Bright-eyed optimism has been replaced with a realisation of the national side’s shortcomings
Japanese fans approach the World Cup with knowledge at an all-time high and optimism at a historic low. Perhaps they just know too much about football these days. After all, while coach Takeshi Okada has been talking bravely of targeting the semi-finals, the first question for the supporters and media alike is can the team get through their group or, indeed, win any game at all?
Japan’s four World Cups have been very different. The first, in 1998, was a new experience, marked at home by blind optimism and a gung-ho spirit. It was even more exciting in 2002 when they were co-hosts and beat Tunisia and Russia.
The fact that arch-rivals South Korea made it to the last four was frustrating but also confirmed the spreading faith that anything was possible.
Japan then went to the 2006 World Cup with a team of stars and a manager, Zico, who was treated like a god, though more for what he had achieved at Kashima Antlers than through knowledge of his earlier outstanding career. However, the dreams came back down to earth with a thump when Japan collapsed against Australia and Brazil.
This time, the general understanding of football is higher still, the yearning for success is immense and the illusions have been stripped away.
Fans are much more familiar with the top European teams through TV and cool-headed comparisons with the J.League – which began back in 1993 – have been made…and Japan has been found wanting.
Even in Asia, where Japan won the Asian Cup twice in a row in 2000 and 2004 but came only fourth in 2007, victory no longer looks assured. They qualified in second place from their final Asian group, and in February lost to South Korea and drew with China in the East Asian Football Championship. The final home game before the World Cup, a 3-0 defeat by Serbia in April, albeit between second-string teams, has again battered confidence and drew loud booing from the stands.
The Japanese do, though, love a sporting party and there won’t be any shortage of interest or support when the World Cup kicks off. The expectations may be the lowest ever, but the interest in football is also keener than ever before and so will be the joy if Japan do, in fact, do well.
The view from Japan
“We are still not up there with England, Spain or Brazil but we’re not so bad, either, we just couldn’t show it in Germany. If we lose, the important thing is to lose playing well because the Japanese fans can cope with that and we can keep on building for the future. One win will be a success – to get through the group would be magnificent.”
Takeo Goto, football writer
“The Japanese are among the world’s kindest fans, so you know something is wrong when they boo, as they have been doing to Takeshi Okada’s side recently. Most supporters feel Japan will fall well short of the semi-final target Okada has set. Even worse, apathy is starting to set in and that has never happened to this World Cup-mad country before.”
Shintaro Kano, Daily Yomiuri sportswriter