Unbeaten Japan blast out of shadows to topple Olympic champions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 August, 2001, 12:00am

The last time Japan had this winning feeling, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial year, Robin Williams was Mork and Sylvester Stallone starred in the original Rocky motion picture. It has been a quarter of a century since Japan last won the Olympic title, but the Japanese announced their return to the top level by blasting three-time Olympic champions Cuba 3-1 to stay unbeaten in the FIVB Women's World Grand Prix at Hong Kong Coliseum last night.

Japan have been living in the shadows of top-class teams like Cuba, Russia and Brazil for so long, but now Japanese head coach Masahiro Yoshikawa thinks he has a team who can climb to the mountain top - again. Japan's magic transformation from also-rans (they failed to qualify for last year's Olympics in Sydney) to world beaters is staggering considering they are ranked outside the world's top 10.

Japan now must beat Brazil - who lost 3-2 to China in last night's other game - today to claim the tournament.

'We can be the world's best again,' said Yoshikawa, who acknowledged the last time Japan were world beaters was when they won the gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.

'We train hard every day and we are striving to be the best again. We were used to losing against these top teams before, but I am happy to announce that times are now changing.'

Yoshikawa's prophetic words carried weight after his talented team dismantled the best team in the world 25-23, 16-25, 25-16, 25-21 in 82 minutes.

It was the second shock of the tournament and Japan's second successive win having thrashed China 3-0 on Friday night. Cuba lost for the second straight time after losing to Brazil 3-2 and will now play for nothing more than pride, never mind the title.

'We are a young generation team who want to be the best again. We proved that we can play against the world's best. When we failed to qualify for the Olympics last year, it was a very sad day for Japan. But we have vowed to come back. We want to do our best,' said Yoshikawa.

Japan's performance was superb. Despite fielding a team that was short on experience, they still managed to hold their own against their famous opponents who themselves are rebuilding.

Brilliant at netplay and superb in receiving and serving, Japan showed they were a class apart against a somewhat erratic Cuba.

They answered everything that was thrown at them. Diminutive setter and receiver Yoshie Takeshita, who stands only 1.59 metres tall, was a delight to watch as she raced around the court, making a huge contribution to her team's latest success.

Giant spikers Ai Otomo and Chikako Kumamae did their part in pounding the Cuban defence with their pin-point smashes.

Cuba head coach Luis Felipe Calderon congratulated the Japanese team but didn't go as far as saying that Cuba were finished at the top.

'Japan played very well and deserved to win. They have improved markedly from last year and they were on a high when they played against us having beaten China here last night. We have beaten Japan in our five previous meetings. It is very hard to play at the top level for so long,' said Calderon.

Cuba rested top player Regla Herrera Torres - considered the best all-round player in the world - for much of the game. She came on as a substitute during the last five minutes of the match, but her presence did little to change the outcome.

'She is carrying an injury and she is slowly coming back into form. We don't want to rush her so soon. She didn't have the right preparation. But Japan have improved a lot and they are going to be good for the future,' explained Calderon.

Meanwhile, China came back from their earlier loss against Japan to surprise Brazil 26-28, 26-24, 25-22, 27-29, 15-8.

It was a turnaround performance from the Chinese who were given a torrid time against Japan on Friday night. Egged on by the partisan crowd of around 7,000 spectators, China will end their campaign by taking on Cuba today.