Archive for the 'Weekly Soccer Magazine / 週刊サッカーマガジン' Category


Stick or twist?

I wrote this around a month ago, after Japan’s last pair of friendlies in Europe, but for some reason forgot to post it here. My penultimate Weekly Soccer Magazine column on Alberto Zaccheroni’s rigid selection policy…


Good teams have bad games. That can’t be helped and kneejerk reactions are rarely helpful. Six defeats in eight games to non-Asian opposition is not just an off day though, and Alberto Zaccheroni has some big decisions to make as the World Cup finals draw ever closer.

Consistency brings with it many positives but too much repetition can breed complacency and result in things becoming stale and predictable. That is the problem Zac has to overcome now.

The two recent games against Serbia and Belarus were, on paper, the ideal opportunity to try out a few fringe or untested players against decent but far from top level European opposition in an environment far removed from the “Kirin makes smile field” cosiness of domestic friendlies. For reasons best known to himself the Italian neglected to do so though, instead going with his tried and trusted XI and substitutions you can almost set your watch too.

Again, I have no problem with a coach persevering with his preferred selection and feel that the impact of constantly bringing in new faces can be overstated and complicate things if overdone. However, when results are not being achieved – and in fact, defeats are mounting up – it is vital that something is done to lift the ennui over the camp.

Fans welcome Japan to Saitama Stadium, June 2013

As well as giving players the impression that their shirt is secure for Brazil –which can either lead to a sense of contented satisfaction or a fear of making a mistake and messing up your chances (and thus safe and unadventurous play) – opponents also know exactly what to expect when they come up against Japan, and are quite happy to sit back and let them pass the ball around in front of them before seizing possession and breaking quickly by way of attack.

There is nothing wrong with possession-based, passing football – indeed it is positively in vogue right now, especially in Japan where you are not a coach worth your salt unless you profess to be aiming for a Barcelona style of play – but it needs to be carried out in the right way. There is a time to slow down the pace and keep the ball but there is also a point at which the speed must be upped and a certain dynamism and directness needs to be introduced. At the moment the Samurai Blue are not injecting that boost, and the constant circulation of the ball reminds me of so many meetings I’ve had in Japan where it seems the target is not to achieve a goal but purely to have a meeting. Possession is all well and good but it needs to be taken advantage of.

"Are you ready to fight?"

In order to win big games – or at the moment just games – your big players need to perform and of late they haven’t done so. Keisuke Honda and, in particular, Shinji Kagawa have looked devoid of ideas recently, and when they don’t click Japan invariably do.

So, who can add that missing spark? The list of players who could be drafted in is exhaustive and almost every team in J1 has a candidate: Manabu Saito, Yoshiaki Ota, Yasushi Endo, Masato Kudo, Kengo Kawamata, Yoshito Okubo, Hisato Sato…; a host of aggressive, direct, and unpredictable players who could serve to mix up Japan’s approach play far more than Mike Havenaar or Takashi Inui have done in their recent attempts. Quite how they would fare at international level remains to be seen, but how will we know unless they are given opportunities?

Yoichiro Kakitani looked like he may be the trigger but has simmered down after entering the fray at boiling point, demonstrating how key the timing of such call-ups can be. Roy Hodgson, for instance, is another coach perceived to be too cautious but performed a recent masterstroke by adding Andros Townsend to the mix for England, and the Tottenham winger’s introduction spurred the Three Lions on to Brazil.

Is Zac waiting until the last moment before including a surprise player or two in the hope of providing a similar jolt at the finals themselves rather than one which wears off months in advance? It’s unlikely, but I certainly hope he has something up his sleeve.


End of an era

Since the end of 2010 I have written a column for Weekly Soccer Magazine. Unfortunately after 20 years the magazine is unable to continue as a weekly publication and this week the last issue was published. Here’s my final contribution…


2013 has been quite the year for the J.League, and as well as celebrating the landmark of its 20th season the division has announced controversial plans to change the format of J1 from 2015 in an attempt to stave off a decline in attendances and sponsorship money.

Quite whether that alteration will benefit the league in the long run remains to be seen, but sadly for this magazine a battle has already been lost and this will be the last issue as Weekly Soccer Magazine.

The publication, like the J.League, has assumed many different guises since it was first introduced as a special football section in Sports Magazine in 1966, and after shifting between monthly and fortnightly issues for a quarter of a century it became weekly when football turned fully professional in 1993.

All good things must come to an end, however, and although I have only been contributing for three years (almost exactly, I distinctly remember my debut column appearing on October 26th, 2010 and being mortified at my photograph and the title (I thought the “baby” part was a reference to my relative youth, or perhaps Austin Powers)) I have to say it has been an honour and a pleasure to have been able to take part in the discussion on Japanese football in such a prominent magazine. Thanks to all the staff for their help and, of course, to everyone who has taken the time to read each week.


Being my final column – by my reckoning my 150th – I thought it would be fitting to think a little about the biggest change in Japanese football since I started writing at the end of 2010; the number of Japanese players now plying their trade in Europe.

The success of the South Africa World Cup was undoubtedly the catalyst for the mass migration, and it is strange now to think that of the 23 players in Takeshi Okada’s squad that summer just four (Makoto Hasebe, Keisuke Honda, Daisuke Matsui, and Takayuki Morimoto) belonged to non-J.League clubs.

Now the ratio is almost reversed, and even if they’re only playing for middling sides in the Bundesliga or sitting on the bench in the Premier League the bulk of Alberto Zaccheroni’s squad are getting their wages paid by European clubs.

In many ways the increased opportunities being offered to players from these shores in the biggest leagues is helping Japanese football to keep growing. Playing alongside and against the best in the world can only be a good thing when it comes to improving individual players and the national team as a whole, and as well as maturing on the pitch the positives of living abroad upon personal development should not be underestimated.

Cover on 26th October, 2010

Players proving themselves overseas doesn’t only encourage more European sides to take chances on Japanese talent but it also demonstrates to youngsters hoping to make the grade in the future that it is a realistic target. It is no longer permissible to dismiss players from this part of the world as being “too small” to succeed – just ask 170cm Yuto Nagatomo of Inter Milan.

Of course, the increasingly regular departures have also had a negative effect on the Japanese game, robbing the domestic league of much of its star quality and even being cited by the J.League as one of the impacting factors upon its decision to revisit a two stage season.

Players should absolutely take the chance if an offer is forthcoming and they want to embrace all aspects of a move abroad, but the grass is not always greener on the other side. The J.League is better than many – including perhaps some players – think.

As a final trip down memory lane, and to end on a positive note, I dug out the first issue of this magazine that I contributed to (#1316). Six players graced the cover that week: Marquinhos (then of Kashima Antlers), Jungo Fujimoto (Shimizu S-Pulse), Akihiro Ienaga (Cerezo Osaka), Tomoaki Makino (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Yuzo Tashiro (Montedio Yamagata), and Marcio Richardes (Albirex Niigata).

Ienaga aside, all are still playing in the J.League – albeit all for different clubs. Which just goes to show; things change in football but people tend to stick around.

Thanks again and hopefully see you soon.


Final push

Yokohama F.Marinos look to be faltering as the season draws to a close, and there is an experienced team waiting to take advantage…


Form early on and in mid-season is all well and good, but if you can’t move through the gears smoothly on the final straight then prior efforts can all too often prove to be in vain.

That is especially true in the J.League where teams very rarely establish a commanding lead at the top of the table – with the notable recent exception of Nagoya Grampus who, in the words of Josh Kennedy, “already had a beer in our hands celebrating” with three games to go in 2010 – and a perfect, albeit extreme, example this season has been Omiya Ardija who surged to the top of J1 and set a new unbeaten record before losing 12 in 13 and plummeting down to 10th.

Picking up points throughout the season of course lays the foundations for a title challenge, but you need to have energy, guts, and concentration as the finish line approaches if you want to be the one popping champagne corks and not ruing missed chances come Christmas.

Last season eventual champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima took 10 points from their last five games to make sure they sealed their first ever J1 crown, while their closest challengers Vegalta Sendai capitulated, claiming a measly three points from their last handful of matches.

There hasn’t really been a clear favourite this season, although Yokohama F.Marinos have probably been the most consistent side over the past seven months. Until recently, that is.

Marinos fans, Yurtec Stadium, September 28th, 2013

At the start of August I wrote in praise of Yasuhiro Higuchi’s team – who like Vegalta last year enjoyed a blistering start to the season – impressed with the way they had thrown off the shackles which had so often held them back in recent years.

I did, however, add a slight note of caution after I detected worrying signs in the comments of Higuchi and defensive lynchpin Yuji Nakazawa after Marinos’ swashbuckling 3-2 win over fellow title hopefuls Urawa Reds in Saitama. Rather than reveling in the way they’d loosened up at the back in order to embrace the array of attacking talent in their ranks both men paid reference to the lack of stringency in defence, and it appeared that the team was on the verge of reverting to a safety first style of play.

A close look at the formbook since then suggests my fears were well founded. In the 11 league games since Marinos downed Reds they have tightened up defensively and conceded just seven times – which would be fine were it not for the fact that they have also only managed to find the net 13 times themselves in that period. If we zoom in even closer to their most recent games the worries multiply and Shunuske Nakamura and co. have won only won of their last five games, scoring just twice and taking a meager six points from the 15 on offer.

Antlers fans, National Stadium, 5th October, 2013

During that time a new, vastly experienced challenger has arrived on the scene: Kashima Antlers.

Despite losing an astonishing seven away games in a row in the league at one point Toninho Cerezo’s men are now within just three points of top spot and look more than capable of claiming a first title since 2009. They thoroughly dismantled FC Tokyo in Round 28 and although they haven’t kept a clean sheet for seven games they have more than compensated by winning four of their last five games, scoring 13 in the process.

A host of intelligent, technically gifted, and, perhaps most importantly of all, unpredictable players make Antlers a hard team to contain, and in Davi and Yuya Osako they have one of the most potent strike-forces in the division. The Ibaraki club have undoubtedly picked up the scent of an eighth J1 crown, and it is up to Marinos, Reds, or reigning champions Sanfrecce to prevent that happening.

Reds, like Marinos, have rather flattered to deceive of late but remain in the hunt, but Sanfrecce are the biggest threat. They face Marinos on Saturday (when Antlers host Reds) and Antlers on the last day of the season, and those head-to-head encounters may very well determine which side make it to the tape in first place.

Slow and steady may sometimes win the race, but a burst of power at the end is often far more beneficial.


Matchday Experience

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of going to the game…

8th Oct 13

Football has played a central role in my life since I was six years old, but since I started watching the game for a living a change has taken place.

In a year I probably watch around 100 matches live in stadiums, but as the frequency of games goes up my understanding and enjoyment of the matchday experience – not in relation to ‘brand awareness’ or delivering value for money or any of that nonsense, but in the very real sense of enjoying the day of the game, feeling that excitement and hope on the way to the stadium and as kick-off approaches – has become incredibly dulled.

When I played back in England the anticipation would start to build on Friday night as I looked ahead to who we were playing the next day, while the next morning was an inconvenience which I wanted out of the way as quickly as possible so I could get out on the pitch.

Back then the start of the match, that first shrill whistle which gets things underway, was the point upon which all the nerves, anticipation, and concentration had been focused. It was, in a sense, the high point. From then on energy and adrenaline would be expelled and even the euphoria of winning was a different sensation to that experienced in the build up to the game.

Montedio Yamagata fans, ND Soft Stadium, 29th September, 2013

Now, however, the beginning of the match signifies the start of work for me and a new target several hours down the line is where my unconscious is focused. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy matches anymore, or that I don’t get a buzz from being involved (however fleetingly) with the protagonists out on the pitch, but my matchday experience has changed drastically.

I was recently reminded of my previous life, however, when I helped an English documentary maker with a project about Japanese football. We spent a match day with Montedio Yamagata fan Syu Oba, meeting for lunch several hours ahead of kick-off, travelling to the stadium together via landmarks in the town linked to his club – including the team’s old ground (“my theatre of dreams”) and the supporters’ bar – watching the game from the stands, and then travelling back after the final whistle together.

Speaking with Oba-san and seeing how much he invested in every game day took me back to a time when the match was the centerpiece of the week. When speaking about the role football played in helping people recover after the tragedy of March 11th, 2011, for instance, Oba-san made a very salient point.

“Football is important because it happens every week,” he said. “We needed something that could restore a kind of normality, to help people get back to their everyday lives again.”

Praying for success, Yamagata, 29th September, 2013

That comment reminded me of a similar observation made by English director Douglas Hurcombe (who was not involved with this project, but is currently making a film about Vegalta Sendai, ‘Football Take Me Home”), when I interviewed him at the start of this year.

“There’s this wonderful anonymity that exists, so you can leave [your worries] behind,” he said of the experience of going to a football match. “For all the good that it does you when you go out with your mates and you start moaning about the mortgage and the kids there’s this ultimate joy that for those few hours none of that exists. It’s all gone, it’s all away from you, it’s all somewhere else, it’s in a different world.”

On the way back after the game – which Montedio lost 1-0 to a late goal – Oba-san was already looking ahead to next week’s match, and lamenting the fact that he couldn’t make it to every away game. As well as reminding me of the time I lived in that cycle, the experience of spending a day with a supporter was also interesting in the light of the J.League’s switch to a two-stage season.

Whether you are anti, pro, or indifferent one thing should be remembered: football will not disappear. Games will still happen every weekend and how much you take from the experience of going to matches is largely dependent on what you put into it. Football will always be there next week, whatever happens today.


Two-stage fright

The J.League’s decision to switch to a two-stage plus play-off season from 2015 is hard to understand, as is the way they went about announcing it…


I think it’s fair to say that the J.League has made a bit of a mess of its restructuring process.

Back in June I defended the possible introduction of a straight two-stage season, essentially arguing that letting the two best teams – by the standards of such a set-up – face off in a final was not an especially unjust way to determine a champion.

The version which has been settled upon, though, is ludicrously long-winded, has still not been fully explained, and could serve to damage rather than help the league.

Fans are almost unanimously opposed to the new format, citing the confusing set-up and unfairness as their primary complaints, and players, too – both ex and current – have voiced disappointment and confusion at the plans.

One former J.Leaguer and Japan national team player joked to me that the league may have to rethink its current policy of displaying the “Fair Play” flag ahead of matches, and Yasuhito Endo, who has experience of the previous two-stage season, also expressed concerns about the incoming format’s ability to determine a just champion.

“You can’t argue with the fact that play-offs build excitement but the most fitting way to determine the champion is the total of points over the year, I think. Everyone considers them as the champion team,” he told me after Gamba Osaka’s 2-2 draw with Matsumoto Yamaga.

Fair enough?

“You can think about Oita coming up to J1 from 6th place [in J2] last year, so if the 5th or 6th placed team was to become the champion of the year it would be hard to agree with that.”

Tomoaki Makino is of a similar mind. “My opinion is that it’s not so good,” he said after Urawa Reds’ 1-1 draw with Ventforet Kofu. “The champion over the course of the year is the real champion so I have mixed feelings.”

I don’t doubt the J.League’s claim that something needed to be done to arrest worrying trends – average attendances fell by 1,636 and clubs’ income slumped on average by 299 million yen between 2008-12 – and having conducted discussions internally and with clubs regularly over the year and two months between June 2012 and August 2013 claims that it has quickly hashed out a plan are wide of the mark.

The fact that they didn’t think to consult directly with fans about the issue is baffling though – especially as they had the perfect opportunity to address that oversight back in June when supporters’ discontent was first aired. Instead of inviting them to JFA House to partake in discussions, however, they stumbled on regardless – although it wouldn’t surprise me if the ‘bye’ for the team with the most points over the season into the final final wasn’t shoehorned in at the eleventh hour to try and appease complaints about unfairness.

Urawa Reds fans protest, Kokuritsu, September 14th, 2013

Just how many fans will follow through with their threats to stop visiting the stadiums once the two-stage season begins is hard to say. While it may not result in a sudden dip in attendances I struggle to see how two-stages are better than one when it comes to attracting new fans though. The post season will almost certainly be sold out and provide excitement, but quite why casual fans will flock to grounds throughout the regular season is hard to fathom.

“I think they need to give more of an explanation to players, staff, and fans as to how two-stages will help to increase the excitement and help with the investment and money problems,” Endo said, before conceding, “But, well, it’s already been decided so there’s nothing we can do but accept it.”

That may not necessarily be the case, and if protests persist and the image of the J.League begins to suffer it may have to rethink.

If it does and still wants a change I would propose an East-West split. The top 5 teams from each region move into a championship league for the second half of the season, while the bottom four from each battle to avoid relegation. This would freshen up the competition (you wouldn’t necessarily play the same teams every season), as well as cutting down travel distances and making it easier for fans to attend games both home and away.

It’s still not perfect, but I won’t make the same mistake as the J.League; what do the fans think of that idea?


Jubilo Owatta?

They’ve been everpresent in the top flight since joining the J.league in 1994, but it looks like the game is up for Jubilo Iwata…


The appointment of Takashi Sekizuka at the end of May was supposed to be the move which saved Jubilo Iwata from the relegation scrap and edged them back up to where they belong – in the middle reaches of the J1 table.

It is now almost four months since the former Kawasaki Frontale and London 2012 Olympic coach took over, however, and it looks very much like Jubilo’s race has been run. With just a quarter of the season left to play they realistically have to win the majority of their games as well as needing both Shonan Bellmare and Ventforet Kofu to capitulate on the final straight.

Their story is not unique, and in recent seasons a certain stasis has seen numerous established clubs flirt with or succumb to relegation from the top flight. The biggest profile was obviously Gamba Osaka last year – who were ironically relegated courtesy of a 2-1 defeat by Jubilo on the last day of the season – but Urawa Reds in 2011 and FC Tokyo in 2010 have also had spells battling at the wrong end of the table.

In a recent conversation with a former J.League coach the importance of keeping players’ tension at the right level was discussed; too much stress and they are likely to be nervous and make mistakes, too relaxed and they will lack the necessary concentration or respect for the opposition and be caught out. To me, this is the key contributing factor to the woes of clubs like Jubilo.

The beats go on...

With nine games to go last season they were sitting in 4th place, just six points behind leaders and eventual champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima. The players began to coast, however, not driven enough to take their challenge all the way to the wire but not afraid enough of dropping down to J2, and eventually finished 12th, avoiding relegation by just seven points. That can’t be attributed to tactics or players’ ability, that is down to motivation and concentration.

Things haven’t improved on that front this season, despite the squad being largely unchanged, and the win over Kashiwa Reysol in Round 25 was just their third all season, and first away from home for almost exactly one year.

One player who does look like he is up for the fight is recently-acquired midfielder Carlinhos, who was at the heart of all of Jubilo’s good play in the win over Reysol.

“Of course last year I had experience (of battling and surviving relegation) with Omiya and I hope that I can contribute to Jubilo’s survival as well,” he told me after the match. “Winning puts us on the right track and […] becomes a feeling that we want to repeat.”

"Crawl up", this banner pleads

As well as battling for and creating with the ball, the Brazilian also demonstrated his desire to succeed in a heated exchange towards the end of the match with Reysol coach Nelsinho.

“Of course it was in the final stage of the game so both of us were tense and fired up, that’s just normal,” he explained. “Those kind of things happen.”

It is all too rare an occurrence for Jubilo though, and looks like being too little, too late. A few more players showing Carlinhos’ passion could very well have saved them from their current peril.

“Behind our desire to win the desire to protect what we have has also been pulling away,” Yuichi Komano admitted of the team’s inability to see out victories in the league this year. “There have been many times when that has been our undoing. Because of that we haven’t been able to put pressure on the ball and have lost the initiative and then conceded goals.”

They managed to overcome such fears against Reysol and take all three points, something they will need to do repeatedly over the next two months.

“We believe that we can survive,” Komano insisted. “There is pressure but we have to put that to one side and we have to win [our games].”

Another experienced Japan star, Yasuhito Endo, said almost exactly the same thing to me towards the end of the 2012 season. We all know what happened to him and his Gamba teammates though, and it looks like the same fate is set to befall Komano and co. this year.


Attack, attack, attack

Japan’s defence is still not looking particularly water-tight. Does it matter when you have so much talent pouring forwards at the other end, though…?


It would be something of a turnaround from the last time that Japan appeared at a World Cup finals but I’m beginning to wonder if the team should start to adopt a more aggressive stance regardless of the opposition they are facing.

Defensively the side has not looked convincing for the last six months, and indecision with regards to how much to commit forward and how much to try and keep opponents at bay has invariably seen Alberto Zaccheroni’s men on the wrong side of results.

The Confederations Cup was the perfect case in point, and after offering Brazil a huge amount of respect in the opening game Japan were comfortably swept aside 3-0.

The next game against Italy was undoubtedly the high point of the competition for the Samurai Blue, and after 33 minutes they found themselves 2-0 up against the Azzuri. Nerves then began to set in, however, and after Maya Yoshida’s mistake allowed Italy back into the game just before half-time Japan retreated further and further back, eventually ending up on the wrong side of a 4-3.

Fear of returning from Brazil with a clean sweep of defeats then saw the side enter its final match against an out-of-form Mexico cautiously, and again come away without any points.

Nissan Stadium, 10th September, 2013

Looking at the personnel available it does not seem likely that a surefire defensive leader is going to emerge over the next nine months, and so Zac should perhaps focus on getting everything he can out of the not inconsiderable attacking threat his team possesses.

The emergence of Yoichiro Kakitani as not just a fine J.League player but a realistic option to lead the line for the full national team may well be the final piece in a puzzle that has long remained unfinished.

Frustration at the lack of a proven goalscorer has constantly dominated discussion about a succession of Japan teams, but the current abundance of not-quite-strikers-but-not-midfielders looks like that conversation may be irrelevant for this generation.

With Kakitani ostensibly the furthest forward but constantly moving left and right and dropping deep against Ghana an abundance of space was created for Hiroshi Kiyotake, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Kagawa to exploit, and the Ghanaians really struggled to contain the foursome.

If one constant goal threat is not available then having four accomplished – if not prolific – finishers buzzing around is not a bad alternative.

Eiji Kawashima, who in his duties at the other end of the pitch knows exactly what defences don’t want to come up against, was impressed with Kakitani’s instant acclimatization to the Samurai Blue.

Good on paper, too

“He’s got good potential as a striker,” the Standard Liege keeper told me after the Ghana game. “Also he’s getting used to playing with the national team quickly so I think he can be a good option for us. He’s still young and if he learns a lot of things I think he can contribute much more to the team.”

I asked Kawashima if he felt that the side had the ability to switch from being a pragmatic team aiming to win games without conceding goals to a more bombastic, expansive outfit in the mold of the 1999 Manchester United team which famously adopted the approach of ‘you score three and we’ll score four’.

He – understandably for a keeper – didn’t seem certain they should adopt quite such a gung-ho way of playing, but did concede that the team was better placed now than it was in South Africa to take the game to opponents, who would be starting to fear the attacking threat posed by Kakitani and co.

“I think absolutely [opponents] know about us. They are thinking that Japan is much stronger than before,” he said. “So even though in 2010 we were just defending mostly for 89 minutes and [then] try to score, this time we have more quality for the attacking. But as I said it’s not about only attacking as a team, we have to mix it.”

That’s true, and becoming too top heavy could be dangerous, but throwing off the shackles a little and keeping opponents occupied with containing the variety of quick, skillful, and intelligent attackers at Zac’s disposal could limit the amount of defending that Japan actually need to do. It is the best form of defence, after all.


Nels-in-ho, Nels-out-ho…

Out of nowhere Kashiwa Reysol boss Nelsinho announced he was resigning – then he reconsidered…


Nobody expected it. In fact, when Nelsinho announced his resignation after Kashiwa Reysol’s 3-1 defeat to Kashima Antlers I was already on the bus heading back to Tokyo.

Granted, that was partly because the game had taken place at Antlers’ ludicrously-situated stadium and any failure to catch said bus would have left me sleeping with the deer in Kashima Jingu, but I also didn’t have any inkling that there’d be anything noteworthy said in the press conference after a fairly standard J.League game.

A quick scan of Twitter on my way home proved otherwise, however, and as news broke of the Brazilian’s decision to stand down the typical reaction of fans and media alike was shock.

Yes, Reysol had been comfortably beaten by Antlers but prior to the loss they were unbeaten in nine in the league, had their Emperor’s Cup second round game coming up in midweek, a Nabisco Cup semi-final the following Saturday and, grandest of all, the ACL quarter-final second leg against Al Shabab on the agenda next week.

Kashiwa Reysol line up against Kashima Antlers ahead of what was, temporarily, Nelsinho's last game in charge.

Nelsinho’s reason for calling it a day was that he felt the club shouldn’t be languishing in mid-table come the business end of the season and should instead be leading the way, or at least in or around the top three. Considering Reysol’s strenuous schedule this year though – the loss to Kashima was their 36th game of the season, if you include the Super Cup, and they had a maximum of 23 more to play – it is entirely forgivable that they would struggle to compete fully on all fronts.

Also, while ninth place is below par for a club that has established itself as one of the top teams in J1 over the past couple of years, there was still almost a third of the season to play when the veteran tactician threw in the towel, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could accumulate enough points in the last 10 games to move themselves back up to where Nelsinho feels they belong.

Perhaps this was one of the things that crossed his mind in the cold light of the days following his announcement, as five days later – and with any official announcement from the club having been conspicuous by its absence – the 63-year old reversed his decision and was back on the training pitch.

The silence from the club had provided fans with the glimmer of hope that he may make a swift return to the dugout, and they campaigned passionately at their side’s Emperor’s Cup second round match against Tsukuba University (for which coach Masami Ihara was in temporary charge) for Nelsinho to rethink.

“It was not because of this game but a considered decision,” the coach had insisted when announcing his resignation after the loss to Kashima, but he exhibited a slightly more emotional streak in the light of the fans’ requests, performing a sensational U-turn on Thursday evening.

Nelsinho back on the Reysol bench a week later

“In the days afterwards I spoke to many friends and different people about the decision and on reflection felt that I wanted to come back and work for this club again,” he explained. “It is not easy to retract a decision like that, but if you realize you have made a mistake or an error I think it is stupider to see it through.”

Of course, there are a host of other theories as to what may have brought him back, but I am inclined to take him at face value. That may be naïve but in my experience he has always come across as an honest, intelligent, and amiable individual and if the club simply refused to accept his resignation he may have felt duty-bound to see out his contract.

The timing was always baffling, and it was hard to understand why he would leave Reysol at such a vital stage of the season. Perhaps the full realization of that didn’t sink in until after the decision had been made, and having enjoyed so much success with the club during his four years in charge – and with a realistic opportunity of adding more silverware this year – he may have envisioned a more distinguished way to bow out at the end of this season.


Squirrels going nuts

It takes a special kind of team to set a record unbeaten run and club best (worst?) consecutive losing run in the same season. Was firing the coach the right call for Omiya Ardija though?


I interviewed Zdenko Verdenik after Omiya Ardija had beaten Cerezo Osaka 2-1 back in April and asked him tongue-in cheek if he thought Shin Kanazawa would ever be able to repeat his astonishing halfway line goal that had put them ahead inside the first minute of that game.

He laughed and said he very much doubted it, before adding a caveat: “In football anything can happen, nothing is strange.”

I’m not so sure. Kanazawa of course hasn’t managed to replicate his wonder strike, but if he had would it have been any more surprising than Verdenik’s unceremonious firing three weeks ago?

While rumours have swirled since to the contrary, for most of us looking in from the outside the sacking was totally unexpected and it is still hard to understand how a coach who had lifted the perennial relegation-battlers to the top of the table could be so mercilessly dismissed.

Yes, their fortunes had changed markedly since that first Cerezo game, and the loss to Yoichiro Kakitani and co. on August 10th was Ardija’s fifth in a row, but such bumps in the road have been ridden out before. Kashima Antlers lost five on the bounce en route to their 2009 J1 title, for example, while that same season Urawa Reds were defeated in seven straight games without Volker Finke being shown the door.

Verdenik wasn’t afforded such patience tough, and amid accusations of losing the dressing room and arguments with his coaches the Slovenian was disposed of.

Omiya Ardija

Upon my return from England the first game I took in was Tsutomu Ogura’s debut in charge of Ardija – having previously served as a coach under Verdenik and, very briefly, as technical director – and it was clear that there is much that needs repairing at NACK5.

Not least of all there is the form, fitness and, let’s be honest, mood of star strikers Milivoje Novakovic and Zlatan Ljubijankic. The pair will obviously have been two of the most aggrieved at recent events, and just how much longer they will be in Saitama is hard to gauge.

I spoke with Ljubijankic after the 3-2 loss to Reysol, and while he insisted it wasn’t his business who sat in the dugout it is fair enough to assume that the loss of his compatriot will have an impact on his longer-term future at the club.

“No, look, I [have] changed already lots of coaches, so I can only say this is not for players to think about, this is for the people in the club,” he said. “But I want to say only with Zdenko that he is a really good coach and we had a really good time together, good results, and I will never forget this time I spent here with him. So I want to say thank you for that to him, and I hope he is going to have luck [soon] in another job.”

Tsutomu Ogura has now shifted down the bench

With regards to his future, the 29-year-old maintained he would be going nowhere before December and that he would not be thinking about next year until then.

“We will see, [my contract is] until the end of the season, that’s why I am still here in this club. I need to show my best performance and then we will see. I really like everything here, so we will see.”

As for how a team that just six weeks previously had been top of the table could suddenly be experiencing such abysmal form he was certain that the problem was mental.

I don’t know what to say. We are in a really difficult period now. I see how it is in Japan when you start winning you can’t lose in a long time and now when you start losing it is also…” he drifted off and laughed regretfully. “Now we [have lost] seven games [in a row].”

Confidence is undoubtedly in incredibly short supply for the Squirrels at the moment, but Ljubijankic is not intending to feel sorry for himself, and demands the same of his teammates too.

“It’s very nice when you’re winning, everything is super with the fans and everything, but the true mentality shows when you’re losing,” he declared. “Then you see if we have a good mentality.”


Women not winning

Winning the World Cup was a sensational triumph for Nadeshiko Japan, although it has served to add pressure in the two years since…


There is a moment from a few minutes before Nadeshiko Japan won the World Cup in 2011 which has always stuck in my mind.

It was as Norio Sasaki addressed his players before the penalty shoot-out, a huge grin fixed on his face and a look almost of disbelief that they were in with a chance of becoming world champions.

Previous form suggested he was quite right to be pinching himself – the side had won just three of their 16 games at World Cup finals prior to 2011 – and despite being in terrific form throughout the competition in Germany the USA were still huge favourites, having beaten Japan 3-0 and 4-0 in their previous two encounters at World Cup finals.

Everyone knows what happened in Frankfurt, and while the same group of players followed that triumph with another terrific showing to take silver at the London Olympics 12 months later that high has not been recreated since.

Most recently it was the East Asian Cup they failed to get their hands on, and a couple of weeks after that competition I headed to Chelsea’s training ground for a chat with their new striker Yuki Ogimi.

Norio Sasaki in relaxed mood ahead of the penalty shootout in the 2011 World Cup final

“When we won the World Cup it was lucky,” she confessed. “Many small good pieces of luck combined so we were able to win. It was unexpected. Really unexpected. After that the fact that we haven’t recorded good results has proven that much.

“We don’t yet have the ability to keep winning, to beat any kind of opponent, so the players also share a sense of concern about the fact that we are not producing good results.”

Let’s not get carried away, the women’s game in Japan is in an incredibly good health compared to many other countries, and the youth development and organization of the game – as with the men’s – is world class.

The difficulty now, however, is dealing with the raised expectations of that surprise triumph, and waiting for the popularity of the game to level out.

“Women’s football in Japan was given a boost by the World Cup – it was a boom,” Ogimi explained. “The situation now is that we don’t know how long it will stay popular. In Germany there is already a culture of football, there is stability whether the team produces results or not.”

That must be difficult for the coach and players – who, let’s be honest, were essentially unknown prior to July, 2011 – to deal with, and having been used to playing in front of a few hundred fans it must take some getting used to to have tens of thousands now expecting victory in every game.

The best way to improve results is, of course, by focusing as much as possible on events on rather than off the pitch, and Ogimi seems fully aware of that.

Recently it's been a case of back to the drawing board for Nadeshiko Japan

“I don’t play football purely in order to [win things],” she said, when asked if she was more proud of winning the Champions League with Potsdam or World Cup with Japan. “Of course, [it’s good] for the team to take a big title – the Champions League or the World Cup with the national team – but I can’t really weigh the importance of either. For me the most important thing is to improve every day at training, every day in matches, and through that process I wish to able to win titles. That’s it.”

Her recent transfer to Chelsea Ladies will undoubtedly help in that respect. The women train at the same facilities as the men’s side, and although they don’t yet have the same record of success as Frank Lampard and co. they are aiming to improve, with Ogimi’s signing a statement of intent.

“This club is not yet fully professional and it’s the kind of club which has to aim to improve,” the 26-year-old said. “We have to work hard in training and be strict with ourselves. Within that I have to have a positive influence on the younger players in the team, with regards to my attitude towards training and those kind of things.”

A return to more a more grounded level of football may also help her to help the national team as well.

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

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March 2023