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Community spirit

The Premier League is the most marketable division in the world but more and more English fans are tiring of the money and hype and returning to the community roots of the game…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 16th August, 2017

This past Saturday my hometown team Brighton and Hove Albion contested their first ever match in the Premier League, losing 2-0 at home to Manchester City at the American Express Community Stadium.

The Seagulls’ route to the top tier of the English game was long and dramatic, and they finally achieved promotion as runners-up in the Championship last year after losing in the play-offs in three of the previous four seasons. Looking a little further back they almost dropped out of the four-league professional pyramid entirely 20 years ago, only preserving their status amongst the top 92 teams on goals scored thanks to Robbie Reinelt’s 62nd-minute equaliser against Hereford United on the last day of the 1996-97 season.

While Brighton’s return to the big time – they previously played in the old first division between 1979-1983 – has of course created a real buzz in the city and positive headlines around the nation, a growing number of fans in England are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the corporate and money-driven Premier League and instead re-establishing connections with what is often referred to as ‘proper’ football.

The day after Neymar completed his world record transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for around £200 million, for example, I visited Lewes FC – a community club in the eighth tier of the English football pyramid which is doing things a very different way.

Just a five-minute train ride through the South Downs from Brighton’s Falmer home, Lewes are steadily building a reputation as a club that exists in order to provide and maintain bonds with the local community.

In the 2007-08 season Lewes edged one step closer the dream of most non-league clubs when they secured promotion to the Conference National (now National League), just one division away from the professional ranks. The following day almost all the coaching and playing staff had their contracts terminated though as the owners, who worked in construction, had lost a huge amount of money in the global financial crash and were no longer able to pay the bills.

There was a real risk of Lewes having to fold after 123 years at its picturesque Dripping Pan home, but half a dozen fans clubbed together and were able to rescue them from extinction, reforming The Rooks as a community club – meaning the fans own and fund it, and that it makes no profit whatsoever.

We currently have around 1,200 active owners paying a minimum of £30 a year,” Kevin Miller, Lewes’ Commercial Manager and one of only three full time members of staff, told me ahead of the team’s pre-season friendly against Burgess Hill.

Interested parties can pledge their support to the club and become owners, and regardless of the amount paid no individual can own more than one share as Lewes strives to remain a community entity.

“Being very open, a mutual benefit society, all of our finances are posted online and our turnover is there,” Miller explains of the structure. “One week’s wages for Neymar would take the entire turnover of the club.”

Football Channel, 16 August 2017

Preserving the culture whereby everyone is working together for the enjoyment of football rather than profit means there are no grand plans to mount another challenge for professional status – although the women’s team, which the club recently announced will be paid the same as the men from this season, a first in professional or semi-professional football, are steadily approaching a place in the Women’s Super League.

“At this level the FA rules state that you can still take alcohol onto the stands,” Miller says of Lewes’ vision for the men’s team.

“If you go up to the Bostik Premier (the next division up) that’s still allowed; if you go one (more) up it’s still allowed but there are restrictions, but any higher than that and you change the complete complexion of the football club – which means you have to have a club bar, no alcohol outside, and that changes the dynamic of the club and I don’t think we want to do that.”

Manager Darren Freeman previously played for Lewes after a professional career that took in spells at Fulham, Brentford, and Brighton, and is another to have bought into the club’s approach.

“We’ve got great facilities and we’ve got a great fan base, who are fantastic and cheer the lads on week in week out,” the 43-year-old told me after his side came from a goal down to beat Burgess Hill 3-1.

“When you get a group of youngsters going out there and trying to do the right things they will make mistakes and we understand that – there’s people that get paid £250,000 that make mistakes. We believe in our youth, and if they can do a job then we utilise that, that’s important to us.”

As well as looking to further entrench the team in the local region by bringing players through the youth set up, which starts at Under-5 for boys and girls, Freeman insists his players socialise with supporters in the bar after games, win or lose. For the former striker such openness is vital to building an authentic community culture.

“I’m always open to fans coming up and speaking to me, not hiding behind a computer having a pop at everyone,” he explains.

“I’m here every game and what I say to them is that if they’re not happy then come and speak to me, I’d never not speak to someone. But in general the fans here are fantastic. I’ve wanted to come to this club for many years and manage them, so for me it’s an honour and a privilege to come here and I really feel that we can move Lewes into the right place where they should be.”

For Miller there is a clear idea of just where that is, and while growth on and off the pitch is vital to the club’s continued existence, success in the traditional sense is not being targeted at the expense of Lewes’ welcoming and inclusive atmosphere.

I think long term if we can stay in the National League South, so the sixth tier of English football, mid-table, crowds of 1,500 to 1,800, the odd play-off chase, the odd cup run, that’s perfect – for the men anyway – that’s sustainable,” he says.

“That means we’ve got genuine income and we can attract decent players. That’s a good level, getting good crowds, and would be absolutely perfect for us – and we’re only a couple of years away from that, I think.”

Down the road Brighton will be doing – and spending – all they can to keep their Premier League dream alive, but simpler pleasures and the enjoyment of football for football’s sake provide all the motivation Lewes and its fans need.

To become an owner of Lewes FC for a minimum of £30 (4,300) a year click here.


Leandro Domingues adds extra punch to Yokohama FC’s fight

Several J2 sides have made mid-season reinforcements as the battle for promotion heats up, with Leandro Domingues’ arrival at Yokohama FC the standout acquisition… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 28th July, 2017

The J.League – seemingly unable to stick with all of its formats for more than a couple of years without feeling the need to tweak something – is set to re-jig the promotion system again from the 2018 season, meaning this year marks the last chance for sides to achieve a place in J1 via the current play-off format.

Despite last season’s play-off winners Cerezo Osaka sitting top of J1 just past the half-way point, a further hurdle is set to be introduced next year with the winner of the post-season play-offs then required to play the 16th-placed team in J1 in a promotion/relegation decider to prove they have what it takes to compete in the top flight.

The far from welcome addition to the calendar means a team could finish as third best over 42 J2 games, defeat two of its closest challengers in play-off matches, but then be forced to stay in the second tier if it fails to beat a side which was the third worst in its division over the preceding nine months.

Whether that is fair or not is a debate for another day, but the change does appear to have prompted several of this season’s promotion-hunting sides to boost their chances of being involved in the final regular play-offs – or, of course, going straight up to J1 in one of the two automatic spots – by making mid-season re-enforcements.

Six of the top nine teams have added foreign forwards since the transfer window re-opened, with current leaders Shonan Bellmare recruiting Dragan Mrdja from Omiya Ardija, Yokohama FC bringing Leandro Domingues back to Japan, fellow Brazilian Gabriel Xavier pitching up at Nagoya Grampus, Fagiano Okayama signing Kim Jong-min and Nicolas Orsini, Matsumoto Yamaga turning to the experienced Davi, and Carlos Martinez joining his fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Lotina at Tokyo Verdy.

The most intriguing of these is Leandro Domingues’ arrival at Mitsuzawa, where Yokohama FC have been quietly building a solid-looking side over the past 18 months, spearheaded by the unstoppable Ibba Laajab.

The Norwegian has scored 16 of his team’s 33 goals so far in J2 in 2017 – adding to the 18 he managed in his debut season last year – and is far and away the most feared striker in the second division. Despite such impressive returns, however, there have been times when the 32-year-old has looked a little isolated in the final third, with opponents often doubling – sometimes even tripling – up on him and teammates occasionally seeming to rely on him to decide games on his own.

The capture of Leandro Domingues, then – a former J1 Player of the Year and winner of every domestic trophy in Japan – is an impressive piece of business and instantly paid dividends in his debut against V-Varen Nagasaki last weekend, with Varen coach Takuya Takagi referencing the “really big presence” the 33-year-old had on the pitch.

Indeed, it only took him six minutes to make an impact, sending a crisp ball forward to Ibba, who in turn laid it straight off for Naoki Nomura to play in Jeong Chung-geun for the opener.

“Before I received the ball I knew Ibba was in front of me and as soon as I got it I was looking to move possession on,” the former Kashiwa Reysol and Nagoya Grampus man said after the 2-1 win that moved Yokohama up to fifth in the table. “I hope we can continue to combine in that way in the upcoming games too to get more and more goals.”

Football Channel_getty_29th July 2017

Ibba warmly welcomed the addition of such a talented and attack-minded player to share the decisive workload.

“Before he came in the other team was always on me – I had two or three players – but now it’s one against one I can start to take down the ball and play a little bit because they are scared of him now too, so it makes my job more easy,” he said.

“You can see already today that him, Kensuke (Sato), Zato (Takahiro Nakazato), and Nomu (Nomura) have a good relationship and that makes a lot of space for me. I haven’t trained a lot with him – I only trained two weeks with him so we don’t know each other that well yet – but I think as long as we keep training with each other we’re just going to get better and better every day and he’s going to help us a lot, for sure.”

While acknowledging that Leandro Domingues appears to adhere to the quality-not-quantity approach often preferred by Brazilian players when it comes to training, Kazuyoshi Miura is also impressed by his new teammate.

“We had a training game recently in which he made three or four scoring opportunities, and today too he also made chances, especially in the first half; I think that’s the kind of player he is, and he certainly worked harder at defending in the game than he does in training, which was a relief for me!” the 50-year-old, who made the latest extension to his oldest-J.League-appearance record as a second half substitute against Nagasaki, joked after the game.

“He’s Brazilian, so I know his style of play and the fact that when it comes to real games he is able to move up a gear or two or three, and he did that today, I think.”

Ibba is hoping that things continue in such a positive vein, and if they do he sees no reason why Yokohama can’t make a concerted push for a long-awaited return to the first division.

“In J2 you never know – that’s the fun of J2, if we keep fighting like we did today we can take first or maybe second, because they are losing too,” he said on a weekend when all of the top three and four of the top five lost.

End of season runs have led to promotion for sides in each of the last two years, with Shimizu S-Pulse winning 15 of their last 18 games last season – losing just twice in that time and winning all of their last nine games – while in 2015 Avispa Fukuoka won 14 of their last 18, losing just once and winning each of their last eight.

Yokohama themselves recently had a poor run of form with just one win in eight games and four consecutive defeats, but the victory over Nagasaki was their second in a row and Ibba is hoping they can mount a similarly strong finish with 18 games to play.

“That’s how we think – that we are done with the bad time now and that we can just attack the last 15 games or so,” he said. “But you never know in J2, it’s fighting football and you never know what happens so we just have to keep fighting and we will see after the season.”

Leandro Domingues certainly adds to their arsenal, and having him in their corner undoubtedly increases Yokohama’s chances of still being involved when the last punches are being thrown.


Sanfrecce start again

Hajime Moriyasu standing down marks the end of an era for Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but perhaps the timing was right for a change in the Big Arch dugout… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 12th July, 2017

They say a change is as good as a rest, and as J1 heads into a three-week break Sanfrecce Hiroshima will be doing both as they look to right their course in what has been a torrid season so far.

The Purple Archers – champions as recently as 2015, when they stormed to their third title in four years – have been in woeful form in the first half of the 2017 campaign, and ahead of the mid-season interval head coach Hajime Moriyasu decided enough was enough and fell on his own sword after the 4-3 defeat away to Urawa Reds on 1 July.

Having taken the decision to step down Moriyasu insisted the buck stopped with him for the run of results that has left Sanfrecce mired in the relegation zone, while the players in turn claimed the bulk of responsibility as theirs. Striker Anderson Lopes, for instance, said after the first game of the post-Moriyasu era away to Yokohama F.Marinos on 8 July that 90% of the culpability rested with those out on the pitch.

In actuality, the proportioning of blame is probably not necessary in this case, with it fairer to say that things between Moriyasu and Sanfrecce had instead just naturally run their course.

The 48-year-old had worked wonders in his five-and-a-half years at the helm since replacing Mihailo Petrovic, but with key players leaving every season and the spine of the team that did remain getting older each year the club seemed to be stuck in something of a repetitive cycle that neither coach nor players were able to snap.

In such cases, while perhaps not an easy decision, a change at the top is probably for the best. A fresh face in the dugout, new ideas, new training methods, chances for fringe players to stake a claim, and pressure on regulars to convince the new man in charge they deserve to keep their places in the side could all serve to reinvigorate the team once the league resumes at the end of the month.

Indeed, Sanfrecce’s next seven fixtures don’t look especially taxing on paper, with five teams in the bottom half of the table – Sagan Tosu, Vegalta Sendai, Ventforet Kofu, Omiya Ardija, and Albirex Niigata – plus Gamba Osaka, who Sanfrecce beat 1-0 in Suita on 7 April, and Jubilo Iwata, who they drew 0-0 with on 27 May.

If new coach Jan Jonsson can lift the team’s spirits and pick up a first home win of the season against Tosu on 30 July then they could well go on to build considerably on their current haul of just 11 points in the following half-a-dozen games.

Performances haven’t actually been as bad as results suggest, with the side still causing opponents plenty of problems going forwards, as Zlatan Ljubijankic noted after his Urawa Reds side battled back from 3-2 down to win 4-3 at Saitama Stadium in what proved to be Moriyasu’s final game.

“I don’t understand how Hiroshima is in this kind of situation because they are still a good team, they showed that today,” the 33-year-old, who made it 3-3 with his first touch after coming on as a 84th minute substitute, said.

Football Channel, Wednesday 12th July 2017

“It is difficult to play against them. But this comes; you don’t know the reason. If you knew it then you’d change and everything would be easier.”

In the end Moriyasu decided his departure could be that magic fix, but as Ljubijankic forecasted it didn’t bring about an immediate upturn in fortunes with Sanfrecce only able to draw their next match against Marinos under interim boss Akinobu Yokouchi.

“A game is 90 minutes plus injury time,” Kazu Morisaki said after the last-gasp defeat away to Urawa, in which Sanfrecce conceded twice just before half time before coming back to take the lead themselves with 18 minutes to go.

“Getting the first goal is vital, I think from now on we have to be looking to score first. We’ve always been conceding the first goal and having to battle back and that is tiring both mentally and physically.”

It was the same story against Marinos last weekend, with Sanfrecce unable to take their chances and then conceding themselves with just nine minutes to play. They battled back well though, and Hiroki Mizumoto feels the fact they were able to snatch a draw courtesy of Anderson Lopes’ 90th-minute equaliser provides a decent first step on the road to recovery.

“When you think about how things have gone so far this season getting a point at 1-0 down looked difficult but not one of us threw in the towel,” he said after that game at Nissan Stadium.

“We were able to come back and went and tried to get a second goal even though we were away. But when you look at the overall performance it is disappointing that we didn’t get all three points.

“The second half of the season is going to be a really tough battle. We had quite a lot of shots today but we need to make sure we are getting them on target and tighten up at the back.”

Scoring goals has certainly been something of an issue this season, in particular, as Morisaki pointed out, drawing first blood. Sanfrecce have only managed to get on the score-sheet first in four league games, with the win over Gamba the only one they have gone on to take maximum points from.

Even so, the 1-1 draw with Marinos ended their losing streak at four matches and offered a bit of respite heading into the break, with the further boost of new signings Daiki Niwa and Patric also likely to add some extra character to the side.

If Jonsson can come in and instil a bit of belief in his charges right from the off then all is certainly not lost for Sanfrecce, but confidence is dangerously low at the moment and needs to be retrieved as soon as possible.


Marinos Sailing Smoothly

Yokohama F.Marinos have been doing it quietly, but the City Football Group-backed club are edging towards the top of J1… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 23rd June, 2017

Yokohama F.Marinos are J1’s form side and head into Sunday’s match against Vissel Kobe on a run of five games unbeaten, four of which, including their last three, have produced victories.

The club has climbed to fifth in the table as a result, five points behind leaders Kashiwa Reysol – who themselves are unbeaten in nine – and only three adrift of second placed Cerezo Osaka, who likewise haven’t lost in five.

Marinos’ most recent win was the late 1-0 away to FC Tokyo last weekend, which followed on from an impressive three points against Kawasaki Frontale – another side widely expected to be challenging at the top of the table again.

“1-0 is also enough, and I think we are learning a lot,” Quenten Martinus said after Jun Amano’s 88th minute strike decided the game at Ajinomoto Stadium. Even so, the Curacao forward knows the team can’t bask in the glory of a few good games and that they need to maintain a high level of performance.

“We need to be more consistent with our results and especially with [the way we are] playing. We need to grow – we cannot go down like this,” he plunged his hand down as if descending on a roller-coaster, “and then one time here,” he placed his hand at an invisible peak. “If you play not so good then play a six (out of ten) and then only better (than six). We need to do that more.”

That stance followed on from comments Martinus made earlier in the season, after the 1-1 draw with Albirex Niigata at Nissan Stadium in Round 4.

“If you want to be at the top of the league you cannot make these silly mistakes,” the 26-year-old said after Marinos had gifted Albirex an equaliser in a game the home side were dominating.

“They don’t make chances, they did nothing, and we created a lot of chances but we didn’t score them. Then you need to look at yourself and think for yourself. I think we need to speak about this, but we also need to keep on going because we also did a lot of good things.”

His teammate Milos Degenek was in full agreement on that front.

“I think that’s the big difference between top, top clubs and clubs who are all on the same level – if you use your chances,” the Australian said after that match on 18 March.

Football Channel, Friday 23rd June, 2017

“A big team needs only one or two chances in a game, and I think we kind of missed out on that today. I think this was a game we had to win because we did everything well and pretty much just didn’t score.”

David Babunski was similarly disappointed with Marinos’ failure to make their supremacy count against Albirex, but detected positive signs in the team’s beginning to the 2017 campaign and was optimistic they would only get better as the season wore on.

I think we had a fantastic start and then we faced a very strong team, Kashima where we also played quite good,” the Macedonia international said of the narrow 1-0 loss away to the reigning champions in Round 3. “I think we proved to ourselves that we could win, that we are ready to compete with any team, that we can be one of the top teams in the J.League.”

Ten games down the line and Marinos have certainly built on that promise, thanks in no small part to the influence of the overseas players brought in by City Football Group. Martinus, Degenek, Babunski, and Hugo Vieira have all made crucial contributions to the cause, but the team’s array of domestic talent has also caught the eye.

“I think we have a very, very, very talented team,” Martinus said after the recent win over Tokyo. “Some players are out now which is difficult for us, maybe we have to have a little bit of a bigger squad to cover that, but I think we have quality players and also young players who are very good.

“For example, Jun (Amano) – for me he can play easily in Europe, easily. He doesn’t play so much but he has a lot of qualities. I don’t know, maybe a lot of people don’t see it, but I train every day with him and he’s really, really good.

“His first touch, and he can turn with a man at his back so easily and not many people can do that. His left foot is also very dangerous; you saw in the last game how he gave the ball to me (with a cross that led to Hugo Vieira’s opener against Frontale), it was perfect. And he can do this a lot, with his free kicks also. If he just keeps on training then for me he can easily play in Europe, easily. In Holland for sure.”

For the time being Marinos will be content for him to keep his concentration on J.League duties though, and if Amano and co. can pick up another three points against Vissel this weekend it will certainly lay down a marker that the team is one to be reckoned with.


Japan’s friendly lesson

Japan play Iraq in a vital World Cup qualifier this evening,  and hopefully they can avoid the blues that tend to afflict them at this time of year… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 13th June 2017

Last Wednesday’s draw with Syria was far from a classic but, unfortunate as it is for those of us watching, exciting performances and positive results are not the purpose of friendly matches.

If Japan can learn lessons from the underwhelming 1-1 and improve enough to take a vital three points against Iraq in Tehran on Tuesday then the run-out at Ajinomoto Stadium will have fulfilled its purpose.

‘Fan service’ is a big deal in Japan, and the Samurai Blue players were all sure to read from the same apologetic script after the match, but with more and more of them based in the top leagues in Europe they know that some games are more important than others and that sometimes bad performances can serve as an important kick-up-the-arse.

“I think it’s good that this wasn’t a qualifier,” Genki Haraguchi said after the game. “We’re sorry that we couldn’t show the fans who came to watch tonight a good game, but if the players can improve because of this then we have to take that as a positive.”

Hiroki Sakai was also keen to take lessons on board, and knows the fans will forgive drab midweek displays in chilly Chofu when and if the ultimate aim of qualifying for the World Cup is achieved.

“We have to send the people who came to watch home satisfied and we have to pursue the things we are looking to achieve, and so there is absolutely no need to be negative,” The Marseille full-back said.

“If we lose the next game things will become really tough, and so I’m going to do my best to try and think of today’s bad things as positives.”

One slight cause for concern is the timing of the crucially important qualifier against Iraq, coming as it does right at the end of the European season.

The majority of the Japan side now play their football overseas, and the recent draw against Syria is the latest in a series of below-par offerings from the Samurai Blue at this time of year.

On 7 June last year, for instance, the side was out-muscled by a direct and physical Bosnia-Herzegovina in a 2-1 loss in Osaka, while the infamous 0-0 World Cup qualifier at home to Singapore was also played at the start of June in 2015.

“It’s not easy but we are national team players and so we need to make sure we deal with it and knock ourselves into shape,” Sakai said of the need to still be performing after a long and arduous campaign.

Yuto Nagatomo, a veteran now of six-and-a-half Serie A seasons, also admitted that there are difficulties in keeping the mind and body at its peak after a year of European club football.

“It’s the end of the season and so of course everyone is feeling the fatigue both physically and mentally,” the Inter Milan star said.

Football Channel, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

“However, we can’t use that as an excuse, and the purpose of today’s game was to get ourselves in condition for the Iraq match. Of course it’s a shame we didn’t win the game, but I think the most disappointing thing is Shinji (Kagawa)’s injury. Even so, I think today’s game has a big meaning in terms of raising our condition so we are in a position to beat Iraq on the 13th.”

The loss of Kagawa, who has recently shown signs of returning to something approaching his best form for Borussia Dortmund, is indeed a blow, and without him in Tehran Japan will need someone else to step up and fill the creative void created by his absence.

“We need to improve defensively and going forwards,” Haraguchi said. “It’s important now that the players and coach get together and discuss things and exchange ideas.

“I missed a chance (against Syria), and because I lacked quality then the game stayed at 0-0 and became more difficult for us. A national team player has to be scoring those opportunities, so next time I have that kind of chance I need to make sure I take it.”

Nagatomo, meanwhile, feels Japan started sluggishly against Syria, and knows how crucial it is to hit the ground running against Iraq.

“I think in the first half in particular, when the opponent still had plenty of energy, we struggled to lose our markers and link up to break them down,” the 30-year-old explained.

“Also, in spite of the way the opponent was playing, we were attempting passes that weren’t really on and then being caught on short counters, especially in the first half. Against Iraq we need to be very careful, as if we had conceded once in the first half here (against Syria) then the flow of the game would have changed.”

Iraq have demonstrated under new temporary manager Basim Qasim that they will present a similarly obstinate opponent, having kept back-to-back clean sheets in their warm-up games for this encounter with a 1-0 win over Jordan and, most recently, 0-0 draw against South Korea.

Morale in the team is high after a first game on home soil in four years (the win over Jordan drew a crowd of almost 60,000 fans in Basra) and with Iraq already out of the running for qualification they have nothing to lose and everything to gain with a positive result against one of Asia’s most prized scalps.

Australia are also now tied with Japan and Saudi Arabia on 16 points after beating the Saudis 3-2 last Thursday, although Japan have a game in hand in Tuesday’s clash against the Lions of Mesopotamia.

After that Vahid Halilhodzic’s side have just two qualifiers left – against Australia and Saudi Arabia – meaning three points are an absolute must against Iraq. They will need to sharpen up at both ends of the pitch to achieve that, and there is now absolutely no margin for error.


Age old problems

Japan are appearing at the U20 World Cup for the first time in 10 years, and thus far they have shown all the usual signs of Japanese national teams… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 27th May 2017

The players are younger, far less experienced, and haven’t had a huge amount of time playing together as a team, but Japan’s U-20’s shared a few things in common with the full national team in Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat to Uruguay.

Just as they’d done in their opening game against South Africa, Atsushi Uchiyama’s side started slowly, surrendering control of the game to the Uruguayans early on, as they seemed a little overwhelmed by the tenacity of their opponents.

As has also often been the case with the Samurai Blue when the pressure is on against the stronger teams in the biggest competitions the occasion also seemed to get to the players a little in the early stages, something that striker Yuto Iwasaki admitted afterwards.

”On this kind of stage, in international competition, we knew that if we won we’d have a better chance of qualifying for the knockout stage and so maybe we weren’t able to control our emotions completely,” the Kyoto Sanga player said.

“I think today a few of us had the feeling of wanting to make something happen, but perhaps we need to fight more as a team. Instead of looking to do things on our own we need to fight as a group.”

Centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu had a shaky start in Suwon and almost gifted Nicolas De La Cruz an opener in the 11th minute, but was let off as the Uruguay captain sent his effort just past the post. The South Americans weren’t to be so wasteful with their later opportunities though, and Tomiyasu paid reference to the difference in the decisiveness of the two teams – another criticism regularly aimed at the Japan top team.

“I really sensed their ability to take their chances,” Tomiyasu said. “We put ourselves under pressure a lot from our own mistakes – I personally made a lot of passing errors. More than it being them forcing the issue it was us making errors which led to us being under pressure.”

The loss of centre-forward Koki Ogawa to injury in just the 20th minute threw another spanner in the works for Japan, with a key facet of their game-plan being eliminated by the loss of the Jubilo Iwata youngster.

“After Ogawa went off we lost him as the target up front, which meant we lost the option of long balls and crosses a little,” left winger Koji Miyoshi said. “When Ogawa is on the pitch we always have the option to send in crosses, and that went a little without him.”

The ability to ride out in-game problems and adapt to them is a trademark of winning teams – think of the way Portugal persevered to win Euro 2016 even after Cristiano Ronaldo went off injured, for instance – and Japan’s sensitivity in that resect was noted by Uchiyama in his post-match press conference.

Japan at U20 World Cup

“We intended to play by moving the ball around, but after conceding the first goal our players began to play more in one-on-one situations rather than playing as a unit or using our combinations,” the 57-year-old said.

“I spoke about trying to change that at half time, but I think ultimately the result came from the way in which Uruguay took advantage of our mistakes but we were unable to capitalize on theirs.”

This, too, is a regular issue for the senior men’s team in the biggest games, and Japan’s inability to turn their control of possession in the second half into a more sustained period of pressure in the final third was registered by Iwasaki.

“I think there was a difference in the number of times each team got into positions in front of goal here, and I also sensed a difference in each team’s ability to convert those chances.”

Ogawa’s replacement Takefusa Kubo missed one of Japan’s best opportunities, heading over from close range as the ball rebounded to him in the 55th minute, and the combinations between the 15-year-old FC Tokyo wonder-kid and Iwasaki did look a little clunky at times.

“Sometimes I feel we were too far apart and perhaps our timing wasn’t quite right,” Iwasaki admitted. “We knew exactly what each of our roles were though, and had spoken about that – I was trying to get in behind while he wanted to play in the space.”

Indeed, there were some promising signs as the game wore on, and in the same way that Japan improved in the second half against South Africa they looked far more confident and positive after settling into their stride against Uruguay.

Iwasaki thinks that ability to adapt to the flow of the game is a positive aspect of the team’s game, and is hopeful they can utilise it again while also sharpening up in front of goal in today’s vital last group game against Italy.

“I think this team has the ability react to the way the opponent is playing and correct things in the second half,” he said by way of explanation for the team’s Jekyll and Hyde displays so far. “Once we are used to their style we are able to think about how best to play.

“Italy also have good technique and are physically strong, so I think it will be like today’s game. We know we will only have very few chances and so we have to be prepared to finish the ones we get.”

It is crucial the team don’t wait until the second half to get going against an Italian side which itself needs points to guarantee progression to the last 16 though, and while Japan only have a couple of days to do so, lessons need to be learned and corrections need to be made if the side wants to qualify for the next round.


Moriwaki incident provokes pause for thought

The recent incident involving Urawa Reds’ Ryota Moriwaki and Kashima Antlers’ Leo Silva and Mitsuo Ogasawara was all rather unpleasant, but hopefully having the debate played out so publicly can help increase understanding of the impact words and actions can have on others…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 11th May, 2017

It has been a busy few weeks for the J.League’s disciplinary panel, with all manner of on and off the pitch incidents making negative headlines for the division.

Some of these problems – Tokushima Vortis’ Kazuaki Mawatari being sent off for an altercation with a ball-boy in his side’s game away to JEF United on 29 April, for instance, or a handful of Urawa Reds fans reacting to their 1-0 loss away to Omiya Ardija in the Saitama derby the following day by picking a fight with a dividing fence – can merely be put down to poor decision making and stupidity, respectively.

Others, such as the scandal swirling around Urawa defender Ryota Moriwaki, however, require closer, more considered inspection, as they demonstrate a lack of awareness of the affect of words and actions on others.

Moriwaki was given a two-match suspension on Tuesday after being accused by Kashima Antlers captain Mitsuo Ogasawara of abusing Antlers’ Brazilian midfielder Leo Silva during the sides’ game in Saitama on 4 May.

Ogasawara was clearly incensed by something during an altercation in the 78th minute of the match, having to be restrained by Reds goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, and straight after the game the 38-year-old stopped of his own accord to address the media, alleging that Moriwaki had said ‘you stink’ to Leo Silva during the spat.

“After the game I spoke to Leo Silva and he said, ‘Moriwaki always says those things’,” Ogasawara said.

“In previous games he has said similar things to Caio and Davi, and seeing as it is something that has been repeated I feel this is enough. It counts as verbal abuse, which could be perceived as discriminatory, and so I would like the media to look into it.

“It is not restricted to just this occasion, and while I don’t know how it can be verified it can’t be tolerated. We have discussions about fair play and I don’t think we should accept verbal abuse.”

Such accusations cannot – and should not – be made lightly, and the story quickly gained traction, in part because of a string of recent events with a similarly unsavoury flavor.

Gamba Osaka were sanctioned for their fans waving a flag bearing an SS-like design during the 16 April derby against Cerezo Osaka, while nine days later a Kawasaki Frontale supporter displayed a naval ensign at the club’s ACL match away to Suwon Bluewings, leading to a 1.7 million fine from the AFC and the possibility of having to play a home game behind closed doors if the offence is repeated.

It wouldn’t appear that either of these incidents were carried out with any kind of political or discriminatory intent, but were instead down to a lack of understanding as to how the images on display could be perceived. This is not solely a problem within football, instead reflecting wider issues in society, but football can take a lead in trying to educate on such matters.

Leo Silva and Ryota Moriwaki (Football Channel / Getty Images)

“Reflecting on it, it sounds like a childish scuffle, but everything I can say is the truth,” Moriwaki said after the game in Saitama, before refuting the claims that he had said anything discriminatory to Leo Silva. Indeed, in his version of events he had not been directing his words at the Brazilian at all, but instead to Ogasawara, whose spit Moriwaki claimed had landed on his face during the altercation.

“I would be really grateful if there had been a tape recorder at the scene to have picked up everything,” he added. “People who really know me understand that I can get wound up and shout childish things like ‘shit!’, but not even once have I gone beyond that and said anything to really insult anybody – whether they be Japanese, Brazilian, or from any country.”

Upon receiving his ban and apologizing for any offence caused Moriwaki reiterated this stance, and, on balance, he deserves to be taken at his word.

“In life many things happen,” Leo Silva said when discussing the incident after the match.

“In the game, in the heat of the moment, all sorts crops up. For me, I accept those things in games – that’s my personality. I’ve played in Japan for quite a long time so I know Japanese people don’t really do that [say insulting things]. With that in mind I can act calmly.”

Moriwaki is the only one who truly knows what intent, if any, lay behind his words, and the most likely explanation is that he acted rashly, aggressively, and, as he himself admitted, childishly to the situation.

This is also a problem though, and the possibility that our behavior may be perceived as offensive to somebody else is something everyone needs to be aware of and to respect.

Such issues cannot be allowed to just be swept under the carpet, and encouraging discussion about them and attempting to prevent them from growing into more serious issues is vital.

“If you leave it now maybe in the future this might end up being a big problem,” Leo Silva continued. “Violence doesn’t only take physical forms but there is verbal violence in society as well, and we need to eradicate those things. Perhaps this kind of thing will happen in football from now on too, but I know it shouldn’t.

“I’m a father as well and wouldn’t want to do this kind of thing to others. If it was me who’d done it I’d be embarrassed. I don’t know if he [Moriwaki] has children, but for children we are heroes and role models to learn from. We have an important role to play in life and I’d like him to keep that in mind.”

Moriwaki has certainly been forced to consider his behaviour, and both he and Leo Silva merit praise for dealing with the fallout in a mature manner. What is important now is that everyone learns from the recent unedifying episodes, and that players and fans pay more consideration to the way in which their behaviour can impact upon others.

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