Archive for December, 2011


More than a club

2011 saw Barcelona further establish themselves as the best team on the planet. As well as winning pretty much every trophy available to them they are also edging closer and closer to the ultimate accolade…

As I discussed in last week’s column, the Club World Cup is far from being the official word on who is the best team in the world.

To an extent, the ease with which Barcelona cruised to the trophy serves as further proof of that. In truth though, it is becoming increasingly apparent with this set of players that the usual rules don’t apply.

At half-time in the final I was watching the highlights in the press room and said of Xavi’s exquisite control ahead of his assist for the first goal, “It’s not fair, they’re too good.”

A Brazilian journalist sat nearby laughingly agreed and gave me a look that said “what can you do?”

According to Neymar after the game, the answer is very simple: nothing.

“We did everything we could but Barca are too strong,” the Santos striker shrugged with a wry smile.

This had been a theme during the Catalan giants’ week in Japan, with opponents queuing up to praise Pep Guardiola’s incredible side.

Al-Sadd’s head coach Jorge Fossati perhaps put it best after seeing his team picked apart in the semi-final.

“Barca has a kingdom, but who can defeat this kingdom?,” the Uruguayan asked.

Al-Sadd and Santos may be at a lower level than some of the biggest European sides who are best placed to topple the club that is ‘more than a club’, but they represent the best in Asia and South America right now.

Even when faced with Manchester United (in this year’s Champions League final) or Real Madrid (the day before they flew to Japan) Barca came out comfortably on top.

“Barcelona is the best club team in the world,” Fossati added. “Whoever they play against they are the best team in the world. That is logical to say.”

The strength of the team rests not only with their phenomenal attacking ability and abundance of sublime individual talents, but also in a fantastic work-ethic and understanding which is a direct result of its fabled La Masia academy.

Something that always strikes me about the side is the way they hunt in packs as soon as the opposition get the ball, making it incredibly difficult to place them under any real pressure.

Guardiola referred to this aspect of his side’s play after the final, highlighting the attention to detail they pay to each specific opponent.

“We have very high quality players and also try to analyse the opponents and find space in which to use the ball,” he said. “The players just capture the ball and move around and make chances. It is not so complicated.”

It may not be complicated to them, but exactly how to stop them certainly has everyone else scratching their heads.

Santos’ head coach Muricy Ramalho was similarly at a loss, and yet again referred to Barca as the best in the world.

“We tried to stop their players as much as possible, but I don’t think it’s easy to find a team anywhere in the world that can beat Barcelona.

“I thought of many things, but to control the game or steal the game from Barca is very difficult. It’s no use talking about the shortcomings of Santos and we should be humble and accept that Barca is the world’s best club.”

Cesc Fabregas was also at pains to point out the amount of hard work that has gone into building such a phenomenal team.

“If you see that it’s easy then it’s because we played a very serious game, very professional and disciplined then that made it look easy but it wasn’t easy at all,” the former Arsenal captain said of the game with Santos.

After having had to put up with the likes of Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh until he returned to Camp Nou, I asked just how much fun it was to now be lining up alongside Xavi, Messi and Iniesta.

“It’s great,” he said with a grin. “They are the best players in the world. I’m taking advantage for my game to have more opportunities because they create so many spaces and so many chances.”

The ‘best in the world’ line is pretty unanimous, then. It surely can’t be long until the same can be said of the ‘best ever’ tag.


For the game? For the world?

Barcelona provided some sumptuous entertainment on the way to claiming the Club World Cup title, and Kashiwa Reysol also benefited from the tournament. The real winners were Fifa though…

At the start of the season I wrote in this column that I was pleased to see Kashiwa Reysol back in J1, ending with the line, “One thing’s for certain; with Kashiwa back in the mix 2011 will be kept interesting. The future’s bright.”

Little did I know back then just how brightly the Sun Kings would shine. As well as becoming the first ever side to claim back-to-back J2 and J1 championships they also earned the rare opportunity to take part in the Club World Cup – with their momentum taking them all the way to an exciting semi-final against Santos.

Speaking after their qualifying victory against Auckland City, captain Hidekazu Otani – one of the unsung heroes of the team – epitomised the spirit behind Reysol’s success.

“It’s not just about participating, but the whole team feels that we want to leave a good result,” he said.

“The experience of every single match in this competition is valuable to all the players and the team.”

His coach Nelsinho agreed, reflecting on the growth of his side after they secured their place in the quarter-finals against Monterrey.

“My players now have more confidence, they are more mature. We have won J2 and, by taking it step by step J1 as well. By winning this game, we have more experience”

I have absolutely no doubt about that but, while the competition does provide a fantastic experience for clubs such as Reysol, I have to admit that I see it as little more than a charade to make FIFA even more money.

With the greatest respect to the likes of Auckland City – who, let’s not forget, are an amateur club – they don’t represent anything like the best teams in the world, and to suggest anything otherwise hints at either ignorance, stupidity or lies (none of which are particularly alien to the world’s governing body, of course).

Myself and a fellow English journalist (Ben Mabley of Football Japan) discussed the pros (mainly Ben) and cons (mainly me) of the tournament ahead of the kick-off, and while I agreed that, in principal, it was a good idea, in practice it just doesn’t work.

The concept of a tournament to determine the true ‘Best Club in the World’ is great on paper, but economic factors mean that each of the continental champions comes into the competition on a hugely different footing.

Regardless of whether they won the competition or not, we all know that Barcelona are the best team out there, and aside from yet another El Clasico against Real Madrid we’re hard pushed for someone to really challenge them for that crown.

The closest side from outside of Europe to being able to do that is probably Copa Libertadores champions Santos.

In his welcome address in the official programme for the Club World Cup (¥3,000 each – ‘For the game. For the World’), Kazu touched upon that fact – while at the same time performing perhaps the biggest name-drop I have ever seen.

“During a conversation with Pele the other day,” Kazu began, “he commented that, “People continually ask me about a game between Santos FC and FC Barcelona, but who said they will be in the final?””

Kazu then continued, “You could say there is a gulf in quality between the continents, but the gap has been narrowing in recent years. The will to win is universal and there is an equal chance for every team.”

Ben made a similar point, and while Reysol’s efforts against Santos were impressive I’m still not convinced.

Everybody in the build-up to the competition wanted to see the Catalans (and Messi) square off against the Brazilians (and Neymar) in the final, so what would have made more sense (but less money) would have been to skip straight to a game between those two sides – as was the case until the Intercontinental Cup came to an end in 2004.

 I’m all for trying to improve the overall level of the game around the world, but rather than just giving the African, American, Asian and Oceanian champions the chance to swap shirts with a celebrity player, FIFA could perhaps try and focus its efforts on distributing and regulating the obscene amounts of money in the game a bit better in order to create a more even playing field.


Barcelona carves name in history

Barcelona made official what we all knew on Sunday when they became the champions of the Club World Cup.


I was lucky enough to be at Nissan Stadium to witness their triumph first-hand, and gathered some recation for the Daily Yomiuri.


Club World Cup semis set up Barca-Santos final

It was the game everybody wanted to see before the tournament began, and after victories over Kashiwa Reysol and Al-Sadd, respectively, Santos and Barcelona are set to square off in the Club World Cup final on Sunday.

I was at both games and gathered reaction from the key players in Toyota (Reysol-Santos) and Yokohama (Al-Sadd-Barca) ahead of the final.


Panda-ing to the masses

Women’s football in Japan is currently doing very well for itself. Success brings fresh challenges though, and it is important that the game tackles them now if it wants to maintain its popularity …

The first time I watched a women’s football match in Japan – ok, probably the first time I ever watched a women’s football match – was in July 2009, when I saw Urawa Ladies take on Beleza at Komaba.

While I was surprised by the level on the pitch and the number of spectators there (nearly 2,000), it was still obviously far-removed from the men’s game.

The amount of interest didn’t seem much higher when I attended a Nadeshiko training session in Tokyo just before the World Cup, with only a handful of journalists present.

Of course, those experiences contrast greatly to the scenes that have been the norm since Homare Sawa et al returned from Germany as World Champions.

The increase in popularity is positive in many respects, and if that can be maintained then the women’s game could go from strength-to-strength. That is not going to be easy though, and I worry that the majority of people will quickly lose interest.

A fellow journalist provided the best analogy of the current situation when describing Sawa as being “like a panda” – everybody wants to take a picture but once they’ve got it their appetite has been sated and they move on to (insert ice-skater/volleyball player/swimmer here).

For me, the recent tour in Japan by Arsenal Ladies was interesting, as it served as a good marker of a) how women’s football in Japan is being viewed from the outside – away from the hype – and b) how many people here still cared.

In the first instance, things were hugely encouraging, with the Arsenal players genuinely excited to be playing against some of the best players in the world and keen to benefit from the experience.

“The most pleasing thing about watching the Japanese team play [at the World Cup],” captain Jayne Ludlow told me the day before their game against INAC Kobe, “was the freedom and the enjoyment they seemed to have playing the games. “Even in high-pressured situations they were smiling – the penalties was a typical example, they didn’t look like they were under pressure at all and they performed brilliantly. So maybe there’s something to learn from that.”

After the game, too, Jennifer Beattie, who scored the equaliser in the 1-1 draw, also spoke about picking things up from the Japanese players.

“The Japanese style of [women’s] football is one of the best in the world,” she said. “Their technique, their first touch, their range of passing is just unbelievable. And that’s probably something that English football and every other style can learn from.”

The game itself was of a high-standard, and in Nahomi Kawasumi, Shinobu Ono, Megumi Takase and Ji So-yun INAC have some hugely exciting attacking talent.

With regards to b), Over 11,000 people were at Kokuritsu for the match, which suggests that there are still plenty of people there for the game and not just the snapshot.

This is exactly how Sawa herself explained things when I spoke to her ahead of the game. “Initially, of course, it can’t be helped; they want to see famous players,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s just that, I think people are genuinely starting to take an interest in the football.”

In England, too, the media is slowly getting behind the game, but Ludlow still thinks there is room for improvement.

“ESPN do show some of the games, but it can always be bigger and better,” she said. “The more profile we get, obviously with funding, [the better], and hopefully in five or 10 years we can go professional.

INAC’s Yukari Kinga thinks the focus should be at the other end of the spectrum as well.

“At the root, at the bottom,” she said after the game with Arsenal. “The youth, in junior high school, middle school. I hope that it can grow more.

“In America, lots of young girls play football. If that could happen in Japan it would naturally make women’s football stronger, it would go in the right direction. So I feel we need to grow more.”

Things certainly look to be on the up, but the key to longevity is not easy to find. Efforts, such as this Arsenal tour, should be made to secure it now though, or people could soon be moving on to the next exhibit.


Reysol must improve in next round

Kashiwa Reysol didn’t have much time to prepare for their Club World Cup opener, only clinching their maiden J1 crown five days before the competition began.

They still managed to seal a victory over Auckland City in their first match, but know they need to improve for their next game against CF Monterrey of Mexico.


The Mixed Zone with…Freddie Ljungberg

There aren’t many big-name foreign players in the J.League at the moment, with the money that used to attract them now in the oil-rich regions in the Middle East.

Not all players are just in it for the cash though, and my interview with Freddie Ljungberg revealed a player who is interested in a lot more than his pay-cheque.


My Team of the Year

Last night was the J.League’s annual awards ceremony, where the official word was had on the best of the 2011 season. For this week’s Soccer Magazine I decided to pick my Best XI (and a substitutes bench, just to cover my back a little).

A 4-1-2-2-1 (ish) formation best suited the players I went for – although I did have to crowbar a couple into slightly unfamiliar positions – and I tried my best to take into account players’ individual achievements rather than those of their club as a whole.

Anyway, enough excuses, here’s my team.

Goalkeeper: Takuto Hayashi (Vegalta Sendai): Ever-present in the league and a fantastic presence between the posts. Kept clean sheets in nearly half of his matches and provided a great base for the side to build from and enjoy their best ever season.

Right Back: Hiroki Sakai (Kashiwa Reysol): A constant threat when his side is attacking and supplements his aggressive and direct approach play with fantastic crossing ability. Doesn’t shirk at the back either, and is the model of the modern full-back.

Centre Back: Makoto Kakuda (Vegalta Sendai): Strong in the tackle, a good organiser and, like his goalkeeper, has been integral to Vegalta’s success. Has also chipped in with a couple of goals and assists and isn’t afraid of the physical side of the game at either end of the pitch.

Centre Back: Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Nagoya Grampus): Still an intimidating presence at the heart of the Grampus defence. Not the quickest and, yes, he does get too much respect from referees and opponents alike, but his attitude has helped to build that persona and his performances invariably back it up.

Left Back: Jorge Wagner (Kashiwa Reysol): OK, he’s not really a left-back but that’s where he started the season and it’s where he’d play in my team. Always uses the ball intelligently and rarely loses possession. On top of that his goal tally is in the double figures.

Defensive Midfield: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka): Yet again he has been the conductor in the Gamba midfield. Always composed and totally controls the pace of the game, as well as popping up with numerous defence-splitting passes and timely goals. Pure class.

Central Midfield: Takuya Nozawa (Kashima Antlers): Usually lines up wider and further forward but, in this hypothetical team, I would use him more centrally. Another calm-and-collected player who is always thinking two or three passes ahead. Scored or set up nearly half of Antlers’ goals.

Central Midfield: Leandro Domingues (Kashiwa Reysol): Like Nozawa and Endo, Domingues is responsible for controlling the speed at which his team plays. Comfortable when collecting the ball from his defenders or in the final third and deadly in front of goal.

Right Midfield: Genki Haraguchi (Urawa Reds): A coach at Reds suggested to me earlier in the season that without Genki Urawa would already be in J2. At the time that seemed a little bit of an exaggeration but if it weren’t for his guts and goals then just think where the side would be…

Left Midfield: Ryang Yong-gi (Vegalta Sendai): Yet another great leader – can you have too many? – who plays with fantastic poise. His set-pieces provide a constant threat but he can do it in play too. Never flustered in possession and knows exactly when to release the ball and when to delay the pass.

Striker: Mike Havenaar (Ventforet Kofu): Other players perhaps have better all-round play, but his scoring record for a side at the bottom of the table is an incredible achievement. Has struck a wide variety of goals, and is about much more than his height. 

Subs: Hiroki Iikura (Yokohama F. Marinos), Naoya Kondo (Kashiwa Reysol), Wataru Hashimoto (Kashiwa Reysol); Shingo Hyodo (Yokohama F. Marinos), Hiroki Yamada (Jubilo Iwata); Josh Kennedy (Nagoya Grampus), Lee Keun-ho (Jubilo Iwata)

That’s my team, and I’m sure that you’ll have spotted many ridiculous inclusions and glaring omissions. Please feel free to point them out and tell me who you’d have in your side, either below the line or on Twitter @seankyaroru.


Rare double has Reysol raising its bar

This season Kashiwa Reysol became the first Japanese side ever to win J1 the year after claiming the J2 championship.

I was at Saitama Stadium to see them complete their historic triumph, and got some reaction from the key players for The Daily Yomiuri.


Arsenal Ladies get inside look at Japan

The surge in popularity in women’s football was phenomenal in the wake of Nadeshiko Japan’s World Cup triumph in July.

Arsenal Ladies’ trip to the country has ensured that the game remains in the spotlight, and everybody’s thoughts are now on the next steps.

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

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December 2011