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Two More Months: Blind Soccer WGP 2021 Presents Japan with a Confidence Boost, Challenges

The Santen IBSA Blind Football World Grand Prix 2021 in Shinagawa was held from June 29-July 5. What with Japan, the host country, making it into the finals, there was considerable excitement—with the term “blind soccer” even trending for a time on Twitter. At the same time, however, the tournament was also a painful reminder of the realities of playing on the world stage.

This tournament, an official International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) tournament, was meant to occur in March of last year, five months before the Paralympic Games, with the top eight blind football teams in the world. Brazil, champion of the past four consecutive Paralympic Games, and Asian powerhouse China had been scheduled to compete, in addition to Argentina, who competed in this tournament. The tournament, which was meant to serve as a skirmish for Tokyo 2020, was cancelled, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s been a year since then. Though the COVID-19 pandemic shows little sign of abating, the Paralympic Games—the world stage that the players have been working toward—is fast approaching. The organizers thus decided to host the tournament with a bubble system in place, with no spectators, and with five countries including Japan, all ranked 14th or above in the world. It is essential for players in a sport like blind soccer—a sport that must be played against another team, and which requires a sharp intuition—to play against overseas teams. Indeed, the Japan national team hadn’t had much opportunity to play against other teams since December 2019, and Coach Satoshi Takada had waited fervently for the opportunity to play a match.

Goalkeeper Sato, and field players Sasaki Roberto, Tanaka, Kawamura, and Kuroda were the starting line-up throughout the tournament

Playing Against a European Team for the First Time in Two Years

Matches in the tournament were held on a round-robin basis, followed by the finals match and third place play-offs.

Long-time player Tanaka held the final line with his cool decision-making

Japan’s first match against France, and their second against Thailand, unfolded in an ideal manner, with Japan winning the first point and sustaining their lead through the rest of the match.

This being their first time in two years playing a European team, however, Japan struggled somewhat against their opponents’ larger size and longer limbs, with Tomonari Kuroda saying, “It was just off—my sense of where they could reach vs. how far they could actually reach.” It was right after the match started, however, that Ryo Kawamura, having received a pass from Akihito Tanaka in the back line, cut through from the left side to score the goal that would end up winning them the match. Said Kawamura, smiling, “The pass came in at a good time, and I was able to score in a way I’m good at.”

Thailand, their second opponent, was of a lower rank; however, the Japan team had been burned by them before in the 2019 Blind Football Asian Championships. Coach Takada chose the same starting line-up as for their first match: Daisuke Sato as GK, and Roberto Izumi Sasaki, Kawamura, Kuroda, and Tanaka as FP. A minute after the match started, Kuroda scored a left-foot goal from the right side.
“The center zone and the vertical lines were open, so we discussed breaking through from those areas. We didn’t score [any more goals] after that, but it was good that we were able to create a lot of chances for it,” said Coach Takada, seeming satisfied with how the match had gone.

Kawamura and Kuroda, Japan’s two star players, made their presence known at the tournament

In terms of defense, Coach Takada pointed out how the team had been able to neutralize a powerful striker on the opposing team by “getting into a compact diamond formation, and eliminating the space around them.” The team, he said, had trained for it by tying themselves with rubber tubes and working on their spatial awareness. He lauded the team for getting through two matches without a single goal from the opponent.

Their next match was against Spain, the champion of the IBSA Blind Football European Championships. According to Coach Takada, Japan used the match as an opportunity to see how much they could limit substitutions—as opposed to the Spain team, which rotated players through its offensive line. As a result, the main players didn’t have time to rest over the course of the match.

GK Sato made many good saves during the match against Spain

Japan’s Kuroda scored the match’s first goal, a left-foot goal, at 9 minutes into the second half. Though the team was able to show off its offensive skill, a free kick by Spain 18 minutes into the second half brought them to 1-1, and the match ended in a tie.

Winning the match would’ve gotten the Japan team to the finals. It was a moment that would’ve raised groans if there had been any spectators in the stands.

Said Kuroda, “Next time, we want to beat the No. 1-ranked team.” After a day of rest, the players returned to the pitch with a renewed sense of purpose, this time facing Argentina in their last match of the preliminaries.

Argentina had been champion of the IBSA Blind Football World Grand Prix in 2018 and 2019. Their offense generally consisted of long-timer Froilán Pandilla passing the ball to star striker Maximiliano Espinillo, who would then launch an attack. Japan’s defense—centered around Tanaka—put their all into the defense, using their physicality and mobility to prevent Argentina from scoring any goals, and the match ended 0-0. Though they were unable to capitalize on some of the offensive opportunities presented to them throughout the game, they celebrated the fact that they’d made it into the finals, for the first time in four years.

“They’re stronger than us in terms of power, but as long as we’re able to dodge their superior strength, and get ourselves between them and the ball… I feel like I was really able to implement the things I’d learned from my physical coach,” said Tanaka, who’d been instrumental in getting the Japan team to the finals. “Japan’s defense was incredible,” said Coach Martin Demonte weakly.

Japan Loses Two Points to Argentinian Star Striker in the Finals

And now, for the finals match between Argentina and Japan. The teams’ playstyles in this match couldn’t have been more different; Argentina going on the offense, with Maximiliano launching bold offensive shots, and Japan showing off a tight, structured defense.

It was 9 minutes into the first half when Argentina broke through. Maximiliano, who’d been the top scorer in the 2019 Grand Prix as well, cut in through an area of the defense that had begun to falter, on the left side, and made a high-speed shot right into the goal. Japan, on the other hand, found itself unable to make a goal, despite Sasaki’s skilled defense creating an opening for Kuroda to attempt a shot.

“No matter how strong they were, if we’d been able to get right up against them and close up that space, I feel like we could’ve stopped them,” said Sasaki

Five minutes left in the first half, and Maximiliano again cut in with a drive from the 12-meter line, getting the ball into the goal and garnering Argentina an additional point.

The two goals by Maximiliano brought Japan to its knees

Japan, now two points behind, showed off a strong defense in the second half, preventing Argentina from scoring any more goals. At the same time, however, they were unable to create any major offensive opportunities, and the match ended, 0-2. Japan had come in 2nd place.

“We knew, with Argentina, that if we went all in on our defense, they wouldn’t be able to break us. Two years ago when we played against them, we couldn’t make any headway in terms of offense, and we were just defending, defending, defending. But this time we made sure to move the ball around more, move people around more, and resist their defensive line. [We did lose but] there were positives that came out of it. There were offensive opportunities in the second half, and we also prevented them from getting any more points, so that’s commendable. There were moments where there could’ve been opportunities if they’d gone in for it, so we’ll be working on that to improve our chances of making those sorts of goals,” said Coach Takada, looking toward the future.

Tanaka won an Individual Award at the tournament for his central role in Japan’s structured defense

Japan had thought of this tournament as a practice session, a sort of simulation for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Indeed, their goal had been to make it into the finals. To have come in second place in the tournament is sure to have boosted their confidence going into Tokyo 2020. It is also true, however, that the tournament revealed weaknesses in the team; namely, the relative paucity of their roster, with three of the four field players now in their 40s. Though 17-year-old Yuzuki Sonobe had played in the finals match, he’d been on the pitch only briefly, and there was a sense of uncertainty with regards to many of the bench players, who’d been unable to test their mettle in the matches in this tournament.

“I’d say our chances for a medal in Tokyo are about 50/50,” said Coach Takada. Indeed, the Japan team’s very first time in the Paralympic Games, their very first opportunity for Paralympic medal, is fast approaching. The players, as humble as they are, vowed to use the time remaining to get as good as possible, for their time on the world stage.

Results of the Santen IBSA Blind Football World Grand Prix 2021 in Shinagawa

Final Standings
1st Place: Argentina
2nd Place: Japan
3rd Place: Spain
4th Place: Thailand
5th Place: France

Individual Awards
MVP: Maximiliano Espinillo (Argentina)
MIP: Roberto Izumi Sasaki (Japan)
Top Scorer: Maximiliano Espinillo (Argentina)
Best GK: German Müleck (Argentina)
TANAKA Great Effort Award: Akihito Tanaka (Japan)

Argentina was crowned champion of the Grand Prix for the third consecutive time, while Japan came in above 4th place for the first time in the team’s history

text by TEAM A
photo by JBFA/H.Wanibe

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