Archive for February, 2011


The Back Post: Okada laid base for Zac’s success

Takeshi Okada left Japan in good shape for his successor Alberto Zaccheroni, providing him with some healthy heads and a strong heart.

I discussed the subject in more detail in my latest column for The Daily Yomiuri.


Land of the Rising Sons

After Japan beat Australia 1-0 in the Asian Cup final there was only one thing I could write about for last week’s Soccer Magazine…

The Samurai Blue’s success at the Asian Cup last week rounded off a hugely successful twelve months for Japanese football, and it doesn’t look as if the games’ development will be slowing down any time soon.

The ability to come from behind was key to Japan’s success in Qatar, and this mental strength is a relatively new addition to the side’s armoury. Compare the never-say-die spirit that was on display in 2011, for instance, with their infamous experience in Doha back in 1993. Rather than being the victim and conceding late goals, Japan is now the kind of side that is inflicting them on their opponents.

Turning a defeat or draw into a win in such a manner is the hallmark of all great teams, and if Japan can maintain such resilience over the next three-and-a-half years they will certainly put themselves in a position to progress beyond the last 16 in Brazil.

The foundations for this development can be accredited in no small part to Takeshi Okada, who identified the importance of mental strength when preparing his team for the World Cup in South Africa.

“When we talk about athletes and sports, there are three areas in which people compete,” he said. “There is the physical aspect, there is the technical aspect and there is the mental aspect.”

While many were ridiculing his ‘Best 4’ ambition, Okada san remained committed to the target, citing the importance of a strong psychology and refusing to accept that Japan did not have what it took to go that far. He reasoned that, “If you look back on Japan’s long history, even before the era of bushido or the samurai warrior way, there has always been, within the Japanese, the ability to fight, the ability to compete. It’s just that these abilities have been dimmed somewhat in recent times because now we live in a very safe and convenient society. I can say that, in a sense, this fundamental fighting spirit of ours, the switch has been turned off and therefore it’s only a matter of turning on this switch again.”

His steadfast belief in the players appears to have been the catalyst to do just this. While they did fall short of the semifinals last June, their performances at the finals – and since – have brought about a mental shift within the team, and the players now have the belief that they can compete with sides they may previously have been intimidated by.

The win over Argentina, which got Alberto Zaccheroni off to an incredible start, was undoubtedly a great result but it did have to be taken in context (with the Argentines here for little more than to pick up a sizeable paycheck) and it was important not to get too carried away.

Seven games down the line, however, and with the side still unbeaten under Zac they are starting to look like they possess genuine potential.

The number of players now plying their trade in Europe is certainly helping, and the manner in which Japan dealt with Australia’s aerial onslaught in the final demonstrated that experience in more physical leagues is paying dividends.

With the level of the J.League also improving year-on-year the number of quality players available for selection is on the rise, and the strength-in-depth that Zaccheroni has at his disposal is vital, as the man himself attested to after the final.

“This is an excellent team and we have excellent players so I am proud to manage them. What is great about the team is that the players who started on the bench can produce results on the pitch as well.”

Indeed, when you can bring on the likes of Hajime Hosogai, Daiki Iwamasa, Yosuke Kashgiwagi and, of course, Tadanari Lee (and you are without players such as Tulio, Yuji Nakazawa, Mu Kanazaki, Kengo Nakamura, Takayuki Morimoto, Yuki Abe, Tomoaki Makino, Shinji Kagawa, Daisuke Matsui… the list really does go on) you certainly do have a group of players to be envied.

There is, of course, still plenty of room for improvement, and the team must be careful not to become complacent. If they can stay focused though, then Japan really could become a force to be reckoned with in the international game.


A Rey of light

A few weeks ago I attended Kashiwa Reysol’s 2011 season conference and had a far better Saturday night than I’d been expecting.

Yellow is my favourite colour. To me it reflects positivity, and as soon as you add a splash to the picture everything becomes a lot warmer and more vibrant.

As such, I was disappointed at the end of the 2009 J.League season when the colour drained from J1 substantially as JEF United – ever-present in the top-flight since the league’s inception in 1993 – were relegated, along with their Chiba neighbours, Kashiwa Reysol.

While I was unhappy to see JEF go down, Kashiwa represented the bigger loss to me, with a trip to Hitachi Dai providing one of the best atmospheres in Japanese football.

The supporters – as they always should be in football stadiums – are right on top of the action and use their close proximity to the pitch to great effect. They taunt and intimidate opposing players, and possess a unique sense of humour that is lacking in the majority of J.League stadiums.

For this reason I was pleased when the side made an instant return to the top-flight – after a terrific season in J2 where they only lost two games – and headed eagerly along to Kashiwa City Civic Cultural Hall last weekend for their 2011 season conference.

This was the first time I had been to such an event and all I really expected was for a handful of local journalists to be firing some simple questions at the coach and new players while a few supporters milled around for a picture or autograph.  

How wrong I was. The hall was a sellout, and once the 1,200 seats had been filled the remaining fans who had ventured out had to stand. The atmosphere, too, was more boisterous than I’d anticipated (caused, in no small part, by head coach Nelsinho who declined the opportunity to introduce the club’s slogan for the season in the usually straight-laced manner in favour of a far more interactive ‘call-back’: “1, 2, 3…” he began. “Vittoria!” came the response. “Not loud enough,” he challenged, “One more time: 1, 2, 3…”, “Vittoria!”)

And the entertainment for the evening didn’t stop there: Kazushige Kirihata struck a couple of catwalk-esque poses when modelling the new goalkeepers’ kit, Jorge Wagner, the team’s latest addition from Brazil, introduced himself in Japanese (which was actually slightly more efficient than his translator, who forgot what he was translating at one point), and An Young Hak joked that North Korea had deliberately lost their final Asian Cup match so he could be back in time to appear at the event.

In fact, except for a mystifyingly long and serious description of the new kit for 2011 (which was delivered by an official from manufacturers Yonex and lasted longer than Nelsinho’s address to the audience) the majority of the conference was a light-hearted and enjoyable affair.

Indeed, the new signings all paid reference to the effect that the character of the club – and their inimitable fans – had on their decisions to join, and while such remarks are a must at any unveiling, they certainly sound more genuine when applied to Reysol.

Former Omiya midfielder An commented that, “My impression was that Kashiwa have a fevered support. Many people came today so I now realise the challenge; I want to play for such passionate supporters,” while Tatsuya Masushima, signed from Kyoto Sanga, said, “The fans here are fantastic. They have an influence on the opposing team right from the warm-up and I’m really looking forward to that.”

Of course, there was some serious talk of football as well, and as much as Kashiwa thrive upon their status as a compact, community club, their coach knows that they really have to put the effort in on the pitch as well as off it in the season ahead.

“2011 is a big season. Kashiwa is a winning team but we will have to compete because I think the level in J1 is high,” he said, before insisting that he is prepared and feels he has the players to succeed in J1.

“I have many plans, of course. We have tall players and creative players and our forwards are all capable of scoring goals.”

One thing’s for certain; with Kashiwa back in the mix 2011 will be kept interesting. The future’s bright.


Teenage Kicks

I, like Whitney Houston, believe that children are the future. Therefore, we need to make sure they are coached properly and learn from the mistakes of their elders.

Last weekend I was playing football with some friends in Yoyogi Park and our group – which was made up of Japanese, English, French and German players – was joined by five or six junior high school kids who were having a kickabout nearby.

The numbers matched up so we made a straight game of it – gaijin and ‘oldies’ versus the Japanese youngsters – and it goes without saying that we decided to take it easy, with some of my team more than twice the age of our opponents.

That didn’t last for too long though, as they were outstanding. Their touch, awareness and composure was of a level far above that of players of 14 or 15 in England, and the match soon descended into a simple pattern: they would get the ball and pass it, then pass it again, then dribble round a couple of us and pass again, leaving us bemused and dizzy.

However, despite the fact that they were much, much better than us, the scores ended up fairly even as they seemed to have no real desire to put the ball in the net (well, between our bags).

At some point in their tricky attacks one of us would get lucky and block the ball before hoofing it away from our goal in the hope that a teammate could get to it before one of them and score.

While our approach was a little cruder and certainly not pleasing on the eye, it was rooted in a simple fact: to win a football match you need to score goals.

The complaint that Japanese players will not take a strike at goal unless they are almost in it is a common one, and ‘shoot!’ is certainly the word that I find myself shouting the most at J.League matches. While some will point to the recent 5-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia as evidence against this, I would counter that a) the Saudi team were absolutely disgraceful and barely showed up, and b) all five of Japan’s goals came from inside the box.

The worrying thing for me, though, and something that was driven home by the game in Yoyogi, is the fact that the problem doesn’t look likely to be going away anytime soon.

Before last season’s Super Cup between Gamba and Kashima I watched the game between the J.League Under 18s and a Japan High School XI. In this match I noted that the players were exhibiting the same good and bad points as their seniors who took to the field after them. Likewise in the recent High School championships, where the majority of players displayed fantastic technical ability but very little spontaneity or flexibility.

Japanese players often seem to me to be almost pre-programmed, and just try the same things over and over and over again regardless of the end result. A full-back or winger, for example, having been told to get to the by-line and get a cross in will do this ten times out of ten, even if an opportunity were to present itself for him to cut inside and maybe take a shot. A goalkeeper will never spot a quick counter-attack and launch the ball upfield if he has been instructed to play it short to his full-backs.

Likewise, it is rare to see players take the current score into account and adjust their approach to the game accordingly. The final between Takigawa ni and Kumiyama provided a good example of this, with Takigawa almost forfeiting their victory by refusing to close the game off at 4-1. Instead of shutting up shop they continued to play the same attacking style and Kumiyama very nearly made them pay for it, scoring two late goals and making Takigawa work much harder than they needed to for the trophy.  

Every country has its own style of football; that is one of the things that makes it the most popular sport in the world. In order to compete at the very top, players and, perhaps more importantly, coaches, need to be willing to make adjustments though. The fact that the next generation of Japanese players are committing the same mistakes as the current crop suggests that this is not happening at the moment, and is something that needs to be addressed.

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

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February 2011