I watched most of the games in World Cup 2018. While watching the first half of the game between Belgium and Japan, I noticed something different. Japan was playing a kind of soccer -- and it did so in most of the four matches in the tournament -- which was very different than the rest of the 31 teams. They were playing extremely graceful, elegant soccer with limited international competition experience compared to its competitors.
When they attacked, the Japanese attacked with many players and their touch of the ball was very developed. They panicked a lot in defense but when they had possession they attacked with elegance, grace and beauty I did not see in any other team. On the attacking side of soccer, they had incredible self-confidence. They played –- win or lose -- the same sort of soccer -- even the same line up with very few if no substitutions -– regardless of who the opponent might be. As a note, their opponents were ranked 3rd (Belgium), 8th (Poland), 18th (Colombia) and 27th (Senegal) in FIFA rankings while they were ranked 61st.
In the second half, they scored two beautiful goals; at that point I decided -- win or lose -- to write this article: my tribute to their beautiful soccer. It was evident that Belgium would score with their international experience and their height advantage in the attacking zone. And they did score two goals from headers. Japan kept on attacking even though they were ahead. When Keisuke Honda’s incredible free kick from 30 yards out in stoppage time was saved by Thibaut Courtois, they could have killed time during the ensuing corner kick to force an overtime. Instead they took the corner kick to score a goal with at least 6-7 players in Belgium penalty area. When Courtois caught the ball from the corner kick and distributed immediately for a counter attack, Belgium players showed their experience and scored the final goal on a counterattack.
After the game, Gus Hiddink called Japan naïve for what they have done in the closing moments of the game, but it is their naivety that I like about them. They bring the beauty, virtues and true spirit of the game that we had forgotten for the past decades through “industrialized” soccer. We are so much accustomed to “star” players diving for a penalty kick or rolling several times on the field to get a yellow card for their opponent that we have forgotten how our beautiful used to be.
Japan is ranked 61st in FIFA rankings -- its lowest ranking since the inception of FIFA rankings. Their average ranking is 35th and their best ranking is in 1997 (14th). Their ranking graph does not show an upward trend like Germany, Belgium or Switzerland. They had just fired their Head Coach -– Vahid Halilhodzic -– and recruited one of their own: Akira Nishino. They came into the 2018 World Cup having played in the World Cup five times (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014) and moved from the groups twice (2002 and 2010) with a 4-4-9 record. They won the AFC championship four times (1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011). Coming into this WC they were fourth in AFC
Their 23-men squad consists of eight players from the Japanese League, seven from the German Leagues, two from the English, French and Spanish Leagues and one from the Mexican and Turkish leagues. Other than the 32-year-old Honda, who came into the games later in second halves, and Shinji Kakawa, who plays for Borussia Dortmund, Japan has no well-known stars. So there was nothing spectacular or upcoming about the Japanese at the World Cup. The success lies in their national culture and the early development of soccer talent which has been instigated by a fellow American: The guru of Japanese grassroots soccer Tom Byer.
Let us have a look at Japan's performance at the 2018 World Cup. The players were extremely well behaved and acted very professionally. So did their fans. Their fans cleaned up the mess they have created in the stands after every game. So did the players. After the final game, they cleaned up their dressing room and left a thank you message in Russian. Japan received a total of five yellow cards in four games: An average of 1.25, below the average of 1.7 per team. It committed 37 fouls in four games with an average of 9.25. The Japanese outran and had a higher ball possession than all their opponents in the group stage. They were hardly seen dissenting to the referee. The only incident that I remember was the genuine dissent of a Japanese attacker in the second half of the Belgium game when AR1 stopped a promising attack with an incorrect foul call. Even then he immediately stopped dissention when the referee warned him. If we compare the two games of the knock-out stage namely we Russia vs. Spain and Belgium vs. Japan, we see some interesting results.
My colleague Paul Kennedy commended on their attacking soccer in the Belgium game in his recent article. Russia which moved to the quarterfinals, played a very defensive game as evidenced by what their coach said after the game: “They are better than us in many ways, so I don’t believe we should risk going forward. Had we chosen a different tactic, we would not have fared as well.” Russia had 25 percent of ball possession and won on kicks from the penalty mark. Japan which had 44 percent of possession, lost on a last second goal. Japan had four shots on target (in 90+ minutes) and Russia had one (in 120+ minutes). Russia is in the quarterfinals but Japan is not. If you just consider the outcome -- like any non-naïve person would do –- then clearly Russia is more successful. If you ask non-Russian and non-Japanese fans who would rather watch in the quarterfinals, I am sure a great majority will pick Japan over the Russia.
One would definitely remember the last 15 minutes of their Polish game. One can argue that this was not in line with their overall approach to the game; I tend to agree. But let us not forget that Poland or Senegal could have scored to put Japan away. Before criticizing others, we should learn to self-criticize. On the other hand, if Japan played to score and win in the Polish game and lost the game with a wider margin, then we would not be able to watch the incredible game between Japan and Belgium. I would not be able to write this article.
We should thank Japan for reminding us the beauty, simplicity, grace and fairness of our game which we have seemed to have forgotten. We should thank Jaoan and its fans for those unforgettable moments in Russia. Arigato Gozaimasu Nippon and Sayanora until the next time.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.