Posts Tagged ‘マンチェスターU

27
May
11

One step Atsu time

Although Atsuto Uchida didn’t make it to the Champions League final this time around, his progression, and that of many other Japanese players, suggests it won’t be long before a member of the Samurai Blue is contesting the biggest game in club football.

This weekend is the Champions League final. While Park Ji-sung’s participation means there will be one former J.League player on the once-hallowed-but-now-just-dangerous Wembley turf, we were tantalizingly close to having the first ever Japanese player in the final this season.

Atsuto Uchida’s Schalke may have been unceremoniously dumped from the competition by Manchester United in the semi-finals thanks to a combination of naïve tactics by their coach Ralph Rangnick (who, it turns out, once attended my University in England and played in the same county football league as me) and a gulf in overall quality between the sides, but the player’s rapid progression should not be underestimated.

Just over 12 months ago I sat down with “Ucchi” after his Kashima Antlers side had beaten Montedio Yamagata 3-1 in the J.League.  The right-back was in a relaxed and friendly mood, and after some small talk about his birthday – he turned 22 that day – we moved onto the prospects that lay ahead for him, about which he was clearly excited. 

He was not able to talk openly about a transfer to Europe at the time, but it was clear that there were possibilities opening up for him, and with the World Cup finals also on the horizon things were looking good.

Although an untimely injury (and the excellent form of first Yasuyuki Konno and then Yuichi Komano when filling in for him) meant he didn’t get on the pitch in South Africa, the move to Europe did materialize, and in July he bade farewell to Kashima and joined the ever-growing exodus of J.League talent moving to the Bundesliga.

While Uchida’s potential was never in doubt I did have my reservations about his lightweight style in the far more aggressive environs of the European game, and these concerns were added to when he displayed an apparent lack of belief in his own abilities when I pressed him on which clubs he fancied signing for.

I reeled off the names of some teams and asked if he would like to play for them, and at the mention of Manchester United he said, “No, I’m not ready for that level yet,” before grinning and following up with, “That’s a typical Japanese answer, huh?!”

And it is. Or at least, it was.

Since moving to Schalke shortly after the World Cup he has become a fixture in the side’s first XI, and no doubt boosted by this he also regained his starting berth for the Samurai Blue and was an integral part of Zac’s Asian Cup winning team in Qatar in January.

Such drastic improvement is becoming a recurring theme of late, and the likes of Shinji Kagawa – not so long ago a J2 player with Cerezo Osaka – and Yuto Nagatomo – last season a member of the ultimately-relegated FC Tokyo side – are also forging impressive reputations in the biggest leagues.

Anyway, we found out if Uchida was “at that level yet” in the semi-final against United and, sadly, it seems that he was right.

However, while he struggled – along with his teammates, including the esteemed Raul – to cope with United’s vast experience in the competition, his mental approach to the game certainly seemed to have improved and he was far more self-assured and confident in his ability.

Speaking to Kyodo ahead of the first leg, for instance, he declared, “I’m a professional footballer just like they (Manchester United’s players) are. I can’t allow myself to be intimidated if I want to do my job.”

Such spirit was a far cry from the self-effacing response at Kashima Stadium a year earlier, and this was evident again in his comments after the second leg at Old Trafford, when he dismissed claims that to get to the Best 4 was a great achievement in itself.

“I wanted to win,” he said. “It was only the people around who were saying that to get to the semi-final was good enough. The players all wanted to win.” 

He may still be a little short of the elite in world football, then, but if his perception of himself continues to grow and he carries on maturing as he has over the past year then another graduation is surely not beyond him.

17
Jan
11

Cup of Kings

There may no longer be a huge amount of prestige attached to winning the English FA Cup – largely because there is no real benefit of winning the tournament – but the winners of the football association cup in Japan certainly have an extra incentive.

Although many see the Emperor’s Cup as little more than a consolation prize, I am happy that the winners get Japan’s fourth and final Asian Champions League spot. As far as I’m concerned, winning a trophy is more of an achievement than finishing fourth in the league and the ‘Champions’ league should be contested by champions.

Speaking after Kashima defeated Shimizu on New Year’s Day, Oswaldo Oliveira was delighted to have won the competition for the second time and his comments highlighted the importance of adding the extra incentive of a Champions League spot to the competition.

“I was worrying about this (qualifying for the Champions League) because it will be our fourth time to play in the tournament since 2008. If we missed out on 2011, I would feel very sad.”

“I couldn’t allow myself to end the year without winning a title so this victory means a lot to me.”

Match-winner Takuya Nozawa also reflected on the value of the victory, commenting that, “We really wanted to qualify for the Asian Champions League and we got it done. Although we weren’t able to win four straight J.League titles I feel that in part we made up for it by winning the Emperor’s Cup.”

This hits the nail on the head, and while a strong league finish demonstrates consistency over the course of the season it does not bring with it the same thrills and tensions as a cup run. Players should want to be winning trophies rather than finishing in third place in the league.

Last weekend was the third round of the famous English FA Cup – the tournament on which the Emperor’s Cup is based. Despite the history and tradition attached to this trophy however, very few of England’s big teams are really too concerned with the competition any more, with fourth place in the Premier League offering more financial gain and the chance of Champions League football. The FA Cup does not currently provide a gateway to that continental competition.

In last year’s third round – when Premier League teams enter the draw – Manchester United lost at home to Leeds United, who are now playing in the third tier of English football, while Liverpool fell to defeat against Championship side Reading at Anfield; both teams had bigger fish to fry.

This lack of interest in the cup was then contrasted by the depressingly over-the-top celebrations by Tottenham Hotspur when they beat Manchester City to secure fourth-place in the Premier League.

Champagne corks were popping and the manager, Harry Redknapp, was showered by a bucket of iced water as the players celebrated their achievement.

Redknapp, who had won the FA Cup with his former side Portsmouth in 2008, made it abundantly clear which success he valued more greatly, exclaiming that.

“It’s even better than winning the Cup. The Cup you can win with some lucky draws. You all know that if you can get some nice draws, three or four wins and you are there. But I think this a better achievement.”

He then continued by claiming that, having secured a qualification spot for the European competition, his team’s final league position didn’t actually matter too much.

“I just wanted to finish fourth but the chairman has just asked me who Arsenal are playing on Sunday and I think he wants to see if we can finish above them. I’m just happy with fourth.”

This is a sad indication of the plight of modern football, with finishing fourth in one competition – not even a medal position in other sports – being deemed of greater value than coming first in another.

Unfortunately, such an attitude is understandable though, and, while it would be great for teams to want to win a trophy for nothing more than prestige and glory, the financial pressures on professional clubs these days mean that is just not realistic.

By having the final ACL position tied up with victory in the Emperor’s Cup, the JFA is doing better than the English FA in keeping its teams interested in its cup competition though, and as long as that bonus is attached to lifting the trophy, J.League teams will have to keep treating the tournament with respect.

01
Dec
10

Oversensitivity

After a year-and-a-half living in Japan I had almost forgotten that football fans could get quite nasty. The recent will-he-won’t he involving Wayne Rooney and the two Manchester clubs reminded me of how high passions can run though, and provided the subject of my column for Weekly Soccer Magazine at the start of November.

A few weeks ago Wayne Rooney shocked football fans the world over by declaring that he wanted to leave Manchester United. He claimed that the club was lacking in ambition and that he felt he needed to move on.

Rumours immediately started that he would be heading to newly-rich neighbours Manchester City and, during United’s Champions League match with Bursaspor of Turkey, fans unfurled a collection of banners expressing their anger with the player’s actions (including one calling him a ‘whore’).

A couple of days later, a gang wearing balaclavas gathered outside the player’s house and made death threats. They (and he) needn’t have worried though, as he decided to stay in the end and was reportedly rewarded with a nice new £180,000 (¥23,000,000) a week contract.

All very exciting, but why am I discussing it in my column on Japanese football? I hear you ask.

Well, this episode and the reaction it sparked in the fans highlighted one of the biggest differences between supporters – and what is acceptable behaviour by them – in England and Japan.

In particular, the fury stirred up by the suggestion that Rooney may follow his ex-strike partner Carlos Tevez across the city and swap the red shirt for a blue one provided an interesting contrast to the way that rivalries are played out in the J.League.

In the past couple of months here, the GM of Urawa Reds has had to issue a formal apology to FC Tokyo after some of the club’s fans displayed a banner mocking their rivals, and Gamba Osaka supporters were reprimanded for raising flags bearing the trophies their club had won as a direct taunt to the visiting Cerezo Osaka fans behind the opposite goal.

Nobody’s life was threatened, no physical contact had occurred but the message was clear; goading of the opposition is not acceptable.

But why? I’m all for safety, fair play and a wholesome, rounded, enjoyable environment in which people of all ages, races and sexes can enjoy the game. Quite how a teasing flag here or cleverly-worded chant there calls this into doubt is a little beyond me though.

At Old Trafford there is a permanent banner featuring a counter of the number of years the blue half of the city have gone without winning a trophy (currently 34). City, meanwhile, shortly after snatching Tevez from United, launched a series of billboard ads to antagonise the Red Devils featuring an image of the striker and reading “Welcome to Manchester”.

Furthermore, a huge percentage of the songs sung in English football stadiums are not in support of a team but instead directed against the opponent (or the referee). While instances such as those mentioned above suggest that the tide is changing a little in Japan, the majority of fans here still focus all of their attention on supporting their team and very little abusing the other ones.

There has, of course, been a lot more time for rivalries to develop in England, and it is not always easy to keep them confined to playful songs or flags. The wave of hooliganism that shamed the game in the 70s and 80s has been almost totally removed though, and the banter in the stadiums is a defining characteristic and vital element of the English game.

In fact, I feel that that is one of the only things missing from the live football experience in Japan.

Instead of the authorities overreacting to the slightest piece of baiting in J.League arenas, the positive impact a little tension can have on the atmosphere in stadiums should be appreciated.

While it is understandable to have concerns about heading down a road towards potential conflict, physical violence is highly unlikely to become a problem in the country, and I actually believe that allowing a little animosity to creep into the atmosphere at the stadium would add to the allure of going to a live match rather than detract from it.     

If such oversensitivity continues though, and supporters continually have their attempts at creating a little bit of hostility stamped down upon, then the league may never be able to truly develop into one of the most exciting in the world.




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

  • RT @alexchidiac10: Proud to make my debut for @jef_united in the first season of the @WE_League_JP ▶️ Thank you to all the #JEFUnited fans… 15 hours ago
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