for the J. League’s earthquake-affected fixture logjam.
The withdrawal was Japan’s second, coming six weeks after Ogura had flown to South America to deliver the original message, only to agree to reconsider at the request of tournament organizers a day later. That U-turn set the tone for the 1½ months of meetings, negotiations and compromises that followed, but no one should blame the JFA for trying.
The merits of playing against South America’s finest teams in real competition would undoubtedly have benefited Alberto Zaccheroni’s side, and the JFA’s willingness to leave no stone unturned should be applauded.
But the uncertainty that has pervaded in the meantime has been good for no one. Players have been unable to prepare mentally for the possibility of an intense month of competition, J. League managers have been stymied in their plans for the summer, and fans have also been kept waiting with expensive trips to South America stuck in limbo until the decision was taken.
It seems the only party with its destiny in its own hands was the European clubs whose Japanese players’ services were essential for their country’s participation. The JFA accepted an offer from Argentine F.A. president Julio Grondona to fight to force their release, but when FIFA president Sepp Blatter shot him down days later, saying the JFA would have to rely on goodwill alone, the die was cast.
Allowing players to take part in a one-off charity match was one thing, but waving them off to the Copa America for a month was beyond the pale. A raft of German clubs came straight out to state they had no intention of complying, leaving the JFA to try to pick up the pieces by dispatching technical director Hiromi Hara to Europe for face-to-face negotiations.
But when European clubs are holding all the aces, they rarely fold.
It can be assumed that Zaccheroni was intending to include some overseas-based players in his squad even before the earthquake made the J. League players unavailable, but the European clubs’ eventual refusal suggests a full-strength selection was never realistically on the cards. After all, if Schalke refused to let Atsuto Uchida play when his country was desperate, he is hardly likely to have been granted permission under normal circumstances.
This would, however, have been made surmountable by the safety net of a pool of domestic players freed up by the J. League summer break. But when the earthquake created a fixture backlog and the league decided to deal with it by playing through July, the JFA then made the fatal error of veering off course and agreeing to reconsider its original Copa withdrawal.
After several painful recent experiences, Japan should know better than most that the cut-and-thrust world of overseas soccer is no place for favors. From Scotland and Togo arriving with severely weakened squads for friendlies in 2009 to the pipe dream of bidding to host the 2022 World Cup, the JFA’s naivety has been continually exposed by those for whom ruthlessness and decisiveness come easy.
The players may not benefit from this year’s Copa America, but for those in charge this latest lesson could prove invaluable.