Here WE go

The fully professional WE League launches this weekend, and marks a huge step forward for women’s football in Japan… (日本語版)

It’s fair to say things didn’t go as well as many had hoped for Nadeshiko Japan at Tokyo 2020, with the team never really clicking into gear and being eliminated with relative ease by eventual silver medallists Sweden in the quarter-finals.

Manager Asako Takakura’s spell in charge came to an end after the competition and the JFA is now at a crossroads as it looks to appoint her successor, with rumours swirling behind the scenes that a foreign coach may be considered to try and restore the women’s national team to its former glories.

Another stepping stone on that journey is the establishment of the fully professional WE League, which is set for its much-anticipated launch this weekend – furthering the impression that 2021 represents a critical juncture in the development of women’s football in Japan.

This new division brings with it plenty of opportunities but also represents a leap into the unknown, and it is vital that the enthusiasm swirling around the start of the season can be converted into something longer term as the players and clubs adapt to their newly professional status.

Terms like ‘strengthen’ and ‘generate excitement’ were thrown around a lot in the various media activities ahead of the maiden season – which kicks off with 10 of the 11 founding members in action on Sunday – and while many factors will ultimately determine how successful the division becomes, the initial responsibility rests largely on the players and coaches and how well they perform out on the pitch.

The fact that all matches are being broadcast on DAZN will ensure the league is able to reach a far larger audience than the relatively niche following the women’s game has enjoyed to date in Japan, and the first priority must be to establish a connection between the competition and those watching it. The more established teams of course already have core fanbases, but the move to professionalism means they will need to amplify them while the newer clubs have to work to position themselves in their local communities and attract as many supporters as possible to provide themselves with a steady footing.

Star players are one surefire way to gain and keep attention – particularly from the more casual strata of fans needed to help move the women’s game into the mainstream – and it is vital that clubs pull out all the stops to ensure the limelight stays on the league.

Time, money, and effort need to be dedicated to marketing efforts off the pitch, while requisite support needs to be provided behind the scenes to ensure the conditions are right for young local talent to develop and establish themselves as the faces of the competition. The women’s game in Japan is very highly regarded around the world, and if the right professional environment can be established that would increasingly attract players and coaches from further afield, whose arrival in Japan would then in turn add to the WE League’s appeal.

There are positive signs in this regard with the signings of Alex Chidiac and Quinley Quezada at JEF United, Sarina Bolden at Chifure AS Elfen Saitama, and Rosnani Azman at INAC Kobe Leonessa, and if these players can make positive impressions then it is only natural that other clubs will be tempted to follow suit and expand their scouting horizons. The Olympics showcased some of the best female players in the world, and it is a slight shame that WE League clubs didn’t capitalise upon the opportunity of having them playing on their doorsteps by putting out some feelers for potential recruits. The bigger stars of that competition would of course have been beyond the financial means of the WE League clubs – and the ongoing Covid-19 entry restrictions make international signings extra complicated – but it does look like something of an opportunity missed.

As demonstrated by England’s burgeoning Women’s Super League (WSL), perseverance, increased visibility, and financial backing are key ingredients to success. The WSL is now into its fourth season as a fully professional competition having been semi-professional since 2011, and its growth in recent years has led to greatly increased media exposure, an influx of some of the world’s best players – including Nadeshiko Japan stars Mana Iwabuchi at Arsenal and Yui Hasegawa at West Ham United – and, from this season, a broadcast deal worth a reported £8 million a year.

The WE League of course has plenty of obstacles to overcome before it can hope to be in such rude health, but if the first steps can be taken confidently then the future of both the domestic game and national team should be bright.


Business picking up

After six months of games in hand and provisional tables the J1 standings finally reflect the true state of play, and all signs point towards a thrilling climax to the 2021 season… (日本語版)

For perhaps the first time all season we have a J1 table that actually tells us something about what there is to play for, and who’s playing for it, in the Japanese first division.

Just as in 2020, Covid-19 has caused huge disruption to the calendar this year – both as a result of outbreaks causing fixture postponements and also the centralised ACL group stage requiring Japan’s participants to front-load their domestic schedules – meaning the standings have been skewed in various directions since pretty much the third week of the season.

At one point Kawasaki Frontale were 18 points clear on paper and seemingly cruising towards consecutive titles, for instance, while just a few weeks ago Gamba Osaka were slumped down 19th place and looking like they had a real battle for survival on their hands.

That of course didn’t reflect the reality of the situation and vastly different number of matches played by each club, and the ironing out of those creases over the Olympic break has presented us with a very different picture of proceedings heading into the final third of the campaign. 

Frontale are now top by just a single point as a result of Yokohama F.Marinos’ extraordinary run of form – unbeaten in 13 with just two defeats all season – while Gamba picked up enough points in their make-up matches to lift them up into the almost-safe region of lower mid-table alongside neighbours Cerezo Osaka on 30 points.

A proper relegation dogfight looks to be brewing beneath them though, with Oita Trinita, Yokohama FC, Vegalta Sendai, Tokushima Vortis, Shimizu S-Pulse, Shonan Bellmare, and Kashiwa Reysol all embroiled in the battle to avoid being one of the four teams demoted to J2 come December.

Yokohama FC were bottom of that pile for a long time but were certainly proactive about turning things around in the summer transfer window, bringing in a handful of new foreign signings – including one of Germany’s goalkeepers at Tokyo 2020, Svend Brodersen, which first impressions suggest was a very shrewd piece of business – and their win over Gamba on Wednesday served the huge psychological boost of moving them off the foot of the table.

Whether they will have enough in the tank to complete a great escape remains to be seen, but with the teams around them struggling to put together runs of form the seven points to safety don’t look insurmountable if Tomonobu Hayakawa’s side can keep grinding out the odd win here and there.

Indeed, things are incredibly tight in the lower third of the table with only 10 points separating the bottom seven sides, and as the finish line draws within range and the pressure begins to build it will come down to which sides are best able to hold their nerve and remain focused on the job at hand.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Avispa Fukuoka, and Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, meanwhile, occupy a kind of no-man’s land in the middle of the rankings – too far back to make a push for the ACL but with enough points in the bank to be all-but assured of a place in the top flight next year – and above them there’s a six-team mini-league in progress, with competition for the third and final Champions League spot incredibly fierce.

Here, too, teams are packed together like commuters on the Marunouchi Line (despite the state of emergency, they’re still very much there), and setting aside outside bet FC Tokyo on 39 points, the handful of Urawa Reds (44), Sagan Tosu (44), Kashima Antlers (44), Nagoya Grampus (46), and Vissel Kobe (47) are all bunched within three points of each other between third and seventh place.

Sagan aside – who are very much punching above their weight considering their current financial difficulties – all of these clubs will have come into the season targeting at least a place in Asia’s premier club competition next year, and so we should be set for a thrilling back-and-forth battle over the coming weeks as they duke it out for the one berth remaining.

The reason there are only enough spoils for one victor in that contest is because way out at the top of the rankings and going mano a mano for the J1 shield we find reigning champions Frontale and the team they dethroned last year, Marinos.

The league leaders have been absolutely sensational again this season, averaging over two goals per game and only conceding 17 times so far on their way to 63 points. They are, however, in the midst of an uncharacteristic dip in form and followed draws against Reysol and Sanfrecce with a 1-0 loss to Avispa in midweek, driving home just how important Ao Tanaka and Kaoru Mitoma were to the side after both completed moves to Europe over the summer.

Marinos also lost a key figure just before Tokyo 2020, although if things were supposed to come tumbling down after Ange Postecoglou’s switch to Celtic nobody appears to have told the players. They haven’t missed a beat and have won five and drawn one under new boss Kevin Muscat, overtaking Frontale on goals scored after finding the net 14 times in their last three games and setting up what is sure to be an absolute humdinger of a title race over the coming weeks.

The ebb and flow of all teams playing matches in tandem is part of what usually makes league competition so enjoyable, and while the disruption of the past year or so has been unavoidable here’s hoping some semblance of normality can be resumed in that respect next season. The last 12 rounds of 2021 will serve up a whole range of drama, but how nice it would have been to have had nine months of twists and turns instead of just three.


Fatigue, Humidity, Sluggishness – Together

The football competitions at Tokyo 2020 combined the brutal heat of summer, a packed schedule, and coronavirus prevention measures to ensure the participants had absolutely no respite from the first to the last whistle… (日本語版)

There was a tension weighing over Nissan Stadium as the clock ticked down in the second half of regular time and heavyweights Brazil and Spain gamely threw everything they had left at each other, trying desperately to land the knockout blow that would deliver them Olympic gold.

The thickness in the air wasn’t only caused by the humidity or magnitude of the occasion though – these, after all, are players used to playing on the biggest stages and in front of tens of thousands of expectant fans – but as their increasingly frustrated voices echoed around the 70,000 empty seats in the vast Kanagawa bowl it was clear that these young, supremely fit professional athletes were absolutely shattered. 

Indeed, even in the hours ahead of kick-off there was a general sense of fatigue lingering in the bowels of the stadium, with venue staff, volunteers, and media personnel frazzled at the end of a brutal schedule and sleepwalking towards the finish line rather than charging towards it with the feeling of excitement and expectation more usually associated with these kinds of events.

Everyone was so very, very tired.

The previous day Japan had stumbled as well, manager Hajime Moriyasu repeatedly referring to the tiredness and fatigue his players had been battling against – as well as a ruthless Mexico side – after they were roundly beaten 3-1 to miss out on the podium, just as they had done under Takashi Sekizuka at London 2012.

Whereas the group stage encounter against Mexico had seen Japan burst out of the traps and move 2-0 ahead after just 11 minutes, this time they could barely string a couple of passes together and as the game moved into the 11th minute here they were already up against it after an uncharacteristically sluggish challenge from Wataru Endo gifted Jaime Lozano’s side a penalty.

Endo’s overall performance against Mexico summed up the general trend of the latter stages of the football at Tokyo 2020, with one of Japan’s outstanding players of the past year looking out on his feet and struggling to keep up with the flow of the game, let alone dictate it. He was at fault for the second goal in the 22nd minute as well, losing track of Johan Vasquez at a free-kick and allowing the Mexican to tuck home with disbelieving ease from close range.  

Of course, this is meant in no way to single Endo out for criticism, and the same lethargy had also been on display four days earlier as Australia and Sweden did battle in the women’s semi-finals. Two of the the most dynamic teams in the competition saw the second half of their contest drop almost to walking pace at times as the players’ exertions in the heat and humidity of the Japanese summer over the preceding two weeks began to catch up with them.

“It’s getting to the point towards the end of the tournament where everyone’s tired, everyone’s played a lot of minutes,” Australia striker Sam Kerr said afterwards. “It was a hot one today. I don’t know, I feel like this is the hottest game we’ve played since we’ve been here. But it is what it is. Everyone’s feeling tired, they [Sweden] feel the same, they’ve played the same minutes.”

Indeed, her opponent Hanna Glas was in full agreement.

“Especially the last 20-30 minutes, it was really tough because of the humidity and a really tough schedule,” the Bayern Munich defender said. “We only get two rest days, and that’s not what we’re used to in the World Cup or the Euros.”

Such a compact fixture list is always a feature of the Olympics, but the various coronavirus prevention measures meant Tokyo 2020 added an unprecedented mental strain on the athletes (and overseas media and staff) as well, offering them no time or space to decompress between matches. 

“Obviously it’s been tough,” Glas said of the restrictions. “We knew that before we came here – that that was one of the big challenges, together with the warm weather – so we came prepared, but even though you know it it’s still hard.”

Megan Rapinoe of the USA concurred after scoring twice to help her side to the bronze medal against Australia in Kashima on 5 August.

“It’s really hard – I’m sure every team would say that, too, it is really difficult,” the 36-year-old said.

“If it’s a World Cup you have a lot more days between games, but, you know, you can [also] see your family. But [here] we’re just there staring at each other the whole time, and there’s only so much we can do or talk about. We don’t want to talk about soccer all the time, but there’s nothing else going on.

“So I think that part has been really hard. It’s been hard for everyone, just to not sort of have that break has been the most challenging part – probably more challenging than the schedule, to be honest.”

Back in Yokohama, as had been the case 24 hours earlier when Sweden and Canada went the distance in the women’s final, the contest between Brazil and Spain couldn’t be settled inside 90 minutes, and it ultimately took a turbo-charged burst from Malcom – one of the freshest players on the pitch, who had played just 142 minutes before coming on at the start of extra time – to secure consecutive golds for the Seleção with a 2-1 win.

Sport is the pursuit of excellence, of testing boundaries, and while the exhaustion of these Olympics will fade over time and leave only the positive memories, slickly-edited highlights packages, and plentiful history-making achievements, there can be absolutely no doubt that Tokyo 2020 pushed each and every one of its participants to their mental and physical limits – on and off the field of play.


Crowded out

The Olympics are underway at last, but minus a key ingredient the postponed Games feel more like an obligation than a celebration… (日本語版)

Tokyo 2020, which was starting to feel like it was just just an illusion, a mirage on the horizon that would never actually take place, is finally upon us.

The Olympics are finally happening, athletes are finally in Japan and finally competing with each other for some of the most coveted titles in the world of sport. And yet, something is lacking.

The Games have begun, but there’s an air of incompleteness, a sense of something not quite being right. Without spectators this just doesn’t feel like the Olympics. 

“We can only go faster, we can only aim higher, we can only become stronger, if we stand together – in solidarity,” IOC president Thomas Bach intoned at the opening ceremony at Tokyo National Stadium on 23 July, seemingly unaware of the irony of his words echoing around a stadium empty except for the athletes and the thousand or so members of the ‘Olympic Family’ afforded entry.

“This is why the IOC has adapted the Olympic motto to our times: faster, higher, stronger – together. This feeling of togetherness – this is the light at the end of the dark tunnel.”

And while we have already seen plenty of sensational performances – Yuki Horigome claiming the first ever skateboarding gold for Japan, 18-year-old Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui triumphing in the men’s 400 metre freestyle, Uta and Hifumi Abe being crowned Olympic champions within an hour of each other – the lingering feeling is disappointment that fans cannot be in the venues to revel in these triumphs along with the victors.

There was a similar sensation during the opening ceremony, a slow and mostly sombre affair which was closed to the public but which resulted in thousands gathering a few hundred metres away anyway to either experience the moment as best they could or protest against the Games, depending on their perspective on the event.

Things have been very much the same at the football, with the swathes of empty seats at the cavernous stadiums sucking energy out of proceedings and making everything feel flat. 

Mana Iwabuchi’s audacious equaliser against Canada would have taken the roof off Sapporo Dome, Takefusa Kubo’s strikes against South Africa and Mexico deserved a wall of sound, and Ritsu Doan’s penalty rippling the Saitama Stadium net should have torn the tension apart and sparked scenes of jubilation. Instead, Blur’s ‘Song 2’ and the shouts of the players and team staff were all that could be heard.

“It’s really weird with no crowd, really weird,” British swimmer Adam Peaty said after his 100m breaststroke heat on 24 July. “But that’s the psychological thing we need to adapt to. I had no idea how it was going to feel out there.

“It doesn’t feel like an Olympics. It’s not the same, of course it’s not. So it’s about controlling all of those emotions and performing when it matters.”

Covid-19 has of course thrown the world into turmoil, and the sight of tens of thousands of maskless fans piled on top of one another at the Euros was certainly jarring when cast against the restraint being shown by so many others around the world as they wait for vaccinations and life to return to normality.

But sport in Japan has shown for the past year that it can safely manage supporter presence at stadiums, and allowing limited numbers into venues provided they follow safety precautions would have added so much to these Games – for the athletes, for the organisers, and of course for the fans themselves.

”I think a lot of people’s tax money is going to hold these Olympics,” Maya Yoshida said in widely reported comments after Japan’s final pre-tournament friendly against Spain. “Despite that, people can’t go and watch. So you wonder about who the Olympics is for, and what it is for. Of course athletes want to play in front of fans.

“It’s not just the players who are competing, but the family members, every one of them. So if they can’t watch the match, well who and what is that match for?”

Of course, everybody knows who and what it is for, and why the Olympics are being forced through despite all of the difficulties and opposition to them. The ban on fans merely serves to underline that fact, and further drives home the feeling that an event which is supposed to be a communal celebration of teams and individuals pushing themselves to be the best they can be is instead little more than an obligation.


Leading by example

England aren’t only in the final of the European Championship for the first time ever, but they have been led there in style by a man who oozes class… (日本語版)

England fans aren’t used to this.

There is always hype ahead of international tournaments, always optimism that this could be the team that achieves glory, that football will finally be ‘coming home’.

Then the players ‘fall short’ – or, more accurately, make it about as far as their quality can carry them – and the recriminations begin, blame is apportioned, scapegoats are made, and the cycle continues.

Since Gareth Southgate became England manager, however, that narrative has started to change, and this is very much a team carved in his image.

The former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Middlesbrough player originally joined the Football Association as head of elite development at the start of 2011, before being appointed Under-21 head coach in August 2013 –  during which time he worked with several of the squad now at this summer’s European Championship, including Jordan Pickford, John Stones, and Harry Kane. 

Southgate initially ruled himself out of the running for the full England job after Roy Hodgson departed following Euro 2016, only to then reluctantly take over on an interim basis when Sam Allardyce was forced to step down after a scandal in September 2016. He immediately impressed in charge of the Three Lions, however, not only with the results he delivered on the pitch but also the manner in which he carried himself off it, and his contract was made permanent a couple of months later.

Always composed and respectful, Southgate has earned praise for his dignity and erudition during a time of division and conflict in England – whether because of Brexit, social justice protests, or Covid-19 – all while guiding England to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and now this weekend’s Euro 2020 final against Italy.

“The standard of leaders in this country in the last couple of years has been poor,” former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville, now a television pundit, said after England’s 2-1 win over Denmark on Wednesday night. “Looking at that man there, that’s everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He’s fantastic, Gareth Southgate. He really is unbelievable, and has done a great job.”

The conduct of the manager has also shone through in that of the players too, and this is one of the most united and likeable England teams in recent memory. All too often in the past players were assured of their places on account of their reputations, and while undoubtedly talented individuals the star names never seemed like they were capable of gelling to form a team worth as much as the sum of its parts.

Southgate’s interpersonal skills have enabled him to avoid any such issues, however, and while the general public have been crying out for him to give more starts to the likes of Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho, the players themselves seem fully understanding of their manager’s decisions.

“I see some stuff sometimes about me and Gareth but we have a great relationship,” Grealish said before the quarter-final against Ukraine. “He does with all the players. He’s a brilliant man-manager.

“You have got six players that play either side of Harry [Kane] that, in reality, could play for most clubs in the world. Myself, Jadon [Sancho], Marcus [Rashford], Raheem, Phil Foden and Bukayo [Saka]. It’s scary how good us six are. That’s not being big-headed or nothing. That is just the truth.

“He can’t play all six of us but one thing he’s done really well is make people think that they are still involved. He still speaks to everyone on a daily basis.”

As well as maintaining positive relations within the camp, Southgate has also been eloquent and firm when dealing with issues swirling around the team, including their decision to take a knee before games in order to highlight racial inequality and discrimination. There were audible boos from some sections of the crowd as they did so ahead of the pre-tournament friendly win over Austria in Middlesbrough at the start of June, for instance, and instead of avoiding the matter the manager instead approached it head on.

“I was pleased it was drowned out by the majority of the crowd but we can’t deny it happened,” he said.

“It’s not something on behalf of our black players that I wanted to hear because it feels as though it is a criticism of them. I think the most important thing for our players to know is that all their team-mates and all the staff are fully supportive.”

Sections of the England support – including some portions of the media – continue to detract slightly from the enjoyment of following the national team, whether as a result of their arrogance, the booing of opponents’ national anthems, or other jingoistic behaviour, and the fact that Southgate has managed to stay true to himself and his beliefs in the face of such things and still deliver results on the pitch is worthy of huge credit.

“He is such a fundamentally decent man, but so exposed also to anger and hostility, it is easy to fear that this might finally get to him,” Barney Ronay wrote of the 50-year-old after England beat Germany in the Round of 16. “Most of the time he sounds like the last sensible person left in the country.”

For all the entitlement that gets attached to the refrain ‘football’s coming home’ these days, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the song was originally written as a tongue-in-cheek treatise on the disappointment football fans experience ninety percent of the time. Whether Southgate – whose missed semi-final penalty against Germany is inextricably tied up with the Euro 96 tournament for which the song was released – is able to deliver one of the rare occasions when England fans are able to celebrate remains to be seen. Win or lose against Italy, however, his efforts at bringing them to this point, and the manner in which he has done so, deserve nothing but praise.


Kicking on

With the Tokyo Olympics and WE League both on the horizon 2021 could be a big year for women’s football in Japan, and the former could play a big part in creating enthusiasm for the latter… (日本語版)

As the launch of the WE League draws ever closer, I ventured out to Saitama last weekend to take in the friendly match between last year’s Nadeshiko League Division One champions Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Urawa Reds Ladies and JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies.

The game at a drizzly, grey, and unseasonably chilly Komaba Stadium was far more enjoyable than typing out the team names (here’s hoping they can be shortened in due course), with both sides keeping the ball well, moving it about quickly, and always looking to play positively – which was even more refreshing having woken up at 4am to endure England’s overly-cautious contest against Scotland at the Euros a few hours earlier.

A peach of a strike by Urawa’s Yu Endo was sandwiched between a couple of sensational Haruka Osawa goals (Exhibit A; Exhibit B) to leave the hosts trailing 2-1 at half-time, but Mayu Sasaki levelled things up in the 56th minute to ensure the game ended all square.

Despite the rain and the fact that Urawa were without their quartet of Olympic players Sakiko Ikeda, Moeka Minami, Yuzuho Shiokoshi, and Yuika Sugasawa or that JEF were minus either of their recent foreign signings Alexandra Chidiac or Quinley Quezada, a decent turnout of 977 had also braved the conditions for the encounter, demonstrating that there are solid foundations to build upon ahead of the launch of Japan’s first professional women’s football league in September.

JEF manager Shinji Sarusawa was pleased enough with his team’s showing as well, feeling it boded well for the side that finished mid-table in the Nadeshiko League top flight last year as they ramp up their preparations for the start of the WE League.

“Last year Urawa was the toughest team we faced,” he said. “We conceded two goals, but I think we can take a lot of confidence from the game. In pre-season matches some things don’t go as expected, but I think the fact we were able to battle so well here is very big for Chiba Ladies.”

Indeed, while there is still something of a gap between the three leading sides and the rest in the top flight of the women’s game in Japan – although 16 of the 22-woman squad (including back-ups) for Tokyo 2020 play domestically, all but one of them – back-up goalkeeper Chika Hirao of Albirex Niigata Ladies – are at Urawa, INAC Kobe Leonessa, or NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza – the pre-season matches so far have on the whole been closely contested encounters, with only a handful producing landslide victories.

The fact that teams are at such different stages of development is a key hurdle for the women’s game to overcome globally – internationally as well as domestically, as we have seen with Nadeshiko Japan’s easy friendly wins this year – but if federations and leagues continue to tackle the key issues in front of them then the playing field should level out in time.

With professional leagues in Europe steadily finding their feet and increasingly attracting players from around the world, for instance, introducing a similar competition in Japan was vital for the game here to keep pace. Clubs being required to have at least five players on fully professional A contracts and 10 on professional B or C contracts (with a minimum salary of 2.7 million yen), as well as needing to have short-term plans in place to introduce U-18, U-15, and U-12 teams in the coming years are solid policies that should lead to long-term improvement.

“It will be the first professional league [in Japan], and so we have to make sure as many people as possible see the games,” Urawa’s first goalscorer Endo said of her feelings looking ahead to the WE League’s launch. “That was the case in the Nadeshiko League as well, but I feel there will be a greater sense of responsibility on games now, and think the team not only has to win but has to place an importance on doing so in a way that will make people want to come and watch.”

As well as that helping to build a committed fanbase for the WE League, the division may also benefit as a result of the Olympics having been pushed back a year. 

When addressing the fans in a post-match speech, Urawa’s Sugasawa declared she was in the national team as a result of her performances for and as a representative of Reds, for example, and hopefully things will work in the opposite direction too, with the efforts of the players at the Olympics providing a springboard to raise enthusiasm for the burgeoning new division.

The World Cup win in 2011, for instance, sparked a short-term boom in interest in the women’s game, and if Nadeshiko Japan can achieve some level of success again at Tokyo 2020 then it will surely carry over into the following month and provide a major kickstart for the WE League.


Adios Ange

Ange Postecoglou’s drawn out departure from Yokohama F.Marinos to Celtic provided a rare instance of a J.League manager being poached by a bigger club, and the reactions to it from overseas made for interesting viewing… (日本語版)


In football, managers are always changing clubs. A coach is fired or quits somewhere in the world every week, with the J.League’s three divisions already seeing 13 casualties in the 2021 season.

On the whole, these departures are met with one of two responses by supporters: relief, or even happiness, on the part of those who weren’t fans of the outgoing boss; or anger and sadness for those who wanted them to stick around.

Ange Postecoglou’s exit from Yokohama F.Marinos, however, was a little more complex.

Changes in the dugout in Japan are almost always made because results aren’t up to scratch, with clubs wielding the axe or the incumbents falling on their own swords as penance. In the case of Postecoglou and Marinos that wasn’t the issue though, and this was instead one of those few occasions when a manager in the J.League was actively enticed away by an offer from elsewhere, resulting in disappointment and/or resigned acceptance from Marinos supporters.

While reactions on social media are certainly not the best way to gauge the general mood – with debate, if it can even be called that, ultimately dominated by the loudest voices at both extremes, and balanced, nuanced comment nigh-on impossible – responses overseas to the rumours have also been interesting and cast a light on how the J.League is viewed further afield.

On one side of the fence there seem to be a lot of sceptical – to put it politely – Celtic fans unimpressed to have somebody they’ve “never heard of” who “only coaches in Japan” taking charge of their storied club. Writing someone off on these grounds is of course ridiculous – firstly because people you’ve heard of don’t always do well, and secondly because it doesn’t take much effort these days to do a bit of research and see that Postecoglou has been successful at club level in Australia and Japan and also when in charge of the Australian national team – but it does demonstrate the difference in expectation levels and pressure between football in Japan and the UK.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, the die-hard fans of ‘Ange-ball’ are delighted to see their man given this chance, and have been hitting back at those belittling him by insisting he is more than a match for one of Europe’s great old clubs. Again, a little more trepidation may be in order here, and while Postecoglou has ultimately picked up silverware everywhere he’s been, it has always come with the caveat of wanting his teams to play in a very particular way, which takes time to implement.

As the reaction of some Celtic fans shows, time is not something he is likely to be given a great deal of in Glasgow,. The club is coming off the back of a miserable season in which their bitter rivals Rangers won the Scottish Premier League at a canter to prevent them making it 10 consecutive titles, and while Postecoglou undoubtedly has the steel and tactical nous to bring the good times back to Celtic Park, if he isn’t given full backing by the club and the players and fans don’t buy into his approach quickly then things could turn sour before any progress is made.

Returning to Japan, meanwhile, the J.League can certainly can be pleased with the fact that its competition is now at the level to serve as a stepping stone for coaches as well as players. If Postecoglou does well at Celtic then the standing of the league will only improve, possibly increasing the chances of more up-and-coming international managers considering the league as a viable option to help build their reputations.

On the flip side, Marinos are of course left facing a dilemma. The club is not only losing a coach that has delivered success and re-established them as one of the J.League’s leading teams, but also one that has re-defined them by installing a distinctive, effective, and entertaining style of play. The involvement of City Football Group, which has an overarching philosophy it wants employed at all its clubs, suggests they will look to bring in a replacement with a similar ethos, but having to do so at short notice in the middle of the season will not be straightforward.

Will they look to swiftly recruit an already-Japan-based proponent of proactive football – Albert Puig of Albirex Niigata, Postecoglou’s former assistant Peter Cklamovski, who recently joined Montedio Yamagata, and ex-Kawasaki Frontale manager Yahiro Kazama being a few names that spring immediately to mind – or instead take their time and look to recruit someone we’ve never heard of from overseas using their vast scouting network?

Whichever it is, the loss of Postecoglou is a big blow to Marinos and the J.League as a whole, and, to borrow a phrase the man himself likes to apply to his work, it will be fascinating to see how he gets on with the next stage of his journey.


Reds gain great Dane

It is still early days, but with four goals in his first three J1 games for Urawa Reds Kasper Junker looks like he has everything needed to make a real name for himself in Saitama… (日本語版)

All eyes were on Saitama Stadium on Saturday with Vissel Kobe and, fresh from the announcement of his two-year contract extension, Andres Iniesta in town to face Urawa Reds.

The Spain legend completed 90 minutes in the league for the first time since Vissel’s 2-0 home defeat against Shonan Bellmare last November, and despite showing his age in some respects did offer flashes of his enduring brilliance on the ball as he and his side fell to another, slightly unfortunate, 2-0 loss.

The former Barcelona man may have offered up some sublime touches and passes on his return to Vissel’s starting line-up, but his wasn’t the European name on everyone lips come full time, with Urawa’s new signing Kasper Junker again claiming the spotlight.

The 27-year-old was a menace in the final third of the pitch from the first minute to the 90th – when he was substituted off to rapturous applause from the 4,917 fans in attendance – leading the home side’s charge by harrying from the front, instigating attacks with surging runs, and showcasing his intelligent movement by getting into some very dangerous positions. Oh, and, as we are already becoming accustomed to, by scoring.

His goal here, a controlled effort steered home with his left foot from close range after Daigo Nishi’s hopeful lump into the area somehow found it’s way to him unmarked at the back post, was the Dane’s fourth in his first three league games for Reds, already making him the team’s top scorer.

“He’s scoring goals to help the team and getting into the right positions at the right times,” Urawa manager Ricardo Rodriguez said after the game. “It’s not just that though, and his all round performances have been really good.

“New signings need time to adapt, but especially in the second half today we saw he is also doing what is expected of him in a defensive sense as well. It’s really important that he has been able fit in so well with the team, and I’m sure he will keep improving. His goals really help the team and I’m confident he’ll keep contributing in that way.”

For the best part of a decade Urawa’s scoring burden has rested on the shoulders – or, more precisely, in the boots – of Shinzo Koroki. One of the most natural finishers the J.League has ever seen, Koroki has racked up double figures in each of the last nine seasons (eight with Urawa and one with Kashima Antlers), but in the last three years the only one of his teammates to also get beyond 10 goals was Leonardo last year, when the Brazilian led Reds’ ranking with 11. Their second top scorer in 2019 was Kazuki Nagasawa with just three, while Yuki Muto followed Koroki with seven in 2018.

The early signs are that Junker will be more than capable of sharing the responsibility in front of goal though, as well as fulfilling the high-pressing role Rodriguez demands of his forwards.

“I think my strengths are my speed and my positioning inside the penalty area,” Junker said at his unveiling at the end of April. “My left foot shots also stand out, but I don’t just score goals and I think while finding the net myself I will also be able to provide assists for my teammates in order to contribute to the team.

“I think I am at the ideal age right now. As a striker I feel I’m approaching my peak, but I know I still have plenty of room for improvement and am confident I can keep raising the level of my performance as I take this step up. I want to play here for a long time. Football is life itself for me, and I want to keep going for a long time.”

He certainly demonstrated that enthusiasm against Vissel, eagerly closing down Thomas Vermaelen and Ryuho Kikuchi when the visitors’ centre-backs were in possession, urging his teammates forward in support of attacks, and also looking to create opportunities from deeper-lying positions.

Indeed, the chance from which he got his name on the scoresheet actually came about after one of these plays from midfield, and after receiving the ball 30 yards inside his own half he nutmegged Ayub Masika, opened his legs to eat up the space in front of him, and then chipped in behind for Yoshio Koizumi. This pass was ultimately too far ahead of his teammate, but Kobe made a mess of things once in possession and surrendered a soft corner, and after also failing to clear that properly the ball found itself being cushioned home by Junker’s left boot.

He won’t always be handed goals quite so easily, but the clinical way he dispatched the chance served another warning to the rest of J1 that Reds’ new No.7 is the real deal.


Fans United

The protests that saw Manchester United v. Liverpool postponed showed fans do still have a say in the way their clubs are run, they just might need to shout a little bit louder… (日本語版)

In the end, let’s admit it, there was probably more excitement on the Old Trafford pitch on 2 May than there would have been if the inevitable cagey draw between Manchester United and Liverpool had been played as scheduled.

In some ways, the scenes around and inside one of the most famous football venues on earth were also a better advert for the passion of domestic football in England than another tiresome stalemate between these old rivals – seven of whom’s last 11 meetings have ended all square.

Of course violent clashes between protestors and the police aren’t something we’re supposed to condone, but they only accounted for a tiny proportion of the activity in Manchester, and at a time of steady disenfranchisement when we are increasingly viewed less as individuals and more as customers this was a refreshing reminder of the culture and enthusiasm that helped English football to develop into the most popular in the world.

The protests by United fans were ostensibly in reaction to the club’s announcement at the end of April that it was one of the 12 members of the (quickly-folded) European Super League, although as one of the participants in the protests explained in The Guardian the seeds had been sown long before that when the most successful side in the Premier League era fell into the hands of its current owners (one of whom, United co-chairman Joel Glazer, was named as a vice-chairman of the Super League).

“This is all to do with the Glazers,” Jamie of the United We Stand fanzine wrote with regards to the leveraged buyout through which the American family acquired control of the club 16 years ago. “It has been a long time in the making, because we protested in 2005 [when they bought the club], and again in 2010. I can understand people saying: “It’s just because you’re not winning things any more.” But that’s not the point – this is about a football club and a community that surrounds it.

“Will there be more protests? Yes. Maybe not on that scale again because this was United-Liverpool, a worldwide audience, on a bank holiday Sunday, but there will be more.”

And the world really was watching, with the actions of the protestors as they caused the first match postponement on account of fan behaviour in the Premier League era being beamed around the globe. “We decide when you can play” was one of the chants favoured by the supporters as they gathered outside Old Trafford and the Lowry Hotel at which the United players were staying in advance of the game, hinting at another long-running gripe the Super League fiasco had brought to a head.

Match-going fans, whose fervour and cash had initially enabled the English game to elevate itself, have found themselves gradually sidelined as the Premier League behemoth has grown into a global business endeavor, with kick-off times increasingly arranged to suit broadcast partners rather than those attending in person.

The coronavirus has added insult to injury in this sense, with the empty rhetoric of the ‘Football is Nothing Without Fans’ tarpaulins draped over deserted terraces being proven glaringly untrue as the Premier League beast has rolled relentlessly on without them for over a year now.

It is likely that the timing of the Super League announcement was not coincidental either, with those involved perhaps hoping they could force it through without fans being at grounds to voice their opposition. It is fair to say they grossly underestimated the depth of feeling and sense of attachment supporters have with their clubs.

Owners, managers, and players come and go, but fans are the one constant. Those connections are passed on from generation to generation, and the protests that prevented United-Liverpool being played were a defiant roar against the ongoing commodification and sterilisation seeking to take top level football further away from its origins – of which the Super League would have been the latest escalation, featuring the same uber-rich teams playing each other repeatedly in games contested for huge profit but with no risk.

“Of course we’d love to have watched a Manchester United-Liverpool game but ultimately this is much bigger than that,” Jamie added of the protest. “If we get a points deduction we would not care.

“I do get that some people say a line was crossed because it was illegal [entering Old Trafford] but there’s only so much passive resistance can do. You can tweet “#Glazersout” but what good does it do?”

The Old Trafford protests served as a timely reminder that supporters aren’t just consumers who should just blindly cheerlead, but are instead one of the foundations upon which clubs are built.

Fans have voices and shouldn’t be afraid to use them. When they shout loud enough, they are heard.


Best foot forward

Yokohama F.Marinos have been uncharacteristically solid defensively of late, although, characteristically, that state of affairs is being enabled by an all-action front four… (日本語版)

Yokohama F.Marinos under Ange Postecoglou have always been an attack-minded side, and as the Australian himself often likes to say when they’re good they’re very good but when they’re not, well, they can be pretty bad – especially in defence.

Last week’s 5-0 demolition of Yokohama FC again showcased the best Marinos have to offer going forwards, as they rode out a tricky opening 15 minutes or so before going on to swat aside their local rivals with a dominant display that could ultimately have been won by an even bigger margin.

This game wasn’t only notable for the goals going it at one end of the pitch, however, and it also served to further highlight a newfound stringency Marinos have discovered at the back. In the entirety of the 2020 season Marinos only managed to keep six clean sheets in J1, but the shutout in the derby was their fifth of this year already – all of which have come in the last eight games, a run during which they have conceded just three goals.

“I think one ties into the other,” Postecoglou said when asked about the non-stop running of his forwards and the team’s current solidity in defence. “I think the reason we’ve been better defensively is that our front players work really hard – they’re our first line of defence.

“We work on it all the time, but it’s got to be in the players too. It’s the reason we brought these players in. If you want to play as a striker in our team you’ll get an opportunity to score a lot of goals, but you have to work hard in a defensive sense.

“I think today that was the real key for us, because we knew Yokohama [FC] weren’t going to be too expansive in terms of being too open, so our best moments might come when they lose the ball in [their] half. We wanted to try and win it back and put them under pressure again.”

When you have the likes of Daizen Maeda, Marcos Junior, Elber, and Ado Onaiwu at your disposal you certainly aren’t going to be wanting for willing runners in that sense, and once Yokohama FC’s early enthusiasm had fizzled out that quartet were a constant menace – hounding, harrying, and hassling from the front to ensure the visitors had no time at all to get comfortable in possession.

Maeda epitomised Marinos’ work-rate out of possession, and the speed with which the 23-year-old moves across the turf really is remarkable. Lining up on the left of what was essentially a front four the former Matsumoto Yamaga man was a bundle of pace, aggression, and energy from the very first whistle, and while his finishing let him down on occasion his enthusiasm never waned.

The majority of J.League teams tend to allow the opposition keeper time on the ball when it finds its way back to him, for instance, but Maeda, Onaiwu, and Elber didn’t give Yuji Rokutan a moment to relax in possession, forcing him to play out with urgency and, in turn, more often than not resulting in the ball being turned back over to the hosts.

The attackers weren’t afraid to work backwards either, with Tatsuki Seko and co. not only finding themselves closed down by the Marinos’ midfielders or defenders in front of them but also having to fend off challenges being made by one or more of the host’s returning forwards – or, quite often, both at the same time.

On one such occasion in the 52nd minute Maeda pressed back to dispossess Seko but then over-hit his pass for Elber, but neither that nor another missed opportunity to get on the scoresheet 10 minutes later caused his head to drop, and he was to get his just rewards in the 71st minute.

Despite Jun Amano misplacing his pass infield, Maeda was too flight of foot for the sluggish Maguinho and got his toe to the ball first, and after possession was recycled quickly forwards he was on hand to tuck home Marinos’ fourth from close range after Takahiro Ogihara’s ball across goal a mere 13 seconds later.

Finally finding the net didn’t cause him to let up either, and five minutes later he was tearing in behind again to latch onto a Kota Mizunuma ball over the top, although he couldn’t quite get the ball under control in what turned out to be his final contribution of the afternoon before making way for debutant Leo Ceara – who himself went on to score less than a minute after taking to the field.

“We still have a very heavy programme, so we need those players,” Postecoglou said of the wealth of options he has to choose from in attack.

“Our front players are very important to us as, as has already been mentioned, they have to work very hard, so it’d be very difficult for them to play every game. We’ve got Leo in now, which is great, so we’ve got some more depth in that front third, and hopefully [Teruhito] Nakagawa’s not too far away, a couple more weeks – we’ll need him as well.

“I think it’s not so much that there’s competition [between players], it just means that we’re able to maintain a good level every game. Because that’s what we were missing last year – we were very inconsistent. When we played well we were good, but when we played not so well we were very poor. We’ve tried to adjust that this year, and it’s good that all the strikers are scoring goals. Ado and Daizen were great today and I thought Elber was fantastic. Marcos Junior is getting to full fitness, he’s not quite there, so it’s good for us.”

Good for them it may be, but there can’t be many defences looking forward to coming up against Marinos’ front line right now, whichever players it’s comprised of.

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

Receive an email each time I post something new and/or interesting by...

Join 41 other followers

Back Catalogue

what day is it?

September 2021