In general, Japan’s Olympic athletes have surpassed expectations. But the footballers came home before Usain Bolt had laced up his Pumas, before Britain dominated the velodrome and before Ryan Lochte got robbed/not robbed/vandalized a toilet/lied to investigators (delete as appropriate).
Let’s take a look back at what went wrong for Teguramori and Japan’s olympic football dream.
The build up
You can’t say that there was that much wrong with the build up itself. They arrived in Brazil with plenty of time to get acclimatized and were relatively healthy although they weren’t helped by Young Boys refusing to release Yuya Kubo due to injuries at the Swiss club, and the selection Musashi Suzuki did little to fire the imagination. In contrast with their opponents in the first game, Nigeria, though, Japan had a calm and stable build up. Nigeria only arrived in Manaus five hours before the opening game, but that wasn’t to matter in what amounted to a very bizarre opening game.
Japan 4-5 Nigeria
Just looking at the score should tell you that this was a crazy game, but it really doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Teguramori opted for Kushibiki in goal, meaning that the much fancied Kosuke Nakamura – who had been in good form for the past year for Avispa Fukuoka and Kashiwa Reysol – was left on the bench. All of Japan’s overage players were in the starting line up, meaning that Takuma Asano was left on the bench.
Japan’s defence really contributed to this defeat. Kushibiki was at fault for the first goal, Muroya for the second, a greatest hits of bad defending for the third, a penalty for the fourth and another Kushibiki mistake for the fifth. It was amateur night in the Japanese backline, and not even two late goals could put any gloss on the performance. Defensively shambolic, changes needed to be made for the second game against Colombia.
Japan 2-2 Colombia
Kosuke Nakamura was recalled for the crunch game against Colombia, but the defensive four of Muroya, Shiotani, Ueda & Fujihara were surprisingly kept by Teguramori. Yosuke Ideguchi, Shinya Yajima and Takuma Asano also came into the starting XI. A fine save by Nakamura helped keep the score 0-0 at half time, and Japan almost took the lead in the second half, but Asano’s rocket cannoned back off the bar.
Japan found themselves 0-1 down on the hour when Gutierrez’s shot was deflected past Nakamura. Worse was to come for Japan as Hiroki Fujiharu’s comedy own goal, he somehow managed to put the ball in his own net under no pressure whatsoever, made it 0-2 and put Japan on the brink of elimination.
From the precipice of despair, two of the bright young guns of Japan fired the Samurai Blue back into contention. The lively Asano powered the ball in from just inside the area, and then Shoya Nakajima unleashed a bolt from the blue, hitting the ball from 25 yards out past the Colombian keeper and off the underside of the bar. Japan couldn’t find a winner, and now had to hope Nigeria – already qualified after beating Sweden – would do the business against Colombia.
Japan 1-0 Sweden
The dictionary definition of a “hollow victory” – Shinya Yajima’s second half strike gave Japan the win, but Colombia’s 2-0 win against Nigeria rendered it useless.
The final table looked like this:
So what went wrong?
Coach Makoto Teguramori bemoaned a “lack of luck” in the first two games, which would seem to be a bit of stretch. From my point of view, only Colombia’s first goal could be considered “unlucky” – the rest were down to really poor defending. And that was the problem. Did they underestimate Nigeria in the opening game? I wouldn’t have thought so, although it is possible that Nigeria’s difficult travel arrangements might have made their way into the players’ brains. Teguramori made a mistake in selecting Kushibiki when he had Kosuke Nakamura at his disposal. I believe Kushibiki hadn’t started a game for Kashima Antlers previous to the Nigeria game, and it showed in his rusty performance. One wonders the reason for selecting Kushibiki over Nakamura. Maybe Teguramori wanted to reward Kushibiki for the role he played in helping Japan get to the tournament, after all he was the goalkeeper in Japan’s victorious AFC U23 campaign in January. Whatever the reason(s), it backfired against Nigeria.
Japan’s lack of a truly special defender was also shown up. I believe Naomichi Ueda will turn into a very good national team centre back in the near future, but in this tournament he was exposed because the players around him – including the overage players of Shiotani & Fujiharu – were really poor. Against Nigeria in particular, the full-backs were poor, constantly making bad decision after bad decision. Muroya is relatively inexperienced, and one would hope that some improved displays for FC Tokyo would help him get over this tournament.
Japan’s hopes were ultimately torpedoed by their error strewn defence. The forwards looked decent, as they had to when dealing with deficits for most of the time. Asano showed glimpses of why Arsene Wenger chose to take him to Arsenal, and Ryota Oshima, the Kawasaki Frontale midfielder, oozed class whenever he touched the ball. If he can kick on from here, he will be a great addition to the full Japanese squad.
Will Teguramori be at the helm in Tokyo in four years time? It didn’t seem like a possibility after this first stage exit, but there has been no official word yet. The rumour mill in Japan has Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Hajime Moriyasu or Kawasaki Frontale’s Yahiro Kazama in the frame to coach the hosts in 2020. Whoever is in charge, they’ll look to do significantly better than the 2016 Olympic vintage.