Archive for August, 2012

29
Aug
12

Caller on hold

The number 26 is sure to be spotted far more regularly in Japan and Manchester in the years to come if Shinji Kagawa keeps up his impressive start at United. Alberto Zaccheroni may have to keep another series of digits in mind, too…

“Kagawa’s 4-minute debut!” screamed the headline on one paper after Manchester United’s first pre-season match against South African side AmaZulu in July.

And so it began…

The transfer of the former Cerezo Osaka player to United is understandably huge news for Japanese football and Kagawa is certainly talented enough to make the grade at Old Trafford, but I’m trying my best not to get too carried away.

These early stages are critical in determining whether or not he is given the time or chances to establish himself at one of the biggest clubs in the world, and as a man who has managed some of the others I am inclined to agree with Alberto Zaccheroni on the matter.

“I said to Shinji, “I pray for your happiness in Manchester,” but I didn’t say congratulations,” the Italian said after United announced the signing of Japan’s No.10 back in June.

“This is just a starting point, he hasn’t achieved anything yet. If he plays for three years and produces good results then I will try to call him and say congratulations,” the former Milan and Juventus coach continued.

“Going to Manchester United is a very important thing, but more important is to show a result while he’s there.”

Far from wishing to undermine the attacker’s move, Zac was merely sounding a note of caution as the media circus clicked into gear, and he signed off on a positive note.

“I’m sure I’ll be calling him in three years, though, because Shinji has good quality and a good mentality.”

It is this mentality which will be most crucial in determining if he can settle in Manchester, with several  talented young players – and even proven big names – having struggled to adapt to the expectations of playing for the Red Devils.

Kagawa settled sensationally well into the Bundesliga after his switch from Cerezo in 2010 and that will have given him the confidence to know he can acclimatize to new surroundings, but the Theatre of Dreams is one of the most intimidating and unforgiving arenas for a player to be tested.

Dortmund’s Westfalonstadion is also famous for its packed stands and deafening support, but the pressure does not only come from the tens-of-thousands packed into the stadium.

Manchester United matches are watched worldwide by millions, and games which end in anything other than a win are usually considered shock results.

From the second the deal was made official by the club Kagawa has been fending off questions on the move, and the interest from Japanese media shows absolutely no signs of abating.

The man himself acknowledged the new levels of pressure he had taken on at his unveiling at Old Trafford, but insisted that it wasn’t anything he hadn’t expected.

“I definitely feel the attention of the media globally now I am a member of a great squad like Manchester United,” The Telegraph quoted him as saying.

“Everything here at the club shows me I have come somewhere really big.

“But I think I can take the pressure. I am pretty confident I can adapt to the style of the Premier League.”

He has certainly started well, and a couple of goals in pre-season friendlies and an impressive debut in the league against Everton suggest he has taken to his new club as quickly as he did to his previous one.

What was particularly impressive about his display at Goodison Park was the fact that he continued to demand the ball and attempt dribbles and decisive passes even while several of his more experienced teammates struggled to find form.

After Everton took the lead and the likes of Wayne Rooney and Nani began to rush decisions Kagawa kept his head and wasn’t afraid to take responsibility – a very promising sign in a difficult debut.

Despite the eventual 1-0 defeat his contribution was widely praised by English pundits – although the most important mark of approval came from the dugout.

With United in need of a goal and with Robin van Persie, Ashley Young and Dimitar Berbatov all on the bench Kagawa was entrusted with the playmaker role for the full 90 minutes by Sir Alex Ferguson.

If he can maintain that level of performance then Zac may be tempted to put that call in a little sooner.

24
Aug
12

Talking a good game

It isn’t just on the pitch that people in Japanese football are starting to look overseas…

Japan is still a fairly insular country.

Change – as anyone who has ever heard me moan about faxes can attest to – takes a while here, and as the rest of the world becomes an increasingly interconnected web of business and cultures Japan is in danger of being left behind.

There are, of course, sociological and economical reasons to explain this – the fact it is an island nation, language issues, the problems inherent in the average person seemingly working 80 hours a week and getting about the same amount of time per year off work/school – but they are far beyond the scope of this column to consider.

One thing which can help encourage Japanese people to get out and experience the world, though, is having role models who do just that.

The last couple of years have seen Japanese football grow in stature around the world, and that is down in no small part to the increasing number of players who are earning moves overseas and proving themselves once there.

While the examples set by the likes of Shinji Kagawa are paving the way for other youngsters to test themselves in Europe it is not just players who are beginning to get itchy feet.

I recently attended a lecture by two Japanese speakers who are working in the international football industry, both of whom had started their careers in other fields.

Kaita Sugihara, who works as Head of Development for Asian Football Leagues at the AFC in Malaysia and is a FIFA Instructor, and Nobuhiro Yajima, who spent almost five years working for the grassroots football coaching company T3, were giving a talk on studying overseas for over 70 participants who were considering such programs.

Sugihara is a graduate of the FIFA Master course (currently being undertaken by former Japan captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto) while Yajima completed a Football Industries Master of Administration (FIMBA) course at Liverpool University and an internship at Liverpool FC before returning to Asia.

Both of them were keen to stress the importance of flexibility and not being afraid to take the plunge.

“When I was at FIMBA there were no Japanese players in the Premier League, but now that’s changed,” Yajima said. “Lots of Japanese players are in Europe, especially in Germany, which could provide you with opportunities.”

Sugihara admitted that he had never considered staying overseas after his studies, but that once the offer arrived he couldn’t turn it down.

“I wanted to work for a Japanese club or the JFA but changed simply because I received the chance to work for the AFC and decided to take the opportunity.

“Life does not always go as you planned and that’s why life is fun.”

Of course, getting into positions within the international game does take hard work as well, and the most important skill – initially, at least – is language.

MC for the evening, Kenichi Ikeda of La Bandiera dello Sport, a football business consulting company that currently works in partnership with Urawa Reds, studied in the School of Management at the Politecnico di Milano MIP and rated English ability as the most vital aspect of working internationally.

 “If you can’t speak English then the plan is finished already,” he put bluntly.

“I was the worst student in terms of English skill but could manage to do coursework,” Sugihara said of his early period studying outside of Japan.

“The problem was out-of-course communication, since that’s something I couldn’t prepare for.

“Communication is not only about English, though, you’ve got to think about ways of communication, like Nagatomo has at Inter.”

The strict and often old-fashioned way in which many Japanese companies are still run was a key motivator for both speakers to pursue other avenues, with Yajima insisting that security is not everything.

“To enjoy working is a big thing,” he said. “There are constraints but I have a real feeling that I am contributing to what I dreamed of doing.”

Sugihara agreed.

“Now my life is fun. I’m happy to spend however many tens-of-hours it takes to think of ways to improve Asian football leagues.”

It’s not easy but Sugihara and Yajima – as well as the players in Europe – do provide inspiration for others to act on the J.League’s slogan for 2012; take a risk, change the game.

11
Aug
12

Olympic Spirit

Japan Under-23s Olympic campaign ended in disappointment with defeat in the bronze medal match to rivals South Korea but there were plenty of positives to take from the tournament, on and off the pitch…

The London Olympics provided a great opportunity for Japanese football to add to its growing reputation overseas.

I travelled back to the UK to see Takashi Sekizuka’s men take on Spain, Morocco, and Honduras with an English journalist whose knowledge of the team was minimal, and thousands more spectators who knew absolutely nothing about the side.

My growing familiarity with Japanese football means I increasingly miss or don’t pay attention to the things that distinguish it, and so it was very interesting to watch people watching Japan.

Football at the Olympics isn’t ordinarily taken very seriously in Britain, with the underage aspect and fact that we don’t usually enter a team meaning it rarely makes the headlines.

While there was a little more attention this time because of the fact we were hosting the tournament and had a side competing I was a little worried that Japan’s games in some of the nation’s most iconic venues would be played in front of half-empty stadiums and disinterested spectators.

These doubts were soon laid to rest upon arrival at Hampden Park in Glasgow for the team’s opening game, with 37,726 supporters crowding into Scotland’s national stadium.

While there were, of course, some fans from the participating countries, the majority of the crowd had turned up in the hope of being entertained, and so instead of the fans singing repetitively to cheer on the teams – the typical style of support in Japan, which is often unrelated to the action on the pitch – it was up to the players to win those in the stands over.

At Hampden, for instance, most people were there in expectation of seeing tournament favourites Spain cruise to a comfortable victory against the unknowns of Japan (the guy at reception when I checked into my hotel had even seemed surprised that Japan played football and assumed it was a given that they would lose).

However, as a Kensuke Nagai-inspired team went toe-to-toe with the Spanish the atmosphere shifted and the crowd took on a pro-Japan stance.

In fact, so impressive was Japan’s performance that the majority of the crowd stayed behind after the final whistle to applaud the team off the pitch after their 1-0 triumph.

This standing ovation wasn’t just because they beat Spain but also because of the way they continued to attack them and play fairly, without resorting to gamesmanship or time-wasting activities.

Running down the clock by keeping the ball in the corner, exaggerating injuries or making multiple substitutions are not appreciated by British audiences, and even though our players don’t always abide by those guidelines playing fair is hugely respected in the UK.

While the Under-23’s had made a lot of friends in Glasgow things didn’t start quite so well in Newcastle though, with the locals not taking to Japan’s passing game and refusal to “get rid!” or “get stuck in!” – acts that are very popular in the English game.

The team’s perseverance paid off though, and Maya Yoshida’s imperious performance at the heart of defence and the forward players’ constant probing at the other end meant that Nagai’s winner and exuberant celebration against Morocco were enthusiastically received by the St. James’ Park crowd.

It wasn’t just the performance of the players during the game that went down well, however, and the post-match bow to the fans – a staple for regular Japanese football watchers – endeared the players even more to the Geordie fans, who it could be argued aren’t used to being treated with such respect by those they support.

The most significant aspect for me, though, was the way in which the Japanese supporters were also quickly taken to by the host nation – particularly in Coventry.

Their enthusiasm, good-humour and, again, respect for others was a breath of fresh air for the locals, and the fans were certainly the highlight of the drab 0-0 with Honduras.

They posed for pictures, cajoled their hosts to join in with the chants and cleaned up after themselves – shocking my companion in the stadium – but, most unbelievably of all, they even managed to win around the jobsworth stewards who tried to get them to sit down and be quiet.

If you ask me, that achievement alone is surely worthy of a gold medal.

02
Aug
12

Keeping up the good work

Charity events are great, but it’s important that people keep giving even after the attractions are gone…

The recent J.League Special Match provided another great opportunity to raise money for those affected by the disaster of March 11th, 2011.

16 months on from the tragedy the wounds are still fresh in Tohoku, and it is important that such events take place regularly so that the victims continue to receive the support they need.

Such fundraisers are fantastic, but I have to admit that I did have a slightly nagging feeling on the way to the match.

I wanted to play a part in the occasion and hoped that in some small way my participation was a kind of gesture of solidarity, but didn’t feel that, in real terms, me watching a charity game of football was going to do much.

The presence of Alessandro Del Piero – undoubtedly an altruistic move on the part of the Italian, who deserves much credit for his work in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami – added to these concerns, as I was fully aware of the fact that part of my desire to go to Kashima was to see the former Juventus star in action and perhaps even ask him a question or two.

The same is true of perhaps all charity work, and quite where the genuine wish to help out and sacrifice something yourself ends and the desire to feel good about doing something to help begins is always a difficult distinction to make.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in having such reservations, and speaking after the game the “Team as One” head coach Makoto Teguramori spoke passionately and intelligently on the matter.

“On the news recently we have seen the case of someone killing themselves because they’re being bullied,” he said, with reference to the 13-year-old Otsu schoolboy who took his own life by jumping out of an apartment building after allegedly being forced to practice the act, amongst other things.

“What the disaster [in Tohoku] showed us was how invaluable life is and that there should be bonds between human beings. We cannot live alone.

“Thinking those things makes me feel that just playing in the charity match isn’t going to help the rebuilding, but that what is important is that people have firm hearts to react to what happened.”

My concerns about why I and everyone else were at the game were misplaced, then. Instead of thinking about events leading up to the match, what is more important is to make sure that actions after it remain positive.

Indeed, Masashi Nakayama agreed that actions were key, suggesting that Del Piero’s decision to come to Japan was an example that should motivate people to think more selflessly.

“It’s energized Japan a lot, and everyone was looking forward to him playing,” the veteran striker said.”

Even the people who couldn’t come today and watched the match on TV could see that someone from outside Japan was willing to come here [to help].

“As a Japanese I hope that maybe it will inspire us to use our strength to help others, even when you aren’t affected [directly] by a disaster. I’m thankful that Del Piero’s efforts made us think about that a bit.”

Money, material possessions and physical hard work in the region are critical to aid the restoration process, but equally as important – if not more so – is emotional support.

Of course, not everyone has the means to fly halfway around the world, but a simple action – not just for victims of disasters, but towards somebody you encounter in everyday life who needs a helping hand – can contribute to making everybody’s lives that little bit better.

Again Teguramori put it much better than I could, closing his press conference with a moving plea for the nation to pull together more often.

“Many people died in this disaster even though they wanted to live, so people who are given the chance to be alive now, the Japanese people, need to live understanding that. I want Japan to progress more in that respect.”

I’m still not sure if my attendance at the game has helped in Tohoku, but the gesture by Del Piero and comments from Teguramori and Gon have certainly made me think about my behaviour, and perhaps that is just as important.




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