I used to live in Japan, in the small seaside town of Shimizu. Those familiar with Japanese football will recognise the name as belonging to Shimizu S-Pulse – one of just five J. League teams to have played every season in the Japanese top-flight.
Shimizu may be a football town but Japan’s national pastime is baseball, and every night my next-door neighbour took his two young children outside to practice their baseball swings.
Often I would return home from dinner down by the port to see the two boys – neither of whom were older than 10 – practicing the arc of their swings under the streetlight, long after the sun had sunk behind Mount Fuji and disappeared for the night.
I’ve always hoped those boys make it big for the Tokyo Giants one day because I can’t bear the thought of them wasting so many hours of their youth practicing baseball swings.
But maybe in thinking as much I’m revealing a uniquely Australian mindset. Those boys may never play professional baseball, but in practicing so diligently they’ll have learned valuable traits that will serve them long into their adult life.
They’ve learned respect – for their father and the traditions of Japan – they’ve learned discipline and they’ve learned that practice is an important part of self-improvement.
I thought as much last night when I watched a patient and technically adept FC Tokyo easily dispatch Hyundai A-League champions Brisbane Roar, despite the visitors missing captain Yohei Kajiyama and veteran striker Lucas Severino.
FC Tokyo predictably controlled first-half possession, pressed high up the park against a flustered Roar defence and patiently awaited their chance.
It duly arrived when FC Tokyo’s talisman Naohiro Ishikawa drove forward, saw his attempted pass deflect to defender Yuhei Tokunaga, who promptly crossed for Tatsuya Yazawa to stab home.
It was as simple as that.
And yet, when I looked around an impressive 12,000-strong crowd that braved driving rain, there was an almost a palpable sense of disbelief. Why?
Anyone with even a passing interest in the J. League would find it laughable the Roar were considered favourites against one of the most popular and well-resourced Japanese sides.
It shouldn’t have mattered they were in the second division last season – several FC Tokyo players are on the fringe of Japan’s full national squad and one of them, Ishikawa, is in my opinion one of the best players in the J. League.
He was everywhere against the Roar, starting on the right, popping up in space the middle of the park and dragging defenders away from bustling striker Kazuma Watanabe at every opportunity. And every time Ishikawa touched the ball, he looked a class above.
Why is that? Well for one thing, I have no doubt he spent every waking moment of his youth practicing.
It shouldn’t come as such a surprise Japan produces so many two-footed, technically proficient players because they practice twice as hard as anyone else.
Yet so many Australian analysts miss this point in favour of calling Japanese clubs “cashed up” and obsessing over which Brazilians play at the point of attack.
At any rate, I thought the Roar’s maiden Champions League clash was a fabulous advertisement for Asian football and I applaud Ange Postecoglou for sticking to his attacking principles, even when his side went 2-0 down.
Brisbane were beaten but not bowed and I have a feeling they met the best team in the group first up, even if group rivals Ulsan Hyundai are a team bristling with international-class talent.
And as Adelaide United showed us by downing Uzbek giants Bunyodkor, anything is possible in Champions League with a positive attitude and a bit of luck.
But if FC Tokyo have taught us anything, it’s that luck can only take you so far.
Practice makes perfect in the world of Asian football and that’s a lesson we here in Australia would do very well to learn.