The game was billed as East vs. West, two very different continents, two very different cultures. Africa’s Indomitable Lions against Asia’s Blue Samurai, both the elite of their respective continents. Bloemfontein played host at a sparsely populated Free State stadium, with the locals who did turn up supporting their African cousins Cameroon in the first World Cup on African soil. It was to be the selections and tactics of the two coaches that would prove to be the focal point after the game with some mystifying decisions on both sides.
Japan Coach Takeshi Okada surprised many with his starting line-up, leaving out former Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura. Cameroon on the other hand boasted a wealth of attacking prowess in Captain Samuel Eto’o, who goes into the tournament off the back of a treble winning season with Inter Milan. However, Indomitable Lions legend Roger Milla criticised Eto’o for not being a team player, and he did little to change Milla’s view having drifted through the game doing very little – although arguably played out of position. Cameroon Coach Paul Le Guen played the prolific striker in right midfield, despite his record of 42 goals in 92 appearances for the Indomitable Lions. Le Guen insisted on keeping the talisman on the wing despite showing a lack of creativity on the wing despite playing most of last season there for his club. The youthful side, trying to repeat the success of Italia 90 where they reached the quarter-finals before elimination by England, did also include the surprise omission of Arsenal midfielder Alexander Song.
The Japanese started the match playing a very negative defensive game, showing exactly why they struggled for goals in their warm up encounters with a lack of service to front-man Yoshito Okubo. The Blue Samurai’s solitary goal in the tournament’s warm ups came against England by defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, however, they went on to gift Fabio Capello’s men two own-goals to concede their initial lead.
With half an hour gone in yesterday’s game, Mexican waves in the crowd signalled how poor a spectacle the game was for the fans. Mark Lawrenson perfectly summed up the first half, claiming it was a great advert for cricket, with the Free State stadium neighbouring Bloemfontein’s cricket ground. Two minutes after the first shot on goal though, Japan took a shock lead against the run of play – if there was a run of play – when CSKA Moscow star Keisuke Honda scored his fifth goal for his country. Honda, who was singled out by Coach Okada as the Blue Samurai’s key man, smashed in under pressure in the six-yard box after Cameroon’s defence failed to clear Matsui’s cross to take a one goal lead at half-time. With most expecting Cameroon Coach le Guen to make changes at half-time to get more out of Eto’o, the Frenchman instead chose to retain Eto’o in right midfield and not make any changes, despite the side lacking a playmaker like Song who remained on the bench after half-time.
Cameroon failed to threaten much in the second half with the exception of a late effort by Stephane Mbia hitting the crossbar from 25 yards. Japan centre-half Yuji Nakazawa put in a heroic display late on, throwing himself in front of anything that threatened the goal. Meanwhile, Keisuke Honda proved that he didn’t just have quality up front, but also impressed with his work-load and came close to scoring again two minutes from time with a long range effort. Despite, being forced further and further back late on, Japan held on for a famous victory – albeit an unadventurous one – but the Blue Samurai showed more passion and urgency than their African counterparts.
Japan veteran Junichi Inamoto, who played in the Britain for five years for Arsenal, Bolton, West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City, came on for a late cameo but it will be the omission of Shunsuke Nakamura that will raise eyebrows. The Japanese go to Durban to face the Netherlands next in Group E, knowing that an unlikely draw against one of the favourites could well see them on their way to the second round for the first time since hosting the tournament in 2002 and their miserly defence may well see Okada’s men through.