Archive for April, 2012

25
Apr
12

A. Crap. League?

It is often said that the thrill is in the chase. The Asian Champions League may seem attractive but, for Japanese clubs, once the target is achieved it usually turns out to be more of a hindrance than a help…

Qualifying for the ACL always seems to me a bit like getting a full-time job.

A lot of time and energy is spent aiming for it, but once the target has been achieved the realisation kicks in that, actually, it’s going to be a bit of a nuisance and will prevent you from spending time concentrating on things you’d much rather be doing.

Before the season if you ask any player or coach from one of the 10 or so teams not anticipating a push for the title or relegation battle what their target is and they will almost certainly spout something about aiming for an ACL place.

It’s the idea of it, perhaps, and the status it appears to endow. Similar to a man going through a mid-life crisis getting a Porsche, an 18-year-old girlfriend, or Fernando Torres.

Once you’re sat in the driver’s seat, wandering around Disneyland or cringing at another missed open goal reality dawns and you feel a bit uncomfortable.

Oswaldo Oliveira frequently bemoaned the scheduling and amount of travel required for his serially-successful Kashima Antlers side, and at the start of this season two coaches of teams in the 2012 edition were equally as unenthusiastic.

Ranko Popovic of FC Tokyo – who was in no way at fault for the club being in the tournament having only taken over after Kiyoshi Okuma guided them to success in the Emperor’s Cup – spoke of the strain the extra games would have on the physical condition of his players.

“I worry about the fitness, how much of an influence it will have on the players. Tired or not tired? How many are tired? How long for?”

He then added the faintest praise for Asia’s take on UEFA’s global phenomenon, sounding in the process rather like a contestant on a television game-show.

“We must first in our heads be ready for this trip and say, “Ok, this is nice, the Champions League,” we must be happy to be in a competition like the ACL, to enjoy it and do our best and see ultimately what we can do.”

He concluded thusly, “And also we must use these games to make us more ready for the championship.”

These comments were almost completely mirrored by Nagoya Grampus’ head coach Dragan Stojkovic.

Physical strain? Check.

“As I said many times of the ACL, it’s a good competition but the travel, the jetlag, this is the main problem,” Piksi said.

“When you’re back from one zone to Japan and two days later you have to play an away game it’s very hard.

“The other team is waiting for you with high motivation, full of power and it’s very difficult to respond. This is the problem of the ACL.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Dragan from Nagoya!

“We will try this year. First of all to win the J.League and secondly, if we have a chance, a space, a possibility, why not the ACL.”

And the main target?

“Everything is possible. Let’s see. But priority number one for us is the J.League.”

My experiences at ACL games have been just as underwhelming as the (lack of) hype around them.

This season I have been at Reysol v. Guangzhou and FC Tokyo v. Beijing, and on both occasions the overriding impression was that everything was a bit half-hearted.

Everybody seemed to just going through the motions and keeping up appearances. Making sure they did the bare minimum to pay the competition lip-service.

Even making a proper run of their uniform was too much of a nuisance for FC Tokyo, who chose instead to run a lottery for a chosen few supporters to win a shirt that would be worn less than ten times.

There are usually a fraction of the fans that attend league games, players are rested and even the stewards – usually the most officious people in the stadium – appear disinterested.

A Beijing fan clambered onto a low railing to raise his scarf as the teams came out for their game with Tokyo, a clear breach of the rules, and a uniformed guy wandered over and signalled for him to get down. When the fan refused the steward just sighed and ambled back to his position.

To me, that wonderfully summed up the ACL. He just couldn’t be bothered.

20
Apr
12

Newly promoted Zelvia has rock-solid leader in Ardiles

Last week I attended a dinner at which Argentinian football great Ossie Ardiles was the guest of honour.

After a long and distinguished career as a player and coach Ardiles is now in charge of J2 side Machida Zelvia, and he is in no mood to slow down just yet. Here is my feature on him from today’s Daily Yomiuri.

17
Apr
12

Fair call?

Referees have always been in a lose-lose situation, and criticism of officials doesn’t look like it will be going away any time soon. Not until big changes are enforced within the game, anyway… 

Referees in the J.League make a lot of mistakes.

This is not a new revelation and it is certainly not something unique to Japan. It is, however, something that needs to be discussed – as much to help the officials themselves as to appease fans, players, and coaches everywhere.

The latest manager to be left frustrated by a poor refereeing decision – when Yuya Osako had a goal incorrectly disallowed against Urawa Reds– was Kashima Antlers’ Jorginho, who cut a beleaguered figure as he took his seat in the press conference after his side’s second consecutive home defeat.

“Before you ask questions there is something I would like to say”, he began. For a second I thought he was going to announce his resignation, Zeljko Petrovic-style. He didn’t.

“Not just today’s game but already this season referees have made many mistakes that stand out,” he said.

“I don’t think it is intentional. I am absolutely not asking that referees favour us. But I wish the decisions could be fair.

“Managers are asked not to speak about referees but I find that a little bit strange. The quality of the referees has an impact on the overall quality of the Japanese game as a whole.

“There are many good things about football in Japan but the quality of referees needs to be discussed. It will help the development of the Japanese game.”

On the whole I agree with these comments – particularly with regards to the need to discuss things in order for the level of the game to improve.

There are aspects in which officials can improve their performance. Often, for example, their communication with players is not good, and this can result in a build-up of frustration for both parties.

However, when it comes to the difficult, game-changing decisions mistakes are inevitable as long as referees are forced to operate under their current conditions.

Assuming that no money is changing hands to influence these calls – and I really don’t think that is the case in Japan – then until officials are given the assistance necessary to help them eliminate big mistakes they need to be treated with respect and tolerance.

The same weekend that Jorginho aired his gripe, several under-pressure Premier League managers were also hitting out.

Roberto Martinez of struggling Wigan and Kenny Dalglish of under-achieving Liverpool both had their say, as did Mark Hughes of QPR.

“You should have confidence that the referees are going to make the key decisions in the game and, just lately, I think a lot of managers have lost faith in them,” Hughes said after his team suffered an incorrect penalty call which saw their captain, Shaun Derry, sent off against Manchester United.

“Listen, it’s difficult. I’m not here to castigate the referee. All we want is referees and officials to get the big decisions right and unfortunately this weekend they haven’t covered themselves in glory.

“They don’t mean [to get it wrong] but surely the level needs to be higher than it is at the moment.”

It is no coincidence that coaches of teams in trouble – desperate to offload some of the pressure on themselves and their team – have the most cause for complaint, and I have every sympathy with those on the end of missed calls.

More often than not referees are chastised once we have all studied several replays from a variety of angles at different speeds though. They don’t have that luxury, and must make a split-second call as they see it.

This leaves us with two options: 1) We accept that human error – on the part of referees as well as players and coaches – is a part of sport, and eliminate abuse of officials accordingly, or 2) the fourth official is aided by video replays.

Initially I leant more towards the first option. Refereeing mistakes, like missed penalties or goalkeeping errors, can cost the odd game but you have a whole season to rectify these. The best team always wins the title, the worst always gets relegated.

Lately I am increasingly convinced by the need for TV replays, though. They would enable, as Jorginho and Hughes desire, referees to improve and ensure that the big decisions are always right.

Of course, if that does happen who will get the blame for defeats then?

17
Apr
12

S-Pulse snap Jubilo streak in Shizuoka derby

This weekend I was at Nihondaira Stadium for the Shizuoka Derby between Shimizu S-Pulse and Jubilo Iwata.

I provided a match report from that game and a round-up of the rest of the J1 action for The Daily Yomiuri on Monday.

10
Apr
12

Still Oita go

Oita Trinita embody all of the benefits of building a football club in a smaller city, while at the same time serving as a warning of what can go wrong…

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my trip to Tottori, and the important role that I believe football clubs can play in smaller, less fashionable areas.

This relationship between team and local community has never been demonstrated more clearly to me than with Oita Trinita.

I have a special affinity with the club dating back to when I first visited soon after my arrival in Japan when they were rooted to the bottom of J1 in 2009.

Since then I have seen first-hand almost every aspect of the club, from the fans and volunteers doing what they can to help out, to the staff running the clubhouse and those at the very top making the decisions that count.

During my first trip to Kyushu I interviewed then-president Hiroshi Mizohata – a figure who very much divides opinion among Trinita fans, and indeed people within Japanese football in general – and several of his observations back then remain pertinent today.

Regardless of people’s opinions of him and the mistakes he may have made which led to Trinita being bailed out by the J.League after nearly going bankrupt following their relegation to J2, Mizohata is unquestionably a fascinating personality.

He explained to me, for example, that he preferred football to baseball because, “in baseball there is no relegation or promotion – the teams cannot move. In football, you can start at the bottom and work your way to the top.”

Trinita certainly did that, finishing fourth in J1 and winning the Nabisco Cup in 2008, before everything went downhill the following season. Now they are looking to claw their way back, something else that Mizohata touched upon.

“Defeat should motivate you to put more effort into winning next time. If you can keep this attitude then one day you will receive the ‘passport to win.’”

Success may still be some way off (even if the club can overcome its huge financial difficulties and achieve a promotion spot it will have to clear its debts to the J.League before it is allowed to move back up to J1), but there is nevertheless a real feeling of togetherness around the club.

My most recent visit was for the game against Ehime FC, when over 8,000 fans – their average for the season so far – were at the spectacular-but-far-too-big Oita Bank Dome to see Kazuaki Tasaka’s team go third with their third straight win.

Tasaka insisted after the match that the responsibility for bringing people back through the turnstiles – while in J1 they averaged nearly 20,000 for home games – lay with him and his players.

“If we keep winning then the number of fans will keep increasing,” the former Japan international said.

“Today was 8,000, hopefully next we can get up to 10,000.”

That is not to say that the club does not engage with its fans in other ways though, and although the scrap to keep Trinita in existence obviously takes its toll, my friends in Oita seem genuinely to enjoy their work and have pride in their club.

The links between Trinita and the community are visible all over the city – the onsen where I stayed was half-price the day following the victory over Ehime, for example – and providing a focal point was another of Mizohata’s stated aims when creating the club.

“I want people in Oita to be confident, to have pride in where they are from,” he told me.

“Cities like Oita need dreams like this.”

My visits always provide interesting and enjoyable experiences, and whether it be calling in at the unique Kamado Shrine in Beppu (nicknamed “Neetan Jinja” as the birthplace of the club’s mascot), working as a lifeguard at a local school with ties to the club or, as occurred on this trip, being present at a celebratory dinner with “Mr Trinita” Daiki Takamatsu where a serving error resulted in a nine-year old member of our party getting drunk on chu-hi, life in Oita is never dull.

Thankfully, after thoroughly flushing out his system, the young lad in question made a speedy recovery and was soon back to join the party.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before the same can be said for the club itself.

04
Apr
12

So long Serrao

He arrived in slightly unusual cicumstances and with a cheerful grin but Jose Carlos Serrao wasn’t smiling much during his ill-fated and brief spell at Gamba Osaka…

I have to admit that my first impression when Gamba Osaka hired Jose Carlos Serrao was that the club had been pretty smart and – unusually in Japan – exhibited impressive flexibility, and even a little sneakiness.

We all knew they wanted Wagner Lopes in charge, and having had that plan scuppered by his lack of coaching badges – which, in hindsight, should have raised some questions – they looked to have done well by sticking to their guns and bringing their man in anyway, nominally as ‘assistant’ to learn from the relative (ok, complete) unknown, Serrao.

Very little was known about the 61-year-old who would officially be leading the side after the decade-long reign of Akira Nishino, but my first thoughts, based on his picture in the senshu meikan, were that he looked like a nice enough chap who was happy with his lot (which, again, on reflection, he probably was).

That impression was furthered when I met him before the season, and during a chat at the J.League’s Kick Off Conference he appeared to have an understanding of the task he was undertaking at Gamba.

“It’s not so easy to come to substitute for a manager who has been working for 10 years,” he said, paying reference to his predecessor Nishino.

“He gave a lot of titles – and he lost some – but he’s a man that contributed a lot for Gamba.”

Bearing in mind the consistency that had been so key for Gamba during the previous decade, I asked him what he wanted to change and how much he wanted to keep the same as he looked to put his mark on the club.

He insisted that the core focus would remain, with the experienced players in the side being trusted to assist in the changeover.

“Many players that are still playing for Gamba now learned a lot from [Nishino] and I think there are many good things that they have kept.”

He did, however, hint that a slightly more open and less predictable style may develop, centred upon the samba tradition of his nation.

“One thing that we could change is to give some Brazilian style inside this team,” he said with a smile.

“We have three Brazilian players, two are regulars in the side. It’s very difficult to make changes after a long time but I think one thing is we’ll give some freedom to the players to play, to dribble to feint.”

Sadly, the freedom that he implemented was actually closer to incoherence, and the players seemed confused as to what they were supposed to be doing.

This went against Serrao’s second stated aim, which was to improve the relationship between players on the pitch.

“We are trying to improve our communication in the team,” he had told me at the start of March.

“The Japanese players receive this in a very good way. I think we can make a better team during the season.”

Gamba had finished outside of the top three just twice in the past ten seasons, and I wondered what target, if any, he was setting for his first in the dugout.

“To play well, to get the victory and be champions. If God permits it for us.”

Sadly for him there wasn’t any divine intervention during his remarkably short stint at Banpaku – well, not of the positive kind, anyway – although the prayers of Gamba’s fans were swiftly answered when he and his coaching team, including Wagner Lopes, were removed from their duties the day after their 2-1 league defeat at home to Jubilo Iwata.

Serrao had confessed to not knowing much about the J.League when we spoke, but insisted he and his management team were doing their research.

“It’s a long season, 34 games, and there are no easy teams to play.

“I think during the competition we will see which teams will be the strongest.”

The latter points are certainly true but, for Serrao, the first proved to be way off the mark – his season was just three league games, all of which were lost.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for him as he seems like a nice enough guy who was just out of his depth.

However, Gamba must be commended for acting so swiftly to prevent him and the club sinking any further.




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