Archive for July, 2012

25
Jul
12

The Mixed Zone with… Shuichi Gonda

FC Tokyo goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda has enjoyed a remarkable last 12 months, and has gone from playing in J2 to representing Japan at the 2012 London Olympics.

He took some time out before flying to England to speak about the Games, the development of Japanese football and scary half-time team-talks…

25
Jul
12

Going for gold?

Japan’s men’s and women’s teams get their Olympic campaigns underway this week. Expectations for the sides differ slightly, but both teams’ success is dependent upon key individuals…

Nadeshiko Japan and Japan Under-23s are heading into the London Olympics – which start this week – with fans anticipating slightly different outcomes for each.

The women, as world champions, were already being spoken about as challengers for the gold medal before their assured 3-0 victory over Australia at Tokyo National Stadium a couple of weeks ago.

The recent 4-1 defeat to the U.S. had raised a few questions, but with Norio Sasaki putting out his strongest XI against the Matildas the side looked to be approaching its best form again at just the right time.

The men, on the other hand, are heading to the UK more in hope than expectation.

That is not to say they are a bad side – far from it, in fact, with several hugely talented players in the squad – but the relative strength of the men’s competition means it would take a spectacular effort to bring a medal back to Japan in August.

As well as being in Group D with a Spain side boasting three players fresh from the country’s Euro 2012 success, Takashi Sekizuka’s players will also likely have to get past a Brazilian team featuring Neymar, Ganso and Pato if they want to even make it as far as the medal matches.

On top of that they will also need to overcome the problem which refuses to go away – a lack of killer instinct in front of goal.

In their send-off against New Zealand they dominated possession and made several great chances, but ended up drawing the game because of repetitive play and their poor finishing.

“We started well for the first 20 minutes and moved very well,” Sekizuka said after the match. “However, the New Zealand team started to get used to our rhythm and we had difficulty scoring.

“There are midfielders with good talent so I’d like those members to change the game.”

For me the key player for the side is not a midfielder, however, but the striker Kensuke Nagai.

The Nagoya Grampus frontman is blessed with absolutely astounding pace, and he has recently started to complement that with an increasingly consistent end product.

He likes to come deep to collect the ball and, having drawn the opposing defenders out, challenge them to a foot race – and there are very few players who can beat him for speed.

It is vital, though, that Nagai’s teammates are in tune with him if they are to make the most out of his abilities.

“This kind of transition to change the flow of the game is something that’s very important,” Sekizuka said of adding more variety to the team’s play.

“This is something that I want all of the players to be aware of. We have to be in control of the game […] and change the tempo and rhythm.

“I want Nagai and [Hiroshi] Kiyotake to move around in the front line. I want them to be smooth I don’t want them to play in a fixed position but to use their own judgement.”

Someone whose judgment can be trusted for the Nadeshiko is captain Aya Miyama, who is gradually inheriting Homare Sawa’s mantle as the pivot of them team.

Sasaki said as much after the Australia game, insisting that the long-term evolution of the team is vital.

“Miyama is the core,” he said. “Sawa used to be, but since the World Cup we are trying to shift to the younger generation.

“If we can do well now then we can also get a good result at the next World Cup.”

The Okayama Yunogo Belle midfielder is an exceptionally talented individual, who reads the game fantastically.

She left a very positive impression on the Australia coach Tim Sermanni, who was full of praise after his side’s defeat.

“She’s first class,” he gushed. “Very clever with a great game-sense.

“She has the ability to see things before other players. She’s not physically fantastic but finds space and time very well and is a great passer. That’s very important.”

It is indeed, but while Nadeshiko Japan know they can bide their time in games with many chances to strike the killer blow likely, the men may need a slightly more direct approach if they are to progress.

25
Jul
12

Del Piero strikes in more ways than one in charity match

At the weekend the J.League staged a charity match to raise funds for the recovery efforts in Tohoku after last year’s tragic earthquake and tsunami. 

Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero took part in the game, after which he spoke about his connection with Japan and what’s next for him.

17
Jul
12

Decisions, decisions

The end of this season will see the final team promoted to J1 afforded that right by virtue of an English Chamionship style play-off. Well, sort of…

Last summer I wrote about the introduction of a play-off system to J2 and how I thought it would hugely benefit the division.

Just past the halfway point of the 2012 season it looks like I was right, with far more teams in-and-around the key positions this year.

After 21 games (the new midpoint after the division grew to 22 teams) the distance between first and 11th was just 10 points, while, currently, after 24 games, the top 10 are separated by that margin.

At the halfway stage last year (19 games) Consadole Sapporo, in 6th, were the last team to be within 10 points of the leaders. Tosu, who eventually earned promotion with Consadole were just one point further back.

Whereas teams may not have overly rated their chances with only three places up for grabs in 2011, the fact that twice as many spots for potential promotion are available this year has resulted in almost double the number of teams being in striking distance of J1.

It seems that the chasing pack are picking up a stronger scent of potential success.

Of course that is not the only explanation, and it could quite reasonably be argued that the openness of the division is also down to no one side being able to establish themselves as the team to beat.

I’ve seen a fair few J2 matches this season and while the standard is obviously below that of the first division I’ve enjoyed most of them.

The games increasingly offer up good entertainment, although this is not always because of especially good play but often because of the opposite.

Decision-making is absolutely vital in football and far too frequently at the lower levels attacks break down or chances are afforded to the opposition because a player makes the wrong one.

The best example of this came when two of the sides jostling at the top of the table, Tokyo Verdy and JEF United, came head to head last month.

JEF were the better side but made consistently poor choices, while Verdy were much sharper and efficient when they had the ball and deservedly took the three points.

A couple of weeks later the tables had turned, with JEF the far more incisive team in their home game against Kyoto Sanga.

The visitors bossed possession but couldn’t make it count, and before Takeshi Oki’s team knew what had happened they were 3-0 down.

Takeshi Okada’s former right-hand man said after that defeat that his team had “collapsed” after conceding the first goal, and despite a spirited late revival they still returned to Kansai on the wrong end of a 3-2 defeat.

That wasn’t the first time they’d had that feeling, and I have also seen them leave it too late against Gainare Tottori and Yokohama FC this year, as well as conceding a late, late goal to lose at Shonan Bellmare.

A lack of composure has seen a talented group of players too easily affected by the flow of the game when steadier heads may well have kept calm to claim the win.

It is not only the players who have been making peculiar decisions, and although the J.League should be commended for having introduced the play-offs they, too, have also made some slightly strange calls with regards to the format.

Giving the higher ranked teams a slight advantage by hosting the one-legged semi-finals at their stadiums is understandable – if a little unfair – but deciding to award the victory to that side if the game ends in  draw is bizarre.

The final, too, will be contested in that manner – albeit at a neutral venue – which not only weighs the tie heavily in the favour of the team that finishes 3rd (or 4th, if an upset takes place in one of the semi-finals) but also raises the possibility of a fairly dour showpiece.

One team will know that a draw is enough to ensure their promotion and so may very well enter the game with a suitably unadventurous mindset; in short, like England.

However, all the teams know this is how things will be decided so are well aware of the value of finishing as high as possible.

Hopefully that will ensure that the action remains this close and unpredictable right up until the final exchanges.

13
Jul
12

Reality check / Nadeshiko fuel expectations, men’s U-23 deflate hopes in pre-Olympic friendlies

Japan’s men’s and women’s teams both played send-off matches at Tokyo National Stadium this week ahead of their respective campaigns at the London Olympics.

After Nadeshiko Japan’s game v. Australia and the Under-23’s match with New Zealand I gathered reaction from the coaches and players of all four sides involved for The Daily Yomiuri.

11
Jul
12

Not playing the percentages

There is an increasing tendency to consider games of football in a very systematic way. Numbers and percentages are all well and good, but sometimes you can’t beat a good old-fashioned humdinger… 

Wherever possible I try not to write about specific games in this column.

The instant nature of the internet and social media means that by the time you get around to reading my views the match is already old news, but this week I really want to talk about the recent clash between Vegalta Sendai and Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

At kick-off Vegalta were top of the table and a formidable side who’d lost just once at home, while swashbuckling Sanfrecce boasted the league’s top-scorer in Hisato Sato and knew a win would take them into first place.

Often such games result in fairly cautious affairs – as evident the previous week when all of the top four drew their matches 0-0 – but that was not the case in Sendai, where these two produced a breathless contest.

Yurtec Stadium is, in my opinion, the best football venue in Japan, and I am always happy to have the opportunity to travel up to Tohoku.

The extra meaning taken on by Vegalta in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy has been well documented, and some subtle yet powerful posters in the underground at Sendai station (including one reading “We can hear your big support, we are not alone”) reinforced the role that the team has played in the recovery process.

The Sanfrecce fans unravelled a banner during the warm-up reading, “Let’s get to the summit together and enjoy the view”, but the home supporters weren’t going to let their team give up top spot easily, and their stirring rendition of “Country Road” had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.

Obviously buoyed by the incredible atmosphere in the stadium both teams started at a frantic pace, and while Sanfrecce made the slightly better chances it was Vegalta who opened the scoring when Wilson slotted coolly home after just 11 minutes.

They refused to sit on their lead though, and were pegged back right on the stroke of half-time when Sato was on hand to net Sanfrecce’s equaliser.

At that point both sides could have been forgiven for taking their feet of the gas a little but, thankfully, neither did.

Sato emerged from the tunnel at the start of the second half with a gesture to the away fans to double their efforts, and their response ensured that the teams picked up exactly where they’d left off.

A crunching tackle from Kazuhiko Chiba on Wilson caused a coming together on the halfway line which included Mihael Mikic and Vegalta coach Makoto Teguramori – who I can’t help but think of as the Japanese “Big” Sam Allardyce – and 10 minutes later Koji Morisaki put Sanfrecce in front immediately after coming on as a sub.

The home supporters weren’t giving up, though, and as deafening cries of “Sendai! Let’s Go!” reverberated around the ground the other Morisaki twin, Kazuyuki, underhit a back-pass to Shusaku Nishikawa and inadvertently played in Wilson for his second of the game.

Even after all of this toing-and-froing the teams and their fans continued to go all out for the win, and it looked like Sanfrecce were going to get it when substitute Hironori Ishikawa beat the offside trap and closed in on Takuto Hayashi’s goal.

While his powerful strike beat the big ‘keeper it didn’t find the back of the net, instead cannoning back off of the bar and ensuring that things ended all square.

That was a fittingly dramatic end to what was undoubtedly the best game I’ve seen so far this season, and although they’d seen their lead trimmed a little, these two deserved to remain in the top two places at the end of the round.

There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks about the “right” way to play football, with Spain being accused in some quarters of being boring.

I don’t for a second share that view, but while the Euros were being discussed in terms of formations, ball possession and pass completion rates it was nice to head to the stadium and see a contest with scraps, mistakes and goals aplenty.

Intricate and organised teams can be great to watch, but in terms of pure enjoyment you really can’t beat a game where two teams throw caution to the wind and just go at it.

08
Jul
12

Gonda has mind set on bringing back gold medal

Shuichi Gonda played in all of Japan’s qualifiers for the London Olympics and, despite a late scare, is now looking forward to testing himself against some of the world’s best players.

On Thursday I spoke to the FC Tokyo goalkeeper about his memories of and targets for the Games, his reaction to Akihiro Hayashi’s late challenge for the No. 1 jersey, and his thoughts ahead of the team’s opening game against a star-studded Spain.

04
Jul
12

Girls on film

Thousands and thousands of Japanese women watch, play and love football. Despite this it seems that they are not qualified to comment on the game on TV…

The relationship between women and football in Japan is a rather odd one.

Compared to most other countries the number of female supporters in the stadium every weekend is huge – with around 50% of those at games being women.

Also, with Nadeshiko Japan a genuine force within the world game and riding high on a wave of good publicity, women’s football is taken far more seriously here than it is in a lot more “developed” footballing nations.

There are several established female journalists covering the game in Japan, too, and every Japanese football broadcast features a female face.

Unfortunately, though, this is all-too-often the only thing they provide.

While the men alongside them tackle the serious issue of the game (well, they say “sugoi desu ne” (amazing) and “ii na” (good) a lot, if TBS’s coverage of the Euros is anything to go by), the woman in the studio is required to do little more than smile and introduce the start of the game: “sore de ha, kohan desu!” (so, here comes the second half).

The way in which they are treated as no more than decoration is embarrassing, and while employing attractive females to sit and look pretty is hardly unique to Japan, the fact it takes place – and is accepted – so frequently in a country where so many women have an interest in the game is astonishing.

On first impressions England would not perhaps seem the best example to use as a comparison – with Sky Sports populating its 24-hour news channel with, in the words of The Guardian’s Barney Ronay, “impossibly beautiful robo-babes” – but there are also females on English TV who play more active roles.

The likes of Gabby Logan and Helen Chamberlain, for instance, present popular football shows on which they take part in discussions about and offer opinions on the game, and the idea of football as a “man’s game” is treated as an increasingly old-fashioned way of thinking.

In early 2011, for instance, Sky’s main presenting duo of Richard Keys and Andy Gray were caught making sexist comments about a female linesman ahead of a Premier League match (including the suggestion that she wouldn’t understand the offside law), after which several other pieces of footage highlighting their derogatory attitudes towards women came to light.

They were duly removed from their jobs and roundly criticised for their idiotic behaviour – with most people finding it amusing that the pair genuinely seemed to think an individual’s gender would hamper their ability to understand football.

Such attitudes – while not justifiable, and certainly dying out – are a little less surprising in countries where females were not generally involved in the initial stages of football’s development.

When the J.League was launched in 1993, though, it was marketed at everyone, irrespective of their sex. There is, then, very little cause for such outdated views to be the norm in Japan.

The subject is undoubtedly one that can be discussed in the far wider context of Japanese society – but for the purposes of this article let’s keep the focus on the grinning-but-opinionless anchors on TV.

Aside from the blatant sexism on display, I have three main problems with the way the roles are allocated.

Firstly, as I have already touched upon, the men in the studio often provide absolutely zero analysis themselves, and so the suggestion that they are there to provide the content to counter the announcer’s form is laughable.

Secondly, while I readily admit that some of the girls in question – having been recruited from general talent agencies – probably don’t have much football knowledge, this is not always the case.

I have enjoyed several conversations with female announcers who perfectly understand the game, and I’m frequently frustrated when they are denied the chance to express those views on air.

Finally, what I find most bizarre is the way in which women such as Nami Otake are used.

Otake-san, as a former player, is granted the opportunity to discuss the finer points of matches, but only for women’s games.

Once the men’s matches are back on screen Otake-san is ushered out of the studio so a Johnnys fool can come in and gurn at the camera while repeating worn-out platitudes that offer no insight or enlightenment. Then the cute girl ushers in the commercials.

Sore de ha…




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