Archive for June, 2021


Kicking on

With the Tokyo Olympics and WE League both on the horizon 2021 could be a big year for women’s football in Japan, and the former could play a big part in creating enthusiasm for the latter… (日本語版)

As the launch of the WE League draws ever closer, I ventured out to Saitama last weekend to take in the friendly match between last year’s Nadeshiko League Division One champions Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Urawa Reds Ladies and JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies.

The game at a drizzly, grey, and unseasonably chilly Komaba Stadium was far more enjoyable than typing out the team names (here’s hoping they can be shortened in due course), with both sides keeping the ball well, moving it about quickly, and always looking to play positively – which was even more refreshing having woken up at 4am to endure England’s overly-cautious contest against Scotland at the Euros a few hours earlier.

A peach of a strike by Urawa’s Yu Endo was sandwiched between a couple of sensational Haruka Osawa goals (Exhibit A; Exhibit B) to leave the hosts trailing 2-1 at half-time, but Mayu Sasaki levelled things up in the 56th minute to ensure the game ended all square.

Despite the rain and the fact that Urawa were without their quartet of Olympic players Sakiko Ikeda, Moeka Minami, Yuzuho Shiokoshi, and Yuika Sugasawa or that JEF were minus either of their recent foreign signings Alexandra Chidiac or Quinley Quezada, a decent turnout of 977 had also braved the conditions for the encounter, demonstrating that there are solid foundations to build upon ahead of the launch of Japan’s first professional women’s football league in September.

JEF manager Shinji Sarusawa was pleased enough with his team’s showing as well, feeling it boded well for the side that finished mid-table in the Nadeshiko League top flight last year as they ramp up their preparations for the start of the WE League.

“Last year Urawa was the toughest team we faced,” he said. “We conceded two goals, but I think we can take a lot of confidence from the game. In pre-season matches some things don’t go as expected, but I think the fact we were able to battle so well here is very big for Chiba Ladies.”

Indeed, while there is still something of a gap between the three leading sides and the rest in the top flight of the women’s game in Japan – although 16 of the 22-woman squad (including back-ups) for Tokyo 2020 play domestically, all but one of them – back-up goalkeeper Chika Hirao of Albirex Niigata Ladies – are at Urawa, INAC Kobe Leonessa, or NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza – the pre-season matches so far have on the whole been closely contested encounters, with only a handful producing landslide victories.

The fact that teams are at such different stages of development is a key hurdle for the women’s game to overcome globally – internationally as well as domestically, as we have seen with Nadeshiko Japan’s easy friendly wins this year – but if federations and leagues continue to tackle the key issues in front of them then the playing field should level out in time.

With professional leagues in Europe steadily finding their feet and increasingly attracting players from around the world, for instance, introducing a similar competition in Japan was vital for the game here to keep pace. Clubs being required to have at least five players on fully professional A contracts and 10 on professional B or C contracts (with a minimum salary of 2.7 million yen), as well as needing to have short-term plans in place to introduce U-18, U-15, and U-12 teams in the coming years are solid policies that should lead to long-term improvement.

“It will be the first professional league [in Japan], and so we have to make sure as many people as possible see the games,” Urawa’s first goalscorer Endo said of her feelings looking ahead to the WE League’s launch. “That was the case in the Nadeshiko League as well, but I feel there will be a greater sense of responsibility on games now, and think the team not only has to win but has to place an importance on doing so in a way that will make people want to come and watch.”

As well as that helping to build a committed fanbase for the WE League, the division may also benefit as a result of the Olympics having been pushed back a year. 

When addressing the fans in a post-match speech, Urawa’s Sugasawa declared she was in the national team as a result of her performances for and as a representative of Reds, for example, and hopefully things will work in the opposite direction too, with the efforts of the players at the Olympics providing a springboard to raise enthusiasm for the burgeoning new division.

The World Cup win in 2011, for instance, sparked a short-term boom in interest in the women’s game, and if Nadeshiko Japan can achieve some level of success again at Tokyo 2020 then it will surely carry over into the following month and provide a major kickstart for the WE League.


Adios Ange

Ange Postecoglou’s drawn out departure from Yokohama F.Marinos to Celtic provided a rare instance of a J.League manager being poached by a bigger club, and the reactions to it from overseas made for interesting viewing… (日本語版)


In football, managers are always changing clubs. A coach is fired or quits somewhere in the world every week, with the J.League’s three divisions already seeing 13 casualties in the 2021 season.

On the whole, these departures are met with one of two responses by supporters: relief, or even happiness, on the part of those who weren’t fans of the outgoing boss; or anger and sadness for those who wanted them to stick around.

Ange Postecoglou’s exit from Yokohama F.Marinos, however, was a little more complex.

Changes in the dugout in Japan are almost always made because results aren’t up to scratch, with clubs wielding the axe or the incumbents falling on their own swords as penance. In the case of Postecoglou and Marinos that wasn’t the issue though, and this was instead one of those few occasions when a manager in the J.League was actively enticed away by an offer from elsewhere, resulting in disappointment and/or resigned acceptance from Marinos supporters.

While reactions on social media are certainly not the best way to gauge the general mood – with debate, if it can even be called that, ultimately dominated by the loudest voices at both extremes, and balanced, nuanced comment nigh-on impossible – responses overseas to the rumours have also been interesting and cast a light on how the J.League is viewed further afield.

On one side of the fence there seem to be a lot of sceptical – to put it politely – Celtic fans unimpressed to have somebody they’ve “never heard of” who “only coaches in Japan” taking charge of their storied club. Writing someone off on these grounds is of course ridiculous – firstly because people you’ve heard of don’t always do well, and secondly because it doesn’t take much effort these days to do a bit of research and see that Postecoglou has been successful at club level in Australia and Japan and also when in charge of the Australian national team – but it does demonstrate the difference in expectation levels and pressure between football in Japan and the UK.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, the die-hard fans of ‘Ange-ball’ are delighted to see their man given this chance, and have been hitting back at those belittling him by insisting he is more than a match for one of Europe’s great old clubs. Again, a little more trepidation may be in order here, and while Postecoglou has ultimately picked up silverware everywhere he’s been, it has always come with the caveat of wanting his teams to play in a very particular way, which takes time to implement.

As the reaction of some Celtic fans shows, time is not something he is likely to be given a great deal of in Glasgow,. The club is coming off the back of a miserable season in which their bitter rivals Rangers won the Scottish Premier League at a canter to prevent them making it 10 consecutive titles, and while Postecoglou undoubtedly has the steel and tactical nous to bring the good times back to Celtic Park, if he isn’t given full backing by the club and the players and fans don’t buy into his approach quickly then things could turn sour before any progress is made.

Returning to Japan, meanwhile, the J.League can certainly can be pleased with the fact that its competition is now at the level to serve as a stepping stone for coaches as well as players. If Postecoglou does well at Celtic then the standing of the league will only improve, possibly increasing the chances of more up-and-coming international managers considering the league as a viable option to help build their reputations.

On the flip side, Marinos are of course left facing a dilemma. The club is not only losing a coach that has delivered success and re-established them as one of the J.League’s leading teams, but also one that has re-defined them by installing a distinctive, effective, and entertaining style of play. The involvement of City Football Group, which has an overarching philosophy it wants employed at all its clubs, suggests they will look to bring in a replacement with a similar ethos, but having to do so at short notice in the middle of the season will not be straightforward.

Will they look to swiftly recruit an already-Japan-based proponent of proactive football – Albert Puig of Albirex Niigata, Postecoglou’s former assistant Peter Cklamovski, who recently joined Montedio Yamagata, and ex-Kawasaki Frontale manager Yahiro Kazama being a few names that spring immediately to mind – or instead take their time and look to recruit someone we’ve never heard of from overseas using their vast scouting network?

Whichever it is, the loss of Postecoglou is a big blow to Marinos and the J.League as a whole, and, to borrow a phrase the man himself likes to apply to his work, it will be fascinating to see how he gets on with the next stage of his journey.

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June 2021