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Time for fans, media to get real about Samurai Blue

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

“The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.”

There is some question about the origin of this quote. It has been attributed to both Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler.

What is not in doubt is that the premise is true. Case in point: Japan’s Samurai Blue soccer team.

After being thoroughly whipped and outclassed at the 2014 World Cup, the great majority of fans and media in Japan seemed shocked by the outcome.

Really?

The naivete of both the supporters and “journalists” is almost beyond comprehension and has been for a long time. It is almost farcical how much these guys have been built up over the years.

Part of this can be attributed to the homogenous nature of the fan base, which deeply wants to believe, but has a hard time separating fact from fiction. Their support is admirable and deserves respect.

The more sinister unit comprises the “fan journalists” who breathlessly churn out glowing copy about how good the players are and how promising the outlook is before every major event. Any sports writer who has bought into that over the years should be writing fiction instead.

The lack of sophistication by both the supporters and media combines to fuel unreal expectations that have no chance of being realized.

Japan entered the 32-team tournament as the fourth-lowest ranked nation (46th) in the entire field (ahead of only Cameroon, South Korea and Australia), so you would think that what happened in Brazil would come as no surprise.

And save the talk about Japan being Asian champions.

So what?

Take a look at what happened in the first round of the World Cup. The four teams from Asia (Japan, Australia, Iran and South Korea) all finished last in their groups with a combined three points between them.

Absolutely pathetic.

That tells me that the level of the game at this moment is not very good in Asia.

A few months before the World Cup, I consulted with a longtime expert on Asian soccer about Japan’s prospects in Brazil.

“Not good,” he told me.

“Japan will go out in the first round. No question. They just aren’t very good.”

A while later when he heard that AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda was being referred to as “the best Asian player in history,” he called the claim “a complete joke.”

Fans and the media here seem to have such a short memory. After Japan was routed 3-0 by host Brazil in last year’s Confederations Cup, Inter Milan defender Yuta Nagatomo correctly assessed the situation.

“There’s just too big of a gap in individual quality,” said Nagatomo. “Look at it this way: Is anyone on Japan good enough to play for Brazil? The answer is no. Not one.”

Nagatomo also acknowledged that the gulf between Japan and other soccer powers was as wide as the Nile.

“If each and every one of us doesn’t try to become the best player he can possibly be, we won’t be able to bridge the gap in the year ahead,” he said.

What fans and the media here don’t seem to get is that it is not only Brazil that is better at every position, but the majority of the teams in the World Cup. That is the bottom line.

Alberto Zaccheroni did the best he could in his four years at the Japan helm, leading the side to the Asian Cup title in 2011. But what the vast number of people fail to understand is that the coach is not the problem, it’s the players. They just collectively aren’t that good.

There is a blip every once in a while — like the 1-0 victory over Argentina in a friendly international in 2010 — but they are few and far between.

Narrow wins over sides like Cyprus and Zambia are a lot more common.

There is individual talent in the team with several players who suit up for club teams in Europe, but at the end of the day that is not good enough. Japan is decades away from being a factor in the World Cup.

Of the many takeaways on Japan’s flop that I have read, Gary O’Toole of worldsoccertalk.com had the most interesting analysis. He blamed the results on what he calls “android football.”

O’Toole wrote that it “features set moves from every part of the pitch for every situation — nothing was tried off the cuff . . . There was a distinct lack of decision-making — they were doing everything on autopilot. There was no directness.

“The problem with ‘android football’ is that when something goes wrong — e.g. the opposition win the ball back where they were unexpected to do so or win the first header — it means that they are unprepared and unable to cope with this new scenario.”

The inability to improvise in a fluid situation is the byproduct of a culture where athletes are almost always told what to do and don’t know how to think for themselves under pressure.

Japan can get around this when playing against other Asian countries, but against the elite it just won’t work.

Already talk is turning to who the next Japan coach will be, with attention focused on Mexican coach Javier Aguirre, who has managed several Spanish and Mexican teams.

The World Cup isn’t even over yet and already “Groundhog Day” has begun again. It’s ridiculous.

If it was a simple as bringing in a new coach, why not hire former Manchester United legend Alex Ferguson?

He’s available and has a track record that is unparalleled.

The Japan Football Association — one of the richest in the world — certainly has the resources to afford Ferguson.

The truth of the matter is that in the end the coach is almost irrelevant. The Japan players are just not good enough to compete against the traditional big guns in the sport.

Look at the semifinalists at the World Cup — Argentina, Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands. Teams that have been strong for decades and still had to battle hard just to get into the final four.

That says it all and shows you how far away Japan is from even being in the discussion.

When Honda said he thought Japan could win the World Cup last month, he was either delirious or a very poor student of the game. It was an unwise and unfair assessment.

The problem is that fans and most of the media lapped it up, which only deepened the pain when Japan was blown out in Brazil.

It is time for Samurai Blue fans and the journalists who cover the team to get a grip and acknowledge that outside of Asia the team is not a factor on the world scene and won’t be for many years.

To believe any differently would be buying into and promulgating a lie.

  • Dogstar2

    Now the Japanese women’s team – that is another story. Yet they are still treated like second class citizens.

  • Yosemite_Steve

    I agree they fared very badly and did not even show much interesting or entertaining football in Brazil – very disappointing. But how does this author explain the friendlies which gave us some hope going into the WC? Japan beat Costa Rica in Florida and in their last tour of Europe beat Belgium and tied Holland in those countries. Pure flukes?

  • Max Erimo

    One way to explain good results in friendlies is that the stronger teams from Eurapoe and Central/Southe America don’t tend to field their stringest teams in these matches. Japan has no choice but to field what is known as its best team.

  • KM

    A complete joke of an article by someone who should stick to figure skating.

    Japan’s problems were visible to careful observers almost two years ago, and at least one person predicted the outcome in almost unbelievable detail back in September 2013. Yet these problems were by no means some “enormous gap in quality”. That sort of deliberate smack-talk is even sillier than the excessive optimism prior to the Cup.

    Japan lost two and drew one of their pool games. All were close results that might have gone a different way if Zac had addressed the weaknesses mentioned above, before going to Brazil. If he had done so, there is every reason to think that Japan might have gone as far as the quarterfinal round (as did their two pool opponents) But he didnt. Japan got the result that an aging, poorly considered team with a weak pool round strategy deserves. End of story.

    Japan is still a LONG way from competing with Germany, Argentina or Brazil in the semi- or final match. But it is simply mean-spirited piss-taking to suggest that they are on any significantly different level from the likes of England, Spain, Portugal and many other first-round failures. Jack Gallagher should go back to writing gossip stories about Mao and Yuna – that seems to be his level of sporting knowledge if this article is any guide.

  • Sindiel Kiriyama Taylor

    If anyone is delusional it’s the article writer and your belief that Japan isn’t on on a higher level, know why Japan exited in the group stage?

    The manager refused to change the clearly lacking central defense leaving out the best CB performer in years: Hajime Hosogai and kept old players Konno and Endo whilst not giving the striker role to the 15 goal Europe based player Shinji Okazaki, relegating him to the wing, a doom position which leads us to the other issues:

    Two other managers are to blame for Japan’s attack paling in comparison to that of two years before: Clarence Seedorf and David Moyes, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa were not on form or anything close to it in this World Cup, both relegated to the wings and given spotty startings at best at their clubs, they are CAMs and if no intention is made to play them there then they should not have either bought them or kept them in the squad, transfers are always an option.

    This ‘wing disease’ has turned two of the brightest CAM prospects into shadows of their former quality, both need to step up to the plate and demand consistent playing time or leave.

    To say Asian football is too weak is one thing to claim it’s garbage is another, Australia and South Korea are both good teams with hard working players, Asia is still catching up, dismissing it out of hand stinks of a basic and inadequate knowledge of how the game is out here.

    You can sit comfortably in your armchair managerial position on the internet all you like but to completely dismiss the progress of Asian football and the amount of stunting by European clubs that has slowed it is to be willfully ignorant and is to spread blatantly false assumptions.

    Asian football right now is progressing as we speak, four more Japanese players have moved to bigger European clubs, clearly showing that the failed World Cup campaign is not a sign of reality but instead shows that more progress is required.

    Your doom and gloom reporting is falsified and incredibly inaccurate.

  • Bradley Temperley

    Ranking alone does not dictate performance at the WC, but the Asian teams didn’t play well. Australia (my team) at least played well against Costa Rica (after conceding two goals) and the Netherlands and could have got a point in either game.
    Can someone explain why Havenaar Mike wasn’t picked?

    • マイケル

      Apparently, Zaccheroni realised Japan can’t play longball in games so didn’t call him up and then used longballs at the World Cup

      • Sam Gilman

        I cannot fathom why Havenaar wasn’t picked to give Japan an extra option.

  • Akio Morita

    This article is simply an embarrassment.

    I honestly don’t think he understand the game of football, let alone be quality to write about it.

    First, lets get something straight, this article was written after Team Japan exit from the World Cup. Japan isn’t the only team, the defending champion, Spain, England and and Portugal are also out in the group stage. If there is ONE TEAM that so deserve to be called an “Absolutely pathetic” it would be Spain, the defending World Cup champion. 5-1 lose against Netherlands, that’s a national embarrassment.

    Clearly this writer didn’t see the game between Japan vs Cote D’Ivoire. Japan was the better team in the first half, Honda scored first. The second half changed everything, and that is on Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan manager. Zaccheroni switch the team into a defensive wall by removing offensive attackers for defensive players. Team Japan uses 4-3-3 formation in the first half, for the second half it was 2-4-4 formation. If you’re wondering why there’s only 10 players, it’s because goalie is not included. The Cote D’lvoire game is all on Zaccheroni.

    As for your comment on Honda claim Japan could win the World Cup, what’s wrong with that? Honda said “Could”, which is not the same as “WILL”. There is nothing wrong with being positive, being passionate about the game of Football. You think the other 32 teams don’t think they could win the World Cup? Your home country Team America didn’t think that too?

    Another thing, you disrespected Honda after Team Japan exited early the group stage, why didn’t you write this article the day before they left for Brazil?

    Insulting Japanese players by preferring to a racial and comparing them to “android football” is offensively and radially motivated. The game against Greece is an example that showed no evidence of android football. Team Japan made over 550 passes, had 68% processions, the only think they didn’t do was scored a single goal. They didn’t lose either. Lets used a barbaric term to disrespect a team that could have played better. Well, I guess, team America, Spain, and Portugal all showed signed of Android footballing.

    Ask your friend Gary O’Toole, if the women team uses Android football? They are afterall, still the world defending champion.

    I also consulted with my long time friend and who is an expert on international football, and he simply said you’re clueless and your article are racist and bias. Anyone who claimed the coach is almost irrelevant in a football match are uneducated about the game.

    You clearly don’t know what happened to France manager in South Africa 2010, and why France didn’t even win a single game in 2010.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    I finally figured out what bothers me about this article: I heard pretty much all the points raised in it last week. From Japanese commentators. On Japanese TV.

    Looks like just another case of a JT writer regurgitating something he heard on the telly or read in the weeklies and passing it off as an original column. Hardly a first for the JT, and doubtless will be far from the last instance.

    I suppose I should admit that at least this was original:

    “The inability to improvise in a fluid situation is the byproduct of a culture where athletes are almost always told what to do and don’t know how to think for themselves under pressure.”

    I didn’t realize Brazilian culture was so restrictive, but I guess it must be based on this description of their performance of the 9th. Standing frozen while the Germans dribbled past, bumping into each other as they try to figure out what to do… oh wait, the writer was talking about someone else?

    And Fergie as coach? Really? I am not certain an English coach would be a positive, shouldn’t the goal for next time in Russia be to do better than 1 draw, 2 losses and ending the round with only 1 point? If the national team of the country that invented the game can do no better than that, why on Earth would Japan want to hire an English coach? Japan is already playing at England’s level.

  • Sam Gilman

    A very poor article. There’s a certain kind of football journalist who looks at the score, and then writes as if (a) the game was a black and white reflection of the score and (b) that he knew all along that this would be the outcome. Basically, it’s a bluffing tactic.

    How anyone could say that Greece “whipped and outclassed” Japan is beyond me. I’m not sure if the author even watched the match. It would be fair to say that Japan lacks a clinical, selfish finisher. It might even be reasonable to ask whether the Japanese sports set-up might militate against that kind of player. But lack creativity? If we’re going to talk numbers, Japan engineered more shots on goal than Greece or Colombia, and managed higher possession too. This is clearly a more mature, more creative side than before.

  • Akio Morita

    This writer, like most of the westerner writers at Japan Times are extremely anti-Japanese and their articles are radical motivated and racist toward Japan and Japanese people.

    To called Team Japan early exit an “Absolutely pathetic” is incredibility ignorance and disrespectful. Both England and Spain were OUT OF THE WORLD CUP after their second matches, Japan on the other hand still had a chance of advancing to the group of 16.

    Then the writers start insulting Honda for claiming the Japan could win the World Cup. Every single team in the World Cup should think they could win the World Cup, even if they’re the worse team on the planet. This is sports not rocket science.
    There is nothing wrong with being positive, being motivated and being passionate and loving the game of Football, it is afterall the greatest game on Earth. They all came to Brazil to win.

    I’m not a doctor, but I should tell my son and daughter that they could NEVER be doctors? if that’s the case then allow me to be the first person to tell Gallagher.

    “Hey Gallagher, your son and daughter will NEVER BE DOCTORS”, so don’t even think about it, it’s absolutely pathetic that they even tried too.

  • Jan de Winter

    First of all, living in Japan I always root for two teams: Netherlands and Japan. Of course, there is no comparing the two teams, Netherlands was so much better.
    Every time before the World Cup, the Japanese team is built up – I am sure there is a lot of money in it (and maybe some pride) – but ultimately this is just unrealistic. There is no real football culture in Japan, the way you see boys in Brazil, Netherlands, Germany, and Argentine play football from the age of 2 or 3. The pool of talent is therefore quite limited.
    Points are being made that 5 or 6 Japanese players play in European teams to mean that the level is high. Wow! Did you know that all players (including those who are not part of the basic team of 11 players) from all European teams play or can play in European teams? So that is a good assessment of the level of the individuals on the Japanese team. They don’t suck, they just are not at the same level.
    The point of ‘pride’ is made. Sorry to hurt your pride. Everybody has pride it seems, misplaced or not. However, pride doesn’t make a team better. Support is good – I support the Japanese team, not because they are very good. But just because many of my friends are Japanese and because I live here. But I don’t have an egotistical or otherwise invested interest. I don’t get personally offended if they are being questioned or attacked for losing again.
    As the article points out, even if Japan manages to be no. 1 in Asia, that is not saying much because most of the Asian teams were rated at the bottom and were eliminated accordingly. Flukes in performances are always possible, usually because of changing conditions. One (negative) fluke is for example that the Netherlands have never won, even though they have consistently belonged to the top for many decades, but they should win 1 out of 10 times, (about 10%) I think. Japan on the other hand will not be able to win 1 out of 1000 times (0.1%). That is not because I don’t like them – I do – but because that is just a fact. The reason is not because Japan is weak. Although I don’t think that the Japanese team now is better than the team in 2002 in which Nakata failed after having been built up to stratospheric levels. But personally, Nakata got quite rich because of it. Even this year, Japan is not weak, but other teams are so much stronger. In 100 encounters with Germany, Argentine or the Netherlands (1, 2, and 3) they would win maybe 1 or 2 out of 100 games.
    That is just an objective analysis of the overall skills. That is not a racist analysis. The Japanese people are great at many other things (Shogi, QC, Manga Art, some great literature, etc.), but they are not world champions at football and with their culture it is unlikely they will be in the next 30 years.

    • Akio Morita

      There’s an old saying in Football if you’re not World champion you might as well be in last place.

      Did Netherlands won the World Cup this year? or EVER? They came 3rd place, it’s NOT BECAUSE THEY ARE A WEAK TEAM, or they don’t have talented and skillful players, and it’s not because the other 2 teams are better then team Netherlands. Whatever the reasons may be your team didn’t win, and it’s certainly not because they are A WEAKER TEAM, am I right about this?

      Your defensive and racist comment is event more ridiculous then the writer of this article. Gallagher went out and made a racist and personal attack on team Japan. He went out to SHAMED TEAM JAPAN, like most of the westerners writers at Japan Times. Japan wasn’t the only team that exited early.

      There is nothing wrong with Japanese supporting their players, and there is nothing wrong with Japanese expecting Team Japan to advance to the quarter or even semi-final. This is the World Cup, that come every 4 years so have fun enjoy your beers. Since when is it a crime to think the team you’re supporting can advance to the next round?

      Tell me, should I be ashamed of myself for believing Team Japan could win the World Cup? Is that a crime in the eyes of Westerners? Of course I am disappointed that Japan exited early but that’s why the World Cup is a greatest game on Earth, it’s about supporting and believing.

      With the way Team Japan is right now and going forward, Japan will never win the World Cup, and neither will Netherlands, but WHO CARES? This isn’t war, it’s simple football. And that’s the reason why every 4 years people forget about the hardship of life and start believing that everyone has a right to WIN the WORLD CUP.

      I hope India and China make to the World Cup in Russia, and I hope to god their supporters start believing their team can win the World Cup too, and I would feel sorry for the bastard that disagree with a billion people.