Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Strike Out

Strike Out - Does the Japanese Group Ethic Hold Back Goalscorers?

Two games in and Japan face an early exit from the Word Cup to the surprise of no one except a deluded media and 127 million fans.

Goals, goals, goals please!The finger of blame has been pointed in all directions - Zico's tactics , the players energy levels, lack of passion, the TV schedules and so on. All have some merit but any team without good forwards will struggle and Japan's hapless strikers handicapped the team more than any other aspect.

Zico took 5 forwards to this World Cup but quantity is no substitute for quality. The starting pair of Yanagisawa, conspicuous by his misses, and Takahara, visible only during the national anthem, try hard enough but lack the quality to trouble international defences. Zico looked to the bench but the alternatives were bare.

Japanese soccer has been consistently improving since the formation of the J-League, first time qualification at France 98 and the relative success of Korea-Japan 2002. The production line of players seems steady and classy midfielders like Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura look comfortable on the highest stage.

Still while Japan can give us industrious and sleek players they have never produced a striker worth mentioning.

An obvious reason for this is physiological. Height, strength and power are important elements and the smaller frame of the Japanese places them at a disadvantage. The average Japanese male stands at 165cm compared to 175cm for Brits and Americans and 180 for the Germans.

So statistically Japan is less likely to produce beanpole strikers like the Czech's Koller (202cm). But strikers come in all shapes and sizes. Michael Owen is 176cm and Pele was 172 in his socks. Meanwhile Takahara and Yanagisawa are 181cm and 177cm respectively. Not massive but hardly fitting a diminutive stereotype.

Being a striker is a fairly simple job: Score and you are a hero, miss and you're a public enemy.

Do the Japanese strikers want to be heroes enough? Watching France's Thierry Henry I offered a standard view to a Japanese friend about his all-round excellence. He agreed on his technical ability but to my incredulity insisted; "I don't like him. He's too arrogant . He thinks only of himself." But surely that's his job I replied, to which he came back with the very Japanese answer, "He should play more for the team."

The best forwards in the world play only to score goals. They are selfish, hungry and arrogant because these are the qualities that drive their confidence and ability. It's the knowledge that even if a teammate is better placed they have the skill to beat their marker and slam the ball home.

The trouble is many Japanese don't like or produce this kind of personality. They don't fit in with the group mentality. They are not team players. They are the nail that needs to be hammered down. They disrupt the wa.

From kindergarten onwards Japanese are taught to work as a group, to co-operate, to share. No bad things in normal life and the cornerstone of Japan's success in the modern era but in the sporting arena these are not the qualities that produce individual stars.

Come on then Japan. Next time let the players cast off the shackles, express themselves and grab the spotlight. After all a little bit more selfishness is worth a couple of wins in the World Cup isn't it?

Copyright © Will Marquand & Soccerphile.com

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