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.

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August 2011

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