Soccer | From the Spot

Poor scheduling holding back Samurai Blue

by Dan Orlowitz

Between the U-20 World Cup, the U-22 Toulon Tournament and a Copa America which could see over a dozen Tokyo 2020-eligible players earn their first Samurai Blue caps, it’s been an exciting month for Japan supporters awaiting the Olympic men’s soccer tournament.

The performance of Hajime Moriyasu’s first-team squad of established players, who managed a scoreless draw against 93rd-ranked Trinidad and Tobago at Toyota Stadium, followed by a 2-0 win over 71st-ranked El Salvador on Sunday in Miyagi Prefecture, only raised questions.

What did Japan get out of playing two minor CONCACAF nations focused on their confederation’s upcoming Gold Cup?

Why weren’t these friendlies used as a warmup and send-off for the Copa America squad, which will have little time to gel after arriving in Brazil on Wednesday?

And why couldn’t the games be played in North America, giving players more time to acclimate to time zones and test themselves in enemy territory against a stronger side such as Mexico or the United States?

It’s the latest demonstration of the Japan Football Association’s persistent reluctance to arrange opponents for the benefit of the national team rather than its corporate stakeholders.

Some matchmaking struggles can be blamed on the increasingly difficult logistics of the international soccer calendar. Between continental and World Cup qualifiers, the new Nations League format and Japan’s relatively remote location, it’s hard enough to find teams with open schedules.

Finding teams willing to visit Japan is another matter entirely. Top-tier European and South American nations have no need to travel here when they can find strong opposition closer to home, nor are they interested in potential upsets (let’s remember that Japan was ranked in the 50s before last year’s World Cup) that could cause their FIFA ranking to drop.

Teams that do accept the JFA’s invitation usually receive between $1 and $3 million plus travel expenses — a significant amount for minnow associations.

That money comes in part from Kirin, which has sponsored the JFA since 1980. The beverage company’s patronage enabled the JFA to bring top European and South American clubs to face Japan in an era when World Cup qualification was just a pipe dream.

Back then, Kirin Cup tournaments served as an important measuring stick for the national side and introduced soccer-shy Japanese fans to top overseas talent.

Now, the friendlies — branded as Kirin Challenge Cups — are little more than billboards for Kirin product, from the green tea bottles displayed at pre-match news conferences to the giant cardboard cutouts of beer cans held by the winning captain, who is almost always Japanese.

With the Samurai Blue’s World Cup qualifiers all taking place at Saitama Stadium, these friendlies are also the only chance many outside of the greater Tokyo area have to see the national team in action.

Those fans pack stadiums and buy merchandise, bringing in more revenue for the JFA and encouraging a never-ending cycle of sellout crowds expecting a Japan win — another reason officials are hesitant to schedule opponents who could embarrass Japan on home soil.

But at what cost?

“A game in which Japan can score 10 goals doesn’t make the team stronger,” wrote noted critic Sergio Echigo for Nikkan Sports after Japan’s 5-0 thrashing of Togo in October 2009. “We’ve had enough entertainment … this game will (only) have meant something if they use the revenues to go overseas and take on a stronger side.”

Echigo’s rebuke came at a time when few Japanese players were based in Europe. These days over half the squad are often situated on the continent requiring Japan’s top stars to make a 12-hour trek that can cause fatigue and heighten injury risks.

Even veteran players in recent years have started to call out the JFA’s preference to set up easy wins in front of adoring crowds. Last October’s 4-3 win over Uruguay inspired veteran striker Shinji Okazaki to tweet that “we’re reaching the point where we need to play friendlies away (from home).”

He’s not the only Samurai Blue star who thinks that way.

“I want us to play more away games in difficult conditions. Without that I don’t think the national team can improve,” defender Yuto Nagatomo told DAZN earlier this year.

“Our opponents aren’t playing for real when we play at home. We’ve played strong opponents in Japan, but it’s completely different from the Champions League or a top European league. You don’t get anything from playing an opponent that holds back.”

As UEFA and CONCACAF embrace the Nations League, soon the only non-Asian countries able to play friendlies in Japan will be the minnows of South America, Africa and Oceania. It’s simply not enough fuel for a country that has reached the Round of 16 three times out of six straight World Cup appearances and its fans, who are hungry for the quarterfinals and beyond.

With the draw for Asia’s World Cup qualifying set to take place later this month, it’s high time that the JFA declare victory in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the Japanese public and declare war on meaningless exhibitions.

The loss of exposure will surely be worth the trouble for Kirin and other sponsors should Japan finally become strong enough to contend for the World Cup title.