They say that football can bring people together like no other sport. In China, we may be able to see for ourselves whether this is true as one of the country’s leading clubs has just hired one of Japan’s top coaches.
Takeshi Okada took his national team to the second round of the 2010 World Cup, and has turned down a number of the biggest clubs in his homeland. But now he’s been selected as the head coach of Hangzhou Greentown. This ambitious club, just south of Shanghai, wants a first title in China before going on to bigger things in Asia when the new Chinese season starts in March.
Whether they can remains to be seen, but either way this is still a significant and symbolic appointment. It shows the new pulling power of the wealthy Chinese clubs, even compared with the big boys in Japan. But more than that, it puts a Japanese coach in charge of a major (well, not quite major yet, but one with serious ambitions) Chinese club.
You don’t need to follow the goings on in Asia closely to know that relations between these two countries are usually best described as frosty. Japan invaded China in 1937, six years after first landing in Chinese Manchuria. But it was the atrocities committed by Japanese troops that really ingrained the decades-long tensions that flare from time to time.
The diplomatic tensions were on display last year, when Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat after accusing his vessel of deliberately ramming a Japan Coast Guard ship in disputed waters. After a furious reaction from Beijing, Japan eventually released the man, but the episode demonstrated how quickly passions rise when it comes to these two nations.
And Okada knows that it may not be easy to get the locals on his side. In 2004, Japan lifted the Asian Cup in Beijing, but had to contend with their national anthem being jeered in every city they played.
Still, Okada is experienced enough to know that like all coaches, it all depends on results. If things go well on the pitch, nobody in the city is going to care about Okada’s nationality.
"I told the owner that he had a lot of guts naming a Japanese coach," Okada said. "And he told me, 'I'm already being criticized and I know there is a risk, but it hasn't stopped me.'"
“At the grassroots level, however, I never experienced those sentiments during my stay (in China), although that stuff could happen at the political level…If we don't win, I'm sure I'll be criticized, and that might be coupled with anti-Japan sentiments. But I already feel that the players and coaches have accepted me more than I expected.”
Okada’s stock is high in Asia after his World Cup successes last year, which came despite a terrible run of results leading up to the competition. Back then, Okada was severely criticized by the Tokyo press pack, one of the reasons why he isn’t desperate to work at home.
China, meanwhile, is on the rise in the world of football, and it could be great timing from his point of view.
"I want to win the Asian Champions League, go to the Club World Cup and defeat Barcelona," Okada said. "I told the players and they laughed. But it’s not impossible."
Beating Barca probably is, but if he can show that a Japanese coach can work well in China, that will be achievement enough.