Samurais in South Africa

June 30, 2010

I arrived in South Africa with the Japan team filled with excitement and an acute feeling of anxiety. Never mind that I would be on the scene to cover the world’s biggest sporting event, and never mind that I would be competing against the top sports photographers from around the globe to get the best pictures. For a Reuters photographer like myself dedicated to a single team, when your team drops out of the competition, you’re finished. Like the defeated team, you go back to the hotel, pack your bags and spend the long flight home wondering what went wrong. Based on Japan’s lackluster showing in the East Asia Soccer Championship my expectation for Japan was three defeats in a row and no victories. Mine would be a short stay in South Africa.

A Japanese boy living in South Africa reacts as he watches Japan's national soccer team depart from South Africa at O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg June 30, 2010. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

But during Japan’s first match against Cameroon the Samurai Blue seemed to transform themselves in front of my eyes with Keisuke Honda’s goal being the catalyst. Japan was defeated by the Netherlands in their second match but the Samurais demonstrated the unity of the team in their performance and they were victorious against Denmark in their third match. In doing so they completely wiped out the image that I held of the Japan team before going into the competition. I was covering the world’s biggest sporting event, and I was going up against the top sports photographers, but in this World Cup Japan’s victory meant that the formidable teams of France and Italy and the even more formidable photographers accompanying them were going home. Not me.

Japan's Shinji Okazaki hugs Keisuke Honda (18) as they celebrate their victory against Denmark after their 2010 World Cup Group E soccer match at Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg June 24, 2010. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

On June 29, 2010, Japan faced Paraguay in World Cup match 55. Even after extra time the game remained scoreless and a penalty shoot-out would determine the outcome. I moved into position according to the instructions of Chief Photographer UK and Ireland Dylan Martinez, the leader of the Reuters photographers for this match.

A penalty shoot-out is all about luck. The psychologically intense method of deciding a match seems especially hard on the players, but it’s just as tough on the photographers with a split second making the difference between front pages around the world or a postage stamp-sized picture on page S15. Both the players and the photographers tuned out the screaming of the crowd and focused with tense stillness on the battle between the penalty kicker and the goalkeeper. My position was on the opposite side of the pitch allowing me to see the face of the goalkeeper. Japan’s goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who had saved many shots up to then, clearly showed the strain. Following the two successful shots by both teams it was Yuichi Komano, Japan’s third kicker’s turn.

Japan's Yuichi Komano hits the crossbar during a penalty shootout in their 2010 World Cup second round soccer match against Paraguay at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria June 29, 2010. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

At the instant he powerfully kicked the ball toward the goal I pressed my camera’s shutter button reflexively. For a fraction of a second my view through the viewfinder was blocked as the camera captured the picture and prevented me from seeing whether he had scored or not. The next moment I saw Komano holding his head in his hands. Japan’s World Cup team’s and my time in South Africa had ended.

Japan's Yuichi Komano reacts after missing a shot against  Paraguay during a penalty shootout in their 2010 World Cup second round soccer match at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria June 29, 2010.   REUTERS/Toru Hanai

4 comments

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Nice to see a post about my favourite team so far. As Finland never makes into the World Cup finals, it’s easy to cheer just whoever gets your fancy. My absolute favourites were the Samurai Blues.

Posted by mondogonzo | Report as abusive

Thanks for the great story. It is very well written and makes us understand of the team and the photographers’ fates are tied.
Oh, and the photos are neat too…
Lucas
http://www.pictobank.com

Posted by Photoluc | Report as abusive

I think Japan should be proud of the way they played. To get out of the groups was an achievement in itself especially after the way they played in East Asia Championship. I found these great videos of freestyle footballers showing off some great skills. Check them out at http://www.youtube.com/weareupc. Maybe Japan could learn a thing or two.

Posted by Kevinn99 | Report as abusive

I don’t care for football but I do like good photography. Cheers.

Posted by Torkel | Report as abusive