Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The solid and the spectacular
Japan became the last Asian side to be knocked out of the World Cup in the second round, losing a heart-breaking penalty shootout in a dour, somewhat lacklustre but certainly tense match against Paraguay on Tuesday. As the tears dried in South Africa and the team packed their suitcases to travel back to Tokyo, the over-riding emotion was that of disappointment that the football god had not been on Japan's side in the lottery of the penalty shootout.
• Brewin: Paraguay hold nerve
Indeed, the welcome back in Japan will be the opposite of that received by the likes of Italy, France or England, with a certain pride reigning in the country. Honda is certainly a new national hero, following in the footsteps of Nakamura. And the national media have been far from scathing in their analysis of the Paraguay match, choosing instead to focus on the bad luck of the missed penalty kick.
As The Daily Yumiuri wrote in their commentary on the match: "Komano, Japan's fourth shooter, hit the bar before Oscar Cardozo converted the winning penalty as the South African journey for Takeshi Okada's side came to an unfortunate end at Loftus Versfeld Stadium."
All quite neutral stuff, and certainly when one considers what was at stake for the Japanese: a historic first ever quarter-final berth in a World Cup and a match-up with European champions Spain. But there are surely grounds to be critical of the tactical approach chosen by coach Takeshi Okada in the game against Paraguay.
Keeping with the same formation that had beaten Denmark so convincingly 3-1, Japan nevertheless chose to give the entire playing field over to the South Americans, and never threatened Villar's goal with enough persistence. A few chances did materialise - including Matsui's cracking effort from 25 metres which hit the crossbar, and Honda's effort just before the break - but they were not enough to truly create the momentum needed to avoid the lottery of the penalty shootout.
Indeed, Honda's position in the team is a vital talking point. For most of the tournament, the Japanese winger was left as a lone striker up front, mirroring the cautious approach of his coach. Honda is certainly no centre-forward. Against Paraguay he covered an astonishing 13 kilometres during the game, an indication of just how much he was expected to do for Japan's attacking intentions. He did monumentally well in South Africa, picking up three man-of-the-match awards, but there is no doubt that he would have been much more effective playing alongside another striker from the start. Okada had promised a Japanese version of 'Total Football', but the numerous Japanese fans at the game were left contemplating total boredom instead.
This is not to say that Japan did not play a good tournament. Quite the contrary - they played such a good tournament that it is a shame their coach did not opt for a courageous display and allow his charges to really attack Paraguay in numbers instead of defending in depth. As the coach admitted after the game: "It's my responsibility - we did not insist enough. I cannot elaborate any further. When I look back at what I could have done for the players and what I did as a head coach I should have been more insistent on winning."
That has been precisely the predicament of many coaches at this World Cup. Too much caution has caused too many sides to pack their suitcases - just think of Ivory Coast, England, Portugal, Italy ... the list goes on and on. In stark contrast have been the more courageous coaches, including the highly attack-minded German coach Joachim Low, who has surprised with refreshingly offensive football. The intricate, fast-moving style of Japan's attacks when they did move forward suggests that Japan would have been much better served with a similar style of play. In the end, though, a fine run in South Africa was ended by a single penalty miss. It could have been so much more.
So Asia's participation in the tournament has well and truly ended, but what has been the over-riding emotion for the most populous continent in the world?
If Asia's 2010 World Cup performance had to be summarised in one particular word, it would probably be this: solid. The Asian sides certainly did not disappoint. All of the continent's teams seemed to take well to the South African climate, with Australia being the first team to arrive for the tournament.
Out of four starters, two made it to the last sixteen, while Australia garnered four points and only missed out on goal difference. South Korea were unlucky not to make the quarter-finals against a shaky Uruguay, who needed some Suarez magic when they looked as though they were going to be over-run by the industrious Asians. What South Korea missed was a killer instinct in attack, but they certainly looked a promising team. North Korea were the only team from the continent to go without a win, but that much was probably to be expected in the toughest group in the draw.
From the previous effort in Germany 2006, where no Asian team made the second round, a clear improvement was evident. The continent's football teams are certainly growing in stature and players are becoming more than just marketable commodities in Europe's top sides. Just listen to Sir Alex Ferguson talking about South Korea captain Park Ji-Sung. Or watch Honda become a transfer target after his convincing displays. And expect some more Asian players to make their way to Europe's top addresses in the transfer window this summer after their performances in the 2010 World Cup.
Right now, Asian football is clearly in a transition phase. Far from being helpless outsiders, the Asian teams are now knocking at the doors to the very top levels of world football, backed by huge populations that idolise the beautiful game. Populous giants like China and India are in the process of rebuilding their teams. The latter are counting on their qualification for the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar to work wonders for their football team.
And while the World Cup may be over for Asian sides, the next opportunity to shine is indeed just around the corner. Matches in Doha begin in January 2011, so it is just under six months before the continent meets to decide its best national team. Judging by the quality on display in South Africa, it promises to be a spectacle at last.