Archive for January, 2012


Should I stay or should I go?

Scouts from overseas are incresingly looking to recruit Japanese players, for whom the lure of foreign football is hard to resist. Sometimes though, staying put could be the best thing to do…

Since the 2010 World Cup finals Japanese players have become – rather like Luis Vuitton handbags for the nation’s women – a must-have accessory for many European clubs.

Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Arsenal are three of the biggest sides to have picked up bargains, in Yuto Nagatomo, Takashi Usami and Ryo Miyaichi. Others, including Shinji Kagawa and Atsuto Uchida, have developed into regulars at their new teams, and enjoyed great success in their domestic divisions and the Champions League.

While several have been able to make the step-up with relative ease, however, many more have seen their progress grind to something of a halt overseas.

Among those whose stories have been far from idyllic are Eiji Kawashima, who is languishing near the bottom of the Belgian First Division for the second consecutive season with Lierse, Kisho Yano, who struggled for minutes at Freiburg and is desperately seeking a transfer, and Tomoaki Makino (Koln), Yuki Abe (Leicester City) and Masahiko Inoha (Hajduk Split), all three of whom have already moved on – the former pair back to Japan with Urawa.

The reality of living and working overseas is not the same as the idea of it – particularly for Japanese players.

Japan, like England, is an island country and thus fairly inward-looking. Foreign travel is far from the norm here – and when people do venture abroad it is usually as part of carefully planned, all-Japanese tour groups – and the level of English is among the worst in the world.

When players who are used to being wrapped in cotton wool back home are suddenly thrust into a completely alien environment, then, it can be difficult.

Further to this, with the level of the J.League constantly increasing, a move to a different country may not always be the best option.

I spoke to Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s winger Mihael Mikic shortly after Inoha had sealed his move to Hajduk Split last July, and the Croatian couldn’t believe the Japan international had made such a choice.

“I cannot understand that Inoha from Kashima Antlers is going to go to Hajduk Split in Croatia. This I cannot understand,” he said.

“You know the Croatian League has only one good team; that is Dinamo Zagreb. Dinamo Zagreb for the last six years is the champion. All the other teams are not a high level, you know? But maybe he’s thinking something. Somebody from Europe will see him,” he continued.

“But I think now, in this moment, he has a better chance if he stays and then goes to a team in Germany or Italy or Holland.”

The apparent desperation of players to head overseas in an anywhere-will-do style can come off and provide a great life-experience, but playing-wise it can backfire, and such a plunge should not be taken lightly.

“[They] must make the choice of a good league; Bundesliga, Serie A, Spanish league, England or Italy,” Mikic went on to explain.

“These five leagues, or France or Holland – that is also ok. In Russia the fight for the six top teams is also good, but now another country in Europe? That is not a good choice. That is my opinion.” 

His words came to ring true in the case of Inoha, and as well as placing his national team spot in jeopardy the 26-year-old must also now think very carefully about his next step.

He most likely does not want to swallow his pride and come back to Japan at this point, but will another European team be willing to give him a chance?

If he had heeded Mikic’s advice and continued to establish himself at Antlers then a side in a bigger league may well have been convinced by his undoubted ability and come in with an offer, either now or perhaps in the summer.

That is something that the likes of Hiroki Sakai, Genki Haraguchi and Hiroshi Kiyotake must certainly bear in mind, with the next 12 months almost certain to bring speculation and offers for their services from overseas.

All three of those players have the potential to become the next Kagawa or Uchida, but they need the right club to facilitate that progression – and for the time being that may well be their current employer.


Striking Out

Two Japanese strikers recently enjoyed different levels of success in securing overseas moves, with perhaps little more than their birthdays being the decisive factor…

I recently met Tadanari Lee for a coffee in Southampton, and he was clearly very excited about his move to the Championship club.

The transition from big-fish-in-a-little-pond to small-fry with a point to prove will take some getting used to – at one point a fellow customer struck up conversation with us and Lee was successfully able to pass himself off as a student at the local university, not something that would be achievable in Hiroshima – but I believe he has all the right attributes to adapt to and succeed in the English game.

While Lee did seal his deal, Ryoichi Maeda’s trial with fellow promotion chasers West Ham was unsuccessful, though.

That looks to have been the Jubilo hitman’s final chance to prove himself outside of the J.League, and it is a real shame that he will not have the opportunity to test himself in a different environment.

He suggested as much ahead of his try-out with the Hammers. 

“It might be a bit late to be taking on the challenge of playing abroad, but I hope to grow into a better player in Europe and bring that to the national team,” he was reported as saying by Reuters.

“At my age, this is likely my last chance to play overseas and I want to do everything possible to make it happen.”

This desire on the player’s part suggests Jubilo’s claim that the move didn’t happen because terms couldn’t be agreed may not be the whole truth.

When contrasted with the way in which Southampton pulled out all the stops to get Lee on board, the element of luck and timing which comes into play with such transfers moves even more clearly into focus.

The now-former Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker initially had his visa application turned down, but he was eventually granted special dispensation as “an exceptional talent that will enhance the game [in England]”.

Maeda is one of the most natural Japanese strikers I have seen, and his consistently impressive goalscoring record suggests that he really should have been given an opportunity as well.

To me, the four-year difference in the two players’ ages is the main reason why Lee has been given his chance and Maeda missed the boat.

While Maeda being 30 was not perhaps a stumbling block in the move to West Ham – Sam Allardyce wouldn’t have bothered giving him a trial if he considered the player to be too old – his age will almost certainly have put-off other clubs.

More importantly though, he is unfortunate to belong to a generation of players who were never really trusted or rated in Europe at their peak.

Until the last couple of years Japanese players were considered too weak to survive in more combative leagues, and Maeda’s scoring achievements in the J.League may not have been treated with the respect they deserve outside of Japan.

As more and more players carve out successful careers in the top leagues this myth is slowly being proved wrong; hence why Lee, at just 26, has been offered his shot.

If Maeda had been born a few years later he, too, would surely have earned some overseas experience.

This is a problem that several older Japanese players are currently facing, and they are being forced to choose between seeing out the remainder of their careers in the J.League, or taking any offers that come their way.

Eiji Kawashima, who will soon turn 29, finds himself at a club in the basement of the Belgian league, where he was very nearly joined by his Japan teammate Yuichi Komano.

While Kawashima may still have one more move in him – goalkeepers do have the potential to play for longer – a switch to  bottom club Sint-Truidense would surely have been the only chance for Komano, and would have been a little bit of a transfer-for-the-sake-of-it.

It is a shame for the likes of Maeda and Komano, but the fact that the next generation are being given more opportunities is fantastic for the continuing development of the Japanese game – both with regards to technique and mentality.

Lee is the perfect embodiment of the newly-confident Japanese player, and if he can hit the ground running then he won’t be anonymous in England for much longer.


One mistake after another

The manner in which Liverpool dealt with the Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra incident has drawn criticism from most quarters. Including this one…

Last week I wrote about the tribal nature of English football fans and the negative effect that a pack mentality can have.

The behaviour of the angry Blackburn supporters protesting against their own club illustrated how fans’ actions can sometimes be unconstructive to their team. The Luis Suarez affair demonstrates how the opposite can take place.

For anybody who has missed it, Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez (he of the handball-on-the-line at the World Cup and biting-an-opponent-while-at-Ajax infamy) is currently suspended for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra back in October.

The incident and his unprecedented eight-match ban is in itself is a big enough talking point, but the reaction of his club, and consequently some of their fans, has ensured that the issue has not been out of the news for weeks.

The first strange move by Liverpool was the decision of manager Kenny Dalglish and the entire squad to wear t-shirts in support of Suarez during the warm-up ahead of their match against Wigan Athletic – the first game since his suspension had been handed down.

Former United defender Paul McGrath was one of the most critical of that show of support.

“If that had been someone in my time and I’d heard the comments or I’d even suspected he was guilty, and obviously there has been a tribunal, then I would not wear a T-shirt with his name on it, saying all is well and good here,” he was quoted as saying in The Telegraph.

“Maybe Kenny [Dalglish] is trying to make a statement to the FA but I just think it is in bad taste that he sent them out in those T-shirts. It would have been much better for Liverpool Football Club if they had have worn anti-racism shirts.”

Closing ranks in such a manner is not a new way for a football club to respond, but the decision to make such an aggressive stand in defence of Suarez after he had been found guilty of referring to Evra in the most derogatory of terms was very bizarre.

The executive director of European football’s anti-discrimination body Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) was also far from impressed by the club’s conduct.

“Liverpool have been too keen to support their man and in doing so have whipped up a sense of paranoia amongst their fans,” Piara Powar said.

“The responses from Kenny Dalglish have been undignified, the way in which they have dealt with the whole matter has been unprofessional.

“For the club to so aggressively militate against what looks to most people is a considered judgement from the FA leads to a potential for anarchy.”

These comments were sadly proven to be spot on.

While I hesitate to consider comments on Twitter as a fair representation (how many people who hurl vitriol via an ‘@’ alias would do the same when stood face-to-face with the person they are abusing?), several Liverpool supporters first took to the internet to abuse Evra racially.

Then Oldham Athletic’s Tom Adeyemi was reduced to tears during his side’s FA Cup 3rd round game against Liverpool after receiving racist taunts from the Kop.

Did the club’s reaction to the initial incident lead to this second offence? In my opinion, almost certainly yes.

An ‘us’ and ‘them’ was created, and the mindless idiots who genuinely believe that the colour of someone’s skin matters felt that they had been given an opportunity to air their pathetic views.

If the club had instead apologised – and, for what it’s worth, I don’t think Suarez is racist, just stupid – and accepted the punishment quietly then the matter would have been far easier to move on from. By casting doubt over Evra’s claims and acting in such an undignified and aggressive manner they did nothing to help the matter.

Their response to the second incident has been much more productive, and the idiot responsible is facing a lifetime ban and criminal charges.

While they will be hoping that this reaction has not been too little too late, with Suarez’s potential first away game back in the side set to come away to United on February 11th it looks highly unlikely that things will settle down for some time yet.


Lee takes a gamble to become a Saint

A couple of weeks ago I headed to Southampton to speak to Saints’ new signing Tadanari Lee.


The former Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker spoke of his reasons for moving to The Championship side, focusing on his desire to improve as a player.


Not Kean

The treatment meted out to Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean this season has not only been a little close to the bone but it’s also become counter-productive…


Usually when I travel back to England and settle down to write this column I focus on something that English football does better than Japanese, and suggest ways that the J.League could improve.

This Christmas, however, something that was going on in the Premier League had the opposite effect, with Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean being subjected to a ridiculous amount of abuse by his club’s own fans as the team slid slowly down the table.

Several times I have spoken of my desire for fans in Japan to be a little more spontaneous and to think for themselves rather than just robotically supporting their team regardless of what is happening on the pitch. 

The treatment that was being dished out to Kean is definitely not something that I support though, and the fact that such mindless protests aren’t the norm in Japan is certainly something that the J.League can be proud of.

Sometimes, of course, a coach is not doing his job well enough and a change is the best option.

Indeed, Blackburn are certainly not in a good position, sat at the bottom of the table with a board who appear to have no real understanding of how to run a professional football club.

It is not so much the cause of the unrest which I have a problem with, it is more the personal nature of the insults and its counter-productivity. 


Blackburn fans have been booing their side and chanting for the dismissal of their manager for several weeks, as well as hiring a plane to fly over their Ewood Park stadium with a banner reading “Kean Out!” during a match.

It is very rare that I agree with religious leaders, but ahead of Rovers’ tricky set of fixtures over the Christmas and New Year period the Bishop of Blackburn spoke a lot of sense on the issue.

“I would say please, always remember the human being, always remember that he’s part of a family — that other people will be suffering because people have got him in their sights,” Right Reverend Nicholas Reade said to the BBC.

Bolton Wanderer’s head coach Owen Coyle – whose side defeated Rovers to send them to the bottom of the table – was one of many managers to publically support Kean.

“I don’t think they have given Stevie Kean a chance from the outset when he was appointed,” he said. “Ultimately, people who shout the loudest get heard. Stevie Kean is a terrific coach, he is managing in the best league in the world and somebody has to fill the dreaded bottom places.”

While the team has struggled, the idiotic behaviour of their fans appears to have contributed to their plummet to the bottom of the table, and it is surely no coincidence that Rovers have reserved their best results for their away games – including a draw at Liverpool and a victory over Manchester United – while losing eight of their first ten at home.


Striker Yakubu threw his considerable weight behind his coach after the win over United, asking “What did [the fans] expect? They should give him a break and support the team. Look at the way he believes in the players.”

Kean also came out fighting, and pointed out the mindless nature of the protests.

“I have five or six players who are under 22 and if they can feel a negative vibe around the ground, it can get to the younger players. So I hope the fans realise we have a young side and are a little bit fragile, and I hope they get behind us.”

It was even suggested in some quarters that the impressive results against two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs would have displeased the protestors – by virtue of the points keeping Kean in a job.

“I wouldn’t imagine any true supporter would want to see us get relegated,” he said on that issue.

“If there is anybody in the stadium who is taking a bit of joy when we don’t win or when we lose and that’s their goal when they come to the ground, I wouldn’t class them as supporters.”

I fully agree with that; there are many words to describe those people and ‘supporters’ is definitely not one of them.

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

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January 2012