Archive for July, 2014



There can’t be many situations in which the blurred line between football player and pop star is more clearly displayed than when a Japanese player moves overseas… (日本語版はこちら:

Football Channel,  July 29th, 2014

Screaming fans, streams of tears, commemorative merchandise: the send-offs arranged for Japanese footballers ahead of their transfers to average European teams are becoming an increasingly emotional experience and really need to be toned down a notch or two.

After a couple of months away for the World Cup we were thrust very quickly back into the J.League swing of things as Yoichiro Kakitani finally said farewell to Cerezo Osaka – the club everyone knew he would be leaving as soon as Brazil 2014 was out of the way (some more cynical observers may even suggest that while he had been there in body this season his mind was already elsewhere) – in an elaborate and highly choreographed display that was almost as long as the presentation of the World Cup trophy to the triumphant German team 36 hours earlier.

Kakitani is a fantastic talent who has been key to this Cerezo side but does his departure really warrant all of that outpouring of emotion? Yes, he had been with the club from a very young age but three years were spent in exile in Tokushima due to a poor attitude, and his only truly effective season was last year, when he was absolutely sensational. (It really is a shame that his dip in form coincided with the World Cup, as Kakitani of June 2013 in Brazil could quite possibly have dragged this year’s Japan side through Group C.)

This idea of him as a ‘young’ player with potential for the future also needs to be debunked. Kakitani is 24-years-old, as is Thomas Müller who has 10 World Cup finals goals to his name and is a world champion. James Rodriguez, the new flavour of the month after his sizzling displays in Brazil, is 23. Toni Kroos, the standout midfielder in a team of standout midfielders, is 24. Neymar is 22. Lionel Messi won four consecutive Balon d’Ors between the ages of 22 and 25. Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham were all 24 when they starred for the Manchester United side which won the treble in 1999.

I am not trying to dismiss Kakitani in relation to the very best of the best (and Gary Neville), but merely to illustrate that the idea of a ‘young player’ in Japan is vastly different to that in the rest of the world. 24 is not young, it is the peak age for many players and if Kakitani even wants to be considered as one of the top Japanese players he needs to be delivering results now, and consistently.

The mood of the night summed up with a picture of fans taking pictures of a picture of Yoichiro Kakitani

Transferring to Europe is the next logical step for him, and Basel, a club which regularly appears and performs well in the Champions League, is an intelligent choice. It is not an event which warrants such an overblown spectacle though, especially when Cerezo – and Kakitani – have underachieved so spectacularly this season.

The atmosphere at Kincho Stadium for the Kawasaki game was bizarre, and even though Kakitani was on the bench he for some reason joined the starting line-up for the pre-match photo, then everyone rushed to celebrate with him after Jun Ando opened the scoring, before he was back on the pitch at the start of the second half to place the captain’s armband back on Hotaru Yamaguchi. It all had the air of a testimonial or exhibition match, but it wasn’t; this was an official game that Cerezo desperately had to win.

The on-field action all took a back seat to what Kakitani was up to on the sidelines though. The fact that the team had surrendered their lead to go 2-1 behind and were a man down after Takumi Minamino’s petulant sending off didn’t appear to bother the nearly 16,000 fans who squealed in delight when their outgoing No.8 prepared to come on with seven minutes to play. “Yoichiro! Yoichiro!” spluttered the guy behind me, fumbling for his camera-phone. “Cool!” he drooled as Kakitani ran forwards unchallenged a couple of minutes later.

Even the ultimate defeat did nothing to dampen the mood, and Kakitani delivered the obligatory tearful speech (into a shiny pink microphone), received bouquets of flowers, and then circled the pitch to be showered with scarves (including from some of the Kawasaki fans; I’m all for the J.League’s well-mannered style of support but that’s outrageous. The sight of Frontale supporters with pink merchandise was ridiculous). The show even interfered with Marco Pezzaiuoli’s press conference with coach and journalists alike having to strain to hear over the ear-splitting PA announcements and pull-at-your-heartsrings music

I’m all for showing appreciation to those who’ve contributed to a club and wishing them the best of luck with their next challenge, but the festivities really needn’t be quite so dramatic. It’s a footballer transferring to a new club, not a SMAP concert or Disney parade (although anyone over the age of 10 who screams or cries at either of those events also needs to take a long, hard look at themselves). Thank those heading to pastures new, wish them well, and send them on their way. Ultimately the only players who really matter are those who will be lining up for you next week.


Style over content…

Japan had targeted – and were widely expected to achieve – a berth in the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup finals. They didn’t make it, so I spoke to those who had been there before to find out what went wrong… (日本語版はこちらです:

Football Channel,  July 14th, 2014

Brazil booting Colombia off the park; Holland all-but-bypassing midfield and launching direct, powerful attacks; Germany reverting slightly to type and re-adopting the ruthless, organized football they have spent the best part of a decade trying to move away from: if this World Cup has demonstrated anything it is that teams cannot stick to one rigid way of playing in order to achieve success.

Japan, meanwhile, meekly departed the competition at the group stage, picking up just one miserable point as they stubbornly, naively persisted in their aim to showcase their “own football”. So impressed was the watching world that Paolo Bandini of the Guardian, in his match report of the inept 0-0 with Greece, described the Samurai Blue as, “a squadron of cautious drivers following Alberto Zaccheroni’s tactical satnav.” Hooray for Japanese football!

Of course, it’s very easy for those of us looking from the stands or our sofas to criticize the players and coaches so I decided to ask some of those who’ve made it past the group stage at the World Cup finals what they thought of Zac Japan’s disappointing campaign in Brazil. They weren’t especially impressed either.

Tulio – immense at the heart of defence with Yuji Nakazawa as Takeshi Okada’s side swept through the group in South Africa in 2010 – was the most forthright in dismissing this year’s showing.

“Ah,” he said when I asked for his thoughts after Nobuhisa Yamada’s recent testimonial, barely letting me finish the question. “Japan’s way of fighting was wrong. Even though you know the opposition are capable of overtaking you, you have to go for it. Japan doesn’t have that ability yet.”

How about the constant assertions of wanting to play their own football?

“Of course it’s impossible,” the 33-year-old responded sharply. “Even Brazil, even other teams like Holland cannot play their own football. Of course Japan can’t play their own football. It’s the World Cup. It’s not something that can be taken that lightly. You have to rise to the occasion, if you don’t you can’t win.”

Shinji Ono, one of the most gifted players in Japanese football history who has achieved success in Holland and, most recently, Australia, as well as helping the country to its first ever knockout stage at a World Cup in 2002 was similarly disappointed, and drew a comparison between Japan and Costa Rica, who he said had impressed him as a result of every player playing for the team and giving everything they had.

“I think [the main thing Japan lack is] mentality, a strong mentality,” Consadole Sapporo’s newest signing told me. “[Costa Rica] know what they have, they all know what they can do. The Japanese players also know [their capabilities] but they couldn’t show it on the pitch. That was the big difference between Costa Rica and Japan.”

Ono, too, was keen to stress the importance of winning games, rather than showcasing a certain brand of football. “Of course we need results. Sometimes you cannot get a good result [playing the way] you want.”

Yuki Abe, who was drafted into the starting line-up to add further steel at the 11th hour four years ago, felt that this year’s team were missing a certain bite and desire when it came to battling for possession.

Tulio was, unsurprisingly, the least compromising in his assessment of Japan in Brazil

“[They lacked] tenacity to get the ball; that sense of ‘I’m absolutely going to win this ball,’” the Urawa Reds captain said. “I was involved in several camps [during Zaccheroni’s reign] and I don’t really think the team played the way we did then.”

For Tulio the key frustration was the naivety at the back. “The defence [was the biggest problem]. One goal difference; you can’t underestimate the weight of one goal. I think these games – whether it was Cote d’Ivoire or Greece – made us feel the importance of just one goal – especially at the World Cup.”

Ono also referenced the inability to manage the game correctly after taking the lead in the opener against Cote d’Ivoire – a defeat which Abe described as the most important factor in Japan’s elimination.

“We were 1-0 up and then we conceded two goals in four minutes,” the former Urawa, Feyenoord, and Western Sydney Wanderers man said. “That is not good so we have to learn what we have to do after going 1-0 up. Maybe if they learn about this then we will get better and go up the next step.”

More players appearing regularly for European sides is one thing Ono believes will help to make Japanese players more streetwise – but he was keen to stress that they have to be playing every week. “The next step means that if players are going to Europe they have to play from the starting eleven. That’s important, to keep playing in every game. Then they have more confidence to bring to Japan.”

Of course, even that would only bring Japan on to a par with the majority of the teams they are competing with for a place in the knockout stages of the competition. For Tulio the fundamental issue which needs addressing is for Japan to realize where they sit in the hierarchy of the world game.

“In South Africa we focused clearly on setting the base from defence, you have to do that. If you concede one goal you absolutely cannot concede again. We’re Japan, that will always be the case.

“You have to go out there and puff out your chest; we’re not yet able to compete at the same level as these teams.”

Bravery was certainly in short supply this time around, and the fawning response the team received on its return to Japan does not help matters. These are not idols or pop stars, they are football players who massively underperformed at the biggest competition in the game. They did not deserve to have thousands of screaming fans welcoming them home at Narita.

In fairness the players looked suitably embarrassed by that hysteria, and hopefully they will have learned from this year’s chastening experience. That kind of acclaim needs to be earned, and as Costa Rica – as well as Mexico, Australia, Algeria, and USA – can attest to, that comes from leaving everything you have on the pitch, not just the aspects of your game that you want to show off.

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

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July 2014