Archive for March 19th, 2011

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.




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