Japan qualifying on FairPlay is a footballing outrage
If you’re ever lucky enough to visit Japan, one thing will strike you more than the dazzling architecture, natural beauty and cultural history. The Japanese people, by and large, are the politest in the world.
Just as their football team arrived at Russia with an air of mystery – few really knew how well they were going to play – the country itself is often a bit of a puzzle to Westerners. Through Japan’s footballing exploits, however, we have been provided an insight into their national identity. Respect and politeness are pillars of their society.
They haven’t just saved you a very expensive trip to Japan.
Akira Nishino’s qualified for the last 16 of the World Cup because of a better disciplinary record than Senegal: the genteel and affable national character seemingly translating onto the football pitch.
What they haven’t saved you from is a question that pierces the very heart of the game, an existential crisis so large that you’ll be momentarily stunned. Is it right that a team qualify because of a better disciplinary record?
It is overwhelmingly flat that such an important decision hinge on something as inconsequential as the number of yellow cards picked up. This World Cup has been a theatre of riveting drama thus far, and to determine a country’s progression through this manner is jarring – and, let’s face it, hardly entertaining.
With Colombia beating Senegal 1-0, Japan trailing Poland by one goal was just fine. Nishino knew this, so instead of imploring his men to go hell for leather in search of a decisive equaliser, he ordered his side to sit back, and oddly enough, protect their 1-0 deficit.
Nishino’s decision didn’t sit well with him, even if it was in the country’s best interests.
“I’m not too happy about this but I forced my players to do what I said. We did not go for victory, but we just relied on the other match. I view that it was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point that I didn’t have any other plans. The World Cup is such that these things happen. And we went through. Therefore it was perhaps the right decision.”
Nishino’s dilemma was similar to the one Gareth Southgate faced as England lined up against Belgium on Thursday night. The England boss had to weigh whether he wanted his side to protect the game's integrity by going for the win or allow his men to conclude the group-stages on a whimper. The latter transpired, gifting England an “easier” route to the final. That’s if they navigate their way past Colombia.
Football fans are often incontinent with rage when an opposing player receives a paltry yellow for halting a promising counterattack. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for the entertainment such cynicism brings. Commonly referred to as shithousery, such antics are enjoyable [providing it isn’t your team on the receiving end]. They are part and parcel of the game. The frustrated kick-out, the play-ground push after a nasty challenge, the gamesmanship inherent in time-wasting, standing over the ball to delay a free kick, kicking the ball away. Put away your faux footballing morality and appreciate that the ugly and beautiful hold equal weight in the game. Each adds to the theatre.
We risk losing an important balance if we continue to decide progression on disciplinary records. Rather than employing a system that inadvertently reduces the entertainment, FIFA should implement a solution that creates greater spectacle.
It’s all well and good complaining about the current state of affairs, but is there a genuinely viable alternative?
A coin toss would be fairer. Yet apart from the sadistic joy of seeing a country’s World Cup ambition determined on one flip, it lacks entertainment value. Should it be decided on the total shots a team has fired off? If sides knew this would be a factor before the group-stages begin, they may be more receptive to the idea of an expansive, attacking style, providing matches with greater urgency and adventure. Again, though, it feels unfulfilling.
What we are really after is something to happen at the end of all the group stage matches. Something with the same tension as a penalty shoot-out. For logistical reasons, a shootout probably couldn’t happen. Or, could it?
Could FIFA mandate that any team in contention on the final day send their second or third choice goalkeeper over to the stadium where the other group match is ongoing? It's an unlikely event. Only Japan’s progression has been cast on fair play. But sending one keeper to the other match enables a penalty-shootout to take place. If it doesn't happen, it's an interesting story to tell in later years.
Such a trip would be an isolating experience for the opposition goalkeeper, alone and without the vocal backing of your nation’s support or teammates. Perhaps an assistant coach could travel with him. In any event, it's an equitable situation. The rival will be sending a man in the opposite direction. Each country’s shoot-out could be projected onto the big screen. That would be rather interesting, indeed.
Perhaps it is a little far-fetched, and it's admittedly more difficult to pull off when three teams are involved, but I’m not paid to come up with ideas for FIFA. The current system is, to put it politely, boring. Entertainment should take precedence. Another method must exist beyond the feeble manner in which Samurai Blue gained passage to the last 16.