CUIABA, BRAZIL – No matter how tough the going gets, Keisuke Honda never shows signs of defeat, a testament to the Japanese international’s mental strength.
But on Tuesday, after Colombia’s Jackson Martinez put the game out of Japan’s reach with his second goal in the 82nd minute, Honda was a broken man, his head going down and his hands dropping to his knees knowing it was all over.
For four years, Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni built his team around Honda for the World Cup, but the Asian champions finished last in Group C after the 4-1 defeat to Colombia.
Fingers will almost certainly point at Honda, who launched his second World Cup campaign with a superb strike against Cote d’Ivoire in Japan’s opener but fell way short of expectations.
Asked about his future role on the national team, the AC Milan midfielder said, “I think it will be debated within Japanese football and there’s no way around it. We lost, so anything I say now will sound like an excuse.
“However you want to put it, this is the reality. It’s humiliating, but it is what it is.”
Honda, though, does not think Zaccheroni’s side chose the wrong path on its journey to Brazil.
“All I’ve got is football and I only know how to play it one way — my way,” he said. “From tomorrow, I just have to try to move forward.
“Personally, we have to be able to win playing this style or we’ll lose our fans. But since we didn’t win, I know people will say, ‘What is he on about?’
“My take is that this is the style that will also help us improve individually. Again, this is the way I live my life. I know we represented Japanese football here and we could stand to lose a lot from this.
“All we can do is try to get better each and every day.”
How Japan will manage to do that looking ahead to the next World Cup in Russia is beyond some of Honda’s teammates.
Shinji Okazaki, for one, said the Samurai Blue have to head back to the drawing board because they simply were not good enough at this World Cup.
“When we needed to get forward and we did, we lost our shape and were beaten 4-1,” said Okazaki, who equalized for Japan with the last touch of the first half. “When we tried to play the counterattack, (Cote d’Ivoire) beat us 2-1. Whatever we tried to do, the other teams stopped us from doing it.
“I thought we would struggle a little bit today. I knew it was going to be difficult, but never this bad. I didn’t think we would lose so comprehensively.
“I can’t make out what we need to do to win at this level. All I can say right now is that we weren’t good enough.”
Honda and Okazaki were both part of Takeshi Okada’s Japan that advanced to the second round in South Africa four years ago. Zaccheroni’s men, who had been hyped as the most talented Japanese team of all time, fell badly short of matching those expectations.
Okazaki thinks the gap between Japan and the world’s best sides has gotten even bigger.
“Playing at this tournament, I felt an even bigger gap than the last World Cup between us and the competition,” the Mainz striker said. “I couldn’t do a thing today.
“When I got the ball in a decent position I thought I did alright, but that’s not going to always happen at the World Cup. You have to be able to find your way even when the tide is against you, and I couldn’t do it.
“I thought I was fit enough and we worked a lot on that aspect as a team. I just think we weren’t good enough. Our opponents just prevented us from playing the way we wanted to.”