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Lessons from the Land of the Rising Sun

Ahmed Hashim
841   //    07 Dec 2012, 18:54 IST

When academic pursuits, personal duties, football and food don’t keep me busy, I find myself in front of the computer screen, browsing through pages and pages of what we call ‘the cyberspace.’ One page, a new tab, a new link and then another – the amount of information in this network before me is simply overwhelming. Often the case is such that traditional human curiosity leads me to stumble upon some unexpected but truly exceptional stories. I remember one particular story that caught my eye, many web pages and links ago. No, I’m not going to recount that story in detail. Come to think about it, it wasn’t much of a story anyway – just a collection of stats and figures that seemed to have a tale behind it. To understand the significance behind those stats, we have to turn to the Far East, to the Land of the Rising Sun, to Japan.

Honda, Okazaki and Kagawa

Honda, Okazaki and Kagawa

Today Japan is quite an accomplished footballing nation in its own right. Plenty of Japanese players ply their trade in top European clubs. Kagawa, Honda, Nagatomo, Hasebe and Okazaki have all shined in their respective leagues. The national team, known as the Samurai Blue, is a continental superpower. If you are a follower of Asian football, you’ll know that the Japanese are the defending Asian champions and recently beat France in a friendly in Paris, not to mention their performance at the World Cup in South Africa, where only penalties denied them a place in the quarterfinals. And at the Olympics earlier this year in London, the men’s team were fourth while their female counterparts finished runner-up.

Okay, here’s the intriguing part. In 1988, Japan played at their first Asian Cup in Qatar. They returned home after being knocked out in the group stage; they did not win a single match. Four years later, the next tournament was held in Japan. The Samurai Blue drew their opening match but then they surprised everybody by winning the whole thing! If anybody thought that was just chance, Japan proved it was no flash in the pan by winning three of the next five tournaments.

That’s not all. For a country that did not have a proper professional league until 1993, almost qualifying for the 1994 World Cup was a milestone in their football annals, even though their fans still refer to that occasion as ‘the Agony of Doha.’ Agonising as it may be, it did not, however, affect their future performances as the team went on to qualify for the next four World Cups!

Astonished? I was rather fascinated by this tale. It set me thinking. Can I draw parallels here? Can I compare the Japanese situation with that of India, so aptly called by Mr.Blatter as Asia’s ‘sleeping giant’?

Blatter called India 'sleeping giant'

Blatter called India ‘ a sleeping giant’

I am serious here. On one hand you have the Indian national team that finished fourth at the 1956 Olympics (with Neville D’Souza scoring a memorable hat-trick) and second in the 1964 Asian Cup; on the other there is the Japanese team that won bronze at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. For both of them, their early successes did not help sustain the growth of the game in their lands. India had to wait twenty more years until they qualified for Asia’s showpiece event in 1984; Japan, as mentioned earlier, made their first appearance in 1988. Again, we see a strikingly similar condition as both countries performed poorly in those tournaments. Baseball was still the most popular sport in Japan whereas cricket ruled the masses in India. Football had to settle for second place or even worse at times. Strikingly similar?

Indian success limited to the Nehru Cup and the AFC Challenge Cup

Indian success limited to the Nehru Cup and the AFC Challenge Cup

However, historical records show us that the parting of the ways occurred then and there. Japan announced plans for a new professional league in 1991 and duly launched it in 1993 amidst much fanfare. From then on, they went from strength to strength on their road to glory. Young gems unearthed in the All-Japan High School Soccer Tournament were then taken to the bigger stage – the J-League. And things just got better when Europe came calling for these gems. Around a decade later, Hidetoshi Nakata, Junichi Inamoto and Shunsuke Nakamura were all in Europe.

After the ‘Agony of Doha’ (Google it!) robbed them of a place in the World Cup of ’94, the Japanese did not let their chances for ’98 go down the drain. Ten years earlier, they were among Asia’s worst teams. In 1998, they were one of the continent’s four representatives at the World Cup.

India, on the other hand, went down and down. Improvement was not a word that featured in their dictionary. What went wrong? If you are an Indian football fan, you will know the reasons. I don’t need to elaborate.

I brought up this topic in order to show that radical change and a dedicated follow-up are effective. Can India qualify for the 2022 World Cup if they put in place a similar but Indianized version of the Japanese roadmap? I hope so. Impossible is nothing in football. I will keep repeating that, hoping that it is, in fact, true.

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Ahmed Hashim
Football writer based in Qatar
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