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The Japan Football 5-a-side Team Loses 1-3 Against Argentina—The Team’s Growth and Its Three Issues

“We’ve really started feeling confident in our ability to take control of a game, and not be passive—play ‘offensive soccer,’ if you will. All we need now is to get better at decision-making.”

So said Ryo Kawamura, central offensive player for the Japan team, following the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) Blind Football World Grand Prix 2018 a six-country tournament that was held in March in Shinagawa. The winner of the tournament was Argentina. Japan, unable to advance to the finals, came in 5th, and as such was not able to test their game against Argentina. It seemed from his comment, however, that the Japan team had gained some more confidence as to the offensive soccer that Coach Satoshi Takada had pushed for the past three years.

Since then, six months have passed. The Japan team traveled to Belgium in May, where they won their first victory over arch rival Iran, then down to South America, where they tied 0-0 against Argentina, each member of the team building up their understanding of the team’s strategy, and becoming more precise in their teamwork. And on November 4, at the Blind Football Challenge Cup 2018 held at Machida Gymnasium they once again faced Argentina, ranked 2nd in the world, this time in a goodwill game. Though they lost this game 1-3, Captain Kawamura showed the extent of the team’s growth by scoring the first goal in the game.

A Joyous First Goal, and Yet…

The goal, worth so much to the Japan team, came three minutes into the first half of the game. Kawamura caught up to a ball that had come rolling out of the goal-area fray, and made the goal, astounding the 1,858 people in the audience. He pumped his fists forcefully in the air.

“I think the timing was good. Argentina’s defense came in close, but I was able to block them. I knew if I took the time to reposition myself they’d put the pressure on me, and I could hear the ball really well, so I just swung with my right foot then and there.”

Getting past Argentina’s rock-solid defense with a goal!

Kawamura, historically, had tended not to be able to score at important moments. “He’s perfect, other than the fact that he can’t seem to score,” in the words of Coach Takada. So this first goal, from none other than Kawamura, made the bench erupt in cheers. It seemed for a moment that the team was gaining momentum. However, the Argentina team, skilled as it was in both offense and defense, was not about to take this lying down. A goal towards the end of the first half brought the game back to the drawing board, and another two goals in the latter half—at the hands of star player Maximiliano Espinillo—brought them to victory. The Japan team, overwhelmed by their opponent’s domination of game flow, fell silent.

“We were able to get into their area, and were able to challenge ourselves to score so many times. Being able to score even one point against such a powerhouse team will only lead to good in the future,” said Captain Kawamura, remaining optimistic after the game.

Akihito Tanaka, the main defender, also played offense at times

Goal-Front Defense, Bench Strength, Adaptation to a New Environment: Argentina and Their Overwhelming Show of Skill

Even amongst the extraordinary players on the Argentina team, Espinillo—who won MVP—stood out for his absolute domination of the game. At any moment, he could be getting around Japan’s defense with short, rapid dribbles, or angling for a shoot from far away, or using his physical strength to cut right in front of the goal, and make a powerful goal that would leave the net swaying in its wake.

Espinillo, who is currently 24 years old, started soccer when he was 13 years old, and began playing on the world stage four years ago. He said, “[I was surrounded by three people in front of the goal and] it was difficult to break Japan’s defense. But after Japan scored, they brought it [the defensive formation] further out, and I thought, here’s my opportunity. The other point was by the grace of God. For me what’s important is putting in a lot of training, and making sure to listen to the guides’ voices as I play.”

Espinillo making a shoot from the midst of the fray

In contrast to the kind of unique strengths exhibited by Argentina, Japan has a hard time utilizing the tricks and techniques of individual players.
“None of the players on our team have distinctive enough plays to be chosen for that alone. Of course, we have to work on our individual plays as well, but when it comes down to it, we’re a group. I want to get to the point where our lack of distinct characteristics becomes our characteristic,” said Coach Takada. True to his word, the team is working on strengthening the group as a whole, making sure all four members can work together to take the ball to the other side, maneuver for a goal, and put pressure on the opponent. In terms of defense as well, Coach Takada believes aligning the team’s mindset is the best way to get stronger. “It’s not that they’re not putting enough pressure, not getting close enough [physically]. It’s a matter of their formation when the other team has the ball,” he said.

Froilan, who is very tall, plays very well in both offense and defense

Padilla Froilan of Argentina also spoke as to Japan’s growth.
“Japan’s strategy seems more well-formed, and they have a solid defense. They can get more people out on offense now, and they were able to make a goal too.”

Coach Martin Demonte, on the other hand, had the following to say.
“Japan plays more aggressively [compared to before], but I think they could be even better if they could keep at a higher intensity for longer, even if it involves changing up the players.”

In fact, the game had shed light on another one of Japan’s issues—its relative lack of players. In contrast to Argentina, which had brought along four newer players for training, Japan had had no choice but to keep Tomonari Kuroda—who was clearly out of stamina—on the field, even in the latter half of the game. It was simply too much of a risk to replace him with a newer player. Though things had seemed to be looking up with the addition of 21-year old Kaito Niwa, he was not given an opportunity to play in the game. Said Coach Takada, sighing, “Argentina would switch out and bring in so many amazing players throughout the game. But for us, and especially when we’re against a strong team, it’s very difficult to switch out any of the main members.” The team, it seems, has reaffirmed the need to train newer, younger players—an issue, in fact, for all blind football teams—as they move towards 2020.

Kuroda, with his quick, deft movements, was able to slink past Argentina at the start of the game

Another thing was that game had been held in an indoor gymnasium covered in artificial turf—a new endeavor. Goalkeeper Daisuke Sato, who had watched his teammates from the back, pointed out, “The strangeness of the turf was making it easier for them to lose the ball. And the other team was better at finding it.”

Froilan, one of the world’s top players, who is particularly skilled in terms of spatial awareness and ball location, had said, “It was hard to dribble the ball on that new grass. I tried to lift the ball higher in the air so I could hear it better, and chose plays that would make it easier for our midfielders to find the ball.” Argentina, it seemed, was miles ahead in terms of adapting to this new environment as well.

Captain Kawamura giving the game his all

Kawamura expressed a new sense of resolve.
“We need to always imagine we’re playing against the best of the best. We have to change the way we do things on a day-to-day basis.”

The Japan team had fallen to 5th place in the 2017 IBSA Blind Football Asian Championships, and had not been able to compete in the IBSA Blind Football World Championships, which was the last world championship before the Paralympic Games. Currently, the team—in an attempt not to fall behind the rest of the world—is working to play as many games as possible so they can get in more practice. “We’re very grateful to have had more opportunities to play foreign teams, in these games where strategy really matters. Just having these games three to four times a year will really help us level up as a team,” said Kuroda, an experienced member of the team. This game, which marked the very first installment of the Blind Football Challenge Cup 2018, had been the perfect opportunity for the Japan team—halfway through its journey to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics—to rediscover what it is they need to improve.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by Yoshio Kato

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