Sunday May 23rd, 2010

The first major tournament I covered was the Asian Cup in Lebanon in 2000. Japan, the coming force, was drawn in a group with Saudi Arabia, who had been the continent's best team for almost a decade. They met in Saida and, as lightning flickered in the purple sky above the fairground that backed onto the stadium, Japan raced into a four-goal lead. It won 4-1, and went on to lift the title with relative ease.

Yet my clearest memory of the tournament was of sitting in a cafe on the windswept roof of a Beirut hotel, chatting to a fraught Philippe Troussier, Japan's manager. I never got to the bottom of what had wound him up, but he was, fairly clearly, at the end of his tether. His players, he said, running his fingers though his hair, were incapable of showing initiative. A day before, he'd locked the hotel restaurant, telling his players they should go out into the city and find somewhere to eat. To his horror, he realised most just hadn't eaten.

Given Japan won the tournament, and went on to retain it four years later, though, I was inclined to put his outburst down to the irritation of a man under pressure, used to life in Africa, and frustrated by cultural difference. But then I went to Japan in November 2008. The fist day I was there I went to see Urawa Red Diamonds, the "Manchester United of Japan" as they call themselves, away at JEF United, who at the time were struggling at the bottom of the table. Initially I was impressed by the noise and the color of the fans, but the, shortly after halftime, JEF took the lead with an absurdly soft goal. The Urawa fans were mid-song, but carried on, spinning their scarves above their heads as though nothing had happened. There was no engagement with the game itself, as though the fans' role was to sing, and they would do that come what may. I wondered if I was being harsh, but a few days later the winger Shunsuke Nakamura told me one of the things he loved about playing for Celtic was that "the fans react to everything, every pass every tackle"; fans at home, by implication, didn't.

Later on the trip, I went to two Japan internationals: a friendly against the UAE and a World Cup qualifier against Uzbekistan. In both, Japan had about two-thirds of the possession; in both Japan had about 25 shots to its opponent's two; and in both the final score was 1-1. It was neat in possession, the ball was rotated swiftly, and technically it all looked good, but it was profoundly predictable.

I was reminded, oddly, of Tarkovsky's Solaris, of the ocean producing replicas of life on the spaceship but getting key details wrong. In terms of fans and play, this was android football: it looked good, but it lacked soul, any sense of imagination or devilment. Which is, perhaps, the natural outcome for a nation that set working parties around the world to report back of various aspects of fan culture before the establishment of the J-League in 1991.

It was seen that West Germany won the 1990 World Cup playing 3-5-2, as Argentina had done four years earlier: therefore 3-5-2 was the best formation and it was adopted. The problem is that while most of the rest of the world has evolved, the Japanese game hasn't, and 3-5-2 remains, if not the most common formation in the J-League, then certainly far more common than it is in any major European league. The lack of imagination, perhaps, also explains why so many J-League teams have Brazilian imports at centre-forward.

Last year in Sarajevo, I bumped into Ivica Osim, who had coached Japan until suffering a stroke in 2007. Like Troussier, he had regularly become frustrated by the Japanese game, and on one notorious occasion the harshness of his criticism of his players had reduced his translator to tears.

I asked him about the notion of android soccer. "In Japan, you have to understand the way they live their lives," he said. "There is always somebody above them and you always have to ask somebody because he always knows more than you. Their biggest problem is -- and this was my feeling when I was working there -- that there is no risk, there is no improvisation in Japan, and football can't exist without that.

"And also players were so afraid of the coaches that they didn't want to do anything on their own initiative. I had the feeling that players could go into the box, get in front of the goal and then stop and ask me what they should do: should I shoot at the goal or pass the ball away? The most important thing in Japan is to make them think with their own heads, not with somebody else's."

In the early pat of the decade, when Japan won the Asian Cup twice running, it had in Hidetoshi Nakata a charming rebel, a superstar who had not merely footballing talent, but also a certain impish streetwiseness. Since his retirement, though, Japan has sunk into risk-averse, predictable soccer. Perhaps that is a necessary stage in its development -- for Japan is a young soccer country -- and once soccer is really grasped, once it really takes root in society, it will start to develop players who have an edge.

In fact, it may be that a couple are just beginning to emerge. The 22-year-old right back, Atsuto Uchida of Kashima Antlers, who reportedly just agreed terms for a move to German's Schalke, is still raw, but his surges forward from fullback at least suggest somebody prepared to cast off the safety-fist culture. Even more exciting is the 23-year-old Keisuke Honda, who blossomed at the Dutch club VVV Venlo last year. He then joined CSKA Moscow in January and, in a Russian League awash with high-class technical midfielders, has looked as good as any of them.

Perhaps the future for Japan is bright, but at this World Cup, it seems most likely that they will again be solid, unadventurous and not especially successful.

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