Samurai Shinji

Shinji Okazaki has never been the most naturally gifted of players, but his willingness to learn and work hard has seen him climb steadily through the ranks and all the way to the top of the Premier League…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Wednesday 13th January, 2016

He may only have scored four goals so far in the league, but Shinji Okazaki has quietly made himself a key player for Leicester City as the unfancied Midlands side continues to keep pace with the usual suspects at the top of the Premier League.

The 29-year-old has appeared in 21 of his side’s 23 games so far, and has established himself as Claudio Ranieri’s preferred option to partner Jamie Vardy in attack. Okazaki’s swift acclimatisation to English football has been so impressive that last season’s top-scorer Leonardo Ulloa has been consigned to a bit-part role, while Leicester’s record signing Andrej Kramaric was last week sent out on loan to Hoffenheim for the remainder of the season.

The seamless way in which Okazaki has adapted to the demands of one of the quickest and most physically demanding divisions in the world is a credit to the player and his mentality, and perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise considering the way in which he has steadily developed over the past decade since earning his debut as a raw 19-year-old for Shimizu S-Pulse in December 2005.

Okazaki has never scored more than 15 goals in a season and may lack a little of the finesse of many other Japanese exports, but his willingness and ability to contribute to the team is an asset hugely appreciated in England, and is one that he has worked hard to capitalise upon.

Back in 2010, ahead of the World Cup in South Africa, I attended a round-table interview with Okazaki at Shimizu’s Miho training ground, and it was clear then how driven he was to make a success of himself.

“It’s my character, if I don’t do that then it is not me,” Okazaki said of his penchant for chasing down seemingly lost causes on the pitch. “I have done it from when I was very young.”

As well as making the most of his strong points, the 24-year-old Okazaki also stressed an awareness of his deficiencies and a desire to improve upon them.

“I am not particularly good at sprinting, I was better at marathons and longer races – stamina is one of my strong points,” he said. “I had an inferiority complex about my speed [at school] so I worked very hard to improve it. After becoming a professional I understood what the physical coach told us and I realised I was able to improve.

©Getty Images

“Every year I choose one thing to improve; to use my body or work on my technique. At the beginning I felt that I wanted to improve my speed, right now I want to improve my physical condition. I consulted the physical trainer about this so I can compete with the best in the world.”

Bit by bit he has climbed the ladder to a point where he is doing that on a weekly basis, and his eagerness to learn is showing no signs of letting up. This isn’t just restricted to activities on the pitch, and throughout the season he has made a commendable effort to conduct interviews in English, despite still being far from fluent.

Standing in front of a camera and facing questions – on the record – in a language you are still getting to grips with is no mean feat, but overcoming those nerves and putting yourself in a position to go it alone without the help of a translator can reap huge rewards. It is no coincidence that the players who have worked hardest to converse in another language – Maya Yoshida, Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe – have been the most successful at carving out careers overseas.

This open-minded approach also has its roots in Okazaki’s initial footballing education, with the Hyogo native praising his high school coach back in 2010 for stressing the importance of individuality.

“My teacher said that personality was vital and combined with your football performance. Many of the best J.League players are great characters. The teacher told me that personality equals football – I have a lot of respect for that teacher.

“Every third-grade high school student had to select a key word and I chose ‘samurai’ because at that time the movie The Last Samurai was popular. I suggested the word and everybody agreed with me. I like that word. It conjures up many images, but I think it means you should never give up mentally – you should keep a strong mind. People all have different images but if we are well led and never give up then we believe we can win in the end. I want to become a samurai of football.”

If he can help his side to a sensational Premier League title this season then Okazaki will undoubtedly have achieved that aim, and the openness with which he has thrown himself into his overseas experience should serve as an inspiration to young players – and, indeed, young people in general – in Japan who want to do something outside of the norm.



Schoolboy stuff

Vahid Halilhodzic started 2016 by criticising the lack of variety in Japanese football, and the High School championships are unlikely to have cheered him up on that front… (Also available in English here / 日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Wednesday 13th January, 2016

Vahid Halilhodzic has been in charge of Japan for almost a year now, and at the start of 2016 he made some characteristically frank comments about the current state of the Japanese game.

The Bosnian has certainly not been afraid to speak his mind since taking over from Javier Aguirre last March, and whether it be publicly highlighting the body fat ratios of his players, pleading with them to take more shots at goal, or asking for J.League referees to improve upon their communication skills, he can hardly be accused of taking things easy as he familiarizes himself with football in Japan.

While the Samurai Blue are sitting pretty at the top of their second round World Cup qualifying group, the 63-year-old suggested he is far from content with what he has seen from his players so far, with one comment in particular standing out.

“There aren’t any players to replace [Keisuke] Honda or [Shinji] Kagawa and the future is uncertain,” he was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. “The style of football in the J. League and Europe is completely different, especially when it comes to the competitiveness.

“Japanese society is wonderfully organized but there are few opportunities for individuals to take the initiative, which leads to a lack of creativity. And that shows in matches.”

This problem is far from exclusive to the J.League or national team, and a rigidity and conservativeness is often also found at the lower levels of the Japanese game – which is worrying and ties in with Halilhodzic’s concerns regarding the next generation of Japanese players.

Youngsters in Japan are consistently being produced with outstanding technical ability, leading to more and more players being given opportunities to fill the assist-making positions in Europe. That is all well and good, but far from ideal when it comes to the national team as you can’t build a formidable side with 11 full-backs and No.10s.

It often seems that too much importance is placed on ability with the ball at the feet, even for centre-backs and strikers who don’t necessarily need to be overly gifted in these areas. This results in a shortage of players in the key central positions, with those lacking a velvet touch being deemed surplus to requirements at youth level.

This was highlighted at the recent high school football tournament, with the most successful teams all extremely competent in possession and boasting several tricky wingers and fleet-footed playmakers. Where are the rough-and-ready defenders and line-leading strikers though?

Higashi Fukuoka v. Kokugakuin Kugayama, Monday 11th January. 2016

Despite emerging as 2-1 victors from their semi-final against Aomori Yamada, Kokugakuin Kugayama’s defence was sent into complete disarray each time Kairi Harayama sent a long throw careening into its box, for example, while 2015 champions Seiryo took until the 54th minute of their 2-0 semi-final defeat to Higashi Fukuoka to record their first shot on target.

While Fukuoka ultimately went on to emphatically win the final 5-0, before their second goal forced Kugayama to take more risks large spells of the game were played out in the middle third of the pitch, with the play often as predictable and repetitive as the regimented chants raining down from the stands.

Taken on its own that could be seen as typical of a match of such magnitude (or a recent Manchester United game), but such encounters are a common sight in Japan, with teams invariably cancelling each other out and merely persevering with the same attacks until an opponent makes a mistake. That approach may pay off domestically but it is far less likely to be effective at the highest levels of the game.

This lack of variety is likely what led Halilhodzic to question the wisdom of those assuming Japan are a shoo-in for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. “A lot of people think Japan are at an advantage but if you compare player for player there are better teams than Japan,” he said. “The finals are still way off in the distance.

“In attack, goals have been harder to come by than I imagined. We need a proper goal scorer. The stronger our opponents are, the fewer chances we are going to get. That is when you need goals. Why are there no Japanese players leading the scoring charts in the world’s top leagues?”

If players are not given the opportunity to develop in those arts as they take their first steps in the game, though, it is difficult to expect them to cultivate a ruthlessness in front of goal once they progress through the ranks.

“You have to think of ways to improve the J. League,” Halilhodzic concluded. “Japan has to find its own identity and not just copy Brazil or Germany. In my mind, I have a way of building a unique team that draws on the strengths of each and every player.”

Here’s hoping that is some master plan, because it doesn’t look like he’ll be benefiting from a wider array of players anytime soon – nor, perhaps, will his successors.


Culture Club (World Cup)

‘Football culture’ is not something that can easily be appropriated – or, in fact, defined – but practising the same philosophy you preach undoubtedly helps to foster enthusiasm around a team… (Also available in English here / 日本が番はこちらです)

Football Channel, December 25th, 2015

Zheng Zhi described appearing at the Club World Cup as “very interesting”, and while the tournament is not a competition in the truest sense of the word – the gulf between Europe’s super-clubs and the rest of the world is vast and seemingly expanding every year – anyone who witnessed the River Plate fans in action would struggle to disagree with Guangzhou Evergrande’s captain.

The opportunity to play against different teams from far-flung parts of the globe is undoubtedly a positive for the majority of the teams involved, and the word ‘experience’ was thrown around constantly throughout the competition. Another buzzword that cropped up was ‘culture’.

“By looking at the atmosphere generated by the River Plate supporters, now I feel like Japan also should enhance its football culture to learn from the countries which have more history of football,” Sanfrecce Hiroshima coach Hajime Moriyasu said after his team’s narrow 1-0 semi-final defeat to River.

Picking up aspects from other styles of football has always been how the game has developed around the world, but that kind of fanatical support is not something that can just be manufactured overnight. Instead it needs to be nurtured – and allowed to grow – over time. “River is my life,” was a phrase heard frequently from the Argentinian fans who had traveled the nearly 19,000 kilometres to follow their club, and that sense of dedication stems from a belonging which stretches back generations.

There are signs that Sanfrecce, for one, is on the right path though, as pride in the way a team performs is fundamental to producing such die-hard support.

Barcelona provides the perfect case in point, and has established itself as the go-to club for anyone wanting to follow a team that wins in style.

“Not only winning the title, it’s very important how we achieved it here,” Luis Enrique said after his players tiki-taka’d River into submission in the final. “If you are football fans everybody wants their club to get the title, but how to reach that title, the process is very important to me.

“In all levels of Barcelona teams they’re all aiming for the same goal, and that’s the reason why we’re able to improve our levels.”

River Plate fans take over Dotonbori, Osaka - Tuesday 15th December, 2015

To remain so steadfast in that belief you have to have confidence in the process.

“Football is 11 against 11 on the pitch,” Paulinho said after Guangzhou beat Mexico’s most successful side Club America in the quarter-finals. “Outside everyone was saying that America will go to the semi-final, but I’ve played football for I don’t know how many years and I know what happens on the pitch. You don’t have to talk before the game, just play on the pitch.”

His coach Luiz Felipe Scolari touched upon a similar topic after that victory.

“I want my squad to believe in the fact that they have the possibility to win against Barcelona,” he said. “My next job is to win over my squad, for my players to believe in the possibility – it’s not impossible.”

Ahead of possibly the biggest match in the club’s history, Moriyasu also made it clear that he believes in the team he has built in Hiroshima, when he insisted that they would go toe-to-toe with River Plate.

“Our concept and style will not be changed and we will continue to perform as we have in the next match,” he said before the semi-final. Those weren’t just empty sentiments, either, and the Purple Archers followed thorough by playing patient, confident, counter-attacking football against the Copa Libertadores champions, and very nearly beating them.

“Barcelona is another world, but we can play with everybody else,” Mihael Mikic said after he and his team had ultimately made sure of a bronze medal by beating reigning ACL champions Evergrande 2-1 in the third-place play-off.

“If you analyse all our games, in almost all games we are the better team. We maybe don’t have more ball possession than the opponent but we play our style, we play our concept, and we show the world how is our style. That is very important in this moment in soccer. If you analyse the best teams in Europe – Bayern Munich or Barcelona or Arsenal – they always have the same style, same concept.”

Football culture has many facets – whether on the pitch or in the stands – but a habit of winning while staying true to a style of playing is the surest way to gain a team following and respect. In that sense the signs are positive for Sanfrecce, who under Moriyasu are unquestionably heading down the right road.


Sanfrecce do J.League proud at Club World Cup

Sanfrecce Hiroshima didn’t have much time to prepare for the Club World Cup, but once they were at the competition they put in a series of performances worthy of J.League champions.

Soccerphile, 24th December, 2015

I was at all four of Sanfrecce’s games in Yokohama and Osaka, and provided Soccerphile with some reaction on the team’s performance and what it could mean looking ahead for them and Japanese football in general.


Sanfrecce secure deserved J1 title

The first of the J.League’s revamped and controversial two-stage seasons came to an end last weekend, with Sanfrecce Hiroshima sealing the J1 title.

Soccerphile, 10th December, 2015

I provided Soccerphile with some thoughts on the top flight climax, along with reaction from some of the key protagonists about the format and its eventual champions.


Mixing with the big boys

The Club World Cup has always been won by the established powers from Europe and  South America, but that doesn’t stop the smaller sides from dreaming. Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Auckland City get the 2015 edition underway in Yokohama tonight as they play-off to enter the tournament proper, and perhaps earn the right to go head-to-head with one of the big boys… (Also available in English here / 日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, December 10th, 2015

If all goes according to plan, River Plate will be facing Barcelona in the Club World Cup final at Nissan Stadium on December 20th.

Of course, in football things don’t always go according to plan, as TP Mazembe will happily tell you. In 2010 the Congolese upset the odds to progress to the Club World Cup final against Inter Milan in UAE, and although they lost 3-0 against Rafael Benitez’s side, the mere fact they made it that far was enough of an achievement for the CAF champions.

Mazembe are aiming for more upsets as the competition returns to Japan this year, and will provide the opposition for the winner of Thursday’s play-off match between two more sides hoping for their day in the sun, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Auckland City.

By virtue of their dominance in Oceania, Auckland are practically synonymous with the Club World Cup now and this will be their seventh appearance at the competition, at which they will also set a new record for most matches played; 13 (and counting, if they overcome Sanfrecce).

That tally was boosted hugely by their showing in Morocco last year, when the New Zelanders demonstrated they can be more than just makeweights as they progressed to the semi-final. They lost to San Lorenzo of Argentina 2-1 in extra time but went on to pick up bronze after beating Mexican side Cruz Azul on penalties in the third-place play-off.

Having gained a taste of success, Ramon Tribulietx’s side are determined to offer up another strong showing in 2015.

“For that momentum to grow and snowball into the final game and to come third, and for a New Zealand team to get a FIFA medal, it’s something you can only dream of – and for us to do that was a dream come true for football and sport in New Zealand,” Navy Blues stalwart and New Zealand’s most-capped player Ivan Vicelich told me last week. “I think it’s helped to fly the flag there and slowly it’s helped to grow the sport.”

Last year’s antics will undoubtedly have boosted confidence and Auckland have every right to fancy their chances against Sanfrecce, with the two coming head-to-head at the same stage three years ago and only being separated by a Toshihiro Aoyama screamer midway through the second half.

Vicelich, who has travelled with the team but not been named in the squad this time around on account of injury, is optimistic but hesitant to get carried away.

FIFA Club World Cup 2015

We’re looking to be competitive,” he said. “We’re realistic; we understand the gap and the difference between domestic competition in New Zealand and the domestic competition in Japan. We know it’s going to be very difficult in the first game. But we hope to be competitive, and if we can be then we have a chance.

“They’re really cultured players and very good technically, and personally I see that with the J.League. The league is a very good standard right through, it’s not like there’s one team just winning by 30 points or something like that. We’re going to have to try to work on just bringing our players confidence and ideas up, and to know that we can again compete at this level.”

Sanfrecce are likewise eager to leave a better account of themselves than they did in their last outing, and come into the match full of confidence after sealing the J1 championship on Saturday.

After beating Auckland in 2012 Hajime Moriyasu’s side lost 2-1 to Al-Ahly of Egypt, and although they did then go on to beat Ulsan Hyundai 3-2 in the fifth-place play-off Mihael Mikic is determined to leave a stronger impression this time around.

“We really want to make one step more on the last time – that means our big dream is to play the semi-final,” he said after the J.League Championship final. “Then if we make it to the semi-final everything is possible.

“We want to represent Japanese soccer, and the quality of Japanese soccer. That is a big motivation for us. My opinion is that Japanese soccer is moving up a level every year and we must show to the world.”

The carrot on the end of the stick is a tantalizing clash with River Plate, and the opportunity to upset the apple cart and prevent the final that everybody anticipates.

“That is really big, especially for our small team,” the 35-year-old said. “That is really a dream. We respect everybody but we aren’t scared of anybody. We are testing ourselves and testing our team and testing our style – we are testing everything.”

And their first opponents’ achievement at the last edition resonated with the Croatian winger.

“I saw the result, and it was also a little bit lucky,” he said, before adding with a knowing smile, “but without luck you cannot make a result like this. We will give our best and hope we can make a surprise.”


Moriyasu the main man

Sanfrecce Hiroshima sealed its third J1 title in four years at the weekend, and coach Hajime Moriyasu deserves huge credit for turning the club’s potential into actual achievement… Also available in English here / 日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  December 9th, 2015

Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s triumph in the J.League play-offs was a richly deserved and fitting reward for a team which was undoubtedly the best in J1 in 2015.

The success also added to Sanfrecce’s credentials as a truly big club in the Japanese game; winning a championship is never easy, back-to-back titles an outstanding achievement, but three in four years a sign that something is very right with a club.

Unsurprisingly, conflict and turmoil rarely, if ever, crop up at the club from the international city of peace, and there can be little doubt as to who is fundamentally responsible for that.

Hajime Moriyasu is the kind of coach any team would like to have in charge, going about his job in a professional, efficient, and respectful manner – while all the while picking up trophies. The progress that Sanfrecce have made since he took the reins from Mihailo Petrovic in 2012 has been nothing short of remarkable.

Petrovic’s work in laying the foundations in Hiroshima should not be forgotten – and Moriyasu has frequently credited the Serb, with whom he worked as a coach for three years, for planting the seeds for Sanfrecce’s purple patch – but it has been the pupil who has nurtured the team and led it to such heights.

He also conducts himself impeccably, and just minutes after joyfully screaming into the microphone during his pitch-side interview after the 1-1 draw with Gamba sealed the title on Saturday he was courteously shaking hands with and bowing to Kenta Hasegawa and each of his staff on the opposition bench.

Unsurprisingly, his players also speak highly of him.

“It’s all thanks to him,” Douglas said when asked about his coach’s role in winning the title. “Of course if he wasn’t here we couldn’t play this kind of football. He has built the team properly, and all of the players take on board the things he teaches them and are able to express them out on the pitch.”

Mihael Mikic was likewise keen to sing his manager’s praises.

“I hope now other teams give us respect, because we made an unbelievable job in these four years – especially our kantoku, because without him I think we cannot make a result like this,” the Croatian, who never seems to age and still bombs up and down the Sanfrecce right wing relentlessly at 35, said.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima coach Hajime Moriyasu

“He really has everything, and most importantly he knows how he must train us and prepare for the next game. That is very important and the style we play and everything he makes so smartly and always calmly. Always analyzing the other teams and we prepare in the week how we must play [in the matches].”

Tsukasa Shiotani, meanwhile, is struck by the thorough way in which his boss goes about his work.

“I don’t think there’s another coach as good as him,” the Japan international said. “He really looks at everything. This year the substitutes have often produced results, and he watches the young players and second team in training all the time.

“The coach is the first one at the training ground and last one to leave – when I arrive he’s already there and when I leave he’s still around and watching the players. I think that kind of diligence is fantastic and don’t think there can be many coaches like that.”

Of course there is already talk of Moriyasu as a future Japan boss – and justifiably so with him being the first Japanese manager to win the J.League three times (an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has managed it in his first four years as a manager).

Whether he is capable of making the step up or suited to international as opposed to club management remains to be seen – the intricate day-to-day style for which he draws such praise from his players isn’t achievable with a national team, when the coach only has his squad together for a week or so at a time a handful of times a year – but if leading his country is an ambition then it would be hugely beneficial for Moriyasu if he could also gain some experience overseas beforehand.

The key requirement for a national team coach is to understand the domestic players and earn their respect, but once it comes to international competition an awareness of different approaches is invaluable in the modern game. In his trio of championships Moriyasu has collected the three arrows synonymous with his club already, but if he can add even more strings to his bow then he could well go on to become a huge success in the Japan hot seat.

Of course that is all a discussion to be saved for another day. For now, Sanfrecce Hiroshima – and the J.League as a whole – should just be grateful to have produced and be benefiting so richly from such a gifted and praiseworthy coach.

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

  • Finished FC Tokyo 9-0 Chonburi, Hiroki Kawano notching a penalty right at the death. Yikes. 5 hours ago
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