Japan played a great match versus Belgium at the World Cup but eventually lost 2:3 in the final minute of extra time yesterday. Nevertheless, the Blue Samurais` performance at the World Cup is rightly seen as an success, here in Japan but also overseas. (I had predicted here a crash out in the first round and was happy to be proven wrong).
With all the words of praise in today's media coverage in Japan, fans and observers overlook an important fact. Japan would likely have won and proceeded to the Best 8 if it had a world-class goalkeeper.
Eiji Kawashima (35), the Japanese goalkeeper, only played an average tournament. He made some super-saves but also committed major mistakes in the matches vs. Columbia and Senegal. Plus he was everything but in control prior and during the first goal of the Belgians yesterday.
To be very clear, Kawashima is probably the best goalkeeper Japan currently has. But this exactly is the problem. Japan never had and does not have at present a world-class goalkeeper, somebody who can make the difference and win unwinnable matches for his team.
The best example for the opposite is Germany. Four years ago, Germany only succeeded to lift the world cup trophy because it had Manuel Neuer. It was Neuer, who alone won two matches by denying the opponents any success (matches vs. Algeria and France). An even better example was the German team reaching the finals vs. Brazil in 2002. An average-at-best team made it to runner-up simply only because they had goalkeeper titan Oliver Kahn.
But again, I am not blaming Kawashima. On the contrary, he actually is the prototype of what Japanese soccer needs to achieve – and surpass. He has played abroad since 2010 and gained valuable international experience among others in Belgium and Scotland but admittedly not at top clubs . He currently plays at FC Metz in France, which was just relegated to the second-division – you see my point?
It's the goalie, stupid. You need a superman between the posts. Otherwise, you struggle to make it beyond the Best 16. Ask England and others.
The Japanese soccer federation needs to give the goalkeeper position the attention and glamor it deserves. It needs to make young Japanese boys to have goalie idols and make them aspire to be the next superman. Difficult in an environment that puts (over-)emphasis on the group, i.e. the team. But it is no contradiction in terms. Here are a few suggestions how to achieve this.
Make J-League clubs not only hire elder foreign field players like Podolski or Iniesta. Rather support transfers of foreign goalkeepers with the potential for star status in Japan.
Intensify the focus on goalkeepers in soccer federation actions, be it in soccer schools for the young kids or in other more focused support for aspiring young Japanese goalies.
Launch a soccer manga built around the rather odd goalie superstar and not the likeable striker or libero types, who usually play these roles.
Make Japanese TV stations and media in general focus on portraying goalkeepers, be it foreign stars or even better Japanese stars in the making.
Help good but yet not perfect goalkeepers gaining experience overseas as Kawashima did. Do it strategically and systematically.
Finally, the soccer federation might even reconsider an idea that Oliver Kahn himself promoted back in 2012 with Japanese TV stations but failed. Kahn had suggested to produce a TV series with him as the main star training and testing 11 aspiring young goalie. It was a very competitive concept, during which one man per week was eliminated with only one winner eventually chosen by Kahn as the only survivor.
The same Oliver Kahn did not make friends with the Japanese today when he openly criticized Kawashima's performance in the Belgium match. But he has a point. Japan soccer would better listen to him.
PS: I am fully aware that a German writing this post should be very careful giving any advise after Germany`s dismay and utterly disappointing performance during this World Cup. Germany had super star Manuel Neuer between the posts and still did not prevail. But this is also the ultimate proof point.
Neuer had not fully recovered from a long-term injury prior to these finals. Nevertheless, all Germans wanted him to play knowing that he might make the relevant difference again. But he dropped a simple ball during the Korea match. Though he managed to save the situation in the last second, the team`s already shaken self-confidence was ultimately broken and never recovered during the match. The rest is embarrassing history. It's the goalie, stupid.