Tokyo (AFP) – Japan’s football chief has saluted the team for its “fair play” as debate rages over the manner in which the Blue Samurai booked their spot in the last 16 of the World Cup.
Kozo Tashima, president of the Japan Football Association (JFA), insisted the team deserved a place in the knockout stage in Russia, won at the expense of Senegal by virtue of having picked up fewer yellow cards.
However, Japan have faced an angry backlash for running down the clock in the last 15 minutes despite losing 1-0 to Poland on Thursday, gambling that the West Africans would not equalise against Columbia in the other Group H game.
“It is our commitment to fair play that has got us through,” Tashima told local media on Friday after Japan moved on to face Belgium next week.
“We had fewer yellow cards so we were able to progress. It’s the result of the ‘Japan Way’ — a thorough dedication to passing football and playing in a fair manner.”
Those comments rang hollow to many, however, after the Japanese played keep-ball inside their own half under instructions from coach Akira Nishino and were booed off the pitch at the final whistle.
As several foreign television commentators slammed the tactics and referenced the infamous 1982 World Cup match between West Germany and Austria, where both teams played out a mutually beneficial 1-0 win for the Germans, Tashima leapt to Nishino’s defence.
“Our main objective was to get through the group stage,” said the JFA chief, who took the controversial decision to sack former Franco-Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic two months before the World Cup and replace him with Nishino.
– ‘It took guts’ –
“I actually think it’s great we’ve become a team capable of playing that kind of football,” Tashima added.
“There was a risk we could have gone 2-0 behind if we had kept pushing. It was the right decision and it took guts.”
Former JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi also praised Nishino for a call that will have done little to endear Japan to neutral fans in Russia and around the world after defying the odds to advance.
“There was a high possibility that we would go through to the knockout phase losing by one goal,” he said.
“That call was absolutely spot on. (Nishino) has emerged as a great coach.”
Japan finished level with Senegal on four points and with identical goal difference but with a better disciplinary record. Colombia won the group with six points from three games.
Nishino called his decision “regrettable” after the game and revealed that he would talk to his players about the thought process.
Despite widespread criticism, however, the Japanese players toed the party line after the match and agreed it was job done.
“It was an all-or-nothing call but in fact it was a victory for teamwork,” former Japan defender Yutaka Akita wrote in a newspaper column.
“Japan had their staff at the Colombia-Senegal game analysing and reporting to the coach,” he added.
“Nishino used their data to plan his tactics, instructed the players accordingly — and we move on.”