England show Japan and Korea the way

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden talks about how England’s recent footballing revival should give hope to both Japan and South Korea.

Football can do amazing things to a country. Just look at England. If you want to get any shopping done there then the best time is when the national team are playing. The streets are completely empty with everyone glued to a television whether at home or at a public viewing. Just don’t try to reward yourself with a cold beer at the end as getting into pubs is nigh on impossible.

Just two years ago, England returned home from the European Championships in France hoping that nobody noticed. The team squeezed through the group stages and then were given a humiliating second round lesson by Iceland. It followed the dismal results and performances from the previous tournaments. The 2010 and 2014 World Cups were forgettable at best and the 2012 Euros were no better but at least they qualified for that, unlike the 2008 version.

The lack of expectations this time around were genuine and the chant of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ were ironic in the beginning as there was little hope. The irony has been replaced by genuine excitement and hope. After all, if you can’t dream when you are 90 minutes away from the World cup final then you really shouldn’t be watching football, it obviously isn’t the sport for you.

England loves England again after a time when the country didn’t even like the national team. Whatever happens, the team is going to return home to quite a welcome. The relationship has been restored.

While the situation was not as bad in South Korea and especially Japan, there were concerns. In a press conference in Tokyo last week, the retiring Japanese captain Makoto Hasebe talked of the situation in the country before the World Cup and how he was worried about the indifference that seemed to be settling around the team.

He was right to be concerned. Apathy is worse than anger or criticism. People not caring is the worse possible situation for a national team, or any team.

Results had been poor ahead of the tournament and expectations were low. The team didn’t excite during qualification and fired coach Vahid Halilhodzic in April. Replacement Akira Nishino was not exactly a sexy appointment and his World Cup squad did not inspire.

Yet the Samurai Blue, with fans still filling stadiums (though the England national team still attracted huge attendances), were in a better position than their immediate neighbours. There were plenty of empty seats in South Korea.

It is not that long ago when the Taeguk Warriors packed out arenas wherever they played. During qualification for the 2006 World Cup, games on freezing nights against Kuwait and Uzbekistan were 65,000 sell-outs. These days even playing China on a warm September evening with 10,000 away fans was still some way from a sell out. World Cup send-offs used to be huge events but the games before the departure to Russia did not exactly bring the nation to a halt.

Viewing figures during the tournament were the lowest in recent memory and the defeats against Sweden and Mexico did not help. But then came the stunning win against Germany. It surprised and thrilled those who had stayed up back home. Unlike four years ago, the return to Incheon brought a warm welcome (despite a couple of eggs thrown).

It had made stars of players such as goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo. His first game for Daegu FC attracted almost 13,000, more than four times the team’s usual attendance.

In Japan, the players were greeted by a big crowd at Narita Airport after reaching the second round. There they lost 3-2 to Belgium but not before thrilling the watching world. The Samurai Blue made the nation proud once again.

Both teams are looking at new coaches and the right decision going forward should make a difference. Big names are not needed but the right philosophy, attitude and outlook are.

Russia 2018 could have brought more for both countries but they at least excited fans back home for the first time for a number of years. They reminded what it was like to feel pride for the national team.

England have shown what an unexpected and lengthy stay at a World cup can do to the relationship between a country and the national team. Japan and South Korea were not in the kind of bad place that the Three Lions occupied but the 2018 World Cup has at least restored some of the standing.

Football may not be coming home to Tokyo and Seoul just yet but there is less indifference now. The two teams needs to build on what happened in Russia, think big and be bold, and keep working their way back into hearts and minds.