The Champions of Asia have finally been forced to pull out of the Copa América 2011 to signal another nail in the coffin for sentimentality in football as some of Europe’s clubs refuse to release their players, leaving Japan without a team to send to Argentina this July.
It’s difficult to think that football is of any importance when you compare it to the significants of events like the Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated eastern Japan. It simply isn’t important. Japan is still reeling from the effects caused by the disasters, from the 14,000+ deaths, as well as the many injuries and people simply missing – possibly never to be seen again. Football simply doesn’t come in to anyone’s thinking. Although it does have a special ability unlike anything else to bond people and create a much-needed distraction to many millions, so the show must go on then.
Understandably in the wake of all that had happened the J-League was postponed until further notice, the official line was that the JFA were “unable to guarantee complete safety at all the stadiums” but even had they been positive that everything would be fine, the games would almost certainly not have gone ahead anyway. It would be over a month before the domestic fixtures kicked off again – a weekend that featured a very emotional victory for Sendai’s team, Vegalta Sendai.
The national team, the newly crowned champions of Asia, were also affected by match cancellations. Their originally planned games were to be against Montenegro and New Zealand, but understandable fears over safety for both teams meant the games were cancelled. In place was a special friendly match to help raise funds for aid relief. A Japanese national team was to face a J-League team of non-intentional that would be called “Team As One”. It was a great occasion to show the power football can have in unity and as a positive influence. The Japan national anthem was played and meant more than it ever does as a usual pre-match tradition. The (mostly) Osaka-based fans sang the theme song for Vegalta Sendai, the J-League club situated closest to the disasters. The Sendai Stadium, were Vegalta played their home games had been left in ruins after the tsunami.
It was back in June 2009 when Japan were originally invited to take up one of the guest spots in the Copa América 2011, along with Mexico. Certainly no one then would have had any idea how things would turn out. It wasn’t the first time Japan had been participants in the Copa América either – they were one of the guest teams in the 1999 edition of the tournament. It wasn’t their best ever set of performances, in fact they failed to win a single game and finished bottom of their group, a group that also included Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay. Perhaps there was an element in the JFA’s thinking of showing the world just how much the national game of Japan has improved in recent years.
Not long after the Tsunami, it was unsurprising that rumours circulated that Japan would soon pull out of the 2011 Copa América – something that the J-League chairman, Kazumi Ohigashi first spoke out on back in March – not long after the disaster. It was not a problem that the team couldn’t play; it was a scheduling conflict that was a major factor in Japan’s decision. The Copa America fixtures were scheduled for July, but that was now where the newly rescheduled J-League fixtures were to take place and so the JFA wanted Japan to withdraw from the tournament.
It seemed certain that Japan would not be participating, and CONMEBOL (the South American Football Confederation) decided it would be best to look elsewhere should that be the case. One of those countries that were contracted was the World Champions, Spain. It would be the first ever participation of a European team in the Copa America as to date the only guest participants have been from North and Central America, except for Japan in 1999.
Japan then made a U-turn on that decision, deciding that although the J-League had to be rescheduled over the Copa dates they could participate due to the mass amount of Japanese players playing in Europe. It seems like a great idea, the likes of Nagatomo, Uchida, Hasebe, and Okazaki and maybe even Shinji Kagawa could feature in a Europe-only squad. Gamba Osaka stepped up too saying they would have no problem releasing Yasuhito Endō, one of their top stars and one of Japan’s most capped players for the Copa América.
The only problem was that Europe’s clubs had their final say on whether their players leave or not. It is due to the fact that Japan’s place in the Copa América is invitation, therefore there is not much that can be done to stop clubs from blocking their players from international duty. Early on Schalke and Stuttgart came out to stress that their Japanese players would not be participating in in the Copa América. Borussia Dortmund said the same too about Shinji Kagawa but their stance is more understandable with the player still recovering from his injury sustained whilst playing for the national team. Now with the JFA’s final decision not to be included in the Copa América it seems that the European clubs have gotten their way – there will be no Japanese team.
It is a huge shame, as Japanese football especially owes a lot to South America, as the J-League has found a home for many South Americans, and Brazilians especially, just ask Zico. It would have been great be a great story to see the Japanese team united but it’s an end result that these days, will be a surprise to no one.
You can follow Richard on Twitter @filippoinzaghi.