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

10
Mar
17

Cerezo looking to end play-off jinx

Since J2 introduced play-offs in 2012, every team promoted via the post-season  decider has finished bottom of the top flight the following year. Cerezo Osaka are expected to buck that trend this season, but they have gotten off to a fairly inauspicious start…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 10th March, 2017

We have only had two rounds of the new J1 season, but Saturday’s game between Consadole Sapporo and Cerezo Osaka is incredibly important for both promoted sides.

Neither has managed to pick up a win from either of their first two outings in 2017, and a victory this weekend could provide just the kick-start needed to get last year’s J2 champion or play-off winner up and running.

Sapporo have lost both their openers without scoring a goal (1-0 to Vegalta Sendai and 3-0 to Yokohama F.Marinos), while Cerezo have just one point to show for their efforts after drawing 0-0 with Jubilo Iwata and losing 3-1 to Urawa Reds.

While Sapporo were widely tipped to struggle back in the top flight, Cerezo’s slow start is a bit of a surprise, and they will want to right their course sooner rather than later if they are to end the curse of the play-off champion.

Considering the quality of Cerezo’s squad – which as well as boasting current and recent national team players Hotaru Yamaguchi and Yoichiro Kakitani was boosted just before the start of the new campaign by the returning Hiroshi Kiyotake, who has established himself as Vahid Halilhodzic’s first choice in the hole for the Samurai Blue – it would be something of a surprise if they did slip straight back through the trapdoor.

A loss against Sapporo would leave them in ominous company though.

All four sides previously promoted via the play-offs have gone on to finish bottom of J1 the following season, and only one of them – Montedio Yamagata in 2015 – managed to pick up a win in their first three matches.

It took Cerezo a couple of seasons and they certainly made hard work of getting back out of J2, but they were a big fish in the second tier and now they need to adjust to their new status in the top flight.

“We know that in J1 we will spend more time in games defending,” Yamaguchi said after last weekend’s defeat in Saitama. “Whereas Urawa have very high accuracy in their passing and combinations when attacking we made too many mistakes when we went forward and gifted possession back to them many times.”

The 26-year-old cited mitigating circumstances for Cerezo’s disjointed display though, pointing out that they lack the consistency of Mihailo Petrovic’s side.

“Our coach has just changed, we’ve got some players out injured and some new players in the side, plus we are trying to play a new type of football, so of course there is a difference in the degree of completion between us and Urawa, who rarely change their players or approach.”

Kakitani offered a similar explanation, and suggested that lack of communication was partly to blame.

“The coach has just changed, whereas Urawa’s manager has been in charge for a long time,” he said. “After the game the players were talking a lot about many things, and I think it would be good if we were able to do that before the game too.”

Football Channel:Getty, Friday 10th March, 2017

Depsite the array of attacking talent at Yoon Jong-hwan’s disposal it was centre-back Matej Jonjic who found the net against Urawa, and the new addition from Incheon United was also keen to emphasise the gap between last year’s overall league winner and the returnees from J2.

“They are in the top three teams in the J.League, playing in the Champions League,” the Croatian said. “We just came from the second division; the difference is obvious. We have to work harder and try to work on our mistakes.

“We started too slow and I think we were missing some confidence in this game. After my goal we tried to come back, but it was too late.”

Souza agreed that Cerezo’s hesitant start was what cost them the game against Urawa.

“They’re a very high quality team so if you give them the freedom to build up like we did in the first half then that will happen,” the Brazilian said. “In the second half we pushed up a bit more and I think things went better then.

“We need to work on our defending but it’s not just that and there are many areas we need to correct. That’s not to say everything was bad though, and as well as fixing the things that need improving we also need to keep going with the areas that worked well.”

Indeed, Cerezo did cause Reds some problems in the second half, and with better finishing they could have made for a nervy end to the game for their hosts. That fact provided a source of some optimism for Souza.

“In J1 the level of the players and the tactics is higher, but we play with good connections going forward and I think we are capable of causing opponents problems.”

A fit Kiyotake would certainly improve the team in that respect, although Souza refused to build the new No.46 up too much, clearly unwilling to talk down any of the players currently in the first eleven.

“We’re a very good team and Kiyotake is a great player who plays for the national team, but that’s up to the coach to think about so please ask him,” the 28-year-old added with a grin.

In Yoon the club certainly have a boss capable of building a solid outfit, with the South Korean having worked wonders at Sagan Tosu before he was controversially fired with them top of the table in August 2014.

He has made his aims very clear this year too, and Jonjic insists the players are focused on ending the play-off jinx by finishing in the top half of the table.

“The manager already said his goal before the season started, so we just follow his ideas and his goals and let’s see where we will be after the season. He said top nine, so the club have made that goal and we will follow that and are trying our best to reach it.”

A win in what is sure to be a packed Sapporo Dome on Saturday would certainly lay down a marker on the way to that target. Defeat, however, could strike an early psychological blow to Cerezo’s ambitions.

24
Feb
17

Points win prizes

Kashima Antlers picked up the J1 trophy last season, but their points totals over the past few seasons suggest they will have to up their game this year if they want to be doing so again in 2017… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 24th February, 2017

The 2017 J.League season started in much the same way as the 2016 one ended, with Kashima Antlers just about edging out Urawa Reds to pick up another piece of silverware.

The manner of Antlers’ 3-2 win in last weekend’s Super Cup was also similar to that in which they snatched the J1 title last year, with Yuma Suzuki capitalising on a late mistake by a Reds defender to decide the game – Wataru Endo his victim this time after Tomoaki Makino was caught snoozing in December.

The reigning J1 champions emerging victorious from the season curtain-raiser is far from a surprise – the last nine have now been claimed by the previous year’s league winner – and while the match is always an enjoyable way to shake off the cobwebs and get the ball rolling on a new season, everyone knows not to read too much into the result.

What comes next is what matters, and while winning one-off games against title rivals is not a bad habit to get into, of equal importance is the ability to deal with the rest of the division as well.

While the temptation is to tip Antlers as favourites to retain their title, then, a closer look at the stats suggests they have plenty of improvement to make if they want to be picking up a ninth J1 shield come December.

Last year, as received much coverage, Masatada Ishii’s side finished 15 points adrift of overall league leaders Urawa before sealing the league in dramatic fashion on away goals in the Championship final. This year the one-stage format is back though, meaning there are no shortcuts to glory available and all that matters is who is standing tallest after 34 rounds of games.

That should provide plenty of encouragement for Reds and the other sides targeting the title, with Antlers not only having struggled on that front last season but having done so for the past few years.

The Ibaraki side’s league form in 2016 read 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats, leaving them with 59 points. In 2015 they also picked up 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats. The year before that they managed 18 wins, six draws, and 10 defeats, while, incredibly, 2013 also produced a record of 18-5-11.

While such numbers display scarcely believable consistency, these are not the kind of figures usually associated with winning the league. Indeed, 60 points is the lowest total accrued by a champion since J1 expanded to 18 teams, and that was in the famous 2005 season when five teams were in with a chance of winning the title on the final day of the season.

Football Channel, Friday 24th February, 2017 (Getty)

With that in mind, the Antlers players know they need to deliver a steadier pace over the course of the 2017 campaign.

“The coach hasn’t really given any new instructions, but we all know we have to maintain a high level for the whole season,” Daigo Nishi said after the Super Cup.

“For that we will need the strength of more players then before, and we have a very good group. It is up to the coach and the senior players to make sure we are able to achieve and maintain that feeling.”

Suzuki, perhaps mindful of having won last weekend’s match after coming off the bench, agreed that standards have to improve throughout the entire squad.

“We have a heavy schedule and so need the strength of every player,” the 20-year-old observed.

“I think it’s impossible with just 11 players; we need to have everyone on board. My job is to keep scoring the goals and I want to score lots,” he added, declining to provide any specific target and merely reiterating, “Lots”.

Reds, meanwhile, picked up a league-record 74 points last year after winning 23 games, drawing five, and losing six. That followed an impressive 21 wins, nine draws and just four defeats in 2015, which was preceded by a tally of 18-8-8 in 2014, and while the Saitama giant does still need to shake of its nearly-men tag, the team is clearly improving each season.

However, while the players have undoubtedly grown in confidence as a result of their table-topping exploits last year they still don’t have any league medals to show for their efforts, and Yuki Muto is determined to put that right this time out.

“We want to show that we are the best team and we have the same motivation as always,” he said.

“Of course, there is still a lingering sense of regret that we were pulled back in despite having 15 points more [than Kashima in 2016], but this year the team at the top of the table becomes champion and so we have to pick up points over the whole season to make sure that come the end of the year it is Reds that are smiling.”

There is a lot of football to be played, but if Mihailo Petrovic’s side can match their recent figures then it will take an impressive effort for somebody else to beat them to the finish line in 2017.

18
Feb
17

J.Liga

J2 has seen plenty of managerial changes over the offseason, with three coaches from Spain the standout new arrivals… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 27th January, 2017

There hasn’t been a great deal of movement in the dugouts of J1 over the off-season, with only four top-flight teams experiencing a change of manager.

Of the newcomers it can only really be said that Tatsuma Yoshida at Ventforet Kofu and Fumitake Miura at Albirex Niigata were moves instigated by the clubs themselves, with Yoon Jong-hwan’s long-awaited arrival at Cerezo Osaka finally relieving Kiyoshi Okuma of the job he always seemed desperate to escape, and Tooru Oniki being bumped up to the hot seat at Kawasaki Frontale after Yahiro Kazama decided he wanted a change of scenery after five years at Todoroki.

Kazama is now tasked with guiding Nagoya Grampus straight back up to the first division as they face a maiden campaign in J2, and the 55-year-old has plenty of fellow newbies to keep him company in the second tier, with Grampus one of 10 clubs to have changed their man in charge ahead of the 2017 campaign.

Some of these appointments are familiar faces on the J.League circuit, with a couple of former Jubilo Iwata coaches, Hitoshi Morishita and Masaaki Yanagishita, pitching up at Thespakusatsu Gunma and Zweigen Kanazawa, respectively, Takeshi Kiyama moving to Montedio Yamagata from Ehime FC, and ex-Shimizu S-Pulse and Kyoto Sanga manager Takeshi Oki taking the reins at FC Gifu.

In addition there are a couple of inexperienced coaches attempting to work their way up the ladder – former Kashiwa Reysol coach Takanori Nunobe getting his first manager’s job leading Tulio et. al at Kyoto Sanga, while Shuichi Mase is continuing his transformation from Ivica Osim’s translator to the main man by stepping up from J3 side Blaublitz Akita into Kiyama’s shoes at Ehime.

Perhaps the most interesting arrivals, however, come in the form of three Spain-reared bosses taking their first roles in Japan.

JEF United, Tokyo Verdy, and Tokushima Vortis are all sides with J1 experience, but each of them finished some way short of earning returns to the first division under Japanese coaches last season. JEF wound up in 11th after replacing Takeshi Sekizuki with Shigetoshi Hasebe, Verdy stalled down in 18th under Koichi Togashi, while Hiroaki Nagashima could only take Tokushima as far as 9th.

In an attempt to improve on those showings this year JEF have hired former Getafe boss Juan Esnaider, Verdy have drafted in ex-Villareal manager Miguel Angel Lotina, and Tokushima have placed Ricardo Rodriguez in charge at the Pocari Sweat Stadium, after spells with the Saudi Arabia national team and Bangkok Glass in Thailand.

Argentinian Esnaider played as a striker for several big European clubs – including Real Madrid and Juventus – and was coached by the likes of Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti, and Marcelo Bielsa during his playing career, but his time as a coach has thus far been fairly muted, with less than successful spells with Getafe and Cordoba.

He is taking over from Hasebe, who replaced Sekizuka with 17 games to go last year. He did reasonably well and has been kept on as part of Esnaider’s coaching staff, but always seemed more concerned with keeping the team organised defensively than letting its creative players show what they could do going forwards.

Esnaider will have been tasked with improving the team in that respect, and it looks as though he’ll prefer a 3-4-2-1 formation, with a focus on pressing high up the pitch and looking to attack from wide.

Football Channel / Getty

Last year JEF made the third most passes (21,522) and crosses (719) in J2, as well as taking the third most touches of the ball (28,608), but they had the worst shot-on-target ratio (32.7% of 456 efforts) and Esnaider will hope the signing of his compatriot Joaquin Larrivey from Baniyas in the UAE can help them improve on that front.

Finishing chances was an issue for Verdy in 2016 too, with just 10.4% of their 415 attempts finding the net, and Lotina will be expected to add some killer instinct to a hard-working but far from ruthless team.

The Spaniard is an experienced coach who has been in charge of a handful of La Liga sides, and he is used to working on a limited budget – which should put him in good stead at Ajinomoto.

The 59-year-old also has a reputation for picking up short term results and making his sides difficult to beat, and the early signs from pre-season are that he will set Verdy up in a 3-4-3.

His predecessor Togashi always looked a little unsure of his best formation, often changing mid-game and seeming to confuse his players, and some consistency on this front should help the side find some rhythm and also shake off their reputation as slow starters – only three of their 43 league goals last year came in the opening 15 minutes of games.

There hasn’t been much activity up front in the off-season, with the only attacking arrival the returning Ryota Kajikawa, although Douglas Vieira, whose debut campaign was blighted by injury, has been in decent form in pre-season.

Tokushima, meanwhile, were fairly middling all over the pitch last year, and a realistic challenge for a play-off place was always kept out of reach by their lack of concentration and/or physical endurance late on in games – 20 of the 42 goals they conceded went in in the last 30 minutes of matches.

Rodriguez, who started coaching at the age of just 24 after an injury ended his playing career at youth level, will want to iron out those creases.

He has a UEFA Pro License and had a few jobs in Spain before taking up a role with Saudi Arabia in 2011, before getting his first job as a manager in 2014 at Thai side Ratchaburi. From there he moved on to Bangkok Glass and then Suphanburi – although he left his role there after just three months.

Rodriguez would appear to be a flexible coach with a focus on the mentality and motivation of his players – utilising a method he terms ‘Tactic Specificity’, whereby he gives individual players precise instructions for their particular roles – and a glance at his blog suggests he spent the latter half of last season scouting J.League games, so he should be acquainted with the style of football here and his detailed approach should be well suited to the local players.

Tokushima will hope that enables Rodriguez to improve on the rather conservative football of his predecessor Nagashima, who always seemed more concerned with making sure his team didn’t lose rather than aiming for wins.

Whether he can deliver on that front remains to be seen, but the J2 field looks as wide open as ever this season and the new men in charge will be cautiously optimistic as they take their places on the starting line.

27
Jan
17

Podolski no magic bullet

Lukas Podolski’s protracted transfer to Vissel Kobe is edging closer to completion, but his arrival is no guarantee of success for J1’s perennial underachievers… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 27th January, 2017

Despite the injection of DAZN cash heightening the expectations of fans around Japan, most of the transfer activity this off-season has been the typical J.League fare, with the usual merry-go-round of Japanese players and same old Brazilian faces moving on to pastures new.

Shunsuke Nakamura’s bitter departure from Yokohama F.Marinos to Jubilo Iwata and Yoshito Okubo’s decision to cross the Tama river and join FC Tokyo from Kawasaki Frontale have been two of the most noteworthy transfers so far – or at least the ones afforded the most attention – while Masato Kudo’s arrival at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Akihiro Ienaga’s move to Frontale, and Omiya Ardija’s capture of Genki Omae from Shimizu S-Pulse are also interesting deals.

The Brazilian carousel, meanwhile, has spun as smoothly as ever, with Wilson and Ramon Lopes leaving Vegalta Sendai for Ventforet Kofu and Kashiwa Reysol, respectively, Urawa Reds returning to their old favourite prep-school Albirex Niigata for Rafael Silva, from where Kashima Antlers have also made an acquisition in the form of the excellent Leo Silva. The reigning champions signed another Brazilian, too, providing Pedro Junior with his sixth J.League home after spells at Omiya, Niigata, Gamba Osaka, Tokyo, and most recently Vissel Kobe.

The player who looks set to replace him at Vissel, however, is the most eye-catching piece of business, with former Germany international Lukas Podolski on the verge of joining Hyogo’s permanently sleeping giant.

The Rakuten-backed side has as yet been unable to realise the potential provided by its sizeable budget and top class facilities, but the capture of the 2014 World Cup winner – who scored 48 goals in 129 games for the Mannschaft – could help turn Kobe into an authentic challenger in 2017.

As when Diego Forlan arrived at Cerezo Osaka in 2014 there will be pressure on the 31-year-old to deliver instant results in the J.League, but as Forlan’s ill-fated spell in Japan also demonstrated it is vital that he is received and used in the correct way.

The expectation then was that the Uruguay star would catapult Cerezo directly to the J1 title, but the subsequent slacking off of his teammates – who seemingly also thought Forlan would be able to decide games on his own – and then bizarre decision of his coach Yuji Okuma to drop him on account of his inability to contribute to the side defensively saw the club sensationally relegated to the second tier.

Football Channel (Getty Images), 27th January, 2017

The former Manchester United and Inter Milan striker was frozen out and didn’t start any of Cerezo’s last 12 games as they slid towards the trapdoor, although he did still finish the campaign as their top scorer with seven goals. He then stuck around to see out the rest of his contract in J2, again finishing as the club’s best finisher with 10 goals in 16 games before leaving in the summer of 2015.

Just because things didn’t ultimately work out in that instance doesn’t mean similar transfers shouldn’t be attempted though, and the early signs regarding Podolski are positive.

Kobe have made it clear that he won’t be afforded any special treatment – the news that he would have to share a room with a teammate if he’d been signed in time for their pre-season camp made headlines, for instance – and manager Nelsinho is a wise old hand who will know exactly how to get the best out of his new player and incorporate him as a part of the team.

And it is the team that must take precedence.

Last year, despite the fact that the two-stage system may have afforded them their best chance of achieving success, Vissel blew as hot and cold as ever, and were unable to maintain the consistency required to qualify for the Championship play-offs.

They ultimately finished the second stage as runners-up after ending the season with eight wins and just one defeat in their last 10 games – a spell which took in wins over all four ACL qualifiers Kashima, Urawa, Kawasaki, and Gamba – but a run of seven games between 14 May and 25 June epitomised their Jekyll and Hyde status and meant they had to settle for their regular mid-table finish, seventh overall.

The move for Podolski is certainly a show of intent and he would be an impressive replacement for the outgoing Pedro Junior, who scored 11 times last year, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the side are already reasonably well-stocked with goal-getters and finished as fourth highest scorers in 2016.

Leandro finished joint top scorer in J1 with Sanfrecce’s Peter Utaka on 19 goals, while captain Kazuma Watanabe also made it to double figures with 12. Defensively, however, they conceded 43 times – 15 times more than table-topping Urawa – and it is in that respect that improvements also need to be made.

Nelsinho is shrewd enough to know that Podolski isn’t going to be a magic bullet that fires Vissel to glory, and it is vital that everyone else associated with the club is on the same page if the deal is to produce a happy ending.

12
Jan
17

Keeping things safe

Riku Hirosue’s performance between the posts for Aomori Yamada on Monday earned his side a maiden High School title, and the future looks bright for the new FC Tokyo keeper…

Football Channel, 12th January, 2017

If you only saw the final score you would think Aomori Yamada’s victory over Maebashi Ikuei in the High School football final was an easy win, but the eventual 5-0 scoreline was largely made possible by the performance of Aomori’s man at the back, Riku Hirosue.

The Japan U-19 goalkeeper nearly had a nightmare start to the final when Maebashi striker Daichi Hitomi chased the ball down and blocked an early clearance in the opening seconds of the match at Saitama Stadium, but Hirosue grew into the game and ultimately laid the foundations for his team to cruise to their first ever High School title.

The 18-year-old shot-stopper kept Go Kuroda’s side in the contest in the 16th minute, denying Hayate Takazawa in a one-on-one after his defence had switched off. That save came in the midst of a dominant spell for Maebashi, and if they had taken the lead there it could instead have been them taking the trophy back to Gunma.

Hirosue’s stop kept things level though, and enabled Issei Takahashi to give Aomori the lead just seven minutes later. Aomori’s crucial second goal – converted coolly just before half-time by Riku Saga – was also preceded by some Hirosue heroics, and instead of going in 1-1 at the break he and his teammates found themselves 2-0 up.

Such contributions all too often go unnoticed, with the majority of focus in the modern game being directed at the players putting the ball in the back of the net rather than those working to prevent it getting that far.

Game-changing interventions like Hirosue’s are equivalent to goals scored, however – something that Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho recently noted after David De Gea kept his side in the game against West Ham United on 3 January.

“When they play phenomenally people forget, when they make a mistake, everyone remembers,” the Portuguese said after his keeper denied West Ham’s Michail Antonio with the score tied at 0-0 in a game United went on to win 2-0. “That’s why I hugged David at the end of the game, because no save, Antonio goal, no three points.

“Of course I would love goalkeepers to be recognised, to win the golden ball, to be player of season in the Premier League, because goalkeepers are lonely guys with a different shirt to everybody else.”

Riku Hirosue, Getty Images/Football Channel

Such accolades usually only arrive when it is perceived that a team has failed to perform at its best, however, with Mourinho adding that he hopes De Gea doesn’t pick up United’s Player of the Season award for the fourth straight year, opining that, “Season after season, if the goalkeeper is player of the season it means that something is wrong.”

Of course, that is not always the case, and on 7 January Leicester City shot stopper Kasper Schmeichel was rewarded for his part in the Foxes historic Premier League triumph, ending Christian Eriksen’s dominance of the Danish Player of the Year award and becoming the first goalkeeper to pick up the trophy since his dad Peter claimed his third such title back in 1999.

Hirosue was equally vital to Aomori’s success, and as well as helping to keep things tight at the back to ensure a clean sheet in Monday’s final he also started the moves for Aomori’s third and fourth goals with raking passes out from the back.

The High School title is just the latest medal for Hirosue’s collection, and he was also involved for Japan U-19’s when they won their maiden Asian title last year. He only made one appearance at the AFC Championship in Bahrain, but his contribution in the 3-0 semi-final win over Vietnam preserved the young Samurai’s impressive run without conceding a goal – one which was extended to an outstanding 840 minutes by first choice Ryosuke Kojima of Waseda University in the final.

All of which suggests the signs are positive for the future of Japanese goalkeeping at large. Shusaku Nishikawa of Urawa Reds looks settled as No.1 for the Samurai Blue for the time being, but Kashiwa Reysol’s Kosuke Nakamura is steadily establishing himself as a clear contender and, while only 21, is widely expected to break into the full national team squad very soon.

A promotion that far may be some way down the tracks for Kojima or Hirosue, but the latter will be making the step up to the professional game at FC Tokyo this season – returning to the club where he played at U-15 level before being released – and if he can continue to build upon his clear ability then there is no reason why he can’t make even more of a name for himself in the coming years.

28
Dec
16

Unneccesary underestimation

Kashima Antlers demonstrated at the recent Club World Cup that Japanese teams and players are more than capable of holding their own on the world stage, so maybe we should stop underestimating them… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 25th December, 2016

Kashima Antlers’ outstanding achievement of making it to the Club World Cup final – and then giving Real Madrid a proper match once there – rightly attracted plaudits from across the globe.

Domestically, too, their efforts earned plenty of praise, and it it would be great if their impressive showing helped reverse the tendency of many fans and media in Japan to underestimate football in the country.

Kohzo Tashima has been repeating the mantra of ‘international standard’ since becoming JFA president in March, insisting that the domestic game needs to aim for the highest quality at every level.

He is right to do that, and one area which can still be improved upon is self-confidence. There is often far too much self-effacement in the coverage of Japanese teams, and while it is usually expected that Asian rivals will be overcome, the default position against opponents from further afield is still that Japanese teams are intrinsically weaker.

In several respects, of course, this is true. The very highest level of teams and players in Europe – such as Madrid – are a cut above and all-but beyond reach. That is unlikely to change as long as there is such financial disparity, though, and the world’s elite are also in a different league to the opposition in their respective domestic and continental competitions.

Still, six-and-a-half years on from the Samurai Blue proving at the South Africa World Cup that they are very much involved in the third bracket of international teams – they are not going to win the trophy, unlikely to progress to the latter stages of the competition, but have a realistic chance of making it beyond the group stage – an unnecessary meekness remains.

‘What do you think about our development?’ ‘How can we improve?’ These are good questions to have in certain situations, but sometimes it isn’t necessary to automatically adopt a subordinate position.

The responses of Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and his players ahead of and after last Sunday’s final in Yokohama were instructive of this fact. When asked for his thoughts on the development of Japanese football, Zidane looked a little confused.

“I think it improved a very long time ago, it didn’t happen in the last several years,” the France legend said. “There are Japanese footballers playing in Europe, in big clubs – Japanese managers and coaches helped them to get to that level.”

His players were similarly nonplussed when pressed for reactions on Kashima’s impressive display in the final.

 

Club World Cup final, 18th December, 2016

“It’s an impossible question,” Casemiro said when asked why Real had struggled to control the match. “It’s a game of football, just one game. Kashima play good football, and we knew that in a one-off game we would have to try until the end. Antlers are a good side, that’s the reason they made it to the final.”

Of course, very few people had expected Masatada Ishii’s side to run Madrid quite so close and their performance is one that will go down in Japanese football history, but a runners-up finish wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima came third last year – only losing 1-0 to River Plate in the semi-final – and, as Zidane pointed out, Japanese players are increasingly demonstrating that they can hold their own in Europe’s strongest leagues.

The Japanese fascination with placing foreign teams on a pedestal was nicely countered by the approach of Club America coach Ricardo La Volpe.

The Mexican team provided the perfect example for Kashima, playing with confidence and poise against Real in their semi-final and demonstrating that there was nothing to fear when facing one of the most famous teams in the game.

“I always tell my players not to think about the uniform or which country the team they are playing is from as that is irrelevant,” La Volpe said. “What we have to think about is the team’s play style, not the uniform they are wearing or the individual players.”

Kashima did just that in the final, illustrating that while there is still ultimately a gap in class, it is not as vast as many seem to imagine.

“I think us having made it to the final means something,” Ishii said after the game. “I think it means Japanese football has improved to a world-class level in a short space of time.”

Even so, the Kashima coach still referred more than once to the disparity in the respective teams’ histories. “For other clubs participating in this tournament they have a longer history than the J.League,” he said. “Some clubs have 100-year histories.”

That shouldn’t be used as an excuse. Europe and South America will always have more history, and when J.League teams have clocked up 100 years’ worth their rivals overseas will be approaching their second centuries of existence.

Japanese football still has room for growth, but it is not as inferior as many seem to think. Kashima’s bold and disciplined display at the Club World Cup was just the latest example of that fact.

16
Dec
16

Bigger not always better

The Club World Cup could soon be getting a revamp, but a new souped-up format may not be the answer for the admittedly unloved competition (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 16th December, 2016

Last month FIFA president Gianni Infantino spoke to media in Europe about his wish to restructure the Club World Cup.

The competition, which began under its current guise in 2000 and is taking place for the 13th time this year, is an odd tournament that is a good idea on paper but hard to execute in reality.

A key issue is that it’s difficult to find a window in the increasingly packed international football calendar to suit all the participating clubs. Kashima Antlers, for instance, only secured their place five days before the opening game of this year’s edition, while Real Madrid were forced to endure a long haul flight immediately after their La Liga match against Deportivo La Coruna in order to take part.

Infantino complained to Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport that the competition, “has a complicated formula, [is] held at a difficult time, [and] attract[s] little enthusiasm,” and while he has a point his proposed solution – to hold it in the second half of June, with 32 clubs – looks likely to create far more problems than it solves.

“Football nowadays isn’t just Europe and South America,” he told Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo.

“The world has changed, so we have to find a Club World Cup which will be more interesting for the teams, as well as the fans around the world.

“That’s what we’re trying to do, by creating a tournament that is much more attractive, with more quality among participants, and more clubs. That will attract more sponsors and television companies from around the world.”

Despite the claim to be striving for a truly global tournament, the suggestion that it be held in June primarily suits European teams, with plenty of leagues elsewhere in the world – including, of course, Japan – still in play at that time of year.

The reference to sponsors and television rights acts as a further warning sign, and it is inevitable that the majority of participants in Infantino’s desired format would be invited not solely for their achievements on the pitch, but equally on account of their ability to secure lucrative contracts.

That would imply the aim is to create a ‘European Champions League Plus’ style competition, with all the regular heavyweights from England, Spain, Germany and so on supplemented by a few token slots reserved for the rest of the world. China, you’d imagine, would be granted a berth or two, with Alibaba E-Auto installed as Club World Cup title sponsor until 2022 and the country pouring vast sums of cash into the game.

The Club World Cup's rather awkward format

The proposal to hold the tournament in June may also be a ploy to divert some of the money from the increasingly lucrative European off-season period into FIFA’s coffers. Teams traverse the globe anyway at that time of year to play money-spinning friendly matches, and FIFA would much prefer the world’s biggest brands were doing so under their flag rather than in showpieces like the International Champions Cup.

Instead of watering the competition down and making it just another opportunity for the same old European teams to play each other again – albeit in front of excitable crowds keen to part with their cash for a glimpse of their favourite video-game and YouTube stars – why not pare it back and have it a simple six-team contest?

“There is something extraordinary whenever you can gather the champions from all six confederations,” Infantino writes in his welcome notes for this year’s competition. “These continental tournaments are just as rich and diverse in human stories as they are equal in significance and in the emotions they arouse.”

That is certainly true, and the opportunity to have the reigning champions from each of the six continents do battle is a unique, and in many ways old-fashioned, format.

Despite Kashima’s impressive efforts to make it to Sunday’s final, the reservation of a slot for a host representative is a slightly jarring aspect of the competition and one which should probably be done away with – although admittedly that would likely make it less appealing to local fans, broadcasters, and sponsors.

However, why not simply invite each of the continental champions and place them unseeded into two groups of three? The winners of each group then play each other in the final, while the respective second- and third-placed teams also square off against each other to determine the final rankings.

That would take no more time than the current format, provide a more even playing field than the present lopsided arrangement – which sees the Oceania champion spend around 10 days in town for one match, yet the European representative nip in and out to pick up the trophy after two games in a week – and also guarantee each participant three games against opposition they have never played before, and may never play again.

Of course, that would require some allowances on the part of the European participant – who can barely be bothered with the current format, so would take some convincing to fit another game in – and, more importantly, FIFA, who would make far less money from a simple sporting competition than the super league alternative they are pitching.




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