For my last Football Channel column of the year I looked back at the 2014 J.League season – one which made news around the world, and could go down in history… (日本語版はこちらです)
In years to come 2014 may well be looked back on as a landmark 12 months for Japanese football.
Not only could it be the last time the J1 title is decided by a one-stage system, but it was also a year in which the eyes of the football world were regularly drawn to the J.League and the way in which the game here is developing – or not.
The first headlines were of course in pink, thanks to Cerezo Osaka signing Diego Forlan. The Uruguayan’s effortless introduction in Japanese and training match goal against Fagiano Okayama caused a flurry of excitement, and eyebrows were also raised overseas – although an aging player signing for an Asian club didn’t create too many shockwaves outside of Japan.
Attention was soon fully on the J.League, though, after Urawa Reds supporters displayed a banner by Gate 209 at Saitama Stadium reading “Japanese Only” ahead of (and, indeed, during) their first home game, a 1-0 defeat to Sagan Tosu on March 6th.
The repercussions of this act are now widely known, and as well as disbanding the majority of its supporters groups, the club also prohibited its fans from displaying banners or flags of any kind at matches, and was forced to play its next home game against Shimizu S-Pulse behind closed doors.
The J.League – under the stewardship of new chairman Mitsuru Murai – came out of the incident relatively unscathed, having acted quickly and decisively to punish Reds and condemn discrimination. However, the vagueness of Reds’ official explanation of the incident (to keep non-regulars out of the core fans’ area) left a sour taste and hinted at underlying issues, which would crop up again in August when a Yokohama F.Marinos fan waved a banana at Kawasaki Frontale’s Brazilian forward Renato.
Just a month after the “Japanese Only” debacle we had the first managerial casualty of the season, with Graham Arnold departing Vegalta Sendai after only six J1 games. Ahead of the season the Australian had told me that, “I’m a pretty adaptable person. I’m not trying to turn them into Australians, I’m trying to maintain the culture that was here before,” but something didn’t click and, with both sides hinting that the other was to blame, the former Sanfrecce Hiroshima player and Tohoku club parted ways.
The idea that the “Japanese Only” sentiments are more deeply-ingrained in the game here is difficult to believe – dozens of players and coaches from abroad have, after all, contributed to the J.League and are revered by supporters – but there is a suggestion that foreigners and Japanese football are finding it increasingly difficult to mix. It may just be anecdotal, but a glance at the numbers reveals that five of the six J1 coaches who left their posts this year were non-Japanese. The internal politics which resulted in Zdenko Verdenik’s preposterous departure from Omiya Ardija in 2013 may be more widespread than first thought.
That is not in any way to say that clubs are racist, just that the way they work and the way foreign coaches – and players – work are not always in tune. Which leads us back to Cerezo Osaka and Diego Forlan.
Things didn’t work out as planned for player or club, and the opening day defeat to Sanfrecce Hiroshima set the tone for the season, leading to Ranko Popovic’s dismissal at the World Cup break, with the team in 13th and just a point outside of the relegation zone. Marco Pezzaiuoli was brought in to replace the Serbian but didn’t fare any better, taking charge of just 11 J.League (J1 or Nabisco Cup) games and winning only one of them – the Nabisco Cup quarter-final second leg against Kawasaki Frontale on September 7th, which felt like a defeat as they were still eliminated on aggregate.
There are possibly tourists who have spent longer in Japan than Pezzaiuoli, but the German is sure to have formed plenty of memories of Kawasaki Frontale at least, with four of his 13 games at the helm coming against Yahiro Kazama’s side. He lost the first 2-1 (but everyone at Kincho Stadium seemed more bothered about Yoichiro Kakitani’s going away party), the second (a 5-4 tubthumper in which Forlan scored what would turn out to be his last goal for the club), and the third (3-1 at home in the first leg of the Nabisco Cup quarter-final), before finally coming out on top in the aforementioned 3-2 at Todoroki. But then he was fired the next day.
At least his was a clean break, which is more than can be said for Forlan. The 35-year-old was marginalized to such an extent under his final coach of the season, Yuji Okuma, that he ended up pouring out his frustrations to Uruguayan media, including the astute observation that, “[Japan] take football as a science when it’s not.”
You only needed to look across town this year to see that, and as Cerezo imploded Gamba Osaka defied all logic to end the season as treble champions.
Gamba, like Cerezo, lost their first game of the season 1-0 at home, to Urawa Reds, and it looked for a while like they would be battling with their local rivals against the drop. Something changed after Japan’s abject World Cup showing, though, and the team surged up the table in the second part of the season, improbably jumping from 16th to 2nd as they headed to Urawa for the return fixture on November 22nd.
Reds hadn’t lost at home in the league since Yohei Toyoda’s goal (that turned out to be the least of their worries) back in Round 2 against Tosu, and a win against Kenta Hasegawa’s side would have sealed the title. Even a draw would have probably seen them creep over the line in first, preserving as it would have their five-point lead at the summit with just two games to play.
They lost. And not just the game, but their composure, confidence, and, ultimately, the championship. Their manager Mihailo Petrovic was a broken man in the post-game press conference, and the players resembled their national team colleagues in Brazil – the words were coming out as they should – “in our hands,” “playing our football,” still top” – but they were just words.
Gamba did their best to throw it away on the last day themselves, stuttering to a 0-0 draw away to Tokushima Vortis – who hadn’t really improved since losing their first nine league games, failing to win at home in J1 all year – but Reds had nothing left in the tank, and despite being 1-0 up (and thus on course for the title) with 18 minutes remaining they lost 2-1 in front of their own fans to Nagoya Grampus – managed by former Gamba Osaka boss and Saitama native, Akira Nishino.
Such last day drama has come to be expected of the J.League – eight of the 10 single stage seasons have been decided in the final round – but that will all change next year, as the split season returns.
Whether interest, attendances, and income are affected positively by this apparently retrograde step remains to be seen. Although they may perhaps have been made aware of the J.League for negative reasons over the course of this season – all publicity is good publicity, after all – how newly-acquainted foreign fans and media view the new system is also unclear. The assumption would be that many, particularly in Europe, will struggle to comprehend not only the convoluted process, but also quite why a division which is so keenly contested and regularly climaxes so dramatically felt the need to change at all.
All that will have to wait for next year, though. For now let’s raise a glass to 2014; the latest in a steadily growing line of dramatic and unpredictable J.League seasons. Cheers!