Footie

Footie

A couple of weeks ago Japan earned a 1-1 draw with Australia, thereby becoming the first team to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, and in order to fully savour the achievement, I paid one of my very occasional visits to a nearby Western-style pub (that’s Western as in non-Asian, not Western in the horses-tied-up-outside / customers-wearing-cowboy-hats / poker-games-ending-in-shootouts sense).

Watching the footie in a pub with one’s mates is a British tradition that stretches way back into the mists of time – ie. about twenty years or so – whereas here it’s a recent development, and the Japanese have taken to it with such gusto that on 4th June, the area around Shibuya station in the centre of Tokyo played host to several hundred riot police. I can’t imagine there would have been a real-life riot if Japan had lost, and in any case, there was always going to be another chance to get the necessary points at their final qualifying match against Iraq. The post-match / post-pub crowd was, however, pretty sizeable, and in an effort to keep things from getting out of hand, one particular policeman made a name for himself by coming up with some MC-style banter.

‘Policemen may look scary,’ announced the officer over loudspeakers, ‘but we don’t hate you. Deep down we’re just happy to be here. On such a good day, even the police don’t want to get mad. Just like you, we are the twelfth member of the Japanese team. Any bad behaviour will result in a “yellow card”, so please remember to “play fair” and behave yourselves as you head towards the station.’

As well as trending on Twitter and earning the nickname ‘DJ Police’, this unnamed officer has since received a special police superintendent’s award in recognition for his efforts.

While ‘Nadeshiko’ Japan (nadeshiko is a kind of flower called a pink Dianthus) won the women’s World Cup in 2011, the under-23 side made it to the semi-finals of last year’s Olympic tournament, and so-called ‘Samurai’ Japan have won the Asia Cup on four separate occasions, to be honest, it is hard to see them winning the men’s World Cup in the foreseeable future. Still, now that I live here, and given that the England team is stuck in a seemingly permanent rut of being knocked out of major tournaments on penalties in the quarter finals, it seemed logical to transfer my allegiances.

Also, as Nick Hornby points out in Fever Pitch, the day-to-day lot of the football fan isn’t about happiness, enjoyment or celebrating victories, it is about pain, suffering and, more often than not, wallowing in the misery of defeat. To that end, Japan were knocked out of the last World Cup on – yes, you guessed it – penalties, and while there have been some moments of magic – the victory over Denmark in the same tournament, for example – there is also plenty of despair to go round. In a recent 2-0 defeat to Bulgaria, an embarrassing goalkeeping error by the perennially angry-looking Kawashima…

let in the first goal, and the second was an own goal (what is known in Japanese as a jisatsu-ten / 自殺点, literally ‘suicide goal’) by the captain Hasébé.

In the old days, part of the reason the national side failed to compete was because they lacked height and strength. In recent years, though, not only has the average Japanese increased in size – both the home and away qualifying matches with Australia were as physical as anything you will see in the Premiership – but the way football is played and refereed has swung in their favour.

When they fell behind against the Aussies (to what was either a wonderful piece of skill from Tommy Oar, a ridiculous fluke or, er, an embarrassing goalkeeping error by the even more than usually angry-looking Kawashima), rather than simply wellying the ball up-field and hoping for the best – as would be the tactics of a British side in the same predicament – they persisted with their passing game and were rewarded with a penalty in the dying moments. This, inevitably, was converted by their star player Keisuké Honda, causing hundreds of thousands of Japanese (plus a few token foreigners such as yours truly) in pubs and bars up and down the country to jump up and down, give each other high-fives and chant ‘HON-DA!’ (clap-clap-clap) ‘HON-DA!’ (clap-clap-clap).

And this, in a sense, is where their current problem lies, for Honda is so much better than anyone else in the side – even Kagawa, who recently completed a faltering first season with Manchester United – that they would be bereft without him.

While Honda’s hairstyle (he gets through more peroxide in a week than the average Essex beauty salon does in a year) and private life (he arrived in Japan before the Australia game carrying a baby boy…

…that up until that point, no one outside his immediate family knew existed) have a tendency to overshadow his football, like all great players, every time he gets the ball he does something skillful, special, or at the very least sensible with it.

Compare this with, for example, Mike Havenaar, who in my not-so-humble opinion is the worst player in the national side. Havenaar, whose parents moved to Japan from their native Holland before he was born, seems to get picked purely on the basis that he is tall, and whenever he receives the ball, rather than holding it up and distributing it like any sensible centre-forward is supposed to, he mis-times a pass, or misses a team-mate’s run, or allows himself to be dispossessed. Even when they were desperately in need of that equaliser against Australia, the Japanese didn’t resort to using Havenaar as an old-school, lanky target man, which makes it even more mysterious that the coach – the Italian Alberto Zaccheroni – should bother picking him in the first place.

Honda has been plagued by an injury to his left ankle since he was in high school, and if this – or any other mishap – were to take him out of next year’s World Cup, Japan would be even more likely to be eliminated in the first round. Still, despite the fact that a disproportionately large number of talented young sportspeople are channelled into baseball rather than football, tens thousands of Japanese schoolchildren play the (ahem) beautiful game almost every day of the year as their chosen club activity, and in my – admittedly rather limited – experience of playing 5-a-sde here, even the average amateur plays to an impressively high standard.

More to the point, salvation could soon be at hand in the form of 12-year-old Takéfusa Kubo, who signed for the Barcelona youth side in 2011, and whose family moved to Spain to help him in his bid to become the new Honda – or even, dare I say it, the new Messi.

The Barcelona under-11 side won 29 of their 30 matches during the 2012-13 season, and along the way, Kubo became the league’s top scorer with 74 goals. Here’s a video of him in action:

While I have to say I’m not exactly fluent in Spanish, I’m pretty sure this is what he’s saying in the interview at the end: ‘Yeah Tony, I’m over the moon. The lads done great but it was a game of two halves. The gaffer told us to keep it tight at the back and play to feet. We gave it a hundred and ten per cent and in the end it was all about scoring goals. From now on I’m going to take it one game at a time.’

Finally, a newsflash: at the time of writing Japan have just been knocked out of the Confederations Cup – a kind of friendly, World Cup warm-up tournament – after losing to both Brazil and Italy. Talk about wallowing in the misery of defeat, eh?

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