Uchida reaches end of the line

Atsuto Uchida was forced to retire earlier than anybody wanted, but the 32-year-old left an impressive mark on the Japanese game and will hopefully keep contributing in one form or another… (日本語版)

Sadness is par for the course when players retire, but there was an extra tinge in the air when Atsuto Uchida hung up his boots at the end of August.

Still only 32, injuries ultimately forced Uchida to bring the curtain down on his almost-15-year career earlier than he or anyone else would have wanted, which meant that alongside the usual reminiscences and praise that accompany such occasions there was also a sense of ‘what if’ lingering over proceedings.

Even so, the Shizuoka native still managed to pack an awful lot in after making his J.League debut for Kashima Antlers as a 17-year old in 2006, and as well as achieving success on the pitch for both club and country he also played a vital role in changing the perception of Japanese players overseas and making the path from the J.League to Europe far easier to navigate for young players.

I first interviewed Uchida during his initial spell at Antlers on 27 March 2010 – his 22nd birthday – and recently listened back to our chat to see how his comments sounded in light of his retirement. At the time he was widely rumoured to be on the verge of a move to Germany, and while coy on any impending transfer he made it clear that he wanted to test himself overseas at some point – although was also self-effacing and said he didn’t think at the time that he was the kind of player for a club of the stature of Manchester United.

A little over a year later he was playing against that same opponent in front of 74,000 fans in the semi-final of the Champions League, however, and while his Schalke side were eliminated 6-1 on aggregate, their journey to the last four capped a steady first season in Europe for Uchida. He built upon that impressively to become a key player for Schalke and first choice at right back for Japan – winning the Asian Cup in 2011 and playing in all three games at the 2014 Brazil World Cup – although injuries began to take their toll in the following seasons and prevented him from establishing himself in Europe in the same way as peers like Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo, and Makoto Hasebe.

His last involvement in the Japan set-up came as part of Vahid Halilhodzic’s first squad in March 2015, with his final appearance coming against Uzbekistan in the JAL Challenge Cup. Nobody realised when he was replaced by Kosuke Ota at half-time of that 5-1 victory that it would be the last they’d see of Uchida in the samurai blue, and it’s a shame he wasn’t able to add to his 74 caps or help the next generation adapt to the international stage.

The impact he could have as a leader in the dressing room was exhibited after Uchida returned to Kashima in 2018, and although injury again denied him any involvement in the final he played a key role in helping to deliver the club’s maiden Asian Champions League title. Far from being a prolific scorer throughout his career – he found the net just 11 times in total – he struck perhaps the most crucial of them in the 93rd minute of the semi-final first leg against Suwon Bluewings, giving Antlers a vital 3-2 advantage heading into the second leg.

Kashima cited a desire to capitalise upon his experience at the highest level in Europe when re-signing Uchida, and it may well be in this way that his impact on the Japanese game will best be remembered. Individual players like Shinji Ono, Hidetoshi Nakata, and Shunsuke Nakamura had made impacts in the European game before, but as part of the group including Eiji Kawashima, Yoshida, Nagatomo, Hasebe, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, and Shinji Okazaki, Uchida is part of the generation which forced the gates open for good, proving that Japanese players have what it takes to perform in the best leagues in the world. Thanks to the success of these players, European clubs are now happy to take chances on unproven youngsters such as Ryotaro Meshino, Ko Itakura, and Kanya Fujimoto, while J.Leaguers like Kento Hashimoto, Sei Muroya, and Musashi Suzuki are also earning moves overseas without needing to be regulars for the national team first – Uchida, on the other hand, had already played 31 times for Japan before moving to Schalke.

One final thing that stood out when re-visiting our interview from 2010 was Uchida’s answer when asked what he wanted to achieve in his career. His aim was two-fold, he explained – he wanted people to miss him when he retired, and then he wanted to live in the countryside with his family (a theme he echoed in his farewell press conference, when he said he couldn’t wait to take his children to kindergarten).

There is something very pleasing about knowing he will finally get to realise that second wish – albeit slightly earlier than he probably would have wanted. The tributes and media coverage that accompanied the announcement he’d be calling it a day confirmed he’d also achieved the first, and even in the age of coronavirus and limited capacities he was given a fitting send-off.

Uchida has certainly earned some quality time with his family, and undoubtedly deserves a rest from the fitness trials and tribulations he has endured over the past five years. Here’s hoping he remains in the game in some capacity though, as his first-hand knowledge and experience of what it takes to make the grade in Europe means he is perfectly placed to play a role one way or another in helping the next generation of Japanese players emulate and build upon his success.


Blaublitzing J3

Unbeaten, well-drilled at the back, and clinical going forwards, Blaublitz Akita have started the 2020 J3 season in sensational form and have a chance to make another statement of intent this weekend… (日本語版)

We may only be a third of the way through the season, but the team in blue has already established itself at the top of the table.

Well organised in defence and with players all over the pitch capable of producing at the other end, they have thus far proved impossible to beat and are playing with plenty of confidence as they rack up the points at the summit.

Despite the packed schedule and searing summer temperatures across Japan the league leaders are keeping their cool as well, fully focused on matching the feat of 2017 when they won their first J.League title – but aware that this time they will reap the full rewards of such an achievement, in the form of promotion to J2.

No, we’re not talking about Kawasaki Frontale but instead Blaublitz Akita, who just like Toru Oniki’s J1 side have burst out of the traps at the start of the 2020 season to establish themselves as the early frontrunners to be crowned champions in J3.

Three years ago Blaublitz finished top of the pile in the third tier but didn’t have the requisite license for the second division, which meant they were unable to make the step up. That matter was rectified in 2018, and after finishing a disappointing eighth in each of the past two seasons they have taken J3 by storm so far in this campaign, winning their first nine in a row and then drawing twice to ensure they’re sitting pretty at the top after 11 rounds.

After 21 years coaching at Azul Claro Numazu (and their predecessors) Ken Yoshida assumed the reins at Soyu Stadium from Shuichi Mase ahead of this campaign, and the 50-year-old has built upon the solid defensive foundations Mase laid by making Blaublitz an even stingier prospect at the back.

Goalkeeper Yudai Tanaka joined from Sagamihara SC over the off-season and has immediately established himself as number one – keeping six consecutive clean sheets to start the campaign and being named as the J3 Player of the Month for June/July after conceding just once in seven games and saving a remarkable 95% of the shots he faced. Two fellow new signings have also slotted seamlessly into the backline, with right back Junya Suzuki and left back Shoma Kamata establishing themselves as regulars after joining from Fujieda MYFC and Shimizu S-Pulse, respectively.

Indeed, consistency has been key all over the pitch, with Kaito Chida, Naoyuki Yamada, and Keita Saito joining Tanaka and Kamata in starting every match so far, while Han Ho-gang and Nao Eguchi are only one behind with 10 starts as Blaublitz have conceded just three times in almost 1,000 minutes of football.

It isn’t just defensively they have exhibited terrific efficiency, however, and the Tohoku side have only failed to find the net once – with that blank coming, as is so often the way of these things, against bottom-placed Kamatamare Sanuki on 15 August. The all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit of the side is further encapsulated by the fact that their 19 goals to date have been scored by 10 different players.

Yohei Hayashi – who became the 10th to find the net when he tucked home Masaki Okino’s cross in the 7th minute against Gamba Osaka U23 last weekend – feels such variety is a result of the team’s positive attitude going forwards, and also thanks to the threat they pose at set-pieces, from which they have struck eight times.

“We all defend together and all attack together, and when there’s a chance the players from behind push forward to get involved,” the 31-year-old said. “Set plays are a weapon for us this year too, and so players from the back have also been scoring from those. I think it’s great that we’ve all been scoring.”

Despite Hayashi’s early strike, Blaublitz were unable to make any of their other opportunities count and were ultimately made to settle for another share of the spoils against Gamba though, with Shuhei Kawasaki making it 1-1 midway through the second half and leaving Yoshida ruing his side’s profligacy.

“In football it is very important that you take your chances when they come,” he said of Blaublitz’s consecutive draws against teams struggling in the lower reaches of the table. “We had lots of chances but weren’t able to convert them into goals, and that’s the biggest reason [we didn’t win].” 

Next up they take on FC Gifu, a side who came into the 2020 season as one of the favourites for promotion after finally dropping through the J2 trapdoor last year. Zdravko Zemunović’s side have stuttered a little in the early knockings though and trail Akita by 14 points heading into this match – albeit with a game in hand, after their clash away to Fukushima United last week was called off on account of thunder with Gifu 2-0 up at half-time.

Sunday’s clash offers Blaublitz an opportunity to put some more daylight between themselves and a potential title challenger, but Yoshida insists he and his players will approach the contest the same as any other.

“I think it’s very important we win against Gifu, but we don’t treat any opponent specially,” he said. “Our style is to approach each match as if it’s a final, and we’ll make sure we give our all the same as always.”

That stance has worked wonders for them so far, and if they can maintain their consistency and avoid defeat for a few more games Blaublitz will have an encouraging piece of history on their side: when they won the league in 2017, the season began with a 15-game unbeaten run. Four games to go…


Unloved Levain in need of re-think

As the the number of J.League clubs continues to grow, it is perhaps time for the tired and unloved League Cup to be re-formatted to include teams from every level of the pyramid… (日本語版)

After seven rounds of league games in four weeks, the players, staff, and even fans of J1 clubs would have been forgiven for looking forward to a much-needed rest after Matchday 8 concluded on the weekend of 1 August.

In a year where football seems either to stop completely or never stop at all, however, we are now firmly embroiled in the latter state of affairs, and the midweek fixtures continued as the YBC Levain Cup group stage creaked back into action last Wednesday.

The League Cup actually started before J1 this year on account of the anticipated break for the Olympics, but only one round of games was played before the coronavirus halted proceedings at the end of February. Since then the format has been re-jigged – with the group stage now only requiring each team to play each other once and Matsumoto Yamaga relieved of their responsibilities on account of having to play 41 J2 games in 25 weeks – and this juncture provides a good opportunity to discuss the role of a competition seen by many – until the final, at least – as little more than a nuisance.

Having been conducted as a pre-launch tournament in 1992 ahead of the big J.League kick-off the following year, the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup (as it was then known) holds a special place in the history of Japanese professional football, but the format is far from set in stone and barely a year passes without it being tweaked in one way or another.

The first edition was a straight round robin between the 10 founding J.League members, for instance, before the top four then contested the semi-finals. The following year 13 teams (the J.League clubs and three aspiring to get there – whom we’ll discuss a little more shortly) were split into two groups ahead of the knockout stage, in 1994 it was carried out as a fully knockout competition, 1997 saw the return of an initial group stage (with five groups this time), before J2 clubs were briefly involved between 1999 and 2001 as a knockout format was re-introduced. Things calmed down a little for 15 years as the tournament settled into a J1-only group-stage-plus-knockout-round contest from 2002, before the play-off stage appeared in 2017 and then up to two J2 clubs were included in the group stage draw from 2018.

Each of these changes have been made in part to adapt to the evolution of the J.League as a whole, but the excessive scheduling demands on teams – even in regular years uninterrupted by global pandemics – mean strongest sides are rarely fielded until the latter stages. As a result, it is perhaps time to shake things up again by shifting to an unseeded knockout format and injecting some new life into the competition by including every club from J1 to J3 plus those with associate J.League membership.

Requiring a maximum of six games this would lessen the load on J1 clubs, as well as providing those further down the pyramid with valuable experience of playing against bigger opposition and offering more chances for the ‘giant killings’ everybody loves – which would likely also result in more interest from stadium-going and TV-watching fans than there currently is for group stage contests between the reserve teams of two largely disinterested first division sides.

Single-round ties could be played approximately once every six weeks until the showpiece final at the end of the season, with the eight highest ranked J.League associate clubs (of which there are currently nine) being given opportunities to test their aptitude for the big(ger) time on and off the pitch by joining their 56 J.League peers in an open draw from the first round. This, as touched upon above, already has a precedent, and offering potential members a taste of J.League life has previously proved incredibly beneficial.

The reigning Levain Cup holders Kawasaki Frontale were given their first exposure to the competition as an associate club in 1998, for instance, while the team they beat in last year’s dramatic final, Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, did likewise in 1997. Four other former winners similarly made their debut appearances before earning promotion to the J.League proper, with Hitachi Football Club, Fujita Soccer Club, and Yamaha Football Club the three outsiders included in 1993 – when they participated under the monikers they would adopt upon entry into the league proper, Kashiwa Reysol, Bellmare Hiratsuka (now Shonan Bellmare), and Jubilo Iwata – and 2017 champions Cerezo Osaka making their bow as a JFL club in 1994.

Current J1 sides Vegalta Sendai (then Brummel Sendai) and Sagan Tosu were also invitees to the 1997 tournament before securing their J.League status, and as the number of professional clubs continues to rise now would be the perfect time to streamline the tournament for the first division competitors, while at the same celebrating the ongoing growth of the J.League by offering similar encouragement to the likes of FC Ryukyu, Blaublitz Akita, and Veertien Mie, as well as giving fallen giants such as JEF United and Tokyo Verdy the chance to mix it again with the big boys.


Zago-ing slowly

Kashima Antlers are more used to challenging for trophies than struggling for points, but the 2020 season has gotten off to an underwhelming start for Antônio Carlos Zago’s men… (日本語版)

We’ve only had one month of regular matches in J1, but because of the unique circumstances this year we’re already a fifth of the way through the 2020 campaign.

Ordinarily it would be foolish to try and gauge a club’s chances for the season after just seven games, but with matches coming thick and fast and teams not having much time to work on the training pitch in-between rounds it is perhaps a little easier to separate the potential challengers from those who look set to struggle at this early stage.

Kawasaki Frontale have been in scintillating form, for instance, racking up the goals and playing some fantastic football to remain unbeaten and establish themselves as the early pacesetters, while Gamba Osaka, Nagoya Grampus, FC Tokyo, and Cerezo Osaka have all tasted defeat just once and remain within touching distance of the early leaders.

At the other end of the pecking order it is not overly surprising to find a trio of teams who stayed up by the skin of their teeth last season in Shimizu S-Pulse, Sagan Tosu, and Shonan Bellmare. There is also an unfamiliar face languishing near the bottom of the table though, with Kashima Antlers incredibly slow out of the traps and looking indistinguishable from the side that started 2019 as reigning Asian champions.

Antlers opted to dispense with the services of Go Oiwa after finishing seven points adrift of champions Yokohama F.Marinos in third last year, with Antônio Carlos Zago being brought in to add some extra attacking flair to the team’s play. The Brazilian got off to a nightmare start in Ibaraki, however, overseeing the club’s worst ever opening to a league season with four consecutive defeats, as well as being eliminated from the Champions League in the qualifying round after a 1-0 loss at home to Melbourne Victory.

It looked as though a corner may have been turned after a 4-2 win over Marinos on 18 July – although the defending champions were absolutely atrocious in defence and gifted Antlers chance after chance to wrap up the three points – but they were back to losing ways four days later after another disjointed showing away to previously-winless Shonan Bellmare.

Zago insisted after that 1-0 defeat that he was happy with the way his team was playing, suggesting that Antlers had been the only one making an effort to win the match and accusing Bellmare of playing overly defensively. While standing by his players publicly, however, the statistics didn’t entirely back him up in that regard, and privately he must be concerned not only with results but also the manner of them.

While Kashima did have 61 percent of the possession in Hiratsuka, for example, they failed to conduct a meaningful amount of that in the hosts’ third of the pitch, with 46 percent of the play stuck in the midfield and only 28 percent taking place in and around Shonan’s penalty area. This was similar to the 1-0 loss away to Urawa Reds on 12 July, when Kashima again had more of the ball (57 percent) but lacked any clear idea of what to do with it going forwards, looking incredibly flat and mostly sending hopeful balls into the area as they only managed to muster one shot on target.

Indeed, their only win so far has come against opponents who insist upon having more of the ball, and as Marinos chalked up 64 percent of possession and 698 passes to Antlers’ 277 – the 10 players with the most passes in that game incredibly all wore Marinos white – the hosts made their way in behind time and again with simple balls sent through Marinos’ shaky backline.

Ange Postecoglou’s side are something of an outlier, however, and against teams who place a semblance of importance on defending Antlers have looked very short of creativity. The loss of Serginho has undoubtedly deprived the team of a key game changer, and following on from the departures of Hiroki Abe and Yuma Suzuki has left Antlers lacking attacking spark. Everaldo and Juan Allano don’t seem quite in tune with their new teammates yet, Ryuji Izumi doesn’t look anywhere near as sharp or confident a player as he was at Nagoya, and Ayase Ueda has been missing far too many clear chances in front of goal.

Equally concerning is the form of players in key positions further back. Leo Silva has consistently been one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the J.League over the past five years but has looked uncharacteristically rusty this season, and has failed to complete a full 90 minutes so far. Behind him there has been an incredibly soft centre as well, with neither Tomoya Inukai nor Koki Machida taking charge of the defence, leaving Kwoun Sun-tae horribly exposed far too often.

Despite pushing forwards enthusiastically left-back Katsuya Nagato has also struggled to make much of an impact in the final third, and while fellow new arrival Rikuto Hirose has provided a couple of assists from the opposite flank the 25-year-old who set up 10 goals and scored twice for Vegalta Sendai last year is yet to get off the mark.

Things were certainly a little brighter in the second half of last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with FC Tokyo, although both sides looked heavy-legged and missed some excellent chances as the game became incredibly stretched late on – with Antlers the biggest culprits and failing to turn enough of their 14 shots on target into goals. The fact they created those opportunities should build some confidence though, and the point gained gives them something to build upon this weekend against an Oita Trinita side winless in four and having lost each of their last three.

What Antlers can’t afford is a repeat of the Shonan showing after they beat Marinos, however, and if they don’t start picking up wins soon then this shortest of seasons could feel very long for the J.League’s most successful club.


Young guns

Players in their teens are few and far between on J1 pitches, but 2020’s congested schedule could encourage more coaches to give their youngsters chances to show what they can do… (日本語版)

I was reminded of something disappointing recently as I leafed through my J.League player guide ahead of the re-start to the 2020 season: there are almost no teenagers involved in the first teams of J1 sides.

Each time my gaze fell upon a player I thought of as being young, I checked their birthday and was taken aback by the fact that they were in their twenties. Ayase Ueda is 22 in August, Reo Hatate is already 22, Yuki Soma is 23, Kai Shibato is 24 – while a couple of new signings I’d thought of as good young pick-ups for Cerezo Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol are already too old to be considered for the Olympic team, with Tatsuhiro Sakamoto 23 and Sachiro Toshima almost 25.

Each of these players are in the very early stages of their careers in the professional game and seen as talented options for the future, but in almost any other country they would be considered of ages at which they should already be established as key members of the team.   

Every squad does of course include a player or two in their teens – those high-school-graduate rookies so beloved of TV commentators – but in their first year or two with a club they rarely if ever make it onto the pitch, or even into a matchday squad, in the league, instead expected to bide their time and wait until they are considered ready – perhaps after a loan spell or two at a J2 team, or an apprenticeship in the U-23 side.

This isn’t in and of itself a practice unique to Japan, and clubs all over the world have long made use of the loan system in order to provide their young players with competitive football to help prepare them for the first team. David Beckham spent a short spell with fourth-tier Preston North End in the 1994/95 season, for instance, while Harry Kane was farmed out to Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich City, and Leicester City between 2011-2013 before establishing himself as Tottenham Hotspur and England’s star striker.

Even so, there are also plenty of examples of teenagers being incorporated immediately into the first teams of European clubs, with Manchester United’s current front three providing a perfect example. Mason Greenwood is still only 18 but already heavily involved and finding the net regularly for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, while his strike partners Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are 22 and 24, respectively, but approaching the end of their fifth full seasons in the Premier League having contributed almost 100 goals between them.

Or consider Takefusa Kubo, who was determined to return to Spain as soon as he turned 18 and is now playing regularly for Real Mallorca – and achieving results – in a league where even the likes of Barcelona and Kubo’s parent club Real Madrid don’t shy away from giving frequent opportunities to players like Ansu Fati and Vinicius Junior.

These are of course elite players at the very highest level, but everything is relative and if they can be given opportunities to develop in the first teams at some of the biggest clubs in the world why can’t teens in Japan also be given similar chances in the J.League?

The high school and university system of course presents a huge hurdle in this regard, and whereas most players in Europe and South America are playing in the youth teams of clubs from a very young age – in some cases perhaps too young – in Japan they aren’t ordinarily involved seriously in the set-up of a professional side until they graduate at 18 or 22. That delays exposure to top level football until the age at which a lot of players elsewhere in the world have already adapted to the atmosphere of the first team and found their feet on the pitch, while the senpai/kohai culture provides a further barrier as some managers, consciously or un-consciously, hesitate to use their new recruits ahead of players who have been in the squad longer.

However, with the impact of the coronavirus meaning the full 2020 season needs to be forced through in a six-month period, coaches are going to need to be more flexible and make fuller use of their squads this year, and the early signs since the restart of the first division at the beginning of July have been positive.

Vegalta Sendai and Shimizu S-Pulse have both started with teenage goalkeepers in the form of Yuma Obata and Togo Umeda, for example, and while injuries to first-choice stoppers Jakub Slowik and Neto Volpi have forced the hands of Takashi Kiyama and Peter Cklamovski to some extent, they still deserve praise for giving the youngsters chances ahead of more experienced options Kentaro Seki and Takuo Okubo, who have instead been named as substitutes.

The fact that there is no relegation this year may also have factored into the managers’ thinking to some degree, and while of course not wanting to lose games each will have realised 2020 offers an unprecedented opportunity to give developing talent minutes in the first team without any tangible risk. A full season in and around the first 11 could prove to be priceless for these players as and when the chance to stake a meaningful claim on the No.1 jersey arrives in the coming years.

A couple of other clubs have also given opportunities to players who still can’t legally enjoy a beer, with Itsuki Someno looking a confident and lively option going forwards for Kashima Antlers – and coming very close to a dream start on his debut against Kawasaki Frontale on 4 July – while the highly rated Koki Saito has taken to J1 like a duck to water and stroked home the first of what is sure to be many goals in the top flight with supreme confidence in the win away to Kashiwa Reysol on 8 July.

A range of factors have combined to offer these youngsters opportunities this year, but if they continue to show they have what it takes to compete at this level they will give more players the confidence to make the step up and should encourage more teams to throw the door open to the first team earlier and more often.


Business as unusual

Football is finally back in Japan, and while the J.League deserves a lot of praise for the way it has dealt with the coronavirus so far, a packed schedule and adjusted format could cause plenty of issues as the 2020 season belatedly plays out… (日本語版)

The wait is over, and with J2 resuming and J3 getting underway this past weekend, the 2020 J.League season is back after 125 days away from action.

Each of J1 – which returns this weekend – J2, and J3 have seen essentially half of their seasons re-scheduled, with J3 also losing a participant on account of FC Tokyo U-23 being unable to secure a guaranteed venue for their home games.

Despite nothing happening on the pitch over the past four months, however, there has been plenty of activity off it.

In such an unprecedented situation, the first thing that needs to be said is that, on the whole, the J.League has handled things very well. They have been flexible and as proactive as the situation has allowed, while their lines of communication – in both Japanese and, increasingly, English – have been clear, with press releases explaining the latest developments for both the domestic and growing international audiences and officials taking part in regular press briefings in order to add or clarify information.

Chairman Mitsuru Murai, in particular, has excelled as the face of the division. The 60-year-old has operated slickly and efficiently behind the scenes to negotiate a way through a minefield of issues, with the joint task-force with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) one example of the more forward-thinking approach he has helped bring to the J.League. Publicly, too, he has remained calm and composed throughout, fielding questions adeptly in the aforementioned briefings, and never appearing flustered despite the difficult circumstances.

And, make no mistake, these must have been incredibly stressful times at J.League headquarters. As well as needing to contend with a range of logistical problems concerning how and when matches could safely restart, external factors such as coronavirus guidelines from the government and the politics around the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics must also have caused real headaches.

Of course, not everything has been dealt with perfectly, and from the outside looking in the decision to force through the entire nine-and-a-half-month 2020 schedule in a 25-week period is worrying to say the least.

As with competitions in Europe, contractual obligations with various stakeholders must surely have been a key motivating factor behind this move, and while securing the long-term financial future of the league and its clubs is of course paramount, the crowded fixture list is sure to throw up a whole host of problems in the next six months.

Squad rotation and the new five substitutions rule will be vital when it comes to trying to keep players fresh and warding off injuries, but the lack of recovery time to prepare them physically and mentally between games and strategic difficulties with regards to travel and so on are sure to take their toll on every club, no matter how much strength they have in depth.

The fact that matches will for the time being have to be played behind closed doors – or, as the league have somewhat unnecessarily been at pains to christen them, ‘remotely’ – will of course also have an impact. Personally, I have never really detected much of the home advantage present elsewhere around the world in the J.League – continuous chanting largely unrelated to the flow of the game can tend to fade into unnoticed background noise, and there are very few venues that create an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams – but even so the lack of any supporters whatsoever is sure to take some getting used to.

Without fans reacting to key events and applying pressure to players and officials we may see differences in the decisions made, for instance, with certain studies suggesting referees show fewer cards and add on less injury time when games are played in empty stadiums. There may be more ‘in-game’ time as well, with players not being emboldened by fan outrage at a decision going against their team and instead more inclined to just get on with things. Could fewer stoppages and breaks in play benefit teams like Yokohama F.Marinos and Kawasaki Frontale, who thrive on possession and having time to mount attacks? It’s largely speculation for now, but will certainly be something worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

Of course, while the target for title-chasing teams like Marinos and Frontale remains unchanged, perhaps the biggest adjustment to the format this year lies in the fact that there will be no relegation. This decision made some sense when it seemed it wouldn’t be possible to play the whole season, but now that every match is back on the agenda it is unclear why teams are being given a free pass to cruise through the year. If it is fair for teams to be crowned champions or secure places in the ACL, why is it unfair for others to be dropped down a division for finishing at the bottom?

As well as meaning clubs who were bracing themselves for relegation battles can now enjoy risk-free seasons, the ruling may also have a knock-on effect on the integrity of the competition as a whole – while clubs and players will insist they always want to win every game, motivation is of course affected when a team has nothing to play for.

Again, this is something that will only become clear over the coming weeks and months though, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that unpredictability is a long-established quirk of the J.League even when the playing field is level. What can be said with absolute certainty is that regardless of how things ultimately play out on the pitch, the upheaval off it will ensure the 2020 season is one that lives long in the memory.


Coming back from coronavirus

A look at the situation at J2 side Machida Zelvia, where player fitness, stadium availability, and budget concerns are just some of the difficulties that need to be navigated once the 2020 season gets back underway… (日本語版)

Finally, a little over three months after announcing its first round of postponements, the J.League is coming back.

It has been a trying time for everyone involved in the Japanese game, and many more challenges lie in wait over the coming weeks and months. In an attempt to find out more about how clubs are set ahead of the return to action, I recently spoke with Machida Zelvia general manager Tadashi Karai and manager Ranko Popovic.

Former Oita Trinita, FC Tokyo, and Cerezo Osaka manager Popovic only rejoined the club he also led in 2011 ahead of this season, and before talking about football he was keen to pass on thanks to those who have helped make it possible for games to get underway again.

“We cannot forget the people who were on the front line – all the people who were involved, the medical staff who were fighting on the first line, and the people who were infected, they really were suffering,” he said. “[Everything] about us is secondary when it comes to something like this. In first place, big respect to everyone who was here, who helped all of us to beat, so to say, this terrible situation.”

While grateful that football is taking the first steps back to normality, the Serbian suggested his team will need a few rounds of games after J2’s 27 June restart to get fully up to speed.

“We are very lucky we can go again to work and to come back to the football and to everything. But if you ask me if this is the optimal time: no, it’s not the optimal time. But if it’s possible: yes, of course.

“We will also use two or three weeks after in the championship to bring the team to the optimal form. Why do I tell you that? We don’t play like in Europe five, six, 10 games. We have to play 41 games.”

As a result of the state of emergency announced in Tokyo on 7 April, Machida were unable to gather for training between 8 April and 17 May, and while Popovic is happy with the efforts his players made to stick to their personal fitness programmes he stresses the effect six weeks away from the pitch will have had.

“You can train alone, but it’s completely different from what you are doing with the group. For me, the first week [of training] is only to adapt the feet to the spikes. Because you know the spike is different completely – it’s tight, it’s not so easy like running shoes.”

Match fitness is of course not the only health issue that has to be kept in mind, and club doctor Keisuke Irako has played a vital role in establishing a PCR test centre in the local area.

“Because the Japanese government couldn’t do many PCR tests at that time, the doctor’s organisation, the city association, tried to make their own PCR centre for citizens before Golden Week,” Karai explained. “Doctor Irako was one of the important doctors in charge of making the PCR centre in Machida City.”

Zelvia players and staff all underwent PCR and antibody tests themselves on 14 May, and with everybody testing negative they were able to return to training in four groups of seven or eight on 18 May. The state of emergency was then ended on 25 May, enabling the team to resume full training on 1 June.

Even so, J.League clubs still have plenty of logistical and financial obstacles to deal with.

“The city promised to co-operate with the schedule as much as possible,” Karai said when asked if Machida’s Gion Stadium will be available for all of their scheduled fixtures. Komazawa and Nishigaoka Stadiums could provide homes from home, but with other teams also possibly in need he conceded that, “We will need to negotiate with some clubs in Tokyo,” if an alternative were required.

Income is also set to take a big hit, and while Karai is confident Zelvia can navigate 2020 he expects difficulties further down the line.

“Of course ticket sales are reduced – our budget is decreasing for this season. First it will be behind closed doors, so we predict at least half the amount of ticket sales. It is very difficult for us.

“[J.League chairman Mitsuru] Murai promised to maintain all clubs this season, [but] we predict that next season is going to be much more difficult to keep the same budget.”

Popovic is solely focused on the present, however, and stresses that he will deal with managing his squad for the brutal schedule of 41 matches in 25 weeks on a game-by-game basis – something he feels could benefit the Japanese game as a whole by forcing greater flexibility.

“I think this is mostly based on the sense, on the moment,” he said. “I think this is something that is very new, and I think this situation can be very good for the Japanese. Because [usually] they [make] plans two years before, and now they have to react immediately.”

He also feels the lack of preparation time in-between games could encourage more teams to play proactively rather than focusing on stifling their opponents.

“The Japanese are very studious and [when it comes to] details they are going into everything and also looking too much at the opponent – maybe too much. I try always to tell to my boys, ‘Why lose our life only looking at what other people are doing?’ Other teams, ok, a little bit, but what is with us? What do we have to say?”

The J.League will allow five substitutions per game in a bid to ease the strain on players, and while Popovic says he may utilise the new regulation when necessary he points out that the rule change doesn’t necessarily benefit all teams equally.

“If you give to Manchester City five substitutes or to Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich, they have 25 identical players,” he said. “Maybe the clubs [in J2] have 12, 13, 14, 15 – (the one) who has 17, this is the king of the party.”

There will also be no relegation this year, but the former Real Zaragoza and Buriram United boss insists his players will still be fully motivated for every game – and feels this alteration to the format may also make for more positive, attacking football.

“Sportsmen never feel good if you lose. If you don’t have your own auto-pressure, what kind of sportsman are you?

“Ok, you don’t have to think about relegation, but this can be positive also, to say, ‘Ok, I will try now to play a bit different and also take more risks to win the games’. Because there is a big, big, big difference between coming to not lose in the game and coming to win the game. Maybe this can have very positive consequences for the future.”

These are very early days and a lot of hurdles still need to be overcome, but Popovic is preaching positivity.

“I said also to the boys, ‘Everything is in the head. If we are ready and if you have sunshine in the head, outside can be typhoon, everything, but you have the sunshine’. And you have to look at it like this.”


Graz roots

At South Africa 2010 Japan made it to the Round of 16 at an overseas World Cup for the first time, and I will always remember an otherwise-forgotten friendly played 10 years ago today as having been pivotal to that success… (日本語版)

The rain had been teeming down all day, and as full time approached thunder and lightning tore across the miserable grey sky.

With the World Cup finals imminent, the omens certainly didn’t look good for Japan as they went down 2-1 against England in Graz – their third defeat in a row.

While that game 10 years ago to the day ended in a loss, however, the friendly fixture is one that remains imprinted on my mind – not only on account of the divided loyalties it produced in me, but also because of the role it served as a vital stepping stone on the way to the Samurai Blue’s unexpected success in South Africa.

It is fair to say that heading into the match things hadn’t been going too well for Takeshi Okada’s side.

The year began with a poor showing as hosts of the 2010 East Asian Football Championship, when, despite picking a strong 23 in a tournament usually reserved for fringe players, Japan’s only win came courtesy of a 3-0 over minnows Hong Kong. A 0-0 draw with China and 3-1 humbling against rivals South Korea in the team’s two other games served only to sow seeds of frustration in Tokyo.

Indeed, aside from the win against Hong Kong Japan’s only other victories that year had come in Asian Cup qualifiers against Yemen and Bahrain, and their last two home games before the World Cup saw them defeated and goalless as first Serbia (3-0 in Osaka in April, with a brace scored by future Omiya Ardija striker Dragan Mrdja) and then South Korea (again, 2-0 in Saitama on 24 May) swept them aside without any trouble.

Okada even appeared to offer his resignation after the second reverse against the Taeguk Warriors, before backtracking shortly afterwards and insisting he, “wasn’t speaking in all seriousness and should have chosen [his] words more carefully”.

Six days later in Austria he remained in the hot seat, ready to lead his country onto the world’s biggest stage for the second time. Few at that point expected any improvement on the last time the former Yokohama F.Marinos boss had done so though, when debutants Japan ended pointless after defeats against Argentina, Croatia, and Jamaica at France ‘98.

While Okada was perhaps struggling a little when it came to choosing his words, however, the England game helped him find far more clarity when it came to his selections on the pitch.

Against Korea a shift had been made to 4-3-3, with Yuki Abe employed as a shield between the centre-backs and central midfielders. This game provided another chance to fine-tune that approach, with Japan successfully denying England space in-between the lines and also freeing up more time on the ball for Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo.

Another bold change came in goal, with Okada deciding to replace long-time first choice Seigo Narazaki with Eiji Kawashima between the posts.

England may have been using the run-out at UPC-Arena to trim their 30-man squad down to a final 23, but Fabio Capello’s men still provided a truly top class test on the eve of the tournament, with the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, and Wayne Rooney all in the starting line-up and vastly higher quality opposition than Japan’s mostly-J.League 11 were used to facing.

In the face of Japan’s compact set-up the Three Lions started slowly and were struggling to keep possession though, often mis-controlling the ball or sending passes straight into touch, and after just seven minutes Japan were ahead.

Endo sent a low corner skidding into the area along the greasy surface, and with Glenn Johnson dallying Marcus Tulio Tanaka steamed in to meet the ball and steer beyond David James from 12 yards.

Kawashima then re-paid Okada’s faith 10 minutes later by denying Aaron Lennon in a one-on-one, before making an even bigger contribution in the 56th minute as he leapt to his right to keep out a Lampard penalty.

Over the 90 minutes none of Lampard’s teammates were able to find a way past Kawashima either – with the Kawasaki Frontale man truly announcing himself as Japan’s new No.1 when sensationally tipping a speculative Rooney effort over the bar with 20 minutes to play – and it ultimately took a couple of freak own goals from Tulio and Yuji Nakazawa to gift England the win.

Despite ending in defeat, however, the performance delivered a much-needed confidence boost for Japan, demonstrating that they had what it took to go toe-to-toe with the world’s better sides.

As well as that positive, Okada was also able to confirm something else in this game that deep down he probably already knew; none of the team’s strikers were in form or confident.

Both Shinji Okazaki and substitute Takayuki Morimoto missed excellent chances to put Japan 2-0 up, and with Shunsuke Nakamura unsuited to the team’s new formation the manager realised he would have to think outside the box to kick-start the attack. Luckily, he had a player at his disposal who liked to do just that.

Keisuke Honda was steadily developing into the team’s main man, and after the match he exhibited the spark that would soon be making headlines around the world.

“I think the result is everything,” the 23-year-old said. “We’re getting better, but if we don’t win we can’t achieve our target [of the semi-finals]. One positive to take from the game was that when we attacked we made some good chances and took shots.”

Two of those came from Honda himself – one requiring a superb fingertip save from England’s substitute goalkeeper Joe Hart and the other a free kick from distance that soared high over the crossbar in the closing stages. Neither found the back of the net, but such proactivity likely gave Okada some food for thought and a fortnight later the CSKA Moscow youngster was starting at centre-forward and nudging home the winner against Cameroon.

That victory in Bloemfontein was where the journey to a first knockout round appearance at an overseas World Cup got underway, but I will always think of the foundations having been laid two weeks earlier on a cold and wet afternoon in Austria.


Football in the Community

Lewes FC’s raison d’être stretches far beyond playing football, and as the coronavirus continues to cause complications the fan-owned club from the English lower leagues is playing a vital role in its community… (日本語版)

Football Channel 15th May, 2020

With the coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc worldwide, more and more people are in need of assistance as they try to adapt.

Whether that’s the most vulnerable members of society struggling to get hold of essential items, parents forced to work remotely while simultaneously home-schooling young children, or people missing the simple pleasure of socialising with friends at the stadium at the weekend, 2020 is increasingly forcing acclimatisation to a new normal.

Football clubs are playing proactive roles in that process, and perhaps few more so than Lewes FC in the southeast of England.

Lewes were introduced to readers of this column back in 2017, and the community-owned, community-run club – which became the first in the world to pay its men’s and women’s teams equally – has continued to flourish in the past three years.

As well as the men’s team being promoted back to the Isthmian League Premier Division (seventh tier) at the end of the 2017-18 season and the women’s side establishing itself in the FA Women’s Championship (second tier), the club has continued to make telling contributions off the field as well – something that has only intensified during the current pandemic.

“We are in a sense confirming and acting on our position in the community,” director Charlie Dobres told me at the start of May. “We’re doing stuff that’s consistent with our position, consistent with our values, and consistent with our over-arching strategy – which is to be exemplary as a football club.”

Despite the men’s 2019-20 season having been terminated and the women’s suspended pending a possible restart, the club is continuing to place a focus on the relationship with its fans – whether through an Online Community Help form, which enables individuals to request support for themselves or others in need, the ‘Home Heroes’ initiative, through which a thank you letter and pen are sent to children being good at home, or running Q&A sessions on Zoom with the managers and directors.

“We want them to look at Lewes Football Club and think, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I would have thought my football club would do’,” Dobres said. “And it’s working very, very positively and it’s only strengthening the bonds which were already very strong.”

Alongside such concerns, the club is also having to deal with the issue of when and how football itself will be able to return, a problem Dobres loosely breaks into two parts: health and economic.

“How could you make an environment from training to matchday entirely safe for the participants? Even if you can solve the health issues of it – and I’m not sure how you do – then the economic reality will hit home.”

A large part of that economic reality concerns the likely need to play matches behind closed doors, and while the vast revenues from TV income would enable the Premier League to navigate those choppy waters with relative ease, many clubs lower down the ladder – whose staff wages are currently being covered by the government’s ‘furloughing’ scheme – would need financial assistance in order to survive.

Football Channel, 16th May 2020

“For everybody outside of the Premier League, when you restart football then clearly you are re-employing your players and coaches, who are currently furloughed. So you take on the cost base again, but if you don’t have your income stream from match-day then you can’t afford your cost base.”

Lewes would of course be impacted like all other clubs by the loss of income from ticket sales, but one benefit they do have is the fact they are funded by fans.

“Most of our costs are related to the activity of playing football,” Dobres explained. “We do have some fixed costs – non-football staff, utilities, rent – but they’re not sky high, and we also have additional revenues that other clubs don’t have, we have ownership revenue.”

That set-up enables people to pay a minimum of 40 pounds a year to buy a share in the club – with no individual able to purchase more than one share, irrespective of how much they spend – thus ensuring a solid foundation even during times of hardship such as those caused by Covid-19.

“Because of our extended ownership – 1,500, 1,600 owners – there’s no one owner who comes in and says, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’m taking my toys home’,” Dobres adds.

“A key thing that community/fan-ownership offers is stability, as well as offering a far greater nature of being embedded in the community. Because your purpose is to serve your community – both geographical and your community of interest, in our case our campaigning, our work on gender equality, our work on getting gambling advertising out of football.

“There has been no football played in Lewes since the same time as everybody else, since March, but our visibility, our meaning within our communities, hasn’t really changed. Because it can carry all that stuff, that’s what football can do. It means that football gets to use its power for good. Our belief is that football is an engine for social change.”

In that sense, perhaps J.League clubs could learn a thing or two from Lewes as they look to establish firmer footing in and establish themselves as integral parts of their hometowns.

“A lot of the feedback and positive comments we get – at any time, but especially this time – are from people that have never been to the Dripping Pan,” Dobres concludes, with reference to the club’s home ground.

“They know of us potentially because of our profile and activities in the community, but they haven’t been to a football match. But they love what we do. And one of the things I love about that is that it’s really reclaiming the original purpose of football. Demonstrating that football has that power and meaning so beyond kicking a ball round a field.”


If you would like to become an owner of Lewes FC, you can do so here from as little as £40 per year (approx. 5,300)

Furthermore, if you become an owner/are already an owner and would like to found the Japan Owner’s Branch (no extra cost), please get in touch with Charlie Dobres (charlie@lewesfc.com)


The man down under

After more than a decade as a J.League journeyman Yu Hasegawa opted to embark upon a new challenge, and his decision could serve as an example to other Japanese players as they near the end of their playing careers… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel 1st May, 2020

It isn’t especially surprising these days when a Japanese player transfers overseas.

However, while a whole raft of talented youngsters continue to make their way to Europe each season looking to follow in the footsteps of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Kagawa, and Takumi Minamino by establishing themselves in the world’s biggest leagues, not many journeymen at the tail end of their careers decide to ply their trade in another country.

That is exactly what Yu Hasegawa did in February though, opting to move to the regional leagues in Australia after V-Varen Nagasaki didn’t renew his contract.

“Once I was over 30, I started thinking about how to continue with football and how long I’d be able to keep playing,” he said of his move to Woolongong Olympic of the semi-professional Illawarra Premier League. “I was thinking of all sorts of things to enrich my life in terms of football and also in general. First of all, I was thinking I really wanted to make an effort with English.

“I wasn’t only thinking about the level of football, but also considering what choice I should make to develop as a person, including things outside of the game. I also thought about retiring or working for a company related to football – something other than being a player – as well as things outside of football. Initially I went along just to join training and have a trial and see.”

The 32-year-old was introduced to the possibility of playing in Australia by his former Montedio Yamagata teammate Yuzo Tashiro, who saw out the end of his career down under at Woolongong Wolves – where he also worked as a coach as the team won the National Premier Leagues (NPL) title last year.

For Hasegawa, the chance to make a fresh impression and let his football do the talking after several years struggling with injury and as a squad player was a key motivator for the move.

“Nobody knows anything about me, so if I play well I can earn appreciation that way,” the former Omiya Ardija, Tokushima Vortis, and Shimizu S-Pulse striker said. “That excited me.

“In Japan people knew my name to a certain extent, so I was seen as being a certain type of player and sometimes I wasn’t sure if people were really watching my performances or not. I always felt like I was ‘waiting’ in Japan. Waiting for a team to approach me, waiting to see if the coach would use me in games. So from there I was able to take a step forward and make the choice myself, and felt like, ‘This could be it’. I want to try and leave an impression here, as well as aiming to grow personally outside of football.”

Unfortunately, the coronavirus has prevented Hasegawa from making any impact on the pitch yet, curtailing the 2020 season just before it began, and also hampering his plans to work on his communication skills.

“They were quick to lockdown over here. I’m not going to [English] school – I was just thinking about starting when the lockdown began, and then I was considering whether to go back to Japan or not. Of course we can’t train either. Someone tested positive for the virus and then that week all sporting activity stopped.

“In Australia the supermarkets are open, but restaurants are takeaway only. You’re also not allowed outside with more than one other person. No gatherings. They’ve also got social distancing. But in Australia sports are really important to everybody so exercise is okay.

Football Channel, Friday 1st May 2020

“It’s okay to exercise, but gyms and so on are closed so it has to be in a park or something. Outside it’s okay as long as there aren’t more than two of you. When you go to the park you see a lot of people with their personal trainers. I don’t have one but I’m running and doing football training.”

Some of that has been with former Albirex Niigata and Tochigi SC midfielder Go Hayama, who signed for NPL club Sydney Olympic after leaving Machida Zelvia ahead of the new J.League season, while Hasegawa is also conducting private coaching sessions for local Japanese youngsters.

“If there’s no game we don’t get paid, it’s done on a week-to-week basis,” he says of the impact on he and his teammates, who all have other jobs alongside their playing commitments.

“There are lots of Japanese mums, so I’m coaching children around middle school age in one-on-one sessions.”

Despite the added difficulties of settling into a new country and new style of football during a global pandemic, Hasegawa insists he is taking everything in his stride.

“In terms of my condition and mental state things are different to usual, but then coming to Australia meant things were already different to usual,” he said.

“Also, in terms of the mental aspects there are things beyond my control that I can’t do anything about, so I’m finding myself feeling less stressed in that respect. Mentally I feel really good and there’s not any stress.”

The more relaxed nature of his new environs seem to be helping in that regard for the naturally laid-back Hasegawa, who’s also enjoying the more open nature of Australian culture.

“It’s really bright – happy. There’s lots of ocean too. It seems as if everyone is surfing, and the mentality is, ‘I can’t do anything about it so there’s no use worrying’. In a different way to Japanese people, if someone thinks differently and gives their opinion the other person listens properly. I think that’s really good. It suits me.”

The future is also something the Yamanashi native is keeping an open mind about, although he is sure moving abroad at this stage in his career will provide him with more possibilities when the time does come to hang up his boots.

“I really like Australia so now I’m thinking I’d like to stay for a long time, but my biggest target is that I want to choose by myself,” he explained. “There will be a time when I retire, when I stop being a player. At that time maybe I’ll try to work in Australia, perhaps I’ll go back to live in Japan, or maybe in another country, but I want to try now so that when that time comes I can make the choice myself.

“If I finished my career in Japan as a J.Leaguer I don’t think I’d have the option then of going to a different country. By learning English in Australia I’ll have a wider choice of countries.”

With so much uncertainty in the world right now such a proactive and flexible attitude will surely stand Hasegawa in good stead over the coming months and years, and it is perhaps an approach more Japanese players should try to adopt as they transition into post-playing careers.

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September 2020