Indians outplayed again

IT turned out to be a mega carnival as Japan's senior soccer team defeated India in the Asian Zone qualifier for the 2006 World Cup.

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

The Japanese captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto gets past Climax Lawrence (left) and Dipak Kumar Mondal to score his team's fourth goal. -- Pic. REUTERS-

IT turned out to be a mega carnival as Japan's senior soccer team defeated India in the Asian Zone qualifier for the 2006 World Cup. The two days that the visitors spent in Kolkata saw a celebration of `Nippon' (the land of rising sun) both on and off the field. The venue came alive with the prospect of seeing the recently crowned Asian Cup champion but more importantly, the craze was for its head coach Zico — the former star Brazilian midfielder — who still is a crowd-puller.

Getting into the football basics, there was hardly anything to cheer for the home side as the arrival of the Japanese started a match-up of the incomparables. India standing at 138th position, stared clueless in its preparation against a team ranked 120 notches higher. The continental qualifying draw for the event put India like a pigeon among the cats as the national team was hunted down twice in the three matches prior to this. With only half the group III fixtures completed, India's qualification chronicle so far detailed sequels of tragedy as Oman pillaged it (5-1) at Kochi on March 31 while it was beaten even badly 7-0 visiting Japan two months later. Indians had tasted success by beating Singapore 1-0 in Goa in the very first match but the sweetness of that turned sour soon.

Meeting Japan again for the second time in just three months never set good tidings as the earlier humiliation resurfaced. The result inevitably was a defeat, but the Indians playing at home lost by a lesser margin (0-4) this time. A good crowd turned up at the Salt Lake Stadium, but the high attendance hardly looked enough to steady the home team's nerves as the visitor piled up goals in a span of just 46 minutes. India's English coach Stephen Constantine summed up the team morale seeking a `miracle' on the eve of the encounter but the 90 minutes on field evaporated all hopes as Zico's boys got their act together. Constantine initially found some support from a section of the former India players who talked from their experiences of beating Japan on more than one occasion in the pre-1970 era (India last beat Japan in the bronze medal match of the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games). The history-backed theories — that sought to find chinks in Japan's armour — put a possibility of holding back the Asian champion and propped many `ifs' for the present coach and the players to follow. The `ground zero' however saw a different tale as the Indians were simply outclassed in every aspect bringing all the talk about strategy, mental make-up and home support to naught.

Impediments

The Indian preparations for the match were fraught with impediments. It started off with a series of injuries to three regulars — Jo Paul Ancheri, M. Suresh and Alvito D'Cunha. Two more aspirants — Vimal Pariyar and Freddy Mascarenhus — followed suit. And as the camp progressed captain Baichung Bhutia and Ashim Biswas also suffered injuries. The decreasing number of choices ultimately made the coach so desperate that he played Renedy Singh, the scorer of both the Indian goals in the tournament so far, despite being half fit. With the All India Football Federation investing so much on sports medicine, the big list of injuries seemed to mock at the whole process once again raising the need for a proper long-term developmental plan.

Naohiro Takahara (left) battling for supremacy with Climax Lawrence, who thwarted some incursions from the flanks. -- Pic. AP-

The non-cooperation of the National Football League champion, Kingfisher East Bengal, which held back its eight selected players citing reasons for its own preparations for the AFC Cup, also surfaced. Even the AIFF ultimatums failed to work as the club stuck to its deadline apparently with the argument that it was worthwhile to prepare well for the AFC Cup quarter-finals than participate in a World Cup qualifier. There was no penalty for the non-conformist and most of its players were picked up for the final squad, as the national body ran out of alternatives to field the best outfit. The troubled training had its immediate fall out in the LG Cup in Vietnam — which was termed as the preparatory tournament happening just before the Japan match — where the Indians were thrashed 4-0 in the semi-finals by a Korean universities' combination. What followed next against Japan was a logical consequence of a botched mission.

The team morale dipped which could be made out from the comments of the acting captain Devjit Ghosh that minimising the margin of defeat will be the main target — and everything was done to build a fortress around the goal to keep at bay the marauding opponents. The match brought alive the overtly defensive attribute of the host as one extra man was employed to liaise between the traditional four defenders.

Some consolation

The ploy worked initially as Climax Lawrence impressed with his resilience rushing back to join the regular four — Sameer Naik, Devjit Ghosh, Dipak Mondal and Mahesh Gawli — to thwart the Japanese incursions from the flanks.

As Alessandro Santos and Shinji Ono, the two prominent in creating attacks, were policed, the forwards — Suzuki Takayuki and NaohiroTakahara were left high and dry. With the defence and the goalkeeper Sandip Nandy, replacing Sangram Mukherjee for the first time, working well under the bar, the Indians tried to route their way to the opponent goal on breakaway moves. The host created a couple of good opportunities in the first 45 minutes but the goals never materialised as both the strikers — R.C. Prakash and Abhishek Yadav — showed slow reflexes in the striking zone. Just as it appeared that the Indians had fulfilled their mission of holding Japan back in the first session, the visitors struck in the 45th minute through Suzuki.

Having tasted blood Japan redoubled its resolve and pumped in three goals in succession with Ono (59th minute), Takashi Fukunishi (71st) and captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (87th) scoring in succession. The Indian bravado in the first half gradually disappeared and even a near 30-minute power cut in the stadium — which brought international disgrace to the organisers — failed to refresh the host team's tiring muscles. Zico and the Japanese were happy with the result — the visitors even preferring not to report the power fiasco to FIFA and left the city the very night of the match with 12 full points. India is left with just two more return matches, but the two meetings against Singapore and Oman will be played `away' and will only be of academic interest.