Archive for September, 2012


The curious case of Keisuke Honda…

The recent Kirin Cup game and World Cup qualifier weren’t the most exciting of matches, although Keisuke Honda did put in one impressive defensive display…

As a rule Keisuke Honda doesn’t speak to the media in the two days leading up to a match.

It is supposedly part of the enigmatic midfielder’s preparation for games, and while it can often be frustrating it seems to work for him, so it’s now accepted that he won’t be making any comments as kick-off approaches.

This was the last thing on my mind as I headed to Saitama sub-ground a couple of weeks ago for a Japan training session though, as the only player I wanted speak to was Maya Yoshida as he had just finalized his move to Southampton and I’d been asked to provide a short feature on him for the local paper.

We were told he would be one of the players doing a TV interview, which would delay him a little but wasn’t the end of the world, and after hearing from a colleague that he’d spoken at length to the Japanese media the previous day I didn’t envisage any problems getting a couple of minutes with him.

The players gradually made their way from the changing rooms towards the bus, prompting the usual scurrying of feet as journalists flagged them down and huddled around, but I restricted myself to cursory greetings and, as Endo finished his bit for TV and Yoshida began his, I made sure I was all set and would be primed to grab him once he was done.

Then it all went wrong.

Honda appeared in the doorway of the clubhouse, paused and checked with the press officer that he was ok to pass behind Yoshida, before began to make his way down the path.

After a few steps he hesitated and caught my eye.

“Do you want to ask me something?” he said, in English.

No, you’re alright, mate. Thanks anyway.

Well, that’s what I wanted to say, but then two realizations kicked in: 1) that would be rude, and, not only that, but if I did say no he might not stop when I wanted to speak to him in the future; and 2) this was Keisuke Honda, offering me comments in his usual mute time. What kind of idiot would say, “No, you’re alright, mate. Thanks anyway”?

So, after half-a-second of weighing up my options, I replied that, if that would be ok, that would be great, and he wandered over and said, “OK”.

Now I had two more problems: 1) I didn’t have any questions in mind to ask Honda; and 2) I was mindful of the fact that Yoshida was going to be finishing his TV interview very soon.

Even so, I was able to open with a cursory question about the disappointing UAE game and what he expected looking ahead to Iraq, and while he answered my brain started to click into gear.

Another question about the qualifiers was quickly done with and I followed it by asking what he thought of Yoshida’s move, having himself progressed from Grampus to Venlo and then bigger things in his career.

Honda gave some thoughtful and positive remarks, focused around the fact that his teammate must continue to believe in his ability and stay confident.

All well and good, but as he started to provide those thoughtful and positive remarks, the teammate in question had finished his TV duties and was making a beeline for the bus.

I waited patiently in the excruciating seconds as Honda completed his answer and Yoshida moved into the distance and, once silence ensued, thanked the CSKA Moscow player, wished him luck against Iraq and then scurried off in the direction of Saints’ new defender.

Having spoken to the Japanese media the day before no-one had stopped him though and, being a nice guy, he’d dumped his bag on the bus and headed for the fans to sign some autographs.

“Maya! Maya!” screamed the hundreds of fans to my right, while from my left the team’s press officer loomed – signaling it was nearly time to go.

“Maya! Maya!” I yelled as he jogged back towards the bus.

Sorry, he signaled apologetically, before boarding.

Keisuke Honda is regarded by most as an intelligent and aggressive attacking player.

Personally though, now I just see him as a frustratingly effective defender.


Postscript: Thankfully I did manage to get a few minutes with Maya after the Iraq game and was able to provide a feature on Saints’ new defender – including comments from Honda – for the Southern Daily Echo. You can read it here, if you’d like.


Japan’s Stevie and Frank…?

Things are looking very good for Japan with regards to qualification for Brazil 2014. There’s always room for improvement, though…

The Samurai Blue are already in Brazil.

Ten points from their first four games see the side sitting pretty six points clear at the top of Group B, and with nobody else in the group looking likely to string together a run of results to challenge them, the JFA can start to get its preparations in place for the ultimate festival of football.

However, while the unbeaten start to qualification was maintained with the 1-0 win over Iraq, that game and the preceding Kirin Cup non-event against UAE in Niigata did raise a few questions.

After a Keisuke Honda-inspired side had demolished Oman and Jordan and picked up an ultimately satisfactory point in Australia, optimism was rife amongst Japanese football fans back in June.

Just one goal conceded from a harshly-awarded penalty, 10 goals scored and a team playing with freedom and attacking abandon to excite the crowd and strike fear into opponents, there was much excitement around Zac Japan.

Three months on and things appear to have levelled out somewhat.

The Kirin Cup is always a fairly dour event, with a mediocre team sending their second-string to Japan for a bit of sightseeing and half-hearted kickabout, so it is always with caution that assumptions should be drawn from those games.

However, this time around all eyes were on Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa; could they play together in the same team?

That question was, of course, redundant to an extent with the pair having helped Japan to Asian Cup success in 2011 and combined just fine in June’s opening three qualifiers.

Since then Kagawa had completed his transfer to Manchester United though, where he had, somewhat surprisingly, been installed in the coveted spot just behind the striker – a role he claimed to also want for the national team but which was held by Honda.

Alberto Zaccheroni made it clear that he didn’t foresee that changing any time soon, so Kagawa lined up on the left as usual, with Honda pulling the strings behind Mike Havenaar.

Things started brightly enough with the two combining on a couple of occasions that highlighted their quick thinking and equally clinical execution, but once UAE had settled the pair’s threat was nullified and they were both withdrawn at half-time.

Again, not too much should be read into that – key players are usually rested in meaningless friendlies – but there is the slight suggestion that a Gerrard-Lampard problem could be in the offing.

The English midfielders are two of the best players of their generation but they have never been able to co-exist for their country. As the key men in the heart of midfield for their respective clubs they both possess a desire to take control of the game, but when paired together for the Three Lions that has frequently seen them treading on each other’s toes.

There was sadly not a chance to see how Kagawa and Honda got on in competitive action, with the former missing the Iraq game with a back injury, but if he maintains his early form for the Red Devils and continues to covet the key playmaker role for Japan, too, then the Honda-Kagawa axis – which has so much potential – will be well worth keeping an eye on.

Another slight concern was just behind them, in Makoto Hasebe.

The captain was steady enough against UAE and Iraq, but his lack of minutes for Wolfsburg mean he looked far from his usual combative and composed self, and if he can’t start getting regular action soon he may find his place under threat from Hajime Hosogai.

I also still have slight concerns about the lack of variety in Japan’s play, and a glance at the substitutes for the Iraq game didn’t offer too many players who could offer something different to those already on the pitch.

This is nitpicking though, and there were also positives to take from the games – not least the great form of Eiji Kawashima and the ever-impressive Yuto Nagatomo, who seems to be getting better and better and linked up extremely promisingly with the equally exciting Hiroshi Kiyotake.

And, with the pressure pretty much off for the next four games, Zac has plenty of time to iron out any creases.


Sanfrecce relish return to top spot

On Saturday the top two in J1 went head-to-head as Sanfrecce Hiroshima hosted Vegalta Sendai.

I picked up reaction from both camps after Sanfrecce re-assumed the lead in the title race with a 2-1 win.


Group success / Maeda’s strike helps Japan edge Iraq, extend lead in Cup qualifying

On Tuesday Japan boosted their chances of qualification for the 2014 Brazil World Cup when they beat Iraq 1-0 in Saitama.

After the game I gathered reaction from, amongst others, head coach Alberto Zaccheroni, match-winner Ryoichi Maeda, and Man of the Match Eiji Kawashima for The Daily Yomiuri.


AKB Nadeshiko?

The Young Nadeshiko achieved more success for Japan in the women’s game when they finished third at the recent Under-20 Women’s World Cup. That historic result bodes well for the future, but I’m a bit worried that the players’ talents are being overshadowed by non-footballing factors…

One of the first things I saw upon my return to Japan was a series of posters at Shinjuku station of the Japan Women Under-20 players.

Instead of promotional material for AKB48 or the latest canned coffee product there were instead shots of the Young Nadeshiko, and this took me by surprise.

I’d applied to cover the Under-20 World Cup but hadn’t really expected there to be much interest outside of the football media.

My underestimation of the appeal of young girls giving their all was, of course, a glaring miscalculation.

It was an oversight that I should never really have made when considering a lively conversation I once had with a colleague about the aforementioned AKB48.

I was informed that the male fans of the band weren’t all leering at girls young enough to be their daughters (or even granddaughters), but were merely “supporting” them because they were ganbatteru (doing their best). “It’s the same way we support young footballers and want them to do well,” I was told.

While I didn’t buy that explanation – at the time images of the band in bikinis were plastered all over JR stations and their video involved the girls “doing their best” to pass sweets from mouth-to-mouth – it does go some way to explaining the phenomenal popularity of Hiroshi Yoshida’s side.

Their quarter-final against South Korea, for instance, was attended by over 24,000 fans – more than had been at every single J1 game in the previous round of matches.

As well as the usual contingent of Japan fans – who attend games at any age level, anywhere in the world – there were also many people there who had perhaps not previously had much of an interest in the beautiful game. Football, that is.

Sat right in front of me at Japan’s final group game against Switzerland, for example, was a guy with curly, dyed-blonde hair with a beer in one hand and a glittery, designer diamond watch hanging off of his fake-tanned arm, wearing a replica Nadeshiko shirt with “Kawasumi” on the back.

Now, I don’t know this guy and there is a chance that he’s a lifelong football fan but if I had to bet I wouldn’t think his attraction to the game stretched much beyond the aesthetic aspects of Miss Kawasumi.

That’s not to say there’s fundamentally anything wrong with that, and with the JFA reportedly struggling to break even when hosting women’s matches in Japan it is vital that they get fans through the turnstiles.

Also, I always baulk a little at the snobbery of some people when it comes to just what constitutes being a football fan. People attend games for a variety of reasons, and whether it be to sing the praises of/hurl abuse at the players, analyse tactics, visit different stadiums, enjoy the social aspects of games or because you fancy one of the players is largely irrelevant.

However, I really hope that the ability and achievement of the side in making it to the Best 4 is not overshadowed by external factors.

The structure in place for women’s football in Japan is outstanding, and with the lynchpin of the full national side Homare Sawa soon to be calling it a day there were fears that the Nadeshiko’s glory days were numbered.

On the evidence of the Under-20 side’s displays that couldn’t be further from the truth and, if anything, I can only see the side becoming an even bigger force in the international game.

The capitulation in the first 20 minutes against Germany did take a little gloss off of the competition, but the technical level and assuredness of the players on the ball was quite phenomenal.

There were notable performances all over the park, and while Mina and Yoko Tanaka stood out for me I was most impressed by Kumi Yokoyama.

She sadly only made the bench for the quarter- and semi-finals but displayed a sublime ability on the ball and her passing and vision were breathtaking at times – reminiscent, in fact, of Aya Miyama.

It would be foolish not to capitalise upon the allure of the side, but let’s make sure the main focus remains the fact that things on the pitch are also looking good.


Samurai Blue poised to strike in World Cup qualifier

Japan play their fourth game in the final stage of qualification for the Brazil 2014 World Cup on Tuesday, taking on Iraq in Saitama.

Ahead of the game I gathered the thoughts of some of the players and head coach Alberto Zaccheroni for The Daily Yomiuri.


Who wants it more?

I think I may have stumbled upon a very English explanation as to why no J1 side seems able to stamp their authority on this year’s title race…

I’m starting to think that nobody wants to win the J1 title this year.

Before I travelled back to the UK for the Olympics I was a little concerned that my month away from the J.League would see me miss some decisive moments in the race for the championship.

I knew that nothing would be wrapped up so early, of course, but I had a feeling that some clear contenders would have established themselves and the pretenders to the throne would have fallen by the wayside by the time I came back to Tokyo.

How wrong I was.

When I boarded my plane at Narita at the end of July Sanfrecce Hiroshima were leading Vegalta Sendai at the top of the league on goals scored, and were just eight points ahead of 7th placed FC Tokyo.

After the first round of games following my return to the country Sanfrecce were still out in front, but their lead over Sendai had only grown to one point and now the eight-point gap behind them had stretched down to encompass Nagoya Grampus in 8th.

I have an ongoing joke with some fellow English football fans concerning the flawed logic in my home country that whoever “wants it more” will come out on top.

However, while displaying greater desire alone will never decide the outcome of a match or a championship it can still be a factor – especially when nobody is taking the initiative in the hunt for the trophy.

Nagoya Grampus coach Dragan Stojkovic, whose side I would say are just about still in the title race – although they looked far from being champions-elect in their recent unconvincing 1-0 win over Kawasaki Frontale – believes that another element is key.

“In the J.League, the team who plays intelligent football is the winner. That’s it,” he said matter-of-factly after the defeat of Frontale.

“[Today] was a difficult game. We did exactly what we wanted before the game, to bring the three points back to Nagoya. We got the three points and that’s all,” he continued.

“Tactically we prepared for the game very well. We let Kawasaki Frontale play and enjoy the football – and to take zero points.

“The idea of [how to play] football is one thing and the result is another thing.

“We won today because we played intelligent football.”

The guy in charge of the team who are currently in pole position – admittedly, only just – was praising a different characteristic of his side not so long ago: resilience.

“We have to prepare for and compete in one game at a time,” Hajime Moriyasu said of Sanfrecce after they battled back from a goal down to earn a 2-2 draw away to their closest contenders Vegalta Sendai in July.

“The opening exchanges weren’t great and we conceded at a difficult time but this season we have conceded first before and we keep fighting.”

And what about Sendai? Is there a principle they are clinging to in order to take the J.League shield to Tohoku for the first time?

According to Makoto Teguramori after Vegalta beat Omiya 3-1 in Round 23 there is, and it sounds strangely similar to that which an English coach would have.

“I said before today’s game, “Let’s show the strength of Sendai”,” the man who continues to enhance his reputation (in my eyes) as the Japanese Big Sam explained.

“From here on in in the league we have to strengthen our spirit by playing collectively, and we have to continue to control the opponent by seizing the initiative with our attacking style of defence, as we have done this season.”

They all seem to have their approaches, then, but at the moment none of them seem to be bearing any fruit.

The J.League is a notoriously open division, and it could be argued that the reason nobody is able to tear out in front is because there are so many evenly-matched teams.

The flip-side of that perspective, of course, is that none of the teams are good enough.

From the 10 games between Rounds 14 and 23 none of the current top eight collected more than five wins. That means none of them are in championship form.

Perhaps they just don’t want it enough…


Nadeshiko reach Under-20 World Cup semifinals for 1st time ever

Tonight the “Young Nadeshiko” of Japan take on favourites Germany for a place in the final of the Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Tokyo.

After their confident victory over South Korea in the quarter-final I wrote a short piece for The Daily Yomiuri on the side’s achievement in reaching the semifinals for the first time in its history.

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

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September 2012