December 13, 2013
SoccerWednesday, August 28, 2013
The ‘passion of multitudes’ is growing in Japan
HERALD IN JAPAN
Almost three months ago (on June 4) Japan became the very first country in the world to qualify for next year’s World Cup, after the hosts Brazil, of course. This will mark their 5th straight appearance after a blank sheet throughout almost all the 20th century until their 1998 début in France. Since then they have played 14 World Cup matches with four wins, three draws and seven defeats for a 12-16 goal total.
While visiting Japan with sports part of a wide-ranging agenda (in the context of Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics bid), the Herald felt obliged also to touch base with the “passion of multitudes” in the person of the Japan Football Association’s (JFA) soccer-savvy President Kuniya Daini, a former midfield supremo.
Asked about the causes of the turnraround since 1998, Daini replied that it had been a long time coming — apart from a 1968 Olympic bronze, Japan had not even been good at Asian level but serious training reforms with the accent on youth development began around 1970. Gradually soccer has become more popular in Japan and taken root, forming the stuff of more and more boyhood dreams and overtaking baseball in popularity. The JFA also takes women’s football very seriously, fancying their medal chances although here too the competition is tough.
For Daini globalization was perhaps the key to Japan’s breakthrough — first bringing in coaches from abroad (especially Brazilians like Zico and Luiz Felipe Scolari) and then gradually more Japanese players in Europe. With Asians physically underequipped compared to Europeans, it was imperative to compete with other continents.
As an aside to the Zico/Scolari heritage, Daini is confident that this will lead to many Brazilians rooting for Japan other than the million-strong Japanese community of Sao Paulo. The JFA target for the next World Cup is thus the quarter-finals, or at the very least ranking among the top 10.
Asked what was missing to bring Japan up to that level, Daini replied that the teamwork is already there but the individual skills still need to be improved. When the Herald pointed out that Spain had basically won the 2010 World Cup by controlling matches and thus never needing more than a 1-0 lead rather than having any individual superstars, Daini agreed but still thought that while Japan was good at producing internationally successful midfielders, they needed more goal-scorers up front.
Asked how he divides his priorities between the World Cup and the Olympics (i.e. the Under-23 team), Daini replied that he tried to give them equal importance.
As for how many World Cup teams Asia should have as the continent housing over half the world’s population, the JFA president thought six would be a fair number — divided into West and East Asia because of the vast distances. Asked if the field should include Australia, Daini replied that this had obvious inconveniences as crowding out an Asian country but thought that the Socceroos helped to make the general Asian level more competitive.
While running through Japan’s Asian rivals, the Herald asked the JFA chief why China with the world’s largest population punched so far below its weight in the World Cup (just a single appearance in the one tournament held in Asia with zero goals and points). A huge relief for us, laughed Daini. China had some good players, he thought, but did not click as a team, perhaps because they lack strategy and do not know what kind of soccer they want — something about which Japan is completely clear.