The consensus is shared among players, coaches, journalists and fans: Japan deserved far more than they got at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009. The young Samurai Blue won the respect of all fans in Lagos with their eye-catching, technical, attacking football. But lack of a cutting edge in both penalty areas was their downfall, and they were eliminated with a dismal record of three games, three defeats.
The tears on Takashi Usami’s face summed up the mood of the entire Japanese camp after their defeat to Mexico. Inconsolable, he held his head in his hands without looking up from the ground: "I’m very upset, I feel like it’s my fault that we lost. If I’d put away a few of the many chances we created, we’d be through now," the Gamba Osaka player told FIFA.com. And the tears continued to flow, his mind undoubtedly cast back to the half-dozen clear goal-scoring opportunities he failed to convert against Mexico goalkeeper Jose Rodriguez.
But as coach Yutaka Ikeuchi explains, Japan’s elimination cannot be attributed to any one player. "It’s not only these boys that have trouble scoring goals – it afflicts all levels of Japanese football. That is the biggest lesson we’ve learnt in Nigeria: you can play brilliantly in midfield, but if you don’t convert your chances and prevent your opponents from converting theirs, then you can’t win matches."
The cold statistics will reveal that Japan lost all three of their games, scoring five goals and conceding nine in the process. But delving a little deeper into their campaign, they were clearly unfortunate to lose to Brazil, who scored the winner with the last kick of the game. Against tournament surprise packages Switzerland, they led 2-0 until the 43rd minute, and in their final game against El Tri, squandered a host of one-on-ones against Mexican shot-stopper Rodriguez.
"Our poor performance today was in large part down to how well Japan played. They have a strong side and caused problems for all teams in the group, not just Mexico. It’s a pity they didn’t get through, they deserved a place in the last 16," said Mexico coach Jose Luis Gonzalez China, whose sentiments will be echoed by most people who witnessed Japan in action.
Lessons to be learnt
The post-match press conference following their elimination featured a surprised Yutaka Ikeuchi – not just because of the result against Mexico, but due to the amount of journalists who came up to congratulate him on his team’s fine performance.
But true to form, the coach refused to make excuses. "I thought we could get to the semi-finals, but we’ve failed. I don’t put it down to bad luck – this is football, and you have to score to win," he told FIFA.com.
The Nigerian fans were also sorry to see Japan go out, and expressed their appreciation through warm applause after the Mexico match. For them, the skill and movement of Usami, the pinpoint passing of Gaku Shibasaki and Shuto, and the goals of Takumi Miyayoshi, Kenyu Sugimoto and Yoshiaki Takagi will be among their abiding memories of Nigeria 2009.