Archive for October, 2011

27
Oct
11

Miss-demeanour

There are very few places in the world where a player has their name sung for missing an open goal. Except Japan, that is…

Several of my initial impressions of Japanese football have changed as my knowledge and understanding of the sport and the country develop.

One thing that I am still bemused by is the reaction of supporters in the stadium when one of their players messes up though.

The first time I noticed this odd custom was at Ajinomoto Stadium not long after I’d arrived in Japan. FC Tokyo were playing Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Tokyo’s striker, Cabore, was the only man forward for his side, closely marked on the halfway line facing his own goal.

The ball was played up to him and rather than controlling it he performed a late shimmy, completely confusing the defender, and let the ball zip into the space behind them.

As he turned to fruitlessly chase it down (the ball was now 30 or 40 yards away) the covering centre-back simply strode across and cleared his lines. 

The fans were delighted by the trickery though and burst into applause for his completely unsuccessful piece of skill. Then a chant of his name began to ring around.

Attempts at something out of the ordinary and near-misses are – and should be – celebrated in football, if they are well-executed and have the potential to positively impact on the game. Useless showboating should not be rewarded, though.

Likewise, a player should never have his name sung for missing an open goal from one yard.

However, that is exactly what happened at Todoroki Stadium after Junichi Inamoto somehow managed to miss a gaping net against Albirex Niigata.

I’m all for supporting your team and also think that booing those you’re supposed to be getting behind is unproductive nine times out of ten. However, missing an open goal when under no pressure is not something that warrants adoration.

He didn’t miss on purpose, of course. He’s trying his best and merely lost concentration at the critical moment so you don’t need to boo him, but why on earth cheer?

Players always drum out the platitudes about it being ‘great to have the fans behind you’ and insist that the ceaseless drumming/singing/clapping motivates them on the pitch but if your name is going to be sung regardless of your performance then perhaps, sub-consciously, you are slightly less focused out there.

I’ve recently started to watch Premier League football again and after a brief period away from the English game I have been struck by the difference in atmosphere at stadiums back in the UK and J.League venues.

In England fans react to the game. Their involvement in, enjoyment of and frustration at what is happening on the pitch are all tied up with the action that unfolds.

Sometimes this results in the ground being fairly silent, but it also means that when something noteworthy happens the decibel level raises and the mood of the game, the fans and the spectacle shifts accordingly.

Compare this to the constant drone of singing in the J.League.

Fans have their routines the world over and I am fully aware that there is no ‘right way’ to support a football club. In fact, that is part of my argument.

I enjoy speaking with supporters before matches but on more than one occasion have had my conversation abruptly called to a halt because it is time to start cheering the team.

At these times the person I am talking to has also seemed hesitant to stop but has withdrawn seemingly out of duty.

When you are in the stadium you are not at work. You are free and have chosen to spend your leisure time watching and supporting your club.

Therefore, if you want to grumble about a miss or take a break from jumping up and down you should be free to.

If the support from the terraces ebbed and flowed with the game then the efforts of the supporters could truly have a part to play on proceedings. A sudden burst of noise, for example, could provide the players with that adrenaline rush to fuel one last push for that crucial goal.

If they are just treated to the same hypnotic displays that they’ve been hearing since Round 1 though, then the level of tension and excitement befitting the end of the season is not quite the same.

21
Oct
11

Shooting Stars

Football fans the world over love a new star. The constant hunger for fresh articles analysing their performances, critiquing them and predicting or declaring their downfall make it difficult to arive at balanced judgments of their true abilities. In Japan this is process is particularly pronounced and shelf-life seems to be set at around six months….

A couple of years ago it seemed as if all of Japan’s prospects at the 2010 World Cup depended solely upon Shunsuke Nakamura.

He was the media darling and his struggles with injury and poor form created thousands of column inches in the build-up to the tournament.

Then Keisuke Honda came along and became the go-to guy for comments, seemingly established as the new face of the Samurai Blue.

While the CSKA Moscow ‘star’ is still of central importance to the success of the national team his is not the name most spotted on shirts at the stadium at the moment though, with first Shinji Kagawa and then Yuto Nagatomo rising to the top of the pile on the back of their moves to Europe. 

Of course, every country likes to have their hero, and a new face upon which to pin a nation’s hopes is not in any way unique to Japanese football.

The frequency with which the idol is changed here – and the speed at which they are elevated to the summit – is fairly unusual though.

The reason I say ‘star’ in relation to Honda is not meant in any way to detract from his abilities as a player, but in all truth he is yet to really achieve enough to warrant the term.

Yes, he scored a couple of goals at the World Cup and looks to have the ability to make it in one of the bigger leagues, but at 25 he is still stuck in Russia and very few fans outside of Japan know much, if anything, about him.

The manner in which home-grown success stories are overblown in Japan projects daunting expectations onto the players though, and this most recently resulted in Kagawa cutting a forlorn figure around the team in the build-up to the Tajikistan game.

“I want to get my goal. If I can score then maybe my performance will jump up,” he said when questioned for the umpteenth time about the ‘slump in form’ that had seen him go three games without scoring for the national team.

Just three games.

“I only want to focus on the next match and I want to play to my real ability,” he continued. “But this time maybe the most important thing is to not think. If I can play like that then maybe that will be my best performance.”

That last observation hit the nail firmly on the head. My impressions from watching him of late were that he had been trying to do too much. Trying to carry the team. Trying to live up to his billing.

He clearly has the ability so let’s just let him play the game the way that comes naturally to him – and has brought about his success to date – and not get on his back when things aren’t going exactly to plan. 

His magnificent pair of goals against Tajikistan (although I still think the second was a cross, and so did Yasuhito Endo) demonstrate that he has lost none of the ability that caused his rapid rise from J2 to the Bundesliga.

Even so, he felt the need to qualify this after the game, telling reporters that, “my confidence depends on what happens in the future. I have to keep going.”

While it is good to seek improvement, the players should not fear their next game and the negative headlines that may appear if their performance dips a little.

Football players are not tarento. Their shelf-life is not just six months and they will have ups and downs. We don’t need a new face every time the leaves change.

Hiroshi Kiyotake and Genki Haraguchi seem to be the next duo vying to be the latest luminous-booted starlet who proves that Japan’s Got Talent, but let’s not get carried away.

Genki’s had a good season considering the atrocious form of his club, while Kiyotake’s settled well into the national team in his first few appearances.

We shouldn’t forget the old proverb about the foolishness of constructing houses on sand.

 Instead of building players up too quickly and then knocking them down with similar haste, let’s give them a bit of time to lay their foundations before we proclaim them as ‘world class’ or past it.

21
Oct
11

Sakai aims to make history with Reysol

This season a new name is vying to add itself to the J.League roll of honour, with last season’s J2 champions Kashiwa Reysol well in the hunt with a handful of games remaining.

Recently I caught up with Hiroki Sakai, one of the team’s star performers in 2011, to find out the key to the team’s success, and just how highly he rated their chances of back-to-back titles.

21
Oct
11

Japan vents frustrations on Tajikistan

Having stumbled out of the blocks slightly in their opening pair of Brazil 2014 World Cup qualifiers Japan were expected to put in a performance against Tajikistan at Nagai Stadium.

Thankfully, they didn’t disappoint and my analyss of the match, plus comments from the key protaganists, can be found here.

12
Oct
11

From Serbia to Zelvia

Machida Zelvia of the JFL have big ambitions and have appointed a heavyweight coach to help them achieve their goals. In football, as in life, the first step is usually the hardest to take though..

The last time most Japanese football fans were aware of Ranko Popovic he was in charge of Akihiro Ienaga, Mu Kanazaki and Shusaku Nishikawa at Oita Trinita.

This season the Serbian has made a low-key return to the Japanese game, taking charge of JFL side Machida Zelvia, after Naoki Soma moved on to take the reins at Kawasaki Frontale.

While the quality of player at his disposal is not quite the same this time around, Popo-san is working towards the same aim though – with a place in J1 the target for his side.

Zelvia General Manager, Tadashi Karai – who has formerly had spells in the top-flight with Shimizu S-Pulse, Tokyo Verdy, and JEF United – is delighted to have attracted such an experienced manager, and is hopeful that they can keep hold of him to achieve the club’s long-term goals.

“Of course our final aim is to go up to J1 in three-to-five years,” he told me before Zelvia’s recent game against Tochigi Uva at Nishigaoka Stadium.

“The J.League has just started the play-off system within the top six places so clubs have a chance to go from J2 to J1. Of course we want to keep Mr. Popovic for at least 5 years. This is the president’s decision.”

As well as being attracted by Popovic’s impressive stint at Trinita – although they got relegated he guided them on an unbeaten 10-game run at the end of the 2009 campaign that almost preserved their J1 place – his previous success in his homeland was also attractive to Karai-san.

“He had experience in Serbia, his club [Zlatibor Voda] got promoted from the third to the first division, so not [just] in Oita, but he already had good experience for us.”

While this achievement does appear to bode well for Machida, Popovic points out a big difference between Voda and Zelvia.

“In Serbia it was different because in that team in the 3rd division I had three or four players who’d played in the 1st division,” Popovic explained to me after the game with Uva ended 0-0.

“[That makes] a big difference. We must have players with more experience, for times like today if the ball doesn’t go in the goal.” 

Attracting them is not easy though, and as well as having to contend with J.League egos (not many are prepared to rough it in the JFL and would prefer to swan around in the comfort of a J.League satellite team) money is, of course, an issue. 

Karai-san believes that the lack of a large corporate investor at Zelvia means that more bums on seats is the best way to bolster the club’s coffers. 

“We think we need bigger attendances because we don’t have a Toyota, Nissan, Hitachi. We are originally a town club so we need bigger attendances to finance our budget.” 

Unfortunately the fickle nature of some fans makes this a tricky thing to achieve. After the draw with Uva, for example, a journalist suggested to Popovic in the press conference that some fans were pleased with the style of their team’s play, but unhappy by the lack of results. 

This led to a lengthy exchange between the reporter in question and Popovic – via his tireless translator Tsukada-san – and after the press conference had concluded the Serbian expressed his frustration at this aspect of Japanese football. 

“In Japan there’s a problem; the result is everything,” he told me. “We must try to learn to watch the football. The result is important in the end, yes, but it’s also important how you make this result, if you want to have [a good] future. 

“Who guarantees if we change something we will go [to J2], who guarantees? To change now, to work for eight months, to play beautiful football like today and then say ‘no, forget that’? 

“I want to make a team who can stay there. To make guys who can play football.” 

This is an admirable target and one which, if successful, could well provide Machida with a chance to establish themselves in the fully professional leagues. 

Finding a balance between aesthetic play and positive results is the main challenge now though, and that is perhaps the trickiest obstacle to overcome.

12
Oct
11

Japan v. Tajikistan Preview

On Tuesday night Japan played Tajikistan in their third group game in the third round of Asian qualification for Brazil 2014.

I wrote a peview ahead of the match for The Daily Yomiuri, which can be found here.

12
Oct
11

Omiya, Oh My

Just one home win in the league all season has left Omiya in the relegation scrap as per-usual. Very few of their players have shone this season but the majority of the blame lies with their coach…

Back in February I was asked to provide this magazine with my predictions for the 2011 J.League season. We are not quite at the end of the campaign but I decided to revisit them recently and although some are still possible (Avispa, Ventforet, Montedio to get relegated; Grampus to win the league) others were not so successful.

The most glaring mistake was my tip for top-scorer (Antlers’ Carlao (19 goals) – oops), but I was also misguided in my suggestion that Omiya Ardija would be the dark horse.

In the six seasons since Ardija joined J1 they have always ended up in the bottom half, only once finishing more than six points above the relegation zone.

They looked to have settled last year though, and having kept hold of Rafael and also made some smart signings in Kim Young-gwon, Kota Ueda and Keigo Higashi it seemed as if they were in a position to start pushing on and establishing themselves as a steady top-flight team.

And, in a way, they have.

Their victory over Kashiwa Reysol in Round 27 meant they had the joint second-best away record in the division, taking 22 points from their games on the road and losing just four times.

Things have not gone quite so well at home, however. In fact, they have the worst record of any club in front of their own fans, winning just once at NACK5 in the league all season.

This discrepancy was pointed out to striker Rafael after his brace had secured their latest away victory in Kashiwa, and he was at a loss to account for the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the side.

“It’s difficult to explain,” the Brazilian said. “I think a lot of teams play better away this season. We play to win away and at home but we have been playing badly at home, I don’t know why.”

I have my theory, and it rests with the coach Jun Suzuki.

While not as depressing a tactician as Toshiya Miura, Suzuki is far from ambitious and seemingly sends his team out not with the aim of winning games, but of not losing them.

This is a fairly standard tactic used by many coaches for away games, when the onus is usually on the home side to attack and go for the win. As players grow tired and the pressure mounts there is always the opportunity to capitalise on a mistake or sneak one on the counter-attack – something Omiya have perfected this season.

At home, though, teams usually take control a little more, and are expected to seize the initiative. Unfortunately, instead of trusting in their talented attacking players and throwing a little caution to the wind Omiya adopt the same stance on their own patch as they do on their travels.

Suzuki’s refusal to start Naoki Ishihara sums up this conservative approach, and after Omiya’s maiden home win against Jubilo Iwata he attempted to justify the tactic as follows.

“I want to use him from the start but we have no other supersub. I tried to use [Rodrigo] Pimpao from the second half but he is not that type of player.”

So, essentially, it seems that Ishihara doesn’t start because he’s good, whereas a less adaptable player, Pimpao, gets a starting shirt because he’s a crap sub. Hmmm…

Quite why they can’t all be incorporated into the starting line-up isn’t clear.

Rafael and Ishihara would form a formidable front two, and with Keigo Higashi on the right and one of Pimpao or Lee Chun-soo on the left the side would have more than enough attacking potential to secure the ten or so wins needed to avoid relegation.

As the likes of Reysol, Sanfrecce and Cerezo have demonstrated, such a gung-ho approach does lead to a fair few defeats, but it also enables teams to turn enough draws into victories to keep them well away from the drop-zone.

Indeed, Reysol, who are challenging at the other end of the table, have not drawn at home all season; Omiya have tied seven times.

Something that is always worth bearing in mind is the fact that you get more points by winning one game and losing the next than you do for drawing both.




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