Archive for December 1st, 2010

01
Dec
10

Interview with Alan Wilkie, Part Two

Here is the second part of my interview with Alan Wilkie, who has just concluded a stint as Top Referee Instructor for the JFA. It appeared in Weekly Soccer Magazine on the 23rd November.

In last week’s column former English Premier League referee Alan Wilkie provided his opinions on the stadiums, fans and players in Japan. Having come here to assist in referee development though, what are his thoughts on the men in the middle?

Well, upon arrival a year and a half ago, some differences were immediately clear.

“Referees would not manage or engage with the players – communication was a big problem. My initial impression was that referees in Japan referee in isolation, they are not part of the game they are peripheral to the game. That was one of the main things we had to break down as a team of coaches.”

How did the Japanese officials take to being told what they were doing wrong though?

“Once people recognised that I had something to offer the support and the camaraderie in the JFA refereeing team was very good. There are some very good people working in the JFA.

“What I try to do is influence people, I don’t tell anybody anything. I try to persuade them and give them a good example.”

The biggest problem, he believes, lies not in the ability of the officials, but in their confidence.

“The issue in Japan is that most of the referees are very, very self-conscious and self-deprecating. I will not allow the de-brief to be ‘you did this wrong, you did this wrong’. The way that I de-brief is that I get people to accept that they may have been able to do things a little better, and it works.”

Increased confidence results in increased respect – something Alan does not believe Japanese referees receive much of at the moment.

“In Japan, cautions mean nothing. You can tell nobody cares by the demeanour of the player when the referee’s cautioning him, he’ll just walk away and wave his hand. That shows complete disrespect and I’m trying to get the referees to change the yellow to a second yellow and red because it’s dissent.”

Diving and other gamesmanship is also on the rise, but Alan is surprisingly not totally against this.

“It doesn’t matter whether I think it’s negative or not, this is football. If the J.League wishes to be in the top 10, or perhaps the top 5, in the world, they will have to be able to compete and deal with exaggeration, overreaction and gamesmanship.”

2010 was a fantastic year for one J.League referee – Yuichi Nishimura, who was 4th official at the World Cup Final – and Alan is very proud of the 38-year-old’s achievement.

“Nishimura was my best pupil. The way that he handles and uses his body and the way that he engages with players is European. That’s why he’s a success.”

He also has a lot of respect for his boss, Yasuhiro Matsuzaki.

“[He] has football and refereeing at heart. His vision is to see football in Japan develop into a European style. I admire his vision very much and think he’s much-maligned and much misunderstood.”

So, as his time here comes to a close, what are his final thoughts?

“The best thing is seeing progress, seeing success, seeing referees develop. [But]I’m not finished! This is ongoing. I keep saying to the referees that if you sit and look at the good things you’ve done you’ll be left behind. Keep going.”

And has he learned anything to take back to England with him?

“I’m taking away masses and masses of training techniques because in Japan the methods of training leave England way behind. Every time they do a practical training session there’s two football teams there. In England we pretend and make referees be players, can you believe that?!”

Recent changes at the top of Japanese football also encourage him, and he expects big things of the game here in the future.

“There is a change of chairman in the J.League and I have great faith in his vision. [Kazumi Ohigashi] gives me the impression of being a man of integrity and direction.”

“Junji Ogura; I have great aspirations for him. I think he will be monumental in the development of football. Great vision and also an extremely nice man. Sometimes they don’t go hand in hand, but I think with him you will get results. I quite seriously have great hope for Japan, I really do.”

01
Dec
10

Interview with Alan Wilkie, part one

I recently interviewed Alan Wilkie before he returned to England after a year-and-a-half stint working for the JFA in Tokyo. The interview ran over two weeks in Weekly Soccer Magazine, with this, the first half, appearing in the November 16th issue.

Alan Wilkie, a former English Premier League referee who famously sent Eric Cantona off just before his kung-fu kick incident in 1996, has been working as Top Referee Instructor for the JFA for the past eighteen months.

His contract ends this week so we met for a pint and some fish and chips to discuss his thoughts on football in Japan. This week’s column will focus on the stadiums, fans and players, next week the more meaty issue of referees will be tackled.

While being impressed by many aspects of the J.League, one thing which has frustrated Alan is the distance supporters often are from the pitch.

“I think they need to rebuild stadia. At the moment, playing football with a running track is not attractive. I went to Yamagata on Saturday and used binoculars to watch the game. Outrageous!”

Furthermore, he believes that the lack of permanent homes for many clubs has a detrimental effect on the game here.

“I go to Jubilo and, “Oh, they’re not playing here, they’re playing at Ecopa.” Impossible. It’s impossible to have belonging. The only thing I should check is, ‘are they at home this week?’

“I think there is a need to focus on the heart and soul of football, which is ownership. You’re born to it and you die with it. My son is black and white (Newcastle United), his partner is red and white (Sunderland). So, the first photo of my grandson with anything to do with football, I draped a black and white scarf over him. So I claimed him – he is my grandson and he is Newcastle!”

The lack of belonging in Japan provides a stark contrast to the way fans operate in England.

“What it means to supporters [in England] is, I give a penalty kick against Manchester City and I get a bullet sent to my home. I get an envelope and in the envelope are broken razor blades. I don’t condone it but that’s what it means to them.”

“A bit of aggression’s good, in the right places. Controlled aggression. I don’t think you see controlled aggression on the pitch. The only time I’ve ever come across any aggression in Japan is on the metro! People will push you, people will kill you if there is a seat!”

He also notes another difference on the pitch.

“Sophistication. It can be stoppage time and it can be 3-0 and the team who are nil will still be going for it. That’s a lack of sophistication. Know when you’re beaten and just see the game out.”

Talk of sophistication inevitably leads to Alberto Zaccheroni (you know how much I admire his fashion), and Alan is confident the Italian can do well here.

“If you are successful in Italy as a coach then you can be successful anywhere. I’m sure that his methods – coaching, food, preparation and everything – will be top class.

“Those moving and playing abroad will come back to Japan as better players and with better understanding of the game. The goalkeeper for instance is quite clearly, personal opinion, the best goalkeeper in Japan.”

And how about the other positions? Who has stood out for him?

“Best defender, Nagatomo. He has introduced, as well as his electric pace, some cynicism, or professionalism. In midfield I like Hasebe, but also Matsui. They’re different but I like Hasebe because he’s also introduced some professionalism.

“Up-front, Maeda. Without question the most naturally gifted forward player in Japan. All he ever thinks about is goals. He would kill his mother to score a goal and I like that. Alan Shearer would kill his mother to score a goal and then say sorry!”

He also identifies several players who he feels will ensure a bright future for Japanese football.

“Kanazaki; I think he will play for Japan many, many times. Gamba have a precocious young player, Usami and Ono from Yokohama F. Marinos will be a star.

“I love Makino! Because he’s crazy! Spontaneous, flexible – he’s your man. I don’t think he’s developed enough to go to Europe yet. I think he has the possibility but he needs to work on his concentration. Because of his flexibility and his character, he tends to do silly things!”

01
Dec
10

The best is yet to come

Although they dramatically lost to Jubilo Iwata in the Nabisco Cup Final, Sanfrecce Hiroshima are without doubt one of the most vibrant and enjoyable teams to watch in the J.League. I discussed the reasons for this and what the future may hold for the club in my recent column in Weekly Soccer Magazine. 

Sanfrecce Hiroshima may have suffered heartbreak in last month’s Nabisco Cup Final, but their progress since returning to the top-flight of Japanese football should not be underestimated.

As well as making it to National Stadium for their epic clash with Jubilo Iwata, the Purple Archers have also made their first appearance in the Asian Champions League – qualifying immediately after returning to the top-tier.

Consistency has been the key to this success, with coach Mihailo Petrovic just concluding his fifth year in charge of the club. The Serbian has been given plenty of time to construct his own team, and he has done this intelligently, enabling his players to build an incredibly strong relationship.

It is no surprise that a squad comprising of ten academy graduates have such a close understanding out on the pitch, and the club’s philosophy is unlikely to change in the near future after their youth team were victorious in the Prince Takamado Cup in October.

As well as not being afraid of giving the club’s youngsters opportunities, Petrovic has been intelligent with the players brought in to add to the mix, ensuring that they not only have the relevant qualities to blend with their teammates, but also are able to assist in their education.

The impressive acclimatisation by Sanfrecce is not entirely unique. In the ten years since movement between J1 and J2 was made possible, twenty three teams have been promoted to the top-flight, with just four of them dropping straight back down the next season (although it looks as if Shonan Bellmare will be making it five from twenty six fairly soon).

What is especially refreshing about the achievements of Sanfrecce – and, this year, Cerezo Osaka – though is the fact that they have not abandoned the styles that initially earned them seats at the top table.

Sanfrecce scored 99 goals in the season that led to their promotion back to the top-flight – while Cerezo went one better, securing a century of strikes last year – and both sides still adopt an enthusiastic and adventurous approach in J1.

It could be argued that it is actually these aggressive styles which have caused the two sides to fall away in the league in the latter part of the season though, preventing even more sensational success.

Sanfrecce managed to keep pace for the first three-quarters of last season but when it came to the final straight the players began to tire, with the size of their squad not quite big enough to fully compete with the biggest teams in J1.

After they experienced that almighty collapse at Todoroki at this stage last season – when Frontale defeated them 7-0 and all but ended their title chances – Croatian wide-man Mihael Mikic referred to the demands placed on such a small squad.

“The season is very difficult; the whole team is always running. It’s a non-stop season – you start with training in January and now it’s November. One year non-stop and the summer in Japan is very, very difficult. When it’s the end of the season we don’t have many players in the squad as we always play the same guys and that is very difficult.”

“We are a team who cannot stop and just say, ‘OK, 1-0 or 2-0.’ We go, go, go! Every game we play football. Against Kawasaki or Kashima, Omiya, Oita, we always play the same. At 5-0 Hisato (Sato) said, “Go, we go!”, and I said, “Hisa, easy!” and he says “No, we go!

Such an enthusiastic – if slightly naive – approach was also their undoing against Jubilo. Having been just one minute away from their first piece of silverware when Ryoichi Maeda scored his first goal, the team capitulated in extra time, conceding a further three goals and managing just one of their own in reply.

While they have come up just short again this year – with the demands of the ACL and Nabisco run taking their toll – the team do have time on their side, and if Petrovic can keep the bulk of the squad together it would be very surprising if they are not celebrating a victory of their own very soon.

01
Dec
10

Oversensitivity

After a year-and-a-half living in Japan I had almost forgotten that football fans could get quite nasty. The recent will-he-won’t he involving Wayne Rooney and the two Manchester clubs reminded me of how high passions can run though, and provided the subject of my column for Weekly Soccer Magazine at the start of November.

A few weeks ago Wayne Rooney shocked football fans the world over by declaring that he wanted to leave Manchester United. He claimed that the club was lacking in ambition and that he felt he needed to move on.

Rumours immediately started that he would be heading to newly-rich neighbours Manchester City and, during United’s Champions League match with Bursaspor of Turkey, fans unfurled a collection of banners expressing their anger with the player’s actions (including one calling him a ‘whore’).

A couple of days later, a gang wearing balaclavas gathered outside the player’s house and made death threats. They (and he) needn’t have worried though, as he decided to stay in the end and was reportedly rewarded with a nice new £180,000 (¥23,000,000) a week contract.

All very exciting, but why am I discussing it in my column on Japanese football? I hear you ask.

Well, this episode and the reaction it sparked in the fans highlighted one of the biggest differences between supporters – and what is acceptable behaviour by them – in England and Japan.

In particular, the fury stirred up by the suggestion that Rooney may follow his ex-strike partner Carlos Tevez across the city and swap the red shirt for a blue one provided an interesting contrast to the way that rivalries are played out in the J.League.

In the past couple of months here, the GM of Urawa Reds has had to issue a formal apology to FC Tokyo after some of the club’s fans displayed a banner mocking their rivals, and Gamba Osaka supporters were reprimanded for raising flags bearing the trophies their club had won as a direct taunt to the visiting Cerezo Osaka fans behind the opposite goal.

Nobody’s life was threatened, no physical contact had occurred but the message was clear; goading of the opposition is not acceptable.

But why? I’m all for safety, fair play and a wholesome, rounded, enjoyable environment in which people of all ages, races and sexes can enjoy the game. Quite how a teasing flag here or cleverly-worded chant there calls this into doubt is a little beyond me though.

At Old Trafford there is a permanent banner featuring a counter of the number of years the blue half of the city have gone without winning a trophy (currently 34). City, meanwhile, shortly after snatching Tevez from United, launched a series of billboard ads to antagonise the Red Devils featuring an image of the striker and reading “Welcome to Manchester”.

Furthermore, a huge percentage of the songs sung in English football stadiums are not in support of a team but instead directed against the opponent (or the referee). While instances such as those mentioned above suggest that the tide is changing a little in Japan, the majority of fans here still focus all of their attention on supporting their team and very little abusing the other ones.

There has, of course, been a lot more time for rivalries to develop in England, and it is not always easy to keep them confined to playful songs or flags. The wave of hooliganism that shamed the game in the 70s and 80s has been almost totally removed though, and the banter in the stadiums is a defining characteristic and vital element of the English game.

In fact, I feel that that is one of the only things missing from the live football experience in Japan.

Instead of the authorities overreacting to the slightest piece of baiting in J.League arenas, the positive impact a little tension can have on the atmosphere in stadiums should be appreciated.

While it is understandable to have concerns about heading down a road towards potential conflict, physical violence is highly unlikely to become a problem in the country, and I actually believe that allowing a little animosity to creep into the atmosphere at the stadium would add to the allure of going to a live match rather than detract from it.     

If such oversensitivity continues though, and supporters continually have their attempts at creating a little bit of hostility stamped down upon, then the league may never be able to truly develop into one of the most exciting in the world.




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