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.