Archive for May, 2013


Time is of the essence

Only 13 rounds have been played at the break in J1 but the clock is already ticking on Oita Trinita…


“Where do I catch the shuttle bus from?” I asked the man in the uniform with the red stick.

“They’re finished,” he replied in that no-nonsense manner not uncommon in Kyushu. “You can still catch a taxi though.”

Sod that. A taxi from Oita Bank Dome to my hotel was likely to cost more than my four-hour train ride from Kumamoto the previous day so along with a friend I opted to try and hitchhike.

People in the south may be a little brusquer than their Tokyo counterparts but they aren’t any less considerate and I was soon accompanying some Trinita supporters in their Prius on the way to the station.

I’d lucked out when it seemed time was up but for Oita Trinita the clock has not been on their side in 2013. In fact, it is probably fair to say that they are back in J1 ahead of time and may just be counting down to a return to the second tier.

The speediness of their ascension back to the first division was replicated in their opening three games, in each of which they scored first but were unable to secure all three points. Affronting their opponents in such a manner didn’t seem to do the trick but opting for a less aggressive approach proved equally as ineffective as Trinita conceded late on in their next three games and lost to Kashiwa Reysol (Masato Kudo striking the killer final goal to make it 3-1 in the 93rd minute), Ventforet Kofu (1-0, Yukio Tsuchiya, 83’), and Kashima Antlers (3-2, Yuya Osako, 90’).

Oita Bank Dome, May 6th, 2013

It took them until Round 12 to record their first victory in the league and even then they, like me, needed some additional minutes to get what they wanted. Having conceded an equalizer in the 90th minute they required fully seven minutes of injury time to secure the winner in their 3-2 triumph over Albirex Niigata.

The day I’d received my hybrid-assisted lift also produced a strange quirk on the clock, with Oita’s two goals coming one minute before the end of each half. Sadly for them their opponents, Sagan Tosu, weren’t overly troubled as they netted twice as many themselves.

The number of goals scored and conceded are what really matter when it comes to determining who is celebrating or not come the end of the season, but for the time being head coach Kazuaki Tasaka is more concerned with another digit: one.

The former Japan international and long-time assistant to Kenta Hasegawa at Shimizu S-Pulse is in his first job as the top man and feels that togetherness is the key if Oita are to stand any chance of avoiding the drop.

“We showed the opponent our weak point and were well beaten today,” he said after the loss to Tosu. “At the moment what we are lacking is unity – we need to become one.

"Do it for the Win!"

“The team was trying to make that happen and I can give them credit for that. Of course we didn’t win but watching them on the pitch I really felt that they were trying to play as a team. To fight as one and win as one. I want them to keep doing that.”

It has proved as hard as expected since Trinita became the first team to earn promotion via the J2 Play-offs last year, and Tasaka confessed that he has struggled to settle on a new best eleven to cope back in J1.

“I understand that we’ve moved up a level and everyday I’m watching the players and feel they are fighting well on this stage. Before we started back in J1 we had the strength to compete at this level but I was also aware of the current condition of the club. At the moment we aren’t able to stabilize the starting eleven. Within that we aren’t able to win games, which makes it harder to settle the team. Because of that each player is playing for themselves, not for the team.”

If some consistency and a collective purpose can be achieved the club may be able to give itself a fighting chance of staying up, but not as things stand. Time is very much of the essence.


20/20 Vision

The J.League’s “20th Anniversary Match” was a fitting way to mark a special occasion, but it also drew attention to aspects that still need to improve…

21st May 13週刊サッカーマガジン2013年5月21日

A great deal has been achieved in the first 20 years of the J.League, and the official “20th Anniversary Match” highlighted so much of what is great about the Japanese game.

As chance would have it – or not, depending on how much faith you have in the ‘randomness’ of the fixture computer – the latest clash between Urawa Reds and Kashima Antlers fell conveniently on the weekend when the 20th Anniversary celebrations were in full swing and was thus selected as the showpiece game.

And why wouldn’t the J.League choose that encounter? Urawa’s phenomenal success off the pitch has seen them generate the biggest aggregate attendance since things swung into action in 1993, and they have come the closest yet of any Japanese team to establishing themselves as a genuine big club. Head outside of Japan and ask your average football fan if they can name a J.League side and the chances are Reds will be one of the most widely known, despite their relative lack of success on the pitch.

Kashima Antlers, meanwhile, may not have established themselves quite so firmly in the consciousness of supporters around the globe but they, too, have a fixed identity – something that is sadly true of too few clubs in Japan. And, most importantly of all, they are winners. Seven league titles, five Nabisco Cups and four Emperor’s Cups are not to be sniffed at.

Saitama Stadium, May 11th, 2013

What better way to show how far the league has come in its opening two decades than a fiery encounter between these two sworn enemies, then. And in a packed Saitama Stadium to boot.

And thankfully the match more than lived up to its billing.

There is genuine animosity between the two sides – a member of staff from one club confided as much before kick-off – and no fan of either team wanted to miss the latest installment, with over 46,000 packing out the stadium despite the rain and fact that the game was being shown live on TV. It speaks volumes, in fact, that in some quarters that figure is being spoken of as ‘only’ 46,000, Attendances are an issue that the league and its clubs need to keep a close eye on, but that figure was more than every Premier League fixture on the same weekend, except for Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever game in charge at Old Trafford.

Then of course there was the action on the pitch, which like all good games, was aggressive, frenetic, and controversial.

Shinzo Koroki’s decisive goal was quite blatantly offside. Of that there can’t be any debate, and it is beyond doubt that the referee and his assistant made a glaring error.

Urawa Reds v. Kashima Antlers - Saitama Stadium, May 11th, 2013

“Today was the 20th Anniversary match and both teams did well but it is a shame that while the level of players has improved in the last 20 years the level of officiating hasn’t at all,” Antlers coach Toninho Cerezo witheringly declared after the match. “Everyone here and those watching at home could see the goal was offside but the referee and linesman failed to spot it. It seems like the home crowd made the decision for them.”

His frustration was understandable, but I have to say I think his claims about the level of the officials are wide of the mark. I have said it before and I’ll say it again but until video assistance is mandatory mistakes will happen and referees and their assistants will get things wrong. That is not unique to Japan and not a week goes by without a controversial decision making headlines in one of the world’s top leagues or international competitions.

The lack of discussion about the incident, though, is concerning. Again, this is not the first time I’ve spoken about this issue, but the refusal of any TV station to just come out and say, “he got that wrong” is baffling to me.

In so many ways the J.League has matured and developed since things kicked off on May 15th, 1993, but the media covering it is still far too controlled. It, too, needs to grow up – and the J.League must allow and encourage that process if the next 20 years are to be anywhere near as fruitful as the last.


Back to basics

Omiya Ardija have improved dramatically over the past year, and they may not be finished just yet…


Omiya Ardija are top of J1.

I know this is not breaking news but just read that sentence again. It doesn’t look right, does it?

Top they are though, and The Squirrels more than merit place at the summit having been the most consistent side all season. Actually, for longer than that, with them spending the last three months of the 2012 season undefeated in the league as well.

Along with the constantly-referred-to record that is now in their possession (for anyone who’s been otherwise engaged for the past month, they broke Kashima Antlers 18-game undefeated streak, and then some) they are now rather like the Lionel Messi of the J.League, with new records seemingly being broken on a weekly basis. Apparently – according to Ben Maxwell of the J-Talk Podcast – their 26 points from the opening 10 games is a single-season best start, for example.

One person who wouldn’t be concerned with that stat, however, is the team’s coach, Zdenko Verdenik.

I interviewed the Slovenian ahead of Ardija’s game against Urawa Reds last month and he insisted that talk of such things didn’t interest him or the players in the slightest, swatting away my suggestion that sealing the record against Urawa would be especially satisfying.

“For us we want to keep going with confidence as we have been, to continue playing our football and to just take things one game at a time. This game, too, we want to keep going and, of course, to win the game.”

The Squirrels are No.1

He did allow a glimmer of satisfaction with the team’s resoluteness to slip through, though, adding, “but, we haven’t lost for 17 games which is evidence that our play is stable.”

That is something of an understatement, and that stability has seen Omiya not only record its sensational run but in doing so beat heavyweights Kashima, Urawa, Kashiwa, and Hiroshima on their way to top-spot.

Verdenik’s back-to-basics approach is what set the process in motion.

“At the start, what I did was work on the model and structure for the type of football, in terms of attacking and defending – what we were trying to aim for,” he explained when I asked him how he’d turned the perennial relegation-battlers into such a solid unit. “Through training we made it clear and learned that quickly. Making sure we were able to play within that model and structure is what I did first.

“After doing this basic thing, we would work hard at more important aspects to improve the level of play. And through training we were able to really see the improvements.”

The success so far has been achieved even though Keigo Higashi – the closest Omiya had to a star player last season – has moved on to FC Tokyo, and while some feel that his departure has freed up Cho Young-cheol to exert more influence on the team Verdenik still wants more from the Korean.

Zdenko Verdenik, 10th April, 2013

“The fact that Higashi left is a shame. Cho Young-Cheol has different qualities to Higashi. Higashi was very good at combining on both sides and creating chances, Young-Cheol is a very impressive player in different ways. He has speed and exceptional ability at breaking through defences.

“Right now what we want from him is to learn and try to take on the qualities that Higashi had. He will become even stronger if he works on his combination play with the players around him.”

Co-operation is key for Verdenik, and he also praised Zlatan Ljubijankic and Milivoje Novakovic for their selflessness, referring to the fact that they think about and provide the team with far more than just goals.

There is still a lot of football to be played, and nobody – least of all Verdenik – is seriously thinking of a title challenge at the moment, but survival will soon be assured and then – assuming, as we surely must considering the way the team has played for the best part of a year, that performances and results don’t drop off – previously unthinkable targets will move within sight.

“The result will come from the quality of play, our good football, and that will determine our position,” Verdenik said. “Of course, if we can continue to perform well and achieve the results then we will be able to finish in a high position.”


L-eight-est in a line of stars…

Cerezo Osaka’s latest No.8 is generating a lot of excitement in Japan – and quite rightly so…


You are usually left looking for the positives after a 0-0 draw, but when Cerezo Osaka’s recent game against Oita Trinita ended goalless it wasn’t hard to find the silver lining.

Yoichiro Kakitani was a joy to watch, and his every contribution exuded confidence and class.

He was at the heart of everything his side did going forwards, and the 23-year-old doesn’t so much run with the ball as glide. His awareness of the location of teammates and opponents was sensational, and one piece of play in particular, when he floated through the centre of the pitch, tore in behind the Oita backline and then dinked a glorious chip over Kenta Tanno which flew just a little too high, was worth the price of admission alone.

Not everyone was enamoured with that passage of play though, and after the match his coach Levir Culpi was ruing the fact that his star man hadn’t just put his foot through the ball.

“He made a mistake. It’s not the ball for a chip,” he said to me, before acting out the more direct shot Kakitani should have opted for.

The Brazilian knows he has a fantastic talent on his hands but is constantly demanding more.

“He is good. He has nice technique but he needs more numbers. Effectiveness. Goals, assists. Because he can do it.”

The expectations of these fans are now pinned on the latest No.8

Kakitani should listen to his coach as he has experience in these matters. Culpi was of course responsible for helping to nurture both Shinji Kagawa and Hiroshi Kiyotake, and is unsurprised by the parallels being drawn between them and his current No.8.

“This is natural, it’s inevitable to compare them,” he said. “Shinji Kagawa is a good player because he did. This is the difference, he did. He’s a three-time champion now – two times with Borussia Dortmund and now Manchester [United]. He did. And he scored. He scored 30 goals, maybe, in J2, and he started [with seven] goals in J1 and then goes to Germany. The same in Germany. This is numbers. You need numbers. You play good it’s ok, but you need numbers to be the best.”

That is not to say he doesn’t think Kakitani has what it takes to replicate the success of his predecessors though, and he has sensed a marked improvement in both performances and results since he returned to the club as head coach last August.

“I think it’s possible because he gets better this year. Last year [too] getting better. But I think it’s possible because he has good technique. Speed, left and right [feet] ok. He knows how to score. He knows.”

Another key figure at the club who knows exactly what it takes to be successful is “Mr. Cerezo”, Hiroaki Morishima.

I bumped into the original No.8 in the tunnel at Kincho Stadium after speaking to Culpi and asked him what he felt about the aura he had created around the shirt.

Kakitani salutes the Cerezo fans ahead of the match with Oita Trinita, April 27th, 2013

“The players after me have achieved success,” he laughed, modestly. “I just happened to be the first one and after that the team is taking care of things well.”

Does he feel that Kakitani feels any pressure as the latest to follow in his not inconsiderable footsteps, though?

“Hmm, is there pressure? More than anything I think [the players] are just focused on getting good results. I’m sure Yoichiro feels the pressure of everyone’s expectations while playing but he seems to be enjoying that. And watching him from outside being able to do that is reassuring. Now number eight is Yoichiro’s number.”

That is certainly the case but if he keeps performing as well as he has been then it surely won’t be too long before Kakitani becomes the latest to vacate the shirt and head to Europe. His coach seemed to think that was a realistic target if he applied himself properly, and Morishima agreed – although he stressed that such things shouldn’t be rushed.

“I think now in the J.League we have been producing results. Maybe it’s best not to suddenly go overseas or be in a hurry, the timing is important.

“If he can focus on achieving results here then he will be able to continue onto the next step, I think.”

On that I think we are all agreed.


Derby schmarby

Rivalries evolve naturally and over time, they don’t need to be hurried along. Can someone please let J.League clubs know…


Lately it seems like there is a handful of ‘derby’ matches every weekend.

Whether it be the ludicrous “SKY Series” (Shonan, Kawasaki, Yokohama – they all wear blue (kind of, in Shonan’s case, but don’t let that get in the way of a snappy title) and are reasonably close to each other), the slightly uninspiring “North Kanto derby” (Tochigi, Gunma, and Mito – they’re all, erm, in north Kanto…) or the barrel-scraping “Top of North Alps” (Matsumoto, Tottori, and Gifu – a grammatically and geographically confusing one, this), there are numerous straight-from-the packet rivalries ready to be consumed.

These are not derbies, though. True derbies are not created by marketing men and women with MacBooks and too much coffee. The ‘Tamagawa Clasico’? ‘Get the river under control’? Really?

Derbies are usually based on little more than the locality of the competing teams but they occur naturally. Really there are only two derbies in J1 right now: the Shizuoka derby and the Saitama derby.

Think of Liverpool-Everton, Roma-Lazio, Rangers-Celtic, these games are about local pride and bragging rights. They can also involve an inferiority complex – often one of the clubs is far more successful than its neighbour, which heightens the sense of occasion when the teams meet. For the weaker side it is the chance to get one over on their bigger rival, whereas for the more successful club it is a matter of not being embarrassed.

One of the, erm, keenly contested 'SKY Series' matches

Take Omiya v. Reds, for example. The Reds fans are probably more concerned with the fates of Kashima and/or Gamba than they are Omiya. They want to beat them, obviously, but that is more to do with the fact they don’t want to lose face against their less-successful neighbor. (Of course, the rivalry may be heating up a little now that Reds have won just one of the last nine league meetings between the teams and Omiya are going toe-to-toe with them in the league. The fact that the Squirrels bookended their record-breaking 18-game unbeaten run with results against Urawa will also have been especially enjoyable/frustrating depending on which side of the orange-red spectrum you sit.)

In Shizuoka, too, there is the desire to be seen as the best team in the region. Jubilo are the more successful side – in terms of trophies – but in recent years there has been little to separate the teams. Shimizu have frequently been on the verge of establishing themselves as No.1 before stumbling at the last hurdle and shuffling back to the drawing board – no doubt to the joy of the fans in blue just down the road.

The same applies to the local derbies in Osaka (Gamba and Cerezo), Yokohama (Marinos and FC) and Tokyo (FC and Verdy), with both sides having plenty of ammunition as to why they’re the ‘real’ representative of their region.

Flying the flag for the 'Top of North Alps'

And these subjective, often baseless, and hugely biased claims are what make the derbies derbies. It is the frustration that builds up over the days, weeks, and years. That idiot in your office who came in in his team’s shirt after they beat yours at the weekend. The anger you feel when one of your players signs for the local rival. That time your team lost because their guy dived. It takes time and is created by infinite small details, all of which occur naturally.

There is also a cross-over here with the other type of derbies. These have nothing to do with how close teams are geographically, but everything to do with success, respect, and ideology.

These rivalries – Barcelona-Real Madrid, Manchester United-Liverpool, Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund – are not just based on on-pitch issues and how many trophies each have won, but also draw upon far deeper, more complex factors, encompassing everything from the way the clubs are run – a focus on producing youth players compared to the assemblage of a squad of stars, for instance – to social, political, economical and even nationalistic aspects.

These rivalries will eventually emerge in Japan, too. Reds and Antlers, for instance, undoubtedly have very little time for each other, and that dislike will only intensify as the years roll by. They will happen organically though, and don’t need to be formed in brainstorming meetings or to have cute logos or catchy slogans.

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

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May 2013