Archive for June, 2013


Take two?

It’s not gained a popular reception, but would reverting to a two-stage J.League really be such a bad idea?


At the moment J1 is taking a mid-season break for the Confederations Cup so it seems like an apt time to offer my five-yen on the J.League’s rumoured preference of returning to a two-stage season from 2014.

The proposal – as with everything in football these days – has polarized opinion and produced fairly vociferous opposition.

My initial reaction was predominantly anti the idea too, as, having grown up watching one of the most traditional leagues in the world, the idea of a division not contested as one straight-through competition just seemed a bit odd.

The more I think about it the less of a bad idea it seems, though.

Those against reverting appear to have two main complaints: firstly they argue that the two-stage system doesn’t actually determine the best team, and secondly they suggest it demeans the league and detracts from its ambitions to compete with the more established divisions around the world.

Of the first accusation I would counter that no set-up produces an unquestionably just champion, and the margins can be just as fine in the current system as they would be with two stage-champions playing off in a final.

Did Manchester City really deserve to be crowned Premier League champions in 2012 when they needed that injury time strike by Sergio Aguero to settle things? On goal difference. Why is goal difference the way things are decided and not ball possession, number of passes completed, or most saves by a goalkeeper? I’m being facetious but hope you see my point; no system is perfect.

These Omiya Ardija fans could be celebrating a championship soon if this were a two-stage season...

Five of the eight single-stage seasons in Japan have also been decided on the final day of the season – never more finely than in the first year, 2005, when Gamba emerged victorious in dramatic style at the expense of Cerezo, finishing just a point ahead of their local rivals and three other clubs, Urawa, Kashima and JEF.

That is undoubtedly exciting, but were attendances and interest consistent throughout the season or just at the climax? In a two-stage version you’d have two final straights plus a grand finale to top it all off.

This, some say, is too ‘manufactured’, but that, too, is rather subjective. The most high-profile league I can think of which operates a two-stage season is that in Argentina, and for the many criticisms that can be made of fans of the Primera División lack of passion is not one of them. They take their league seriously, and winning the Inicial or Final – or, ultimately, emerging as the victor from the one-off match at the end of the season – is not considered inauthentic.

Even taking a break in the middle can’t be cited as a complaint as not one single-stage season has been completed uninterrupted. At least three weeks have been taken off each year to allow for something or other, disrupting the flow and, along with player transfers to Europe in the summer, often giving the illusion of two separate stages anyway.

Mitsuzawa Stadium is usually sparsely attended but they were queuing all the way to the road for last year's play-off semi-final...

Added to this, let’s be honest, the J.League is never going to compete with the likes of the Premier League or the Bundesliga when it comes to quality or appeal. The division has to maximize its potential and operate within its means.

The opinions of core supporters need to be acknowledged, of course, but for the continued success and development of the league the more casual fans can be just as important. Those who hark back to the good old days of the J.League when the hype was at its peak and attendances were consistently high often neglect to remember that large swathes of the supporters in the stands were fair-weather and needed regular excitement to keep them interested.

The money of those supporters is vital to the league and its clubs, and full(er) stadiums also look much better on TV and would likely make the J.League more interesting for international audiences – and sponsors – as well.

The J2 play-offs last year demonstrated how adding a bit of structured excitement can raise interest in a division in need of a bit of a pick-me-up, and a glance at J1’s dwindling attendances suggest that something similar may be required in the top flight as well.

Besides, if it doesn’t work out they can always change back again.


Dogged success

Japan’s marathon man Shinji Okazaki has put in the miles to establish himself as a key starter for the Samurai Blue…


Shinji Okazaki is really growing on me.

His scoring record for Japan has always been impressive (33 goals in 63 games after his decisive strike against Iraq) and his work-rate has never been in doubt but I have always seen him as something of a trier, lacking the control and intelligence of the more refined players left out of the Samurai Blue squad. He reminded me – particularly in his longer-haired days – of a big dog chasing a ball around a park: full of boundless enthusiasm and clearly loving every minute of his playtime, but completely clueless as to what he was supposed to do once he was in possession.

I’d frequently bemoan his presence in the team while others were overlooked, and would groan in frustration as he inevitably found himself in the right place at the right home to tap home the goal that would keep him involved for the next match.

Now, however, I am starting to think that he wasn’t just Johnny-on-the-spot in meaningless Kirin Cup games against Finland, but that he is a far smarter player than I initially assumed.

Once is chance, twice is coincidence, after that there must be more to it, and it seems there is more to Okazaki than meets the eye.

Shinji Okazaki, Osaka, March 2011

Before South Africa 2010 I attended a press conference with the then-Shimizu S-Pulse striker, when he was struggling to live up to his expectations as the central striker for Takeshi Okada’s side as the World Cup edged ever-closer. At the time he had scored just twice in his last seven appearances for the Samurai Blue, something of a dip after he’d raised expectations by plundering seven in his previous three games.

While he of course denied feeling any pressure as the focal point of the attack, he did admit that he had perhaps started to overthink things out on the pitch.

“I wanted to score so badly that I think I killed my instinct to do so. I was thinking too much about it so I killed my strong point,” he said.

There were suggestions even then that he maybe struggled to focus, and that he expunged too much energy chasing after lost causes.

“That’s my character,” he responded. “If I don’t do that then it’s not me. I have done it from when I was very young.”

It is precisely that characteristic which persuaded Alberto Zaccheroni to shift Okazaki back a little though, into one of the three supporting roles behind the main centre-forward. While Keisuke Honda struts around expending energy only when he absolutely must and Shinji Kagawa possesses such wonderful technique and ability that he rarely looks flustered, the third point of that trident presents opponents with a far different proposition to defend – as well as putting in a shift heading back in the opposite direction.

Shinji Okazaki, Shimizu, May 2010

Despite my initial impressions Okazaki’s movement is not performed without thought, and he has improved dramatically since Zaccheroni – who prides himself on his intricate coaching methods – has been in charge. Okazaki doesn’t just luck out when the ball falls to him in the box, he has made sure he is exactly where he should be to cause the most danger, and now that he is not relied upon to lead from the front he is able to act more instinctively coming onto the ball rather than needing to work with his back to goal.

It takes more than just hard work to change your game once you are established in the national team, and Okazaki deserves credit for having persevered to improve his weaker points. It shouldn’t really have surprised me as he paid reference to the strength of character needed to make it in football back at that press conference in 2010.

“My [high school] teacher said that personality was vital and combined with your football performance,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for that teacher.

“I was better at marathons and longer races [at school] – stamina is one of my strong points,” he added.

His persistence has certainly won me round, and if I was in charge the Stuttgart man would be one of the first names on the teamsheet for the final straight in Brazil next year.


Out of the shadows

During the qualifying campaign for the last World Cup Japan were lagging way behind Australia, and the Socceroos were well aware of their superiority. Things are a little different this time around…


“Nippon: Forever in Our Shadow,” read the banner in Melbourne in 2009.

Australia certainly had the better of things in the early exchanges of the ever-developing rivalry with Japan, and having inflicted that painful 3-1 loss in Kaiserslautern in 2006 and wrapped up top spot in the qualifying stages thanks to another Tim Cahill brace four years ago it was hard to argue with the sentiment.

A lot has changed in four years though, and while it may be a stretch to say that the shoe is now on the other foot, the Samurai Blue are certainly matching Australia blow for blow.

The Australians paid plenty of reference before and after the game to the fact that Japan haven’t beaten them in regulation play for 12 years, but that is clutching at straws. As they found out at Saitama Stadium as Keisuke Honda rifled home his 91st minute penalty, not all matches are won or lost in 90 minutes. Doha in 2011 and Hanoi in 2007 also demonstrate that point.

Stats are always the most flexible of weapons anyway, and they can easily be manipulated to tell you what you want to hear. If you look at the most basic figures, for instance – wins, draws and losses – the two nations are dead even: six wins apiece and eight draws.

Nippon: Forever in our shadow

It’s true that Japan haven’t beaten the Socceroos in six attempts in World Cup qualifying but, if we ignore the two matches from 1969, they have never needed to. The sides are usually the two favourites in their group and thus would settle for a share of the spoils when they come face-to-face. Australia have only won once themselves in recent times, and that was the “in our shadow” game at Melbourne Cricket Ground when the result was irrelevant and both teams were already assured of their places at South Africa 2010.

This time, too, a point was enough for Japan to stamp their ticket to Brazil – even a loss, it turned out, would have seen them through as well, albeit in slightly underwhelming style – and would also leave the Socceroos’ fate in their own hands, with two home games to come.

“A point’s a massive point here,” Japan’s former nemesis Tim Cahill conceded after the game. “[Our performance] gives us the confidence as a group to know that we can play good football. This is a hard stage to play on and also difficult circumstances.”

Captain Lucas Neill also admitted as much, although his satisfaction was tinged with disappointment having come so close to snatching a huge victory.

“How do I feel?” he responded to the obvious question. “I’m feeling like before the game I would have taken that point but as the way the game played out I think we deserved all three, so it feels like two points dropped.”

Even so, he concluded that a draw was good enough when considering the esteem the current Japan team are held in.

Saitama Stadium, June 4th, 2013

“They’re a fantastic team, this is a very tough place to come and get points. This is a talented team, arguably the best Japanese team we’ve faced for a long time.”

I asked if he felt they had strengthened mentally since themselves experiencing that harrowing reverse at the 2006 World Cup, which also came late in the game.

“Not that late,” he laughed. “91 minutes. I don’t know if they were ever going to fold. This team is playing with a lot of confidence. They’ve got guys now playing at the best teams in the world, especially in Europe, their J.League is fantastic, it’s at a high standard and every year you can notice an improvement.”

The Socceroos have witnessed that improvement firsthand over the past few years and Cahill’s comments demonstrated that it is no longer the Australians having things all their own way.

“Congratulations to Japan, they’re a fantastic team. I think it’s the first time they’ve qualified at home and now we need to look forward and push on and join them in the qualification.”

The Samurai Blue are on their way to Brazil, and as they jet off to start preparing at the Confederations Cup Australia still need points. Who’s casting a shadow now?


Shoulda, Woulda, Kudo

Thanks to me (maybe) Japan may have discovered a player capable of filling the troublesome No.9 spot…


I first had my suspicions a while back when Hiromi Hara seemed to be trailing me around the country. There was a spell when the JFA’s Technical Director was at every game I attended, and until I spotted him at Thespakusatsu v. Gainare Tottori I’d just assumed it was coincidence.

His appearance in Gunma, however, alerted me to the fact that he must be on my trail (why else would he be at Thespa-Tottori?) and I realized that as an intrepid foreign journalist covering the J.League my insights in this magazine and on twitter (@seankyaroru, for anyone not yet following) were obviously being picked up on in JFA House.

After initially playing it cool I decided to test the waters a couple of weeks ago during the Kashiwa Reysol-Cerezo Osaka game. While all around were (quite rightly) demanding Yoichiro Kakitani be drafted into the full national team I tweeted that Alberto Zaccheroni could do worse than calling Reysol striker Masato Kudo up for the games against Bulgaria and Australia.

And lo-and-behold, the 23-year-old was given just that chance.

Seeing as I was ahead of the curve I was able to get Kudo’s thoughts on his national team chances in the mixed zone after that game, and although he admitted to not having really thought about it too much he did seem confident he could compete in the international game.

Masato Kudo, National Stadium, 26th May, 2013

“I don’t really have any image with regards to the national team as I haven’t been called up even once yet,” he said. “If I were to get the opportunity to represent Japan though of course I would be honoured.

“I always try to think positively. I have confidence that I can achieve good results at that level. Now I have that confidence and that has enabled me to produce good results in the J.League.”

His club coach, Nelsinho, was also full of praise when I asked if he thought his No.9 could be as effective for the national team.

“This year Kudo has changed – in a good way,” he began. “He’s been scoring goals in important games, he’s been leading from the front, and his hold-up play has really improved. Not only with regards to his goalscoring efforts but aspects that aren’t immediately apparent to the naked eye have also been contributing to the team. His technical level has been really eye-opening.”

Once the wheels had been set in motion Zac’s eyes were opened as well and he included Kudo in his 26-man squad a week later, along with Keigo Higashi (not one of my tips – Hara-san must have other advisors, too).

“I’ve said it many times already but I have a particular interest in young players who show improvement and also players who demonstrate to me that they are growing,” Zaccheroni explained.

"Masato Kudo, Congratulations on your call-up for Japan". National Stadium, 26th May, 2013

“At the same time, I’ve also said that being called into the national team once doesn’t make you good enough to be a regular at international level. Players must continue to show improvement.

“[Kudo and Higashi] are not an exception to that. Until now these kind of players have been called up and not all of them have shown improvement. In terms of these two players, they are the ones who have shown improvement between when I was appointed as manager three years ago and now.

“Both of them are utility players who can play in several positions. I should also pay special mention to the fact that both of them are powerful and demonstrate their ability by aiming straight for the goal.”

That is certainly true of Kudo, and as Nelsinho suggested the striker has really come on in recent seasons. He has benefited especially by gaining vital experience in the ACL – which must have been part of Zaccheroni’s thinking – coping very well with the rough-and-tumble of that competition, not only shrugging off over-enthusiastic challenges on and off the ball but also scoring regularly to help his side to the quarter-finals unbeaten.

Of course the next step is the biggest to take but with nobody having made the Samurai Blue centre-forward role their own yet I see no reason why Kudo shouldn’t be given the chance to stake a claim with Brazil edging ever closer.


Bound for Brazil: Japan 1st to clinch berth / Late Honda penalty earns decisive draw

On Tuesday night Japan finally secured their long-awaited berth at the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.

Saitama Stadium, June 4th, 2013

I was at Saitama Stadium to witness the historic match and afterwards gathered some reaction from the Japanese and Australian camps.


Japan aims to lift intensity to sew up World Cup spot

Japan take on Australia this evening at Saitama Stadium and need just a point to make sure of their place at Brazil 2014.

Alberto Zaccheroni, JFA House, 23rd May 2013

On Sunday I was at Japan training and spoke to a few of the players about their thoughts ahead of the match. You can read my short preview here.

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

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June 2013