No substitute for effort, fighting spirit
Hong Kong, December 11, 2009: Sometimes I think I have been in Japan too long.
For example, last night (Thursday) I asked a media colleague in Hong Kong what had impressed him about Japan's performance in their last-ditch 2-1 victory over South Korea in the East Asian Games semi-finals.
I was expecting him to talk about the formation of Japan, or the tactics and strategy of Japan, but instead he said simply: “I was impressed because they won. They did not give up and kept trying to the end, and were rewarded with a goal in the last minute of extra time.”
This was a very accurate answer, and I almost felt ashamed for asking the question – but it is the price you pay for being in Japan for so long, and often losing touch with the fundamentals of the game: effort, hard work, team spirit and a positive attitude.
I have no idea how much publicity this victory for a Japan under-20 team received back home in Japan, but honestly it was a memorable night at the Hong Kong Stadium.
Japan took the lead on nine minutes with a cracking first-time shot from Kosuke Yamamoto (Jubilo Iwata), but Korea pulled level with a deflected free kick just 11 minutes later.
There was nothing to choose between the two sides as they entered 30 minutes of extra time, and the result looked destined to be decided on penalties until Kensuke Nagai (Fukuoka University) settled the issue with Japan's last attack in stoppage time. Breaking clear in the inside right channel, Nagai clipped the ball into the far corner under pressure from the keeper and a Korean defender to send the Japanese bench into ecstacy.
Another media colleague sitting next to me said it was a Michael Owen-style finish – but he would say that as a Manchester United fan from George Best- country Northern Ireland – while I likened it more to a classic, angled strike from the Liverpool and Scotland maestro, Kenny Dalglish.
Whatever, Nagai had won the game in the 121st minute for a Japanese team that struggled for long periods but had kept fighting to the end.
We can often talk too much about tactics, technique and strategy in the Japanese football media, but they count for nothing without a fighting spirit and an attitude that can win the game like the Japan team did at the East Asian Games on Thursday.
The Saturday showdown against Hong Kong, who edged North Korea on penalties in the second semi-final, promises to be a cracker. I hope you can watch it in Japan.
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