[Viewpoint] A samurai leader at the World Cup

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[Viewpoint] A samurai leader at the World Cup

Takeshi Okada, the head coach of the Japanese national football team, is a perfectionist. However, there was a single occasion, before he was Japan’s head coach, when he drank too much and nearly fainted. It happened eight years ago, on the night of June 18, 2002, during the Korea-Japan World Cup.

Earlier that afternoon, the Japanese national football squad had faced Turkey in the Round of 16, and the defeat kept Japan from advancing to the quarterfinals. A few hours later, Korea won against European powerhouse Italy, winning one of the coveted quarterfinals spots. Okada had been at the game as a commentator for a television program at the time.

He felt so frustrated and angry about Japan’s defeat. Although he’s not a heavy drinker, Okada drank one glass after another and collapsed in the hotel corridor, falling asleep outside his room. What had made Okada so frustrated?

In 2002, Japan completed the first round at the top of its group, leading both the head coach and the players to relax. Having lost their hustle, the Japanese squad was taken down and failed to proceed to the quarterfinals. However, Korea was different. When Korean players started slacking off after learning of Japan’s loss earlier that day, head coach Guus Hiddink boosted their spirits again, and the Dutchman’s discipline proved effective.

Okada must have felt frustrated and angry, as the Japan team’s situation was completely different from that of Korea. Before the 2010 World Cup, Okada, now as the head coach, said that the goal of the Japanese squad was to advance to the
semifinals. Everyone made fun of him and said that he was out of his mind. Most football experts predicted that the Japanese team was likely to be defeated in all three matches of the group round and had no chance of going to the semifinals.

However he said, “If Korea can do it, we can do it, too.” He added, “I am so determined that I am putting my life at stake.”

His goal was to surpass Korea and get over the painful memories from eight years ago. On June 29, 2010, Japan was defeated by Paraguay in a penalty shootout after a goal-less draw in the Round of 16. Although Okada did not live up to his pledge, we have never seen a Japanese head coach with such a clear goal and determination to win. Okada has demonstrated true “samurai leadership.”

Before the World Cup began, Japanese striker Keisuke Honda declared on television that he would score a goal with a free kick. Frankly, I laughed at him at the time. I thought to myself, “That’s the problem with you and the Japanese team. It does not matter whether you score with a free kick or a header. What’s important is that you play ‘total football’ and score a goal to win. Look at the all-around play of Park Ji-sung.”

Look back a few months to the Winter Olympics. I just could not comprehend why Japanese figure skater Mao Asada seemed to be so obsessed with the highly challenging technique of the triple axel. It was confusing. Was her goal to win the Olympic gold medal or just to complete her triple axel jumps successfully?

Her attitude was apparently different from those of other athletes. And I interpret such stubbornness as extremely Japanese. Japanese aesthetics tend to value the journey and the shape as much as the result.

In that sense, I had a glimpse of a possible evolution of Japanese aesthetics as I watched how head coach Okada’s spirit harmonized with the Japanese players threw their whole bodies into blocking the ball against the Paraguayan strikers as if they were kamikaze pilots.

The Japanese team lost the match, but the game proved that the Japanese spirit could react explosively if properly combined with samurai leadership. Japanese society struggled, caught in a quagmire of economic stagnation for a long time because Japan was never able to find the right samurai leader.

Instead, its leadership and Japanese tendencies had a negative influence on each other. The leader could not raise the individual caliber of the team members to a competitive level, while team members blamed the leadership and pursued their own paths. The Japanese team lost in the Round of 16, but the Japanese people are still celebrating the admirable fight because they have been assured that they can finally get over the conflict between these two values.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Hyun-ki
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