Sloppy, unprofessional, boring, unimaginative. And that was just Guy Mowbray and Mark Lawrenson in the BBC commentary box. Whilst not personally agreeing with the decision, I could see reasons for Guy Mowbray getting the Beeb’s number one commentary spot ahead of Jonathan Pearce. Pandering to Mark Lawrenson’s base instincts was not among those reasons.
Admittedly, the first 37 minutes of Japan v. Cameroon was dreck in the extreme. But Lawrenson in particular seemed determined almost from the kick-off that this would be the case. After five minutes he estimated that Japan “have given the ball away about once-a-minute.” Which made them about as good as England. And England started well. And by the time Japan scored even Mowbray had got bored with the predictability of it all.
“Japan’s goal was against the run of play,” Mowbray noted. “What run of play?” came the response. “I knew you were going to say that,” Mowbray added, echoing the thoughts of the nation – those that hadn’t already turned the sound down. The commentators had insurmountable problems recognising an offside flag, pondering aloud that they hadn’t seen a foul on the Cameroon keeper over a picture of the referee’s assistant, flag resolutely pointing high across the pitch.
And, never one to miss a stereotype, Mowbray had Japan’s bespectacled, besuited manager, Takeshi Okada, quickly marked down in the “inscrutable” column, although he at least had the decency not to utter the word. Instead, Okada was mocked by both Mowbray and Lawrenson for his straight face after Japan scored (“he looks like he’s on his way to the City to sell some shares,” noted Lawrenson, a puzzling thing to say about someone who’s stood still).
The mocking seemed a bit harsh as the first live close-up came three minutes after the goal. When a slow-motion replay of Okada’s actual goal celebrations – broad smile, pumping arms, hugs for his colleagues – was shown, Lawrenson admitted “I was wrong,” to which Mowbray replied, “You’re always wrong.” (see “thoughts of a nation” above).
The fact that both sides were over-cautious was part mitigation for all this nonsense – Lawrenson was probably right to suggest that “schoolkids won’t be rushing home for this one.” But when Lawrenson noted that Eto’o had “played down the right for Milan this season” I was contemplating asking for a bit of my licence fee back.
Such has been the focus on the Jabulani ball being difficult for keepers that it has been overlooked how difficult it is for runners and dribblers too. Twice Benoit Assou-Ekotto bombed down the left flank only to see the ball speed away from him before he could turn right. But the goal was down to ball-watching rather than the ball itself, Cameroon full-back Stephane Mbia busting a gut to get to Dalsuke Matsui’s cross from the left and clean forgetting that he was supposed to be marking Keisuke Honda, who was allowed just enough time to finish with a composure and quality the previous thirty-seven minutes lacked.
Mowbray tried to venture that the second half had started better, before noting that “Mark Lawrenson’s silence speaks volumes.” And makes more sense. But matters did eventually get more lively when Cameroon manager Paul Le Guen suddenly realised that Cameroon were losing and he ought to do something about it.
His answer was to bring on Mohamed Idrissou up front, which, as the old joke goes, suggested the question needed rephrasing. Cameroon did get a bit better though. And such was the relative bombardment of the last ten minutes that there were eventually nearly as many chances in this game as in the Holland game hours earlier. (Lawrenson noted that most teams in the finals had thus far been “over-cautious” before adding “not the Dutch, mind,” which suggested that he hadn’t been paying attention all afternoon).
Mbia clanged one against the crossbar from 30 yards with five minutes left, which Japan keeper Eiji Kawashima dived full-length for, but about four feet under. Yet for all that Japan had fitted the well-drilled stereotype at the expense of creating much more than the goal, they deserved the win.
They defended terrifically when they had to. And Honda was a lively presence in the final third, despite the paucity of service (“The boy up front,” as Lawrenson called him, having spent 90 minutes plus stoppage time watching him. If only the lad’s name was a world-famous car manufacturer. Christ, even I did more research for this game than Lawrenson did. And I’m paying his fee).
It was Japan’s first World Cup finals win on foreign soil. They didn’t quite, as the cliché goes, “celebrate it “as if they’d won the World Cup.” But they certainly celebrated it in case it might not happen again. And I fear they might be good judges. Cameroon, meanwhile, look destined to be on an early flight home. If there’s a seat on it for a chap called Lawrenson, the watching world would be most grateful.
Once again, our thanks go to Historical Football Kits for allowing us to use their images in this report.