LONDON – A year ago, Nadeshiko Japan captured the world’s hearts, the Women’s World Cup champion producing a fabulous upset over the heavily favored United States to grab the title.
Only a few months after the devastation of March 11, the squad, led by scoring ace and 2011 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year Homare Sawa, symbolized Japan’s resilience and fighting spirit to recover after the twin natural disasters and Fukushima nuclear crisis. The team is loved by millions throughout Japan and has gained admirers around the world.
A year later, Nadeshiko Japan is embroiled in controversy for not fielding its best team possible for a 0-0 draw against lightly regarded South Africa on Tuesday in Cardiff, Wales.
Coach Norio Sasaki, who pushed all the right buttons in leading Japan to the World Cup title, is now the target of worldwide criticism, and rightfully so. Fans shell out lots of cash to see a team have a legitimate shot at winning.
This isn’t a preseason friendly.
This is the Olympics, the biggest sports festival on the planet.
Sasaki admitted he didn’t conceive a match plan to vie for a victory. His thoughts were already on the next round, the quarterfinals, and Japan could avoid traveling to Glasgow, about 640 km away, by not winning.
In short, a draw guaranteed the Group F team could stay in Cardiff to take on Brazil on Friday.
“I feel sorry we couldn’t show a respectable game, but it’s my responsibility, not the players’, why the game was like that. It was important for us not to move to Glasgow,” Sasaki told reporters.
Sasaki gave starting assignments to only four regulars, and so his team had the disjointed look of a junior varsity squad out in the Welsh capital.
Four women’s badminton doubles teams — two from South Korea and one apiece from China and Indonesia — were banned by the IOC and the badminton’s world governing body for tanking earlier this week to ensure that they would receive more favorable draws in the tournament.
What those badminton players did is comparable — exactly the same thing, really — to what Nadeshiko Japan did. Neither incident displayed good sportsmanship. Neither incident should be acceptable to the chief authorities in charge of the Olympics.
Here’s what I think: There should be a rule in place requiring teams, barring injury, to name at least seven of their designated starters before the Olympic tournament begins for all games entering the knockout round, and after that the reconfiguring of the lineup can begin again for all coaches.
In other words, make coaches use their best players.
In a statement issued by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, it was confirmed that Japan did not face punishment for what took place against South Africa.
“There are no sufficient elements to start disciplinary proceedings (for) unlawfully influencing match results,” the statement read in part.
It’s time to amend the disciplinary process, and what falls under the category of punishable offense for professional leagues, continental championships and the Olympics.
IOC director of communications Mark Adams addressed the issue of whether Sasaki intentionally fielded a team not to win.
“This is a matter for the federation but the two cases (this game and that of the women’s badminton doubles) are not the same,” Adams said at a news conference on Thursday. “There is no evidence that the athletes have acted on what the coach said in that instance.”
United States coach Pia Sundhage told The Associated Press that the tactic Sasaki chose for Japan’s last match is never one that is acceptable. I agree wholeheartedly; play to win.
“Absolutely not. Never ever crossed my mind,” Sundhage was quoted as saying by the news wire. “Because I think: respect the game, respect this wonderful tournament and respect the team. . . . We want to win. If we have that approach to every game, I think we’re in the best mindset.”
Longtime Daily Telegraph soccer writer Christopher Davies, who pens the Premier Report for The Japan Times, gave a different perspective via email from Cardiff.
“I agree with your sentiments about Nadeshiko, who just stayed the right line of match-fixing,” wrote Davies, former chairman of the Football Writers’ Association of Britain.
“It was immoral but not illegal. In football, playing for a draw is an accepted practice but normally when a small team plays a big team. Last time I checked Japan were world champions.”
Jeremy Walker, a Japan-based soccer journalist for more than a decade, weighed in on the issue.
“I first heard about this on BBC News,” Walker told Odds & Evens. “I did not see the match, but the Olympic presenters commented rather lightheartedly that Japan did not want to win this last match because they would have moved to Glasgow — and now they must face Brazil in Cardiff! So they thought it had backfired on Japan and were chuckling because they must play Brazil.
“Personally, despite being world champions, I don’t think Japan are good enough to start dictating where they want to play and against whom. They should just try and win every game.”
Let this be a lesson to all teams in every sport that sportsmanship matters.
Nadeshiko Japan, especially Sasaki, failed that test miserably on Tuesday. And it’s more than regrettable. It’s an epic mistake on Sasaki’s part.
Bad judgment. Bad sportsmanship. Terrible combination.