Russia. July 2, 2018.
The Rostov Arena comes alive, the business end of the FIFA World Cup at hand. A commanding Belgium side, loaded with players dubbed the “Golden Generation,” meets upstart Japan in the round of 16.
The game is an instant classic. Remarkable, breathtaking, dramatic, chaotic, cruel. Full of twists and turns. Of Kipling’s two impostors, triumph and disaster. Of broken hearts and dashed dreams.
Incredibly, on the strength of a pair of early second half goals, Japan leads 2-0 entering the final quarter of the match. The increasingly desperate Belgians somehow claw their way back to draw level as the game enters the fourth minute of stoppage time.
Boldly, Japan presses on. Looks for a dramatic winner from a last gasp corner kick. Yet, overcommitting numbers in the opposition penalty area, the aptly named Samurai leave themselves vulnerable to counterattack.
Sure enough, literally within seconds, Belgium sweeps down field. Alarm bells ring as blue shirted defenders frantically scramble back. Alas, three passes later, a low cross finds Reds winger Nacer Chadli unmarked in front of the uncovered Japanese goal. 3-2.
The final whistle sounds almost immediately. To the victors go the spoils. In contrast, the losers collapse in tears and bitter frustration.
Still, for me at least, a telling moment is still to come. Barely two hours later, photos emerge from the Japanese changing area at the stadium. Regardless of the agonizing defeat, the room is left immaculate. High standards maintained, despite the most disappointing circumstances. The floor gleams. Individual lockers spotless. No mess of any kind.
A simple sign, printed in Russian, reflects the team’s gratitude in taking part in soccer’s showcase event.
Спасибо. Thank you.
Flash forward four years. November. The 2022 World Cup opens in Qatar. Giovanni Infantino, the FIFA chair, trumpets a milestone for the organization, boasts of a milestone in the history of the Middle East.
Yet controversy abounds. About cost overruns in the billions of dollars. Of multiple human rights violations, of the deplorable treatment of migrant workers. Of sport washing, discrimination, and radical positions on LGBT issues. Of searing heat. Evidence further emerges of bribery in Qatar procuring hosting rights, not to mention general widespread FIFA corruption. Countries and individual players threaten boycotts.
Against this sad, unfortunate, and rather grubby background comes the hope that the tournament itself will be of such quality that any and all serious off field concerns will fade into the background.
Once again, enter Japan.
The Asian qualifiers meet traditional World Cup power and heavily favoured Germany in opening pool action. Though outshot by a large margin and going down 1-0 to a first half penalty kick, Japan battles bravely. Goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda makes a series of highlight reel saves to keep his team in touch as the game moves into the 76th minute.
Then comes seven minutes of magic, as, first on a rebound, then on a sharply angled blast, the underdogs pull ahead 2-1. The unexpected, the unthinkable, happens. Germany slumps to a shock defeat.
As always, I await various perspectives on the game. Appreciate the Instagram and Twitter images of the Japanese players, their almost joyous disbelief. Note the German fans, shoulders slumped, trudging away from the Khalifa International stadium.
Importantly, some other things never change. If heartache and despair vs Belgium in 2018 remains in the memory banks, this time Japan is a winner. Indeed, the country, players and spectators alike, enjoys the thrill and delight of a stunning upset.
Yet, there are no unnecessary airs and graces. No needless posturing, no strutting. Deep satisfaction for sure, but always a sense of perspective. Instinctively, I search for photos to match those of 2018.
Soon they appear. Once again, a locker room washed and scrubbed, left in pristine condition. As significantly, many Japanese fans stay behind to thoroughly clean their seats and the surrounding area.
Passages from a book on leadership titled “Legacy” immediately spring to mind. The author, James Kerr, outlines the concept of “Sweep the Sheds” and how it captures critical character traits. Namely, to remain humble, to take responsibility, to reject any sense of entitlement.
If the book focuses on the New Zealand All Blacks rugby squad, the themes offered are central to all team sports. That no one is too big or too important to do any of the small things, such as clean a changing room or a grandstand. Tasks, that should be and need to be done, must not automatically be left to junior members of the organization. From senior, superstar performers to rank and file fans, everyone has an obligation to assist as required.
In this regard, Arigato gozaimashita to the Japanese World Cup soccer teams and their supporters. For setting a sterling example. For reminding us about vital lessons.
About culture and respect. About humility, honour, and integrity.