Jun 11, 2014

Two tangos in Tampa: Dispatch from the Japan NT friendlies

My first real run-in with Japanese soccer took place exactly a dozen years ago, during the 2002 World Cup, which Japan co-hosted with South Korea. I was too young to remember the Agony of Doha in 1993 as a kid growing up in Kitakyushu, and was too busy trying to navigate a new life in America during the 1998 World Cup, when Japan made its maiden appearance on the world stage.

My grandmother had scheduled our latest trip back home in 2002 to coincide with the end of my school year; it also happened to coincide with the start of the World Cup. She may or may not have known that our homeland was hosting a major global sporting event at that time; by contrast, I had the World Cup on my mind months before I took my final exams that year. My grades probably suffered a bit as a result, though I still managed to pass all my classes with plenty of room to spare.

Japan advanced to the knockout stage for the first time ever that year, with Hidetoshi Nakata and Junichi Inamoto providing star turns with vital goals to carry the boys in blue to the top spot in Group H. The narrowest of losses to Turkey in the Round of 16 dashed our dreams of a deep tournament run on our home soil; the silence at the main station, where I watched that game on a huge display with hundreds of other people, was deafening at the final whistle. However, the games, the festivities, and the locals' passion for their team -- our team -- had left an indelible impression on me.

A lifelong love for the Beautiful Game was born during that trip, as was an undying dedication to Japan's footballing fortunes -- particularly those of its national team.

When Japan's FA announced that the Blue Samurai would be playing not one, but two friendlies in Tampa before the 2014 World Cup, I saw an opportunity that I absolutely couldn't afford to pass up. Japan last played on American soil in 2006, when they played against the US national team on a baseball field in San Francisco. It was a decent enough match to watch, even if my team lost -- but I also wondered whether I would get another chance to see them play on this side of the Pacific.

Eight years later, the chance had arrived; and I merely had to drive two hours down I-4 to take advantage.

* * * * *

On paper, Japan v Costa Rica was just a June friendly, ostensibly a meaningless match-up. Tell that to the fans who attended Monday's match at Raymond James Stadium though, and every last one of them would have dismissed that statement within a millisecond. All the emotions associated with any soccer match, or even a sporting event, were present prior to kickoff -- the anxiety, the excitement, the pride of place during the national anthems, the thrill of staring the unknown in its face as the opening whistle approaches.

Those senses flare up all the more at the international level, because they take place much less frequently than league competitions, and also because there is national pride at stake, instead of local bragging rights. This match also represented one of the few occasions that both the Japanese and Costa Rican expat communities could watch their 'home' teams live, which ratcheted up the anticipation leading up to the event.

I made sure to get to the stadium early enough, and to find a seat that was as close to the pitch as possible; I wound up getting to within five rows of the playing surface, and directly behind Japan's most vocal fans, who had megaphones and drums in tow, and were in full voice for the duration of the match. This was my first time at an international match involving Japan, so I was definitely going to get my money's worth.

Japan got off to a fast start against Costa Rica, generating (and missing) a glut of gilt-edged chances in the opening half hour. Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, the star men for Japan, looked lively and effective, belying their lack of production -- or, if you're a huge fan of both, the lack of playing time -- at the club level with Milan and Manchester United, respectively. The attack, at least from what I could see, was operating at the same capacity as it always had since Alberto Zaccheroni took over as manager after South Africa: a barrage of quick, crisp, accurate, incisive, and unpredictable short passes, which invariably led to legitimate goal-scoring opportunities... which were often squandered, as they were during the first half on Monday.

Then came the first sign of what could be the Blues' undoing in Brazil. A rapid counterattack by Costa Rica put our backline in a bind, and Bryan Ruiz headed in the opening goal without facing the slightest bit of resistance from his marker, whoever it was. Costa Rica went onto flood the flanks for the remainder of the first half, and watching our defenders attempt to deal with the pressure began to look and feel more nightmarish than the bright yellow shirts that the Japanese players donned that night.

Luckily, the second half brought much better fortunes for Japan. Trailing at the break actually seemed to work in Zaccheroni's favor, as it allowed him to make a number of attack-minded substitutions: Shinji Okazaki, Yasuhito Endo, Yuto Nagatomo, and Yoichiro Kakitani were all introduced at various points during the final 45 minutes. These additions to an already formidable attack meant that the Blues would enjoy even more time on the ball, and that they could conjure up even more scoring opportunities; inevitably, the goals would follow, as well.

Once Endo scored the equalizer on the hour mark for Japan -- a strike which was preceded by a free-flowing sequence, then incisive pass into the box by Honda -- the game transformed into something resembling a passing session at a training ground, with Japan conducting the drill in the midst of an official FIFA match. Those wearing blue in the stands sensed the tide turning in our favor after that goal, and began to match, if not overwhelm, the noise being made by Costa Rican supporters.

20 minutes passed without anyone adding their name to the score sheet, but Kagawa put an end to that by slotting the ball into the Ticos' net after another neat movement, a goal that must have done wonders for his confidence after not scoring once for Man Utd this past season. High-fives immediately began flying around our section of the stands, as we found our roar at last after a nervy 80 minutes of play. Kakitani added the finishing touch with a goal of his own in stoppage time, as Japan ran out 3-1 winners over their fellow World Cup participants.

The evening was shaping up to be a fun-filled one well before kickoff, and the main event certainly did not disappoint. Both sets of fans made their way down the exit ramp in a jovial mood, no doubt partying until the sun came up the next day. I had to shuffle out of the stadium quickly, though, since I was bound for Atlanta the following morning to start a mini baseball tour; I would make my way back to Tampa on Friday for the second of Japan's friendlies, this time against Zambia.

* * * * *

The first thing I noticed as I walked up to the entrance before the second match of the week was that there were far more Japanese fans on hand than there were on Monday. Whereas the Costa Rica friendly kicked off at 9pm on a weekday, the clash against the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations winners was slated for a 7:30pm kickoff on a Friday, which made it much easier for everyone from the scheduling standpoint. It seemed like every Japanese expat within 200 miles of Tampa was present at Ray Jay, which was rather reassuring on my part.

I got to the stands about 30 minutes before kickoff, met up with my Facebook friend (and fellow Blue Samurai fanatic) Melissa who had found seats just three throws up from the pitch, and not-so-patiently waited for the players to arrive. The Zambian contingent to our left was already in a festive mood, and with the ranks of blue-clad Japan supporters steadily swelling up to our right, the atmosphere resembled a mini-carnival of soccer fans. Everybody in the stadium was ready for the opening whistle -- with the glaring exception of the eleven players who started for the Blue Samurai that night.

Just as with the Costa Rica match, Japan fell behind in the first half. This time, however, it came within ten minutes of the opening whistle, as Zambia produced a classic smash-and-grab goal after a swift counter. Five minutes later, Okazaki collided with the Zambian keeper while chasing a floating ball toward the box. It looked from our vantage point like the goalie came off worst from the clash, but it was our free-scoring forward who ended up getting the bandage wrapped around his head. Both of them managed to stay in the game, lending more credence to the theory that top-level athletes are tougher and more resilient than your average man on the street.

If only our backline had shown that kind of steel in the first half. Zambia scored another goal on the stroke of the half-hour mark, taking full advantage of the woeful marking by Japan during a corner kick. The Chipolopolo aficionados were sent into raptures after going up 2-0, while everyone else was simply left stunned. Our defensive frailties were exposed in way that must have left our Group C opponents salivating just a tiny bit (caveat: Zaccheroni had opted to throw our back-up keeper, Shusaku Nishikawa, into the fray on Friday, instead of our first-choice keeper, Eiji Kawashima).

The scoreline looked grim at that point, the game was gradually getting away from the boys in blue, and the groans on our side of the stands -- when they weren't being drowned out by the Zambian support -- grew more audible with every misplaced pass or shot gone wide. Japan finally showed signs of turning it around before halftime, when the referee pointed to the spot after a Zambia handball. Honda stepped up to take the penalty, directly in front of us, and calmly slotted home to the keeper's left. This goal reduced the deficit in half; one can only hope that it also had the effect of boosting Kaiser Keisuke's confidence going into Brazil, as well.

Melissa and I managed to move down to the front row ahead of the second half, but we, and the rest of Japan's support, weren't treated to a vastly improved performance at the beginning of the second half. Zambia actually had several chances to add to their lead, which they mercifully let through their grasps. Perhaps spurred on by those near-misses, the Blues slowly eased into a dominant position; they were playing one-touch football with confidence again, and generating actual chances at long last.

Those efforts paid massive dividends for Japan after 75 minutes of play. Kagawa got the ball on the left side with acres of space in front of him, cut inside, and sent in a curling shot that found its way into the Zambia net, drawing Japan level. It almost looked like a pass from where I was standing, but no matter, the result was all the same. A few minutes later, Masato Morishige made a superb turn inside the box to shake off his marker, before sliding a dangerous pass toward the goal; Honda, marauding forward in search of his second goal, duly finished with aplomb to put Japan in the lead. If their defensive vulnerabilities had provided our World Cup opponents with reasons for optimism, then those two lightning-quick strikes will have dampened them in a very short order.

As uplifting as those two goals were, there was still plenty of drama left in the 15 minutes that remained. Indeed, an ambitious strike by Lubambo Musonda zoomed deflected off a defender, zoomed inches past the reach of the Nishikawa and sank in under the crossbar, to the horrors of everybody on Japan's side of the stadium. That this took place in the final minute of normal time meant that the mood among the two sets of fans completely flipped in that instant. But of course, this being soccer, there was still plenty of time left for one last twist in the tale during extra time.

In fact, the final act took place while most of the crowd was still processing the lingering effects of the previous one. Only a few seconds had passed following the restart before Toshihiro Aoyama sent an inch-perfect pass from well behind the halfway line to Yoshito Okubo. The forward man, perhaps the most surprising addition to our World Cup squad, produced an immaculate first touch to control the ball, before hammering in the go-ahead goal with his left foot. It was a moment that nobody saw coming, least of all anyone on our corner of the stadium, most of whom had to make sure the players (and the fans closer to the play) were celebrating the goal before erupting in joy ourselves.

The referee brought the match to an end only a few minutes later, and the boys in blue registered its second victory in Tampa. The game itself was a proverbial roller coaster, and its outcome not decidedly until the dying minutes. But those of us in the stands, the team's performance was secondary to the result, and even to watching see our World Cup squad in the flesh. These are the men who will be representing us on the grandest stage in sports.

It's difficult to say whether these friendlies were a preview of things to come in Brazil. It's even more challenging to predict how Japan would perform in the tournament based on what we saw in Tampa. Perhaps Japan won't take home the Jules Rimet trophy playing the way they did during those two nights. If nothing else, their games will make for a wildly entertaining viewing over the next several weeks.