Archive for March, 2012

27
Mar
12

Going local

When you live in Tokyo sometimes it’s nice to get out of the city for a bit. If you can do that by local trains and take in a football match while away then all the better…

It’s that time of year when I check the fixture lists, pack my bag, buy a seishun juhachi kippu and travel around Japan a bit.

This tradition started when I first arrived in Japan and a) couldn’t afford the shinkansen, and b) wanted to see more of the country (but mainly a)).

Although it’s certainly tiring, in some respects it’s also quite relaxing.

You can admire the hugely varied scenery rolling by, and the change in the landscape also provides more of an idea about the team you are about to watch.

Around the world football clubs often have the most passionate support and unique identities in areas where there is not much else to do.

Clubs in these places bring people together and provide a sense of belonging, which is perhaps sometimes lacking in bigger, more metropolitan areas.

Even bearing that aspect in mind, I have to admit I was still not expecting too much from my visit to Tottori.

After the Osaka Derby – I still like big games too – I caught highlights of Gainare’s home defeat to Machida Zelvia and it wasn’t the best advert.

There’s a car park behind one stand, a rice-field behind the other and not a lot else, it seemed. Plus the team had lost 3-0.

The opponents for this game, Kyoto Sanga, did make it a little more appealing, boasting some of the best young talent around, and I thought I could perhaps just focus on them.

Still, when I woke up at 7am and remembered the journey ahead of me it was a little tricky to will myself out of bed.

As each transfer down the San-in Line took me further into the countryside I grew more positive though, and the spectacular views of rivers, mountains and shorelines certainly had a calming influence.

Everything today is carried out at such a frenetic pace, and the slow and steady progress of the local trains to Tottori provided a nice remedy to the hectic existence of living in a place where it seems anything and everything can be rented by the hour.

Seven hours after boarding my first train in Uji I arrived at Tottori and it didn’t take long to see that Gainare – along with the famous sand-dunes – provide a core focus for the town.

There were flags hanging welcoming the Sanga fans to the area (“You’ve come a long way so welcome to Tottori!”) and upon check-in at my hotel the receptionist became a lot more chatty when I asked how far the stadium was.

“Ah, Gainare!” he beamed. He wasn’t really a fan but one of his friends was in the oendan, he added.

I made my way back to the station to catch the free – yes, free – bus to the ground, and although when I arrived there were only three people waiting, by the time we set off there were probably enough of us to constitute a World Cup finals squad.

As we pulled away from the bus stop the first drops of rain began to fall from the ever-darkening sky and I hoped it wasn’t a bad sign.

It wasn’t, and as soon as I arrived at the wonderfully-named Tori Gin Bird Stadium I had a good feeling about the club.

There were friendly staff and fans milling around, and, unbelievably to an Englishman, bars selling real ale, vodka, whiskey and anything else you might fancy.

I bought myself a Daisen burger (sadly, I had to resist the bar) and made my way inside the ground.

The football only venue with an old school scoreboard – thankfully no OTT player intros or music after goals here – left another positive impression.

The game was enjoyable, too, and the 2-1 scoreline flattered Sanga. Gainare were dominant and should have won by more.

That may have been something to grumble about elsewhere, but club staff and fans alike were in high spirits after the match.

One member of staff who had returned to work for her hometown club after a decade in Tokyo was beaming when I left the stadium.

It seemed that, to her, Gainare hadn’t only beaten Sanga, Tottori had prevailed over Kyoto, the former capital. And that made my trip more than worthwhile. That’s why I love football.

23
Mar
12

The mixed zone with… Kazuya Yamamura

Kazuya Yamamura is captain of Japan Under-23s and on his way to the Olympics, alhough he has only just started his first season as a professional footballer.

I recently caught up with the Kashima Antlers player at the club’s training ground where we discussed his late entry into the J.League and his hopes for this season and beyond.

23
Mar
12

Groundhog J

March brings spring, cherry blossoms and a brand new J.League season. Things didn’t feel particulalry fresh after the first round of matches in J1 though… 

The start of a new season brings fresh hope, and there is always plenty of talk of the positive changes that have taken place which will improve teams over the coming months.

This year was no different, and with eight managerial changes having occurred over the off-season period there was, if anything, even more discussion of ‘new eras’ than usual.

Then the games took place and it seemed as if we’d never been away.

The televised game in Round 1 pitted the two J1 sides most affected by the March 11th tragedy against each other, and Vegalta and Kashima played out a tense encounter that was decided by Taikai Uemoto’s goal. Sendai defending ruggedly and Antlers underperforming; as you were, then.

In the other 2 o’clock kick-offs there was a similar feeling of patterns continuing from the 2011 season.

Nagoya won 1-0. Their goal was scored by Josh Kennedy. When I saw that the Australian had given them the lead against Shimizu I tweeted, tongue-in-cheek: “Kennedy puts Grampus head against S-Pulse. Header or penalty?” Then NHK showed the highlight. Ah, it was a penalty.

Meanwhile, two of the newly-promoted sides, Consadole and Sagan, were making steady starts by earning their first points in J1 – against Jubilo and Cerezo, who clocked up 18 draws between them last time around.

Urawa Reds, too, had been expecting an upturn in fortunes but just as on the first day of the 2011 season their hopes were dashed with a 1-0 away defeat.

There was even a feeling of déjà vu with the new man in the dugout; a guy called Petrovic getting off to a disappointing start despite the positivity he had brought with him. Have I seen this before?

My opening question to Petrovic 2.0 at the recent Kick Off Conference was, “Last year Reds’ new coach was called Petrovic, this year too. How is this one going to be different?”

He laughed and said, “I know! Do you think the same things will happen?”

I didn’t then but there was an eerie similarity to their opening game defeat.

As there was in Omiya, where Ardija got off to a terrific start in their apparent quest to be the best hosts in the division by going down 1-0 to FC Tokyo.

Jun Suzuki’s side battered the 2011 J2 champions for the opening half-an-hour, but obliged their guests by failing to score and then conceding the only goal of the game after an hour.

Frontale’s 1-0 win over Albirex was slightly incongruous to the way that games between those two sides have gone in recent years though, and the remaining two fixtures also threw up some surprises.

Or did they?

This year’s souped-up Vissel Kobe did come out on top in their Kansai derby with Gamba, and Yoshito Okubo did manage to find the net twice and complete a game without a caution.

However, Yosuke Fujigaya was as clumsy as ever between the sticks for Gamba, and despite being far the poorer side they still managed to score two goals.

The arrival of Yasuyuki Konno to shore-up one of the leakiest defences in the game doesn’t seem to be paying off just yet, and as long as Gamba have a Brazilian or two around to notch at the other end it appears as if they’ll always be a threat.

(Assuming that the usual patterns will continue, that will only be until they head to the Middle East in the summer, of course.)

Aha, but the last – and best – game of the weekend was surely something new?

Kashiwa Reysol drew only three times on their way to the title in 2011 – just once at home – so their 3-3 draw with a new-and-improved Yokohama F. Marinos was a little unexpected.

Marinos’ quick-passing and aggressive attacking was also a refreshing change, and it looks as though I may have to retract their ‘Tsu-Marinos’ moniker if things continue.

But wait a minute.

Jorge Wagner claimed two assists and Leandro Domingues scored a beauty? I’ve heard that before.

And, come to think of it, didn’t Marinos also earn an impressive draw away to the reigning champions at the start of last season…

Does anybody else feel like this is Groundhog J?

16
Mar
12

Japan v. Bahrain, preview and reaction

This week Japan U23s made sure of their participation at the London Olympics by defeating Bahrain 2-0 at Tokyo National Stadium.

Ahead of the game I sat down with the side’s captain Kazuya Yamamura, and after the victory got some reaction from head coach Takashi Sekizuka, goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda and goalscorers Takahiro Ogihara and Hiroshi Kiyotake.

16
Mar
12

Piksi and Ossie

This year marks the 20th season of professional football in Japan, so for Soccer Magazine this week I got the opinions of two wise old heads on the development of the game since 1993…

The J.League’s 20th season is now underway, and Japanese football has come a long way since its inception in 1993.

Last week, ahead of the season openers, I was able to get the impressions of two huge names in world football on the league’s progress and where it can go from here.

Dragan Stojkovic, of course, played for Grampus from 1994, and now as the manager of the team he has seen first-hand the steady improvement made over the past two decades.

He was, unsurprisingly, hugely complimentary about the development of football in the country.

“Regarding 20 years ago and today, of course it’s a big difference,” he said. “A big difference in a positive way for Japanese football generally.”

“From 1998 until two years ago they have participated in [all] the World Cups.

“But also, J.League teams in many aspects have shown improvement.”

Ossie Ardiles is back for the celebration, too, as head coach of new J2 side Machida Zelvia.

The Argentinian legend has been in and out of the country since 1996, when he took charge of Shimizu S-Pulse, also having spells in charge of Yokohama F. Marinos and Tokyo Verdy.

He is also impressed with how far the game has come.

“Now it’s established itself in, I would say the second tier,” he said when I asked him how he perceived the Japanese top-flight.

“It’s not elite, it’s not Spain or England. No, this is the next step and this is the most difficult step.”

Piksi agreed with that assessment.

“They are not in the same level. No, there’s huge money there,” he commented.

“Look at Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona. They pay huge money for players. Give me 200 million Euros and you can see which team I can make, no problem.

“This is a big difference. Don’t compare J.League with European leagues, it’s not fair. But the Japanese should be happy which kind of football they have.”

Ardiles didn’t rule out another step up entirely, though, and suggested that it was his job to assist in that aim.

“I always think that [the job of] not only me but all the kantoku here is to improve the football.  I believe that Japanese football has improved tremendously from the moment that the J.League was formed.”

When I asked how to achieve such a lofty target he admitted it was tricky, though.

“Ah! Ah! This is the one million dollar question. The next step, to make Japanese football elite, is the most difficult one,” he said.

“It’s not like you have a magic wand and say, ‘wow we are going to play this way or we are going to copy one style’, say Barcelona or whoever it is,” he continued.

“It’s a lot deeper than that; it has to do with cultural things.”

He used the example of Lionel Messi (“the best ever” in Ossie’s opinion – “Don’t tell Maradona, though!”) to illustrate that point.

“For example, can a Messi be produced in Japan? [That’s] very difficult because for a Messi to be produced not only do you have to be brilliant in terms of skill and so on, but the culture of the country has to help.

“Basically, Messi from the day he was born he was playing football. In Japan that doesn’t happen. Yet.”

Piksi was more content to focus on what Japan does do well – particularly considering the recent violent troubles his family had experienced back home in Serbia.

“What they keep, and what they prove again, is that Japan and Japanese football is the number one league for fair play,” he said.

“This is a very amazing result regarding what happens with hooligans, what happens with other stupid things around football and in football around the world. This is a fantastic achievement for them.”

When also bearing in mind that this past weekend’s round of matches marked one year since the tragedy in Eastern Japan that is perhaps even more important to remember.

“Let’s be happy and enjoy the football,” he continued.

“Let’s deliver the good things and the happy things to the people who come to the stadium. And provide them [with a] safe arrival and safe departure after the game. This is very important.”

08
Mar
12

2012 J.League Preview

The 20th J.League season gets underway on Saturday and my preview is in today’s Daily Yomiuri.

It’s in three parts, the first of which is key info and a prediction for each team. The second is an interview with FC Tokyo’s new coach Ranko Popovic, while the third features comments from Dragan Stojkovic (Nagoya Grampus), Nelsinho (Kashiwa Reysol), Yoshito Okubo (Vissel Kobe), Jorginho (Kashima Antlers), Jose Carlos Serrao (Gamba Osaka), Mihailo Petrovic (Urawa Reds) and Nobuhiro Ishizaki (Consadole Sapporo) on the upcoming season.

02
Mar
12

Zac: Japan doomed by lack of will

Japan lost 1-0 to Uzbekistan on Wednesday night, condemning Alberto Zaccheroni to his first home defeat in charge of the Samurai Blue.

After the match I gathered reaction from Zac and the players for The Daily Yomiuri.




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