Frontale stay on track to end bridesmaid brand

Kawasaki Frontale is always the bridesmaid, but Renato & Elsinho are hoping for a big day in 2015…

Football Channel,  July 14th, 2015

KAWASAKI — Kawasaki Frontale, having come second in J1 on three occasions and with a trio of runners-up finishes in the Nabisco Cup also to its name, is the perennial bridesmaid of the J.League.

While there is still a long way to go this season, the Kanagawa side is the form team in the top flight right now, and a 2-0 triumph over rival FC Tokyo at the start of the second stage on Saturday night made it four consecutive league wins for Yahiro Kazama’s men.

Renato, whose peach of a free-kick made sure of victory in the Tamagawa Classico, is hoping the team can finally shake off its unwanted moniker this year.

“It’s a shame we have that history,” he said after the match. “The team has been in a very good position many times and come very close, but just lacked that final something to win a title.

“If the team is able to win something in one way or another it will create new history, make the club bigger, and help it to grow. All we can do is fight until the very end, and try to claim that title this season.”

In the off-period between the first and second stages, Frontale were humbled 6-0 by German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund, but Renato believes that thrashing became constructive for him and his teammates at the resumption of league play.

“Everyone knows we played a friendly against a big club and, of course, the result was very disappointing,” the Brazilian said.

“Within that game, however, we learned many positive things. We have to make quicker decisions and there are lots of things we still have to do. That game helped us realize that. It was perfect preparation and gave us strength for today, I think.”

Having players capable of game-changing interventions is key for any side aiming for glory, and, like Renato, his compatriot Elsinho is steadily establishing himself as someone able to do just that.


Kawasaki Frontale v. Borussia Dortmund, Tuesday 7th July, 2015

The 25-year-old cited a target of eight league goals ahead of his debut season, and his delightful opener on Saturday took him to five so far, with one in each of the last four games.

“It is not especially important to aim for personal goals,” he said post-game. “It’s just a target for myself, and if that can combine with victories for the team then that’s good.”

For Elsinho, that doesn’t just mean winning the second stage, but emerging as the champion after the postseason playoff — which will involve three to five clubs.

“When you say ‘title’ the real meaning is to be the overall champion for the season,” he said. “Any way we can, we have to battle right to the end. I think we are capable of going all the way and winning the final game.”

In order for Kawasaki to have its big day, somebody will have to stop Urawa Reds. The Saitama side cruised to the first stage championship without tasting defeat, then picked up right where they left off at the start of the second stage, beating Matsumoto Yamaga 2-1.

Yuki Muto — who was a revelation in the first stage and picked up the June MVP award — opened the scoring early on, before Shinzo Koroki added another in the second half. Ryusuke Sakai pulled one back for Matsumoto, but Reds hung on and extended their record unbeaten run to 18 matches.

The other two sides to finish above Frontale in the first stage — along with Reds and the vanquished FC Tokyo — also made it clear they are still up for the fight, with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Gamba Osaka both victorious, against Vegalta Sendai and Ventforet Kofu, respectively.

Hisato Sato grabbed a brace in Sanfrecce’s 4-3 win — moving him to within just three goals of Masashi Nakayama’s J1 scoring record of 157 – while the dynamic duo of Patric and Takashi Usami registered in Gamba’s 2-1 come-from-behind triumph, the latter stroking home the winner from the penalty spot in the last minute.


Life’s a beach

Ahead of the World Cup finals in Portugal I interviewed the head coach and captain of Japan’s beach soccer team about their hoped for the competition and the sport at large…

Football Channel,  July 9th, 2015

Hot on the heels of the Nadeshiko’s second consecutive World Cup final appearance another national team kick-off their World Cup campaign on Thursday night (Japan time), as Japan’s beach soccer representatives take on hosts Portugal in Espinho.

Head coach Marcelo Mendes is hopeful that his team can capitalize on the positivity that the nation’s female players have created around the traditionally less popular variations of the beautiful game, and feels that beach soccer has the potential to build a more substantial following.

“You don’t need socks or shoes and you play on the beach so there’s a very nice atmosphere,” he told me before the squad left Tokyo. “You can train, you can play, the kids can enjoy after swimming, and to watch beach soccer you will see many spectacular skills during the game so it’s completely different.

“The game always must have a winner, so if the three periods finish tied you have extra time and then penalty kicks, so it’s a very exciting game, different to futsal and football.”

The Brazilian has coached all over the world – including national teams in Europe (Portugal), South America (Uruguay), North America (USA), Africa (South Africa), and Asia (UAE) – and brings vast experience to a set-up that the JFA is taking very seriously.

While Mendes is delighted with the backing from his association, he is targeting more interest from the media, which thus far has not paid much attention to the niche sport.

“We have good support from the JFA but we don’t have huge support from the media,” he said. “For example, for me it’s a shame to have a qualifier – the team is playing to qualify for the World Cup – and we didn’t have one game [broadcast] live in Japan, so how will people know what we are doing?”

One way to remedy that – as the Nadeshiko’s rise to prominence has so clearly demonstrated – is by being successful on the pitch. Japan lost narrowly to Brazil in the quarter-finals at the last World Cup in Taihiti in 2013, and this time around Mendes is aiming to better that achievement.

“I think we are at a level now where we can expect to go to the quarter-finals, and I think that we can do something more but I don’t like to plan too far ahead because I don’t want to pass this message to the players,” he said.

Despite his best efforts to shield his team from any pressure, those taking to the field know the potential they have.

Brighton, December 2014

“I’m very happy that we have expectations on us, and I also have a lot of confidence,” star player Ozu Moreira said.

“Our technical level is high. We’re very strong at playing when close together. When we’re further apart we sometimes struggle a little, but the occasions when two or three of us are close together we are very good and create many goals that way.

“First of all we are focused on the first game against Portugal, and if we can win that then you never know what it could lead to.”

Portugal and Brazil (where Ozu was born) both courted the 29-year-old for their national teams, but the Japanophile knew there was only ever one country he wished to represent.

“For me, I’m Japanese,” he said. “If, on the other hand, I were to go to Brazil and wear the uniform it wouldn’t have any meaning for me. I wanted to become Japanese, I wanted to represent Japan and play at the World Cup.”

Now he has the chance to do that for the second time, and he, like his coach, is looking to make headlines in the opening game against the Portuguese.

“Portugal will have a lot of expectation on them in the first match and there will be many supporters in the stadium,” he said. “For me that is actually a good thing. Of course there is the pressure of being the away team, but if we are able to beat Portugal then all of a sudden it will become big news. That is something we are all conscious of and we want to create that big news.”

Marcelo agrees.

“[Portugal] will be under huge pressure – huge pressure. Stadium packed, media and family around, so I think this can be good for us. If we know how to convert this atmosphere for us we can have some advantage.”

However, while he has confidence in his players, the 45-year-old knows that sometimes their focus can waver.

“Some players have to concentrate more, [especially] when we are winning games,” he said when asked to identify an area for improvement. “Sometimes we play a brilliant first half and then we decrease the performance and after we play better again. Against Brazil if you do that they will kill you. Against Russia they will kill you. You have to have consistency of performance.”

Indeed, consistency – both on and off the pitch – has been key for the Nadeshiko, and if their beach soccer compatriots can achieve anywhere near that level of success then they, too, may soon be riding a wave of popularity.


On the rise

Japan are clicking into gear at the Women’s World Cup as the female game continues to establish itself on a wider scale… (日本語版はこちらです / Also available in English here)

Football Channel,  June 27th, 2015

Japan may have started the competition a little tentatively and struggled to find their best form in the group stage, but watching the Nadeshiko’s controlled victory over Holland in the Round of 16 there was a real sense of a team clicking into gear.

Mizuho Sakaguchi’s sensational goal was obviously the clearest example of a side in tune, but Norio Sasaki’s women looked assured throughout. It seemed as if the experience at Germany 2011 was starting to come back to the 10 starters who already have winners’ medals to their names, and the influence the success of four years ago could have as the tournament nears its conclusion shouldn’t be underestimated.

Sasaki’s decision to name 17 of the players from last time out divided opinion, with some worrying that the country isn’t developing enough new talent. Indeed, the three players who began the game against the Netherlands and didn’t start in the 2011 final in Frankfurt (Saori Ariyoshi, Rumi Utsugi, and Yuki Ogimi) are all over 26, and just four of the 2015 squad are aged 24 or under.

The next stage of the side’s development once mainstays Azusa Iwashimizu, Homare Sawa, and Aya Miyama decide to hang up their boots is a slight cause for concern, but sometimes these things can be overstated. Teams – especially in international football – evolve steadily over time, not with sweeping changes, and, Sawa apart, all of the 23 in Canada could feasibly still be involved at the next World Cup too.

Rather than worrying about the future the key for now is to focus on the present, and with four wins from four and a not-as-tricky-as-it-could-be route to the final ahead of them things are looking positive for Japan.

In fact, it is not just the Nadeshiko who are flying the flag for Asia, and after the men’s miserable showing in Brazil last year (12 games, no wins) the women of the AFC are doing the continent proud with three representatives in the quarter-finals.

China – a heavyweight of the female game in the early days of the World Cup, when they made the semi-final in 1995 and final in 1999 – have surpassed expectations and take on the USA (who beat them on penalties to lift the trophy 16 years ago), while Japan’s opponents Australia progressed from the tournament’s toughest group with USA, Sweden, and Nigeria, and then proceeded to knock out Brazil in the second round.

That means at least one Asian side will be in the semi-finals for the second tournament in a row, and as female football as a whole gradually gains more recognition that can only be a positive thing for the development of the sport in the region.

Norio Sasaki addresses his players at NAdeshiko Japan's pre-World Cup training camp in Kagawa

Continued improvement will be crucial if Asia wants to stay involved in the higher echelons of the women’s game, as there are signs that some of the more ‘traditional’ football countries are starting to shake off their reservations about the sport and realize that unfavourable comparisons with the men’s game are futile.

In England, for instance, every game is being broadcast live on one of the BBC’s sub-channels, and the mainstream media is not only starting to give the tournament serious coverage, but to also openly question those who still harbour antiquated views on women’s football.

“It is as if some men feel threatened by it, as though women are trying to claim something for themselves that they do not deserve,” Oliver Holt wrote in the Daily Mail. “It’s an odd, curmudgeonly and slightly sinister instinct when there’s so much to admire about its rise.”

He went on to point out that how the female game matches up against the men’s is an entirely irrelevant debate.

“Sport is about the struggle. It’s about the contest. It’s about people competing against each other in different categories and being the best they can be.”

These things are undoubtedly cyclical, and England’s progression to a third successive quarter-finals has created more of a buzz around the game, and that interest should in turn further aid the sport’s continued development.

Things, of course, are far from equal, and while there are plenty of inequalities women in football still have to deal with – whether they be with regards to pitches, pay, or PlayStation – the fact that they are being discussed at all is a positive sign.

A good example of the improving image of the women’s game came in a conversation with a Japanese fan after his country’s win over the Dutch. We were discussing Ayumi Kaihori’s error for Holland’s late goal, and he offered the opinion that Kaihori lacked the requisite concentration to be between the posts and that he felt Erina Yamane was a safer pair of hands.

No clichés about women not being able to play in goal, just comment on the only thing female footballers should be judged on – their ability to play football.

There is still a long way to go but steps are being taken in the right direction, and Asian countries are among those leading the way.


Scoring Blues: Halilhodzic’s men held to scoreless draw by Singapore

Japan were held to a shock 0-0 draw and heckled off the pitch in their opening World Cup qualifier against Singapore on Tuesday. After the game I gathered reaction on the match – and the reaction to it – from Keisuke Honda, Maya Yoshida, Eiji Kawashima, Hiroki Sakai, Tomoaki Makino, and the man who thwarted them, Izwan Mahbud…

The Japan News, Thursday 18th June, 2015

SAITAMA — Being booed off the pitch under a steady downpour wasn’t how Japan’s World Cup qualifying campaign was supposed to start.

The Samurai Blue had been ruthless in Vahid Halilhodzic’s first three friendly games in charge, and was expected to saunter through its second-round Asian qualifying group for the 2018 competition in Russia.

Reality hit home with a thud at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday, though, as lowly Singapore held on for a historic 0-0 draw to leave the hosts shellshocked.

“After that kind of result it can’t be helped,” Keisuke Honda said of the team’s unfavorable reception as it trudged off. “It’s only to be expected.”

Maya Yoshida agreed.

“It is what it is,” the ashen-faced Southampton defender replied when asked about the jeering. “If you don’t win at home against a team that’s considered to be of a lower rank, then that’s bound to happen.”

“Of course it’s a shock, but we can turn things around,” Honda added. “We’ve only just started and this shows just how difficult the qualifiers for the World Cup are.

“These kind of things happen. Individually we had to convert our chances. We weren’t just taking easy shots, though, and they also defended well.”

That was especially true of Singapore goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, who had a sensational 90 minutes between the posts, repelling strike after strike with a series of stunning saves.

“They were coming for 45 minutes, that was all I could see,” a beaming Mahbud told reporters of the second-half siege Japan laid on his goal. “I just tried my best to save every ball. I think it was my day.”

Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima was impressed with his counterpart’s display, but suggested that the Samurai Blue need to address the age-old issue of profligacy in front of goal.

Saitama Stadium, June 16th, 2015

“I don’t think we can talk about luck,” the 32-year-old said. “We have to come to terms with the fact that while we were making plenty of chances, we weren’t able to score on any of them.

“We had a similar game aiming for the 2014 World Cup here against North Korea, where the ball just wouldn’t go in until Maya [Yoshida] finally scored right at the end. I want for us to be able to overcome those kind of games.”

Hiroki Sakai conceded that Japan’s end product left something to be desired, but insisted that the side doesn’t need to adjust the way it plays against compact teams that sit back and aim to soak up pressure.

“It’s not a case of just committing players forward,” the Hannover 96 defender said. “If we can change the final quality then things will be different. The important thing is to keep going and have that belief.”

Keeping the faith is not always easy when slip-ups prompt boos, and Tomoaki Makino — who hit the post with one of Japan’s clearest chances — admitted that the players are affected by the expectations heaped upon them.

“Of course we felt it,” the Urawa Reds defender said. “The game was a sellout and the atmosphere when we came out onto the pitch was incredible.

“We wanted to take three points from this game, to play the football the coach is aiming for with fast, direct passes. I think that was on display on the pitch, but the accuracy of the final shots wasn’t quite there.”

The self-proclaimed “mood-maker” was adamant, like Sakai, that the team was not despondent and still dedicated to playing its traditional style of patient, passing football when the next qualifier comes around on Sept. 3 against Cambodia — and already looking ahead to gaining revenge on Singapore in the return fixture.

“After the game the words flying around among the coach and players were that we have to carry this on into the next game and make sure that when we play Singapore away we bring back the three points,” he said.

“It’s not finished. We didn’t lose. Our heads aren’t down.”


Japan 0-0 Singapore: Did Stange get his tactics spot on?

On Tuesday evening Japan got their World Cup qualifying campaign underway with a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Singapore.

FourFourTwo, June 17th, 2015

I wrote something for FourFourTwo Singapore on who impressed, who didn’t, and what the result of the game means for both sides.


Lions of Mesopotamia failing to roar

After a strong Asian Cup things were looking good for Iraq, but Yaser Kasim feels that issues behind the scenes may scupper the team’s chances of pushing on to the next level…  (日本語版はこちらです / Also available in English here)

Football Channel,  June 13th, 2015

Everything is looking rosy for Japan right now, with Vahid Halilhodzic getting his reign off to a perfect start with three wins from three, and an easy second round of World Cup qualifying about to get underway.

Of course there will always be contentious issues when it comes to the national team – whether they be with regards to media relations, player selection, or tactics – and there will undoubtedly be difficulties both on and off the pitch further down the line. Despite the stormy seas that ensued on account of the disappointments at the World Cup and Asian Cup and the enforced dismissal of Javier Aguirre, however, the JFA boat never seemed in danger of capsizing. Such serenity (and financial clout) must make the association the envy of many of its counterparts around the world, particularly within Asia.

Iraq, for instance, went further than the Samurai Blue at the Asian Cup – losing in the semi-finals to South Korea – and along with Japan’s vanquisher UAE, a seemingly-on-the-rise China, and the always-threatening Uzbekistan appeared to represent an emerging group of teams with the potential to upset the big boys. Six months down the line and things look to have stalled for the Lions of Mesopotamia though, and Yaser Kasim made it clear in no uncertain terms where he thinks the responsibility for that lies.

“No-one really performed, but I can’t really blame the players,” the Swindon Town midfielder said after his side’s 4-0 humbling by Japan on Thursday. “I don’t believe in our condition right now we’re going to get where we want. We can forget about the World Cup, and I’m not even blaming the players.

“There’s a lot of issues off-field that we have to sort out. I think some people need to start working towards the team more, because at this rate things are not going to go well. We did alright in the Asian Cup, we were lucky to have a manager that had a very good game-plan, but looking into the future it seems a little bit dim, in truth.”

Japan 4-0 Iraq, Yokohama, Thursday 11th June, 2015

The highly regarded Rahdi Shenaishil was only in charge on a temporary loan from Qatar Stars League side Qatar SC at the Asian Cup, and has since been replaced by Akram Selman – who is taking the national team reins for the fourth time.

There are of course a variety of non-football issues that still impact on everyday life in Iraq, not to mention the running of the country’s football league and national team. Kasim doesn’t dispute that, but doesn’t feel that such factors can be used to easily explain away the lack of professionalism which he believes is preventing the team from making the next step up.

“I think that has an impact but when you come to this sort of level and we’re playing football where players are coming around the world trying to fight on the pitch, give their 100%, and people are not coming up to the level that is needed behind the scenes it’s pretty disgusting. That’s the truth of it.”

The 24-year-old illustrated his point with an unusual example from Thursday night – a scene in which Japan goalkeeping coach Ricardo came to the rescue of an opposing team’s player with kick-off rapidly approaching.

“My brother lives in Japan – he’s lived here for two years, in Gifu,” Kasim said. “He came here and they didn’t have the ticket for him until 6pm. So me, as a player, I’m trying to sort out one ticket for one family member. I’ve had to go and politely ask the goalkeeper trainer of Japan who’s thankfully sorted it.”

Kasim believes that his football association would do well to follow his lead and look to the JFA for help and advice if it wants to truly prepare a team to challenge at the World Cup.

“They were good in the Asian Cup and they dominated today” he said of the Samurai Blue. “They’re an unbelievable team and we were talking about it earlier, 20 years ago maybe the Japanese weren’t so great and looking at them now, the way they’ve developed, is tremendous. It’s something you have to take as an example that I wish our Iraq set-up could note down and learn a bit from.”


Trust has Samurai Blue on red-hot roll

Japan cruised to it’s third straight win under Vahid Halilhodzic on Thursday, but the players know not to get too carried with their strong start under the Bosnian…

The Japan News, Saturday 13th June, 2015

YOKOHAMA — Japan is riding high on a wave as it heads toward its opening qualifier for the 2018 World Cup, but the players know they can’t get carried away with their impressive start under Vahid Halilhodzic.

The Bosnian’s honeymoon period in charge of the Samurai Blue continued as they swept aside a beleaguered Iraq 4-0 in a friendly on Thursday, thanks to strikes by Keisuke Honda, Tomoaki Makino, Shinji Okazaki and Genki Haraguchi.

That made it three wins from three with 11 goals scored and just one conceded under Halilhodzic, but Yuto Nagatomo knows it’s not how you set out of the traps that is important but how you cross the line.

“There are peaks and troughs,” the Inter Milan fullback said postgame. “Under [former coach Alberto] Zaccheroni, too, we had a great start and also won the Asian Cup, but at the World Cup [in 2014] we were well and truly beaten.

“In the next three years, until the next World Cup, those ups and downs will come again, but if the players are not thrown off by them, then I believe we can achieve good results. I personally have faith and think that under this coach, we can achieve better results.”

Honda also alluded to an underlying cautiousness in a squad that he believes is still feeling the effects of a chastening experience in Brazil in 2014, when the team was eliminated at the group stage after picking up just one point from its three games.

“I think he’s thinking we got damaged from the last World Cup because we lost, so he wants to give us confidence,” the AC Milan star said about the new coach’s management style.

“He thinks we need to change the mind[set]. I don’t say [the damage is] conscious, but of course we lost. We are always thinking positively but we got damaged [subconsciously].”

Halilhodzic has referenced the need to strengthen Japan’s mentality, but defender Maya Yoshida made it clear that the coach is not only demanding improvements in that respect.

Japan v. Iraq, Yokohama, Thursday 11th June, 2015

“Mentally, physically, everything,” the Southampton defender said. “Physically he says I have to be bigger, and mentally I have to be a leader of the team. And tactically many things — maybe I need a one-hour interview about the tactics.

“Every day he’s looking to talk about where we are going, how we play, what is our behavior, what we will make Japanese football – many things. If somebody tells me every time the same things automatically we understand and it gets imprinted.”

For Gaku Shibasaki — the Kashima Antlers midfielder who is steadily establishing himself as the successor to record-cap holder Yasuhito Endo, who has not been involved under Halilhodzic — tests against higher level teams are vital to gain mental strength.

“It comes down to the players’ awareness, but it’s hard to know unless we gain experience in closely contested games,” the 23-year-old said.

“I’d like for us to play games against stronger countries, not just in Asia, but also from Europe and South America. By competing against those kinds of teams we can improve technically, mentally and physically.”

There won’t be much chance of that in the immediate future, however, and for the time being, Japan will have to go through the motions of progressing from Group E of the second round of Asian World Cup qualifying.

Singapore — set to visit Saitama Stadium on Tuesday — Syria, Afghanistan and Cambodia won’t provide the toughest opposition, but Nagatomo knows you can only concentrate on beating who’s in front of you.

“It’s really one step at a time,” he said. “In the next game against Singapore, we just have to think about what type of soccer we have to play, and what kind of things we can do individually to contribute to the team.

“We shouldn’t think too far ahead — just focus on what each of us is capable of doing now for the good of the team.”

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