After losing 4-1 to Colombia on Tuesday, Japan are heading back home -- after three extremely frustrating World Cup performances -- where they are likely to receive a cold reception. The domestic press seems even more surprised and confused by the Samurai Blue's overall performance than international journalists have been.
This would be a source of great amusement, were it not for the fact that Japan will have to carry the disgrace of their winless exit for a minimum of four years. Only if they qualify for Russia 2018 will overseas fans have a chance to take them seriously again, and this is a pity, because the truth of the matter is that Japan could quite easily have negotiated Group C, if their coach and FA had paid attention to some glaring problems that have been visible for almost two years.
Japan have a wealth of talent available, including a half-dozen young and energetic emerging stars who most people expected to see action in Brazil this year. However, some of the most talented were left in Japan, while other rising prospects like Manabu Saito, Yoichiro Kakitani, Hiroki Sakai and Gotoku Sakai watched almost the entire display from the sidelines.
Few of those who did see action can really be happy with their performances, but it was tactics and player selection that really let the team down. The players deserve none of the shame that is going to fall on them as a result of their quick exit. Even weak links like Yasuhito Endo and Yasuyuki Konno cannot be criticised for making an effort. It was not their fault that they were asked to deliver more than they were capable of providing. That blame lies with manager Alberto Zaccheroni and his bosses/assistants from the JFA.
Indeed, there were a number of key errors in this campaign, notably:
- The insertion of Endo as a substitute, early in the second half of the Ivory Coast contest, while Japan still held a 1-0 lead. Endo should have retired from national team duty almost two years ago, but he does possess (or did possess when a bit younger) offensive skills that can improve the team's effectiveness going forward. If Japan had been in need of a goal, and struggling to create offense, perhaps this might have been a sensible decision. When Zac brought him on, however, Japan were already struggling to keep Ivory Coast at bay. As soon as he stepped onto the pitch, Japan's defensive resilience collapsed, and it took just ten minutes for the Elephants to reverse the score line.
- The decision to drop Masato Morishige from the starting lineup for the final two matches. As soon as Morishige replaced Konno in the starting lineup back in October 2013, Japan achieved some of their best results in the Zaccheroni era. So why did Konno get a chance in Brazil? Anyone who watched him concede the penalty to Colombia in the 16th minute can see his weaknesses. Morishige may have had some unknown ailment that made it impossible to hand him the starting position, but Zaccheroni could have turned to Toshihiro Aoyama instead.
- The substitutions that never came. For most Samurai Blue fans, the most inexplicable coaching decision came in the match against Greece, when Zaccheroni failed to use his third substitution despite his team struggling to break down a 10-man Greek defence. Again, in the Colombia contest, substitutions were ill-considered and arrived too late. In the end, Kakitani received a mere five minutes of playing time, while Saito never even got off the bench.
It boils down to the fact that, in every detail, the approach that Zaccheroni took ahead of this World Cup seemed to mirror the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, when then-manager Zico led Japan to a similar disaster. Yet it seems almost impossible to believe how closely the two tournaments resemble one another.
Both times Japan took an early lead in their opening match (against a team wearing yellow), only to squander that lead down the stretch and lose the game when a poorly considered defensive substitution disrupted the team's rhythm and organization.
Both times Japan were held to a scoreless draw in their second contest, partly due to a very bad miss by one of their supposed top strikers, when he had the goal at his mercy (Atsushi Yanagisawa in 2006; Yoshito Okubo in 2014).
Both times the final match was played against the strongest team in the group (who were wearing gold uniforms). Both times Japan got off to an encouraging start, but poor player selection and the sheer quality of their opponents prevailed, with the match turning into a rout in the second half. Show highlights of the two tournaments side by side, with faces and uniform numbers obscured, and very few people would be able to tell the difference.
Looking back on the past four years, the feeling one gets is not so much regret -- due to all the potential that was wasted -- but a sense of real concern and foreboding. This year's World Cup disaster was the result of deeply ingrained organizational flaws, and a lack of careful strategic planning and preparation. If this same sad story could play out TWICE, in the course of just three World Cup cycles, the chances are that the same thing will happen again in 2018, regardless of who is chosen to replace Zaccheroni as manager.