Talk about Japan without mentioning it at least once Holly e Benji it is a feat in which I had succeeded until five seconds ago, but it seems inevitable, at least in Italy. From social commentary to media coverage, the reference to the cartoon is as obvious as it is ubiquitous. It fits, given that knowledge of Japanese football in our latitudes is close to zero. It is therefore clear that the players and fans who clean the stadium before leaving or something like that make the news. Japan, after all, makes sympathy; it’s the eternal David against Goliath, the team we imagine made up of gentle, almost shy “carpets”, from which little or nothing is expected.
This vision of Samurai Blue it is not only profoundly ungenerous but utterly erroneous. Japan has come a long way since, including via manga like Capitan Tsubasa, they were desperately trying to promote the practice of this “alien” sport in a country sick of baseball. From here to say that he can win his first world championship there is a lot, as evidenced by the fact that some British bookmakers even give it 80 a 1, but it’s not entirely far-fetched. With a squad largely playing in Europe, albeit without a world-class star, Japan still could to surprise the world of football. Here are the pros and cons of this outsider at Qatar 2022.
The pros: enthusiasm, the bench and the “2006 effect”
- Japan’s path to these World Cups is all about first times. Never before had they beaten a former world champion in a match with three points on the line and never before had they managed to reach the last 16 for two consecutive editions of the World Cup. No one, not even the most optimistic, imagined that Moriyasu’s men would finish a group with Spain and Germany as before. After sending home the teamthe Japanese will not be intimidated by Croatia’s class and experience – which can be both good and bad.
- Moriyasu is a magician. Although many in Japan have often criticized him, considering him bland, not very charismatic, the “Southgate Japanese”, the Japanese coach hasn’t done anything wrong so far. His match plan had seemed risky, almost suicidal: giving a time to obviously stronger teams, defending themselves just enough to stay in the game and then roll up their sleeves à la Valentino Mazzola and unleash their “quarter of an hour grenade”. It worked with Spain and Germany, will you also do it again with Croatia?
- At the base of the clamorous comebacks, the entry of top notch benches. What made the difference was people like Doan, Mitoma, Asano and Minamino, who Moriyasu fielded when the opponents thought they had already finished the game. The depth of the bench could make the difference against a team like Croatia, who have fielded the same starting 10 in their three group games. Especially when champions with a few years too many start to run out, the dynamism of replacements could still be the trump card.
- Playing in Japan’s favor, paradoxically, was the fact that no one at home expected much from them. We are not at the levels of Italy of Calciopoli but there lack of pressure it worked wonders. Former Sampdoria player Maya Yoshida said in an interview that she is “tired of being thought of as a nice loser. We want to wineven at the cost of being unsympathetic”. This competitive nastiness is not common in Japan, where at most one is asked to “do one’s best”. Will it be enough to overcome the vice-champions of the world?
The cons: the Croatian experience, the contentment
- When you’re facing people like Modric, Perisic, Brozovic and young rampants like Gvardiol, defending yourself might not be enough. Croatia will no longer amaze with their beautiful game but they are always capable of striking at any moment. An expert technician like Dalic will surely have studied the videos and developed the necessary countermeasures. Given that Japan, so far, has lost against the non-irresistible Costa Rica when it has changed its scheme, it remains to be seen whether it will be able to adapt.
- If it was the strikers who took the covers, Japan’s true strength is the rear, capable of suffering for long stretches without conceding too much. The minutes for the players who build mass are starting to be quite a lot and the replacements don’t seem up to par. Leaving too much space for Modric, Perisic and Kovacic could cost you dearly. We’ll see if Moriyasu comes up with something new to harness their sometimes anarchic talent.
- Croatia comes from an enviable streak of results. At the world they don’t lose from the final against France in 2018. Second place is certainly not what they expected from an affordable group but underestimating Dalic’s men would be risky. In the round of 16, then, the Slav national team is even undefeated: in France 98 they beat Romania while in Russia it took penalties to overcome Denmark. At this point, in a game that seems very balanced, experience could tip the scales in their side.
- Playing against Japan, paradoxically, could be the contentment after two results among the best in the history of Asian football. In a country where it matters first of all don’t look badi Samurai Blue they’ve already done enough to go home between the festivities. On the other hand, however, the world of sport in the land of the rising sun is no longer satisfied with making a presence. Instead of the “nice losers” of the past, the media glorify the exploits of the great champions who are making their way into other sports. From Tokyo 2020 medalists to baseball and tennis superstars Shohei Ohtani and Naomi OsakaMore, dominating the world is no longer a taboo. A certain nervousness could perhaps pervade a locker room which, so far, has enjoyed ideal conditions.
In short, have we reached the point of being able to imagine a world champion Japan without laughing? Probably not, but it no longer seems like a heresy like thirty or forty years ago, when the sporting triumphs of the Asian country seemed limited to the dreams of manga heroes. They won’t have a world-class champion on the field but the average level of Japanese footballers has grown exponentially since the home World Cup twenty years ago. Winning then in that country which, using somewhat questionable methods, snatched the organization of the World Cup from Japan would have the very sweet taste of revenge. It may not happen, but if it does, the Tokyo police better prepare for it. At the Shibuya Crossing, one might see decidedly un-Japanese scenes.