Archive for August, 2011


Debate goes on

I have many problems with the English Premier League, but the manner in which the games create and encourage debate is one thing that the J.League would do well to learn from.

Since I moved to Japan I have lost touch a little with the English Premier League. I keep up with the scores and bigger news stories but being 6,000 miles away I don’t really feel like I am involved in the narrative of the season.

I wasn’t really that much closer to the action when I lived back in Brighton as I played matches at weekends, but in England it is impossible to avoid the football.

And to be honest, I was actually getting a little tired of the overhyped Premier League and that was part of the reason that I developed an interest in the J.League.

One thing that I do really miss though is the coverage of the game on television, and the way in which everybody has – and is encouraged to have – an opinion.

An excellent case in point was provided by the Newcastle v. Arsenal game on the first day of the season, which I watched in the pub with a group of friends.

While the match failed to live up to the previous fixture between the sides – Arsenal unbelievably threw away a 4-0 lead to draw 4-4 at St. James’ Park last season – it more than delivered when it came to talking points.

First of all Newcastle’s Joey Barton – a player who is never far away from trouble – had his leg stamped on by Arsenal’s Alex Song, something that the referee didn’t see but the TV cameras did.

The real excitement came about a quarter of an hour before full-time, though.

Barton was again the central figure, and after Arsenal’s new striker Gervinho flung himself to the turf in a bid to win a penalty the midfielder dragged him up by the scruff of the neck before finding himself on the ground after he was struck on the head.

The pub was instantly ablaze with discussion, abuse and laughter as replays showed from multiple angles that Barton had barely been touched and that mere seconds after being outraged by an overreaction to gain an advantage he had done the same thing.

He was variously described as clever, a cheat, an idiot and a range of things far too colourful for me to write here as Gervinho received his marching orders.

Then, in the post-match interviews players and coaches from both sides were asked about the incident and the pundits in the studio further analysed the situation.

This is something that just doesn’t happen in Japan, where controversial incidents are hardly ever given airtime.

After the live broadcast had concluded it was over to ‘Match of the Day’, the BBC’s trademark highlights show, by which time the debate had taken on a far more inclusive edge as Barton himself had now been commenting on the incident via his Twitter account.

The game had ended 0-0, but whereas in Japan that would almost certainly condemn the coverage to a 10-second clip of a wayward shot by one of the clubs’ national team players, 15 minutes of highlights and analysis took place, during which it was agreed that most of the individuals involved in the melee were partly at fault.

The J.League is obviously hesitant to draw attention to any of the negative aspects of its game (mistakes by officials, cheating, violence – of which there are plenty) but I think it is misguided in thinking that airing them will detract from the image of the game.

Fans want to be entertained and footballers embarrassing themselves by cheating is very entertaining. It can also be argued that the more airtime given to bad sportsmanship the less likely players are to try and get away with it – although I’m not so sure about that.

Barton didn’t seem to mind that his integrity was being called into question, and was more than happy to take part in the interactive culture of English football, tweeting just before the programme began, “Right, off now to watch MOTD, its what sat nights are all about.”

In England it’s not just Saturday nights when opinions about football are aired though, and the J.League could learn a thing or two from English coverage of the beautiful (and sometimes ugly) game.


Cultural Conflict

Returning home to the riots in England provided a stark contrast to the social order I had become used to in Japan. Football, as is so often the case, provided an interesting backdrop against which to compare the two cultures.

“Japan are actually quite a good football team, aren’t they.”

That’s what my brother said to me during the Samurai Blue’s comprehensive win over, an admittedly below-par, South Korea last week.

It was, I think, the first time I’d sat down and watched a Japan game with him since I’d moved to Tokyo and seeing as it’s normally me telling him all about Japanese football it was interesting to hear his thoughts on it.

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by this though, and pointed out that, yes, actually they’d got to the second round at the World Cup and were the reigning Asian champions.

It turned out he wasn’t being ignorant and patronising though, but that he instead meant it literally.

“They play as a whole team, like a club, rather than a national team,” he explained. “Whereas the England team always looks like a bunch of players from different teams who’ve been thrown together, Japan looks more like the players know each other and how each other play.”

This observation of the Japanese style – teamwork, not a group of individuals etc. – is, of course, not exactly a new one but it seemed a particularly fitting distinction for an Englishman to make in a wider context because of something else that had been going on since I returned to the UK.

On Saturday 6th August riots broke out in Tottenham, North London. These scenes, which included people attacking police, setting fire to cars and looting local businesses, quickly spread around the capital and soon to other cities including Manchester and Liverpool.

The individuals responsible for the acts of theft and violence were from some of the poorest areas in the country, and while their actions were obviously the result of deeper-lying social problems (which are far beyond my ability to try and explain or fully understand), they came pretty much from nowhere and took the nation by surprise.

Claims were made that they were a reaction against “the rich people” and “the government, Conservatives or whoever” and that it was to “show the police we’re not scared of them and we can do what we want”, (all genuine comments from looters).

Having been in Japan in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake and tsunami this demonstrated the different ways that my country and my adopted country cope in times of difficulty – and it was very sad.

Scenes such as those which were unfolding in England are very rarely, if ever, justifiable, but they can sometimes be expected. As transportation was hit and supplies were not being delivered in Kanto, Ibaraki and Tohoku in the days and weeks after the tragedy in March, for example, it would perhaps not have been surprising if people had started to get angry and aggressive, looting essentials and reacting against the government and other officials who were failing to provide detailed or clear information.

This didn’t happen, and never looked like it would, though. While there are, of course, also negatives to the meek and unquestioning response that was the norm in Japan, in terms of maintaining social order and getting back to normal as quickly as possible the manner in which Japan and the Japanese people responded was the best for the majority.

Of course, the football was also affected by the disaster in Tohoku, with the J.League postponing five rounds of matches, Japan pulling out of the Copa America and charity events being arranged at many clubs to assist in the recovery process.

There was also an impact upon the game in England, with the Three Lions’ friendly with Holland being postponed as the fans’ and players’ safety could not be guaranteed (although I’m sure Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong could handle themselves against any English hooligans), and the domestic leagues and cups having to call off some games as the officers required to police the events were needed more urgently elsewhere.

All in all it was a very unsavoury return to my home country, and England’s return to the dark-ages of hooliganism and mindless violence was made all the more stark as I watched the collective and dynamic way that an ever-improving – and still unbeaten – Zac Japan disposed of their old rivals.


The Back Post – Different approaches to same goal

As two surprise teams led the way in J1 I considered their alternative approaches to the game for The Daily Yomiuri..

Kashiwa Reysol play with boundless enthusiasm while Yokohama F. Marinos are a lot more reserved, and I discussed which, if either, was best suited to an authentic title challenge.


Giving hope

The good results may have dried up a little of late, but Vegalta Sendai are playing for more than just points this season.

Last month I was at Hitachi Dai for the J.League game between Kashiwa Reysol and Vegalta Sendai, and before the match I spoke to a few Vegalta fans about their club’s incredible form since the events of March 11th.

I wanted to know just how much they thought the team were being spurred on by the disaster during their spectacular 12-game unbeaten run at the start of the season and, vice-versa, how the players’ efforts were motivating those most affected.

Two supporters I chatted with, Mihoko Konno and Seiko Abe, were in no doubt that a productive cycle of encouragement had been produced by the tragedy.

“The expressions on the players’ faces are different,” Konno-san said. “Watching them really fight in the games is encouraging, and I think they’re giving hope to Sendai and to Miyagi.”

Abe-san agreed and, paying reference to the number of late goals the team had scored, drew a parallel between the on-pitch struggles and those of a far more serious nature.

“I think there’s the message that you shouldn’t give up until the very end. If you lose emotionally, that’s the end.”

I’d already heard many good things about the passionate home support at Yurtec Stadium – one of only two in J1, along with Grampus’ Toyota, that I hadn’t been to – so I decided to make my way to Sendai for the return fixture with Reysol to see for myself.

Even before arriving at the stadium (after a lunch of gyuutan, of course), I could tell the place was unique – it’s right there, basically at the station.

While this is true of most football grounds in England I was caught by surprise as I’ve become used to having to walk miles before getting to J.League stadiums. Not having to do that on this occasion meant I was already a fan.

Then, just a couple of minutes later inside the ground, I was even more impressed. The pitch is right next to the stands and it became apparent that as well as the emotional bond between fans and players, there is also a physical closeness between the two at every home game.

This reminded me of a comment by another supporter I’d spoken to in Kashiwa.

We were discussing Marquinhos’ departure as a result of fears over the nuclear situation, when Junichiro Kawamoto made a very astute observation.

“Society’s smallest unit is the family,” he said. “When families expand, it becomes a town, which become cities; so if you’re concerned about your family I think (Marquinhos’ decision to leave was) an obvious choice.”

And observing the fans, staff and volunteers of the Vegalta family doing all they could to raise money and morale provided a wonderful example of just how close-knit communities can pull together in times of need.

There was an authenticity to their efforts, and while taking some pictures on the concourse I was asked to write a message on a fan which, along with thousands of others, would be sent to children in Kessunuma.

As I struggled with the kanji (“This is support from England. Sending you our best wishes.”) a young boy next to me offered his help, writing them extra large for me to copy.

I was then enthusiastically thanked by the man co-ordinating the scheme, and told with genuine feeling that a message from England would be received with great excitement.

Shortly afterwards I witnessed another act of altruism – although this one possibly had slightly ulterior motives.

As the teams warmed up I spotted a ballboy flinging himself passionately about as stray shots fizzed wide of the goal.

Initially I thought he was perhaps a goalkeeper and was getting in some extra training, but then I noticed (I hadn’t spotted them before, honest) that he was in fact putting his body on the line to prevent the team of cheerleaders behind him from getting hit!

Soon afterwards I had shivers down my spine as I stood in front of the home fans as ‘Country Road’ rang out.

The game itself sadly failed to live up to the rest of the experience, although one aspect of the 0-0 was constant; Sendai weren’t defeated.



Recently I asked the readers of Weekly Soccer Magazine why the fun was being taken out of football so often these days…

After the euphoria of the Nadeshiko victory and the sheer enjoyment and excitement of that tournament, watching Paraguay and Venezuela kick, moan, shove and bore their way to a 0-0 draw and their own penalty shoot-out in the Copa America semi-final was hugely depressing.

Paraguay managed to book their place in the final despite the fact that they won none of their games in the tournament, and thankfully they were eventually made to pay for their negativity as Uruguay swept them aside 3-0.

The day before that game a UAE player had made headlines after a penalty incident of his own.

Awana Diab spun around as he reached the penalty spot before backheeling the ball (rather tamely, I’m not sure what the goalkeeper was doing) into the net. He was immediately substituted by his coach and threatened with fines and possible expulsion from the national team.

Then Mario Balotelli of Manchester City suffered a similar punishment after showboating instead of simply scoring in a pre-season friendly against David Beckham’s LA Galaxy.

I don’t really understand all this. Why is football suddenly supposed to be so serious? It is a sport that is meant to be enjoyed by players and fans alike, and if an individual has the ability (and the guts) to try something a little different then why not?

Neither of these games were especially important (UAE won 7-2 against Lebanon, Man City were trying to “expand their brand” in the USA), and football players have always had their own way of dealing with opponents (or teammates) who try and show-off.

Tricksters are fully aware of the fact that a kick from a defender – or, as in the famous picture of Vinnie Jones and Paul Gascoigne, a more painful attack – or a bollocking from a colleague if it doesn’t come off are the justifiable punishments they run the risk of receiving.

It is with this over-emphasis on seriousness and winning at any cost in mind that I for one say ‘no, it’s not’ to Kazushi Kimura’s question, “Is it ok to win this way?” after Yokohama F. Marinos beat Vissel Kobe 1-0 in Round 6.

At some point last season – when I had learned enough Japanese to start making some (bad) jokes – I began to refer to Kimura’s side as Tsumarinos (mixing tsumaranai – boring – with the team’s name).

This was because the team rarely offered up any particularly exciting football, sat in the no-man’s-land of mid-table mediocrity and, most importantly, played their home games in without doubt the worst football stadium in Japan – Yokohama International Stadium.

Through absolutely no fault of the fans – of whom there are often upwards of 20,000 – the place is a soulless vacuum, and perhaps if they played every match at Mitsuzawa then my initial impression of the team would have been different.

Marinos started this season brightly though – winning three of their first five games, scoring ten goals in the process – and in Yuji Ono they have one of the most exciting young talents in the J.League. After his explosive cameo in the rollercoaster 3-2 win against Avispa back in May it looked like I was going to have to re-arrange my position on the side.

But then things took a turn for the worse.

In recent weeks the team have maintained their strong form and returned to the top of the table for the first time in years, but they have done so by playing some fairly uninspiring football – usually sealing the three points by one-goal margins.

The best example was perhaps their game against Montedio Yamagata at Mitsuzawa (great atmosphere) when they scored within 15 seconds and then tried to bore poor Montedio into submission for the next hour. Yamagata persevered with their quick passing style and found a way back into the game though, only for the point to be snatched cruelly away by Kim Kun-hoan’s 95th minute winner.

Of course, the fans and players probably couldn’t care less how the wins come about – and last-gasp winners like Kim’s certainly bring excitement – but I personally like to see a team playing to their full attacking potential and winning games – or losing them – with a bit of bravado.

 Tsumarinos have the potential to do that, but do they have the guts?


The Mixed Zone with…Tadanari Lee

For my most recent Mixed Zone with… I travelled to Hiroshima to meet Tadanari Lee.

You can read my interview with the Sanfrecce and Japan striker here.


Getting in touch with our feminine side

Nadeshiko Japan didn’t only triumph by winning the World Cup, but they also brought out my softer side… 

They did it! Nadeshiko Japan are the World Champions and I would like to start this week’s column by congratulating everybody involved in Germany – from the coaches and players to backroom staff. What an incredible achievement.

Of course, I knew that they were going to win the World Cup before Saki Kumagai slammed home the historic winner though (and what an incredible strike – the perfect penalty in more ways than one).

No, I didn’t call it before the tournament, and even during the final I had my doubts. The point at which I knew that they had the cup secured, though, was in the break between extra-time and penalties.

Yes, Japan had just snatched defeat away from the US right at the death – with Homare Sawa for the second game in a row making amends for a mistake in the build-up to an opponents’ goal by scoring herself – and while the psychological impact of that certainly affected the American players, that isn’t how I knew.

The moment it became obvious, however, was as the camera panned around between the two sets of players.

The American team were stony-faced and serious-looking. They were huddled together and geeing each other up, back-slapping and high-fiving and generally looking like they had work to do, with all the troubles of the world on their minds.

The Japanese camp was exactly the opposite. The players and staff were laughing and joking, already hugging each other on a job well done and looking completely at ease; they were enjoying themselves.

It was almost as if they couldn’t quite believe they were in this position; how are we just a penalty shoot-out away from winning the World Cup? they seemed to be asking.

Then, it looked like they’d blown it. Everybody gathered into a huddle and Sasaki-kantoku leant forwards, seemingly set to offer some serious words of advice or encouragement. But no! Instead he said something (what, I don’t know) before bursting into laughter along with everybody else and sending them on their way to collect the trophy. Simple.

And simple it was. America, feeling the strain, missed their first three penalties – thanks in no small part to the bundle of energy that is Ayumi Kaihori, who repelled two of them – while the Nadeshiko eased into things with Aya Miyama slotting home one of the coolest, calmest penalties I’ve ever seen. Pressure? What pressure?

Everybody knows what happened next, and while Sawa-san has, quite rightly, been receiving most of the praise since the triumph, I’m delighted that it was Kumagai who struck the decisive penalty.

Throughout the tournament she and her central-defensive partner Azusa Iwashimizu were fantastic for Japan, throwing themselves into tackles, blocking shots and comfortable when bringing the ball forwards to start attacks.

It was Iwashimizu who headed home the winner in the Asian Games final last year, and this time too she made a crucial contribution to the win, with her foul in the last minute keeping Japan in the match.

I’m still not 100% that it was a foul, but she knew that it was worth risking the red card in order to prevent what would surely have been the winner for the US.

The full-backs Yukari Kinga and Aya Sameshima – who I’ve developed a bit of a crush on – were also superb, constantly joining the attacks and causing problems for opposition defences, while the likes of Karina Maruyama and Nahomi Kawasumi – two more crushes – who started the tournament as substitutes, also played key roles at vital times on the way to the title.

America’s goalkeeper Hope Solo said after the final that, “I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for this team. If there were any other team I could give this to it would have to be Japan. I’m happy for them and they do deserve it.”

And this something bigger was the fantastic team spirit within the squad and, most importantly, the fact that they were enjoying themselves.

As well as adding the World Cup to their trophy cabinet, the side also succeeded in helping me get a little more in touch with my feminine side; each time I see the highlights on TV I find myself tearing up.

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August 2011