Archive for July, 2022


The numbers add up

There have been less fans in the stands for Japan national team games of late, but the cause seems fairly straightforward and there is no reason to panic about the lack of bums on seats… (日本語版)

There has been quite a bit of discussion of late about low attendances at recent Japan games, and while behind the scenes at the JFA there will of course be some concern about the drop off in numbers at Samurai Blue matches, I can’t help but feel things are being slightly overblown.

The opening game at the EAFF E-1 Championship brought things to a head somewhat with just 4,980 hardy souls in attendance for the national team’s match against Hong Kong at Kashima Stadium, but I’m not really sure what people expected.

The venues for the EAFF E-1 games aren’t exactly blessed with easy access, and you’d need to be a really dedicated supporter to take the afternoon off work after a three-day weekend to make the trek out to Kashima in the rain on a Tuesday night for a match against a side ranked 145th in the world.

It is also worth remembering that, with the greatest respect to the players involved, this is essentially a C-Team of fringe players or prospects for the future, with overseas-based players not available and Hajime Moriyasu also leaving out a handful of experienced domestic options – as well as opting not to call up any players from the club based in the host city.

There aren’t any comparable previous editions to gauge this year’s numbers against either, as the two previous times Japan hosted the competition (2010 and 2017) games were played in Tokyo, and at the first of those Takeshi Okada named a full-strength squad as he used the tournament as part of his preparation for the World Cup in South Africa.

Zooming out slightly from the current competition, there have also been grumbles about the lack of enthusiasm for the national team’s recent domestic friendly games. The increasingly limited options when it comes to opposition means the teams invited tend not to set pulses racing, however, and the likes of Paraguay and Ghana aren’t currently blessed with the kind of stars that will draw fans out to the stadium in their droves.

Brazil obviously did deliver on that front and Kokuritsu was packed to the rafters to see Neymar and co. up close, leading to the opposite complaint that people were there to watch the Seleção and not to support their own country. As a riposte to the claim, it should also be noted that there were 44,600 in Saitama for the final World Cup qualifier against Vietnam – a dead rubber on account of Japan having secured progression the previous week – demonstrating that interest in the Samurai Blue is still there.

There has been the suggestion in some quarters that the team’s relatively restrained style of play has been turning supporters away from games too, but I’m not sure that fully stands up to scrutiny. Neither Alberto Zaccheroni nor Vahid Halilhodzic can be said to have had their teams play with the handbrake off but national team games were still enthusiastically attended during their reigns, and it is a little unfair to suggest that Moriyasu’s reluctance to throw half a dozen attacking midfielders on in every game is the cause of the low attendances.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to the fact that there are essentially two types of people who attend matches: football fans and spectacle fans.

The football fans are there irrespective of recent results, opponent, or location, and their focus is predominantly what happens on the pitch and watching and supporting their team.

The spectacle fans, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily avid football supporters, may not even follow a J.League team, and go to games because it’s an event to partake in and share photos and videos of with their friends and followers on social media. Rather than necessarily being invested in the specifics of the matches, their motivation is instead centred more around enjoying the atmosphere and having a good time – rather like a trip to Disneyland or a live music gig.

It is here that we need to address the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and its associated restrictions, which it seems are being slightly underestimated in this discussion.

While hardcore football fans will still head to the stadium no matter what rules are in place, it is fair to assume that many more casual followers of the game would be hesitant to make their way to packed stadiums while the number of cases in Japan continues to rise – or equally may not be economically placed to do so, with many still recovering from, or still enduring, financial hardships on account of the pandemic – and while they are forbidden from singing and chanting. 

It is unsurprising, then, that those usually in the stands for the frills that accompany games aren’t especially inclined to venture out when they have to sit quietly and socially distanced from their friends, and it is likely that the absence of this strata of fan is the principle factor behind the recent low attendances. As soon as normality is restored to the matchday experience, it’s safe to assume that numbers will steadily make their way back up to pre-pandemic levels and this will all turn out to have been a storm in a teacup.


2022 EAFF Selection

The EAFF E-1 Football Championship kicks off in Japan next week, and ahead of Hajime Moriyasu’s squad announcement here are the 23 names I’d call up if I was in charge of the Samurai Blue… (日本語版)

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the EAFF E-1 Football Championship on account of it being the first tournament I got to cover Japan in back in 2010 (when it was called the East Asian Football Championship).

The fact the competition falls outside of the FIFA international window adds an extra layer of intrigue to proceedings, and while Nadeshiko Japan usually go with a full-strength side the men’s squad is commonly made up of less familiar names from the J.League rather than the usual national team faces.

Of course, after being given chances in EAFF games plenty of those players do then go on to establish themselves for the Samurai Blue and/or at overseas clubs, and six of those who started Japan’s last game at the tournament in 2019 are now playing abroad (with a seventh, Musashi Suzuki, having only just returned home after a couple of years in Belgium).

Looking ahead to this month’s edition then, I thought I’d select a squad of 23 that I would send out for Japan. Ordinarily I would be inclined to only include up-and-coming young talent with an eye on the future, but seeing as the World Cup is fast approaching and Hajime Moriyasu doesn’t have many opportunities to play friendlies ahead of the finals in Qatar I also opted for a few national team regulars and a couple of more experienced options at left-back, who may be able to make last ditch bids to fill a position which currently looks something of a problem area. 

While I was also tempted to include players from J2, I ultimately decided not to as the league isn’t taking a break for the EAFF competition and several of the standouts in the second tier already missed a handful of games on account of the U23 Asian Cup last month.

That’s my rationale explained, so let’s get on to the announcement!

Goalkeepers: Shuichi Gonda (Shimizu S-Pulse), Kosei Tani (Shonan Bellmare), Zion Suzuki (Urawa Reds)

Gonda is one of the players I considered leaving out as he already has plenty of experience, but seeing as he is clearly established as No.1 it can only be a benefit to have him working in the national team set up as much as possible before the Germany game on 23 November. Tani and Suzuki would be more than capable deputies, and have both impressed recently in J1 and at the U23 Asian Cup, respectively.

Defenders: Miki Yamane (Kawasaki Frontale), Tomoya Fujii (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Shogo Taniguchi (Kawasaki Frontale), Ryotaro Tsunoda (Yokohama F. Marinos), Ryuho Kikuchi (Vissel Kobe), Daiki Sugioka (Shonan Bellmare), Ryosuke Yamanaka (Cerezo Osaka), Katsuya Nagato (Yokohama F. Marinos)

With Moriyasu announcing that Hiroki Sakai will be left out along with Yuto Nagatomo and Yuya Osako this is a great opportunity to give Yamane more chances to settle for Japan, while his Kawasaki Frontale team-mate and fellow Qatar hopeful Taniguchi would also benefit from 10 more days working with the national team. Sugioka looks to be getting back to his best form after a difficult couple of years and would slot in well as the second centre back, while Nagata and Yamanaka are two of the J.League’s standout left-backs right now and would both offer solidity at the back and attacking threat going forwards. With Fujii’s pace, Kikuchi’s aggression, and Tsunoda’s composure in reserve I think the squad would be well balanced in defence.

Midfielders: Joel Chima Fujita (Yokohama F. Marinos), Kuryu Matsuki (FC Tokyo), Yuta Higuchi (Kashima Antlers), Satoshi Tanaka (Shonan Bellmare), Seiya Maikuma (Cerezo Osaka), Fuchi Honda (Sagan Tosu), Makoto Mitsuta (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Yusuke Matsuo (Urawa Reds)

I’d be inclined to set my team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, although 4-3-3 would also be an option. Fujita is getting better and better all the time and really impressing in a box-to-box role for Yokohama F. Marinos, while Matsuki and Higuchi offer technically gifted and physically active options to slot in centrally as well. Tanaka has also stood out as Shonan Bellmare have slipped quietly into a run of good form of late, is incredibly comfortable on the ball, and looks like he’ll develop into an excellent player in the coming years. In the more advanced/wider roles Mitsuta absolutely has to be included, while Maikuma has also adapted very quickly on hi first season in J1 and certainly deserves a call-up. Honda and Matsuo have had stop-start campaigns for various reasons, but you can’t question the raw ability of either and I’d love to see what they could do on the international stage. 

Forwards: Yuma Suzuki (Kashima Antlers), Mao Hosoya (Kashiwa Reysol), Shuto Machino (Shonan Bellmare), Takuma Nishimura (Yokohama F. Marinos)

Japan teams since time immemorial have lacked lethal finishers, but this quartet are all in fine form and would bring a range of abilities to the final third of the pitch. Suzuki’s qualities are widely known, and his energy, movement, and eye for goal would give the team an exceptional focal point, while Nishimura could occupy a slightly deeper-lying role to keep the opponent’s defensive midfielders and centre-backs in a constant state of anxiety. Hosoya and Machino have also shown flashes of their potential this season, with energetic and intelligent approaches and, most importantly, a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net.

Starting 11 (4-2-3-1)

Gonda; Yamane, Taniguchi, Sugioka, Nagato; Fujita, Higuchi; Mitsuta, Nishimura, Matsuo; Suzuki

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July 2022