4th August, 1936. 17:30 local time. The Japan national team, struggling for consistency, trudged into the Stadion am Gesundbrunnen in Berlin. They were proud, for they were the first Asian team to ever contest world football at the Olympics.
But not many were interested. In a stadium that could hold over 35,200 spectators, only 5000 turned up. They expected to see heavyweights Sweden deliver a thrashing.
Everyone knew that the result would be a win. The only question was by how many. Even the commentator was Swedish, presumably to count the number of goals his compatriots would score.
As the Japanese coach Shigeyoshi Suzuki sat on the bench and the players lined up in their respective positions on the pitch, 5,000 jaws simultaneously dropped to the floor.
Where were the defenders?
Knowing that just representing the Empire of Japan was what this Olympics was going to be all about, Suzuki had gone for broke.
Step forward, the Kamikaze. The 1-6-3.
22-year-old defender Tadao Horie was the sole protection between the midfield and the goalkeeper Rihei Sano, 21. There was another defender on the pitch – the more experienced Teizo Takeuchi, 27 – but he stepped into midfield.
Teizo Takeuchi, Motoo Tatsuhara, Koichi Oita
Kim Yong Sik, Akira Matsunaga, Tokutaro Ukon
Taizo Kawamoto, Takeshi Kamo, Shogo Kamo
You would think Suzuki was crazy. The 5,000 fans sitting there thought so too. They were quick to declare this an experiment in failure. Maybe even a marketing gimmick, to raise the profile of a struggling Japanese outfit.
They were right.
Erik Persson made sure of that, scoring two goals – one in the 24th minute, another in the 37th – and Sweden were 2–0 up at half-time.
There was no panic. This was the expectation. There was no panic from Shigeyoshi Suzuki either.
But his calmness was of a different kind.
The Japanese came onto the field again, with the same mentality. Attack. And attack some more. And four minutes later, Shogo Kamo scored. It was the first time an Asian had scored a goal at the Olympics and no one had expected it.
But not everyone is Tokutaro Ukon, a player with Luis Enrique-like versatility. He could play in any outfield position and his tireless energy drove the team forward.
This time, he drove them level, scoring fifteen minutes after the first.
The Swedish fans looked in horror as their players started to lose belief. Everyone was shocked. Even the Swedish commentator was. For a few minutes all that could be heard was the ball being knocked around by the Japanese, and commentator Sven Jerring screaming into his microphone japaner, japaner, japaner (“Japanese, Japanese, Japanese”)…
They could have played for a draw at 2–2, which would have been historic. But the Kamikaze is all about suicide. Kill yourself. Die. But die giving your all.
It was the japaner who had the final word, not Sven. And they didn’t even have to die. Akira Matsunaga was a forward forced into midfield, a beast waiting to be unleashed. Five minutes from time, he was the hero.
They were the first Asian team to ever contest world football at the Olympics. They also became the first Asian team to be victorious in one.
Two records made in one match. There was noise in the stadium. There was noise in the streets of Japan. There was even some noise left from Sven’s microphone.
And in Sweden there was silence.
Three days later, in the next round, Japan were drawn against Italy, the world’s best team at the time.
This time, 8000 fans arrived at the 15,000-seater Mommsenstadion in Berlin; presumably the increase in turnout was to see how much Italy would win by. Ironically, the referee for that game, Otto Olsson, was Swedish.
Defender Tadao Horie was off; in came Yasuo Suzuki, who was a year older. But the rest of the starting XI was the same. The formation and the tactics were the same too.
Committing suicide. Attacking with all their might.
Except this time, they did die. The only surprise was that Japan were only two down by half-time, but maybe all was forgotten when Japan were sent home packing having lost 8–0, still the biggest defeat in their history. And, of course, when Italy went on to win the Olympic Gold medal.
Sweden went on to win the next Olympics, in 1948, and haven’t won a major trophy since. In contrast, Japan have gone from strength-to-strength, and are now one of the best teams in Asia. They have won the AFC Asia Cup a record four times, including consecutive titles in 2000 and 2004.
Like I said, the fans were fully right.
It was an experiment in failure. And it raised the profile of a struggling Japanese outfit.
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