27
Sep
14

Capital attraction

FC Tokyo forward Yoshinori Muto is flavour of the month in the J.League, but he needs to keep his feet on the ground to prevent things turning sour… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/27/post49747/)

Football Channel,  September 27th, 2014

Yoshinori Muto would be the ideal poster boy for Cerezo Osaka in the year that was supposed to be theirs. Yoichiro Kakitani has gone and who better to replace him as No.8 than the 22-year-old with the boyband good looks, the mazy dribbling skills, and the pink boots?

Thankfully for Muto – and, of course, his club FC Tokyo – he is not caught up in the relegation battle (or the marketing vaccum) in Osaka and is able to concentrate, for the time being at least, on playing football.

Muto, who only turned professional at the start of this season, has come from nowhere to occupy the role of the J.League’s man-of-the-moment, and while I am as impressed as anyone with his ability and maturity I can’t help but feel a little concerned for him.

The hype machine doesn’t need much to whirl into action in Japan (he is surely already odds on to be picking up the Young Player of the Year award come December), and I worry a little how he will cope with the pressure that comes with being a talented forward in the J.League.

The division’s unique brand of family-friendly entertainment often veers dangerously close to being more TDL than EPL – as Javier Aguirre recently alluded to with his ‘testimonial game’ comment – and the treatment of footballers as tarento shows no signs of letting up.

After FC Tokyo’s recent game against Kawasaki Frontale – immediately before which, to give an example of the blurred boundaries between serious top-level sport and light-entertainment, captains Kengo Nakamura and Masato Morishige donned Kamen Rider belts and posed with a man in a costume of the character – I spoke to Muto’s teammate Edu about the phenomenon.

As a Brazilian I assumed he would have plenty of experience of young players being over-promoted, but the 32-year-old surprised me by suggesting that the excitement around players in Japan supersedes even that back home. The striker played in the Bundesliga for seven years and described Atsuto Uchida’s arrival at Schalke to make his point.

“I think in Brazil it’s different – also in Germany it’s different,” he began. “I think Japan is a very special country. For example, Uchida, when he came to Schalke, we could see in the training or when we go to a match many Japanese people; reporters, everybody, you know. That’s why I think Japan is special.” Is there more pressure on these players than in Brazil, I asked: “I think so,” he nodded after a brief pause for consideration.

Yoshinori Muto, Todoroki Stadium, September 20th, 2014

That is some claim to make, and while Muto appears to have the ability to live up to his early promise he is going to have to develop under exceedingly intense scrutiny. Already branded as Tokyo’s ‘ace’, it is Muto’s chiseled features the cameras zoom in on ahead of kick-off. All the time he is tucking the goals away then all will be rosy. When he hits a dry patch though – as he inevitably will – things may get a little tricky for him.

“Sometimes I’ll lose two chances but next time I can score two, three goals,” Edu explained to me after he had, indeed, spurned a couple of chances in the Tamagawa Clasico. (True to his word, he did find the net in the next game, scoring a penalty against Tokushima Vortis.) “When this situation comes to him [Muto] he has to understand this is the striker’s life. He has a long time to play. He will stop scoring for maybe five, six games, then start to score again, and then not score again. It’s like this. A striker’s life is like this. I don’t know, maybe only Messi and Ronaldo score every game.

“He’s a good player, he’s very young but he has quality. He’s strong, he’s fast, he has power, he has good dribbling. Now I think step by step he has a good future. He’s knows how to talk, […] I think he has good family to support him; good father, good mother… He’s a good guy.”

Muto certainly comes across as intelligent and – those awful pink boots aside – it doesn’t seem as if he has become too sidetracked with the trappings of fame and fortune that so often swirl around top level footballers.

“I still haven’t achieved any results,” he said at Japan training the day after his debut against Uruguay. “In order to become a fixture in the national team I know I have to keep doing a lot more.” Three days later he again came off the bench for Javier Aguirre and launched himself into the national consciousness with a confident display and sensational goal. Here’s hoping he can keep such a level head now that he’s ‘Japan’s Yoshinori Muto’.

The responsibility for that doesn’t rest solely in his young hands, and Edu was quick to point out the importance of creating a healthy environment for his talent to develop.

“Of course he’s a good player but every good player needs support from the club, his parents, the people around him,” he said. “This is very important. Now he has to keep this good work, good training, good mentality to keep [going] step by step. If he starts to think ‘Oh, I’m pretty good – a superstar,’ it doesn’t work, you know? I think now he needs good support from everybody.”

That includes the fans and the media. By all means be excited by his potential, but we don’t want him getting carried away with himself and we shouldn’t either.

21
Sep
14

Independence nay

Scotland opted against independence from the United Kingdom on Friday, and I considered what impact the referendum could (and would) have had on football in the country… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/20/post49522/)

Football Channel,  September 21st, 2014

In the early hours of Friday morning (UK time) it was announced that a majority (55.3%) of the Scottish population had voted against independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The union between Scotland and England began on May 1st 1707, when the Parliament of Great Britain was formed. The intervening 300 years have, as you’d expect of such near-neighbours, had their ups and downs – the historian Tim Stanley suggesting that, “England and Scotland have always been like jealous brothers, full of boiling resentment and given to violent fights” – and in October 2012 things reached a head when it was agreed that a referendum would be held to decide whether Scotland would leave the United Kingdom (which also comprises England, Wales, and Northern Ireland).

The day of reckoning was set as Thursday 18th September, 2014, and the choice was quite simple; one six word question to which there were only two possible answers:

Q. Should Scotland be an independent country?

A1. Yes

A2. No

The debate divided the nation of 5.2 million (around 4 million of whom are eligible to vote), with the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns infiltrating every aspect of Scottish society – including, of course, the football stadiums.

Unsurprisingly supporters of the ‘Old Firm’ clubs Rangers and Celtic were among the most vocal in that arena. For many Rangers fans the club’s identity is bound up with that of Great Britain – it is no accident that their kit is red, white, and blue – while Celtic, as a club with ties to Ireland, traditionally lines up in the opposing corner.

Although both sets of fans – who share an intense and often violent rivalry – did partake in public displays of which side of the fence they were on, displaying ‘Vote No’ (to remain part of Britain) or ‘Vote Yes’ (to become independent) banners at games, there weren’t any reported instances of the situation getting out of hand. This, to Japan Times football writer Andrew McKirdy, was an interesting aspect of the referendum.

“The standout thing, for me, has been that this has been such a mature debate,” he told me a couple of days before his friends and family back home took to the polls. “People who ordinarily wouldn’t have the slightest interest in politics have been engaging with the issues, reading white papers, and discussing the pros and cons.”

Part of the reason for the considered way in which the nation conducted the referendum was, in McKirdy’s opinion, because Scotland – regardless of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ outcome – already has its own identity, particularly when it comes to football.

“The thing that makes Scottish independence different is that Scottish football already has its independence. It has its own national team and football league that is entirely separate from England. Often with independence there is a huge surge in national pride – as with Croatia, for example – but in Scotland there wouldn’t even be that as we already have our own national team.”

That autonomy meant that even if the nation had gone for a ‘Yes’ majority the impact on the domestic game wouldn’t have been especially far-reaching. Some issues would have needed resolving though, particularly if a newly-independent Scotland had experienced difficulties joining the European Union (EU).

As part of the United Kingdom Scotland enjoys EU membership, which means that Scottish clubs are able to sign players from and sell players to other EU nations with relative ease. Players signed from outside the EU, however, are subject to more stringent visa demands – currently, for example, the FA stipulates that English clubs’ non EU players must have played at least 75% of their country’s games in the previous two years, and that the nation must be ranked in the top 70 in the world (there are suggestions this may be changed to the top 50).

Yokohama, October 2009

If Scotland wasn’t part of the EU then it would have become more difficult for Scottish players to move to clubs in EU countries, and the number of Scottish players in the Premier League and Football Leagues would likely have dropped steadily.

While many assumed that Scotland would find entry into the EU a mere formality, however, McKirdy wasn’t convinced, citing the concerns of other European nations hesitant to encourage breakaways.

“It’s not guaranteed [that Scotland would automatically be accepted into the EU], as Spain may have a veto and block it,” he said. “The Catalan and Basque regions want independence so the Spanish government won’t want Scotland to become independent so easily.”

Indeed, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – not wanting the Catalan independence movement, which has also been gaining momentum of late, to take encouragement from an independent Scotland – made it clear that the nation would not have found an easy passage into the EU were it to leave the United Kingdom, suggesting that the process could take years and that Spain may raise objections.

While being barred from the EU would have had far-reaching implications for Scotland at large, there may actually have been some benefits for the domestic leagues in Scotland if the ‘Yes’ vote had prevailed. Angus MacLeod, who runs the Japanfooty.com website, pointed out, for instance, that more Japanese players may have been able to complete transfers to the nation where Shunsuke Nakamura became a cult hero.

“Just now it is very difficult for Scottish clubs to sign talented players from countries like Japan,” he said. “Hiroki Yamada spent some time on trial at Celtic last season, and would almost certainly have been an excellent addition to the club, but the move never materialized. I also wonder if that was what dissuaded them from moving for Yuki Otsu in 2012, after openly declaring an interest.”

While that avenue remains closed, however, there is one other footballing aspect which may well crop up again now that Scotland has decided to remain a part of the UK; the Great Britain football team.

At London 2012 a combined side competed for the first time in 52 years, although no Scottish players were included in the squad, with the 18 comprising of 13 Englishmen and five Welshmen.

“A lot was made of the fact that Scottish players didn’t feature in the Team GB Olympic squad for London 2012, but I’m not sure it was all that surprising,” MacCleod said. “The SFA repeatedly made it very clear that they were not keen on the concept, and, although Scots are (somewhat surprisingly, perhaps) generally supportive of Team GB in other disciplines, football is seen as something quite different, given the long history between the two nations on the pitch.”

Concerns about their federations being able to remain independent were frequently raised by both the Scottish and Northern Irish associations (and, for a time, the Welsh FA) ahead of the Olympics as they were concerned that FIFA would demand that Great Britain also compete in its competitions, instead of the four countries playing separately.

It was also suggested, however, that this was a convenient excuse with there being very few, if any, players good enough from either country to make the team.

It is unclear whether a Great Britain team will be entered for any future Olympic tournaments, but if Scotland had voted for independence then it would have been free to enter on its own. Having voted ‘No’ that option is no longer available though, meaning there is still potential for the friendly rivalry with its neighbours to rumble on as Rio 2016 moves into sight.

13
Sep
14

Aguirre’s style cancel

Despite failing to pick up a win in either of his first two games as Japan manager, Javier Aguirre looks like he can breathe new life into a team that has been stagnating… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/13/post49117/)

Football Channel,  September 13th, 2014

With just a couple of weeks to pick his first squad and a handful of training sessions to drill those who made the cut, the results from Javier Aguirre’s first two games in charge of Japan are largely meaningless.

A defeat to Uruguay – by way of two defensive errors – and a draw with Venezuela would both have been believable outcomes had Alberto Zaccheroni still been at the helm, and it will take a while – most likely until after the Asian Cup – before we have a true sense of how ‘Aguirre Japan’ differs from ‘Zac Japan’.

There are some early indications as to how the Samurai Blue’s new boss works though, and it is clear that intricate preparation is key to the Mexican.

Speaking after the loss to Uruguay in Sapporo, Keisuke Honda commented that, “I feel that the harmony of the team is really important to him,” and this also came across as Aguirre announced his first squad at JFA House on August 28th.

“A game is 90 minutes,” he said. “Within any one game the ball is only in play for between 45 and 48 minutes; around half the time. On the pitch there are 22 players and one ball. As an average that means each player has the ball for around two minutes. For 88 minutes they don’t have the ball. I watch what the players are doing in those 88 minutes they don’t have the ball. I’m watching their commitment to the team, their responsibility for the team, the way they think about the team.”

Such attention to detail may well be what saw the likes of Takashi Usami and Hiroshi Kiyotake left out in favour of the more industrious and unselfish Yoshinori Muto and Junya Tanaka. Both Usami and Kiyotake are fine players, but aside from their two minutes of creativity when they have the ball neither are renowned for putting in a shift going the other way.

Aguirre is focusing carefully on his selections at the moment in order to make sure he is sending the right men into battle. He may eventually opt to decorate the team with a little sparkle and creativity but initially it is clear that he wants to be confident that he has a core of trusty foot-soldiers in place.

The less savoury side of the game – intelligent fouls, intimidating opponents, time wasting – also appears to be important for the former Espanyol boss, and he gave a fascinating insight into what he expects of his team in a recent interview with fifa.com in which he bemoaned the lack of picardia (streetwiseness) in Japanese players. (http://www.fifa.com/world-match-centre/news/newsid/243/719/6/index.html?intcmp=fifacom_hp_module_news)

Javier Aguirre's hotseat, Nissan Stadium, Yokohama, September 9th, 2014

“Less and less football is played out on the street – back in my day we learned the game in between dodging cars, or in the schoolyard, whereas now the game’s taught more rigidly,” he said. “But you have to try and add a touch of picardía, while staying within the rules of course. I’m talking about the players not giving up lost causes and knowing how to ‘manage the result’. I don’t mean cheating or kicking people, but just making sure your opponents know you’re really in the game.

“I’m talking about when you’re winning in the 85th minute, you go and retrieve the ball more slowly, you take short corners, you tie your laces… That way you use up valuable seconds without breaking the rules. What can the ref do about it? You need to have that picardía, while of course staying within the rules.”

That is a trait almost entirely lacking in the Japanese game – as we saw when Hiroki Mizumoto opted not to commit a smart foul on Alejandro Guerra when 40 yards from goal, instead delaying and delaying before ultimately giving Venezuela a penalty – but it is absolutely vital at the highest level of international football where you need to do anything you can to gain an advantage over your opponent.

While he does pay attention to the small details, however, Aguirre seems less concerned than Zaccheroni was with how his team is perceived by others. ‘Playing our football’ was the key catchphrase for ‘Zac Japan’, but Aguirre isn’t especially preoccupied with the way his team plays as long as they emerge victorious.

“In terms of the style I am aiming for, it is a style which will take us up,” he said after the Venezuela match. “I would rather play a style that is not deemed to be ‘good’ but that takes us into the top 20 teams in the world than play a style that is perceived as ‘good’ but be ranked 44th. I don’t really place any importance on what style we play. More important than that is to play better, to win, and to move up.”

Such a win-at-all costs mentality is just what the national team needs after the disappointment of the World Cup, and I for one look forward to watching a more direct, aggressive, and, hopefully, passionate team over the coming months and years.

11
Sep
14

Muto announces himself on big stage

Japan failed to pick up its first win under Javier Aguirre on Tuesday night, but Yoshinori Muto’s performance meant neither the new coach or Muto’s teammates were too downbeat post-game…

The Japan News, Thursday 11th September, 2014

YOKOHAMA — Keisuke Honda has lavished praise on Yoshinori Muto, claiming that the young striker brings a hitherto lacking dimension to the Samurai Blue setup.

Muto struck his first national team goal just six minutes after coming on as a halftime substitute in the 2-2 draw with Venezuela in Yokohama on Tuesday night, and his captain was thoroughly impressed with what he saw.

“He has good speed, he looks fresh and [brings] a new style,” Honda told reporters after the match. “We didn’t have his kind [of striker] ever in the Japanese national team. I agree [that he’s not a typical Japanese striker], so I like him.”

Shinji Okazaki, the third-highest scorer in Japan’s history with 39 goals, concurred that the FC Tokyo forward adds something much-needed to the side.

“Recently, more and more players like that have been appearing, and it’s great to have players who are confident in making the decision to try to score by themselves,” the 28-year-old said.

“He plays soccer with all his power and that’s why the shot went in,” continued Okazaki, who plays for German team Mainz in the Bundesliga. “He knew that he had a chance to impress and really wanted to score. He showed his specialty, I think. He scores many goals like that in the J.League and it means a lot for him that he was able to do the same for the national team.”

Muto’s goal came after he picked up a half-cleared ball just inside the Venezuelan half, surged purposefully toward goal and dispatched crisply with his left foot from just outside the penalty area. It was exactly the kind of opportunity he had envisaged as he studied the game from the substitutes’ bench in the first half.

“The passes were going long, but we weren’t really able to create much when receiving the ball in the center, so I thought it would be good if I could try to spark attacks from the middle,” the 22-year-old explained.

“I thought that the first defender was going to try to foul me, and that if I could avoid going down, then it would turn into a chance.

Japan v. Venezuela, Nissan Stadium, September 9th, 2014

“Perhaps the goalkeeper wasn’t sure if I was going to pass or shoot, and so I just went for it. I knew that I had to get a goal any way I could, and the fact I was able to do so will give me confidence from now on.”

Such proactive play will have delighted his coach, Javier Aguirre, with the new man in charge stressing that he wants his players to think for themselves once they get on the field.

“I’ve only had a short week working with the players, and while I’m the one who gives them the directions, I want them to play more freely,” the Mexican said in his postgame press conference.

“I do not make the decisions for the players when they are on the field. Depending on how the game is going, they must make the decisions themselves.”

While there were positives to take from the game, Aguirre did hint at slight frustration at the defensive lapses that — as in the 2-0 loss to Uruguay last Friday — cost his side two goals.

“I’m satisfied with the performances of the young players over these two games,” he said. “In the future, I hope we will have a little more luck and that the opponents won’t score each time we make a mistake.”

The first error against Venezuela was made by Hiroki Mizumoto in the 57th minute. The Sanfrecce Hiroshima defender surrendered possession in the middle of the park then had to chase Alejandro Guerra half the length of the field before he ended up fouling him to concede a penalty. Fourteen minutes later goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima was the culprit, allowing a long-range effort by Gabriel Cichero to slip through his hands and into the net.

Aguirre will now have to wait until next month’s friendlies against Jamaica in Niigata and Brazil in Singapore to try to register his first win as Japan boss.

While Honda expressed disappointment that neither of the 55-year-old coach’s opening games had ended in victory, he preached patience.

“Of course, I’m not satisfied, but this is soccer and we are just beginning a new project because we have a new coach and new players, so I don’t say negative things,” the AC Milan player said. “It’s all right because we know we have some good players, new talent, and I think that we can improve more.”

06
Sep
14

Lack of experience costs Aguirre Japan

On Friday I travelled up to Sapporo to see Javier Aguirre’s first game in charge of Japan. The Samurai Blue were fairly comfortably beaten  2-0 by Uruguay, and after the game I gathered some reaction from those involved…

The Japan News, Sunday 7th September, 2014

SAPPORO – The hope was that a new manager and squad littered with fresh-faced, eager debutants would revitalize Japan after a dismal World Cup showing.
Change can take time to adjust to though, and the Samurai Blue’s 2-0 defeat to Uruguay on Friday night was a disjointed and largely uninspiring one.
Almost a third of Javier Aguirre’s first squad were uncapped heading into the Mexican’s first match, and with recent stalwarts such as Yasuhito Endo, Makoto Hasebe and Shinji Kagawa all either injured or overlooked the new look team was comfortably swept aside by a seasoned Uruguayan outfit.
“We just trained for two days and Uruguay has been together for a long time,” centerback Maya Yoshida reasoned after the match. “That’s a huge experience difference. We just started a new page of the team so we need a little bit more time.”
Keisuke Honda, who captained the side in the absence of the injured Hasebe, made a similar point.
“We have to understand each other more, we didn’t show our ability yet,” the AC Milan forward said. “We are not mature yet. That’s obvious because we are a new team. But we have to show our individual ability more.”
Another requirement will be to eliminate the rookie errors that gifted Edinson Cavani and Abel Hernandez with a goal in each half at Sapporo Dome.
“You can’t afford to do that against teams like Uruguay,” Aguirre said in his post-match press conference. “The difference was their experience and our mistakes, but we have Venezuela next so we have to look ahead to that.”
As well as the players needing to get used to each other, Yoshida also suggested that the coaching staff are yet to fully stamp their authority on the team.
“I think they need the time as well – to adjust to Japanese culture, Japanese football, to living in Japan,” the 26-year-old said.
Japan v. Uruguay, Sapporo Dome, Friday September 5th, 2014
“To be fair, Uruguay is one of the best teams in the world. But we didn’t let them make too many opportunities, we just made mistakes.”

Aguirre was also careful to point out the caliber of opposition his side were facing – even without the legendary-if-aging Diego Forlan and controversial-yet-lethal Luis Suarez.

“It’s not easy to play a team like Uruguay after just a few training sessions,” the former Espanyol coach said. “Our team is young and four players made their debuts today. It wasn’t the result I wanted but there were some aspects I was satisfied with.”
One of those will surely be the performance of one of the aforementioned debutants, Yusuke Minagawa, who along with defender Tatsuya Sakai started the match (Yoshinori Muto and Ryota Morioka both made substitute appearances).
The 22-year-old only made his J.League debut for Sanfrecce Hiroshima on July 19th but three goals in eight games have seen him fast-tracked into the national team.
“I’m paying close attention to the process I’m going through,” the striker told reporters after the game. “When you’re not on the pitch, for example, how you work on honing your skills and achieving positive results. I think continuing to work on those things has led me to where I am now, so I realize there are actually people who have been watching me in those areas too.”
The Tokyo native insisted he didn’t experience any nerves ahead of his first start, and instead gave the impression of being a player very much at home at this level.
“I had the feeling of, ‘finally I can be on this stage’, and, ‘I’m definitely going to do this’,” he said when asked how he felt to pull on the blue jersey for the first time.
He was given an instant lesson in the harsh realities of international football though, missing a presentable headed chance in the first half that would have given Japan the lead.
“I wanted to score and the fact that I didn’t hurt the team so I felt responsibility for that.”
04
Sep
14

Football Channel TV, No.4

Last week I once again joined Football Channel TV to discuss the latest topics of interest concerning the Japanese players in Europe and, of course, the national team selection of new Japan manager Javier Aguirre.

Football Channel TV, No.4

In Part One (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZn-Hj6ZVHQ) myself, chief editor of Football Channel Michio Ueda and Sports Zone commentator Kei Fukusawa discuss Shinji Kagawa’s future, before moving on to Keisuke Honda’s prospects at AC Milan for the coming season in Part Two (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaSqz6pSm0E). Finally, in Part Three (http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/04/post48665/) we get onto Aguirre’s first 23 and what we expect of the new man’s new-look team

 

03
Sep
14

United in Japan

I’ve recently taken part in a few discussions and/or talk events in Tokyo about Manchester United.

First up I joined Atsushi Abe, the man behind the video-game ‘Barcode Footballer’, to chat about one of my favourite ever players, Paul Scholes. http://app.famitsu.com/20140805_416567/

Discussing Paul Scholes with Atsushi Abe

Then I discussed all things United with Football Channel’s chief editor Michio Ueda, football writer Kenji Nishibe, and sports presenter Tsuneyuki Shimoda at a live event at Loft/Plus One in Shinjuku.

United talk event at Loft/Plus One, Shinjuku

That show can be viewed in three parts here:

Part one (looking back at the (brief) David Moyes era): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vd4A0HSCt3o

Part two (the next stage under Louis Van Gaal): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEKWCDtmE94

Part three (Shinji Kagawa’s opportunities (or lack of) at United): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSb8-5BRZMQ




If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

  • RT @amyota: エイミーの新しいブログです!My new blog!! I'm back!!! |太… s.ameblo.jp/otaamy/entry-1… 5 hours ago
  • Aguirre on Hasebe's exclusion: "There are many more players not included than are and I won't comment on them or I'd never stop talking." 7 hours ago
  • Japan squad v. Jamaica/Brazil: Forwards: Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda, Mike Havenaar, Yu Kobayashi, Yoichiro Kakitani, Yoshinori Muto 8 hours ago

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