Japan’s EAFF E-1 campaign leaves more questions than answers

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre looks back at the recent EAFF E-1 championships and its implications for Japan ahead of next year’s World Cup in Russia.

With the usual indifference that flows from parts of Europe towards the FIFA Club World Cup in full force again this week, you’d have to wonder what those same skeptics would’ve made of the largely irrelevant East Asian Cup that wound to a close in Tokyo over the weekend.

Rebranded as the EAFF E-1 Football Championships, which sounds more like a complicated mathematics problem than a sporting event, the tournament used to be a big deal in North Asia but the last couple of editions have seen the standard of players and play drop remarkably at the same time as off-field interest dwindles.

The biennial event saw the first two matches in the men’s competition draw barely 20,000 supporters while even what should have been a headline Saturday night clash between two fierce regional rivals in Japan and South Korea failed to fill the home stadium of J.League club FC Tokyo in a match where the Koreans thrashed the hosts 4-1 to win the ‘title.’

Given that the event falls outside of an official FIFA window in effect though the competition became a glorified ‘all-stars’ clash between the best domestic players from China, Korea and Japan with North Korea drawing several of their squad from mid-tier J2 sides in the host nation.

You just have to wonder what the whole point of it is.

Looking for answers?

Those same questions can also be applied to the ‘sub federation’ that organises this event with the ten-member East Asian grouping seemingly far more effective as – and focused on being – a bloc that tries to wield political influence than one that actually does very much of anything to advance the game from Macau up to Mongolia.

Surely there needs to be a sharpening of the focus as to just what this tournament wants to be if it is to continue with a shifting to a ‘FIFA window’ one logical proposal but if it stays in the current December timeframe then it makes complete sense to turn it into a youth event that is ideal given it falls just one month before the AFC U22 Championships which on every second occasion serve as the Olympic qualifiers.

Whilst it’s hard to draw too many lessons from the current edition at least Japan and South Korea can try to justify that it was an important exercise in perhaps gleaning ideas as to a handful of players that may end up filling the final couple of spots in their respective squads for Russia.

On that count the Japanese coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, made some rather unusual squad and matchday selections and surely – even this close to the World Cup – there have to be gathering questions as to whether he remains the best man to lead Japan at the World Cup.

With the exceptional Marcelo Bielsa suddenly available there are sure to be plenty of nations yet to have a fully settled coach at the helm casting glances his way and if ‘El Loco’ got his hands on this group of Japanese players there’s a sense that he could do something special – the same could equally apply to their Asian rivals Australia who must also be doing all they can to bring the Argentine down under.

For now though Halilhodzic remains in charge, but given that the only victories that the Bosnian has overseen in recent times were hugely fortunate ones against New Zealand as well as over the domestic squads of North Korea and China in the past week surely the JFA must at least be looking at the option of moving on if they want to emerge from what is a fairly soft World Cup group that saw them drawn with Colombia, Senegal and Poland.

For the East Asian Cup he made the correct call in naming the brilliant young goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura and then started him in the opening match before making the bizarre decision to drop him for the second in favour of veteran Gamba Osaka custodian Masaaki Higashiguchi only to recall him for the final fixture.

Outside of that the composition of the squad had several unusual call-ups – handing an international debut to 32-year-old left back Shuto Yamamoto, recalling 34-year-old Yasuyuki Konno and naming others, led by 31-year-old Yojiro Takahagi, who have had modest domestic seasons ahead of other seemingly more talented options.

21-year-old Kashima central midfielder Kento Misao was a revelation for his club this year yet he played barely a quarter of an hour at the tournament whilst a player who, in my opinion, is the best young forward Japan has in Yuma Suzuki was completely over-looked in favour of players with a far more limited range of qualities.

Personality clashes with some of Japan’s more established overseas stars have seen them removed from recent squads and now with this poor showing and unusual selections from the domestic-based players to factor in as well it’s fair to question once again whether Halilhodzic really is the man who should lead Japan to the planet’s most important tournament next year.

If the JFA was to make a change that may well be the only piece of constructive news to emerge from a tournament that is fast fading from any kind of relevance.

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