Hong Kong: a learning experience for Japan
Hong Kong, December 16, 2009: Although Japan's under-20 team ended up with only the silver medals from the East Asian Games, it was a golden opportunity to learn a lot about the international game and the challenges that lie ahead.
First, the atmosphere inside Hong Kong Stadium was buzzing. With the home team in the final, tickets sold out and produced a bumper crowd of 32,000 - about 20,000 more than watched the recent Asian Cup qualifier between Hong Kong and Japan when they both fielded their full international teams.
There was a real passion about the home supporters, too; true pride in their own team. I lived in Hong Kong from 1989 to 1996 and watched hundreds of games around the former British territory, but I can never remember the Hong Kong fans getting behind their team as much as they did in the East Asian Games. It was as if the Hong Kong people had finally found their own sporting identity, following the 1997 handover to the motherland, and created an atmosphere that was worthy of a much bigger event.
Second, the pitch. Unfortunately, for such a magnificent stadium, the playing surface was a long way removed from the smooth and green snooker tables of Japan. It cut up easily, and a sharp turn of the studs could bring up a fair-sized chunk of turf. Again, though, good experience of away conditions for the Japanese youngsters.
Third, the referee. I avoid criticising referees wherever possible because they have a tough enough job as it is. But Japan really did suffer from some strange decisions, especially in the awarding of free kicks around their own box. The funniest one, though, came at the end of extra time. The stadium clock clearly showed 14 minutes and 49 seconds when the Vietnamese referee blew the final whistle - only 11 seconds short, admittedly, but still most unusual. Credit to the Japanese players, too, as they surrounded the ref and pointed at the clock rather than just accepting it and preparing for the penalty shootout. The ref's response was to point at his wrist watch, possibly purchased, at a generous discount, earlier in the day at a Mong Kok market stall.
Although Japan lost the shootout 4-2 after a 1-1 draw, the young players of coach Nishimura will have taken home a lot more than their silver medals. Maybe even a new wrist watch.
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