Monday, 27 May 2019

 

 Asian Cup

 Japan 1 - 0 Saudi Arabia 

Date: 
January 21, 2019
  Location: 
United Arab Emirates

Japan 1

1 1H 0
0 2H 0

0 Saudi Arabia

Takehiro Tomiyasu (20')

Scoring  
Yoshinori Muto Cautions

Fahad Al Muwallad
Yaseer Alshahrani

  Shuichi Gonda; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Yuto Nagatomo; Gaku Shibasaki, Wataru Endo; Ritsu Doan (Tsukasa Shiotani 89'), Takumi Minamino (Junya Ito 77), Genki Haraguchi; Yoshinori Muto (Koya Kitagawa 90+2')
 TBA


 Japan progressed to the quarterfinals of the 2019 Asian Cup, following a deserved albeit narrow victory over Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately for every fan who watched the contest live or on TV, as well as for the reputation of Asian football in general, this contest was a total waste of time. Indeed, for long stretches it was all but unwatchable, due to a group of match officials who could not have had a greater impact on play if they had started chasing the ball themselves. There are times when displays like these are so infuriating that one is inclined to rage at them in a conflagration of incendiary prose. At other times . . . as was the case on Monday evening . . . the spectacle is so petty, so ineffective, and so ham-handedly obvious to even the most self-deluding of Saudi fans, that all you can do is cover your eyes and wish it was over. That is not to say that anyone should let this group of officials off the hook for an appalling performance. It was just so blatant, Japan was so cynically prepared to respond, and the one-sided calls did so little to actually help the Saudis, that one is reluctant to invest any emotional energy into the issue, even if the emotion in question is simple disgust.

From the very opening minute of play, it was clear that any time a Saudi player went to the ground, a foul would be called on any Japanese player who was close enough to even brush the fabric of their uniforms. It also was clear that the Saudis were consciously searching for the slightest bit of contact, so they could flop to the turf and claim a dangerous free kick. Fortunately -- or unfortunately, if you were more interested in the content than in the final result -- Japan seemed to be completely prepared for this situation. Indeed, they reacted so quickly with a conscious strategy of their own, that one is forced to conclude that Coach Moryasu EXPECTED the officials to be crooked  ummm . . . as straight as a street in Tokyo, and had designed a game plan specifically to deal with such a state of affairs..  

After having two dangerous free kicks awarded to the Saudis in the opening 7 minutes, Japan adopted a defensive set that they would maintain for the remaining 82 or 83 minutes of the contest. They played at least a meter off their man, made no effort to challenge possession, avoid any body contact whatsoever, and simply prevent any dangerous penetration or shot on goal by positioning bodies in the path. Not surprisingly, this allowed the Saudis to control the vast majority of possession. Only when passes went astray or were sent into space did the Samurai Blue players try to win the ball or challenge the opponent. For their part, any time Japan broke away into the attack, the officials would find some way to award the ball to the Saudis. If that sounds like an exaggeration, just spend a few minutes on Youtube looking for clips of Ritsu Doan chesting a ball down, unmarked at the edge of the six yard box, and being called for a hand ball; or Wataru Endo and Junya Ito breaking down the sideline two-on-one, Endo being pulled down from behind as he sent Ito into the clear with a pass, and having the ref blow play dead and call the foul against Endo.

If not for the fact that Takehiro Tomiyasu put Japan in the lead just 20 minutes after kickoff, heading home from a corner kick, this had the potential to be an extremely controversial match. But the Saudis never really managed to find a way through Japan's patient and persistent defending, so the comic antics of the officials accomplished little more than to give the partisan crowd a few self-conscious chuckles. Following the two-on-one break that was halted by Endo's "foul" (he appeared to tug the Saudi defender's hand with the shoulder hem of his jersey), the camera panned across a crowd of keffeiyeh-clad spectators who were clearly shaking their heads and laughing in disbelief.

But why bother? The above paragraphs are already far more verbiage than I intended to waste on Monday's match. I could have summed up the entire 90 minutes of folly in just four words.

Japan won. Football lost.