Archive for the 'フットボール・チャンネル / Football Channel' Category


Setting off on the road to 2026

A new era is set to begin for the Samurai Blue, but change is likely to be gradual as Hajime Moriyasu sets his sights on the 2026 World Cup… (日本語版)

It has been nearly four months since Japan were eliminated from the Qatar World Cup by Croatia, and with the dust having settled and Hajime Moriyasu being handed a new contract the Samurai Blue are now all set to take their first steps on the road to 2026.

This month’s pair of friendlies against Uruguay and Colombia should provide decent run-outs for the side in Tokyo and Osaka, and the slightly new-look squad announced on 15 March offers some encouraging signs for the next phase of Moriyasu Japan’s evolution.

The exclusion of several veterans of course made headlines, but while none of Maya Yoshida, Hiroki Sakai, Yuto Nagatomo, Shuichi Gonda, or Gaku Shibasaki will be involved this time around they can’t be entirely written off from playing some part over the next three years. It doesn’t, however, look especially likely that any of them will be involved in the squad that hopefully ends up boarding the plane to the U.S, Canada, and Mexico.

Moriyasu had hinted that Gonda wouldn’t be considered on account of now playing in the second tier with Shimizu S-Pulse, with Daniel Schmidt looking like he’ll initially be the new first choice. Keisuke Osako and Kosei Tani are both talented options to challenge him, although it is a little surprising that Kosuke Nakamura wasn’t included, with the former Kashiwa Reysol man’s reputation in Portugal growing steadily thanks to his impressive performances for Portimonense.

The defence has also been freshened up, with Haruya Fujii of Nagoya Grampus earning his first call-up after Yokohama F. Marinos centre-back Ryotaro Tsunoda, another first timer, was forced to pull out with a knock, and plenty of energy brought in in the full-back positions.

Daiki Hashioka and Yukinari Sugawara have been in and around the squad before but now have chances to show they can stake real claims for starting berths, while 21-year-olds Riku Handa and Kashif Bangnagande are another pair of vibrant, attack-minded full-backs whose selections bode well for the future approach of the team.

Further forward things look slightly more settled, with LASK’s in-form Keito Nakamura the only new inclusion, but it’s hard to argue with most of the names listed in the midfield roles.

Kaoru Mitoma is now surely on the cusp of becoming the face of this team – and his club, too, with one friend in Brighton informing me that it is “Mitoma Fever” right now back in my hometown – and with Daichi Kamada, Ritsu Doan, Junya Ito, and Takefusa Kubo all performing well at the highest levels in Europe Japan are blessed with a wealth of creative talent in the attacking midfield area.

At centre-forward, meanwhile, it looks like Moriyasu has essentially gone for two different styles: a pair of traditional No.9s in Shuto Machino and Ayase Ueda, and two speed merchants who can press opposing defenders and break in behind in Takuma Asano and Daizen Maeda.

If this is indeed how the manager views the role of the man leading his line, then we may come a little closer to understanding Kyogo Furuhashi’s omission, which once again provoked some head-scratching bearing in mind his consistent scoring form for Celtic.

While I would probably still pick Furuhashi if I was the manager, the fact is I’m not and Moriyasu is. He is building his Japan team, and it isn’t entirely clear how Furuhashi would fit into it. The former Vissel Kobe man isn’t really a target man who can play with his back to goal and hold the ball up for teammates, and while no slouch he also doesn’t have the searing pace of Maeda and Asano, meaning he essentially falls between the two stools Moriyasu appears to have laid out.

While Furuhashi’s finishing ability can’t be questioned – he was third top scorer in J1 in 2021 with 15 goals despite playing just 21 games, and is averaging more than a goal a game in the SPL this season – the truth is he is playing in a hugely unbalanced league for one of the only two teams to have won the title in the past 37 years (soon to be 38). Is that keeping him at a sharp enough level to contribute in the international game? We have to assume that for the time being Moriyasu thinks not.

Of course, that isn’t to say Furuhashi won’t be given another opportunity to show what he can do for his country at some point in the coming months, and this is far from being the squad Moriyasu will be taking to the North and Central America in three years.

Let us consider the first Japan squad after the 2018 World Cup, for instance. 

Masaaki Higashiguchi, Tomoaki Makino, Sho Sasaki, Sei Muroya, Genta Miura, Toshihiro Aoyama, Shoya Nakajima, Yu Kobayashi, Shintaro Kurumaya, Jun Amano, Kento Misao, Tatsuya Ito, and Kenyu Sugimoto (who went on to pull out with an injury) were all named for the 11 September 2018 friendly against Costa Rica (a game four days earlier against Chile was called off on account of the earthquake in Hokkaido).

None of these players ultimately made it to Qatar last year, but Hidemasa Morita, who was only introduced as a replacement for that squad (along with Amano) when Hotaru Yamaguchi and Ryota Oshima pulled out, did go on to play a central role for the side.

The fact is that the transition between generations is always more of a gradual process than it can sometimes appear, and the make-up of international teams evolves greatly throughout the qualification process in accordance with fluctuations in players’ form and fitness.

Sweeping conclusions can’t be drawn from the make-up of this squad then – and nor will they be possible from the outcome of these two games either – but the seeds of Moriyasu Japan v.2.0 have been planted, and it will be fascinating to see how they grow from here.


Waste not, want not

Jubilo Iwata have had a stuttering start to life back in J2, and if they don’t start converting their chances soon their stay in the second tier could be longer than they hope… (日本語版)

After 15 minutes of Jubilo Iwata’s game away to Omiya Ardija last weekend it is no exaggeration to say that the visitors could have been 5-0 up.

Instead, through a combination of hurried finishing, bad luck, and some impressive goalkeeping they somehow still found themselves locked in a goalless contest, and one they would ultimately go on to take nothing from.

The first chance came in just the third minute when Kenyu Sugimoto couldn’t quite convert on the stretch at the back post after some persistent work by Germain Ryo and a Yuto Suzuki cross from the right, and five minutes later it was Germain himself who was unable to time his jump correctly in order to connect with a tantalising Ko Matsubara cross.

Yasuhito Endo was the next to draw oohs from the nearly 9,000 fans at NACK5 Stadium as he steered a curling effort inches wide of Takashi Kasahara’s goal in the 10th minute, and a couple of minutes after that Endo, Sugimoto, and Shota Kaneko combined crisply before Sugimoto dragged an effort agonisingly wide from 13 yards out.

Kasahara was then called into action for the first time after a quarter of an hour when he got two strong hands to Dudu’s stabbed effort after Omiya failed to clear a corner, and at that point it started to feel like it just wasn’t going to be Jubilo’s afternoon.

“I think we did all the things we’d been working on in the first half here, but just couldn’t put the ball in the net,” an exasperated Akinobu Yokouchi said after seeing his team ultimately head home pointless after Angelotti struck a 94th-minute winner for Omiya.

“We also had good spells and chances in the second half too but weren’t able to decide things in our favour, and that’s an area we need to improve in.”

Indeed, the DAZN stats showed that Jubilo took 10 shots in the first 45 minutes, six of them on target, and their failure to strike a blow when in the ascendancy left them open to a sucker punch – which duly came two minutes after So Nakagawa was sent off in the 92nd minute for pulling Atsushi Kawata down when the last man.

“That was a game we should have won 3-0,” Matsubara said after the match. “We didn’t score in the first half, and when you don’t score goals in the first half of games like this they become difficult.”

Sugimoto was just as frank when asked what he thought the reason was for the team’s defeat, stating, “The fact we didn’t take our chances.

“We were in control for most of the 90 minutes, and were able to do a lot of the things we wanted to,” he continued. “In the first half we had chances we absolutely had to take, and that’s something we need to reflect on.”

When pressed as to how players can improve their accuracy in front of goal, the 30-year-old stressed there is no straightforward solution and that perseverance is key.

“I think it depends on the person. We were getting into good positions as a team and I had chances myself too, and it ultimately comes down to the individual. The only thing for it is practice.

“There’s also the atmosphere within the game, and the fact we didn’t take our chances was the cause of this defeat. I think we’ll have more games like this from now on too, so I just want to take it as a positive that this happened at the start of the season.”

Yokouchi will certainly hope his players can iron out the creases as soon as possible, with Jubilo targeting an immediate return to J1 after experiencing their third relegation from the top flight last year.

Their previous two spells in the second tier have both lasted for two seasons, although they have never finished lower than sixth, which this year would qualify them for the play-offs. For Matsubara, there is no doubt as to what a team of Jubilo’s stature should be targeting.

“We’re a club that has to be in J1, so it’s a must that we get back up within one year,” he said.

While relegated sides are usually seen as favourites to do just that, the fact Jubilo were dealt a two-transfer-window ban on account of the irregularities around their capture of Fabio Gonzalez last year complicates matters somewhat, and they weren’t among many people’s favourites ahead of the new campaign.

“In one sense, the fact the club couldn’t sign new players has maybe provided us with the positive of being able to play with the same players as last year and raise our level as a team,” Matsubara said. “But on the other hand, if we had a kind of trump card to bring on in the second half of games like this then things could have gone differently for us.”

Loan returnees aside, youngster Keisuke Goto is the only fresh face in the Jubilo squad this year having been promoted from the Under 18s, and he announced himself in style with a late brace in the opening day 3-2 defeat at home to Fagiano Okayama.

The 17-year-old also came on for the final 26 minutes against Omiya and was a lively presence in the final third, but whether a callow teenager can shoulder the hopes of a team of Jubilo’s stature remains to be seen.

At the other end of the experience spectrum they do of course still have Japan’s record cap holder Endo, and the 43-year-old was characteristically calm after the last-gasp loss in Saitama.

“I think this was a game we should have taken three points from,” he said, before singing from the same hymn sheet as his manager and team-mates.

“We could have scored three, four, or five goals in the first half. That would have led to a different result for us, but that’s football.

“We’re making more chances which is good, so now we just have to make sure we score goals.”

If they can put things things right in the first ever second tier Shizuoka derby this weekend their season would undoubtedly be given a real shot in the arm. However, if the same profligacy is on display against Shimizu S-Pulse at Ecopa Stadium then the clouds of doubt would surely start to gather over the sky blue half of Shizuoka.


Nagoya rocking the Kasper

Nagoya Grampus picked up a solid three points from a difficult away assignment in the first round of the new J1 season, with Kasper Junker making an immediate impact for his new side… (日本語版)

When Kasper Junker tore in behind and stroked home his second goal after 17 minutes at Mitsuzawa Stadium, you started to get the feeling this could turn into a rout.

Yokohama FC had no answer to Nagoya Grampus’ lighting attacks in the early exchanges, and last year’s J2 runners-up looked like they had perhaps been promoted beyond their station.

As so often happens these days, however, Junker’s jubilant celebrations were drawn to an abrupt halt as referee Akihiko Ikeuchi adopted the now universally-recognised VAR-check pose, and the effort was called back, with Junker harshly adjudged to have been offside.

This lifeline enabled Yokohama to settle a little, and they kept Grampus at arm’s length until half time before making the most of the conditions in the second period to intermittently threaten themselves.

In the end they weren’t able to take anything from the game, but Nagoya goalkeeper Mitch Langerak cut something of a relieved figure at full time.

“When you play against a promoted team in the first game, away, it’s not really what you want,” he said. “We knew it was going to be tough today.

“I’m happy that we won. This was one of the more difficult games we’ll face. Because you come here where they’ll press, a lot of energy in the first game at home. It was going to be hard and thankfully we got the win, that’s all that matters.”

Kensuke Nagai was similarly pragmatic, and full of praise for the rearguard action put in by Langerak and his defenders.

“We were forced back, but the guys at the back persevered well,” the former FC Tokyo man told reporters after the game. “It’s important to win on the first day.

“The wind made things difficult in the second half, and the pitch was really dry so it was difficult to combine. In terms of things to improve, of course we wanted to get the second goal.”

Despite expressing disappointment at Grampus’ inability to add to the scoreline, Nagai was pleased that their opener – converted agilely by Junker in the fourth minute after Yokohama keeper Kengo Nagai had misjudged a Ryuji Izumi corner from the left – came from a dead-ball.

“We didn’t score many goals from set pieces last year, which was disappointing. So it’s pleasing we scored from one today, despite the lingering disappointment about not being able to get a second goal.”

This was the same point match-winner Junker made post match.

“We practice set pieces for a reason, to score goals, and we did it, so I think everybody’s happy.

“It’s a very good start to be decisive from set-pieces – and very important for me, of course, to show the team I can score the goals,” the Dane, who joined on loan from Urawa Reds ahead of the season, said of his debut strike.

“I still think I scored two goals today,” he added with a rueful smile about the attempt chalked off by the VAR. “Maybe the referee will give me one in the next game.

“Of course, if it’s 2-0 it’s a different game, more calm for us. But the three points in the opening game at this stadium – everything was very hard today, so three points is all that matters.”

Indeed, Junker learned first hand just how difficult an away fixture against a J1 newcomer could be 12 months ago.

“I think this is one of the hardest games of the season. Playing here, the first game of the J.League against the team that was promoted. I know last year Urawa played Kyoto and lost 1-0,” he said. 

“So it’s so difficult, these games. We know [Yokohama] are crazy motivated, so I think it’s very, very professional of us to come here, clean sheet, win, three points – we cannot ask for more.”

That echoed the sentiments of the equally satisfied Langerak, who feels the arrival of Junker could help Grampus, who finished a disappointing eighth last year after coming fifth in 2021, push on to challenge higher up the table this season.

“I think with Kasper it’s a huge addition for us. That’s a big signing, and somebody who’s just an out and out striker – who wants to score, that’s what he wants to do. It’s gonna help us. It takes the burden off a lot of the other guys to chip in with goals and things like that.

“I’m feeling really confident, optimistic. It’s hard to say how things will pan out, but I’m optimistic, I think we can do something.”

Junker also has high hopes for the season ahead.

“I think today we showed we are a very, very good team,” the 28-year-old said. “We have a good mentality, we work hard for each other. Amazing defence today in the last 10 minutes. People fighting hard and winning their duels. It’s not only about me, it’s also about the defence today, which was incredibly good, I think.”

Junker also expressed excitement at the potential of the intimidating front three he forms with Nagai and Mateus.

“I think it’s one of our strengths. We didn’t use it as much today as we wanted. Three good players who can do things on their own or as a combination – it’s difficult for the opponent. Of course we want to improve, but I think the three up top today worked very, very hard, which was important for the win.”

Nagai’s pace allied with Mateus’ quality in possession is sure to keep the chances coming for Junker, and with Kyoto next in his crosshairs the goal-getter had an ominous warning for the rest of J1.

“I don’t care if I score with my knee, or my foot, my shoulder – I don’t care. Just hit the goal and make sure it goes in.”


2023 J1 Season Preview

The 2023 J.League season kicks off this weekend, and ahead of the new campaign I took a look at some teams’ transfer activity to try and gauge how they could get on over the next nine months… (日本語版)

Trying to predict how teams will fare in an upcoming season is always a thankless task, particularly in the J.League.

This year is no different in that regard, especially as it has been so long since the conclusion of the 2022 campaign on account of the early finish to accommodate the World Cup in Qatar.

Ninety-eight days after Yokohama F. Marinos coasted to the J1 title away to Vissel Kobe, Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo relegated Shimizu S-Pulse in a ridiculous back-and-forth game in the dome, and Yuki Soma signed off at Nagoya Grampus with a 97th-minute winner away to Cerezo Osaka we’ll have the season’s soft kick-off with the Super Cup on Saturday, as Marinos take on Ventforet Kofu – remember they won the Emperor’s Cup last year?! – before Kevin Muscat’s men get the ball rolling for real next Friday against last season’s runners-up Kawasaki Frontale.

Ahead of the new season I’ve run the rule over some of the more notable movers and shakers in the transfer market in a no-doubt foolish attempt to try and gauge who looks well-placed to challenge for the title, which teams could be improved from last year, and how some returning faces may fare back in the first division.

First of all we have to start with last year’s champions and their closest challengers, both of whom have been relatively quiet when it comes to new signings.

Marinos have seen two former J1 Players of the Year depart, with last year’s recipient Tomoki Iwata joining Ange Postecoglou’s growing collection of Japanese talent at Celtic and 2019 winner Teruhito Nakagawa moving to FC Tokyo, while Leo Ceara has signed for Cerezo Osaka and Yohei Takaoka has moved to Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS.

In truth, none of these losses look critical to the side, with Joel Chima Fujita primed to take on a more prominent role in central midfield and Takumi Kamijima a dependable option at centre-back, Kenta Inoue and Asahi Uenaka looking like capable replacements for Nakagawa and Leo Ceara – who both blew hot and cold over the past year or so – and Powell Obinna Obi a talented understudy who could be ready to step up as No.1.

Shogo Taniguchi is the only major departure just up the road at Kawasaki, meanwhile, but the Frontale squad, which was starting to show some signs of wear and tear last year, doesn’t look to have been especially freshened up by the addition of Yusuke Segawa, Takuma Ominami, and Naoto Kamifukumoto or the return of perennial loanee Taisei Miyashiro, and this could be the year Toru Oniki’s side finally start to slip off the pace.

Snapping at their heels will be a couple of last season’s impressive performers, both of whom have had solid-looking off-seasons.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima finished third last year – albeit a hefty 13 points behind Marinos – as well as winning the Levain Cup and finishing as runners-up to Kofu in the Emperor’s Cup, and having kept last year’s team together, including their crown jewel Makoto Mitsuta, there’s nothing to suggest they won’t be just as good a proposition, if not better, in their second season under Michael Skibbe. The only notable loss is Tomoya Fujii, who has joined Kashima Antlers, although the Purple Archers coped reasonably well without him over the last quarter of last season so there shouldn’t be undue alarm at the Edion Stadium.

Things are similarly promising for Cerezo, who have bolstered their attacking options by signing the aforementioned Leo Ceara as well as acquiring the impressive Jordi Croux, bringing the talented Shota Fujio back after a solid loan at Tokushima Vortis and, of course, finally talking Shinji Kagawa into a triumphant homecoming after over a decade in Europe.

Two teams that were expected to challenge last year but ultimately failed to play to their potential were Urawa Reds and Vissel Kobe, and each head into this season after trimming their squads a fair bit over the winter.

Reds have shipped out a substantial amount of attacking quality in Kasper Junker, Yusuke Matsuo, and Ataru Esaka without any major signings in that area to replace them, and also undergone another change in the dugout, with Maciej Skorża replacing Ricardo Rodriguez. It remains to be seen whether the Pole can achieve what so many over the past 15 years have failed and finally deliver that much-desired second league crown to the Saitama giant, but he does at least have the chance of claiming some early silverware with an ACL final already set up for him.

Vissel haven’t lost any major names coming into the new campaign but have shed a fair bit of fat from their squad in the transfer window, and their rather uncharacteristic decision not to recruit any big-name foreign players – yet – and stick with the dependable Takayuki Yoshida could herald a long-overdue shift away from headline-grabbing sensationalism and into more sensible, football-oriented decision making. Could.

One team I do think might be something of a dark horse this season is Kyoto Sanga. They needed a hard-fought draw against Roasso Kumamoto in last season’s play-off to preserve their top flight status, but Cho Kwi-jae is one of the most consistent managers in recent J.League history and while they are unlikely to be challenging at the very top of the table some sharp recruitment means they could climb comfortably up the rankings in 2023. 

Patric, Kazunari Ichimi, and Kosuke Kinoshita all look capable of contributing goals in Sanga’s system, while one of J2’s most dependable creators and converters of chances in recent seasons, both from open play and set pieces, Taiki Hirato, looks an inspired capture.

Talking of J2, we should close on the two teams promoted back to the top flight after five years and one year away, respectively.

Albirex Niigata have sensibly opted for an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-try-to-fix-it approach after storming their way to the second division title in 2022, keeping the squad almost completely intact and adding steady options for depth in Shusuke Ota and the returning Naoto Arai, and it will be interesting to see how far their momentum can take them in Rikizo Matsuhashi’s second year in charge.

Yokohama FC, on the other hand, have taken an entirely different path, and it’s a little unclear at this stage how they plan to get the most out of the huge number of players they’ve signed – especially in the attacking midfield areas, where Kazuma Takai, Shion Inoue, Koki Sakamoto, Nguyen Cong Phuong, Mizuki Arai, Hirotaka Mita, and the returning Keijiro Ogawa will all be competing with Tatsuya Hasegawa, Ryoya Yamashita, and Towa Yamane for minutes.

My first impression is that Albirex stand more of a chance of avoiding an instant return to J2 than Yokohama, but that, like most of the speculation here, could come back to haunt me as the year progresses.

Whatever happens, here’s to another great season, and may the best team win.



As a Brighton native who has spent over a decade covering the J.League, Kaoru Mitoma making global headlines on account of his recent form for an excellent Brighton and Hove Albion has been a rather strange experience… (日本語版)

That is partly because of the ease with which the former Kawasaki Frontale man has adjusted to life in the Premier League, but also because when I was growing up the Seagulls were not a very good team at all.

The club spent the majority of my childhood bouncing around the lower tiers of the English professional pyramid, and I distinctly remember that on school holidays I would attend Albion soccer schools in the park adjacent to their former home, the Goldstone Ground, at the end of which participants would be given a few complimentary tickets to upcoming games against the likes of York City and Hartlepool United in the hope that those of us supporting giants like Manchester United and Liverpool might be tempted to switch our allegiances.

Defeat in the 1990-91 Division Two (now The Championship) play-off final against Notts County was the closest the club came to the top flight of the game in my youth, and they very nearly dropped out of the professional leagues altogether in 1997, ultimately surviving by the skin of their teeth after a nail-biting 1-1 draw away to Hereford United on the final day of the season.

Despite preserving their league status, the following 15 years would bring plenty of other challenges though – predominantly on account of having to survive without a permanent home between 1997 and 2011, first being forced to ground-share with Gillingham (70 miles north of Brighton) and then needing to host games at the Withdean Stadium athletics venue for over a decade.

Since moving into their new home at the Amex in Falmer 12 years ago the club has found far surer footing though, earning promotion to the Premier League in 2017 and then steadily building upon that success in each subsequent season – which is where Mitoma comes in.

Brighton’s recent triumphs have in no small part been built upon intelligent scouting in places other clubs aren’t looking, with the former Frontale man one of many players to have blossomed after being recruited and carefully integrated into the team.

Having established himself as a regular under Roberto De Zerbi after the Italian succeeded Graham Potter as Brighton manager in September last year, Mitoma has consistently showcased the ability that Japanese and Belgian fans were treated to in recent years, seemingly not flustered at all by the fact he is now doing so on perhaps the most demanding stage in the world game.

And for all the statistical analyses and increasingly elaborate breakdowns of his contributions doing the rounds on social media, you only really need to watch Mitoma move around the pitch – both in and out of possession – to appreciate how special a talent he is.

Rarely, if ever, flustered in possession, he is incredibly economical in his use of the ball and there is absolutely no fat to his game – every touch serves a purpose, and he isn’t interested in making any that don’t somehow contribute to progressing his team’s attacks. In addition to that he is also incredibly effective with his final ball, either when teeing up a teammate or, as against Leicester City last weekend, when looking to convert a chance himself.

This was just how he performed during his season-and-a-half with Frontale – although the fact that his time in the J.League coincided with the outbreak of the Coronavirus and restrictions on spectators and media activities means that too few people were able to see or speak to him in the flesh during that period, giving it something of a dreamlike quality when considered now.

Kawasaki announced in July 2018 that the Tsukuba University prospect – who had previously been developed in the club’s academy system – would be joining their 2020 first team squad upon completion of his studies, but while the fresh-faced youngster was highly-rated after announcing himself to the Japanese football world with a sensational solo effort for Tsukuba in their Emperor’s Cup second round victory away to Vegalta Sendai in 2017, nobody expected him to make quite such an immediate impact in J1.

Little did we know.

Mitoma found the net for the first time on just his fourth league appearance – capitalising upon a mistake by Shonan Bellmare’s Hirokazu Ishihara before dispatching coolly from just inside the area 20 minutes after coming on as a replacement for Reo Hatate – and then proceeded to register almost a goal every other game as he struck 30 times in 62 matches across all competitions before departing for Brighton in August 2021.

He wasn’t quite so prolific during an initial year on loan in Belgium, but eight goals in 29 games as upstarts Royale Union Saint-Gilloise finished top of the regular season rankings was a solid return and enough to convince Brighton that he was ready, and his sparkling form since arriving on the south coast has been so good that fans don’t seem especially bothered about the departure of star forward Leandro Trossard for Arsenal. 

What is vital now is that Mitoma doesn’t rest on his laurels on account of the hype swelling around him. In a questionnaire conducted by Frontale ahead of his first season he said the thing he pays most attention to during games is ‘staying calm’ while also listing his motto as ‘practice makes perfect’, so with that and his career trajectory so far in mind it seems there is little danger of the man who spent his first pay-cheque on dinner with his parents losing his focus.

He certainly seems level-headed enough to ignore distractions and concentrate only on that which is important – much like when he is dribbling at full tilt at an opposing full-back – and if he is able to maintain his current level of performance longer term then he quite clearly has the potential to reach even greater heights – perhaps higher than any Japanese player before him.

That would sadly (for this correspondent, at least) ultimately require a move to a richer and more prestigious club than Brighton, but for now it’s fantastic to see both thriving. Long may it continue.


The kids are alright

The All-Japan High School Football tournament yet again provided a great start to the new year, with the semi-finals and final serving up three very entertaining games at Tokyo National Stadium complete with some lovely football, a few errors – which always add to entertainment levels – and more than enough drama to ring in 2023. (日本語版)

Eventual champions Okayama showed what they were made of in their semi-final against the highly-fancied Kamimura on 7 January, coming from behind twice to draw 3-3 before maintaining their composure from 12 yards to progress 4-1 after a penalty shoot-out. 

Higashiyama also needed penalties to emerge victorious from their semi-final against Ozu later the same day, drawing 1-1 and then exhibiting similar perfection as they converted all of their kicks to win 4-1 and ensure that either they or Okayama would be celebrating a first ever championship.

In some quarters Kamimura and Ozu was perhaps seen as the preferred final pairing because of their star players and pedigree, but on the balance of each 90 minutes Okayama and Higashiyama were worthy finalists. Both were better organised and more rounded teams than their opponents, with Kamimura and Ozu arguably having more talented individuals but lacking overall cohesion – something especially clear in the dichotomy between Kamimura’s slick attack and porous defence.

In Shio Fukuda Kamimura certainly possessed one of the biggest draws in the competition, and the Borussia Monchengladbach-bound striker showcased his full range of abilities on the frontline with some expert hold-up play and a keen striker’s instinct in front of goal – reacting fastest to pounce on a rebound after Okayama goalkeeper Jin Hiratsuka could only parry Reo Kinjo’s shot from the edge of the area to tie things up at 1-1 after the impressive Yuma Taguchi had given Okayama an early lead.

Fukuda went close on a couple of other occasions as well, but ultimately Kamimura paid the price for conceding three and then four minutes after scoring their second and third goals before losing their nerve and missing two of their three penalties to fall at the final hurdle.

There were fewer goals in the second semi-final, but we were treated to an absolute peach by Keita Matsuhashi, whose first touch for his 63rd-minute equaliser was exquisite and left him with the relatively simple task of tucking home from close-range.

Mizuki Sato then stepped up to the plate in the penalty shoot-out, managing to outfox the Ozu kickers without resorting to Emi Martinez levels of gamesmanship and leaving Matsuhashi with the opportunity to pace out his effort and decisively slam home to send his team into the final.

“Mizuki had made the saves, so I felt at ease before I took my kick and just made sure to hit it cleanly,” Matsuhashi said afterwards.

Two days later a moment’s silence was observed for Pele ahead of kick-off, and the Brazilian legend would have approved of plenty of the play over the subsequent 90 minutes, as both teams looked to play proactively and make things happen.

The pitch looked a bit pot-holed after being torn up by the All-Japan University Rugby Championship final on the previous day, and with that in mind Okayama got us off to a fitting start by punting the ball immediately forward from kick-off and having four players charge down their left wing to contest it (a tactic Higashiyama went on to mimic in the second half).

Both teams looked to mix things up between neat build-up play and more simple balls sent directly in behind, and Okayama drew first blood in the 25th minute when Takuto Imai’s cross was turned into his own net by Higashiyama captain Rikuto Shintani.

Higashiyama held their nerve after that blow and gradually worked their way back into the game though, and while Matsuhashi earned a reputation for his long throws during the competition he showed he has much more in his locker than that. The 18-year-old is a little reminiscent of Urawa Reds’ Ken Iwao and is a calm and classy operator in the middle of the park, getting himself out of a tight spot on the right flank at one point with a lovely Cruyff turn that instantly bought him time and space that never looked available.

He mentioned after the semi final that he had dropped into a deeper-lying position after starting his career as a more attack-minded player on account of his not scoring enough goals, and that was evidenced in the 41st minute as he got the execution all wrong on the bobbly pitch and skied high and wide to waste a promising break.

Three minutes later he showed what he can do so well, however, feeding a smart ball in behind for Keijiro Kitamura to tear onto and cut back for Renji Sanada to steer clinically home from the edge of the area and send the teams in tied at the break.

Okayama came out the sharper at the start of the second half though, and after Higashiyama left-back Yuma Nakazato set the wheels in motion for their second goal by rather carelessly heading a long ball from Hiratsuka in-field, possession was worked to the opposite flank and Kyogo Kimura – all 165cm of him – headed home clinically to make it 2-1.

In the 74th minute Higashiyama very nearly pulled level again, but despite arriving in perfect time to meet a Sanada cross and beating Hiratsuka Reiya Sakata saw his header cannon back off the bar, and having survived that scare Okayama wrapped up the win with five minutes to play as Kimura again found space in the box to steer home and seal the title for his school.

Almost every player in blue and black dropped to the turf as the ecstasy and exhaustion overcame them at full time, with match-winner Kimura going on to say he is hoping to turn professional one day. On the basis of this year’s competition, he and several others certainly have bright futures ahead of them.


Never-ending story

The World Cup may be over, but football always has plenty of stories to tell… (日本語版)

Lionel Messi finally being crowned as a world champion made for a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable 2022 World Cup finals, and seeing the greatest player of his generation – quite possibly the best ever, although this debate is far too subjective to produce a definitive answer – planting a sneaky kiss on the famous gold trophy as he collected his Golden Ball award will have warmed the hearts of football fans everywhere from Auckland to Alaska.

France – and in particular Kylian Mbappe – made Argentina work for their triumph though, and although Didier Deschamps’ side looked down and out for the first 75 minutes or so Les Bleus mustered a spirited fightback to take the game to extra time and then almost steal victory themselves on more than one occasion, producing in the process the most gripping and entertaining World Cup final in recent memory.

While the feats of Messi and Mbappe added to an impressive highlights reel from a month of terrific football, however, for me the biggest takeaway was not so much what happened on the pitches of Qatar but instead the manner in which the stories written there resonated, with football serving as a medium through which to maintain connections around the globe.

During the competition I was in contact with friends or colleagues from almost half of the competing nations, for instance, and while our conversations were ostensibly about the games and players and fans they were also a chance to catch up, to discuss political issues, or talk about family or career developments. Football is not unique in its ability to act as a social lubricant in this way, but it is surely the only sport capable of doing so on such a wide scale – of creating and reinforcing the bonds between people.

Along similar lines, let us consider the scenes on the pitch at the Lusail Stadium ahead of the official trophy presentation. As the preparations for the show – which is becoming an increasingly over-organised and sterile process with every tournament, detracting from rather than adding to the celebratory mood – took place, thousands of camera lenses focused on the Argentina players and staff as they drank in the first few moments of their success with each other and their fans. 

After a few minutes Messi could be seen beckoning eagerly to the stands for someone to come down and join him, and not long afterwards he was grabbed from behind by an excited figure in an Argentina shirt. His initial look of surprise, possibly even frustration – did he think Fifa had perhaps set the influencers loose early, and that he was already being accosted by the insufferable Salt Bae? – dissipated instantly as he broke into a wide grin and shared a tight embrace with the interloper – his mum.

At that moment Messi the GOAT, the brand, the deity of Argentinian football disappeared and we were reminded of his humanity, the fact that, regardless of what he is capable of doing with a football he is mere flesh and blood – that while to many he is a superhero to others he is simply a son, a husband, and a father, and that his journey to the ultimate glory wasn’t one he had taken alone.

Such human tales could be seen throughout the competition, with Morroco’s Sofiane Boufal dancing with his mum on the pitch after the Atlas Lions stunned Portugal to become the first African side to reach the semi-finals, Louis van Gaal thriving after his recovery from prostate cancer and planting kisses on his unsuspecting players at will, and the outpouring of affection from the football community after American journalist Grant Wahl tragically passed away while covering the Netherlands-Argentina quarter-final.

Further to this, victories for Tunisia and Morocco over their former colonisers France and Spain provided moments of joy for both nations, while the likes of Saudi Arabia and Cameroon also claimed huge scalps as they defeated South American giants Argentina and Brazil in the group stage, providing their players and supporters with memories that will last a lifetime.

And, of course, there was Japan, who sent shockwaves of their own around the world by coming from behind to defeat both Germany and Spain in the group stage, before falling agonisingly short once again in the Round of 16.

As Argentina partied after the final Ryuzo Morioka, working as a pundit for NHK, commented that he hoped one day to see the Samurai Blue experiencing such joy. While that day is surely a long way in the future, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that such moments aren’t just reserved for the biggest stage of all, and that sport has the power to provide connections between players and their fans in this way every weekend.

Football isn’t just tactics and statistics and physical resolve, it is played by people with their own lives, personalities, and struggles away from the pitch. Hollwood-esque pay-offs like the one Messi enjoyed in Doha are of course rare, but each of these stories can be just as satisfying once you buy into the narrative.

That is why I love the game, and with the World Cup done and dusted I can’t wait for the new J.League season to get underway so I can get in amongst the drama set to unfold at stadiums across the country in 2023. The faces change, but in football the story is never-ending.


Eternal challengers

There remains a divide between the challengers and the champions at the World Cup, and for the former to bridge it they have to break down the mental barrier they’re in part responsible for building… (日本語版)

Japan’s defeat to Croatia in the Round of 16 at the World Cup in Qatar was hugely disappointing, but when looked at in the cold light of day it of course can’t be considered a surprise.

Teams like Japan, Senegal, and the USA aren’t supposed to still be around in the latter stages of the competition, and the fact they were all eliminated at the first knockout hurdle – along with fellow upstarts Australia, Poland, Switzerland, and South Korea – was only in keeping with the natural order of things at this level.

At least, that’s how the established nations look at things, and this difference in attitude is perhaps the biggest obstacle countries looking to break into the very top bracket of the world game need to overcome.

Since 1986 only eight non-European or South American teams have progressed to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, with South Korea (when co-hosting in 2002) the only one of them to have gone one step further and reached the semi-finals since 1930 – when USA made the last four of a 13-team tournament.

The European and South American hegemony is itself also a pretty exclusive club, and aside from South Korea only 15 countries from UEFA and CONMEBOL have made it to the semi-finals of the competition since 1986.

Coaching, player ability, and tactical approaches all naturally play a part in this, but at the highest level of the game such differences are incredibly fine and what it ultimately comes down to is attitude. The ‘smaller’ nations all too often don’t approach games considering themselves as equals but instead challengers, instantly handing their opponents the initiative and thus encouraging the cycle to perpetuate.

While teams like Japan become preoccupied with setting new checkpoints to tick off, those at the next level consider anything other than tilt at the title as failure.

“Are we excited about being in a quarter-final? Of course. But when you’ve just been to a final and a semi-final it feels a little bit different to the first quarter-final,” Gareth Southgate’s right-hand man Steve Holland said ahead of England’s quarter-final clash against France, for instance. “I’m not being arrogant. We want more.”

You could see this difference in assuredness as Japan’s Round of 16 tie wore on against Croatia, and especially during the penalty shoot-out. Croatia had been there before, seen that, and done that. For Japan this was their moment, the game in which they would either achieve their oft-cited target of a first ever quarter-final appearance or fall at the same hurdle for the fourth time.

This in turn produced a situation whereby Japan’s players looked utterly wracked with nerves as they stood on the brink, while the Croatians remained serene and looked fully in control – to an almost unnerving degree, as if they already knew the outcome.

And, in a sense, they did. The rarified air of the quarter-finals and beyond at the World Cup belongs to a select band of teams – they are one of them and Japan are not.

Of course, this set of circumstance isn’t only true for the Samurai Blue, and plenty of other countries also find themselves experiencing a mental block once they arrive at a certain fork in the road. Mexico famously exited at the Round of 16 at seven consecutive tournaments before being eliminated in the group stage this year, for example, while Switzerland’s hammering by Portugal in Doha was their fifth exit at the same juncture in six appearances since 1994.

Are these targets helpful, then? Probably not. Maybe instead of building them up in the minds of the players it is instead better to just adhere to the age-old stereotype of taking one game at a time and focusing on how to beat the opponent in front of you irrespective of the stage of the competition you’re at. After all, why does it really matter what your fellow countrymen did 20 years ago when football was a very different game and none of the same players were on the pitch?

Indeed, Morocco made it to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history by backing themselves from the first to the last whistle against Spain and then dispatching their penalties with icy composure – none more so than Achraf Hakimi, whose audacious panenka beyond Unai Simon with the decisive kick will be replayed for decades to come.

That’s how you do it. You need conviction. You have to believe you belong there, that this is your stage as much as it is Spain’s or Belgium’s or Croatia’s.

There’s no easy solution to this conundrum – if there was the situation wouldn’t exist – and it is of course something of a chicken-and-egg situation. Once you’ve overcome a hurdle it loses its aura and becomes easier to clear again. Getting beyond it for the first time is less about formations and pass completion rates and xG and more to do with attitude though – and that is something which is incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to teach. It is instead ingrained through experience. Not just in the cliched sense players spout about “learning from this defeat”, but long beforehand.

In order for Japan to move up to the next echelon the focus shouldn’t just be on who coaches the team or who pulls on the blue shirt or what system they play. It needs to go deeper than that. It comes from how players and coaches are raised – in a footballing sense and as people – how they approach challenges, and how they carry themselves every time they step onto the pitch. They need grit and drive and arrogance from the very first time they kick a football.

Until they have that, they will keep being edged out by those that do.



Hajime Moriyasu has struggled to win over fans of the Japan national team, but the Samurai Blue manager is deserving of more respect and showed once again in Wednesday’s historic comeback win against Germany that he knows what he’s doing… (日本語版)

The key to achieving success in high pressure situations is having the ability to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

And while plenty of fans, media (this correspondent included), and even some of his players were guilty of the latter during Japan’s opening World Cup contest against Germany on Wednesday night, Hajime Moriyasu maintained his composure to mastermind a sensational comeback and claim the unlikeliest of three points for the Samurai Blue.

With his team on the ropes for almost the entirety of the first half Moriyasu shifted from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1 at the break, before further tweaking things just before the hour mark by bringing on Kaoru Mitoma and Takuma Asano and then introducing Ritsu Doan in the 71st and Takumi Minamino in the 75th minutes.

All four of these players made telling contributions to Japan’s historic win, with Doan first slamming home the equaliser after some fine build-up play on the left from Mitoma and Minamino, and then the much-maligned Asano sealing the three points with a sensational winner eight minutes later.

“Three of Japan’s substitutes were involved in that goal. Hats off to Hajime Moriyasu!” Scott Murray wrote in The Guardian’s minute-by-minute coverage of Japan’s equaliser, before heaping more praise on Japan’s manager at full time.

“It’s all down to Hajime Moriyasu’s slew of substitutes, all of whom made an impact. A managerial masterclass … and his players aren’t half bad either!”

Moriyasu came in for his fair share of criticism from Japan fans ahead of the tournament, with grumbles in particular about his player selection – especially the absence of Yuya Osako and Kyogo Furuhashi and inclusion of Asano, who Moriyasu helped develop during his time at Sanfrecce Hiroshima but who had been out injured since September – but he remained unflustered in his preparations and continued to insist that he believed he had put together a squad capable of progressing to the quarter-finals for the first time in the country’s history.

That target is of course still a long way off, and we shouldn’t get too carried away with one win – Moriyasu certainly won’t be – but it is perhaps about time that the man with the notepad is given his dues.

This, after all, isn’t the first time he has engineered a turnaround in his team’s fortunes, and as well as composure in heated situations being a hallmark of successful individuals so too is recognising your mistakes and correcting them.

It hasn’t just been in his personnel selections and substitutions that Moriyasu has shown his talent, but also in his ability to foster a togetherness in the squad and transmit exactly what he wants to his players at crucial junctures.

After two defeats in the first three games of the final round of Asian qualifying it looked like his job was on the line, for instance, and the usually reserved manager had tears in his eyes during the national anthem ahead of the crucial home clash against Australia in October last year.

That emotion clearly transferred to his players who, in a slightly re-jigged 4-3-3 formation, claimed a 2-1 win at Saitama Stadium – Asano again the hero late on – turning things around and kickstarting a run of six straight wins to secure their place in Qatar – capped off as Mitoma, on as a sub, of course, struck twice late on in the return fixture against the Socceroos.

And he achieved the same at Khalifa International Stadium, bringing about a change in attitude and intent in his players to secure the largest scalp the Samurai Blue have ever claimed.

“Hajime Moriyasu’s in-game management was the biggest reason Japan won today,” Zach Lowy of tweeted on Wednesday night. “When Germany took the lead, he didn’t tighten the bolts to prevent them from racking up the goals — he went for broke and took control of the game via attacking subs like Kaoru Mitoma and Takuma Asano.”

Of course, the fact Japan were so outclassed for long spells has still produced criticism of the manager, and the team certainly rode their luck at times and could have done with more composure on the ball in the opening hour.

The argument that he should have started the likes of Mitoma and Doan is slightly disingenuous though, and we have no idea how that game – or any of the infinite other hypothetical games – would have gone. The whole point of having substitutes is in order for them to change the game in your favour, and in the only contest that actually happened against Germany Moriyasu ultimately played his cards perfectly.

That triumph will never be taken away from the manager or his players, and now he will focus on blocking out the noise again in order to claim another victory against Costa Rica on Sunday. Maybe this time we should believe he can do it.


Drawing closer

Kyoto Sanga and Roasso Kumamoto will square off to decide who gets the final place in J1 for the 2023 season on Sunday, and while the hosts start as clear favourites they won’t have things all their own way… (日本語版)

With Hajime Moriyasu having announced his 26-man Japan squad at the start of the month attention is steadily turning towards the World Cup, but the 2022 J1 season still hasn’t quite concluded and this weekend Kyoto Sanga and Roasso Kumamoto will square off to decide who takes the final spot in the Japanese top flight next year.

While for a spell it looked as though a big-hitter like Vissel Kobe or Gamba Osaka may suffer the indignity of relegation (or at least a relegation/promotion play-off) it was instead Sanga – as high as ninth in the middle of the season – who slid quietly down into 16th place after winning only two of their last 15 games.

A pair of 0-0 draws to close out the regular season pretty much summed up the characteristic solid, hard-running, hard-working approach of their manager Cho Kwi-jae, and while Sanga never lost more than two games in a row all season they also only managed to emerge victorious on eight occasions.

Defensively rigid, Kyoto had the joint-third best defence in J1 (with Avispa Fukuoka) after conceding just 38 times, while Naoto Kamifukumoto can count himself a little unlucky not to have been named in the yearly Best 11 after frequently pulling off some spectacular stops as he kept a respectable eight clean sheets.

At the other end of the pitch the team carried a distinct lack of scoring threat though, and after veteran Peter Utaka struck the eighth of his nine J1 goals on 3 May Sanga only found the net 16 more times all year to finish as joint-second lowest scorers (with Nagoya Grampus) on just 30 goals. Their paucity in this regard is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that their second top scorer after Utaka was Kosuke Taketomi, who put up just three goals.

Indeed, Sanga failed to score on 12 occasions over the past eight-and-a-half months, including their last two games against Cerezo Osaka and Jubilo Iwata, when a solitary goal would almost certainly have ensured their J1 status for another year.

“For me as a coach this will be my first time taking part in the play-offs,” Cho said after the stalemate away to Jubilo on the last day of the season.

“We shouldn’t be timid in the game, and I want us to put in a better performance than we did today – I feel we were a little too stiff. Now what’s important is to make sure the players are ready to move on to the next stage.”

Roasso have also drawn their last two games, although thanks to the J.League’s bizarre play-off format those results were enough to book them a place in Sunday’s decisive contest at the expense of Oita Trinita and Montedio Yamagata, both of whom finished below them in the regular J2 season rankings and so needed to win inside 90 minutes away from home to progress at Roasso’s expense – something Roasso themselves now need to do in Kyoto.

While victories may have been a little hard to come by of late, however – Roasso have won just one of their last six games – they certainly shouldn’t be underestimated ahead of this contest, and Takeshi Oki’s side have been one of the most expansive and enjoyable teams to watch in J2 this year.

“Just do the same as always,” was the manager’s characteristically to-the-point reply when asked how how wanted his team to approach the biggest game in Roasso’s history, and continuity has certainly been a theme for the side this year.

Oki, as ever, has stuck to a core of trusted players as his team took straight to the second tier without missing a beat after returning as 2021 J3 champions, with eight players averaging over 75 minutes a game as Roasso cruised past several more fancied opponents to finish fourth.

That has included standout performers in all areas of the pitch, and if Roasso don’t make it to J1 next year – and even if they do – it will be interesting to see if the likes of Masahiro Sugata, So Kawahara, and Toshiki Takahashi are still pulling on the red shirt in 2023.

Alongside those central figures a host of other players have also made stellar contributions, with Naohiro Sugiyama and Koki Sakamoto constant threats in behind top-scorer Takahashi, mid-season arrival from FC Tokyo Rei Hirakawa slotting effortlessly in to the team’s slick passing style, and Kohei Kuroki and Osamu Henry Iyoha flanking Sugata perfectly in the back three.

“It’s the last game of the year so there are many things to keep in mind, but we just have to do the same as always, to make sure we don’t forget what we’ve been doing from game to game throughout the course of the season,” Iyoha said after his goal helped Roasso past Montedio last weekend.

“The opponent will also place a focus on being strong in the duels, but I think if we play with confidence we can achieve a good result.”

Whether that will be enough to secure a first ever promotion to J1 remains to be seen, but what can be said for certain is that Roasso will push Kyoto all the way for the right to play in the first division next year.

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

Receive an email each time I post something new and/or interesting by...

Join 40 other subscribers

Back Catalogue

what day is it?

March 2023