Current tensions between China and Japan are dominating news around the world. When it comes to the world game, the two don’t have a great relationship either.
Football does have the potential to bring people together when politics can’t, but it doesn’t always happen.
Back in 2004, China hosted the Asian Cup, the continent’s quadrennial showpiece event when 16 nations from far and wide gathered.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Japan arrived as champion while China was still looking for a debut title. The group stage, quarter-final and semi-final games were not the easiest of experiences for Japan.
Everywhere Japan played in China, the home fans favoured the other team.
Then Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi publicly told Chinese fans that “Political feelings should not be brought into sport events.”
By the time the two teams met in the final, it had become something of a problem and there was an impromptu press conference called in Beijing between the two captains.
It was perhaps China’s biggest ever game, the final of the Asian Cup and played in front of 60,000 fans at the Beijing Worker’s Stadium. The atmosphere would have been intense no matter who the opposition but as it was Japan, it was more intimidating than any that the Japanese players had experienced.
There are few links between the two countries in football. Korea sends lots of players to both countries including coaches but China and Japan rarely sign players from each other.
That all changed in December 2011 when Chinese Super League club Hangzhou hired Takeshi Okada as head coach. Okada is a famous figure in Japanese and Asian football as he took Japan to the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup. He had offers from big Japanese clubs but chose to head to the Chinese Super League.
He admitted at the time that a Japanese coach in China will be under a different kind of pressure.
"The Greentown owner (Song Weiping) told me that appointing a Japanese manager took a lot of grit and that some people are still criticizing him," Okada said. "At the grass-roots 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.
"(Taking on this job) will definitely be a big challenge," he added
Okada took the job because he wanted a challenge but has been positive about the attitudes of the Chinese players so far.
“I had heard that the Chinese form cliques, sabotage practice, and don’t train seriously, but that’s not the case at all. They are more pure and serious than the Japanese. Rumor has it that the Chinese are more individualistic, but they are more assertive than Japanese children. I have only seen positive aspects of the Chinese people.
“Chinese society is based on human relations. Many things are determined by connections and who you know. I realized that’s what happens when a country is so big that it’s not easy to go to every corner of the nation to recruit players. Since I’ve been here, players know that starting members are not selected based on connections.”
And while the fans are not too impressed, it is nothing to do with nationality but for the pure football reason that the team is just three points above the relegation zone.
Unfortunately for Okada, it has not been a great season. In 2011, the club finished eighth and with around a quarter of the campaign remaining, Hangzhou sits in 11th out of 16.