4 January ~ As the votes are gathered for next week's Ballon d'Or award, soccer's most electable stars of 2011 are obvious. Barcelona and Lionel Messi's destruction of Santos in the Club World Championship saw the world's best manager, player and team peak in Tokyo. But Japan's involvement in the highlights of the last 12 months went a bit deeper than providing the scenery. The Women's World Cup winners of 2011 redefined "overachievement". The Nadeshiko, Japan's female international side and Asia's first ever football world champions, mock the gender-specific voting criteria with their ridiculous level of success back in June and July.

Brazil's Marta will surely go no further with her run of six consecutive stints as Women's Player of the Year but Homare Sawa - the best player, winning captain and tournament top scorer at Germany 2011 - should be threatening little Lionel's bid to equal Michel Platini's record of three straight wins in the Ballon d'Or.

Watching the Germany v Japan quarter-final in various bars along Cologne's Hohenzollernring last summer, I initially craved a home triumph for a city consumed by the match. But as the minutes ticked by and Germany dominated without scoring I slowly realised what I was witnessing. And why.

Japan's women played like Greece's men at Euro 2004. Backs to the wall against highly-favoured opposition but never in any real doubt they would score on the break or win by penalties. In Portugal seven years ago the Greek formula was a lack of expectation and the tactics of German coach Otto Rehhagel. Japan's women also had a male coach, Norio Sasaki, but not so much expectation as an acute awareness of colossal tragedy.

The March earthquake and tsunami that caused so much devastation in their homeland placed a demand on the Japan team which would have been an unwieldy burden for any side - especially one up against the reigning champions, hosts and most successful European country in women's football. But the need to alleviate the suffering caused by a natural disaster seemed particularly debilitating when shouldered by a Japanese athlete. The marathon runner Kōkichi Tsuburaya committed suicide, at age 28, because he "only" won bronze at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

It is still not unusual for Japanese competitors who under-perform at international events to find themselves berated, to their face, by compatriot journalists. Last summer it seemed as if that cycle of sporting passion leading to human tragedy was being reversed. Germany's Federal Republic was perhaps the most apposite setting - few nations have won so much while feeling so wary of any nationalistic tendencies. When Karina Maruyama completed a brilliantly belligerent counter-attack in the 108th minute to eliminate the hosts, I downed my Kölsch in admiration.

Japan had never beaten a European side over 90 competitive minutes when they went 1-0 down to Sweden after just ten of their first ever World Cup semi-final. They came back to win 3-1. In the final they equalised against the behemoths of the women's game, the USA, with a goal nine minutes from the end of the 90 and then again three minutes from the end of extra time. Even the American media's designated personality of the tournament, goalkeeper Hope Solo, couldn't stop Japan in the penalty shoot-out. Not since Denmark at Euro 92 has football seen such a thrilling, unlikely and unmawkishly heartening run against mounting adversity.

Messi and Pep Guardiola are expected to win the individual awards in Zurich. However, Barcelona are often as horrible to hear as they are beautiful to see. Japan's victory last summer was not the most aesthetically pleasing football on the planet, but neither were Sawa's goals nor Sasaki's tactics a triumph of money masquerading as socio-political vengeance.

The Nadeshiko's victory in Germany was a signal lesson for coaches, administrators and the British media. Players work best when they are charged with providing social consolation rather than answers to nationalistic grievances. Doing so can render "winning ugly" far nicer than tiki-taka perfectionism. Alex Anderson

Comments (6)
Comment by Paul Rowland 2012-01-04 13:11:29

Sorry Alex. My vote goes to Messi. To be perfectly honest with you, I'm not bothered about "gender-specific voting criteria", whatever that is. Or "money masquerading as socio-political vengeance". Or "social consolation". Or "nationalistic grievances". The thing is - I'm not a political animal, nor am I some sort of intellectual powerhouse. I'm a football fan, plain and simple. I just watch the game.

That's why I'm voting for Messi.

Comment by Coral 2012-01-04 15:45:27

Jordan Rhodes has had a fantastic season, in fact a fantastic year overall. Why are we not putting him in to be nominated? I mean sure the other players he competes against are not the same level as the one Messi competes again but... oh right.

Comment by redxand 2012-01-04 19:30:36

I don't see the similarity with Greece. I though they played some nice skillful and technical football at times and they hardly relied on overpowering opponents physically like that Greek side. It didn't look to me like they deliberately set out to defend deep and launch counter-attacks. It's something that just seemed to happened, at stages, when they played very good teams.

And I'm not sure there is a need to take anything away from Barcelona or Leo Messi in order to celebrate an extraordinary triumph by the Nadeshiko.

Comment by Sundeporino 2012-01-04 21:22:42

I was at the England v Japan game and they were well, well, well beaten by England. No comparison with the Greek team of yore whatsoever. No comparison with Lionel Messi either.
It wouldnt do WSC any harm to leave the "front page" blank every now and then y'know.

Comment by Max Payne 2012-01-05 23:26:43

"It wouldnt do WSC any harm to leave the "front page" blank every now and then y'know."

Wow, Sundeporino. Get you.

It wouldn't do you any harm to type out your message and then switch off the computer without posting it, y'know.

Comment by Alex Anderson 2012-01-06 18:58:51

@Paul Rowland,

Fair enough, Paul - most things Fifa do should be right up your street then, mate. But I do find it difficult to understand how a "plain and simple" football fan could fail to appreciate what the Japanese ladies did in Germany. You'd need to seriousy over-complicate your watching of the game, or throw some sort of grievance or snobbery at it to find their relative achievement any less than that of Messi and co (who I, incidentally, describe as the best on the planet in the first paragraph).


... and if you follow that relativism to its natural conclusion ...?

I'm a major Jordan Rhodes fan too - seriously bright hope for the Scotland set-up - and if he single-handedly took Huddersfield to a domestic treble next season, ye know with a hat-trick against a full Man City side in each of the FA up and League Cup finals, he'd be over-achieving in something approaching the way Homare Sawa did last summer.


perhaps I should have made it clearer that I was a huge admirer of that Greece side at Euro 2004 who, while capable of some nasty spitting and hair-pulling, were seriously unlikely to have physically intimidated the likes of France and the Czech Republic at Portugal. As you say yourself, Japan came up against very good teams - THAT's why I admire what they did: They never folded and never lost belief. Just like Greece at Euro 2004. Both were outsiders with no previous record of any note in the knock-out stages of international competition and suddenly they were champions by refusing to bow to teams with greater individual skills. I thought both Japan 2011 and Greece 2004 were phenomenal.

And don't worry - I don't think anyone's going to pay much attention to me trying to take anything away from Barcelona's off-field antics and the pretentiousness of their off-field posturing. And at no point do I say that ON THE FIELD the Catalans are anything other than the best side in the world.

It wouldn't be the first time the Ballon d'Or has gone to someone who clearly isn't the best footballer on the planet. But it might be the first time the award has lauded the single most miraculous achievement of the football year past.

@Sundeporino - and where did England end up in that tournament? I do believe Barcelona have been beaten this season - but Getafe wont be winning La Liga, nor will any of their players be lifting the Ballon d'Or.

@Max Payne - no, mate! - leave it! - eeze not worf it :-)

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