The game giving back

With the coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc around the world, football is increasingly being tasked with giving back to the communities which enable it to thrive… (日本語版)

Football Channel 25th March, 2020

Football clubs and leagues around the world often appear to take their fans for granted.

Whether as a result of steadily increasing ticket prices, schedules arranged to suit broadcasters rather than match-going supporters, or the seemingly never-ending cycle of new shirts available at grossly-inflated prices, there is a growing sense that fans are seen as customers rather than a vital pillar upon which teams are built.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has brought that imbalance sharply into focus though, shining a spotlight onto the fact that the relationship between the game and society should not be structured in a provider-consumer manner, but instead as a symbiotic association in which football is required to give back just as much as it takes.

With no matches happening, people warned to practice ‘social distancing’ and stay home as much as possible, and the uncertain nature of the spread of the virus meaning restart dates and conditions remain unclear, fans across the globe are without their weekly fix of live football and clubs are without the people who enable them to thrive.

In such unusual times, the sport has been forced to reassess its function in society, with clubs capitalising upon their prominent roles in their communities to convey positive messages and provide assistance.

In Japan, for instance, this has largely come by way of social media activity, with players performing public service duties by posting videos of themselves demonstrating the correct way to wash your hands or coaches aiding parents struggling with school closures by introducing mini-drills that can be practiced at home.

In England, where clubs are obviously operating in a different financial stratosphere, football has also been tasked with giving rather than taking in this time of need.

A handful of Premier League sides donated matchday hospitality food and drink to local homeless charities after games were called off, for instance, while others made cash donations to local food banks. Chelsea, meanwhile, went one step further by making the hotel at Stamford Bridge available for use by NHS staff working at nearby hospitals.

Elsewhere, England manager Gareth Southgate delivered a dignified and heartfelt message to fans, demonstrating the kind of leadership that has sadly been lacking in the country’s politicians as the crisis deepens.

Football Channel, Saturday 28th March, 2020

“We were due to play next week and to represent you all this summer, but now is clearly not the moment for us to take centre-stage,” he wrote in an open letter on 20 March.

“The heroes will be the men and women who continue working tirelessly in our hospitals and medical centres to look after our friends and families. They won’t receive the individual acclaim, but we all know their importance is beyond anything we do on the pitch.

“When we play again as an England team, it will be at a time when not only our country but the rest of the world as well is on the road to recovery. Hopefully we will be closer to each other than ever, and ready for the beautiful distraction that football can bring.”

Former Yokohama F.Marinos and Omiya Ardija player David Babunski struck a similar tone in a Twitter post the following day, sharing some eloquent thoughts on the unfolding situation and the manner in which we should reflect on it to keep things in perspective.

“Technologically speaking, we find ourselves in a better position than ever before to deal with such a crisis, but where do we stand morally and psychologically?” the 26-year-old asked.

“Are we smart enough to use the tools at our disposal effectively? Are we compassionate enough to really care for one another’s wellbeing regardless of ethnicity and above economic interests? Are our priorities in the correct order?”

While Babunski was considering the issue on a wider scale, his musings also provide food-for-thought with regards to the relationship between football clubs and their fans.

“This pandemic is forcing us to drop our arrogance and egocentricity and look straight into our vulnerability as a species. It makes obvious our dependency on each other for surviving and thriving in a globalized world. It highlights the urgent necessity of transcending our tribal, nationalistic, limited identities and adopt[ing] a universal perspective of who we are if [we] want to co-operate successful[ly] at [a] large scale.”

Perhaps it is too optimistic to hope that the current crisis produces a long-term change, but here’s hoping the difficulties endured can produce a new sense of perspective about football and the role it should play in society.


Coronavirus forcing J.League into a corner

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc over the past month, and with the impact of the virus showing no signs of slowing down the J.League could soon have some big decisions to make… (日本語版)

Football Channel 13th March, 2020

When the J.League announced its first coronavirus-induced break on 25 February, it came a little out of the blue and was greeted with plenty of surprise.

The decision to postpone the second round of Levain Cup group stage games – swiftly followed by a pause in all regular league action until 15 March – preceded the government’s request that all elementary, middle, and high schools close, and was seen by many as an excessive measure.

A fortnight on, however, the situation isn’t looking any better medically, while the general mood in society – sounding train alarms because somebody sneezed, panic buying toilet paper, selling face masks at exorbitant prices – is becoming increasingly fraught.

In that context, it was much less surprising when J.League chairman Mitsuru Murai held a hastily arranged press briefing on the evening of 9 March to confirm that, as speculated, the break would be extended, this time until 3 April.

Even that date was only offered as one the league will, “do everything in [its] power to resume by”, and with the virus spreading steadily around the world and no-one really sure when or if it will slow down, it is hard to know when business will be able to resume as normal.

Whether people are more at risk of spreading or catching the virus by attending football matches than they are on the commuter trains which are still running and packed to-the-brim is certainly up for debate, but seeing as this is a football column and the writer has no medical expertise whatsoever, the rights and wrongs of cancelling games isn’t something that can really be addressed here.

What can be said is that erring on the side of caution is ultimately preferable to underestimating the consequences of a new and developing virus, and the J.League’s unprecedented joint task force with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) shows the organisation is doing all it can to ensure the issue is dealt with as effectively as possible.

The impact of the decision, however, is obviously far-reaching. Fans, media, and sponsors are all being negatively affected by the lack of regular games to provide entertainment, give them things to broadcast/write/talk about, or provide a return on investments, and the longer the break goes on the greater those frustrations will be felt.

It is the players who could be suffering the most though.

Professional athletes need to ensure they are in the best physical condition when competition comes around, and having spent pre-season working at building their fitness up towards the new campaign they are now being held in a strange kind of limbo after just one round of games.

Mentally, too, it must be incredibly difficult to maintain the right levels of motivation when there is no clear target in sight – and while perhaps unavoidable, the tentative re-start dates being proposed and then removed can’t be helping in that regard.

Pre-season training is often described as a tough slog, but it is at least endured with the aim of being in shape for the opening day of the season. With no-one currently knowing when they’ll be back out on the pitch, things must be very difficult – boring, even – for the players going through the motions at training right now.

J.League Chairman Mitsuru Murai

This disruption could also negatively impact them looking further ahead as well.

The J.League already had an intermission worked into this year’s schedule on account of the Olympics, with J1 set to take a month and a half off and J2 and J3 out of action for three weeks each. The latest is that those breaks will remain in place, meaning a lot of midweek rounds of matches will be needed before and after the Games – assuming, of course, that the Olympics themselves still happen – if the full season is to be completed as planned.

FIFA has no rules concerning how frequently games can be played, but recommends at least two days between matches. However, between 2007 and 2009 Dupont et al. analysed the effect of playing at the weekend and in midweek on 32 participants in the UEFA Champions League and noted in The American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2010 that, “The recovery time between 2 matches, 72 to 96 hours, appears sufficient to maintain the level of physical performance tested but is not long enough to maintain a low injury rate.”

J1 teams had eight rounds of midweek games on the schedule for this season (three in the league and five in the ACL or Levain Cup), J2 clubs had four (nine for Matsumoto Yamaga, including the Levain Cup), and J3 two. The coronavirus interruption has already ensured that five J1, two Levain, six J2, and four J3 rounds need to be rescheduled, and looking at the calendar it is increasingly difficult to see how, even if things do resume at the start of April, all matches can be fulfilled without putting an undue strain on the players.

Cancelling the Levain Cup – or converting it to a straight knockout format, as in 2011 – has been suggested by some as an option, but while that would free up some time for most J1 teams it wouldn’t help those who also have ACL commitments, nor would it benefit anybody in J2 or J3 except the aforementioned Yamaga.

In such a situation, some thinking outside of the box may be necessary.

One approach that could be taken, for example, is to employ a similar system to that of the Scottish Premier League, whereby at a certain point the league splits into top and bottom halves.

For J1, this could mean each team playing each other once (17 matches) before breaking into a top nine and bottom nine. The top nine would then play each other once more to determine the champions and qualifiers for the ACL, while the bottom nine would play out their remaining eight games to avoid relegation. In J2 this would mean 21 games and then a split to top and bottom 11s (most likely cancelling the play-offs and only having two automatic promotion berths), while J3 would mirror the format of J1.

This suggestion of course has drawbacks – fans would have less games to watch, fewer home games would mean clubs losing out on revenue, rights holders would have less matches to broadcast – but in the current situation it is hard to envisage any perfect solutions, and flexibility and compromise are going to be vital whichever way the J.League ultimately decides to proceed.


Top 10 J.League Stadiums

In the nearly 11 years I’ve lived in Japan I have had the pleasure of seeing all but one of the current 40 J1 and J2 teams play at home (a trip to Ryukyu is in the pipeline), plus a handful of those in J3 as well. In their own ways each stadium I have been to left an impression and provided an insight into the culture of Japanese football, and I look forward to visiting several again – as well as some new ones too. The following, however, is my current top 10… (日本語版)

Football Channel 6th March, 2020

10: Shonan BMW Hiratsuka Stadium

Despite having a track (a huge drawback for any football stadium in the world), I always enjoy my trips to Hiratsuka. The walk from the stadium isn’t too taxing and helps build the tension ahead of kick-off – especially the final stretch, once you arrive in the park thriving with pre-game activity – and Bellmare do very well to capture the spirit of the Shonan area and imprint their identity on proceedings. It’s ageing and lacks the sparkle of plenty of new stadiums, but for me therein lies a lot of the charm of this venue.

9: Tochigi Green Stadium

Tochigi SC’s home stadium is another Japanese ground that has done very well to merge into its surrounding environment, nestled snugly amongst the trees in Kiyohara Kita Park. It’s not the biggest so would be tested if the club were to ever make it to J1 – and, aside from a token roof over part of the main stand, fans and media alike are left fully exposed to the elements – but for those fans looking for a scenic location to catch a live game, Green Stadium is a must-visit.

8: Ekimae Real Estate Stadium

An older venue with plenty of character, Sagan Tosu’s stadium is a striking structure I’d recommend anyone to visit. Almost unique in Japan in that it can be seen the moment you step off the train, the access is spectacular and the tall raking stands demand attention from the platform at Tosu station. Because of the way all four rise up so dramatically – they appear to almost be at right-angles to the pitch – supporters are incredibly close to the action, and when full this ground is capable of creating a really raucous atmosphere.

Tochigi Green Stadium

7: Best Denki Stadium

Best Denki is pretty much the perfect size for a J.League stadium. Looking rather like a small spaceship has landed in the middle of the woods, the curvature of the main stand is striking and draws you in as you approach Avispa Fukuoka’s home, and the sweeping arc looks even more impressive once inside. The fact the back stand mirrors the same design serves to enclose the pitch wonderfully, while the openness of those behind the goal frames things perfectly and allows just enough of the outside world to sneak in.

6: Fukuda Denshi Arena

JEF United’s stadium is, like so many other aspects of the club, J1 quality. ‘Fukuari’ isn’t blessed with picturesque surroundings like several other stadiums on this list, but after a short walk from Soga station you arrive at a compact, attractive, and atmospheric ground that most teams in the world would be proud to call home. Supporters are right on top of the action, and thanks to the roof encircling the whole venue, the atmosphere remains in the bowl for the full 90 minutes. A terrific place to watch football.

5: Toyota Stadium

The only giant venue on this list, Toyota makes an appearance thanks to its spectacular look and, for a super-arena, impressively close feel. To say it’s a pain to get to would be something of an understatement, but once on the nearby Toyota Bridge the trek out to deepest darkest Toyota all feels worth it and Nagoya Grampus’ home ground takes the breath away. It’s just as impressive inside, too, with the stands rising sharply up into the sky – or, in adverse weather, to meet the retractable roof that slots slickly overhead to seal the atmosphere in.

4: IAI Stadium Nihondaira

Nihondaira has almost everything required of a football stadium: a picturesque setting, a pitch that’s close to the stands, and a feeling of history. Shimizu S-Pulse haven’t been challenging for titles since the J.League’s early days, but the echoes of those glories seem to reverberate around this storied venue, which sits proudly on high overlooking its hometown. The view of Mount Fuji is the cherry on the icing on the cake, and ensures this ground should be on every groundhopper’s bucket list.

Yurtec Stadium, Sendai

3: Sunpro Alwin

There aren’t many stadiums in Japan that can generate an atmosphere quite like that at Alwin. Matsumoto Yamaga’s home ground acts as a beacon as you snake up the hill through Shinshu Skypark, and despite essentially being roofless the noise inside is something to behold. Supporters around Japan are frequently praised for getting behind their teams for the full 90 minutes, but Yamaga’s fans do so in such a visceral manner that this venue is one of the few in the country that must truly feel like an away game for visiting teams.

2: Sankyo Frontier Kashiwa Stadium

This may be a rickety old venue, but I would venture to say that without it Kashiwa Reysol would have been far less successful over the years. The walk to the stadium from Kashiwa station winds along streets strewn with Reysol yellow, and everything from the crackly PA system to the nets behind the goals serves to create an environment that embodies the identity of the club. Visiting teams struggle in this atmosphere, and part of Reysol’s soul would be erased if they ever left this home for a shiny new stadium.

1: Yurtec Stadium Sendai

There is something incredibly satisfying about watching Vegalta Sendai play at home. Yurtec Stadium isn’t out in the middle of nowhere like many grounds in Japan, but instead a straightforward five-minute walk from Izumi Chuo station. Upon arrival you encounter an attractive, well-proportioned, and atmospheric venue, and the manner in which it curves at the corners enables all four stands to merge seamlessly together and ensure the roar from the crowd echoes intimidatingly around. This is what every football stadium should be like.


Only one Olunga

Michael Olunga made headlines after a ludicrous goal-fest at the end of last season, but the Kashiwa Reysol striker is far more than just a ruthless finisher and brings everything needed in the final third… (日本語版)

Football Channel 29th February, 2020

Kashiwa Reysol wrapped up their title-winning J2 campaign with an outrageous 13-1 demolition of Kyoto Sanga on the last day of the 2019 season, and Nelsinho’s men still had their foot firmly on the pedal as they returned to the first division last weekend, defeating Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 4-2.

The breathless encounter at Sankyo Frontier Kashiwa Stadium saw Reysol stride into a 4-0 lead with 25 minutes to play, before Consadole mounted a rousing late fight-back to narrow the deficit in a game that produced 44 shots.

While Kim Seung-gyu made some exceptional saves to protect the three points it was ultimately Michael Olunga who was the difference maker for the hosts, with the Kenyan striker nigh-on unplayable for the Consadole backline as he scored twice and set up the opener for Ataru Esaka.

Olunga made headlines around the world after plundering a J.League-record eight goals in the aforementioned dismantling of Sanga last November – as well as providing two assists for good measure – but his contribution to Reysol’s title win went far beyond that outrageous individual performance.

Standing at 193cm the marksman unsurprisingly provides a focal point for the team’s attack, but physical presence alone isn’t enough to lead a forward line in the modern game – as fans of plenty of J.League clubs can attest to after seeing a long line of imposing strikers flounder about as the game goes on around them.

Concentration and anticipation are vital aspects of the 25-year-old’s game, and his movement and awareness while floating around in the spaces between the opponent’s defence and midfield means Reysol always have an outlet to turn defence into attack – or, more often, attack into goals.

It’s no coincidence that Olunga was unavailable for five of Reysol’s eight defeats last season on account of international duty or suspension, and his quality is perhaps best encapsulated by the fact he is now the key attacking player in a team still boasting the pace and power of Cristiano.

“In the box you have to anticipate anything,” he told me after scoring the only goal of the game in a narrow 1-0 win over Tokushima Vortis in May last year.

Football Channel, Saturday 29th February 2020

“The first time I headed the ball I thought it was going to go in, but the keeper punched it back so I reacted quickly before the defender and I slotted it in. I think for you to score a goal mostly as a striker you need to get into the box, and this is what the coach asked all of us to do.”

In Nelsinho, Reysol certainly have a manager who encourages his forward players to take risks and make things happen in and around the area, irrespective of the opponent or what kind of form the team is in.

That victory over Vortis, for instance, came in the middle of a dry spell for Reysol as they struggled to score goals or win games, but the tactics remained unchanged even as confidence and luck temporarily abandoned them.

“I think it’s more [mentality] because, if you look at today, we created maybe 10-15 chances but could only score one,” Olunga said when asked to explain a run of form that eventually saw Reysol find the net just seven times in a run of two wins in 11 games.

“I think when the team is not winning there is always pressure, especially on the forwards. I think the adrenaline when you are inside the box makes you maybe not have a cool shot or you are not cool in front of the goal so you end up missing the chances.”

A lack of composure isn’t something that can often be leveled at Olunga, however, and although supplemented by the almost-triple-hat-trick against Kyoto, a return of 27 goals from 30 games (28 starts) last season is not to be sniffed at.

He showed with his goals and all-round dominating display last weekend that he is not remotely daunted by the step back up to J1 – where he scored three times in 10 games (four starts) in 2018 – something that is hardly surprising of a player who has already made waves in Europe and scored a hat-trick in La Liga for Girona.

Indeed, it was something of a surprise when Reysol managed to keep hold of his services after dropping down to the second tier in 2018, and there were rumours ahead of this campaign that he may be enticed by a move back west.

In the end he renewed his deal with the Sun Kings, but if he keeps performing at the same level then that talk will surely resurface in the summer, with plenty of clubs sure to be tempted by his combination of strength, speed, and intelligence – but predominantly that ice-cold composure in front of goal.

For the time being it is still J.League defenders and goalkeepers who will be having sleepless nights about containing him though – and you have to feel sorry for Yokohama FC, who came up against Andres Iniesta on their return to the top flight last week and are next in the Olunga firing line on Sunday.


So VAR so good

VAR has caused plenty of controversy around the world in its early stages, and the discussion is now set to spread to Japan with the system being introduced in J1 for the 2020 season… (日本語版)

Football Channel 14th February, 2020

It was only 22 minutes into his debut for Vissel Kobe and Douglas was already peeling away in delight after prodding home from close range after Andres Iniesta’s corner was headed into his path by Thomas Vermaelen.

Referee Yoshiro Imamura soon brought the celebrations to a halt though, placing a finger to his left ear and holding his right hand out straight in the now familiar pose to signal that a VAR (Video Assistant Referee) review was underway.

Shortly afterwards the 42-year-old indicated that, on the advice of his video assistant Jumpei Iida, the goal would not stand, and Douglas was made to wait a little longer for his first goal for his new club.

“That’s the reason why VAR was introduced, I think, to help the officials come to a decision for goal-scoring chances,” the Brazilian said after Vissel ultimately edged Yokohama F.Marinos 3-2 on penalties after a 3-3 draw in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup.

“I felt as if I’d scored a goal, but the officials checked and that was the outcome, so that’s that.”

While Douglas was magnanimous – something perhaps made a little easier by the fact that he went on to score five minutes later anyway – elsewhere around the world the introduction of VAR has caused plenty of controversy.

A lot of this has been provoked by referees focusing on minor indiscretions rather than ‘clear and obvious errors’, while plenty of discussion has also been raised by the use of the ‘3D line’ employed to check narrow offside calls – most infamously when denying Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino a goal against Aston Villa in the English Premier League last November because his armpit was apparently beyond the last defender.

The J.League, however, won’t initially be using this technology but instead a more straightforward 2D line, and in order to bring the media up to speed on the roll-out of VAR for all J1 games in 2020, a briefing was carried out at JFA House on 6 February.

Manager of the top referee group Kenji Ogiya conducted a presentation on the refereeing standards expected this season, while Yoshimi Ogawa and Ray Olivier (chairman and vice- chairman of the referees’ committee, respectively) were keen to stress that VAR would only be used when absolutely required, and that it is there to prevent clear errors concerning game-changing events and not encourage nit-picking over minor decisions.

J.League officials have been undergoing VAR training for some time, including ‘offline’ tests and trials of the system in the latter stages of last year’s YBC Levain Cup and J1/J2 Play-off, and those invited to the briefing were shown some examples of the system in action from university practice matches over the J.League off-season period.

These videos highlighted the benefits of VAR, with one instance initially looking like a penalty for handball before a fresh angle showed the ball had actually hit a different arm to that first assumed, meaning the correct call was a free-kick from outside the area rather than a spot-kick.

Football Channel, Thursday 13th February 2020

If, as in that case and that of Douglas’ disallowed effort in the Super Cup – which was offside – the addition of an extra filter produces more correct than incorrect decisions then it is hard to see VAR having such a rough ride in Japan as it has elsewhere.

On the whole Japanese fans and media can be expected to exhibit more patience and understanding than those overseas – some of whom’s frustration and anger over VAR often seems rooted in a misunderstanding of its purpose, rather than particular flaws in the system itself.

Even so, referees present at the JFA’s briefing also voiced their hope that media personnel do their homework concerning the rules and uses of VAR to ensure their coverage conveys correct interpretations to fans watching at home.

To that end, the J.League also posted a tweet the day before the Super Cup outlining what decisions VAR would be used for in the upcoming campaign: to confirm the validity of goals, penalties, and sendings off, and ensure correct players are punished for indiscretions.

“Any issues brought up by VAR are the reality, so we have to accept them,” Marinos’ Keita Endo said after the Super Cup.

“If it brings about the correct result then it can’t be helped, and that’s a fair way to play.”

Vissel’s Vermaelen was similarly pragmatic.

I know there’s a lot of discussion but I’m actually a fan because it makes the game more honest, I think,” the 34-year-old said of the new system.

“There are some issues, with some mistakes, but I think overall it makes the game more honest in terms of [things like] offside or not offside, these obvious things. The obvious mistakes can’t be made so that’s a good thing.”

There can be no debate on that front but, as Vermaelen suggested, the system is still not perfect.

With replays not being shown on stadium screens, for example, those in the stands aren’t given any information as to what decision is being made or why, which could lead to confusion and frustration. There were also five minutes of added time in the first half alone at Saitama Stadium after a couple of reviews in the opening period, suggesting delays could become more frequent if the process isn’t executed quickly – something not always possible with the tighter calls that require multiple reviews from several angles.

For the time being, then, everyone is playing nice and hoping the ‘minimum interference, maximum benefit’ mantra rings true, but it will be interesting to see if reactions change as the season progresses and VAR decisions start to alter the outcome of games being contested for real points rather than pre-season friendly trophies.


Transfer triumphs and travails

As ever there has been a lot of transfer activity over the J.League off-season period, but some clubs look in better shape than others as the 2020 season draws near… (日本語版)

Football Channel 28th January, 2020

The transfer window won’t be closing until 27 March, but with J.League clubs now gathering for their pre-season camps in the warmer regions of Japan (and the AFC Champions League qualifiers already upon us) it seems like a good time to take a look at how the squads are shaping up for the 2020 season.

While there hasn’t yet been a headline-grabbing acquisition to match David Villa joining Vissel Kobe last year or Nagoya Grampus signing Jo in January 2018, some teams have acted very smartly in the transfer market.

On the other hand, a few sides still look to be lacking in fresh blood, and if recruitments aren’t made in the next few weeks it is hard to see how some intend to improve on last year’s showings.

Let’s start with the teams whose business looks sound a month before the big kick off.

Kashima Antlers’ work off the pitch has been as unfussy and effective as they usually are on it, and aside from the undoubted blow of losing Serginho to Changchun Yatai last week, the registration of four youngsters, and the tying up of some loan activity, all of their ins and outs were concluded within 24 hours between 3 and 4 January.

Having struggled in both full-back positions for much of 2019, Japan’s most successful club have taken steps to avoid a repeat this season by bringing in three of the best J1 has to offer in Daiki Sugimoto, Rikuto Hirose, and Katsuya Nagato.

In addition, Tatsuki Nara and Ryuji Izumi look another couple of smart pick-ups with proven pedigree at this level, while this year’s Brazilian newcomers Juan Alano and Everaldo have the potential to cover for the loss of Serginho and add their names to the long list of Antlers’ successful imports from the country.

The former has an eye for a pass and should add an extra creative option in midfield, while the latter will bring some presence and goal-scoring threat in and around the penalty area – something Antlers were badly lacking at the climax of last season.

Another side that looks stronger than it did at the end of the previous campaign is Shonan Bellmare, who have freshened things up nicely after almost succumbing to relegation last season.

Norway international Tarik Elyounoussi is an impressive addition up front, with Naoki Ishihara (35) and Yuto Iwasaki (21) offering further options at opposite ends of the experience spectrum in the final third.

Kazuki Oiwa and Kuzuaki Mawatari are steady replacements for the departed Miki Yamane and aforementioned Sugioka, while some neat ball-playing midfielders have also been picked up in the shape of Akimi Barada and Hidetoshi Miyuki.

Another team which likes to get the ball down and play has also done well with its new signings, and having taken everybody by surprise last season Oita Trinita look set to challenge again in 2020.

Ado Onaiwu has moved on, but Daiki Watari and Kei Chinen are two talented strikers capable of getting into dangerous positions in front of goal – and although they occasionally need more than one chance per game to find the net they should be getting plenty of opportunities leading the line for Tomohiro Katanosaka’s side thanks to the arrivals of Kazuhiro Sato, Yamato Machida, and Naoki Nomura.

Football Channel, Monday 3rd February, 2019

Vissel Kobe, meanwhile, have been uncharacteristically quiet so far, although after the bluster and showiness of the past couple of years that could be just what the doctor ordered.

Lukas Podolski has finally been offloaded after two-and-a-half seasons of injuries and strops (on and off the pitch), and the captures of proven J.League goal-scorer Douglas from Shimizu S-Pulse and talented young centre-back Ryuho Kikuchi from Renofa Yamaguchi add some extra quality in key positions – while also not upsetting the balance Thorsten Fink introduced as he led the team to its first ever trophy last season.

Vissel will be hoping to build on that Emperor’s Cup triumph with a better showing in the league this year, but two other teams also aiming to improve on their J1 standings from 2019 have been worryingly quiet in the window so far.

Urawa Reds looked like a team badly in need of a shake-up after sleepwalking towards a 14th-place finish last time out – ultimately only avoiding the promotion/relegation play-off by one point – but as well as deciding to give Tsuyoshi Otsuki more time in the hot seat there has been very little activity through the revolving doors at Saitama Stadium, with the only meaningful acquisition Albirex Niigata striker Leonardo.

The Brazilian put up impressive statistics last year as he struck 28 times to claim the J2 top scorer award – following on from finishing as J3’s most lethal marksman 12 months earlier by notching 24 goals for Gainare Tottori – although he took a while to find his feet in the second tier and only managed eight of those in the first half of the season, and things could prove tricky for him if he starts similarly slowly in Urawa.

After making a real challenge for an AFC Champions League spot in 2018 Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo fell away to finish 10th last year, and at the time of writing the only major signings they have made are Lucas Fernandes and Takanori Sugeno – both of whom have merely made their loan deals with the club permanent.

A trio of university players have also been added to the squad and Consadole’s only outgoing is Shonan-bound Iwasaki, but with several of their direct competitors looking stronger than last year some late signings will surely be needed if Mihailo Petrovic has any ambitions of drawing more out of his charges in the upcoming campaign.

The comings and goings of three of last season’s top four – champions Yokohama F.Marinos, runners-up FC Tokyo, and fourth-placed Kawasaki Frontale – have all been steady but unspectacular, and while none have made any standout signings they have also navigated the off-season without losing any key players, suggesting each will be there or thereabouts again.

Of course, there is still plenty of time for the picture to alter over the next few weeks as coaches make the final tweaks to their squads, but the sooner those players are added the quicker they will gel and the more chance there is of teams hitting the ground running when the action gets underway at the end of February.


Around Japan in 72 Games

English football fan Nick Green wanted to see more of Japan, and embarked upon an an incredible football-watching challenge in order to do so… (日本語版)

Football Channel 13th January, 2020

With the opening fixtures for the 2020 J.League season having been announced – and more set to follow in a couple of weeks – fans around Japan are starting to make their plans for the upcoming campaign.

Supporters from Hokkaido to Okinawa will be plotting their schedules and eyeing up the more glamorous weekends away, but none will be doing so quite so spectacularly as Nick Green, a teacher living in Kobe.

Green, originally from London, completed a quite remarkable quest between February 2018 and December 2019, when he managed to see all 71 teams between J1 and the JFL plus the Japan national team play at home.

“It doesn’t feel that impressive, I guess it’s just been my hobby for the last couple of years,” the Arsenal fan says with huge understatement of his achievement.

“I’ve always tried to do projects throughout my life and I’ve always been good at giving them up, so more than anything else I’m just impressed I stuck with it!”

The seed of the idea was planted in 2017, when Green and a friend were regulars at Vissel Kobe home games and a colleague at work suggested he try to visit every stadium in the country. The wheels were set in motion four years earlier though, when he decided on the spur of the moment to fly out from England for Arsenal’s friendly against Urawa Reds.

That experience led to Green moving to Japan the following year, and after initially being fairly casual in his viewing habits he upped the ante in style in 2018.

“I just turned it into my own little challenge. I fancied something to mix it up a little bit and reignite my love of traveling. It wasn’t so much about seeing the stadiums, but kind of an excuse to travel.

“I didn’t initially think of a time limit for it, I just thought it was some kind of ongoing mega challenge that could take my whole life, so I wanted to make it as big as possible.

“After the first month or so I remember thinking to myself that I’d be able to do it in one year, and I tried to plan that out. I think I could have just about physically made it, but doing that would have meant going to two games every weekend and that would have negated the ‘I’d like to travel’ aspect of it.”

Living in Kobe, pretty much the centre of Japan, and the generous holiday allowance afforded to Green as a teacher made the logistics of the mission a little easier, and as the weeks rolled by his scarf collection – he made sure to buy one at every stadium, as well as keeping his ticket and a game log – steadily grew.

“In J1 you’re not out of the ordinary at all, but in the JFL it was almost like you’re so out of the ordinary they really didn’t know what to do about you,” the 33-year-old says of the way he was received on his travels.

“I think J2 was where I had the most people befriending me. Usually curious old men – they’re the really fearless ones! They’d shuffle up next to me and chat away – which I was always really happy to do.”

Usually Green would sit in the back stand to take in the action but there were some exceptions, like the time at Kashiwa Reysol when he was dragged behind the goal and encouraged to watch the game with the core fans.

“I had to bounce up and down for two to three hours,” he recalls with a laugh. “It played havoc on my knees. I was told, ‘Behind the goal you’re not allowed to take photos and you’re not allowed to drink’; which are the two things I really like doing at the J.League!”

Football Channel, Tuesday 14th January 2019

Green then helped the supporters tidy up after the game and joined the post-match debrief, during which he was asked to offer feedback on the experience to his hosts.

“Before I knew it I was being inducted into their ultras club – which would have been good if not for the fact that I was going to their arch rivals JEF Chiba the very next day. I kept that one to myself!”

That was one of many highlights enjoyed over the two years, and when it comes to picking a favourite ground Green opts for a left-field choice from J3.

“My favourite, and it was a pleasant surprise, would have been Fujieda’s. That was my first time in J3 and it was a beautiful day. It’s in the mountains and I think it’s quite new. It’s a lot smaller, and really close to the pitch.

“You just feel like you’ve wandered in on a bit of a secret. I think it was the fifth or sixth one I’d managed to do. Every other stadium I’d been to in J1 or J2 would have seated over 20,000, so seeing that was just, ‘wow’. It was so different. Such a pleasant ground.”

The venue for the denouement of Green’s challenge was anything but small, however, with him opting to wrap things up by bringing them full circle at Saitama Stadium – the first Japanese venue he visited in July 2013 to watch Arsenal.

“It’s the one time out of any of the games I went to that I specifically chose the date – Urawa on the last day of the season, when Gamba beat them. I thought it was quite a poetic way to end it all.

“It was pretty cool going around places I remembered from six and a half years before. Seeing how much I remembered.”

Indeed, Green is wistful when looking back over the project as a whole.

“There were certain places where I’d go off and do something or see something; for example, the sand dunes in Tottori,” he says.

“I saw Tottori play then took a bus back into town and walked up and saw the dunes just as the sun was starting to set. It was just such a strange, surreal, and amazing experience, and I realised I wouldn’t have seen that had I not chosen to see a kind of unknown J3 side.

“There’s quite a few places like that. Going to Imabari. They had this food called yakibuta tamagomeshi – it was pretty much the best food I’ve ever had in Japan. And again, whilst I was eating that, I was thinking to myself, ‘These things wouldn’t happen if I didn’t choose to do this’.

He is similarly philosophical when asked to select a key takeaway from the journey.

“Just the experiences I’ve had inside football. The kindness of people and the spontaneity of some people, but also the things I saw outside of it that I wouldn’t have done were I still just in Kobe – or indeed back in London, as I probably would still have been if I didn’t go out to see Arsenal.

“Loads of these good experiences in my life I can really put down to football.”

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

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April 2020