Posts Tagged ‘大分トリニータ

10
Apr
12

Still Oita go

Oita Trinita embody all of the benefits of building a football club in a smaller city, while at the same time serving as a warning of what can go wrong…

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my trip to Tottori, and the important role that I believe football clubs can play in smaller, less fashionable areas.

This relationship between team and local community has never been demonstrated more clearly to me than with Oita Trinita.

I have a special affinity with the club dating back to when I first visited soon after my arrival in Japan when they were rooted to the bottom of J1 in 2009.

Since then I have seen first-hand almost every aspect of the club, from the fans and volunteers doing what they can to help out, to the staff running the clubhouse and those at the very top making the decisions that count.

During my first trip to Kyushu I interviewed then-president Hiroshi Mizohata – a figure who very much divides opinion among Trinita fans, and indeed people within Japanese football in general – and several of his observations back then remain pertinent today.

Regardless of people’s opinions of him and the mistakes he may have made which led to Trinita being bailed out by the J.League after nearly going bankrupt following their relegation to J2, Mizohata is unquestionably a fascinating personality.

He explained to me, for example, that he preferred football to baseball because, “in baseball there is no relegation or promotion – the teams cannot move. In football, you can start at the bottom and work your way to the top.”

Trinita certainly did that, finishing fourth in J1 and winning the Nabisco Cup in 2008, before everything went downhill the following season. Now they are looking to claw their way back, something else that Mizohata touched upon.

“Defeat should motivate you to put more effort into winning next time. If you can keep this attitude then one day you will receive the ‘passport to win.’”

Success may still be some way off (even if the club can overcome its huge financial difficulties and achieve a promotion spot it will have to clear its debts to the J.League before it is allowed to move back up to J1), but there is nevertheless a real feeling of togetherness around the club.

My most recent visit was for the game against Ehime FC, when over 8,000 fans – their average for the season so far – were at the spectacular-but-far-too-big Oita Bank Dome to see Kazuaki Tasaka’s team go third with their third straight win.

Tasaka insisted after the match that the responsibility for bringing people back through the turnstiles – while in J1 they averaged nearly 20,000 for home games – lay with him and his players.

“If we keep winning then the number of fans will keep increasing,” the former Japan international said.

“Today was 8,000, hopefully next we can get up to 10,000.”

That is not to say that the club does not engage with its fans in other ways though, and although the scrap to keep Trinita in existence obviously takes its toll, my friends in Oita seem genuinely to enjoy their work and have pride in their club.

The links between Trinita and the community are visible all over the city – the onsen where I stayed was half-price the day following the victory over Ehime, for example – and providing a focal point was another of Mizohata’s stated aims when creating the club.

“I want people in Oita to be confident, to have pride in where they are from,” he told me.

“Cities like Oita need dreams like this.”

My visits always provide interesting and enjoyable experiences, and whether it be calling in at the unique Kamado Shrine in Beppu (nicknamed “Neetan Jinja” as the birthplace of the club’s mascot), working as a lifeguard at a local school with ties to the club or, as occurred on this trip, being present at a celebratory dinner with “Mr Trinita” Daiki Takamatsu where a serving error resulted in a nine-year old member of our party getting drunk on chu-hi, life in Oita is never dull.

Thankfully, after thoroughly flushing out his system, the young lad in question made a speedy recovery and was soon back to join the party.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before the same can be said for the club itself.

12
Nov
11

Okashi(i)

In my opinion, the Nabisco is very much a cup half empty…

The Japanese word for snacks, okashi, is strikingly similar to the word for strange, okashii. With that in mind it is particularly fitting that the J.League Cup – a pretty bizarre competition – is sponsored by the confectionary company Nabisco.

This year’s final was contested by two teams who have been having far from their best seasons – as indeed it invariably is.

The three previous showpieces – which admittedly are great occasions and generate a terrific atmosphere – have seen Jubilo Iwata, FC Tokyo and Oita Trinita emerge triumphant.

None of those sides were seriously challenging on any other fronts at the time, and for the latter two the tournament actually appeared to be something of a curse as they suffered relegation to J2 in the season following their victories.

While the teams that are in with a chance of winning the league or even the Emperor’s Cup – which carries the huge, and fitting, bonus of an ACL spot – focus on frying their bigger fish, the also-rans are left to fight over the crumbs.

Kashima Antlers will have been delighted to get one over their old rivals and pick up yet another trophy at Reds’ expense, but they would surely rather have been battling it out for the league title or to become the Kings of Asia.

Indeed, this was the first time that Oswaldo Oliveira had won the Nabisco Cup – the only domestic trophy he hadn’t collected in his time at the club – and while he will no doubt be happy to have collected the full set, he must also be feeling a little disheartened that Antlers are now having to settle for the smaller trinkets.

He even hinted at as much after the final, telling reporters in the press conference that, “because we are no longer in a realistic position to win the league we had a responsibility to win a title and so perhaps I focused on this competition a little more than I usually would.”

It could be argued that Reds deserved to win the championship more than Antlers, though.

Yes, they were largely outplayed in the final and the game was effectively ended as a spectacle with the over-enthusiastic refereeing of Mr. Tojo (Naoki’s first caution was a little harsh – although he, admittedly, knew he had received it and was stupid to fly in for the second tackle – while Aoki’s second yellow card was truly bizarre), but they had worked three times as hard as their opponents to get to the final.

Kashima had played just two matches prior to the clash at Kokuritsu, while Urawa contested six – all of which they won.

Teams with commitments in continental competition usually have their workload lightened, and this year the difference was more extreme because of the rearranged schedule after the earthquake but such a large disparity is very odd.

There has been talk of including J2 in the tournament from next season and I personally think that would be a great idea and could really inject some life into the competition.

Many factors – sponsors’ interests and club’s budgets chief among them – need to be taken into account but as a simple suggestion, my version of the League Cup would look something like this.

Eight groups of four teams, four consisting of three from J2 and one from J1, four with two from each division. Each team would play three matches and the winner of each group plus the best two runners up would progress to the next round.

Here they would be joined by the previous season’s top four from J1 and the reigning Emperor’s Cup and Nabisco Cup champions. (If the cup winners also finished in the top four then 5th and 6th from J1 would take their byes. If a J2 team won either or both cups then only 18 or 19 second division sides would be in the group stage with 14 or 13 from J1).

From that point on it would be a simple one-legged knockout competition from an unseeded draw.

The J.League is keen to expand and improve the credibility of its second division, and this format would certainly provide J2 sides with more exposure, as well as opportunities to test themselves against stronger opponents.

There would, admittedly, still be a slight discrepancy in the number of games teams play, but it would make for a slightly more even playing field, and the tournament could truly be considered as the “J.League Cup” – a tournament worth winning.

12
Oct
11

From Serbia to Zelvia

Machida Zelvia of the JFL have big ambitions and have appointed a heavyweight coach to help them achieve their goals. In football, as in life, the first step is usually the hardest to take though..

The last time most Japanese football fans were aware of Ranko Popovic he was in charge of Akihiro Ienaga, Mu Kanazaki and Shusaku Nishikawa at Oita Trinita.

This season the Serbian has made a low-key return to the Japanese game, taking charge of JFL side Machida Zelvia, after Naoki Soma moved on to take the reins at Kawasaki Frontale.

While the quality of player at his disposal is not quite the same this time around, Popo-san is working towards the same aim though – with a place in J1 the target for his side.

Zelvia General Manager, Tadashi Karai – who has formerly had spells in the top-flight with Shimizu S-Pulse, Tokyo Verdy, and JEF United – is delighted to have attracted such an experienced manager, and is hopeful that they can keep hold of him to achieve the club’s long-term goals.

“Of course our final aim is to go up to J1 in three-to-five years,” he told me before Zelvia’s recent game against Tochigi Uva at Nishigaoka Stadium.

“The J.League has just started the play-off system within the top six places so clubs have a chance to go from J2 to J1. Of course we want to keep Mr. Popovic for at least 5 years. This is the president’s decision.”

As well as being attracted by Popovic’s impressive stint at Trinita – although they got relegated he guided them on an unbeaten 10-game run at the end of the 2009 campaign that almost preserved their J1 place – his previous success in his homeland was also attractive to Karai-san.

“He had experience in Serbia, his club [Zlatibor Voda] got promoted from the third to the first division, so not [just] in Oita, but he already had good experience for us.”

While this achievement does appear to bode well for Machida, Popovic points out a big difference between Voda and Zelvia.

“In Serbia it was different because in that team in the 3rd division I had three or four players who’d played in the 1st division,” Popovic explained to me after the game with Uva ended 0-0.

“[That makes] a big difference. We must have players with more experience, for times like today if the ball doesn’t go in the goal.” 

Attracting them is not easy though, and as well as having to contend with J.League egos (not many are prepared to rough it in the JFL and would prefer to swan around in the comfort of a J.League satellite team) money is, of course, an issue. 

Karai-san believes that the lack of a large corporate investor at Zelvia means that more bums on seats is the best way to bolster the club’s coffers. 

“We think we need bigger attendances because we don’t have a Toyota, Nissan, Hitachi. We are originally a town club so we need bigger attendances to finance our budget.” 

Unfortunately the fickle nature of some fans makes this a tricky thing to achieve. After the draw with Uva, for example, a journalist suggested to Popovic in the press conference that some fans were pleased with the style of their team’s play, but unhappy by the lack of results. 

This led to a lengthy exchange between the reporter in question and Popovic – via his tireless translator Tsukada-san – and after the press conference had concluded the Serbian expressed his frustration at this aspect of Japanese football. 

“In Japan there’s a problem; the result is everything,” he told me. “We must try to learn to watch the football. The result is important in the end, yes, but it’s also important how you make this result, if you want to have [a good] future. 

“Who guarantees if we change something we will go [to J2], who guarantees? To change now, to work for eight months, to play beautiful football like today and then say ‘no, forget that’? 

“I want to make a team who can stay there. To make guys who can play football.” 

This is an admirable target and one which, if successful, could well provide Machida with a chance to establish themselves in the fully professional leagues. 

Finding a balance between aesthetic play and positive results is the main challenge now though, and that is perhaps the trickiest obstacle to overcome.

02
Mar
11

Plymouth in trouble

Last week I focused on the current troubles at Plymouth Argyle for my Weekly Soccer Magazine column. Below please find the English and Japanese versions of the article.

Plymouth Argyle currently sit 19th in England’s League One but at the moment they are fighting for more than their place in the league.

The club were recently served with a winding up order after their Japanese investors – Yasuaki Kagami and George Synan of K&K Shonan Corporation – had reneged on an agreement to provide much-needed funds, and although they were just about able to cover their bills by the most recent deadline on February 9th, next time they may not be so lucky.

In December Mr. Kagami and Mr. Synan signed an agreement to provide £2,000,000 to the club in four installments, the first of which was due to be paid on the last working day of December and the second on the last working day of January. Neither payment has arrived.

Peter Ridsdale – the former Leeds United and Cardiff City chairman who has been brought in as an unpaid ‘football consultant’ at Plymouth – warned that fans should not get too excited about the club’s most recent escape, and highlighted how dire the situation is when he told BBC Spotlight that.

“It was good news in the sense that we’ve paid the petition debt and are up to date with the revenue, but that’s just the first hurdle we’ve got over. Today isn’t a day of celebration, today is just a sober reminder of the fact that we’ve still got a lot of people to pay money to.”

So how did things get to this point? Well, in April 2008 Mr. Kagami made his first investment into Plymouth – which was then a Championship club – acquiring 20% of the club’s shares. Then, In July 2009, he formed a consortium with Sir Roy Gardner (former chairman of Manchester United) and Keith Todd and increased his stake to 51% (Mr. Kagami owning 38%, while Sir. Gardner and Mr. Todd held 13% between them) – making K&K Shonan the majority shareholder.

This investment was purportedly to form ties between Argyle and football clubs in Japan and the U.S (Mr. Kagami’s co-investor Mr. Synan is American), to turn Plymouth into a Premier League side within five years and to complete the development of their stadium, Home Park.

To achieve an impact in Japan the club appointed the legendary Yasuhiko Okudera as honorary president – although he has declined to comment on his involvement at the club entirely – and soon set about trying to recruit some Japanese players.

While visa issues meant that this was far from easy (they failed in an attempt to secure Akihiro Ienaga, for example), they did manage to sign former Japan U17 and U23 goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi (who couldn’t be registered outright and so instead became the first (and so far only) recipient of the ‘Plymouth Argyle International Scholarship’).

Unfortunately things have not gone according to plan though, and, after three managers in as many years and experiencing relegation to League One, Plymouth now found themselves on the brink.

As fans of Tokyo Verdy, Oita Trinita and, of course, Yokohama Flugels can attest to, these are stressful times and you do all you can to help save your club.

With that in mind, Andy Hancock – a Plymouth supporter who studies in Yokohama – decided to take advantage of the unique position he was in and launched a petition to force K&K Shonan Corp. into paying up.

In just two weeks he gathered  6,023 signatures from fans of 69 different football clubs in 84 countries, but found nobody involved at K&K Shonan willing to receive it. He made numerous attempts to arrange for a civilised handover to either Mr. Kagami or Mr. Synan which were all rejected, then found nobody willing to accept the petition when he tried to deliver it to the company directly.

Indeed, the investors have been anything but familiar faces since they became involved at the club and when I visited Home Park in January 2010 a member of staff commented on the fact that Mr. Kagami had never actually attended a Plymouth game, something that is still the case.

As it stands, Plymouth – who have frequently been unable to pay players and staff on time of late – are due to settle their next tax bill on February 22nd but at the time of writing they are still to receive any of the promised funds from Mr. Kagami or Mr. Synan.

日本の企業に踊らされた!? イングランドの3部クラブ

今回は日本人の投資家絡みで、荒波に飲まれそうなクラブを話を紹介したい。イングランドのリーグ1(3部)に所属するプリマスのことだ。現在リーグ19位だが、残留以上の問題を抱えている。

同チームをバックアップしている日本の投資会社『K&K湘南マネジメント』の加賀見保明さんとジョージ・サイナンさんがクラブに一銭も払っていないのだ。2月9日、クラブは存続に必要な金額をかき集めたものの、財政面の支援を受けるのは難しく、最悪クラブは解散命令を通達されるかもしれない。

昨年12月、加賀見さんとサイナンさんはクラブに200万ポンド(約2億6000万円)を4分割で支払うことに合意。12月と1月末に振り込まれる予定だったが、どちらも未払いだった。この事実もありプリマスのピーター・リズデール会長は「2月に資金を得たからといって、喜ぶわけにはいかない」とコメント。BBC(英国放送)ではこう語った。

「一つ目のハードルを越えただけ。まだお金を支払わなければならない」

さて、なぜこんなことが起きたのか。08年4月、加賀見さんが当時2部のプリマスに最初の投資を行なった。クラブの株の2割を保有するというのだ。翌年の7月、彼はサ-・ロイ・ガードナー(前マンU会長)、キース・トッドと事業を始め、株の51%(加賀見さんが38%で、サ-・ガードナー、トッドさんが2人で13%)を担う運びになった。この投資はプリマスと日米(サイナンさんはアメリカ人)両国の力で、クラブを5年でプレミアリーグに昇格させ、新スタジアムを完成させる野望の下に始まったものだ。クラブは日本で名前を広めるため、あの奥寺康彦さんを名誉会長に指名、GKの林彰洋を獲得するなど「日本ブーム」に沸きつつあった。だが、ビザ等の問題で家長昭博の獲得を断念、クラブの運営は困難を極めた。以降、肝心のピッチでも結果を残せず3部に落ち、ファンもストレスを溜めている。

横浜在住のプリマスサポーター、アンディ・ハンコックさんもその一人。彼は地理的な利点を生かし、『K&K湘南』に資本金を支払うよう請願書を送った。その後2週間で84カ国のサッカーファン6023人から署名を集めたが、同社に受け取ってもらえなかったという。

投資家の連中はクラブに携わった初日から今日に至るまで「よそよそしい」としか言いようがない。昨年、僕がホームパーク(クラブの本拠地)を訪れた際、スタッフが「加賀見さんは一度もホームゲームを見に来たことがない」と言っていたけれど、それは今も変わらない。

クラブはこの号の発売日(2月22日)に、英国税務署に未払いの税金を支払う予定だけど、現状を踏まえると何とも酷な話だ。

09
Jan
11

Ienaga gets his chance

The number of Japanese players earning themselves moves to Europe is steadily on the rise so for last week’s Soccer Magazine column I focused on the chances of one of them, Akihiro Ienaga, making the grade at Mallorca in Spain. 

Twelve months after getting relegated from J1 with Oita Trinita, Akihiro Ienaga has completed a remarkable turnaround and, having secured a move to R.C.D Mallorca, will look to become the first Japanese player to really make his mark in Spain’s Primera Liga.

I have a sneaking suspicion he may just do it, although I am certainly not alone in that opinion.

Since 2008 he has helped Oita to a Nabisco Cup triumph and been instrumental in Cerezo Osaka’s spectacular surge into the AFC Champions League, but there was always the fear that he would never fulfil his full potential.

While Ienaga’s talent has never been in doubt, his attitude has sometimes held him back and as the likes of Keisuke Honda – with whom he played for Gamba Osaka junior youth – began to earn reputations for themselves on the pitch, Ienaga found himself out on loan in each of the last three seasons – largely because he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Akira Nishino.

It looked as if a move abroad may be the best solution for him to really make the step up, and last January I visited Plymouth Argyle in England, where Ienaga had spent some time on trial.

Chief Operating Officer of the club, Tony Campbell, remarked on the player’s standout ability amongst the various Japanese players who had visited the club, and suggested that his mentality was perhaps more suited to a European style of play.

“When Ienaga came over he said he really enjoyed training in England because it was different. On one of our training sessions we turned the goals round, so they had to get the ball in behind and score. He’d never done it, but he loved it, because it was different.”

Endo Yasuhito is also a big Ienaga fan, and back in August selected him as his favourite current J.League player.

“Now I like Ienaga, he is a great player with huge potential. I feel he could make it into the national team and also abroad as well.”

Ienaga will now have the opportunity to prove his former teammate right, and at the same time will have the chance to lay to rest the ghosts of previous Japanese players who have tried and failed in Spain.

Shunsuke Nakamura is the most recent to have come up short in the country during his period at Espanyol, where he struggled to adapt with the Spanish style after too long in the inferior SPL. Before him went the likes of Shoji Jo and Yoshito Okubo who were also given chances in the country – the latter interestingly also at Mallorca – but failed to make the grade.

Ienaga is perhaps a different breed of player to his predecessors though, and his openness to new ideas will certainly stand him in good stead in La Liga. His former coach at Oita, Ranko Popovic, is delighted that ‘Aki’ has received this opportunity, referring to the progress he has made since he started working with him two seasons ago.

“Aki had some difficulties at the start with changing some things and I was very strict with him. He learned though and he is a very good player.”

Popovic recalls one instance in particular that underlined the player’s ability.

“I played him volante in one game and he had never played there before. People said I was crazy to force him into this position but he was the Man of the Match.

“I saw big potential in him and now we are seeing the fruits of that. I told him at Oita, ‘You must be the best. I don’t want you in the middle, if you are in the middle you don’t exist to me. You must be the best.’”

Such harsh treatment can go one of two ways, with the player either choosing to rise to the task or give up entirely. Ienaga’s quality is shown in the fact that he did the former, and his decision to take on this latest challenge in Spain could see him grow even more in the next few years.

03
Oct
10

The Back Post – Poisoned chalice?

On Wednesday my column, ‘The Back Post’, started in the Daily Yomiuri.

It will appear once a month and be supplemented by match reports and other articles. The first edition, which focused on the problems currently being experienced by FC Tokyo, can be accessed here




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