Posts Tagged ‘Jリーグ



20
Apr
12

Newly promoted Zelvia has rock-solid leader in Ardiles

Last week I attended a dinner at which Argentinian football great Ossie Ardiles was the guest of honour.

After a long and distinguished career as a player and coach Ardiles is now in charge of J2 side Machida Zelvia, and he is in no mood to slow down just yet. Here is my feature on him from today’s Daily Yomiuri.

17
Apr
12

Fair call?

Referees have always been in a lose-lose situation, and criticism of officials doesn’t look like it will be going away any time soon. Not until big changes are enforced within the game, anyway… 

Referees in the J.League make a lot of mistakes.

This is not a new revelation and it is certainly not something unique to Japan. It is, however, something that needs to be discussed – as much to help the officials themselves as to appease fans, players, and coaches everywhere.

The latest manager to be left frustrated by a poor refereeing decision – when Yuya Osako had a goal incorrectly disallowed against Urawa Reds– was Kashima Antlers’ Jorginho, who cut a beleaguered figure as he took his seat in the press conference after his side’s second consecutive home defeat.

“Before you ask questions there is something I would like to say”, he began. For a second I thought he was going to announce his resignation, Zeljko Petrovic-style. He didn’t.

“Not just today’s game but already this season referees have made many mistakes that stand out,” he said.

“I don’t think it is intentional. I am absolutely not asking that referees favour us. But I wish the decisions could be fair.

“Managers are asked not to speak about referees but I find that a little bit strange. The quality of the referees has an impact on the overall quality of the Japanese game as a whole.

“There are many good things about football in Japan but the quality of referees needs to be discussed. It will help the development of the Japanese game.”

On the whole I agree with these comments – particularly with regards to the need to discuss things in order for the level of the game to improve.

There are aspects in which officials can improve their performance. Often, for example, their communication with players is not good, and this can result in a build-up of frustration for both parties.

However, when it comes to the difficult, game-changing decisions mistakes are inevitable as long as referees are forced to operate under their current conditions.

Assuming that no money is changing hands to influence these calls – and I really don’t think that is the case in Japan – then until officials are given the assistance necessary to help them eliminate big mistakes they need to be treated with respect and tolerance.

The same weekend that Jorginho aired his gripe, several under-pressure Premier League managers were also hitting out.

Roberto Martinez of struggling Wigan and Kenny Dalglish of under-achieving Liverpool both had their say, as did Mark Hughes of QPR.

“You should have confidence that the referees are going to make the key decisions in the game and, just lately, I think a lot of managers have lost faith in them,” Hughes said after his team suffered an incorrect penalty call which saw their captain, Shaun Derry, sent off against Manchester United.

“Listen, it’s difficult. I’m not here to castigate the referee. All we want is referees and officials to get the big decisions right and unfortunately this weekend they haven’t covered themselves in glory.

“They don’t mean [to get it wrong] but surely the level needs to be higher than it is at the moment.”

It is no coincidence that coaches of teams in trouble – desperate to offload some of the pressure on themselves and their team – have the most cause for complaint, and I have every sympathy with those on the end of missed calls.

More often than not referees are chastised once we have all studied several replays from a variety of angles at different speeds though. They don’t have that luxury, and must make a split-second call as they see it.

This leaves us with two options: 1) We accept that human error – on the part of referees as well as players and coaches – is a part of sport, and eliminate abuse of officials accordingly, or 2) the fourth official is aided by video replays.

Initially I leant more towards the first option. Refereeing mistakes, like missed penalties or goalkeeping errors, can cost the odd game but you have a whole season to rectify these. The best team always wins the title, the worst always gets relegated.

Lately I am increasingly convinced by the need for TV replays, though. They would enable, as Jorginho and Hughes desire, referees to improve and ensure that the big decisions are always right.

Of course, if that does happen who will get the blame for defeats then?

17
Apr
12

S-Pulse snap Jubilo streak in Shizuoka derby

This weekend I was at Nihondaira Stadium for the Shizuoka Derby between Shimizu S-Pulse and Jubilo Iwata.

I provided a match report from that game and a round-up of the rest of the J1 action for The Daily Yomiuri on Monday.

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.

04
Apr
12

So long Serrao

He arrived in slightly unusual cicumstances and with a cheerful grin but Jose Carlos Serrao wasn’t smiling much during his ill-fated and brief spell at Gamba Osaka…

I have to admit that my first impression when Gamba Osaka hired Jose Carlos Serrao was that the club had been pretty smart and – unusually in Japan – exhibited impressive flexibility, and even a little sneakiness.

We all knew they wanted Wagner Lopes in charge, and having had that plan scuppered by his lack of coaching badges – which, in hindsight, should have raised some questions – they looked to have done well by sticking to their guns and bringing their man in anyway, nominally as ‘assistant’ to learn from the relative (ok, complete) unknown, Serrao.

Very little was known about the 61-year-old who would officially be leading the side after the decade-long reign of Akira Nishino, but my first thoughts, based on his picture in the senshu meikan, were that he looked like a nice enough chap who was happy with his lot (which, again, on reflection, he probably was).

That impression was furthered when I met him before the season, and during a chat at the J.League’s Kick Off Conference he appeared to have an understanding of the task he was undertaking at Gamba.

“It’s not so easy to come to substitute for a manager who has been working for 10 years,” he said, paying reference to his predecessor Nishino.

“He gave a lot of titles – and he lost some – but he’s a man that contributed a lot for Gamba.”

Bearing in mind the consistency that had been so key for Gamba during the previous decade, I asked him what he wanted to change and how much he wanted to keep the same as he looked to put his mark on the club.

He insisted that the core focus would remain, with the experienced players in the side being trusted to assist in the changeover.

“Many players that are still playing for Gamba now learned a lot from [Nishino] and I think there are many good things that they have kept.”

He did, however, hint that a slightly more open and less predictable style may develop, centred upon the samba tradition of his nation.

“One thing that we could change is to give some Brazilian style inside this team,” he said with a smile.

“We have three Brazilian players, two are regulars in the side. It’s very difficult to make changes after a long time but I think one thing is we’ll give some freedom to the players to play, to dribble to feint.”

Sadly, the freedom that he implemented was actually closer to incoherence, and the players seemed confused as to what they were supposed to be doing.

This went against Serrao’s second stated aim, which was to improve the relationship between players on the pitch.

“We are trying to improve our communication in the team,” he had told me at the start of March.

“The Japanese players receive this in a very good way. I think we can make a better team during the season.”

Gamba had finished outside of the top three just twice in the past ten seasons, and I wondered what target, if any, he was setting for his first in the dugout.

“To play well, to get the victory and be champions. If God permits it for us.”

Sadly for him there wasn’t any divine intervention during his remarkably short stint at Banpaku – well, not of the positive kind, anyway – although the prayers of Gamba’s fans were swiftly answered when he and his coaching team, including Wagner Lopes, were removed from their duties the day after their 2-1 league defeat at home to Jubilo Iwata.

Serrao had confessed to not knowing much about the J.League when we spoke, but insisted he and his management team were doing their research.

“It’s a long season, 34 games, and there are no easy teams to play.

“I think during the competition we will see which teams will be the strongest.”

The latter points are certainly true but, for Serrao, the first proved to be way off the mark – his season was just three league games, all of which were lost.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for him as he seems like a nice enough guy who was just out of his depth.

However, Gamba must be commended for acting so swiftly to prevent him and the club sinking any further.

27
Mar
12

Going local

When you live in Tokyo sometimes it’s nice to get out of the city for a bit. If you can do that by local trains and take in a football match while away then all the better…

It’s that time of year when I check the fixture lists, pack my bag, buy a seishun juhachi kippu and travel around Japan a bit.

This tradition started when I first arrived in Japan and a) couldn’t afford the shinkansen, and b) wanted to see more of the country (but mainly a)).

Although it’s certainly tiring, in some respects it’s also quite relaxing.

You can admire the hugely varied scenery rolling by, and the change in the landscape also provides more of an idea about the team you are about to watch.

Around the world football clubs often have the most passionate support and unique identities in areas where there is not much else to do.

Clubs in these places bring people together and provide a sense of belonging, which is perhaps sometimes lacking in bigger, more metropolitan areas.

Even bearing that aspect in mind, I have to admit I was still not expecting too much from my visit to Tottori.

After the Osaka Derby – I still like big games too – I caught highlights of Gainare’s home defeat to Machida Zelvia and it wasn’t the best advert.

There’s a car park behind one stand, a rice-field behind the other and not a lot else, it seemed. Plus the team had lost 3-0.

The opponents for this game, Kyoto Sanga, did make it a little more appealing, boasting some of the best young talent around, and I thought I could perhaps just focus on them.

Still, when I woke up at 7am and remembered the journey ahead of me it was a little tricky to will myself out of bed.

As each transfer down the San-in Line took me further into the countryside I grew more positive though, and the spectacular views of rivers, mountains and shorelines certainly had a calming influence.

Everything today is carried out at such a frenetic pace, and the slow and steady progress of the local trains to Tottori provided a nice remedy to the hectic existence of living in a place where it seems anything and everything can be rented by the hour.

Seven hours after boarding my first train in Uji I arrived at Tottori and it didn’t take long to see that Gainare – along with the famous sand-dunes – provide a core focus for the town.

There were flags hanging welcoming the Sanga fans to the area (“You’ve come a long way so welcome to Tottori!”) and upon check-in at my hotel the receptionist became a lot more chatty when I asked how far the stadium was.

“Ah, Gainare!” he beamed. He wasn’t really a fan but one of his friends was in the oendan, he added.

I made my way back to the station to catch the free – yes, free – bus to the ground, and although when I arrived there were only three people waiting, by the time we set off there were probably enough of us to constitute a World Cup finals squad.

As we pulled away from the bus stop the first drops of rain began to fall from the ever-darkening sky and I hoped it wasn’t a bad sign.

It wasn’t, and as soon as I arrived at the wonderfully-named Tori Gin Bird Stadium I had a good feeling about the club.

There were friendly staff and fans milling around, and, unbelievably to an Englishman, bars selling real ale, vodka, whiskey and anything else you might fancy.

I bought myself a Daisen burger (sadly, I had to resist the bar) and made my way inside the ground.

The football only venue with an old school scoreboard – thankfully no OTT player intros or music after goals here – left another positive impression.

The game was enjoyable, too, and the 2-1 scoreline flattered Sanga. Gainare were dominant and should have won by more.

That may have been something to grumble about elsewhere, but club staff and fans alike were in high spirits after the match.

One member of staff who had returned to work for her hometown club after a decade in Tokyo was beaming when I left the stadium.

It seemed that, to her, Gainare hadn’t only beaten Sanga, Tottori had prevailed over Kyoto, the former capital. And that made my trip more than worthwhile. That’s why I love football.

23
Mar
12

The mixed zone with… Kazuya Yamamura

Kazuya Yamamura is captain of Japan Under-23s and on his way to the Olympics, alhough he has only just started his first season as a professional footballer.

I recently caught up with the Kashima Antlers player at the club’s training ground where we discussed his late entry into the J.League and his hopes for this season and beyond.

23
Mar
12

Groundhog J

March brings spring, cherry blossoms and a brand new J.League season. Things didn’t feel particulalry fresh after the first round of matches in J1 though… 

The start of a new season brings fresh hope, and there is always plenty of talk of the positive changes that have taken place which will improve teams over the coming months.

This year was no different, and with eight managerial changes having occurred over the off-season period there was, if anything, even more discussion of ‘new eras’ than usual.

Then the games took place and it seemed as if we’d never been away.

The televised game in Round 1 pitted the two J1 sides most affected by the March 11th tragedy against each other, and Vegalta and Kashima played out a tense encounter that was decided by Taikai Uemoto’s goal. Sendai defending ruggedly and Antlers underperforming; as you were, then.

In the other 2 o’clock kick-offs there was a similar feeling of patterns continuing from the 2011 season.

Nagoya won 1-0. Their goal was scored by Josh Kennedy. When I saw that the Australian had given them the lead against Shimizu I tweeted, tongue-in-cheek: “Kennedy puts Grampus head against S-Pulse. Header or penalty?” Then NHK showed the highlight. Ah, it was a penalty.

Meanwhile, two of the newly-promoted sides, Consadole and Sagan, were making steady starts by earning their first points in J1 – against Jubilo and Cerezo, who clocked up 18 draws between them last time around.

Urawa Reds, too, had been expecting an upturn in fortunes but just as on the first day of the 2011 season their hopes were dashed with a 1-0 away defeat.

There was even a feeling of déjà vu with the new man in the dugout; a guy called Petrovic getting off to a disappointing start despite the positivity he had brought with him. Have I seen this before?

My opening question to Petrovic 2.0 at the recent Kick Off Conference was, “Last year Reds’ new coach was called Petrovic, this year too. How is this one going to be different?”

He laughed and said, “I know! Do you think the same things will happen?”

I didn’t then but there was an eerie similarity to their opening game defeat.

As there was in Omiya, where Ardija got off to a terrific start in their apparent quest to be the best hosts in the division by going down 1-0 to FC Tokyo.

Jun Suzuki’s side battered the 2011 J2 champions for the opening half-an-hour, but obliged their guests by failing to score and then conceding the only goal of the game after an hour.

Frontale’s 1-0 win over Albirex was slightly incongruous to the way that games between those two sides have gone in recent years though, and the remaining two fixtures also threw up some surprises.

Or did they?

This year’s souped-up Vissel Kobe did come out on top in their Kansai derby with Gamba, and Yoshito Okubo did manage to find the net twice and complete a game without a caution.

However, Yosuke Fujigaya was as clumsy as ever between the sticks for Gamba, and despite being far the poorer side they still managed to score two goals.

The arrival of Yasuyuki Konno to shore-up one of the leakiest defences in the game doesn’t seem to be paying off just yet, and as long as Gamba have a Brazilian or two around to notch at the other end it appears as if they’ll always be a threat.

(Assuming that the usual patterns will continue, that will only be until they head to the Middle East in the summer, of course.)

Aha, but the last – and best – game of the weekend was surely something new?

Kashiwa Reysol drew only three times on their way to the title in 2011 – just once at home – so their 3-3 draw with a new-and-improved Yokohama F. Marinos was a little unexpected.

Marinos’ quick-passing and aggressive attacking was also a refreshing change, and it looks as though I may have to retract their ‘Tsu-Marinos’ moniker if things continue.

But wait a minute.

Jorge Wagner claimed two assists and Leandro Domingues scored a beauty? I’ve heard that before.

And, come to think of it, didn’t Marinos also earn an impressive draw away to the reigning champions at the start of last season…

Does anybody else feel like this is Groundhog J?

16
Mar
12

Piksi and Ossie

This year marks the 20th season of professional football in Japan, so for Soccer Magazine this week I got the opinions of two wise old heads on the development of the game since 1993…

The J.League’s 20th season is now underway, and Japanese football has come a long way since its inception in 1993.

Last week, ahead of the season openers, I was able to get the impressions of two huge names in world football on the league’s progress and where it can go from here.

Dragan Stojkovic, of course, played for Grampus from 1994, and now as the manager of the team he has seen first-hand the steady improvement made over the past two decades.

He was, unsurprisingly, hugely complimentary about the development of football in the country.

“Regarding 20 years ago and today, of course it’s a big difference,” he said. “A big difference in a positive way for Japanese football generally.”

“From 1998 until two years ago they have participated in [all] the World Cups.

“But also, J.League teams in many aspects have shown improvement.”

Ossie Ardiles is back for the celebration, too, as head coach of new J2 side Machida Zelvia.

The Argentinian legend has been in and out of the country since 1996, when he took charge of Shimizu S-Pulse, also having spells in charge of Yokohama F. Marinos and Tokyo Verdy.

He is also impressed with how far the game has come.

“Now it’s established itself in, I would say the second tier,” he said when I asked him how he perceived the Japanese top-flight.

“It’s not elite, it’s not Spain or England. No, this is the next step and this is the most difficult step.”

Piksi agreed with that assessment.

“They are not in the same level. No, there’s huge money there,” he commented.

“Look at Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona. They pay huge money for players. Give me 200 million Euros and you can see which team I can make, no problem.

“This is a big difference. Don’t compare J.League with European leagues, it’s not fair. But the Japanese should be happy which kind of football they have.”

Ardiles didn’t rule out another step up entirely, though, and suggested that it was his job to assist in that aim.

“I always think that [the job of] not only me but all the kantoku here is to improve the football.  I believe that Japanese football has improved tremendously from the moment that the J.League was formed.”

When I asked how to achieve such a lofty target he admitted it was tricky, though.

“Ah! Ah! This is the one million dollar question. The next step, to make Japanese football elite, is the most difficult one,” he said.

“It’s not like you have a magic wand and say, ‘wow we are going to play this way or we are going to copy one style’, say Barcelona or whoever it is,” he continued.

“It’s a lot deeper than that; it has to do with cultural things.”

He used the example of Lionel Messi (“the best ever” in Ossie’s opinion – “Don’t tell Maradona, though!”) to illustrate that point.

“For example, can a Messi be produced in Japan? [That’s] very difficult because for a Messi to be produced not only do you have to be brilliant in terms of skill and so on, but the culture of the country has to help.

“Basically, Messi from the day he was born he was playing football. In Japan that doesn’t happen. Yet.”

Piksi was more content to focus on what Japan does do well – particularly considering the recent violent troubles his family had experienced back home in Serbia.

“What they keep, and what they prove again, is that Japan and Japanese football is the number one league for fair play,” he said.

“This is a very amazing result regarding what happens with hooligans, what happens with other stupid things around football and in football around the world. This is a fantastic achievement for them.”

When also bearing in mind that this past weekend’s round of matches marked one year since the tragedy in Eastern Japan that is perhaps even more important to remember.

“Let’s be happy and enjoy the football,” he continued.

“Let’s deliver the good things and the happy things to the people who come to the stadium. And provide them [with a] safe arrival and safe departure after the game. This is very important.”

19
Feb
12

Express Yourself

Last week I provided an editorial on Japanese fan culture for Goal.com Japan. That’s here, while the English version is below.

What it means to be a fan differs from country to country and person to person.

To some the title must be earned through years of dedication to the cause, travelling far and wide to cheer their team on through thick and thin.

Others, meanwhile, treat it more as a commodity; they buy their ticket, replica kit or scarf and instantly earn the right to share in the glories or boo through the bad times as they see fit.

Essentially though, fans are free to support their team however they choose.

Japanese supporters are often cited as being among the best in the world, providing a colourful, vibrant and vocal background to matches involving domestic sides and the national team.

As well as turning out in well-organised numbers – the J.League records impressively large crowds, with J1 averaging over 15,000 in the 2011 season – the nation’s supporters are also frequently held up as an example to the more aggressive fans elsewhere in the world. Unsavoury incidents are kept to a, fairly tame, minimum.

This is all well and good. Sometimes, though, a bit of an edge can really add to the atmosphere.

Nobody wants to see violence in the stands, of course, and it is crucial that stadiums are family-friendly – especially in countries like Japan where the creation of new supporters is vital to the continued development of the game.

However, friction, antagonism and humour are a staple of all the biggest football rivalries – think Liverpool and Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Often the atmosphere in the stadium and repartee between those sets of opposing fans is as highly-anticipated as the clash out on the pitch.

An engagement with on-field events enables the behaviour of those fans to ebb-and-flow with the game, and in turn the activity in the stands can affect the players (positively or negatively).

However, this requires spontaneity; something that is all-too-often lacking in Japanese stadia.

Instead of giving in to their emotions and allowing themselves to get caught up in the game many Japanese fans prefer a far more stable, almost robotic, style.

Whether their team is 3-0 ahead or 3-0 behind the same tried-and-tested chants and choreographed routines are churned out, with any passion being kept firmly in time with the fan leader’s instructions.

The order and hierarchy that typify Japanese society should be left at the turnstile though.

Fans should not be required to comply with sets of rules concerning how to support and when to sing which song. They should be allowed to throw themselves into the game and let themselves be carried along – or not, sometimes silence can be just as, if not more, powerful than chanting – by the game.

If your team is not playing well and you fancy a sit down and a bit of a whinge, then go ahead.

Further to this, a little bit of baiting of the opposition wouldn’t go amiss.

Japanese fans are so focused on sticking to the performance and cheering on their own team that they seemingly forget there is an opponent there to be beaten.

Supporting your players can certainly help in that aim, but why not create an intimidating arena for the opposition?

There are often half-hearted boos as the opposing team line-up is read out, but once the game has kicked off any goading of rival players appears to be strictly off limits.

Kashiwa Reysol offer one exception, with their fans utilising their close proximity to the pitch to great effect whenever an opponent strays too close – but they are almost unique in that respect.

Urawa Reds traditionally has a similar reputation, but their plummet down the table seems to have left their fans with more important things on their mind of late.

The authorities have certainly not helped in this respect, with sporadic instances of rival-baiting being heavily clamped down on – Urawa and Gamba Osaka have both been punished for ‘inappropriate’ banners in recent seasons.

Quite why they have felt the need to do this is something of a mystery to me, and allowing for a slightly more heated atmosphere in the stadiums could give the J.League – which is improving every year – yet another boost.




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