Six years ago to the day, I was sweltering in Kaiserslautern. It was one of the hottest afternoons I’ve ever experienced. I’m certain Guus Hiddink was well aware of what conditions to prepare for the day the Socceroos recorded one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Australian sport.
The 2006 World Cup wasn’t my first trip to Germany. I first visited as a 14-year-old on a two-week student exchange program and three years later I was back for more. This time I stayed for a year – ostensibly to learn German, but mostly to watch football. I watched plenty of football in those twelve months, mostly at Borussia Dortmund’s legendary Westfalenstadion, which is now home to Europe’s largest average attendance.
I know what football means to Dortmund fans because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The derby with Ruhrpott rivals Schalke is one of Europe’s most fiercely contested affairs, and if there’s one way for a new player to ingratiate himself with Dortmund fans, it’s to score against Schalke. Shinji Kagawa did more than just score against the hated side from Gelsenkirchen – he scored twice – and that’s after predicting he would do exactly that in his first ever Revierderby.
It takes a special kind of player to successfully predict scoring two goals in one of Europe’s most heated games and Kagawa is precisely that. It’s not for nothing the 23-year-old has just been signed by Manchester United. Plenty were surprised when Dortmund lured him to Germany from second division Japanese side Cerezo Osaka in 2010, but the truth is he’d been scouted by the Germans at a young age. Kagawa was different from most young Japanese players. He had the skills and the discipline, but further to that he had confidence.
It’s exactly that confidence which could undo the Socceroos in Brisbane tonight. The Samurai Blue have always had talented stars but seldom have they had a playmaker so brimming with confidence he’s compared to Lionel Messi. The likes of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura may have come and gone but Kagawa could take things to the next level. If the little midfielder can replicate his club form in the international arena – Kagawa was the focal point of Dortmund’s recent back-to-back title wins – he could become Asia’s first truly global superstar.
It’s funny how things come full circle. Six years ago Japan’s squad was full of experienced but decidedly ageing players. The likes of Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, Takashi Fukunishi, Alex and several others were jettisoned following Japan’s first round World Cup exit. I know this because I moved to Japan for three years shortly after the World Cup. And having watched the Samurai Blue in action on countless occasions, I know exactly what a big game like tonight’s World Cup qualifier means to them.
It meant everything to Socceroos fans to see Tim Cahill score the nation’s first ever goal in the World Cup finals, and if his 84th minute toe-poke sparked wild celebrations, his long-range rocket five minutes later delivered pure bedlam. Such is the aura surrounding Cahill in the Japan camp – don’t forget he also scored twice in the corresponding fixture at the MCG four years ago – it would seem a smart move for Socceroos coach Holger Osieck to recall him to the starting line-up. Like a certain Dutch coach who trained his squad so hard their superior match fitness proved decisive in Kaiserslautern, Osieck knows he may need an ace up his sleeve to beat Japan.
Having strong ties to Japanese football means I relish watching Australia go head-to-head with the Asian giants. And personally I think Japan currently has a better squad than we do. Their star players are at clubs like Manchester United, Inter and Wolfsburg. Ours are at the likes of Melbourne Victory, Nagoya Grampus or club-less. And although club football has little in common with the international game, the fact Alberto Zaccheroni’s team beat Oman 3-0 and Jordan 6-0 in their two most recent qualifiers in Saitama should have sent alarm bells ringing through the Socceroos camp.
Back in a certain English clash in high school, it was the bell of the boxing ring I heard more often than not. The bureau boffins had come up with one of those well-intentioned but ultimately misguided attempts to cajole boys into creative writing, but rather than encourage his all-male class to write anything, my English teacher instead screened boxing videos almost every lesson. I learned a lot about the sweetest science in that class, including the exploits of the famous bantamweight, Masahiko ‘Fighting’ Harada. And if my Japanese friends will excuse the poetic licence, tonight – just as in Kaiserslautern six years ago – I’d love to see the Socceroos send one of our greatest rivals home feeling black and Samurai blue.