In January 2017, I met Javier Aguirre in Abu Dhabi. The Mexican had left his position as boss of Japan’s national team in 2015 and told me that the Samurai Blue needed to be a little less nice and more ‘street-smart’ on the pitch. “Japan have everything,” he said. “They need just this thing.”
The former Atletico Madrid boss didn’t have enough time in Tokyo to put his plan into action but one wonders what he would have made of his old team copping criticism for being too cynical at the 2018 World Cup.
The situation was an unusual one. It was the final game of Group H and Japan, with four points from the opening two games against Colombia and Senegal, needed just one more against the already-eliminated Poland in Volgograd to ensure a place in the knockout stage.
Poland took the lead but that didn’t mean the end for Japan. With Colombia winning 1-0 against Senegal in the group’s other fixture, the two scorelines – if they stayed the same – meant that Japan would go through to the last 16 by the narrowest of margins.
The Asians and the Africans could not be separated: they had the same number of points, the same goal difference and had scored the same number of goals. The next tiebreaker was one of “fair play” which meant that the team that had received fewer yellow and red cards would go through. Japan had four to Senegal’s six and with ten minutes remaining, were heading to the knockout stage.
That is when the team stopped playing and it wasn’t just due to the sweltering temperatures in Volgograd. Japan decided to stick rather than twist. The Samurai Blue simply passed the ball around the halfway line for the final period of the game. It takes two to tango, or rather to decide not to, and Poland were quite happy to do nothing and accept the win. There was no reason to exert themselves and leave gaps at the back trying to turn 1-0 into 2-0. They were going home whatever happened.
Tough decision, coach concedes
“It was a very tough decision, of course,” Japan coach Akira Nishino said. “We conceded a goal, but with the time passing the other match moved. We could not concede another goal. So with the time passing it was my decision to stay put.”
Neutral fans in the Volgograd Arena made their displeasure known and started to jeer the Japanese. It was an unfamiliar situation. The Samurai Blue generally play good football and have been well-liked in the eyes of the football world since they made their World Cup debut in 1998. Here they were pushing the rules to the absolute limit.
Nishino had two choices. Try and score but maybe allow Poland to do the same. Or to do nothing and hope that Senegal did not score against Colombia. In his mind, the first was the riskier option.
“I’m not too happy about this but I forced my players to do what I said. It was a very tough decision,” he explained.”There was a ‘what if?’ on our pitch, and a ‘what if?’ on the other pitch. I chose to keep the status quo in our game, and rely instead on the other result.
“I view that it was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point that I didn’t have any other plans.” In the end, the ends justify the means. “The World Cup is such that these things happen. And we went through. Therefore it was perhaps the right decision.”
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse was left frustrated at how his team came as close as it was possible to the second round without going through.
“This is the law of the game,” Cissé said. “We have not qualified because we did not deserve it. This is life. We have a number of rules which have been established and we have to respect that. We are fully committed and maybe because we are so committed, we get more yellow cards.”
Others were less understanding. Northern Ireland head coach Michael O’Neill was scathing. “It is mind-boggling for me as a coach to leave your whole destiny in the hands of another game, and do it for so long,” he said. “I had developed a bit of a soft spot for Japan, but I hope they get battered in the next round.”
At least Japan are in the next round and for many, that is all that matters. Next comes a huge clash with a talented Belgium team. If Japan win that, there will be a first quarterfinal appearance ever.
But whatever happens, the Samurai Blue have shown that they too can be pragmatic and even a little cynical. Maybe now, Japan have everything they need to be a success.