Archive for March, 2011

31
Mar
11

Japan as One

Before travelling down to Osaka for the Japan v. J.League ‘Team as One’ match at the start of the week, I wrote about the importance of the game for Weekly Soccer Magazine.

Nagai Stadium is certain to be an emotional place on Tuesday night.

While I was very disappointed with New Zealand’s decision to back out of their scheduled game with the Samurai Blue, I think that it is crucial this match goes ahead and feel that the time is right for Japan to come together to not only remember all of the victims of the tragic events of the past few weeks, but also to look forward.

Indeed, if New Zealand had honoured their commitment they would have found themselves in a no-win situation. Most likely they would have come up against a hugely fired-up Samurai Blue team who would have been more determined than ever to put in a performance and secure a good result in front of their own fans. Had the Kiwis been able to brave this onslaught and been victorious themselves though, it would have been hugely dispiriting for their hosts.

Now, with the match set to be contested between a full strength national team and a selection of the biggest stars currently playing in the J.League it is sure to be stirring occasion for everybody packed inside the ground and the many millions watching at home – particularly when Kimigayo strikes up.

Such was the desire to be involved in the match and to help out in any way possible, J.League chairman Kazumi Ohigashi revealed that he had to turn down several requests from players to be included in the ‘Team as One’ squad.

Speaking at JFA house when announcing the selection Ohigashi said, “Many players wanted to join but we only had room for 20 members so I was very sorry that I had to refuse some players.”

With competition so fierce it is little surprise that the chosen few were so eager to accept their call-ups, with everybody desperate to do what little they can to help out in the current circumstances.

Ohigashi confirmed this keenness – including on the parts of players from Kashima Antlers and Vegalta Sendai, two of the most affected areas:

“All the players said yes to our offer as soon as possible. Sendai and Kashima experienced a lot of damage but their players said ‘ok, and thank you for the offer’.”

This enthusiasm to be a part of the event was shared by supporters, with tickets at the 50,000 capacity venue selling out in under 2 hours – an incredible feat.
 
The chairman’s rationale for the evening, which will be shared by players, supporters and media alike, is simple:

“This match I want to be brave and positive for the victims,” he said.

One man who is certain to embody this spirit is Kazu, who Ohigashi revealed was the first man to confirm his availability for the match.

Employing Kazu’s star status was a smart move on the part of the J.League, and the 44-year-old – who was an unannounced presence at the ‘Team as One’ press conference – sparked a flurry of activity upon arrival as photographers scurried around to get the perfect shot. 

He expressed relief at being given an opportunity to do something to aid the relief efforts, however small, having experienced a similar helplessness to most of the population as the tragic events unfolded. 

“After the earthquake I was thinking ‘what can I do to help?'” Kazu said. “This was a very difficult question for me. I wanted to do something to improve the situation through football, and so when I got the offer to join this charity match I was delighted to have the opportunity to cooperate with the Japanese soccer world.”

When asked if he had a message for those affected most deeply by the tragedy Kazu replied.

“This is a very difficult and very serious situation. Maybe I can try to imagine how they feel but I think their real situation is beyond that – it is unvbelievable.”

And this is something that everybody involved should bear in mind. Real people have experienced, and are still experiencing, real suffering and this game is merely a diversion to raise much-needed funds and to provide some brief respite from the current difficulties. It does not mark the end of the situation but might just provide a point from which the country can start to pick up the pieces and begin to look to the future.

31
Mar
11

Coming together to give strength

The Japanese national team took on a J.League ‘Team as One’ on Tuesday, to raise money for the relief efforts in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Here’s my preview for the match, including comments from Yuki Abe, Eiji Kawashima and Kazu.

25
Mar
11

Moral support

Sometimes when it feels like nothing can be done, even the smallest gestures can go a long way.

I would like to dedicate this week’s column to the victims of the tragic earthquake and tsunami of March 11th and offer my deepest condolences to their familes, friends and anybody affected by the catastrophe. Football is entirely irrelevant at times like this.

Who wins and loses, whether the referee was right or wrong, and if a player stays or goes are all put into stark perspective by such horrific events, and it has been incredibly difficult to give the game a moment’s thought over the past 10 days.

The overwhelming popularity of the sport around the world means that it does have the potential to help though, if only in the smallest of ways.

Take, for example, the solidarity shown by Japanese players in Europe who were in action the day after the earthquake and tsunami struck. Although they were unable to assist – like most of us – in physical or practical ways, they were unanimous in their offers of moral support for their country, and had their sentiments echoed by teammates and opponents alike.

Yuto Nagatomo was the first to play and was joined in wearing a black armband in respect of the victims by his Internazionale teammates and the players of Brescia. Samuel Eto’o, upon scoring Inter’s goal, celebrated by poignantly hugging the Japanese fullback.

Nagatomo confessed he found it difficult to focus before the game but said he hoped his participation could, in some way, provide strength to those back home. “It was terrible. I felt totally shocked. Before the game I was totally confused as I kept thinking about what was happening in Japan” he was quoted as saying on Goal.com.

“I managed to set aside all the negative thoughts and I focused on the game (though). I thought that being a good soccer player I could give courage to my people.”

Tomoaki Makino, meanwhile, has been using the medium of Twitter to lend support to his compatriots. “At times like this we need to get together, hand in hand. It’s just a little but I think it can give everyone strength,” he sent on the evening of the tragedy.

Although several Japanese are absent, there are foreigners in Japan who are doing their best to fill in. Machida Zelvia coach Ranko Popovic, for example, has expressed his desire to help the country recover from the situation. “I love the Japanese people, they are incredible.” he said. “I am Japanese now, I am part of this. If you are part of the good times you must also be part of the bad times too. We must give our maximum, mental and physical.”

I have been hugely impressed and moved by the reaction and behaviour of the Japanese people during this difficult time and commend the great flexibility and adaptation that everybody has shown. This extends to the J.League and JFA who have acted swiftly and sensibly to postpone all domestic league football for the foreseeable future as well as the scheduled national team friendly against Montenegro in Shizuoka on Friday.

I also wholeheartedly agree with the decision to keep the March 29th fixture in place, and believe this will be an excellent chance to show solidarity and pay respect to the victims. It will also provide an opportunity to raise huge funds for the recovery effort, although this would have been even truer if New Zealand were making the journey to Osaka having recently experienced a similar tragedy of their own.

Popovic agrees, and draws upon his own playing days during the war in former Yugoslavia to demonstrate the healing power football can have, even in the toughest of times. “All of our hearts and souls are with the Japanese people and I know they have more important things to think about but it is important to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and football can help to do that,” he explains.

“Everybody is different, but I experienced the same in Serbia in the war – I lost my house – but playing gave me the power. “Now we have to be a unit and all of the world is with Japan. People where I am from especially understand. We know disaster and catastrophe and how it feels to lose lives and houses. Now we must work for the people who have lost their lives and those that are left behind. This is our message.”

23
Mar
11

J.League ‘Team as One’ squad announced

On Tuesday the J.League called a press conference to announce its ”Team as One’ squad to face the national team next week.

The full squad and comments from J.League legend Kazu can be found here.

21
Mar
11

New Zealand leaves Japan on its own

New Zealand pulling out of their friendly with Japan at the end of the month because of media reports surrounding the current situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was incredibly disappointing.

The move means that rather than the two countries being able to share a moment of solidarity in the wake of their recent tragedies, Japan will now be moving forward alone, something I discussed for When Saturday Comes.

21
Mar
11

An exodus of talent

More and more players are leaving the J.League for Europe in what is mostly a positive development for Japanese football.

The lack of money coming in to compensate for these departures is a concern though, as I discussed in Number 1 Shimbun this month.

19
Mar
11

The Back Post – Football placed firmly in perspective

After the tragic events that took place in the Tohoku region of Japan last week, football has been placed very much in perspective.

The J.League and JFA have done well to bear this in mind, and I discussed their reactions in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami here.

19
Mar
11

The mark of champions

After the first round of J.League matches had concluded it was easy to see why it is likely to be the same teams chasing the title in 2011.

None of the title contenders have had an easy start to the J.League season, but while they have not had everything their own way they have shown exactly why they are the teams who will be challenging for the championship come December.

Gamba, for instance, had a difficult opening match against local rivals Cerezo – which came soon after both teams had been in ACL action in midweek – but they demonstrated tremendous resilience to recover not just from that rarest of thing – a missed Yasuhito Endo penalty – but also to re-take the lead almost instantly after Cerezo had got themselves back in the game.

Such recoveries were also on display in both Kashima and Nagoya, with the league’s other two heavyweights being frustrated on their own patches by the resilient and adventurous Omiya Ardija and Yokohama F. Marinos.

While defeats looked to be on the cards for both teams as the clock ran down, they both managed to salvage crucial points at the death though. These last-gasp goals not only ensured the sides didn’t start the season with a loss, but they will also have served as psychological boosts which will benefit the teams in two ways.

Firstly, they themselves will take great confidence from their refusal to give up, and the realization that they always have a goal in them will serve them well as the season progresses.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, opponents will always have lingering doubts in the backs of their minds about the possibility of securing a win against either side.

Omiya had the lead three times against Antlers, and Marinos were beating Nagoya until the fifth minute of injury time but both teams took just a point back home with them instead of three.

This is no coincidence, and the results came about largely because the best teams always know how to adjust to their current set of circumstances.

Before the season kicked off Daiki Iwamasa and Oswaldo Oliveira were both asked if it was strange to come into the season not as defending champions. Their answers demonstrated the resolve that drove Kashima to three successive championships.

Iwamasa put a positive spin on the situation, saying, “In one respect it’s good that we can start the season as a challenger. We’re at a point where we have to be modest and humble about ourselves so it’s good.”

Oliveira, meanwhile, made it clear that his side must now react to the position they find themselves in, “(It’s) not strange. It really was a disappointment, but we have to know how to deal with this situation.
 


He then continued by exhibiting the enjoyment he gets out of having to adapt in this manner. “I love to prepare football teams, I love to see players growing and doing their best. This is what keeps me motivated.”

In a sense he approaches each season as if it were a puzzle, and relishes each new challenge as he looks to rearrange and fit the pieces accordingly to achieve success.

He pays fantastic attention to detail, and on the rare occasion that the pieces don’t fall into place, he does his utmost to work out why and how best to remedy the situation.

“We can see numbers of the last J.League (season): our defence was the best, we were the team who lost the least number of games, (but) we drew 12 matches – at least 6 of them we should win. So I think this made the difference for us. What you have to do now is try to identify the points and work on it.”

Dragan Stojkovic displayed a similar flexibility last season, and was rightfully proud of the fact that his team never lost back-to-back matches in the league in 2010.

Of course, a home draw on the opening day of the season would not have been what Oliveira was after before the game with Omiya – as his frustration after full time showed.

Teams from lower down the division will always cause the odd upset though, and after a little time to cool off he will almost certainly see this point as one gained rather than two lost, and make his next move accordingly.

Such sense of purpose is what sets the best apart from the rest.

19
Mar
11

Nothing like the real thing

As the 2011 J.League began I used my Weekly Soccer Magazine column to explain why there is nothing quite like the full domestic season.

Phew, the new season is finally here!

And 2011 begins with Japanese football very much on the up. The country have become the champions of Asia for a record fourth time, more and more players are getting their chances in the big European leagues, and there are some fantastic young players emerging in the J.League to take their places.

I know football doesn’t really ever stop and since the 2010 J.League season wound up we’ve had the High School Championships and the Asian Cup to keep us occupied, but you can’t beat the season proper can you?

These tournaments provided some fantastic moments of entertainment and gave us addicts the fix we needed to see us through until March 5th, but they are only bite-size versions of the real thing; they are like the Hollywood movie version of a really good book. All of the key events still happen and you enjoy it while it’s there, but there is never quite the same sense of anticipation or involvement. It all comes and goes too quickly.

With the full season every emotion is longer-lasting. You find yourself caught up in it and it begins to take over your whole week. The newspapers, websites and (of course!) magazines are checked daily for the latest updates on the injury to your star striker, the joy of victory stays with you until the next game and fills you with optimism and hope, while the frustration, anger and pain of defeat lingers and lingers.

The start of the season is unique too, because it is the only time that everybody is feeling optimistic. At the J.League’s Kick Off Conference, for instance, I spoke to players and coaches from eight different clubs – seven of them were talking about becoming champions of their respective leagues.

Before a ball has been kicked there is a clean slate, a fresh page and anything is possible. Regardless of the improbability of your side winning the league (or even staying in it), there is always that sense of what could be.

We all try to predict what will happen and are sure that these teams will be relegated, this guy will be top scorer and that so-and-so will be playing for Barcelona in a year’s time. But it is never that easy, there are always surprises and shocks that nobody could have foreseen, and this is why the game is the most popular in the world.

Consider, for example, the fates of FC Tokyo and Cerezo Osaka last year. No-one (and you are lying if you say you did) will have predicted that the Nabisco Cup champions of 2009 would be relegated to J2 or that the newly promoted side would play their way into the AFC Champions League. In fact, if it had been announced that one of those teams would finish third from top and one third from bottom it would have been unanimously decided that Cerezo would be heading back to where they had come from.

Indeed, this is why no good football movie has ever been made. Trying to replicate the natural drama, tension and surprises of the football season is an impossible task.

Even as you read this I am almost certain to be looking a little foolish, and my predictions from last week’s magazine will already have taken a knocking after the first round of matches (or I’ve got everything right and will be receiving a visit from the police shortly with regards to match-fixing).

Everybody’s heads are in the clouds at the moment, and it is a shame that the majority of them will be brought crashing back down to earth over the coming weeks and months.

Here too drama, twists and turns are available in spades though, and while the more ambitious aims may be shelved once a few knocks have been taken, there is still plenty of room for excitement.

Just consider the joy on display at Saitama Stadium on the last day of the 2010 season. Vissel Kobe would not have set out to stay up by one point, but each setback brings about a new set of targets – and achievement of them is just as enjoyable.

Only one team will win the league, but there will be lots of room for celebration in 2011 – that’s a prediction I am confident about.

04
Mar
11

J.League 2011 Season Preview

On Saturday the 2011 J.League season kicks off so this week I provided a preview for The Daily Yomiuri, which can be found by following the links below.

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/sports/T110228004857.htm

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/sports/T110228004904.htm

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/sports/T110228003025.htm




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