Disgruntled fans give Japan the pressure they needed
February 8, 2010: Takeshi Okada wanted some tough matches in the build-up to the World Cup, and the East Asian Championship has already given him one in the 0-0 draw with China.
Unlike a meaningless friendly against a European glamour team playing at half-strength and half-pace, this was a proper match in an official tournament and brought with it the pressure and conditions the players needed.
Japan could not win it, and very nearly lost it but for the late penalty save by Seigo Narazaki, whose importance to the team at the World Cup in South Africa cannot be overstated.
Even though Japan could not be faulted for effort or for commitment in a frequently furious encounter with a determined China team, their inability to score and win produced boos and jeers from the Ajinomoto Stadium crowd.
Good on the fans, I say, as this can only help toughen up the players in the run-up to the World Cup. We all know the players get spoiled in the J.League by their tolerant, forgiving supporters, and that national team games attract a fair percentage of “fashionistas” who love to wear the blue and cheer for their own personal favourite to the bitter end.
So the reaction at Ajinomoto Stadium will serve Okada well, as he will be able to observe the players in a more hostile environment. Some players will rise to the challenge and others may buckle under the pressure and expectation, helping the coach in his selection of the final 23 players for the World Cup.
The next match, against Hong Kong on Thursday, should not provide much of a test, unfortunately, as the gap between Korea and Hong Kong on Sunday night was vast. But still, Japan will need to score early to settle nerves and build up some momentum, just like Korea did, so this will bring its own kind of pressure, too.
When chances come along, Japan will have to relax and take them clinically, rather than snatching at them in a panic and adding to the tension at the next opportunity.
They will need to get the fans on their side, and need to gain confidence as well as the three points before the crunch match with Korea on Sunday.
So this is turning into a very worthwhile tournament for Okada – more than he could have imagined or perhaps even wanted.
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