LONDON – The Olympics' match-fixing controversy spread to the soccer tournament on Wednesday after revelations that women's world champion Japan deliberately drew its final group game. Japan's head coach Norio Sasaki ordered his players to adopt a game plan focused entirely on defense against South Africa on Tuesday, despite its opponent being one of the weakest in the competition.
Sure enough, an entirely predictable 0-0 draw was the outcome, meaning the Asian side finished second in Group F.
"I feel sorry we couldn't show a respectable game, but it is my responsibility, not the players', why the game was like that," Sasaki said. "It was a different way of playing compared to the usual game, but the players were on the same page as me."
The eight women's doubles badminton players disqualified on Wednesday had tried to throw their matches in order to gain a more favorable draw. Japan did it to cut down on its Olympics travel arrangements.
Japan will now face Brazil in a quarterfinal on Friday, but the game will take place in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, the same site as its draw with South Africa. A victory over South Africa would have seen Japan top the group, but forced it to travel to Hampden Park in Glasgow, more than 300 miles away, to take on France.
The tactic is an unusual one, as Brazil is one of the strongest teams in women's soccer and, in Marta, has the player widely considered to be the finest in the world. Brazil lost to the United States in a dramatic quarterfinal penalty shootout at the women's World Cup last year. Japan went on to beat the Americans, also in a shootout, in the final.
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Unlike badminton's world federation, which was embarrassed and infuriated by the ludicrous scenes that saw two South Korean pairs and one Chinese and one Indonesian team attempt to lose, soccer governing body FIFA took a far more relaxed approach and has ruled out any punishment.
The key point here is that though Japan clearly made no effort to actually win the game – as evidenced by their coach's comments – they did not make a conscious attempt to throw it. It is likely that a deliberate defeat would have been subject to serious sanction.
FIFA will, however, ask the International Olympic Committee to take a close look at the way the soccer events at the Games are arranged. That decision has nothing to do with the Japan incident, but there are already concerns over the amount of travel teams are asked to undertake.
Soccer is normally the only Olympic sport where games are spread across the host nation, often leading to huge travel distances and time spent in transit. Such a scenario is not to the liking of the players' club teams, several of which have voiced fears that the additional travel increases the risk of their stars becoming injured.
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With the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, it is proposed that the soccer matches will be shared among many of the stadiums to be used in the 2014 World Cup, also in Brazil. That plan may be scaled back though, if FIFA gets its way.
Japan's unusual decision has served to set up an intriguing quarterfinal, with the clash between the world champion and Brazil – the undoubted highlight of the tournament so far. The U.S. has a much easier route toward the semifinals, taking on New Zealand at St James's Park in Newcastle.
U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage voiced her disapproval of the Japanese plot and claimed her team would never consider such a policy.
"Absolutely not," she said. "Never ever crossed my mind. Because, I think, respect the game, respect this wonderful tournament, and respect the team. We want to win. If we have that approach to every game, I think we are in the best mindset."
Martin Rogers is a soccer columnist for Yahoo! Sports
- South Africa
- Norio Sasaki