Japan – forever in our shadow?

Shinji Okazaki celebrates scoring Japan's second goal against the Socceroos

It was one of the greatest nights in Australian football – arguably the greatest – and while there is often debate about atmosphere at Socceroos matches, there was no denying the passion and unbridled joy around Stadium Australia when the full-time-in-extra-time whistle sounded and Australia had won their first major title. There was still a reason to cringe however, and it wasn’t just because the organisers thought the best way to celebrate would be to pump Avicii over the PA for 10 minutes.

At the home end, unfurled in the front row as the celebrations kicked off, was a banner aimed at Japan and its supporters: ‘Nippon: Forever In Our Shadow’.

Those not too familiar with the native name of Japan, or had not seen the banner before, may have just assumed that it was something related to Korea. A spectator near me was overheard as the banner was revealed.

“Nippon? Isn’t that Japan?”

“Yeah,” his mate replied.

“Right. We are playing Korea though…”

There is no doubting the rivalry between Australia and Japan, with that comeback in Kaiserslauten becoming the beginning of this modern-day rivalry when late goals from Tim Cahill and John Aloisi – Australia’s first at a World Cup – pulled Australia back from 0-1 down to defeat Japan 3-1 in their opening match at the 2006 World Cup.

Since then there have been several memorable clashes. One year later in 2007, the Samurai Blue knocked Australia out of their maiden Asian Cup on penalties in the quarter finals.

Four years later and  Australian hearts were broken again, this time in the final, with a superb volley in extra-time from Tadanari Lee.

This time, on home soil, Australia went one better and lifted the Asian Cup for the first time. Whether you could say they had got revenge on Japan though is debatable, considering the two failed to meet in the tournament, with Japan heading out at the quarter-final stage on penalties against the UAE. Still though, the Australian support felt it necessary to send a message to the Samurai Blue, though Japan being “forever in Australia’s shadow” is a hard statement to agree with.

The phrase is borrowed from a common Arsenal jibe at cross-city rivals Tottenham Hotspur. With 26 domestic trophies to Spurs’ 14 though, Arsenal are comfortably the more successful team and have finished above their rivals in every season of the Premier League since 1995. Fair enough.

Even including this most recent Asian Cup victory – and victory in the only head-to-head contest at a World Cup – it’s hard to argue that Japan don’t have the bragging rights over the Socceroos.

In fact, the last time the two sides met, back in November last year, Japan comfortably beat the Socceroos 2-1, with Shinji Okazaki and Yasuyuki Konno netting for Japan before Tim Cahill’s stoppage-time consolation.

There’s also the small matter of Japan knocking Australia out of the last two Asian Cups – including the extra-time victory in the final four years ago in Doha – and that this is Australia’s first major trophy, while Japan have been champions of the continent four times (though only once since Australia joined Asia, meaning that you could count the ledger as “even” in terms of titles won). The overall head-to-head record favours the Japanese too – just – with the Samurai Blue enjoying eight victories to Australia’s seven in 23 meetings between the two.

Nippon: Forever In Our Shadow
Nippon: Forever In Our Shadow

While the Socceroos may have the only victory between the two sides at a World Cup, Japan’s record at the tournament is slightly better, qualifying for five tournaments to Australia’s four (though one was automatic as hosts), and reaching the knockout stage twice to Australia’s solitary advance.

It’s a little strange that this type of schadenfreude was reserved for a contest not even involving Japan, and who’s culture and fans are renowned for being respectful. There is certainly a sporting rivalry between the two, and had it been the semi-final encounter that many were expecting following Australia’s second-place finish in Group A then it is a little more understandable (though still inaccurate). But to unfurl it after a victory against Korea in the final, when the Socceroos and Samurai Blue failed to even meet in the tournament, isn’t something that really appeals to me. Enjoy the success of your own side, don’t worry about anyone else. It comes across as petty.

It’s reminiscent of Chelsea fans singing the Steven Gerrard song while they are playing against West Bromwich Albion or Southampton. He’s got not much to do with what’s going on there, Liverpool still finished ahead of Chelsea in the title race following the slip, and it’s a little weird and bitter.

Naturally, the image was sent around the internet, retweeted and passed along, garnering some expected reactions like the one below:

Perhaps it’s part of a young footballing nation looking to find its identity; and yes, it’s probably all in good fun. For mine, it would have been a nicer touch had the home end displayed something celebrating Australia and a historic victory at the final whistle, rather than a somewhat embarrassing dig at a rival. A tribute to the late Johnny Warren would have been a far more touching and relevant gesture.

In reality, Australia are still the new kids on the block in the Asian football sphere. Lifting the Asian Cup is a massive stride forward, but it is much easier to argue that Australia are still in Japan’s shadow, rather than the other way round.

About Mark Houston 86 Articles
Mark is an editor of The Blog FC and has also contributed to other sport and music sites. He predominantly writes about La Liga but also follows Europe's other top leagues and the local A-League. There's a special place in his heart for bearded deep-lying playmakers and he's a proud member of the Goalkeepers Union.