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Ladies lead the way as men search for meaning

19 Aug 2008(Tue)

As I mentioned in my previous article, I had intended to remain free of European prejudice and enjoy the Olympic football tournament throughout the O-Bon holiday here in Japan, but for the ‘Sorimachi Japan’ men’s team, the chances of winning a medal were effectively over before the holidays and indeed the opening ceremony in Beijing had even begun. Drawn in a difficult group alongside the 2005 World Youth Championship runners-up Nigeria, and the two-time (2006 and 2007) defending European U-21 champions Holland, it had been imperative that Japan got a good start with victory and three points against the United States. However, a crushing 1-0 defeat made qualification from the group an almost insurmountable task, and the team ultimately limped to three straight losses and an immediate exit from the competition.


The United States actually looked set to inflict a shock defeat on the Dutch in their second game, before conceding an equaliser in stoppage time, and it is possible that Japan and the other teams in the group may have underestimated the Americans a little. Certainly, Japan did show a degree of improvement in their subsequent matches, but did not look like scoring an equaliser against Nigeria even after Yohei Toyoda’s goal had briefly kept their hopes alive, and once again fell to a one-goal defeat in their final game against Holland when conceding a clumsy penalty, having looked like value for a point.


Regardless of details, a non-appearance in the knockout stages and a record of zero points in finishing bottom of the group will go down as an embarrassing failure for Japan. Even more worrying, however, was the lack of potency displayed by the team’s forwards. Results may have been quite different at this Olympic Games had crucial chances not been missed, but at the crux of this matter lies the painful truth that this situation is nothing new to Japan. The national team has often suffered on the global stage through a lack of goals and the absence of a truly world class striker, and with this U-23 generation representing the future for Japan, it may not be a problem that can be solved easily.


Unlike most of the sports at the Olympics, football is unusual in that a gold medal does not mark the game’s ultimate achievement, with the true world’s best being determined at the World Cup, and this too is a major reason why Europe tends to rather overlook the tournament as I mentioned before (indeed, the popular British website Football365 refused to even print the results of the Olympic matches for this very reason). The enthusiasm shown, conversely, in Japan and other parts of the world was what has attracted me to the football at the Beijing Games, but at what it is essentially an age-group tournament, the most important thing about this Olympic experience is how it is channelled in order to further development in the future. The Japanese men unfortunately fell some way short of the kind of medal-winning performance that would inspire a nation, but it is now essential that the players selected in China – and indeed Japanese football itself – learn from these difficult times and ensure that their participation in the Olympic Games will have been worthwhile.


The women’s football competition, of course, has been dramatically different both in terms of its general significance and of the performance of Japan. Unlike the male competition, the women’s event ranks alongside the World Cup in terms of its worth in determining true champions, with no restrictions on age and a complete line-up of wholly full-strength national sides, and this makes the performances of ‘Nadeshiko Japan’ all the more remarkable. Women’s football in Japan was facing crisis just eight years ago, with a failure to qualify for the Sydney Olympics and a succession of teams pulling out of the L League, and indeed the national side’s best ever results on the global stage before Beijing were only a pair of quarter finals (once each at the World Cup and the Olympics), but the players will now face off against Germany for bronze in Thursday’s third-place playoff. Women’s football may live in the shadow of the men’s game, but the exploits of Nadeshiko Japan this year have captured the country’s hearts and deserve recognition across the globe.

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