The development of the J.League has been far smoother than that of the Australian A-League, and the most high-profile clash between Japan and Australia saw the Samurai Blue come out on top in last year’s Asian Cup final. The Japanese game may have the upper hand at the moment, but Australian football is steadily closing the gap…
Next week sees the latest instalment in what is steadily becoming a very interesting rivalry in the Asian game, when Japan travel to Brisbane to take on Australia in the final round of World Cup qualifiers.
Leaving aside the fact that Australia is not actually in Asia – and that in ‘The Socceroos’ it has the most ridiculous nickname in world football – the steadily increasing competition between the two countries is without doubt having a positive impact on the game on both sides of the Pacific.
It is fairly obvious that one of the key reasons for the FFA (Football Federation Australia)’s decision to join the AFC was to increase its chances of making it to World Cup finals (Oceania has just half a spot and must contest a play-off against a side from another federation, while Asian qualification offers four-and-a-half berths), and they and Japan are clear favourites to make it to Brazil from Group B.
Further to that there was also undoubtedly a desire to face a higher standard of opponent though, and both at a national team and club level this is seemingly helping the Australian game to improve.
In the same way that Japanese players are becoming more accustomed to the physical side of the game thanks to their increasingly frequent meetings with their bigger, stronger opponents from down under, the Aussie’s are also picking up pointers from their more technically adept rivals.
After last month’s ACL game between FC Tokyo and Brisbane Roar, for instance, the Roar players were full of praise for their opposite numbers.
“In the A-League the style they play is different,” Bahraini defender Mohamed Adnan said.
“Here they try to keep the ball. [In Australia] they try to play long balls or challenge, they use fitness. But here they are more technical than in the A-League.”
His teammate Besart Berisha was also impressed with FC Tokyo, insisting that he and his teammates were aiming for a similar style of play.
“They really work together,” the Albanian said. “The way they do this is perfect, the way they understand each other. The way they move is blind – I say always like this, blind; they know where the other players are, and this is beautiful.”
A third Roar player, Ivan Franjic, added to the praise for the J.League side, but insisted that the Australians were steadily closing the gap.
“They’re very talented and gifted technically, but the A-League’s still a great standard and is going up every year.”
Far from being a one-off in the case of Brisbane – perceived by many to be the most attractive Australian side – he also paid reference to the fact that fellow A-League sides are increasingly enjoying success against J.League opponents in the ACL.
“I definitely think we’re not that far off,” the 24-year-old added. “You can see with the other teams, Central Coast and Adelaide, you can see that the standard is catching up very quick.”
One Aussie who knows all too well about how the game back home is improving is Josh Kennedy, whose Nagoya Grampus side were knocked out of the ACL in the Round of 16 by Adelaide United.
The top scorer in the J.League for the past two seasons is, of course, particularly looking forward to the game with the Samurai Blue.
“I wish Tulio was still in the team, that’d be good,” he joked shortly after the draw had been made, before setting aside digs at his club teammate to address the rivalry between the countries more seriously.
“Obviously if you go by rankings it’s us and Japan to get through but there’s always surprises, always other teams that’ll step up and give it a good shot.”
With that in mind it is tempting to suggest that they may both take it easy and settle for a draw in Brisbane on Tuesday.
If Kennedy has his way that won’t be the case though, and he insists that the growing competition between the two countries means the home side are keen to get one over on the Samurai Blue.
“There’s an Australian-Japan rivalry that we all have now, especially with them winning the Asian Cup, so we’ll definitely be wanting to win that first game against them and I’m looking forward to it.”