The Asian teams are among those having a good World Cup, which has enabled British pundits to patronise them once again. Last night at half-time in the Denmark-Japan game, Alan Shearer’s analysis of Japan’s fine, fluid, attacking performance stated that ‘this is the only way they know how to play’. This is further evidence that Shearer doesn’t bother to do any research before his punditry appearances on the BBC, because I’d previously seen a grand total of 55 minutes of Japan at these finals and that alone told me Shearer’s analysis was manifestly untrue.
Japan have played a very smart group stage indeed. Having beaten Cameroon in their first match, they clearly realised that a win over Holland was neither likely nor strictly necessary. As Denmark had gone down 2-0 to Holland, the crucial thing for Japan was to avoid losing to the Dutch more heavily than that: a three- or four-goal defeat would have massacred their goal difference. So they set up for a draw and came away with a 1-0 defeat.
When Denmark only beat Cameroon by a single goal, it was clear Japan’s strategy had paid off: with a one-goal advantage, a draw with Denmark in the last game would put them through. All the pressure was on Denmark and they cracked. Accordingly, Alan, it was a quite different approach we saw from Japan – higher-tempo, hassling and getting men forward – and it worked very well. This seemed to cause some surprise: surely you’d expect Denmark to do better? We have after all heard of more of their players, so it stands to reason.
In a globalised football world pundits seem to have become lazier, blithely assuming the good players will come to their attention. Yet this World Cup seems intent on springing surprises. People often complain that the World Cup has lost some of its allure because (a) the Premier League is full of foreign stars and (b) the ones who haven’t come to England can be seen in the Champions League or the other big European leagues, which are all televised here. However, I think this tournament will make one or two names currently unknown to UK audiences very famous.