How did it come to this? Japan, the continental champions were supposed to lead Asia’s charge in Brazil but, perhaps behind only Spain, have been the major disappointment.
It is not the case that if Japan fails then Asia fails but, so far, the world’s biggest continent has also yet to impress, with three points at its own private halfway stage of six games. There is still time and still hope but the way things are going, one of the four getting to the second round would be a cause for relief.
Japan were expected, and expecting, to be in the last 16, at least. A quarter-final target had been talked about but then the Japan Football Association has a long-term plan that includes winning the World Cup by 2050, a time when if they were still facing Greece, they may just have managed a goal. “If you don’t score then you don’t win,” lamented the Nikkan Sports newspaper on Friday after a goalless draw left the Samurai Blues’ hopes of reaching the second round looking slim.
A team that could not stop scoring in the buildup to Brazil has managed one in 180 minutes. It is starting to revive unwelcome memories of the 2006 disaster – Asian Cup winners arrive full of confidence at the World Cup with a foreign coach accused by some of being too loyal those players, lose an opening game in desperate fashion after taking the lead, then record a goalless draw against middling European power before losing the last match against the South American winners of the group.
Australia did the damage in 2006 but this time were the first team to be eliminated following two defeats. So far though, the Socceroos have been the best of the quartet and made their mark on the competition. Apart from the nerviest of openings against Chile and some defensive and goalkeeping issues against the Dutch, the men in green and gold more than matched their opponents and are now at the stage where there is real belief they can defeat a deflated Spain. People say the Aussies are bad losers but few teams have lost in such style. There may come a time, as the glow of that game against the Dutch wears off, when the players are back home watching the latter stages and thinking that perhaps they could have taken it to the last game at least. And that is no bad thing.
Australia had some advantages. Being in a tough group took away pressure. It took away the fear of failure as all expected failure anyway. Ange Postecoglou’s men showed that the so-called bigger boys don’t seem so big when you stand to toe and swing. When the lowest-ranked team in the tournament has a striker better than Brazil’s No9 then anything is possible. The aggressive Aussies have shown Asia the way.
It is not that simple but Japan should have followed suit from the beginning. Strangely passive in the opening game against Ivory Coast, this was not what people expected. Apart from Keisuke Honda’s delicious opener, there was little intensity and plenty of giving the ball away. The Milan man was in poor form before the tournament but declared he would be all right on the night. He hasn’t really but Shinji Kagawa has been worse. For the expanding number of fans of the team around the world, this version of Japan team looked as Japanese as Michelle Yeoh in Memoirs of a Geisha.
The game against Greece was more familiar, a return to the bad old days of playing weaker Asian teams at home, when the team has plenty of possession but don’t really know what to do with the ball around the area. The coach Alberto Zaccheroni has had plenty of opportunities over the past four years to prepare for this kind of game. This is one of the reasons why the Italian was hired, to give a little more tactical nous, street smarts, to make the team a little cleverer and improve decision-making.
There was not much evidence of that when Japan struggled to break down a Greek team playing with 10 men for most of the game. Despite major possession, the Asians were predictable in attack, sending cross after cross into the box, moussaka and ouzo for the Greek defenders, and trying to walk the ball into the net. When chances were created, they were wasted. Next come already qualified Colombia and a chance to beat South American opposition at the World Cup for the first time. Improve, and it is possible but the elephants in the room are Ivory Coast. The Africans beat Greece and it’s all over.
It is not over yet for Asia as Iran and South Korea are still to play their second games, even if the Persians take on Argentina. Team Melli may have been booed off against Nigeria by fans already accustomed to World Cup thrills and spills but a little context goes a long way. Preparation has been almost non-existent, with politics, economics and sanctions all having an effect. There are football reasons, too. This is a team that was desperate to avoid defeat after losing every single one of their three previous World Cup openers. Lose against Nigeria before playing Argentina is not the way to the second round.
The performance was a masterclass of defensive discipline in a tournament when there has not been too much of that on display. A little more forward movement from midfield may have turned a point into three and it could well be that Nigeria represented Iran’s best chance of a win in the group but, regardless, the plan was always to be in with a shout going into the final game with Bosnia.
South Korea know all about the value of getting off to a good start after winning the first game in the past three tournaments but were satisfied with a point against Russia. As with Iran, it may be that coach Hong Myung-bo will regret not going a little more all out for victory against opponents that the South Koreans had overrated and were there for the taking. Again, in the context of the dreadful form of the Taeguk Warriors in 2014, especially in defence, the priority was trying to keep it tight at the back for a change. That was mostly done.
Algeria are next and seen as a must-win. A similarly disciplined performance at the back, a little more composure in attack, and midfielder Ki Sung-yueng in the same elegant form as against Russia, and it could happen.
It is not time for postmortems yet. Iran and South Korea are still fighting. Australia are out but have played their part. Japan are the major disappointment so far.
Fans, both inside the Land of the Rising Sun and out, expected so much of this team. If Japan are to go out at the earliest stage, they should at least show the world the kind of football Asia knows they can play – for their sake and the continent’s.