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Japan becoming the Fifa Under 17 World Cup darling

  |  October 23, 2013

October 21, 2013, Sharjah, UAE: Seen here is Japan's captainRyoma Watanabe, moments before scoring his team's 3rd goal against Venezuala. The final score was Japan 3, Venezuala 1. Lee Hoagland/The National *** Local Caption *** LH2110_Japan_Venezuala__12.jpg
October 21, 2013, Sharjah, UAE: 
Seen here is Japan's captainRyoma Watanabe, moments before scoring his team's 3rd goal against Venezuala.

The final score was Japan 3, Venezuala 1. 
Lee Hoagland/The National *** Local Caption ***  LH2110_Japan_Venezuala__12.jpg

I love, love, love Japan's team at the Fifa Under 17 World Cup, being held at the moment in the UAE.

The Japanese are quite good. A 1-0 victory over Russia, the European champion; a 3-1 victory over Venezuela. Their place in the final 16 is assured.

But I like them for far more than skill.

Let me count the ways.

1. They play hard.

These guys are moving, moving, moving all the time -- and almost all of the time towards the goal. They ran Russia into the ground. They are in such fine physical shape, and their technical skills are so advanced, that they can hold the ball seemingly at will. Imagine Barcelona of a few years ago, taken back in time to their teens. And Japan's guys retain their shape even in an environment that has been hot and humid.

2. I like that they are deep.

Their first XI in the win over Russia? Eight new guys went in as starters against Venezuela the other night, and they won by a wider margin. The tiny kid who scored the goal against Russia doesn't even have a club connection; he represents his high school.

3. I like that they are respectful.

When a player is substituted, he sprints to the touch line (even when his team is ahead), greets his replacement, turns on the touch line and bows towards the referee. Does any other team in the world do that? Show such respect for the man in the middle?

4. I love that they are not cynical.

Even at this level, most of the players already have absorbed the gamesmanship and, well, attempted cheating that is rampant through much of the world. The diving, the fake-agony-rolling, the demands for yellow cards on their opponents. This acting is common, and perhaps taught (which is even more depressing), in many wide regions of the world, and football fans know which they are.

We have seen lots of writhing in this tournament, but the real injuries almost always are to those who who eschew the displays of agony. Also, the time-wasting when ahead; it is quite common in this tournament and always repulsive. Flopping just to chew up time; goaltenders are some of the worst about this, because they know referees rarely will send them off on a stretcher. It is infuriating to watch this behavior already so ingrained in teenage players. As adults, they will be only worse.

Japan's players never do that, even though they are with regularity hacked down by less-skilled opponents. Their guys bounce up and get back to work. They apparently trust that officials will make the correct call -- without all the play-acting.

Japan's team is a gust of fresh air blowing through the tournament. Team-oriented, small but skilful, polite, fair, good sportsmen.

The average height of their players seems to be about 5-foot-7, and the guy who scored the winning goal against Russia appears to be about 5-foot-4.

But they play the game as it ought to be played. I'm not sure if the senior team is quite this delightful, not having seen them in a few years, but I am a huge fan of this U17 team, and recommend that everyone give them a look Thursday at 5pm, at the Sharjah club, against Tunisia.

I would not mind at all if they win the tournament. And I hope some players and coaches and fans from more cynical soccer-playing regions take notice of the way the Japanese play.

The right way.