I wanted to buy the tickets to watch this match, but somehow my inner gut told me not to. I don’t know why I wouldn’t want to watch my Japanese hero Shinji Okazaki playing live. But everything happens for a weird reason, and my office eventually got hold of two free complimentary tickets to the match on the day itself. My colleague very kindly passed them to me (thanks a lot, Sunny), and I called up my buddy Amos to accompany me to the National Stadium.
Football brings all races across all borders together… to shop
The train ride to Stadium MRT station was a fun one. You could instantly spot all the football fans decked in their Japan and Brazil jerseys. My friend Amos said he encountered some Portuguese-speaking Brazilian fans on his journey. I spotted some German fans who were buying beer at a restaurant adjacent to the football arena itself (OKTOBERFEST!!!).
An entire Japanese family were decked out in Samurai Blue jerseys, each of them wearing a different player uniform, enough to form more than one half of a Japan team.
Another colleague of mine remarked that the Sports Hub was a very typical “Singapore climate”: shopping malls. Lots of shops and stores. There were plenty of food outlets, including a Food Fare hawker centre for those on a tight budget. There was also a Daiso, a Uniqlo, and even a rock-climbing arena for the public use. The only things missing were a cinema and a videogame arcade… although the latter would be asking too much. Fuck TKA.
Food and drinks were not allowed to be brought into the stadium, although this was a very unusual restriction because food and beverages could be purchased inside the arena itself! If you want to litter the stands, we’re going to make sure that you dirty the place with OUR food. Very unusual logic, but it didn’t really affect me because I knew the queues would be insanely long. Come on, it was a 51,000+ crowd, and Singaporeans are the undisputed masters of queuing. Football and queues are our two greatest pastimes.
In perhaps a nod to FIFA’s insistence in selling beer at Brazil 2014 inside stadiums, there was… Kirin Beer. Lots of it. A Japanese lady sitting at a lower row to my left was accidentally spilled with beer by another Japanese fan, but she didn’t seem to be too bothered by it. If there’s one thing the Japanese love more than football, it’s alcohol. Beer and football are an almost unbeatable combination.
Watching my Asian FUT heroes live
Shinji Kagawa, unfortunately, was sent home early back to Germany in order to rest a concussion injury. Maya Yoshida was still recovering from a leg injury he sustained at Southampton because of a dumbass tackle by Wilfried Bony.
Keisuke Honda, Hajime Hosogai, and Yuto Nagatomo started on the bench. Shinji Okazaki and Junya Tanaka, the Japanese tag-team partners of my Asian FUT squad, were both in the starting eleven. Eiji Kawashima was in goal. Gotoku Sakai was playing right centre-back in a three-man defence. The rest of the team were filled with J-League youngsters like Gaku Shibasaki and Tsukasa Shiotani.
I’m sure everyone knows the outcome of the match by now: Neymar scored all four goals as Brazil romped to a convincing 4-0 victory. Veterans Kaka and Robinho were subbed on late in the match, and Kaka himself provided the assist for Neymar’s fourth goal.
But what all the news reports failed to mention was how bad the inexperienced Japanese defence were that night. Neymar’s first three goals were the result of poor defending. The first two came after the Japanese midfield lost possession of the ball unnecessarily, and with the Japanese backline playing so dangerously high up the pitch, they were all scrambling backwards desperately to stop Neymar’s counter-attacking runs.
I was really surprised that Sakai was allowed to make runs so deep into enemy territory the entire match when Japan were playing with THREE defenders in a 3-5-2. If a centre-back in that formation is allowed to make an overlapping run, only two defenders are left to protect the goalkeeper. That is a very risky tactic to use, because it leaves you highly vulnerable to blitzkrieg counter-attacks, which was exactly what happened.
But I still think Sakai was one of the best Japanese players on the pitch that night. He managed to entertain the crowd with some stepovers (eat your heart out, Ronaldo!), and he’s proving that he is a viable number-two to Atsuto Uchida, who is the usual starting right-back for Japan. Sakai just needs to be more tactically alert in defence, and stop giving the ball away in midfield.
The third goal was a slight mistake by Kawashima: He punched away Philippe Countinho’s shot right into the path of Neymar, who was unchallenged and had the simple job of slotting the ball in while the goalie was still recovering.
Although Neymar was unmarked and allowed to head home the fourth goal easily, the build-up before that was very classic Brazil: a probing run by Robinho eventually found the ball released to Kaka on the left, who then whipped in a delicious cross for the 22-year-old to score.
You can’t blame Japan manager Javier Aguirre for his team’s performance. He’s still getting used to his new side, and he’s clearly experimenting with different line-ups and formations, as evidenced by the unfamiliar 3-5-2 system that night. Japan normally played with a 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 hybrid under Alberto Zaccheroni, with Okazaki up front supported by another withdrawn striker. Captain Makoto Hasebe would hold down the defensive midfield fort, while Kagawa and Honda would provide the offensive runs to lead the Japanese attack.
Unfortunately, Hasebe wasn’t even on the flight to Singapore (I think he’s still injured at Eintracht Frankfurt). I suspect that Aguirre was trying to overcrowd the midfield with five men to shut down Brazil’s passing play. Tanaka appeared to be playing the role of a left winger instead of a true support partner for Okazaki. When it was time for Japan to attack however, Okazaki was isolated up front and had to wait very long for backup from his teammates. He struck the post from a tight angle, and flashed one of his trademark glancing headers wide off the post.
Those were his best contributions of the night, as he was eventually replaced in the second half by Yoichiro Kakitani, who actually had two of Japan’s best chances. He was released unmarked into the left side of the penalty box with a long ball, but his first touch completely failed him as he wasted a golden opportunity for a one-on-one with the keeper. He would later hit a power header that forced a save from Jefferson, which I think was the only shot on target Japan had the entire match.
My friend Amos was commenting that when Honda came on as a substitute, Japan immediately had more life in their offensive play. Honda was able to hold his own, and drew several players to mark him each time he got hold of the ball. If Japan want to overcome the disappointment of their Brazil 2014 campaign, Honda has to be their key player.
Singaporeans will always be the same
As the match was drawing to a close, the last-train timing announcement suddenly flashed across an electric board near the roof of the stadium, which immediately drew a chorus of jeers from the Singaporean fans!
The locals here have an intense dislike for our public train transport system, which has been plagued with unending train faults and poor public relations by SMRT, the company in charge. They would be more than happy to voice their displeasure at SMRT if any chance were to present itself, and of all places… it had to be at the National Stadium.
Honda looked quite perturbed on the pitch, wondering why on Earth the fans were suddenly booing. 心配しないで、本田さん。終列車はいつもシンガポール人に気にしてることですから。
I do applaud the Sports Hub for really doing their best to provide half-time entertainment to the fans. There was a really weird Flappy Bird-esque game where the fans had to control a floating balloon on the huge stadium monitors to collect as many points as possible. The louder the noise in the stadium, the higher the balloon would rise.
There was also a short trivia about Japan and Brazil football, where the answers had to be provided by making as much noise as possible. We got both questions right, but only because they were really braindead-easy giveaways. The mini-games helped in passing the time, and before long the 15-minute intermission was already over.
In the end, football unites friends and enemies alike
When the final whistle was blown, Honda and Sakai both looked dejected, but Neymar headed straight to Honda to offer a handshake and an exchange of words. Kaka would eventually swap jerseys with Honda, as the ex-Milan teammates chatted together on the pitch (Honda was probably telling Kaka how Filippo Inzaghi was a way better coach than Clarence Seedorf).
Two footballers from different countries, speaking two different languages, united by a single, shared passion for a sport. This is why we love football so much.
Final image in this post (Neymar and Honda) taken from Getty Images. The rest were all snapped by me in the stadium.