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Blind Football World Grand Prix 2019: Japan Fights for a Medal!

The 2019 IBSA Blind Football World Grand Prix, an international football 5-a-side tournament, was held from March 19-24 at Tennozu Park in Shinagawa City, Tokyo. The Japan national football 5-a-side team was in attendance, and came out of the event in 4th place.

The last installment of the tournament had seen the Japan team suffer a rather sobering loss, at 5th out of six teams. This time, however, they were able to hold their own against some of the world’s powerhouse teams, besting Spain (ranked 4th in the world) in the preliminaries, and managing a tie against Russia (4th place in the IBSA Blind Football World Championships). What did the Japan team learn out there in their journey towards the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, and how did their buildup to a more offensive strategy play out in the tournament?

In the semi-finals, Roberto, Kato, and Tanaka worked together to defend against the England players, who were larger than them physically

The Finals Tournament as “Rehearsal” for Tokyo 2020

This main tournament, which started last year, will be held for three years in a row, up until 2020. The tournament, which is missing some of the world’s top teams, including Brazil, China, and Iran, still sees many powerhouse teams from Europe and South America, and has served as a rare opportunity for the Japan national team—with its limited number of matches—to experience the international stage.

Eight countries came to compete in this particular tournament, and were divided into two groups in a round-robin style preliminary league—the same format as in the Paralympics. The three matches in the preliminaries ended in two wins and a tie for Japan, and the team went into the first medal-contending match, the semi-finals, 1st in their group. Everything beyond this, however, was an unknown to Japan. In the semi-finals they were bested by England—a team they had beaten the previous year—and found their way to the 3rd place match. Though they ended up losing the match and thus the bronze medal, their experience in the tournament is sure to be an incredible resource as they work towards Tokyo.

From the players—visibly frustrated at coming in 4th place—there seemed to emanate a future-driven energy, one meant to push them towards the next step, the next level.

Captain Kawamura also serves as the star of the team, scoring all three of Japan’s points in the tournament

Victory Over Powerful Rival Spain

“Japan’s style is adapting to the opponent’s football.”
So said Coach Takada on the first day of the tournament. And just as he’d said, the players were flexible, adapting their strategies for every one of their matches.

Their first match against Russia ended in a 0-0 tie. From the start of the match, star Tomonari Kuroda and Captain Ryo Kawamura went deep into their offense. Though they did attempt a few shots, it seemed their signals or decision-making were perhaps just a hair too slow—the ball was blocked, every time, by the Russian players, who were much larger physically than the Japan team. “Players overseas have longer legs. The team hadn’t played any international teams since November, and their senses are a bit off. They can’t help but just keep the ball to themselves if there’s space in front of them,” said Coach Takada, as a means of explanation.

After the match, Coach Takada discussed their performance and what they had learned

As if in response to this experience, the next day’s match against Colombia saw the Japan team keeping themselves closer to their opponents who played in a physical, aggressive style. 17 minutes into the first half, Kawamura went in with a right toe kick from the left side, making a solid goal and pumping his fists furiously in celebration. He also scored an additional goal in the second half, dribbling the ball at varying speeds to get around the players on the other team. This match and the victory they managed to claim—Kawamura with his crowd-stirring goal and the other players with their unusually aggressive, borderline foul-inducing plays, more difficult half of the match—must now be an enormous source of confidence for the team as a whole.

For the third match, Japan went against the strongest team in their group, Spain, with the knowledge that they would make it through to the main tournament as long as they tied the match. The shift in strategy, even after the momentum from beating a South American team, which Japan tended to have problems with in the past, was very quick, with the team now coming together to adapt to Spain , whose players tended to pass the ball around in a wider area than Colombia, and prevent a center line breakthrough. Hajime Teranishi, the team “clown,” didn’t play in the match but cheered loudly on from the sidelines. Then, nine minutes into the second half, another goal by none other than Kawamura. Dribbling the ball from the right side, he made his way through Spain’s defense and made the winning goal—a goal calculated to perfection. In the previous tournament, they had played against Turkey (who would head into the finals with a tie or better) and lost two points in the second half, ending up 3rd in their group from the goal difference and the total points they’d won in the previous matches. They have since learned from that experience, and in this match managed never to bring themselves in smaller for defense, maintaining an offense-based stance the whole time.

England, one of the top football 5-a-side teams in Europe, outplayed Japan in terms of scoring avbility

Japan had managed to claim victory over Spain—an established target of theirs. There was a problem, however. The Japan team, which bases itself heavily on its regulars Kawamura, Kuroda, Roberto Izumi Sasaki, and Akihito Tanaka, was running out of the stamina necessary to win the tournament.

After a day of rest, they emerged into the semi-finals against England, a team they had beaten the previous year. The second half, however, saw the team lose two points to their opponent, with Japan eventually losing the match 0-2. “They may have been a little too relaxed,” said Coach Takada after the match, decrying how poorly the team had played at the start of the match. Kawamura, who had been heavily guarded by England players, expressed his disappointment as well, telling us, “I’m frustrated I wasn’t able to score a goal for the team. In the defense as well, we weren’t able to put the positions we’d been working on to practice.”

Spain beat Japan in the 3rd place match to come in 3rd overall

When asked the reason behind their win, Coach Jonathan Pugh of England spoke proudly, “Our Japan strategy went well. As a team, we were able to show off our mental strength.”
“We were all saying, ‘Let’s get to the finals,’” said Daniel English, who scored two points in the match, discussing how the strength of their resolve had gotten them their victory.
The 3rd place match was to be another face-off with Spain, who was obviously not looking to lose to Japan twice in a row. Though Tanaka managed to create a good rhythm for Japan with his skillful defense, it wasn’t enough—Spain broke through their ranks in the second half to win a point, and Japan lost the match 0-1.

Japan lost a point to Spain, 17 minutes into the second half of the 3rd place match

Over in the finals, Argentina beat England 2-0, and became champion of the tournament for the second year in a row.

Maximiliano Espinillo of Argentina was named MVP of the tournament

Lessons Learned and Issues Clarified for the Japan Team

The tournament as a whole seemed to lay bare Japan’s thin roster of players. Still, there was some good news, with Daisuke Sato of GK winning Best Goalkeeper for his amazing saves throughout the tournament. During Colombia’s second penalty kick (when a team commits more than six fouls in the first or second half, the opposing team gets a penalty kick from a position 8 m away from the opposing goal), he had showed the mental clarity to “follow” the ball with his eyes. Even Coach Takada seemed to trust him wholly, saying, “He gets data analysis from the staff—he’s fine.”

text by TEAM A
photo by Yoshio Kato

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