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[Goalball] [2018 Goalball Japan Men's Open] Japan Men's Team Takes on Four Strong Countries

The "2018 Goalball Japan Men's Open" was held at the Sakura Civic Gymnasium on January 7–8, inviting Australia, Belgium, Korea and Thailand, for the purpose of strengthening the Japan men's goalball team. Belgium (10th in world ranking) won the event after defeating Thailand (21st in world ranking) 10-1 in the finals. Belgium won all four games in both the preliminary league and the finals tournament.

Two Japanese teams attended to experience top international competition

Japan (14th in world ranking) was third place at the Asia/Pacific Championships last August, and will be attending the World Championships in Sweden next June. For the Men's Open, Japan created two teams with high performance program athletes. Although both teams made it through the preliminary league, each with one win and one loss, in the semifinals Team A lost to Thailand 4-8 and Team B lost to Belgium 6-7. The two teams then competed against each other in the third-place playoffs. Team A won 6-4, taking third place. Korea (20th in world ranking) was fifth and Australia (25th in world ranking) was sixth.

Men's goalball games are powerful and full of speed, and every game was well worth watching. The semifinals between Belgium and Japan's Team B was especially exciting. The game was neck and neck, and was the only one that went into overtime at the event. In the end, Belgium prevailed.

Kaneko, a high school student with great potential

At the first three-minute point, Kazuya Kaneko made the first score with a quick return that bounced off the hand of the opponent's center player. A foul by Belgium led to a penalty throw by Masatoshi Ito, which slipped through Belgium's left side. At this point Japan was leading 2-0. Belgium then came back and caught up. This tense competition continued, going back and forth. Kaneko made a great shot in the last minute, but Belgium caught up and the first half ended in a tie (3-3).

The second half was just as tense, with both teams standing ground. At the two-minute point, another foul by Belgium gave Hiroshi Kobayashi , Ito's replacement, a penalty throw. The well-controlled diagonal shot into Belgium's right corner brought Japan to the lead. Two minutes later, however, Belgium caught up with a powerful shot that bounced off defense player Yuta Kawashima's hand. Belgium then scored and it looked like Japan would be left behind, but at the final four-minute point, Kobayashi brought the score to a tie again. Ito replaced Kobayashi and took the lead again with a fast and straight grounder. The close battle continued, and at 6-6, this pushed the game into the event's only overtime.

The overtime was a three-and-a-half minute golden goal (the first team to score wins). The first half went by with neither team giving way, but at the last 14-second point, after an official timeout, Belgium's left winger won the game with a straight ball that flew right by Japan's right post.

Center player Kawashima was the defense cornerstone and command center of the team. He was very vocal and created a good pace for the game. After the game he said, "I thought we could win if we kept it under five points. The game proceeded in a good way, so I am disappointed that we lost. I will keep training so I can become a center player that brings the game to a good conclusion."

Kaneko said, "Towards the end of the game, Belgium's balls started to take on a fighting spirit. I think this is where Japan still has room for improvement. They were balls that you do not get from other Japanese teams, so it was fun." It seems to have been a great experience for the third-year high school rising star.

Ito of Japan's Team B made the most scores.

4 Masatoshi Ito made 25 points in four games, winning the award for the most scores. "This award goes to the whole team, because we sometimes use feints. I cannot be satisfied, when I think that we could have won if we got two or three more points. I thought we played stubbornly, but we are still one step behind."

Belgium head coach J. De Rick commented, "Goalball is about taking advantage of the other team's weakness. Japan's defense was tough, so I told the members to make accurate shots into narrow gaps. We started to lose concentration around mid-point in the game, but we regained composure during overtime. We won by doing what had to be done." Belgium's ace player K. Mapreni said, "I think we did well with our defense against the speed of Japan. Both teams had a chance at victory, and I think we won because of our strong confidence."

Yoshu Nobusawa , Japan team captain and Team A member, commented on Team B's equally matched game with Belgium, "I think they gained some confidence after such a performance of powerful offense and defense against a strong team." On defeating Team B, he said, "It was great for the confidence of young members." On the other hand, he noted the problems in accuracy and defense positions, saying, "We gained some good observations, useful for each athlete to review their performance and make improvements towards the World Championships."

Ryoga Yamaguchi , right winger of Team A, was on the court almost the entire time, throughout all four games. He is considered one of the top scorers. "I was physically tired, but was able to keep going because of my teammates. I tend to make more mistakes in the second half, so I want to gain more endurance and also improve defense. At this event I was able to bring the team spirit up by being energetic and vocal."

Hosting the Paralympics in 2020

Goalball is a competitive ball game for the visually impaired. The attraction of the game, especially men's, is the speed and power of the balls. The ball has a bell inside, and although around the size of a basketball, it is almost twice as heavy (1.25 kg). The athletes handle this heavy ball effortlessly and throw it at high speeds. Some compare men's goalball to martial arts, and Nobusawa calls it "exchanging blows." In fact, when the ball hits an opponent, you can imagine the damage from the heavy, blunt sound it makes. The games are also very exciting. Women's goalball games may take a while to get to one point, but men's can become a battle of many points. Being able to score well is crucial.

The Japan women's team won the gold medal at the 2012 London Paralympics, but the men's team faces tough competition—they have yet to attend the Paralympic Games. In preparation of the Tokyo Paralympics hosted by Japan, the Men's Open has been held since last year for the purpose of strengthening high performance program athletes in the men's team. The training includes a two-day training camp before the event. The Japan GoalBall Association intends to hold the event again next year and thereafter.

Gaining experience in competition, under head coach Ikeda

Japan men's team head coach Takashi Ikeda says Japanese athletes have fewer opportunities to compete in international competitions, compared to European nations connected by land. International events held within Japan are helpful because, with the same amount of money, more athletes can attend compared to overseas events. In fact, the maximum number of players (including substitute players on the bench) is normally six, but ten athletes attended this time (in two teams). There were two high school students, and it was a valuable experience for everyone.

On the results of the event, Ikeda commented, "It was disappointing that we did not win (against Belgium, etc.). It was good to see we are able to fight until the very end, but we need to improve in terms of speed, power, accuracy and will power, in order to throw balls that cut through the opponent's defense." Regarding the team's greatest goal, a medal at the 2020 Paralympics, he said, "We know how far we have to go. We will keep training."

Because Japanese athletes are physically smaller, they are at a disadvantage compared to foreign athletes when it comes to speed and power of throws. That said, Japan athletes showed they have the potential to excel in defense, agility and teamwork. We hope to see the men's team improve, using the confidence gained and problems observed at the Men's Open.

※World ranking is as of December 31, 2017.

text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1
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