01
Aug
20

Zago-ing slowly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18
Jul
20

Young guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04
Jul
20

Business as unusual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13
Jun
20

Coming back from coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30
May
20

Graz roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16
May
20

Football in the Community

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

Football Channel 15th May, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football Channel, 16th May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———–

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

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

01
May
20

The man down under

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

Football Channel 1st May, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football Channel, Friday 1st May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19
Apr
20

2009-2019 J.League Best 11

The world remains in a state of limbo and unease on account of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and with the future uncertain and it difficult to know what will come next many are instead using this time to look back.

Football fans are no exception, and the past month has been awash with ‘flashback’ and ‘on this day’ content reminding us of memorable events from years gone by.

This glut of nostalgia prompted me into a period of reflection as well, and while thinking back over the decade or so I have been covering the J.League (and, in a long-overdue tidy up of my apartment, sorting through the reams of programmes and team-sheets I’ve accumulated in that time) I tried to come up with a best 11 of the players I’ve seen between 2009 and 2019.

This isn’t necessarily a list of the objectively ‘best’ players in the J.League during that time, but instead an 11 in a 4-2-3-1 formation who left an impression on me by excelling during one particular season – or, in a couple of cases, over consecutive seasons.

It’s unclear when we’ll be able to watch live action again, so for now let’s savour some of the stars of recent years (日本語版)

Football Channel 13th April, 2020

Goalkeeper – Kwoun Sun-tae (Kashima Antlers, 2018)

Kwoun’s presence behind a solid back four laid the foundations for Antlers to finally add the AFC Champions League trophy to their cabinet in 2018. I was required to stand immediately behind his goal while covering the second leg of the final against Persepolis at the Azadi Stadium – something which enabled me to see up very close the coolness and composure he brought to the defence as they wrapped up the title in one of the most intimidating atmospheres in the world.

Right back – Hiroki Sakai (Kashiwa Reysol, 2011)

Sakai looked like the real deal from the moment Reysol re-introduced themselves to the first division in 2011. Boasting pace and power in both directions, his crossing ability also made him a real threat in the final third, and despite still only being 20 at the start of the campaign his aggression and willingness to get forward and attack was vital to the team’s stunning achievement of winning the J1 title the year after becoming second division champions.

Centre back – Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Nagoya Grampus, 2010)

After an acrimonious departure from Urawa Reds, Tulio relished his role at the heart of Dragan Stojkovic’s defence for Grampus. Often seeming to intimidate opponents even before the battle for possession had begun, few forwards found their way past the Japan international – who also shone at the World Cup alongside Yuji Nakazawa in the summer – and he posed just as much threat at the other end of the pitch, finding the net six times as Nagoya galloped to glory.

Centre back – Makoto Kakuda (Vegalta Sendai, 2011-12)

I’m cheating a little here as he was actually playing in defensive midfield, but Kakuda exemplified Vegalta’s spirit during their toughest yet most successful period. Just the kind of player everyone wants on their team and nobody wants to play against (he picked up 12 bookings over the course of the two seasons), no cause was lost to Kakuda, and although Vegalta ultimately fell just short of a trophy he gave all he could to help raise the spirits of the region.

Left back – Wataru Hashimoto (Kashiwa Reysol, 2011)

An unsung hero of Reysol’s title-winning side, Hashimoto was just the kind of player coach Nelsinho loves. Hard running, fearless in the challenge, and unafraid of trying something different if needed when going forwards, his work on the left perfectly complemented that of Hiroki Sakai on the opposite flank. He even got a moment of glory in the title-clinching game, striking his only goal of the campaign with Reysol’s second in the 3-1 win away to Urawa on the last day of the season.

Football Channel 19th April 2020

Central midfield – Kengo Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale, 2017)

An all-time great of the J.League. As well as possessing sublime vision, pinpoint passing, and effortless composure, the Kawasaki Frontale legend also has the rare ability of uniting fans and players of all stripes. Everyone in the game is unanimous in their appreciation of the one-club man’s talents, and the manner in which he kept his head to help perennial bridesmaid Frontale to their maiden league title in 2017 epitomised the quality of one of Japan’s smoothest operators.

Central midfield – Gaku Shibasaki (Kashima Antlers, 2016)

Another sublimely gifted manipulator of the ball, Shibasaki always seemed to see things in slow motion. The Aomori native was able to play at his own pace in the middle of the park, and came into his own as Antlers won a J1 and Emperor’s Cup double in 2016. And, of course, there was also that game against Real Madrid, when he showed he really did have what it took to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world.

Right wing – Leandro Domingues (Kashiwa Reysol, 2011)

The Brazilian was close to unplayable in 2011. His strutting, cocky play-style added the something extra Reysol needed to elevate them from a very good team to a champion team, and his spikiness so often served as the fuel to ignite the fiery crowd at Hitachi Dai. Combative, creative, and with an acute awareness of what was going on around him, he knew just when to release a pass or, just as likely, a shot into the back of the net.

Attacking midfield – Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka, 2013)

Kakitani was a joy to watch in 2013, when he was at the peak of his powers. The youngster was at the heart of everything good Cerezo did going forwards, and he was so full of confidence it often seemed he wasn’t so much running with the ball as gliding across the turf with it. That self-assuredness was on display in the final third too, as he racked up 21 goals – including the goal of the season.

Left wing – Yoshinori Muto (FC Tokyo, 2015)

He may only have played half a season, but Muto was the standout performer from 2015. This was one of the few occasions when I’ve seen an emerging Japanese player in the J.League who’s already too good for the division – and, perhaps more importantly, who knew it himself. For all his politeness off the pitch there was an arrogance to the FC Tokyo forward on it, and there was a genuine thrill in watching him perform each weekend.

Centre forward – Hisato Sato (Sanfrecce Hiroshima, 2012-13)

The total striker, Sato was an absolute pleasure to watch during this purple period. Blessed with sensational awareness, imagination, and the ability to score from anywhere, the No.11 was ever-present and notched 39 goals as Sanfrecce claimed back-to-back titles. Whether finishing deftly after breaking in behind with a burst of pace, shaking off his marker to be in the right place at the right time for close-range efforts, or dispatching thunderbolts from the blue, everything he touched seemed to finish in the back of the net.

28
Mar
20

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.

14
Mar
20

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.




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