There are few if any positives to take from Japan’s hugely disappointing World Cup campaign, but the team must make sure that the lessons of Brazil do not go unheeded.
Japan set the seal on its early exit from the tournament with a 4-1 defeat to Colombia on Tuesday, showing far more fight than in its previous two matches but ultimately losing to a superior side that proved ruthless on the counterattack.
The result leaves Japan on the first plane home with feelings of hurt and disappointment still too raw to contemplate, with the after-effects of such a dismal showing likely to linger for some time to come.
“The Japan Football Association has said that it wants to win the World Cup by 2050, but going out in Brazil with no positives to show for it will be very damaging,” wrote former Japan striker Akihiro Nagashima in Thursday’s Nikkan Sports.
“If Japan had been able to 100 percent play its usual game, with lots of movement and fast passing, and still been eliminated, the gap between the rest of the world would not seem so big. At least that would have given us something to build on for the next tournament.”
The post-mortem is likely to be long and painful, with outgoing manager Alberto Zaccheroni pointing the finger at his team’s mental fragility before tendering his resignation on Wednesday.
Stage fright in the opening 2-1 defeat to Cote d’Ivoire — typified by a collective loss of nerve when Didier Drogba came off the bench to spark the Ivorians’ fightback — cost Japan dear and set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
“If I had to go back, the only thing I would change — more than tactically, more than technically — is to manage the way we started mentally, given the experience of this World Cup,” Zaccheroni said.
“We are all surprised — myself, the fans, the squad and the management. Everyone was surprised by the fact that the approach was not a positive one, and this is a doubt that will remain within me.”
The warning signs, however, were there for a team that had faltered ever since making a storming start to the final round of World Cup qualifiers two summers ago, with key players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda arriving in Brazil on the back of difficult seasons with their clubs.
“The media didn’t just forget to sound a warning, we built the players up into false stars just because they play for European clubs,” wrote critic Sergio Echigo in Thursday’s Nikkan Sports. “You have to look at someone like (Colombia’s James) Rodriguez if you’re talking about a real European-level player.
“If the media doesn’t stop making such a fuss over these frauds and we don’t take a good look at ourselves and do a better job, the same thing will happen again in four years’ time.”
For all the bitter taste left by such a disappointing campaign, however, Japan must resist the temptation to rip everything up and start again entirely from scratch. Significant changes are of course needed, but whoever succeeds Zaccheroni will inherit a core group of players with quality, experience and a desire to set the record straight.
Recovering from such a heavy blow will not be easy, and it will not happen overnight.
But if Japan wants to make an impact in Russia in 2018, it must first absorb the lessons of what went wrong in Brazil.