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Friday, July 23, 2010
Okada goes from zero to hero

John Duerden

Takeshi Okada is an ambassador for Japan in its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. The coach of the national team gave a short talk to FIFA's inspection team on the final day of their short visit. "He said that not only does the world love football, but football must love the world," Japan FA general secretary Kohzo Tashima told a press conference at the glitzy Ritz Carlton Hotel in Tokyo on Thursday lunchtime. "It was impressive." It was strange - not Okada's philosophy, the man is in a good mood these days and happy to spread the love - but the fact that the coach, so recently and roughly vilified by press, fans and barely supported by the federation, is now in such a position that he is wheeled out to face FIFA to sell his nation. Now, when the JFA bigwigs shake their heads as they mention his name, they do so in admiration. For managers, as Sir Alex Ferguson is fond of saying, it is all about results. Good results bring power and Japan's two wins in Group E and elimination in the second round after a penalty shoot-out against Paraguay qualify as good results for a team that had never even won a game at prior World Cups overseas. The Okada that came strolling through the lobby at the hotel in Roppongi Hills cut a very different figure to the one I saw at the nearby National Stadium just two months earlier. The day before the Blue Samurai left the Land of the Rising Sun for South Africa via Europe, they were comfortably defeated 2-0 by South Korea and the familiar sound of booing rang around the arena after a third straight defeat at home. Rarely has a coach looked so forlorn after a friendly match and rarely has a World Cup target, widely-publicised and ridiculed, of a semi-final finish looked so tattered even before the tournament had kicked off. Okada, not a popular appointment in December 2007 after his 1998 World Cup record of three defeats in three games, told reporters that he had offered his resignation to JFA president Motoaki Inukai , who in February, when results were poor rather than terrible, had warned the coach that things needed to improve. Shortly after however, Okada claimed that he hadn't been serious. When I asked Inukai about it on Thursday, he agreed. "What happened," he replied, "was that when he was getting a lot of criticism because of the team losing so many matches so he checked in with me. 'Mr. chairman, I'm sorry to be making problems for you. It's all right though, isn't it?'" If it doesn't sound entirely convincing then Inukai can be excused. Okada has gone from zero to hero in the space of a few weeks, just like something out of that iconic Japanese comic 'Captain Tsubasa', the artist of which was at the 2022 press conference to present the FIFA team with some sketch drawings of themselves alongside the cartoon captain. Okada had left by then, confident that he had done his job. Dressed in a sharp suit with a real spring in his stride, the once much-maligned manager even flashed a smile at the reporters with whom he had what can only be described as a hate-hate relationship, though the smiles and laughs of the scribes no longer give that impression. Over the past weeks, a few writers have publicly apologised for their earlier criticism. One well-known football agent even shaved his head after events in South Africa as he felt the turnaround couldn't be enjoyed without a gesture of contrition, one prompted in part by a text message from Yoshito Okubo, a striker well-thatched and well-liked by Okada much to the annoyance of many before the tournament. Okada is still officially in charge, though only until next month when is has has been reported that he will retire to become a farmer. Now the question is who will come next. Unlike South Korea who have just appointed their new boss, local boy Cho Kwang-Rae, Japan are likely to look overseas for the new man. Guido Buchwald, the former German World Cup winner and the man who led Urawa Reds to their sole league triumph in 2006, a time when Inukai was club president, was an early frontrunner but with another European nation being the football flavour of the month, and given the JFA's recent links with its Madrid counterpart, someone from Spain taking the reins, or at least a Spanish speaker, is not out of the question. Inukai is staying quiet. "As regards the next World Cup in four years' time, we'll take a good careful look at this tournament [2010] and put together a system. Regarding the coach, the technical committee is dealing with this issue based on a report on South Africa, so I can't say anything about the matter right now." Frenchman Philippe Troussier, the boss of the 2002 team who like everyone else was full of doubts a few weeks ago, wants the status quo. "Okada should stay," Troussier, a candidate for the Australian position and considered by South Korea before they plumped for Cho, told me when I spoke to him. "This is a team that was born after the final preparation match against Zimbabwe just before the World Cup started. The problem before then was the balance of the team. They lost four preparation games and there were many problems, especially in defence. Okada understood that he had to change the balance. Then he decided to put goalkeeper Kawasahima on the pitch and Narazaki on the bench. He decided to put Yuki Abe in midfield and Honda at the top. "From these decisions a team was born and now the players have confidence. All the decisions came from Okada and the success of the Worlds Cup comes from Okada. I know he wants to quit, but he should think seriously about his future. The Asian Cup comes in January and the team has good unity which comes from Okada. It will be bad to start again and destroy this unity with a new coach." Inukai declined to answer the question as to whether Okada would have stayed had he received more support from the JFA in the past, but it is a testament to the coach that the JFA boss is now singing from a similar hymn sheet when it comes to World Cup targets.. "The task of the team is not just to get through to the next World Cup, that goes without saying, but to aim to make it to the quarter- or semi-finals," Inukai said. "At the same time, we need to train players from a young age with an emphasis on educating them as people for the development of Japanese football for the next ten or 20 years. Training referees and staff involved with management of clubs is also essential. Producing a lot of top quality people will stimulate sport at large in Japan and help raise the status of the game." Okada has done that already. Football and Keisuke Honda are everywhere you look in Tokyo at the moment. Okada may not be for much longer, as sources close to him say that he is keen to work overseas. Watch this space.

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