Archive for October, 2013

31
Oct
13

End of an era

Since the end of 2010 I have written a column for Weekly Soccer Magazine. Unfortunately after 20 years the magazine is unable to continue as a weekly publication and this week the last issue was published. Here’s my final contribution…

週刊サッカーマガジン2013年10月29日

2013 has been quite the year for the J.League, and as well as celebrating the landmark of its 20th season the division has announced controversial plans to change the format of J1 from 2015 in an attempt to stave off a decline in attendances and sponsorship money.

Quite whether that alteration will benefit the league in the long run remains to be seen, but sadly for this magazine a battle has already been lost and this will be the last issue as Weekly Soccer Magazine.

The publication, like the J.League, has assumed many different guises since it was first introduced as a special football section in Sports Magazine in 1966, and after shifting between monthly and fortnightly issues for a quarter of a century it became weekly when football turned fully professional in 1993.

All good things must come to an end, however, and although I have only been contributing for three years (almost exactly, I distinctly remember my debut column appearing on October 26th, 2010 and being mortified at my photograph and the title (I thought the “baby” part was a reference to my relative youth, or perhaps Austin Powers)) I have to say it has been an honour and a pleasure to have been able to take part in the discussion on Japanese football in such a prominent magazine. Thanks to all the staff for their help and, of course, to everyone who has taken the time to read each week.

Otsukaresama

Being my final column – by my reckoning my 150th – I thought it would be fitting to think a little about the biggest change in Japanese football since I started writing at the end of 2010; the number of Japanese players now plying their trade in Europe.

The success of the South Africa World Cup was undoubtedly the catalyst for the mass migration, and it is strange now to think that of the 23 players in Takeshi Okada’s squad that summer just four (Makoto Hasebe, Keisuke Honda, Daisuke Matsui, and Takayuki Morimoto) belonged to non-J.League clubs.

Now the ratio is almost reversed, and even if they’re only playing for middling sides in the Bundesliga or sitting on the bench in the Premier League the bulk of Alberto Zaccheroni’s squad are getting their wages paid by European clubs.

In many ways the increased opportunities being offered to players from these shores in the biggest leagues is helping Japanese football to keep growing. Playing alongside and against the best in the world can only be a good thing when it comes to improving individual players and the national team as a whole, and as well as maturing on the pitch the positives of living abroad upon personal development should not be underestimated.

Cover on 26th October, 2010

Players proving themselves overseas doesn’t only encourage more European sides to take chances on Japanese talent but it also demonstrates to youngsters hoping to make the grade in the future that it is a realistic target. It is no longer permissible to dismiss players from this part of the world as being “too small” to succeed – just ask 170cm Yuto Nagatomo of Inter Milan.

Of course, the increasingly regular departures have also had a negative effect on the Japanese game, robbing the domestic league of much of its star quality and even being cited by the J.League as one of the impacting factors upon its decision to revisit a two stage season.

Players should absolutely take the chance if an offer is forthcoming and they want to embrace all aspects of a move abroad, but the grass is not always greener on the other side. The J.League is better than many – including perhaps some players – think.

As a final trip down memory lane, and to end on a positive note, I dug out the first issue of this magazine that I contributed to (#1316). Six players graced the cover that week: Marquinhos (then of Kashima Antlers), Jungo Fujimoto (Shimizu S-Pulse), Akihiro Ienaga (Cerezo Osaka), Tomoaki Makino (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Yuzo Tashiro (Montedio Yamagata), and Marcio Richardes (Albirex Niigata).

Ienaga aside, all are still playing in the J.League – albeit all for different clubs. Which just goes to show; things change in football but people tend to stick around.

Thanks again and hopefully see you soon.

25
Oct
13

Marinos’ Saito keys title push

Yokohama F.Marinos retook control in the race for the J1 championship last weekend when they beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0.

Plenty of cheer at Nissan Stadium

The match-winner was young winger Manabu Saito, and after the game I spoke with him and Brazilian striker Marquinhos about Marinos’ push for a first title in nine years.

20
Oct
13

Marinos nudge to top of standings

Second-placed Yokohama F. Marinos hosted J1 leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday with the two separated at the top of the table by just one goal.

Yokohama F. Marinos were celebrating at Nissan Stadium on Saturday night

Marinos prevailed courtesy of Manabu Saito’s second half strike, and I wrote a short match report for The Japan News.

17
Oct
13

Final push

Yokohama F.Marinos look to be faltering as the season draws to a close, and there is an experienced team waiting to take advantage…

週刊サッカーマガジン2013年10月15日

Form early on and in mid-season is all well and good, but if you can’t move through the gears smoothly on the final straight then prior efforts can all too often prove to be in vain.

That is especially true in the J.League where teams very rarely establish a commanding lead at the top of the table – with the notable recent exception of Nagoya Grampus who, in the words of Josh Kennedy, “already had a beer in our hands celebrating” with three games to go in 2010 – and a perfect, albeit extreme, example this season has been Omiya Ardija who surged to the top of J1 and set a new unbeaten record before losing 12 in 13 and plummeting down to 10th.

Picking up points throughout the season of course lays the foundations for a title challenge, but you need to have energy, guts, and concentration as the finish line approaches if you want to be the one popping champagne corks and not ruing missed chances come Christmas.

Last season eventual champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima took 10 points from their last five games to make sure they sealed their first ever J1 crown, while their closest challengers Vegalta Sendai capitulated, claiming a measly three points from their last handful of matches.

There hasn’t really been a clear favourite this season, although Yokohama F.Marinos have probably been the most consistent side over the past seven months. Until recently, that is.

Marinos fans, Yurtec Stadium, September 28th, 2013

At the start of August I wrote in praise of Yasuhiro Higuchi’s team – who like Vegalta last year enjoyed a blistering start to the season – impressed with the way they had thrown off the shackles which had so often held them back in recent years.

I did, however, add a slight note of caution after I detected worrying signs in the comments of Higuchi and defensive lynchpin Yuji Nakazawa after Marinos’ swashbuckling 3-2 win over fellow title hopefuls Urawa Reds in Saitama. Rather than reveling in the way they’d loosened up at the back in order to embrace the array of attacking talent in their ranks both men paid reference to the lack of stringency in defence, and it appeared that the team was on the verge of reverting to a safety first style of play.

A close look at the formbook since then suggests my fears were well founded. In the 11 league games since Marinos downed Reds they have tightened up defensively and conceded just seven times – which would be fine were it not for the fact that they have also only managed to find the net 13 times themselves in that period. If we zoom in even closer to their most recent games the worries multiply and Shunuske Nakamura and co. have won only won of their last five games, scoring just twice and taking a meager six points from the 15 on offer.

Antlers fans, National Stadium, 5th October, 2013

During that time a new, vastly experienced challenger has arrived on the scene: Kashima Antlers.

Despite losing an astonishing seven away games in a row in the league at one point Toninho Cerezo’s men are now within just three points of top spot and look more than capable of claiming a first title since 2009. They thoroughly dismantled FC Tokyo in Round 28 and although they haven’t kept a clean sheet for seven games they have more than compensated by winning four of their last five games, scoring 13 in the process.

A host of intelligent, technically gifted, and, perhaps most importantly of all, unpredictable players make Antlers a hard team to contain, and in Davi and Yuya Osako they have one of the most potent strike-forces in the division. The Ibaraki club have undoubtedly picked up the scent of an eighth J1 crown, and it is up to Marinos, Reds, or reigning champions Sanfrecce to prevent that happening.

Reds, like Marinos, have rather flattered to deceive of late but remain in the hunt, but Sanfrecce are the biggest threat. They face Marinos on Saturday (when Antlers host Reds) and Antlers on the last day of the season, and those head-to-head encounters may very well determine which side make it to the tape in first place.

Slow and steady may sometimes win the race, but a burst of power at the end is often far more beneficial.

10
Oct
13

Matchday Experience

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of going to the game…

8th Oct 13

Football has played a central role in my life since I was six years old, but since I started watching the game for a living a change has taken place.

In a year I probably watch around 100 matches live in stadiums, but as the frequency of games goes up my understanding and enjoyment of the matchday experience – not in relation to ‘brand awareness’ or delivering value for money or any of that nonsense, but in the very real sense of enjoying the day of the game, feeling that excitement and hope on the way to the stadium and as kick-off approaches – has become incredibly dulled.

When I played back in England the anticipation would start to build on Friday night as I looked ahead to who we were playing the next day, while the next morning was an inconvenience which I wanted out of the way as quickly as possible so I could get out on the pitch.

Back then the start of the match, that first shrill whistle which gets things underway, was the point upon which all the nerves, anticipation, and concentration had been focused. It was, in a sense, the high point. From then on energy and adrenaline would be expelled and even the euphoria of winning was a different sensation to that experienced in the build up to the game.

Montedio Yamagata fans, ND Soft Stadium, 29th September, 2013

Now, however, the beginning of the match signifies the start of work for me and a new target several hours down the line is where my unconscious is focused. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy matches anymore, or that I don’t get a buzz from being involved (however fleetingly) with the protagonists out on the pitch, but my matchday experience has changed drastically.

I was recently reminded of my previous life, however, when I helped an English documentary maker with a project about Japanese football. We spent a match day with Montedio Yamagata fan Syu Oba, meeting for lunch several hours ahead of kick-off, travelling to the stadium together via landmarks in the town linked to his club – including the team’s old ground (“my theatre of dreams”) and the supporters’ bar – watching the game from the stands, and then travelling back after the final whistle together.

Speaking with Oba-san and seeing how much he invested in every game day took me back to a time when the match was the centerpiece of the week. When speaking about the role football played in helping people recover after the tragedy of March 11th, 2011, for instance, Oba-san made a very salient point.

“Football is important because it happens every week,” he said. “We needed something that could restore a kind of normality, to help people get back to their everyday lives again.”

Praying for success, Yamagata, 29th September, 2013

That comment reminded me of a similar observation made by English director Douglas Hurcombe (who was not involved with this project, but is currently making a film about Vegalta Sendai, ‘Football Take Me Home”), when I interviewed him at the start of this year.

“There’s this wonderful anonymity that exists, so you can leave [your worries] behind,” he said of the experience of going to a football match. “For all the good that it does you when you go out with your mates and you start moaning about the mortgage and the kids there’s this ultimate joy that for those few hours none of that exists. It’s all gone, it’s all away from you, it’s all somewhere else, it’s in a different world.”

On the way back after the game – which Montedio lost 1-0 to a late goal – Oba-san was already looking ahead to next week’s match, and lamenting the fact that he couldn’t make it to every away game. As well as reminding me of the time I lived in that cycle, the experience of spending a day with a supporter was also interesting in the light of the J.League’s switch to a two-stage season.

Whether you are anti, pro, or indifferent one thing should be remembered: football will not disappear. Games will still happen every weekend and how much you take from the experience of going to matches is largely dependent on what you put into it. Football will always be there next week, whatever happens today.

02
Oct
13

Two-stage fright

The J.League’s decision to switch to a two-stage plus play-off season from 2015 is hard to understand, as is the way they went about announcing it…

週刊サッカーマガジン2013年10月1日

I think it’s fair to say that the J.League has made a bit of a mess of its restructuring process.

Back in June I defended the possible introduction of a straight two-stage season, essentially arguing that letting the two best teams – by the standards of such a set-up – face off in a final was not an especially unjust way to determine a champion.

The version which has been settled upon, though, is ludicrously long-winded, has still not been fully explained, and could serve to damage rather than help the league.

Fans are almost unanimously opposed to the new format, citing the confusing set-up and unfairness as their primary complaints, and players, too – both ex and current – have voiced disappointment and confusion at the plans.

One former J.Leaguer and Japan national team player joked to me that the league may have to rethink its current policy of displaying the “Fair Play” flag ahead of matches, and Yasuhito Endo, who has experience of the previous two-stage season, also expressed concerns about the incoming format’s ability to determine a just champion.

“You can’t argue with the fact that play-offs build excitement but the most fitting way to determine the champion is the total of points over the year, I think. Everyone considers them as the champion team,” he told me after Gamba Osaka’s 2-2 draw with Matsumoto Yamaga.

Fair enough?

“You can think about Oita coming up to J1 from 6th place [in J2] last year, so if the 5th or 6th placed team was to become the champion of the year it would be hard to agree with that.”

Tomoaki Makino is of a similar mind. “My opinion is that it’s not so good,” he said after Urawa Reds’ 1-1 draw with Ventforet Kofu. “The champion over the course of the year is the real champion so I have mixed feelings.”

I don’t doubt the J.League’s claim that something needed to be done to arrest worrying trends – average attendances fell by 1,636 and clubs’ income slumped on average by 299 million yen between 2008-12 – and having conducted discussions internally and with clubs regularly over the year and two months between June 2012 and August 2013 claims that it has quickly hashed out a plan are wide of the mark.

The fact that they didn’t think to consult directly with fans about the issue is baffling though – especially as they had the perfect opportunity to address that oversight back in June when supporters’ discontent was first aired. Instead of inviting them to JFA House to partake in discussions, however, they stumbled on regardless – although it wouldn’t surprise me if the ‘bye’ for the team with the most points over the season into the final final wasn’t shoehorned in at the eleventh hour to try and appease complaints about unfairness.

Urawa Reds fans protest, Kokuritsu, September 14th, 2013

Just how many fans will follow through with their threats to stop visiting the stadiums once the two-stage season begins is hard to say. While it may not result in a sudden dip in attendances I struggle to see how two-stages are better than one when it comes to attracting new fans though. The post season will almost certainly be sold out and provide excitement, but quite why casual fans will flock to grounds throughout the regular season is hard to fathom.

“I think they need to give more of an explanation to players, staff, and fans as to how two-stages will help to increase the excitement and help with the investment and money problems,” Endo said, before conceding, “But, well, it’s already been decided so there’s nothing we can do but accept it.”

That may not necessarily be the case, and if protests persist and the image of the J.League begins to suffer it may have to rethink.

If it does and still wants a change I would propose an East-West split. The top 5 teams from each region move into a championship league for the second half of the season, while the bottom four from each battle to avoid relegation. This would freshen up the competition (you wouldn’t necessarily play the same teams every season), as well as cutting down travel distances and making it easier for fans to attend games both home and away.

It’s still not perfect, but I won’t make the same mistake as the J.League; what do the fans think of that idea?




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