Japan aims for title, respect at American football world championship

Japan aims for title, respect at American football world championship
Defensive lineman Yasuo Wakisaka, third from right, still going strong at 46, participates in a drill during a Japan practice on Sunday in Kawasaki.
PHOTO: Japan News/ANN

Assuming that Japan gets a much-anticipated showdown with the defending champion United States at the upcoming IFAF World Championship, wide receiver Takashi Kurihara will renew an acquaintance with a member of the American team.

Kurihara, who plays for the X-League's IBM BigBlue, met Army quarterback-turned-wide receiver Trent Steelman at the Baltimore Ravens' rookies minicamp in May 2013, then hooked up with him again at the NFL veteran free agents combine last March.

"He's been trying to get to the NFL, and I'm still aiming to get there," Kurihara said of their mutual friendship recently.

The two could actually face each other twice in the tournament, which will be held in the stadium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, from July 9-18.

It says something about the sport's somewhat obscure standing around the world that Stockholm pulled out as the original host because of financing problems, and Canada withdrew its team just a month ago, reducing the field from eight to seven.

The United States, Japan and Mexico make up the upper-tier Group A, while France, Australia, South Korea and Brazil will contest Group B, with the top team earning a shot at a place in the final. Japan was to have played Canada first, but now has a win by forfeit, and will open play by facing the winner of the game between the United States and Mexico.

While Kurihara will be familiar with one of the opponents, the same could hardly be said about Japanese football both at home and in the land where the sport began and flourishes, and on a broader scale, the fact that the sport even has a world championship.

"Honestly speaking, the typical American doesn't know that Japan even plays football," Japan head coach Kiyoyuki Mori said after practice Sunday in Kawasaki.

"Sometimes when we go over to the States and talk with people there, they are surprised to hear we play the game. They often ask things like, 'Do you have the same rules?'

"This time [the tournament] will be held in Canton, a special place for football, and fans in Ohio know the sport well. Playing in front of them, I want them to think, 'Japan really can play.' That really appeals to us."

Japan not only plays the game, but with the exception of the United States and perhaps Canada, it is the dominant power among the 68 other nations that are members of the International Federation of American Football.

Japan won the first two world championships - then known as the World Cup - in 1999 and 2003, although the United States did not enter a team in either tournament.

The United States first participated in the 2007 tournament hosted by Japan, which it dethroned with an overtime victory in the final. The Americans successfully defended their title four years later in Austria, routing a Canadian team that had beaten Japan in the semifinals on a late touchdown.

The American version of football has official recognition by the IOC, although it did not make the cut of sports shortlisted for inclusion for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Still, those affiliated with the sport in Japan are dedicated toward spreading the game both home and abroad. They know it's not something that can happen overnight, although a victory over the United States - even against a team mostly made up of recently graduated collegians - could have a profound effect.

"It's kind of a dream of all the Japanese football players, football coaches, football staff," said Japan defensive coordinator Makoto Ohashi, the head coach of the Obic Seagulls, of beating the US "Our challenge will open the next door."

As for the lack of awareness of the tournament, Ohashi said, "A long, long time ago, nobody knew the football World Cup ... It's now five times for the [football] World Cup, but it's not so famous in the sports world. But we will try again, again, again to make it bigger."

There's little chance that American football will achieve the worldwide appeal of football, but in its own way, a victory by Japan over the United States would be somewhat akin to the Americans' stunning win over England at the 1950 World Cup.

"It won't happen right away, it might take five years, or 10 years, or even be 50 years away," Mori said. "For that reason, looking at how popular football is in Japan, I know that winning this one time will not cause it to suddenly spike. All we can do on the field is try to keep producing results."

On the field, Japan will be led by quarterbacks Shohei Kato of the Lixil Deers and Tetsuo Takata of the Panasonic Impulse, who will throw to a speedy corps of eight wide receivers including Obic Seagulls star Noriaki Kinoshita and Kurihara. Keio University running back Taku Lee is the only collegian on the 45-man roster.

The defence features the iron man of Japanese football, Panasonic defensive lineman Yasuo Wakisaka. When he takes the field in Canton, it will make the 46-year-old the only player to have appeared in all five world championships dating back to that first one in Palermo, Italy, in 1999. And he's doing it after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon suffered two years ago.

"I thought this would be the last chance in my career to make the Japan national team," Wakisaka said. "I'll give it everything I have in America. I may take my lumps, but I wanted to give it a shot."

The X-League champion Fujitsu Frontiers have the most players on the Japan squad with 13, followed by Obic with 11. Of note is the fact that seven players, including Takata and Kinoshita, were members of the 2004 Ritsumeikan University Panthers team that won the Rice Bowl for the national championship.

Meanwhile, Mori and his staff has been busy watching films of the US players, and are aware of the style of football favoured by head coach Dan Hawkins, the former coach at Boise State and Colorado.

For two players, however, the information is locally available. Linebacker B.J. Beatty, who played for Hawkins at Colorado, is currently in his fourth season with Obic, while defensive lineman Matt Oh played last season for Panasonic.

To Mori, the key to beating the Americans will be to minimise mistakes and for Japan to hold its own on the line, where the hosts will have a size advantage.

"Our size on the line has gradually gotten bigger, but the situation is no longer where we can't compete on the line as in the past," he said. "We won't know until they match up, but if we are ineffective there, we won't have a chance."Speech

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