Archive for August, 2013


Women not winning

Winning the World Cup was a sensational triumph for Nadeshiko Japan, although it has served to add pressure in the two years since…


There is a moment from a few minutes before Nadeshiko Japan won the World Cup in 2011 which has always stuck in my mind.

It was as Norio Sasaki addressed his players before the penalty shoot-out, a huge grin fixed on his face and a look almost of disbelief that they were in with a chance of becoming world champions.

Previous form suggested he was quite right to be pinching himself – the side had won just three of their 16 games at World Cup finals prior to 2011 – and despite being in terrific form throughout the competition in Germany the USA were still huge favourites, having beaten Japan 3-0 and 4-0 in their previous two encounters at World Cup finals.

Everyone knows what happened in Frankfurt, and while the same group of players followed that triumph with another terrific showing to take silver at the London Olympics 12 months later that high has not been recreated since.

Most recently it was the East Asian Cup they failed to get their hands on, and a couple of weeks after that competition I headed to Chelsea’s training ground for a chat with their new striker Yuki Ogimi.

Norio Sasaki in relaxed mood ahead of the penalty shootout in the 2011 World Cup final

“When we won the World Cup it was lucky,” she confessed. “Many small good pieces of luck combined so we were able to win. It was unexpected. Really unexpected. After that the fact that we haven’t recorded good results has proven that much.

“We don’t yet have the ability to keep winning, to beat any kind of opponent, so the players also share a sense of concern about the fact that we are not producing good results.”

Let’s not get carried away, the women’s game in Japan is in an incredibly good health compared to many other countries, and the youth development and organization of the game – as with the men’s – is world class.

The difficulty now, however, is dealing with the raised expectations of that surprise triumph, and waiting for the popularity of the game to level out.

“Women’s football in Japan was given a boost by the World Cup – it was a boom,” Ogimi explained. “The situation now is that we don’t know how long it will stay popular. In Germany there is already a culture of football, there is stability whether the team produces results or not.”

That must be difficult for the coach and players – who, let’s be honest, were essentially unknown prior to July, 2011 – to deal with, and having been used to playing in front of a few hundred fans it must take some getting used to to have tens of thousands now expecting victory in every game.

The best way to improve results is, of course, by focusing as much as possible on events on rather than off the pitch, and Ogimi seems fully aware of that.

Recently it's been a case of back to the drawing board for Nadeshiko Japan

“I don’t play football purely in order to [win things],” she said, when asked if she was more proud of winning the Champions League with Potsdam or World Cup with Japan. “Of course, [it’s good] for the team to take a big title – the Champions League or the World Cup with the national team – but I can’t really weigh the importance of either. For me the most important thing is to improve every day at training, every day in matches, and through that process I wish to able to win titles. That’s it.”

Her recent transfer to Chelsea Ladies will undoubtedly help in that respect. The women train at the same facilities as the men’s side, and although they don’t yet have the same record of success as Frank Lampard and co. they are aiming to improve, with Ogimi’s signing a statement of intent.

“This club is not yet fully professional and it’s the kind of club which has to aim to improve,” the 26-year-old said. “We have to work hard in training and be strict with ourselves. Within that I have to have a positive influence on the younger players in the team, with regards to my attitude towards training and those kind of things.”

A return to more a more grounded level of football may also help her to help the national team as well.


Interview with Yuki Ogimi

Last week I headed to Cobham to interview Chelsea Ladies’ new signing Yuki Ogimi.

Thursday August 15th, 2013

The Nadeshiko Japan striker is enjoying her time in London, and spoke enthusiastically about her new teammates, her expectations for the side, and how she got into playing football.


Raising the stakes

There was a time when every player had their price, but not any more. That’s what they’d like us to believe, anyway…


“Player X is not for sale at any price,” is what football managers have said since the dawn of time. Of late the meaning behind such dismissals seems to have changed, however, and instead of just expressing a club’s desire to keep hold of their best players it is now increasingly a strategy to get as much money as possible for a prized asset.

When I got back to England for my summer holiday three of the Premier League’s best players were embroiled in will-they-won’t-they transfer sagas which all followed this basic principle.

Wayne Rooney was assumed to have been on the way out of Manchester United at the end of last season when he fell out with Sir Alex Ferguson (again) and missed the Scot’s last two games as manager. Even so, and despite making it clear that he wants away, at the time of writing he is still at the club and new boss David Moyes insists that will remain the case.

“Wayne Rooney is not for sale. He’s a Manchester United player and will remain a Manchester United player. Wayne won’t be sold by Manchester United,” the BBC reported him as saying.

The same scenario has been rumbling along just down the M62, with everyone’s favourite non-controversial striker Luis Suarez accusing his club of going back on a promise to let him leave if they didn’t qualify for the Champions League.

Even if a player isn't sold, the relationship with fans can often sour

Those claims were disputed by Liverpool and owner John W. Henry claimed the player would be going nowhere.

“He won’t be sold even if a foreign club comes in because we do not have time to sign a suitable replacement,” he was quoted as saying in The Guardian. “It’s a football reason. It’s not about finances.”

That reasoning seems fairly sound, but seeing as Henry was speaking around a month before the transfer window closed it is debatable. Four weeks is plenty of time to make a signing, especially if you have £40 million to do so.

This is where Tottenham Hotspur, or more specifically Daniel Levy, come in.

The Spurs chairman is renowned for his obsession with squeezing every last penny from his club’s sales, which usually means deals aren’t concluded until the last moments of the transfer window. The rebuttal of Real Madrid’s world record £86 million bid for Gareth Bale is the latest, and most extreme, example which looks like following that pattern.

Such a policy can work in terms of garnering the highest fee possible, but, as Henry alluded to, it doesn’t give the manager any time to sign a replacement.

Of course, another thing to consider is that transfer deals are now followed in far closer detail, with journalists and newspapers constantly in need of new information at an almost hourly rate to satiate the desire of fans to get the absolute latest.

Assorted headlines during the English transfer window

For Jonathan Wilson this, too, has impacted on the final stages of the transfer window as buying clubs feel the pressure to appease fans who are more readily and angrily bemoaning a lack of satisfactory activity.

“You see it on deadline day each window, people taking to Twitter and comments sections to berate their club for not being involved – when of course the truth is that, in the vast majority of cases, deals done on deadline day are hurried and not necessarily well-conceived,” he wrote in The Guardian.

“It’s basically a game of poker. You’re waiting for someone to panic and put in an extra £10 million,” was how former Manchester United defender Gary Neville put it on Monday Night Football.

The Fernando Torres-Andy Carroll disaster of 2011 was the ultimate example of that, with £85 million or so changing hands on deadline day for two strikers whose moves didn’t exactly work out.

Last-minute deals bring with them plenty of complications, then, and if the wantaway player isn’t sold that can also have repercussions on the non-selling team. Apologies are uttered, teammates’ and fans’ forgiveness is begged for, and then the problems invariably pop up again during the next window.

Bearing that in mind, would it not serve everybody better if the brinksmanship was left out of it and clubs just wrapped up their business earlier?


Getting Red-dy

Manchester United’s friendly games in Japan gave an  insight into the club as it enters a new era…


I’m a Manchester United fan but since I moved to Japan I’ve found myself paying less and less attention to their progress – at least until the final stages of the season when matches start to take on more significance and staying awake until or getting up at 4am is a little less difficult.

Last month, however, I was able to see them closer than ever before as they visited Yokohama and Osaka for a couple of games on their “tour” (Premier League teams no longer play friendly matches but instead opt for the Bon Jovi approach to pre-season games by putting on arena shows for the masses) and it was an interesting experience.

First of all it meant I was able to get up-close access during a momentous stage in the club’s history, as David Moyes began the unenviable task of following Sir Alex Ferguson as manager. The former Everton boss had only been in the role a matter of days when he arrived in Japan but seemed to be coping well, and if he matches his predecessor and lasts 27 years in the job I’ll always be able to say that I was there at his first game against another club (his first two matches were against “All Star” teams from Thailand and Australia).

Nissan Stadium, July 23rd, 2013

I also witnessed in its all-consuming entirety the PR machine that has engulfed what was once a football club: Official paint partner? Check. Official Diesel Engine partner? Check. Vile-looking tomato drink partner, complete with cringe-inducing advert? Check. Considering the amount of effort that had gone into juicing every last yen out of the thousands who queued around Nagai Aid Stadium to buy all manner of official tat it was even more disappointing that the likes of Chris Smalling, Patrice Evra, and Robin van Persie couldn’t spare a few minutes after the games to actually speak about football.

Not all of the players were too busy though, and despite the fact that they say you should never meet your heroes one of the most obliging was Ryan Giggs. The left-winger-turned-midfielder-turned-player-coach spoke at length after the 3-2 defeat to Yokohama F.Marinos and was keen to stress the benefit of playing capable opposition ahead of the real season.

“They’re a good team,” he said of Yasuhiro Higuchi’s side. “I think every time we come to Japan – of course they’re in the middle of their season – it’s a test. And it’s a good test for us. Because you don’t want to go through pre-season winning every game 6- or 7-0. You need to be tested because we’re going to be tested in three, four weeks in the Premier League.”

After striking the dramatic late equaliser in United’s second game against Cerezo Osaka new-boy Wilfried Zaha – who is at the other end of the experience spectrum to Giggs – confessed he hadn’t expected either of the J.League sides to be as good as they were, but fellow veteran Rio Ferdinand was also unsurprised.

Manchester United's Official Paint Partner

“I said to the lads before, I’ve never had an easy game in Japan,” he said after the 2-2 draw with Cerezo. “When we play against these teams they’re always good. Tactically very good, all very comfortable on the ball, so I think it’s really good for us to come here because we get tested.”

Ferdinand has of course seen one of Japan’s most technically adept players up close for the past year, and he expects to see further improvement from Shinji Kagawa this season – which kicks off on Saturday.

“He’s got a big part to play, a big role to play,” he said when the inevitable question about Kagawa’s standing in the team cropped up. “You saw today with a great goal. He missed a penalty – too much pressure, maybe – but no, he’s a fantastic player, we love having him here and I think this season we’ll see a big improvement from last season.”

Just how big an improvement remains to be seen, but with Wayne Rooney seemingly on the verge of leaving the club and no replacement immediately apparent it could well be that David Moyes agrees with Kagawa’s former coach Jurgen Klopp and sees him as the solution in the hole behind Van Persie.

He probably won’t be taking over penalty-taking duties though.


International incident

Events at the East Asian Cup demonstrated that Japan-Korea relations are still far from rosy. Are such incidents inevitable, or can football provide a refuge from political tensions…?


I sensed as soon as I got to Sports Complex station and saw the Korean fans sporting “Visit Dokdo: The Beautiful Island of Korea” flags that the match wasn’t going to pass off without incident.

The huge banners looming across the front of the top tier in the home end promised more controversy ahead of kick-off, and sure enough once the national anthems were finished An Jeung-gun and Yi Sun-sin were unfurled, followed a short while later by the now infamous message: “No future if you forget your country’s history”.

Each of these statements were clearly premeditated to provoke a response, which duly came when a fan in the Japan end – who is apparently banned from attending games of the J.League team he supports – waved the naval ensign.

While neither the Korean banners nor rising sun motif had any place inside a football stadium, you can’t expect a game between countries with as complex a history as Japan and South Korea to pass off without nationalistic expression.

The series of ambiguous statements and apologies – or lack of – from a succession of Japanese governments on a range of issues have not helped matters, but unfortunately politicians from both countries will continue to use events from the past to serve their own aims.

Again though, that should have nothing to do with a football match.

South Korea fans, July 28th 2013

Yong-hun Lee, Chief Editor of Korea, was disappointed with the display by the Taeguk Warriors fans, but pointed out that a clear apology from the Japanese government was vital if sporting events were to stand any chance of being contested without political animosity.

“First of all, personally I think the banners that ‘Red Devils’ showed were totally over the line,” he told me three days after the match, with the dust still to settle. “Football stadiums are there to play football, not to debate about the past or show political messages.

“[However] not even 100 years have passed since Korea became an independent country after Japan’s invasion. You cannot expect both countries make peace like nothing happened. It takes time and a sincere apology for Koreans’ wounds to heal.

“I’m sure that individual Japanese people feel sorry if they know [the full details of] the invasion but some politicians have apologized insincerely and still visited Yasukuni Shrine. In that way, Koreans cannot think Japan showed a sincere apology.”

In the days after the game the cycle showed no signs of a sensible conclusion, with all apologies qualified to shift the bulk of the blame to the other side.

The KFA said they warned the fans not to display the banners before the game, but that the rising sun flag provoked the “Red Devils” to ignore such orders. “Ultra Nippon” leaders criticized the use of the naval ensign but said it was an isolated incident and not a co-ordinated performance like that of the Korean fans.

Banners of An Jeung-gun and Yi Sun-sin unveiled before kick-off. Jamsil, July 28th 2013

It is an incredibly thorny issue and one which is far beyond my remit to try and solve. One suggestion I do have, however, is to increase the frequency of the games between the two countries. Ignorance breeds distrust and narrow-mindedness; if you try to ignore or avoid the problem then no resolution will be achieved.

Things will undoubtedly rumble on in parliament for years to come, but the fans in the stadium needn’t act so churlishly. Post-game I saw Japanese and Korean supporters posing for pictures with each other and Lee pointed out that the previous day an even greater scene had been witnessed at the very same stadium.

“Ironically, just a day before, Korea had shown the great power of football” he recalled. “No political message was uttered but the South and North Korea Women’s teams celebrating together showed the most powerful and peaceful political message. It was really uncomfortable to see the opposite scene right the next day.

“Now is the time to stop that. Supporters should not react to provocative and political messages, they should enjoy football. In fact, Korean fans actually applauded Japan’s great performance in Confederations Cup. The rivalry between Korea and Japan in football can be constructive if we manage it well.”

A yearly game and increased opportunities to understand the other side’s perspective may well help in that aim.


F for fun?

Yokohama F.Marinos have eschewed their safety first approach this season, and it has given them a real chance of challenging for the title…


A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about the Tsumarinos – the Yokohama F.Marinos side led by Kazushi Kimura which looked like it may be involved in the title race, but only by virtue of the fact that it was playing some of the safest, most uninspiring football in the J.League.

That year the team eventually fell away and the more expansive, aggressive Kashiwa Reysol lifted the title, and under Yasuhiro Higuchi last season Marinos had an indifferent year, starting abysmally by not winning any of their first seven games before eventually finishing in a more than respectable 4th place – helped in no small part by a 15-game unbeaten run in mid-season. Even so, they still failed to really go at teams often enough and drew an astonishing 14 games in the league over the course of the year.

Things look a bit more promising this season, and the more positive reincarnation of the side was evident from the very outset as they stormed into an early lead in J1 after winning their first six games, scoring 19 goals in the process.

Former Japan international and Celtic icon Shunsuke Nakamura was the metronome to which the side’s play was set, and he also chipped in with his share of goals and assists. Marquinhos, the 37-year-old Brazilian striker, was the other seasoned performer quick out of the blocks, claiming six goals in his first five games.

Shunsuke Nakamura, Saitama Stadium, July 17th, 2013

Fears about the average age of the side – regularly over the 30 mark – were either dismissed on account of the fact that Marinos regularly fought back to claim points at the death of matches, or cited as a potential obstacle once the summer heat kicked in and ageing limbs struggled to keep pace.

We’re now at that juncture and the signs are that Higuchi has done well to keep his players in the best condition possible. Marinos claimed seven points from the recent spurt of four games in 12 days, with both of their victories coming against sides above them in the table, Omiya Ardija and Urawa Reds.

The victory over Urawa, in particular, was demonstrative of the change that Higuchi has gradually introduced. With things tied at 2-2 it would have been unsurprising if both sides had settled for the draw. The Tsumarinos certainly would have done.

The introduction of striker Yoshihito Fujita in place of defensive midfielder Kosuke Nakamachi with less than 10 minutes to play showed that that’s not how the 2013 Marinos roll though, and Higuchi was instantly rewarded for his proactive substitution as Yuzo Kurihara soared highest at the corner at which Fujita entered play to seal all three points and lift Marinos above Reds into third – just two points off the top.

After the game the head coach was asked if he felt the hectic J1 schedule may eventually take its toll on his more seasoned players.

The Marinos supporters show a banner which reads, "To challenge for the title each game is the last chance".

“I hear that question a lot and I was also a little anxious. But our veteran players were able to prepare well by really paying attention to their condition,” he said. “Maybe that is in part down to experience. I’m thinking that when referring to them it’s better not to use the word veteran.

“We’ve played 17 games and today made it to 34 points. That’s two-thirds of the total points available. If we can continue to accumulate points at that pace then I think we have a chance to challenge for the title.”

Defensive lynchpin Yuji Nakazawa also expressed his contentment at the way things were going but stressed that the side may need to tighten up at the back.

“Now our level and position in the league is good,” he said. “We’ve played everyone once and have to go round one more time. There’s still a long way to go and I’m sure we’ll have many bad games. The important thing is to collect points any way we can, we have to keep going right to the end. We need to concede less goals.”

Higuchi also paid reference to that aspect – saying he wants an average of less than one a game – and for a title-chasing side that is key. I just hope it doesn’t mean the Tsumarinos’ return is imminent.

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August 2013