Archive for January, 2011


Commercial Breakdown

TV coverage of football in Japan, as I have touched upon before, has many problems. Cutting to commercials during a penalty-shoot-out was not something I had ever expected though.

The constant repetition of the same commercials at halftime and inbetween games I can make my peace with (I have grown up watching the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League after all). The irritating slogans that keep popping up to remind me who is sponsoring the show – as if it needed reinforcing – are also something that I have now come to expect of football coverage on TV in Japan. Cutting off in the middle, actually, just before the very end of, a penalty shoot-out for the ad-break, however, is absolutely ridiculous.

For anybody who missed it (although perhaps that’s the wrong turn of phrase, we all missed it), let me provide a brief recap.

Risshodai Shonan and Takigawa Ni had played out a tense semifinal to see who would join Kumiyama in the final of the 2011 All Japan High School tournament and, just as in Kumiyama’s semifinal with Ryutsu Keizaidai Kashiwa, the game had progressed to a penalty shoot-out.

Unlike the first match – which had produced four goals in regulation time and was concluded efficiently before Kumiyama had to take their fifth penalty – the second did not feature the sharpest of shooting. Takuo Ikeda and Taiki Katou had both missed open goals in the final five minutes for Risshodai and although they had gone someway to making up for those errors by converting their penalty kicks, neither side was able to end the match.

With the score still tied after the eighth round of spot kicks I was on the edge of my seat (well my bed), engrossed in the natural drama of the shoot-out.

And then it disappeared. First the pictures were submerged under an advert for a copy company (I mean, how many copy companies are there? Do they really need to advertise anyway?), and then, with the commentators still jabbering excitedly away, they cut entirely to a commercial break.

‘You’re kidding, right?’ I said (although I think I used slightly rougher language), before leaping up and frantically changing the channels. Nothing. The game hadn’t been shifted to a different channel, it was just gone. With, as it turned out, just two more kicks to go. What’s that, 60 seconds, perhaps?  All because the schedule dictated that the show must take a break at that point.

Now, I am often frustrated by television coverage of football in Japan (something I will undoubtedly discuss here at a later date). My most frequent complaint is that it all too often refuses to discuss controversial events – with penalty decisions, red cards and diving rarely, if ever, addressed. While this is annoying, to cut a live sporting event off right before its conclusion is just incredible. Why not delay the commercials until the game had ended?

Something similar did happen in England a couple of years ago, when Everton youngster Dan Gosling’s extra-time winner against Liverpool in an FA Cup replay was missed by the viewing public as the channel, ITV, cut to an advert for tic-tacs.

This was down to a technical fault rather than having been a conscious decision on the part of the programme-makers though – and it caused quite a stir, provoking over 1,000 complaints within 24 hours and drawing an apology from the executive chairman of the channel, who said:

“As a football fan myself I was glued to the match and was as disappointed as anyone to miss the goal. [The] glitch was inexcusable and we are awaiting the results of our technical inquiry so we can put in place stringent procedures to address this.”

Gosling’s goal, like the conclusion to the Takigawa-Risshodai shoot-out, was shown in replays once coverage continued, but this is just not the same as seeing it live, especially when you have become so gripped by the action.

I am sure nobody from NTV – who were airing the game – has declared the decision ‘inexcusable’, and it is disappointing that such an exciting day of football was spoiled by something that could so easily have been prevented.

I certainly learned a lesson from my semifinal experience and didn’t take any risks with the final; instead of sitting in front of the TV I headed to Kokuritsu where I enjoyed all eight goals live and uninterrupted.


The Back Post – Self-belief the key for Miyaichi

The last month or so has seen several more Japanese players head to Europe, including the 18-year-old High School player Ryo Miyaichi, who has just signed for Arsenal.

While the number of players moving abroad is increasing and can only be a good thing for the game here, the level of self-belief Japanese players have in their own abilities is still up for debate, as I discussed in today’s Daily Yomiuri. 


Cup of Kings

There may no longer be a huge amount of prestige attached to winning the English FA Cup – largely because there is no real benefit of winning the tournament – but the winners of the football association cup in Japan certainly have an extra incentive.

Although many see the Emperor’s Cup as little more than a consolation prize, I am happy that the winners get Japan’s fourth and final Asian Champions League spot. As far as I’m concerned, winning a trophy is more of an achievement than finishing fourth in the league and the ‘Champions’ league should be contested by champions.

Speaking after Kashima defeated Shimizu on New Year’s Day, Oswaldo Oliveira was delighted to have won the competition for the second time and his comments highlighted the importance of adding the extra incentive of a Champions League spot to the competition.

“I was worrying about this (qualifying for the Champions League) because it will be our fourth time to play in the tournament since 2008. If we missed out on 2011, I would feel very sad.”

“I couldn’t allow myself to end the year without winning a title so this victory means a lot to me.”

Match-winner Takuya Nozawa also reflected on the value of the victory, commenting that, “We really wanted to qualify for the Asian Champions League and we got it done. Although we weren’t able to win four straight J.League titles I feel that in part we made up for it by winning the Emperor’s Cup.”

This hits the nail on the head, and while a strong league finish demonstrates consistency over the course of the season it does not bring with it the same thrills and tensions as a cup run. Players should want to be winning trophies rather than finishing in third place in the league.

Last weekend was the third round of the famous English FA Cup – the tournament on which the Emperor’s Cup is based. Despite the history and tradition attached to this trophy however, very few of England’s big teams are really too concerned with the competition any more, with fourth place in the Premier League offering more financial gain and the chance of Champions League football. The FA Cup does not currently provide a gateway to that continental competition.

In last year’s third round – when Premier League teams enter the draw – Manchester United lost at home to Leeds United, who are now playing in the third tier of English football, while Liverpool fell to defeat against Championship side Reading at Anfield; both teams had bigger fish to fry.

This lack of interest in the cup was then contrasted by the depressingly over-the-top celebrations by Tottenham Hotspur when they beat Manchester City to secure fourth-place in the Premier League.

Champagne corks were popping and the manager, Harry Redknapp, was showered by a bucket of iced water as the players celebrated their achievement.

Redknapp, who had won the FA Cup with his former side Portsmouth in 2008, made it abundantly clear which success he valued more greatly, exclaiming that.

“It’s even better than winning the Cup. The Cup you can win with some lucky draws. You all know that if you can get some nice draws, three or four wins and you are there. But I think this a better achievement.”

He then continued by claiming that, having secured a qualification spot for the European competition, his team’s final league position didn’t actually matter too much.

“I just wanted to finish fourth but the chairman has just asked me who Arsenal are playing on Sunday and I think he wants to see if we can finish above them. I’m just happy with fourth.”

This is a sad indication of the plight of modern football, with finishing fourth in one competition – not even a medal position in other sports – being deemed of greater value than coming first in another.

Unfortunately, such an attitude is understandable though, and, while it would be great for teams to want to win a trophy for nothing more than prestige and glory, the financial pressures on professional clubs these days mean that is just not realistic.

By having the final ACL position tied up with victory in the Emperor’s Cup, the JFA is doing better than the English FA in keeping its teams interested in its cup competition though, and as long as that bonus is attached to lifting the trophy, J.League teams will have to keep treating the tournament with respect.


Ienaga gets his chance

The number of Japanese players earning themselves moves to Europe is steadily on the rise so for last week’s Soccer Magazine column I focused on the chances of one of them, Akihiro Ienaga, making the grade at Mallorca in Spain. 

Twelve months after getting relegated from J1 with Oita Trinita, Akihiro Ienaga has completed a remarkable turnaround and, having secured a move to R.C.D Mallorca, will look to become the first Japanese player to really make his mark in Spain’s Primera Liga.

I have a sneaking suspicion he may just do it, although I am certainly not alone in that opinion.

Since 2008 he has helped Oita to a Nabisco Cup triumph and been instrumental in Cerezo Osaka’s spectacular surge into the AFC Champions League, but there was always the fear that he would never fulfil his full potential.

While Ienaga’s talent has never been in doubt, his attitude has sometimes held him back and as the likes of Keisuke Honda – with whom he played for Gamba Osaka junior youth – began to earn reputations for themselves on the pitch, Ienaga found himself out on loan in each of the last three seasons – largely because he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Akira Nishino.

It looked as if a move abroad may be the best solution for him to really make the step up, and last January I visited Plymouth Argyle in England, where Ienaga had spent some time on trial.

Chief Operating Officer of the club, Tony Campbell, remarked on the player’s standout ability amongst the various Japanese players who had visited the club, and suggested that his mentality was perhaps more suited to a European style of play.

“When Ienaga came over he said he really enjoyed training in England because it was different. On one of our training sessions we turned the goals round, so they had to get the ball in behind and score. He’d never done it, but he loved it, because it was different.”

Endo Yasuhito is also a big Ienaga fan, and back in August selected him as his favourite current J.League player.

“Now I like Ienaga, he is a great player with huge potential. I feel he could make it into the national team and also abroad as well.”

Ienaga will now have the opportunity to prove his former teammate right, and at the same time will have the chance to lay to rest the ghosts of previous Japanese players who have tried and failed in Spain.

Shunsuke Nakamura is the most recent to have come up short in the country during his period at Espanyol, where he struggled to adapt with the Spanish style after too long in the inferior SPL. Before him went the likes of Shoji Jo and Yoshito Okubo who were also given chances in the country – the latter interestingly also at Mallorca – but failed to make the grade.

Ienaga is perhaps a different breed of player to his predecessors though, and his openness to new ideas will certainly stand him in good stead in La Liga. His former coach at Oita, Ranko Popovic, is delighted that ‘Aki’ has received this opportunity, referring to the progress he has made since he started working with him two seasons ago.

“Aki had some difficulties at the start with changing some things and I was very strict with him. He learned though and he is a very good player.”

Popovic recalls one instance in particular that underlined the player’s ability.

“I played him volante in one game and he had never played there before. People said I was crazy to force him into this position but he was the Man of the Match.

“I saw big potential in him and now we are seeing the fruits of that. I told him at Oita, ‘You must be the best. I don’t want you in the middle, if you are in the middle you don’t exist to me. You must be the best.’”

Such harsh treatment can go one of two ways, with the player either choosing to rise to the task or give up entirely. Ienaga’s quality is shown in the fact that he did the former, and his decision to take on this latest challenge in Spain could see him grow even more in the next few years.

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January 2011