James Lawton: Blue Samurai show England how to play with pride in the shirt
While France and England were the despair of their nations, Japan showed how far you could go when you fight to the last bead of sweat
Wednesday 30 June 2010
Japan are still in the margins of world football's elite. Indeed, between the Blue Samurai and the big yellow machine of Brazil there remains a vast gulf of history and technique.
However, between the team that departed the big stage so stoically here yesterday, who over these last few weeks have displayed impressively the wit and touch of a player like the now celebrated running, shooting brand name Keisuke Honda, and some other older powers of the game, you wouldn't begin to define the gap anything so graphically.
No prizes for guessing who we might have in mind. While France and England were the despair of their nations, Japan showed quite how far you could go when you are ready to fight to the last bead of sweat, when you bring to football's greatest tournament the shining quality of pride.
Paraguay, strictly speaking, were the better team and deserved their historic passage into the quarter-finals. Yet you couldn't have drawn a line between the South Americans and opponents who in the end lost by one mis-directed penalty.
The culprit was 28-year-old Yuichi Komano, a full-back famed for his perfect defensive inclinations, a hard tackler of relentless application – and, of course, moral courage.
That's what it takes to step to the line after 120 minutes of deadlock with a team of superior skill and deeper football culture. Komano's failure allowed Paraguay to go beyond their previous high-points of achievement, second-round defeats by England, France and Italy, but when Oscar Cardozo of Benfica swept in rather imperiously their fifth immaculate penalty, there was no sense that he had been separated from a team of wonderful commitment.
Paraguay had been unflinching against the crumbling world champions Italy in their opening group game but they made no easy assumptions about their ability to contain the force of football's rising sun. It is not one which is likely to blind us with virtuosity in the near future but there is, plainly, a level of resolve and eagerness to produce the very best of themselves which will not be quickly forgotten.
They also won the inscrutability award, perhaps not surprisingly, by the width of the Sea of Japan. When Komano blazed the wrong side of the woodwork, coach Takeshi Okada didn't move an eye-lid. The player was then helped from the field with a firm hand and an understanding that there is no cruelty in any theatre of sport to compare with the one imposed upon a man who will always know that he was, however arbitrarily, the reason for his team's exit from their finest moments.
For Paraguay's Argentine coach Gerard Martino the moment of success was a time of engulfing emotion. He had fretted for so long over the failure of his team to claim with more authority the few chances that came in action that was relentlessly pursued – but without too much creative clarity.
Paraguay can claim, though, to have battled through plenty of turbulence of their own. Many fans argued that there were too many Argentine-born players in their squad but Martino defended the policy with some vigour. "It's not an easy problem. I see it less as a consequence of nationalism, more a matter of football taste. The discussion usually centres on whether the player is good enough, and in my mind there is no argument. The Argentine-born players qualify as Paraguayans – they are blood descendents of families who moved from their homes for economic reasons. So they have emotion for Paraguay as well as the required level of football skill." That wasn't always blazingly evident, and certainly not in the anonymous performance of Manchester City's expensive Roque Santa Cruz. He was withdrawn before the nervy wind-down to the shoot-out.
Paraguay, finally, showed the composure that has marked so much of the South American effort here. They also completed their historic mission to reach the quarter-finals of the great tournament, a place at least a little closer to Brazil and Argentina. The crusade could scarcely have had a less encouraging start when their best forward, Salvador Cabanas, was in January shot in the head in a Mexico City nightclub at 5am.
The bullet lodged at the back of his skull and the star of leading Mexican team Club America hovered on the danger list for some time. So too did his former team-mates as the Blue Samurai made their last charge for unprecedented World Cup glory. It wasn't a great game and it never moved too far towards the centre of the stage. But it did have integrity and it did show how far you can go if you have a mind for the challenge – and a seriously competitive heart.
The message was there for anyone inclined to receive it, but perhaps on this matter we should not hold our breath.
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