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【Goalball 】Japan Para Goalball Championships]:Japan Takes Second Place in Prelude to Rio

The Japan Para Goalball Championships took place in Tokyo for three days beginning July 22 at the Adachi City General Sports Center. Four teams participated in the women’s international warm-up tournament—Japan Team A (national team for the Rio Paralympics), Israel, South Korea and Japan Team B (composed mainly of younger players). After two days of double round-robin games, Japan Team A lost to Israel 2-3 in the Gold medal game on the third day, ending in second place. Japan Team B beat South Korea 5-2 in the game for third place, winning the Bronze medal.

Close Game Lost Against Israel, First Opponent in Rio

Israel’s hard bouncing shots and high-speed rolls pried Japan’s “defensive wall” open early in the Gold medal match. Three goals were made in quick succession, placing Japan in a difficult position. With captain Rie Urata leading the way, Japan later pulled its defense back together, and Masae Komiya made a goal to end the first half at 1-3. Akiko Adachi, who was sent into the court two minutes into the second half as a substitute, scored a goal late in the game, cutting Israel’s lead to 1 goal. However, time was not on Japan’s side, and it marked the only loss in the championships to end in second place.

The Japan women’s national goalball team won the Gold medal four years ago in the London 2012 Paralympic Games. With its strong defense, the team prevented China—known for its hard offense—from scoring to take the Gold medal match 1-0. It was Japan’s first Paralympic Gold medal for a team sport in both the Summer and Winter Games, catapulting this Paralympic sport, developed for athletes with visual impairments, into the spotlight in Japan. The Japan women’s team will be aiming to win a consecutive Gold in Rio.

Head coach Kyoichi Ichikawa

Actually, Japan is slated to play its first game in Rio against Israel. The plan had been to win all three games against each team to leave an impression of the Japan team as a force to be reckoned with. This should have had great bearing on the first game in the Paralympics in which each game can be decisive. However, this agenda went unmet.

However, head coach Kyoichi Ichikawa was satisfied. He said, “It was a fantastic tournament. I give the team a perfect score for performance. We were able to fulfill everything that I had listed in our work program. After all, this is information warfare.” According to Ichikawa, Japan had played against Israel only once and that was four years ago. There had been little information available on how the team plays. One of the objectives had been to gather such information by recording it on video.

In the case of goalball, information that can be gathered in real-time by an athlete during a game is limited because they play wearing an eye mask. For this reason, it is essential that as much information as possible is obtained in advance for understanding the characteristics of opponents’ playing styles and strategies. Countermeasures are devised, and being able to implement them during games is key.

Ever since the London Paralympics, Japan has been having a hard time because of this information war. Rival countries thoroughly studied Japan’s characteristic defense formation and began to make great use of bouncing shots, which are difficult for the small Japanese players to stop. To make further strides, it is an absolute must that Japan knows the offensive patterns of its opponents and raises the precision of its defense.
But it is not just having and reflecting information in advance. The ability to make real-time response is also important. Head coach Ichikawa thinks likewise. He said, “Ultimately, I want to emphasize the ability of players to assess circumstances. It is a game played totally with no visual information. If players become obsessed with “information” only, it will confuse them. I want them to move according to what they sense in each situation.”

Kakehata came under a barrage of offensive shots

Glimpses of this policy could be seen in the way the decisions were made by the head coach in the final game.

The target of Israel’s offense was the left side, defended by Eiko Kakehata. In fact, that was where Israel’s three goals were made. However, Ichikawa continued to leave Kakehata in the game until more than two minutes into the second half. He said, “If I replaced her, she would end the game thinking that she had done a bad job. Games are always ongoing, so unless a player can make corrections during a game, he or she will never improve in skills. After all, this tournament isn’t what really counted. I wanted her to think on her own in preparation for the Rio Paralympics,” revealing his intentions at the time.

The players, too, are taking a positive view about their loss in this tournament. Captain Urata spoke of what they were able to gain through the game and said, “We were able to clarify our challenge—the need to revise our “defensive wall”—by being bombarded with the good shots made by our opponent in this tournament.” She added, “Since a consecutive Gold is at stake, we want to play in Rio as a cohesive team. Other teams in the world have gotten really strong, too. We will consider London a thing of the past and go to Rio with new resolve,” reaffirming the team’s determination to win.

Israel’s head coach said, “We lost the two games in the preliminaries, but the final match turned out to be quite interesting. We had a bit of luck on our side in our win. We need to do our best in Rio as well,” bracing for the rematch with Japan in Rio.

Both teams gained valuable experience and information through the championships. How much growth will be apparent on the world stage in Rio? We look forward to seeing fantastic games played at the Paralympics.

Israel, with its powerful offensive throws

Adachi was central to Japan’s offense

A “Big” Win Achieved by Japan Team B, Composed Mainly of Young Players

3In the game for third place, Japan Team B, which had lost all games in the preliminary round, showed it had backbone. Played against South Korea, which it lost to 1-3 and 0-3 in the preliminaries, Japan Team B was the first to score early in the game. It pressed South Korea with more goals in a short burst, adding 3 goals in only two minutes. The team took control of the game with a score of 4-0. Although South Korea scored a goal, it was immediately followed by another goal by Japan Team B before the end of the first half. Japan Team B snatched third place with a score of 5-2, keeping South Korea’s countercharge in the second half again at only 1 goal. Japan Team B made its first win of the tournament in an important match.

Japan Team B is composed mainly of young players, with two out of the four players competing in an international tournament for the first time. Ace player Saki Amuro said, “We were unable to win at all during the preliminary round, so I wanted us to end with a win. I was the most relaxed today. The teamwork became better with each game that we played in the preliminaries,” giving the reason for the win.

The previous day, after ending the preliminary round with no wins, Coach Toru Masuda had spoken of how “everything was for the tomorrow’s match.” In regards to the third place result, he said, with a smile on his face, “It was a win as planned. We had developed a game plan toward this game for third place, including yesterday and today’s games. I am grateful that the team played according to the plan.” He added, “I could see the players improving with each throw and defensive move. It was significant that they were able to gain confidence.”

The two Japanese teams achieved their respective objectives through the Japan Para Goalball Championships, the theme of which had been to reinforce their competitiveness. This was a step that will lead the Japan women’s team to Rio and beyond.

Japan Team B was able to grow through the tournament (Amuro shown on far left)

Komiya, who led the team in London, returned to the international stage

text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1
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