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Japan and the World Cup: Silencing the critics

Ranked near the bottom of the 32 teams on the field in South Africa, facing odds estimated at 400-to-1 and four straight pre-tournament losses to boot, Japan was not even expected to win a game in this year's World Cup, let alone advance to the knock-out round.

How quickly perceptions change. With a convincing 3-1 victory over the favoured Danish team on Thursday, Japan has earned itself a place behind Holland in Group E, advancing to the next round for only the second time in World Cup history and the first time on foreign soil. A mesmerizing 35-meter free kick by rising star Keisuke Honda gave Japan their lead in the 17th minute, followed in quick succession with another by free-kick specialist Yasuhito Endo from 25 meters out in the 30th minute. The Danes never managed to recover from the early assault, and the game ended with Japanese maintaining a comfortable two goal lead.

Blogger Fumofumocolumn describes the feeling in the early morning hours in Japan when the Japanese team secured its place in the knockout round:

南アフリカの大地。宵闇の中のスタジアム。緑のピッチに映える、夏空のように濃く青いユニフォーム。胸に輝く日の丸は、朝焼けの色。夜明けの赤。今この記憶を書き綴る間にも、胸が高鳴り、手が震えるほどの昂ぶり。日本ではもう新しい朝が始まっています。この太陽は日本サッカーの暗闇を払い、夜明けを告げる光。7時間後、南アフリカの大地にもこの太陽がめぐり、僕らの代表を明るく照らします。ライジング・サン。日本代表は雄雄しく、誇らしく、ベスト16へと駆け上がりました。

On the ground in South Africa. A stadium at nightfall. Piercing the green of the field, the deep blue uniforms shine like the summer sky. The flags on their chests glitter with the red of the rising sun. The red of daybreak. Even now, as I write this, the excitement of the game is so strong that my heart still pounds, my hands still shake. In Japan, a new day has already begun. The sun has swept away the darkness that clouded Japanese soccer, and the sunlight proclaims the start of a new day. At around 7 o'clock, this sun will come round to South Africa and shine down brightly on our players over there. The Rising Sun. With courage and pride, the Japan team has advanced to the next round, as one of the best 16 teams in the World Cup.

引き分け以上で決勝トーナメント進出が決まるデンマーク戦。別会場で行われるオランダVSカメルーン戦は勝ち抜けを争う戦いではないので、日本代表の試合が世界の注目を集めたことでしょう。その大舞台でこんな結果が出るとは、いい意味で期待を裏切られました。よもやの3-1。美しい大勝。本田圭佑の無回転 FK弾、遠藤保仁の緩やかなカーブを描くFK弾、本田・岡崎コンビでデンマークDFを切り裂いたダメ押し弾。日本はデンマークを圧倒していました。0-0 引き分けでの勝ち上がりとは違う、力で押し切った戦いぶりは、「偶然」とか「幸運」とか「相手が弱かった」なんて疑問の余地のないもの。勝つべくして、このグループを突破するべくして、日本は勝ち上がったのです。世界の多くのファンも、そして日本のファンも、日本代表の強さを認めたに違いありません。

Japan needed only a tie in the match against Denmark to advance. The game between Holland and Cameroon, which took place at the same time in a different place, had no chance of impacting the final standings, so all the world's eyes were no doubt on the Japan-Denmark match. By achieving such an impressive result on the world stage, the Japanese team has overturned all expectations. A decisive 3-1 win. An amazing and beautiful victory. Keisuke Honda's no-spin free kick, the gentle curve of Yasuhito Endo's free kick, the Honda-Okazaki combination, cutting through Denmark's defence to guarantee the win. Japan overwhelmed Denmark. They could have advanced with a 0-0 tie, but this game was different: Japan put everything they had into it, leaving no room for claims that the win was a “fluke”, that they were “lucky” or that their opponent was “weak”. Japan was bound to win, clinch one of the top positions in its group, and advance. With this win, fans around the world, as well as those in Japan, have witnessed the true power of this Japanese team.

Behind the scenes, there was another story [ja] to Japan's success thus far in the World Cup. Among the record-setting 3,283 tweets-per-second flooding the microblogging service during the Japan-Denmark game, many were expressing apologies to one person: coach Takeshi Okada, who had been the target of fierce domestic and international criticism leading up to the World Cup tournament, most famously from former Japan coach Philippe Troussier, who lamented Okada's “stupid mentality”.

With the Denmark win, all at once the critics were silenced. A new hashtag, “#okachan_sorry“, was even created by Japanese fans to express their apologies to the coach for doubting his leadership abilities.

Team Japan coach Takeshi Okada

A search for the hashtag on Twitter brings up a slew of apologies. One from hase_aki:

正直なところ、監督交代しないとWCは闘えないなと思っていました。ところが、松井、大久保、本田をメインにした起用は大正解‼ 交代が必要だったのは監督でなくて選手のほうだったのね。岡ちゃんゴメン。Go Japan Go #okachan_sorry

Honestly, I didn't think they'd put up much of a fight at the World Cup without a change of coach. But assigning [Daisuke] Matsui, [Yoshito] Okubo and Honda to main positions was absolutely the right thing to do!! It wasn't the coach that needed to be swapped, it was the players. I'm really sorry, Okachan. Go Japan Go. #okachan_sorry

And another from shunta_com:

まだ、デンマーク戦勝利の余韻からさめきれない・・・。目頭が熱くなった一戦だった。個々人としては、決して強くないチームが組織としてひとつになり、勝ち得た戦い。最高!そして、岡田さん、すみませんでした!! #okachan_sorry

I'm not over the high yet of the win against Denmark… My eyes are still red from that game. A group that isn't strong at all as individuals came together and won as a team. Amazing! And Okachan: I'm sorry!! #okachan_sorry

hagure_mental77 goes further:

僕みたいな馬鹿共の心無い批判、嘲笑、罵詈雑言にさらされてもしっかり本番までに戦えるチームを作ってきた岡田監督と選手達はマジすげえ。尊敬する。 #okachan_sorry

I'm so impressed by Okada and the team of players he put together, who managed to make it this far in spite of the criticism, mockery and vilification they had to put up with from people like me. I have great respect for them. #okachan_sorry

Prior to the start of the World Cup, many derided Okada's stated goal to get his team to the World Cup semi-finals just like the South Koreans did in 2002. But attitudes have changed, and expectations have too. That means that more attention than ever will be focused on the Tuesday night match against Paraguay, where many Japanese — and their team's players — believe their team will win.

Should that not happen, some are already looking further ahead. Anybody up for a World Cup in Tokyo?

(Some more Japan soccer-related videos included below for your viewing enjoyment.)

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