Shonan style

Shonan Bellmare struggled the last time they were in J1, but despite not making widespread personnel changes the team is faring much better this time around… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2015/05/27/post89856/ / Also available in English here: http://footballchannel.asia/2015/05/25/post3883/)

Football Channel,  May 27th, 2015

After 13 games in 2013, Shonan Bellmare had just nine points and were in 16th place – the position in which they would ultimately finish the J1 campaign. Over the course of the year they only managed to pick up six victories and tasted defeat on 21 occasions. They ended the season without a win in their last eight games, losing each of the final six.

Fast forward a year-and-a-half, and after emphatically claiming the J2 title to secure an instant return to the top tier things are far brighter on the Hiratsuka coast. Cho Kwi-Jae’s side are steadily establishing themselves as a J1 team to be reckoned with, and have already picked up twice as many points as they had at this stage of their last top flight campaign.

The recent 4-0 win over struggling Shimizu S-Pulse – their fifth league victory in 2015 – was a mature, composed, and decisive performance which demonstrated how the team has grown since 2013. The players haven’t changed all that much – six of the starters at BMW Stadium last Saturday were involved two years ago – but there is a newfound sense of belief and trust amongst them.

“When we have the ball the level of stress has gone,” head coach Cho Kwi-jae said after the game, when asked for the biggest difference between then and now.

“The number of players we have who can make the rhythm when we have the ball has increased. For a football player that is an incredibly good thing. You have to be able to defend, but when you have the ball you need players who can head towards the opponent’s goal.

“Two years ago maybe we were able to set-up well defensively but once we had the ball we struggled. Now, although there is still an element of that stress, it is not the same as it was then.”

Indeed, although on paper swatting aside a team in such poor form as Shimizu may not look like a big achievement, the game was fairly evenly contested for the first 45 minutes and the visitors actually started the brighter of the two sides.

While Shonan of two years ago may have been content to settle for a point, though, the current side is made of more adventurous stuff, and with Cho urging more aggression and tension at half-time his players stepped up to the plate with an expansive and clinical second half display that produced four goals.

Shonan Bellmare's Kaoru Takayama ahead of his team's 4-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse, Saturday 23rd May, 2015

“That’s the way Shonan play,” Kaoru Takayama, who found the net twice, said post-match. “It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, we won’t just sit back and try and soak up pressure.”

The assuredness of his players on the ball referred to by Cho was evident in Takayama’s second goal, a cool, calm, and collected clipped finish in the 85th minute which he dispatched with no fuss despite having missed similar opportunities earlier in the game and in Bellmare’s previous match away to his former club Kashiwa Reysol.

“I didn’t really think about [the previous misses],” he said. “Of course I missed against Kashiwa but I’ve spoken to the goalkeeping coach and worked on it in training, so in that respect I had confidence coming into the game. In the first half I wasn’t able to score but didn’t worry about that and thought I’d get another chance, and I’m glad I could score it when it came.”

Having the confidence to look ahead rather than dwelling on mistakes or poor results is a fantastic trait to have, and Takayama’s outlook reflects that of the team as a whole. There was a spell between Rounds 5 and 9 when Shonan lost four games in five, for instance, but they rode out the storm and now the ship is sailing smoothly, with the side unbeaten in its last four J1 games and having kept clean sheets in each of the last three.

Recently we’ve had a very good mental condition,” said Daisuke Kikuchi, who, like Takayama, was involved in the 2013 campaign and also found the net against Shimizu. “I’ve been enjoying each game and I think the fact I am able to enjoy playing games on this stage in J1 is the biggest thing.

“It comes from training too, and there’s a really good atmosphere in the team. Even after games we lose the players all speak positively. Whether we win, lose, or draw I feel that the level of the team is improving and that’s the best thing.”

Like his coach, Kikuchi thinks the team is now better suited to its environment.

“I think it’s completely different,” he said. “Two years ago we were a bit nervous which meant that in some areas we couldn’t show our ability. Now there is a real feeling that we are able to do so.”

If they can maintain their strong spirit and continue to attack with such verve then Shonan won’t be needing to worry about the relegation battle this season. In fact, it would appear that for Cho and his team the only way is up.


Reds pass test with flying colors

The top two in J1 clashed at the weekend, and leader Urawa Reds stamped its authority on its game with FC Tokyo from the outset. Here’s my report for The Japan News…

The Japan News, Sunday 17th May, 2015

Urawa Reds tightened their grip on the top spot in the J.League on Saturday, downing second-placed FC Tokyo 4-1 in a dominant display at Saitama Stadium.

Tadanari Lee and Takahiro Sekine both struck in the first half to put Reds in a commanding position before Yuki Muto added the gloss with a third early in the second half.

Ryoichi Maeda pulled one back for Tokyo with 16 minutes to play, but Tsukasa Umesaki swiftly re-established Reds’ three-goal advantage to ensure the leader maintained its 100 percent home record in league play. Urawa is now unbeaten in its past 11 home games against Tokyo in J1, although the visitor was expected to present a significant hurdle here.

Urawa Reds coach Mihailo Petrovic was pleased with the result but wants his team to stamp out its lapses.

“We attacked through the middle and from wide with plenty of variation, and I think we absolutely deserved the victory,” he said.

“Of course I’m satisfied with the game, and think we scored some fantastic goals, but there are also aspects we can reflect on.”

Massimo Ficcadenti’s side came into the match just a point behind Reds — albeit having played a game more — and with the best away record in the top flight, with five wins and a draw from its opening road games.

Previous form counted for little in this contest, however, with the host tearing out of the traps and moving ahead after just five minutes.

Tomoya Ugajin sent a wicked cross in from the left, and Lee — who developed in the youth system at Tokyo and spent six months on loan there from Southampton in 2013 — beat former teammate Shuichi Gonda to the ball and prodded in with his left boot from just inside the six-yard box.

One of many happy Urawa Reds fans at Saitama Stadium, Saturday May 16th, 2015

Sekine then doubled Reds’ lead before halftime, with Ugajin again providing the assist.

Shinzo Koroki received the ball midway inside the Tokyo half and swiftly played it into Ugajin’s path on the left. The 27-year-old kept a cool head and dinked a ball across the box for Sekine to steer home after 42 minutes.

Ahead of the game, all eyes had been on young Tokyo striker Yoshinori Muto, who is widely expected to snub Premier League champion Chelsea in favor of a move to Bundesliga outfit Mainz 05 in the summer, but it was his namesake in red who put the result beyond doubt in the 47th minute.

Sekine made space for himself on the right wing and drove a low ball across the box for Yuki Muto to flick beyond Gonda and into the net.

Tokyo had offered very little by way of its own attacking threat, but did register in the 74th minute as substitute Maeda found space in the penalty area and arced home a wonderful header after a sensational Kosuke Ota cross from the left.

Umesaki instantly nipped any comeback in the bud, though, bending a delightful effort beyond Gonda’s despairing dive and into the bottom left corner in the 76th minute to leave Reds sitting pretty at the summit.

Elsewhere, bottom-placed Ventforet Kofu — under new manager Satoru Sakuma, who replaced Yasuhiro Higuchi in the week — picked up a rare victory as it downed fellow struggler Montedio Yamagata 2-0 thanks to strikes from Takuma Abe and Bare.

Meanwhile, Kashima Antlers and Sanfrecce Hiroshima had to settle for a share of the spoils as they contested a 2-2 seesaw battle in Ibaraki.

Sanfrecce took the lead through Hisato Sato, but a Mitsuo Ogasawara penalty and strike by debutant Dinei saw Antlers move ahead. Kosei Shibasaki had the last word for the visitors, though, pulling them level in the 69th minute.


Boring, boring?

Should football be about style, content, or both…? ( 日本語版はこちらです / Also available in English here )

Football Channel,  May 12th, 2015

Chelsea’s recent Premier League title triumph sparked the latest chapter in an ongoing debate: is it more important to win or play attractive football?

Jose Mourinho’s side are often criticized for being ‘boring’, whereas teams like Arsenal are praised for the way they seem more focused on playing ‘the right way’ than trying to win at all costs.

This debate can also be applied to the J.League, where Urawa Reds have unspectacularly assumed the lead at the top of the J1 table.

Until Mihailo Petrovic’s side endured Sunday’s uncharacteristic 4-4 draw with Vegalta Sendai they had been fairly dull to watch, constantly exchanging passes deep inside their own half in an apparent attempt to send their opponents to sleep, before eventually making the breakthrough from a cross or set-piece and then shutting up shop.

That lack of razzmatazz doesn’t make for the best spectacle – especially considering the amount of talented attacking players packed into Reds’ squad – but if it works for them why should they do anything differently? Indeed, as the Sendai game goes to show, more open games don’t always work out well for them.

The club have a long and distinguished history of falling just short when it comes to claiming titles, and with the wounds from last year’s late capitulation still not fully healed it is understandable that the players are hesitant to deviate from a safe and effective way of playing.

After their recent 1-0 triumph over Gamba Osaka on May 2nd I asked match-winner Zlatan Ljibijankic what he thought about the unexciting tag the team had picked up.

“Last year they played against Gamba maybe a good game and they lost 2-0 and lost the title and everything,” he said, referring to the match which ultimately swung the J1 title race into Gamba’s favour. “We are a smarter team and we are more patient this year.

“Our coach never says just play behind or be patient. He wants us to try to play in front and try to play the most dangerous pass – he always says this. But sometimes it’s difficult. You play this pass, they take the ball and they score. I saw also last year they conceded one or two goals like this [against Gamba]. They gave this pass they were expecting, they take this ball and it’s a goal.

“Maybe for the fans it’s not the most beautiful game but in the end it’s the three points we win and we are first in the table. This is the most important.”

Urawa Reds fans ahead of their 1-0 win over Matsumoto Yamaga, April 4th, 2015

Reds are not the only team who pick up victories with unspectacular performances, of course, and after Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s 1-0 smash-and-grab away to Kawasaki Frontale in Round 10 Mihael Mikic offered an almost identical opinion to Ljubijankic.

“I’m not interested in how I play if I win the championship,” the 35-year-old said. “For me that is important. Because after five years who remembers how Chelsea played in 2014/15? The only [thing is that the] winners are Chelsea. That is my opinion.

“[People] try to make from soccer a big philosophy. But football is such a simple game. If you score the goal and win the game you are the winner.”

Just as Ljubijankic compared Reds’ games against Gamba in 2014 and 2015, Mikic also drew upon a then-and-now to demonstrate his point, recalling a hammering he and his Sanfrecce teammates – then including current Urawa starters Ryota Moriwaki, Tomoaki Makino, and Yosuke Kashiwagi, and managed by Reds’ Petrovic – suffered away to Frontale in October 2009.

“This game we lost 7-0. We didn’t play defensively and we lost 7-0. Now, if you make a comparison then what is better? Play defensively and win 1-0 or play offensively and lose 7-0? Sometimes we must play like this and win the game. That is also a quality.

“The coaches also must win the ‘shit’ games, I say. That is a champion team. If you play bad and win the game that is also a quality.”

Of that there can be no doubt, but the fact still remains that many supporters demand a bit of panache and excitement on top of the three points. Ljubijankic knows that more adventure is expected in Saitama, and believes the team has the ability to deliver on both fronts.

“In Urawa it’s important to win and also to play good and that’s difficult sometimes,” he said. “But I think it’s going to get better. We’re going to play better and we want to play better.”

After last year’s disappointment the Slovenian feels that there is a strong resolve amongst his new teammates to right the wrongs and make sure the same mistakes aren’t made this time around.

“I was speaking with them when I came and they really want this year to be something different. Because they know what they did last year – last year what they missed. We spoke about that and I see the guys have a big wish to win this year and I think they are prepared for this year and now they are more experienced.

“I know it’s difficult to play, but you have to have balls if you want to win and be champions.”


Ljubijankic strike gives Reds space

I was at Saitama Stadium to see J1’s top two go head-to-head on Saturday. Here’s my match report for The Japan News…

The Japan News, Sunday 3rd May, 2015

SAITAMA – Urawa Reds asserted its authority at the top of the J1 table on Saturday, downing reigning champion Gamba Osaka 1-0 in front of 53,148 fans at Saitama Stadium.

Zlatan Ljubijankic was the hero for the home side, converting the decisive goal of the game in the 84th minute to give Reds some breathing space at the summit.

“I think we were the better team and wanted this win more than our opponent, and I think we deserved it,” Ljubijankic said after the game.

“As a striker you have to be patient for this one chance, you have to concentrate on this and try to score. Ok, I scored this goal but my part was easy. The cross was perfect and for me I was just in the right place at the right time.”

The game had been a cat-and-mouse affair of few clear chances – understandably so with both teams coming into the match in good form and sitting first and second in the table, respectively.

Urawa started the day a point ahead of its visitors at the top of the pile having gone the first eight rounds of the first stage of the season unbeaten.

Gamba came into the game as the form team, however, having won its last six games in the top flight.

In Takashi Usami Gamba have the most predatory marksman in the division, too, with the 22-year-old having scored in each of the six league games coming into this encounter – including the decisive goals in wins over Shimizu S-Pulse and Matsumoto Yamaga.

It was Ljubijankic who had the first sight on goal in the 7th minute, though. The Slovenian almost wormed his way into a one-on-one with Gamba goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi, but makeshift rightback Shohei Ogura managed to make an impressive last-ditch tackle to end the attack.

Usami then had Gamba’s first potshot on goal, sending a dipping drive just over the bar with an effort from range in the 12th minute.

Urawa Reds v. Gamba Osaka, May 2nd, 2015

His strike partner Patric fired another warning shot in the 18th minute, whistling a strike just past Shusaku Nishikawa’s right-hand post after Urawa’s defenders failed to close him down properly.

After Gamba’s early pressure Reds began to feel their way into the game, and Ryota Moriwaki very nearly broke the deadlock in the 22nd minute.

The wingback received a cheeky backheel from fellow defender Tomoaki Makino 25 meters from goal, but his well-struck effort curled inches wide of the target.

Ljubijankic was then in a prime position to send the hosts into the halftime break ahead, but was unable to connect properly when the ball fell for him in the six-yard box in the 44th minute.

It looked like it wasn’t going to be the 31-year-old’s day when he failed to convert another chance in the 67th minute, shooting straight at Higashiguchi from close range.

Yasuhito Endo then almost broke the deadlock at the other end in the 76th minute, hitting the crossbar after dinking a trademark free-kick over the Reds wall from 20 meters.

Ljubijankic did finally make the breakthrough eight minutes later, however, coolly slotting into an open net after Tomoya Ugajin’s cross from the left of the penalty area to maintain Reds unbeaten start to the season.

“We all remember what happened half-a-year ago,” Urawa coach Mihailo Petrovic said after the game, in reference to the 2-0 defeat suffered against Gamba which derailed Reds’ 2014 title push.

“Last year we had the chance to win the title and let it slip. This is a different season and a fresh start but last year’s defeat has stayed with us. Today’s game has gone some way to dispelling that feeling.”

Elsewhere, Nagoya Grampus picked up its fourth win in five games, defeating Shonan Bellmare 3-0. Kensuke Nagai and Kengo Kawamata struck in the first half before Marcus Tulio Tanaka made sure of the result late on.

Meanwhile. Montedio Yamagata picked up just its second league win of the season, downing Yokohama F.Marinos 1-0 thanks to Shogo Nishikawa’s 52nd minute goal.


FIFA Presidential candidates not happy at lack of equal platform

All four candidates for the FIFA presidency were in attendance at the AFC Congress in Bahrain on Thursday, although only one of them addressed the congregation, causing more than a little consternation (日本語版はこちらです / Also available in English here) …

Football Channel,  May 1st, 2015

Something of a side-show at the AFC Congress in Bahrain was the fact that the only candidate in the upcoming FIFA presidential election able to address the congregation was the current incumbent Sepp Blatter, who had the best part of 25 minutes at the podium.

After the congress two of Blatter’s rivals for the presidency spoke of their disappointment at not being able to greet the movers-and-shakers of the Asian game.

“I asked, obviously, to address the congress,” Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein said. “But I would have liked all three candidates also to be given the chance. I was in UEFA, for example, I was given the floor even though I’m not from that confederation. So I wouldn’t have accepted to take the floor if the other two candidates didn’t do so as well. It’s a matter of respect.”

Portugal legend Luis Figo also has his hat in the ring for FIFA’s top job, and was bemused as to why he hadn’t been given the opportunity to say a few words.

I don’t understand really, why not,” the former Barcelona and Real Madrid star said. “Of course this is an individual congress of a federation, but I don’t see any kind of problem to speak, to address, we are in a democracy so I don’t really understand why not. Because if you are here attending the congress for five or six hours give us five, ten minutes. I think it is not a big deal, no?”

South Korean delegate Chung Mong-gyu also expressed frustration during the congress, voicing his displeasure at a change to AFC statutes which altered the way the vote to decide the AFC’s FIFA ExCo members would be conducted.

After a brief pause in proceedings as Chung discussed the issue with AFC president Shaikh Salman – who was re-elected unopposed – and AFC general secretary Dato’ Alex Soosay, the dissenter was told he should have submitted a written request in advance.

Luis Figo speaks to journalists at the AFC Congress, Thursday 30th April, 2015 (Picture by Andrew Mullen)

“We could open the floor, but if we let the Korean FA talk then 10 other member associations will also want to talk” Shaikh Salman offered by way of explanation. “We need discipline and understanding. We need solidarity”

“My position always is that all institutions should be transparent and democratic,” Prince Ali said of the scene. “That’s all I have to say.”

Figo, meanwhile, was keen to dwell on the word democracy.

“Well, it’s a beautiful word. I think it’s a beautiful word that I hear so many times in the congress but you have to put it [into practice].

“Most of the people too are not well-informed regarding the solidarity – another word that I’ve been hearing so much during this process. Solidarity, what is solidarity, I ask? Solidarity is to be sitting on 1.5 billion Euros, and when I hear people that have problems with transportation, I don’t think that is solidarity. That kind of thing is easy to say, but sometimes it’s difficult to do something regarding it.”

There are suggestions that of the three challengers to Blatter’s throne – Prince Ali, Figo and Michael van Praag – only one will ultimately run so as to stand a better chance of defeating the Swiss who has been in charge at FIFA since 1998.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Figo said of the matter. “You know in this world everything can happen and I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

“I always say it’s not a question of me, it’s not a question of Luis Figo – if he’s going to be the president or not. It’s the question of the moment of the organisation, it’s a question of the future of football and it doesn’t matter if the people think I have good ideas and I’m young. I just laugh when I hear that because it looks like you have to be 60, 70, or whatever to be president of FIFA.

“But I think if you are in the same position it’s because we think something has to change in FIFA.”


Tashima’s successful ExCo bid returns Japan to FIFA inner circle

Kohzo Tashima was voted onto the FIFA Executive committee at the AFC Congress in Bahrain on Thursday, and after the results were announced I asked him and other JFA officials what that could mean for the game in Japan and Asia… (日本語版はこちらです / Also available in English here) …

Football Channel,  April 30th, 2015

Japan Football Association Vice President and Executive General Secretary Kohzo Tashima was voted onto the FIFA Executive Committee at the AFC Congress in Bahrain Thursday, obtaining a simple majority of 36 votes.

The 57-year-old becomes the fourth Japanese member of the ExCo, following in the footsteps of Soichi Ichida, Yuzuru Nozu, and Junji Ogura, and expressed relief after the result was announced.

“Thanks to everyone’s support I’ve been able to achieve this result, and now I have to show my appreciation,” he said. “Thirty-six votes was the number I thought might be my maximum, with a minimum of around 25. The fact that I could get the maximum is a testament to the work and preparation we put in.”

Tashima had cut a relaxed figure when speaking to Japanese journalists the day before the election, saying he felt he had done all he could to achieve success.

“Yesterday I told you that it was in the hands of the gods, and it turned out that was correct,” he said.

As well as expressing his gratitude to the various organisations that supported him throughout his campaign and the member associations who voted for him, Tashima also thanked those involved on the pitch.

“I have to thank the players and coaches too. The fact that there are players enjoying success around the world and that Japan is a strong team certainly helped. Because Japan is such a strong team I was able to gain those 36 votes. If Japan wasn’t such a good team maybe it wouldn’t have been possible to get so many votes. I always felt that would have an effect.”

That acknowledgement is characteristic of Tashima, who has close links to and appreciation of those playing the game.

“Aside from me the other three AFC FIFA ExCo members all have a title – Prince or Sheikh or something – but I come from the football pitch,” he said.

“I’m a football player, I’m a football coach and I will work hard for world football using my experience.”

First up on the agenda will be the issue of how many World Cup places Asia receives.

“The next very big issue is the World Cup slots from Asia. Now it’s 4.5 for Asia and in the near future the FIFA ExCo will discuss about this matter and we will prepare some logical reasons not to decrease, and I hope to increase the number of slots for Asia.”

AFC Congress, Gulf Convention Centre, Bahrain, Thursday 30th April, 2015

Matters of development will also be addressed, and Tashima is looking forward to working with new AFC technical director Andy Roxburgh – who like him has a wealth of experience when it comes to hands-on matters.

“We will co-operate with [Roxburgh] and would like to improve the level of Asian football,” Tashima said.

“I hope he will educate the instructors’ instructors – coaches’ education. In his career in UEFA there were a lot of coaches meetings – national team coaches and Champions League coaches – but so far in Asia there have been no such coaches meetings.”

The contributions made by the JFA to various Asian countries were vital in securing the ExCo seat, and as well as continuing those efforts Tashima expects there to be an increase in expectations on the JFA – something he aims to live up to.

“Japan is a leading country in Asian football and a lot of the Asian member associations told me that Japan should be on FIFA ExCo, but this is a lot of pressure. I got 36 votes and so a lot of responsibility and must work hard to serve for all of football development in the world, Asia, and of course Japan too.

JFA president Kuniya Daini echoed those sentiments.

“Until now we’ve tried to do lots of things in Asia and have received appreciation for that,” he said. “I feel now that we have expectations on us and from now on too we have to live up to those expectations.

“Tashima-san has done a lot personally aiming for this over the last four years, and we have also received a lot of support from various Asian countries. Both of those things have helped produce this result. Now the responsibility on us has become stronger.”

JFA general secretary Hiromi Hara, meanwhile, expressed his hope that this success will help to improve the JFA’s standing in the world game.

“When (former JFA president and FIFA ExCo member Juni) Ogura-san entered FIFA there was lots going on,” Hara told me. “We had a lot of exchanges within Asia, particularly at the under categories and by providing coaches. Because of that I think we are well-regarded and I think in many ways the JFA will become stronger thanks to Tashima-san entering the FIFA ExCo.”


New AFC technical director Roxburgh looks to raise Asia’s level

Ahead of the AFC Congress in Bahrain I attended a round-table with the confederation’s new technical director Andy Roxburgh to see what the experienced Scot is aiming to do to improve the game in Asia (日本語版はこちらです / Also available in English here) …

Football Channel,  April 29th, 2015

The reputation of Asian football took a bit of a pummeling at the 2014 World Cup, with Australia, Japan, Iran, and South Korea all finishing bottom of their groups and failing to pick up a single win between them.

Such poor form ran counter to the AFC’s bold claim that ‘The Future is Asia’, but hiring Andy Roxburgh as the confederation’s new technical director may help to bring about a change in fortunes for the world’s biggest continent.

The vastly experienced Roxburgh was the first ever technical director of UEFA – where he worked for 18 years between 1994 and 2012 – and for the last two years served as sporting director of the New York Red Bulls. On Wednesday he spoke to the media for the first time since assuming his new role with the AFC, and was clear that he expects proactive steps to be made.

“There’s a line that I always like to use, is it chance or design?” the 71-year-old said ahead of the AFC’s 26th congress in Bahrain. “Now, we can sit back here and cross our fingers and hope there’s another Omar [Abdulrahman] – we can sit back and cross our fingers and hope they’ll just turn up, but you might wait forever. The thing is to design your way forward. To design youth programmes. Grassroots is vital, that’s a major element.

“It’s one thing to say ‘what do we need to do?’ – we need to have top leagues, top players, top coaches, top results – but how do we do it?

“As a coach – a frontline national coach or club coach – your job is to win the next game. The job of the technical director is to win the next 10 years. That’s more what you’re about. You’re more about tomorrow.”

One thing that Roxburgh is looking to implement to answer that question of ‘how’ is a system whereby the continent’s top coaches are able to regularly meet and exchange ideas – something he also carried out at UEFA. The first such event will be conducted in August, when Asian national team coaches convene in Kuala Lumpur.

“You bring colleagues together and they exchange ideas and thoughts – getting people to tell them about programs that have worked well and try to help them with their preparations and all those kind of things,” he explained. “The people that are running the teams are already top level, but you would find that most of them are open-minded and willing to share ideas. I think that’s the key, our job is to facilitate that possibility and share knowledge, so we’re not isolated.”

Iran are currently the highest-ranked Asian nation in 40th (Japan are next, down in 50th), but for Roxburgh the statistics on paper are irrelevant when compared to how things go out on the pitch.

“You can read too much into rankings,” the Scot said. “The rankings thing is nice, people like seeing that – it’s the kind of thing in tennis that looks great – [but] in football the most important thing is how do you get on in the major competitions. Do you win things? Do you get to the next phase of the World Cup? Do you regularly qualify?”

In order to bring about a situation whereby Asian nations – regardless of where they sit in FIFA’s hierarchy – are able to regularly achieve results in those respects, the former Scotland manager believes that structure is vital.

“If you don’t have progressive coach education then you’re always going to be limited,” he said. “If you look at the World Cup winners of recent times, the last three World Cup winners, you have to look at them and say to yourself, how did they get where they got to? And one of the main reasons is progressive coach education. Coach education and player development are the two keys.”

Andy Roxburgh speaking ahead of the AFC Congress in Bahrain, Wednesday April 29th, 2015

As well as providing Asian coaches and players with the education to challenge themselves at the highest level Roxburgh also thinks there needs to be a strengthening of resolve.

“Let me say it this way: there’s talent in Asia, but talent is never enough. Talent is never enough. Many people you see, whether it’s a coach or a player, they’re very talented and yet they don’t quite make it to the top level. Because what you need beyond that talent is you need commitment, you need desire.

“If you don’t have that talent or desire – and we can even add the word confidence as well – in some cases you will get players – and we don’t need to refer to individual countries here, it’s the same all over the world – who, whether for cultural reasons or personal reasons, lack that desire, then that talent will never mature into what we hope it to become.”

It could be argued that this has been a key failing of Japanese players in Europe over the years – and also of the national team as a whole at the last World Cup and January’s Asian Cup – and Roxburgh recalls a conversation he had at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium with childhood friend and teammate Sir Alex Ferguson about the requirements of succeeding as an elite player.

“I was on the pitch with Sir Alex, walking across the field. And I said to him, ‘Alex, what do you look for in a player?’ The place was empty and he said, ‘Assuming they’ve got the talent, I look for players that have the qualities to play in this environment in front of 67,00 people every week and like it.” It was that punchline, ‘and like it’ – in other words that means they’ve got to have the kind of mentality, not just the ability but the mentality to play there.”

For that to happen, Roxburgh believes that Asian players need to be better prepared to achieve results as and when the chance to play in Europe arrives, which means the continental game as a whole needs to improve.

The Scot has regularly visited Japan for the past 15 years and cites Japanese football and the J.League as an example of what can be achieved with the right planning and infrastructure. He concedes, however, that not all Asian nations have been able to achieve similar success and thinks more needs to be done to raise the level beneath Asia’s big-hitters.

“It would be advantageous if we could narrow that gap, make it even more competitive than it is today, of course. [Japan] would be the first to say to you they would like the gap narrowed so that things become far more competitive.”

While for many it may be seen as little more than a pipe-dream, the JFA’s oft-stated target of winning the World Cup by 2015 strikes a particular chord with Roxburgh, who feels that such bullishness should be more prevalent throughout the continent.

“I was very impressed by this because the Japanese are very focused and saying ‘we are going to win that World Cup’,” he said. “If more countries in Asia had that focus and that attitude then who knows?”

The new technical director has experience and enthusiasm and certainly talks a good game, now we will see if he can convert that into results on the field.

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

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May 2015
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