Japanese and Polish fans experience mixed feelings over Samurai Blue's teamwork, World Cup progress and passive approach

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Japanese and Polish soccer fans were left with mixed feelings Friday morning, after Japan’s World Cup game against Poland — the last in the tournament’s group stage — showcased not only the Samurai Blue’s teamwork and fair play but a passive approach that almost had them packing their bags.

The game ended 1-0 to Poland following a solitary goal by defender Jan Bednarek. But despite the defeat Japan advanced to the round of 16 after Colombia won against Senegal in the other Group H game — inspiring wild dancing, with fans jumping for joy and chanting “Nippon, Nippon” after the final whistle. Takumi Okaniwa, 32, who came to watch the match at M-Spo Sports Bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward with both teams’ jerseys so he could change depending on the results, said he was disappointed the match didn’t end with a draw.

“After the first goal (by Poland) I was hoping Japan would at least draw … But in the end it was Japan’s fair play that turned out to be decisive,” Okaniwa said, referring to the newly introduced tiebreaker rule, which lets a team with fewer yellow cards advance to the knockout round when two teams in a group end up with the same points, goal difference, goals scored and head-to-head record. Japan had two fewer yellow cards than Senegal, but the teams were matched on other criteria.

Polish fans had been let down by Poland’s poor performance in the tournament, which resulted in the team’s exit before Thursday’s game, but were happy with the outcome for both Japan and Poland. “I bet money on Japan as Poland had already lost its chance to advance,” said 30-year-old Polish cook Sylwester Kochanowski. He said he was displeased to see Japan choosing not to take chances in the last minutes of the match, instead passing the ball around in their own half to run down the clock. “I hate it when someone gives up (on pushing for victory) … Honestly, I don’t believe Japan can advance any further. I hope they’ll do much better (in the next stage),” he said.

Professional shogi player Karolina Styczynska, 27, who has been competing in Japan for five years and was also at the sports bar, said she was happy that “both teams won,” referring to Japan’s progress and Poland’s successful fight “for honor.”

“Poland has some strong players, but Japan can play well as a team,” which reflects Japan’s culture, said 30-year-old Ryoki Tamura of Tokyo.

“Japan corrects mistakes after each game — they review their strategy and this is something Poland could learn from Japan,” said Barbara Henmi, 51, a Pole who has lived in Japan for nearly 30 years.

“Soccer or any other sport isn’t only about rivalry, it should connect people,” Henmi said. “And this game was a good opportunity for the Japanese to learn more about Poland, and apparently more people got interested in Poland thanks to this match.”

“Polish players and spectators alike could also draw lessons from the tournament and from opponents, and emulate Japan in terms of teamwork, which is necessary in all spheres of our lives — in a family, politics or sports.”