Archive for June, 2011

30
Jun
11

Nadeshiko aiming for the top at the World Cup

The Japanese women’s football team – Nadeshiko Japan – got their World Cup campaign up-and-running on Monday with a win over New Zealand. Before the side left for Germany I spoke with captain Homare Sawa about her aims and expectations for the tournament.

People inside and outside of the country have been getting very excited about Japanese football recently, with the nation finally seeming to make an impact on the global game.

While Nagatomo and co. become the poster-boys of this development and are, quite rightly, being lauded for their success though, I wonder how many people can name the Japanese player who has already played over 160 times for the country and appeared at five World Cups?

Well, that is exactly what Homare Sawa achieved on Monday, as the Nadeshiko beat New Zealand 2-1 in their first group game of the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany.

Sawa, now 32, made her first appearance at a World Cup finals back in Sweden in 1995 at the age of just 16, and having spent half of her life as an international footballer she believes that this year’s competition will be her last.

I spoke to the Nadeshiko captain last month as the side trained in Akabane, where she was very open and friendly and spoke of her desire to make this World Cup her most successful.

“This time my situation is different from other World Cups, the first time I was only 16 years old, the youngest player,” she said. “But now I have grown in experience so this time should be the best World Cup for me. I think this will be my last time.”

The thought of the Nadeshiko at a World Cup without Sawa seems a little strange (it has only happened once, after all), but the women’s game, like the men’s, is going from strength to strength and the next star of the side will be taking to the field alongside Sawa in Germany this year.

Mana Iwabuchi, who is juggling her University studies at Komazawa Joshi Daigaku with her blossoming football career at NTV Beleza, is being broken into the team gently, but while great care is being taken with her development there is no mistaking the undoubted talent that she possesses.

I asked Sawa if, having made her World Cup debut at a similarly young age, she had any advice for the 18-year-old Iwabuchi, and she looked a little surprised at the suggestion and laughed.

“Not at all; of course not! Nothing specific but I would like her to enjoy this World Cup and to enjoy the experience and everything that goes with it.”

When I press a little more she insists that the young striker does not need any special tips, having already appeared in several international tournaments at youth level.

“This time is senior so will be different but she already has lots of experience playing in world competition. Full national team and the younger ones are different, of course physically, height and weight and physical strength, but also the mental side, the intelligence of the players.”

Iwabuchi showed very few signs of being troubled by these aspects at last year’s East Asian Football Federation Championships, grabbing two goals against Chinese Taipei, and I ask Sawa what she thought of the youngster’s instant adaptation to the full national team.

She breaks into a smile and says, “In my first game I scored four goals though, against the Phillipines! Then I was 15…”

While this is, of course, spoken in jest, such friendly banter can serve just as well as – if not better than – serious advice to motivate young players, and having Iwabuchi on top form going into the tournament, along with fellow strikers Shinobu Ono – who was top scorer when the Nadeshiko won the Asian Games gold last year – and Yuki Nagasato, will be vital if the side are to achieve Sawa’s goal of exiting the World Cup with a medal.

Having failed to get through the group stages in China four years ago this will be no mean feat, but with the tournament set to be Sawa’s last World Cup she intends to give everything for the cause, and I genuinely hope she succeeds in her aim.

“It will be very, very difficult to get a medal in the world tournament,” she said, before concluding typically, “but we will try. I think nothing is impossible so we will try.”

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Further comments from Sawa san can be found here, in a preview I wrote for the-AFC.com.

24
Jun
11

Usami rightly made to wait

Takashi Usami’s recent call-up to the full national team, despite not getting on the pitch in the Kirin Cup, meant he missed out on Japan Under-22’s Olympic qualifiers. While there’s no doubting the youngster’s talent, it’s hard to disagree with either decision though…

I was delighted when Takashi Usami struck his wonderful goal against Shimizu S-Pulse a couple of weekends back, as it was nice to see the young forward doing exactly what he does best; playing football. And playing it very well.

Prior to that goal he had spent two weeks in the media for doing absolutely nothing. Or, to be totally correct, for having nothing done with him.

The cause of most of this excitement was initially his first inclusion in the Samurai Blue squad for the Kirin Cup.

Despite the fact that head coach Alberto Zaccheroni made it fairly clear when announcing the squad that Usami was unlikely to feature, this did not stop the speculation and anticipation from building around him, and not a training session passed without the player and coach being asked about the chances of a debut being made.

The hype around the 19-year-old was then heightened when the rumours that have long been circulating about him signing for Bayern Munich picked up some speed. The fact that one of the biggest clubs in the world were seemingly on the verge of recruiting the player only added to the sense of confusion about his lack of participation in the games.

Then, having not gotten onto the pitch for the full-side, Usami was denied the opportunity to do so for the Under-22s in their Olympic qualifiers against Kuwait – with Takashi Sekizuka’s decision not to include him in the squad again sparking much head-scratching and disbelief among the football community.

I, for one, don’t really see what the problem is though.

Firstly, while I would have liked, as a football fan, to have seen Gamba’s No. 11 take part in the Kirin Cup, I think it made perfect sense not to play him.

Zac stated that his primary motivation in calling Usami up was so that he could have the opportunity to work and speak with him over a prolonged period of time in training. He also made it clear that the player still had a lot to learn, and focused on the difference between league and international football.

If, as is expected, the player does move to Europe in the not-too-distant future then the chances to work with him for such a substantial amount of time will become fewer and farther between.

With that in mind it made perfect sense for Zac to have taken this opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with Usami, and to see for himself just how much potential the player has.

It was also understandable that the coach chose to keep his impressions to himself and not to send Usami out onto the pitch, where every fan, coach and journalist would be poring over his every movement, touch, pass and shot.

Of course, coping with such attention cannot be delayed forever, and there is certainly the argument that the longer it is put off the greater the sense of expectation will be.

However, entering the fray too early could have hindered Usami’s development, with there being the chance that it could go too badly – or too well.

Imagine he had come off the bench and struck the winner against the Czech’s – ensuring victory for Japan, the Golden Boot award and, most probably – when considering that the prize is almost always given to goalscorers in Japan, regardless of how well other players perform – the MVP award for Usami.

This would have been a hell of a lot to live up to.

Of course, things could have gone in completely the opposite direction and he could have had a nightmare debut and his confidence could have taken a large knock.

While unfortunate, and no fault of his own, his absence from the U-22s is also understandable.

Sekizuka san spent 10 days working on a system with particular players and, having been with Zac and co. during that time, Usami was not around for any of those sessions.

So why recall him? Even bringing in a player as gifted as Usami could upset the balance of the side at a time when mistakes could be very costly.

It is a real shame for the player that he is currently stuck in a kind of no-man’s land between the U-22 and full national teams, but I have no doubt at all that he will get his chance sooner or later.

16
Jun
11

The Back Post – Global man Ghotbi forgives

Shimizu S-Pulse’s Iranian-American head coach Afshin Ghotbi has had to put up with a fair amount of discrimination in his lifetime.

The constant of football has not only helped him deal with and overcome these problems, but also to try and leave a positive mark on the world around him.

16
Jun
11

Ono confident of success for Marinos

Last week I visited Yokohama F. Marinos training ground and interviewed their young striker Yuji Ono.

Despite being just 18 he has his head very much screwed on and has high hopes for this season and beyond.

16
Jun
11

Timing key for Kawashima

Eiji Kawashima understandably wants to move up a level after an impressive season with Lierse SK in the Belgian First Division. As a ‘keeper being Number 1 at a lesser club is usually preferable to being Number 2 at a bigger one though…

During the Kirin Cup I attended several Japan training sessions and while everyone else was busying themselves with notes on 3-4-3 and Zac’s stop-start efforts to get the players to understand the tricky new formation, my gaze was drawn to the other end of the pitch where the goalkeepers were being put through their paces by Maurizio Guido.

It wasn’t only Signor Guido’s enthusiastic motivational cries that drew me to his session though, with Japan’s No. 1 Eiji Kawashima giving as good as he got.

Something I have noticed in Japan is the relative lack of verbal communication on the pitch. There may be the odd call here and there but the players generally move about almost silently, seemingly relying on little more than telepathic understanding or by following the routines practiced in training to the letter.

The former Kawasaki Frontale stopper was flinging himself about his six-yard box, yelling with every step, dive and catch though, and the concentration on his face was no different to that seen during matches.

Being so vocal is an absolutely vital aspect of goalkeeping, something that the Chelsea and Czech Republic goalkeeper Petr Cech made clear after his side’s clash with the Samurai Blue at Nissan Stadium.

“You need to communicate with everybody around,” he said, “because a big part of goalkeeping is to be able to organize people in front of you.”

Kawashima can certainly do this, and even in training he is anything but easy on those in front of him, constantly barking orders to get his defence in line and hassling Akihiro Ienaga for being too far forward in his new role as a defensive-midfielder.

The 28-year-old’s rapid progression over the past 12 months has unsurprisingly led to rumours of a switch to a bigger European league, with West Bromwich Albion of the Premier League his most likely destination.

Whereas outfield players can usually play in a couple of positions and be broken in gradually with substitute appearances though, this is not an option for goalkeepers. The only way they can retain their sharpness, and confidence, is by being between the posts every week.

Cech, again, had wise words to say on the matter, pointing out that a reserve goalkeeper’s chances are not only determined by their form, but also that of their rival for the jersey.

“I think it’s always better when you start as Number 1 and then you can take it from there and keep your position in the goal. If you start as Number 2 then obviously it’s more difficult, it doesn’t all really depend only on you it depends on the other goalkeeper as well.”

While a certain amount of time adapting can be afforded, too long sitting on the bench will not only harm his form but may also call his place in the national team into question, then, and Alberto Zaccheroni will certainly have a keen interest in his goalkeeper’s next move, with Eiji having been an integral part of the Italian’s unbeaten start at the helm of the national team.

The man himself is more than aware of this, but concedes that if he wants to play at the highest level he may have to take a little bit of a gamble.

“For me, always, it’s really important to play. Always,” he said after the Czech game. “Of course, I know the Premier League is a really higher level than the others, but I think I can try.”

“It depends on the situation. Even if I’m the second goalkeeper if there is a possibility to become the first, of course I can try.”

Cech agrees that a lot can be learned on the training pitch too, but maintains that too long away from the pitch can be detrimental to a goalkeeper’s career.

“It will be another experience, already being there and working every day with a team which plays Premier League.”

“You can learn always by watching as well but, as I said, if you hope to be always playing for the national team, of course it’s better when you play.”

Eiji must be careful then, and must make sure that he chooses the right club at the right time.

12
Jun
11

Players keen to keep improving under Zac

The Samurai Blue may have failed to register any goals in the recent Kirin Cup but the players certainly benefited from the time together on the training pitch. 

After the final game of the tournament against the Czech Republic I got the thoughts of Eiji Kawashima, Maya Yoshida and Keisuke Honda, all of whom are keen to keep improving.

09
Jun
11

Stalemates still productive for Samurai Blue

The Kirin Cup may have ended a dead-tie – almost literally, with all three games ending 0-0 – but the Japanese national team were still able to take some positives from the tournament.

 

My consideration of the Samurai Blue’s performances can be found here.

08
Jun
11

Ghotbi calls for unity, not division

Shimizu S-Pulse’s head coach Afshin Ghotbi was the target of a ridiculous banner at the recent Shizuoka derby, but the  Iranian-American refused to get angry with the perpetrators, instead taking the high-road.

I have spoken several times about my desire to see more passion in Japanese football stadiums, and at Nihondaira for the Shizuoka derby I got it.

While the catalyst was a reprehensible banner that nobody with an ounce of intelligence would condone, the reaction by the Shimizu supporters, and that of the Jubilo fans in response, served to create an electric atmosphere.

As news and pictures began to appear online of the S-Pulse fans storming the away end and attempting to remove the banner in question I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find the scenes exciting.

The Shimizu fans were quite rightly enraged by the offensive message on display, and immediately set about removing it from the stand. The Jubilo fans, meanwhile – many of whom were doubtless unaware what the banner said, and may have reacted differently if they had – also assumed the defensive and stood their ground.

As a result a new chapter has been added to this famous fixture.

Afshin Ghotbi himself, while unaware at the time what was happening, admitted to being moved by his fans’ actions, telling me that, “I think that the reaction is in a way very honorable. They really love their club so much, they love their manager so much that they stood up for him and tried to defend him. Not so much the fight, but the fact that they actually went and tried to remove the banner.”

His thoughts on the individuals responsible for the banner – two teenage Jubilo supporters – differ from mine slightly though.

I would personally like to see them banned from attending J.League games again. I appreciate that they are young (and stupid) but can’t help but feel that there is more to their actions than just an act of immaturity.

If they had just shouted something out in the heat of the moment in a misguided attempt to stand out and/or impress those around them then they could just be dismissed as naïve (and stupid). But to take the time and effort to gather the materials and make a banner suggests that they may actually believe that Mr. Ghotbi is somehow a justifiable recipient of such abuse.

The S-Pulse coach takes a far more tolerant – and, admittedly, productive – stance though, and would welcome the opportunity to share an audience with them.

“It would be an interesting thing to meet with those two fans, face-to-face,” he said. “Just to enlighten them and give them a hug and show them that we’re all the same.

“We were born in different places but in the end we’re human beings. Maybe that experience can show them the right direction, because they’re young – they’re just young people and I think they don’t know any better.”

He does believe that the J.League should exert more control over what messages are displayed in its stadiums though, pointing out that they are symbols of the entire club, not just the people unfurling them.

  

“There should be some guidelines on which banners can go up representing that particular club and they should be checked at the entrance by the leaders of that club.”

Although he is clear that these measures should not be “strict”, he does feel that certain subjects have no business in a football stadium, stating simply that, “Really there’s no place for political statements when it comes to football matches.”

The timing of the attack is also hard to understand, with Japan still in recovery from one of the biggest tragedies in its recent history – and one which has sparked assistance from all over the world.

“We experienced such an enormous, historic tragedy with the tsunami, and those kind of events should unite us more than anything else,” he said.

This is far from being the first time that the Iranian-American has experienced discrimination though, and after a lifetime as what he terms “a global citizen” he refuses to be overly concerned by the event, instead suggesting that it should be used to bring about a positive development in the Japanese game.

“If we do the right things now it can create a moment of growth for all Japanese people and Japanese football.”

One thing that has certainly been heightened is the animosity between Shizuoka’s two clubs, and I am certain that there will be plenty of passion on display the next time the sides meet.

05
Jun
11

Honda supports Usami move to Bayern

Takashi Usami has had quite a week, and no sooner had he received his first call-up to the full national team than his much-anticipated transfer to Bayern Munich appeared to have become final.

On Friday I asked Keisuke Honda what he thought of the 19-year-old, and also what his own plans were for the future.

04
Jun
11

Pixy’s players in need of a pick-me-up

Keeping rich and successful players motivated is a challenge that many of the best managers in the world have struggled with. Nagoya Grampus’ Dragan Stojkovic  – frequently linked with the Japanese national team job, and even succeeding Arsene Wenger at Arsenal – will need to earn his stripes this season, with several of his players  seemingly living off past glories…

Last week I wrote about the positive improvement in the mental attitude of Atsuto Uchida over the past12 months.

While Ucchi and several of his Samurai Blue teammates continue to grow overseas though there is something of a problem back home in the J.League

After seven rounds of matches (although they do have one game in hand) Nagoya Grampus – such a force last season and champions by a margin of 10 points – sat level with Ventforet Kofu in the league; already themselves 10 points behind the league-leaders Kashiwa Reysol.

Of course, it is still very early in the season and there is plenty of time for them to pick up and for the early pacesetters to fall away.

However, they have three problems which need to be overcome quickly if they are to replicate their fantastic achievement of 2010.

The first of these problems is not mental it is actual; the number of injuries in the squad.

Pixy insists that the team’s training methods have not changed and so there is, in truth, not so much that can be done to remedy the situation except for making sure that players are not rushed back and that when they are all fit the squad is rotated sensibly and everyone is kept as fresh as possible.

In the meantime the coach has to earn his yen by getting the best out of the players at his disposal.

The second issue – and one which seems to have affected Kashima and Cerezo as well, although interestingly not Gamba – is the ACL and ‘tiredness’.

Now, I’m sorry, I know that travelling can have an affect on physical condition but considering the break that the J.League took and the fact that they have rarely had to play two games a week this season I am not buying this excuse.

Instead of being physically drained I would suggest that some, not all, of the players have mentally convinced themselves that they are tired.

Going into a game in Kofu less than four days after playing in UAE, for instance, sounds tough doesn’t it? And, to an extent it is.

If you keep telling yourself it is then you go into the game with a weight on your shoulders, though. If you put such thoughts out of your mind and concentrate on the game at hand it is unlikely you will struggle so much.

Pixy expressed similar concerns over the psychological approach of his players, dismissing the impact of the continental competition on his side’s defeat to Kofu and challenging his players to rise above such excuses.

“I’m sorry, but this is not an excuse. As a professional you need give your best for 90 minutes. Tired or not tired, hot or not hot. You have to prepare yourself; you are a professional, you have to give your best.”

And ‘giving your best’ brings us onto the final, and most worrying, concern.

Grampus’ success last season was built upon a tremendous togetherness and a work-ethic and defiance that drove them on to become champions.

That grit is lacking this season, and Pixy has hinted at fears that some members of the squad are merely coasting.

“My players, they have to forget everything that happened last year if they want to make a good result this year. They have to forget absolutely everything from last year,” he emphasized. “We are champions, but we are champions of 2010, not 2011.”

“This is a completely different story, a completely different championship, so only if we think like that can we can expect a good result. If we, or some of them, are satisfied with the result from last year then it will be very, very hard.”

One of the best in the world at motivating successful players is Sir Alex Ferguson, about whom David Beckham once said the following. 

“The good thing about [Sir Alex is that] he makes you move on. As soon as you have won a medal he does not stop there, he makes you want more.” 

Ensuring such a response is something that the coach must bring about, then, and if Pixy’s players do not have that drive themselves it is something he must instill in them as quickly as possible.




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