Posts Tagged ‘J.League

17
Jul
12

Decisions, decisions

The end of this season will see the final team promoted to J1 afforded that right by virtue of an English Chamionship style play-off. Well, sort of…

Last summer I wrote about the introduction of a play-off system to J2 and how I thought it would hugely benefit the division.

Just past the halfway point of the 2012 season it looks like I was right, with far more teams in-and-around the key positions this year.

After 21 games (the new midpoint after the division grew to 22 teams) the distance between first and 11th was just 10 points, while, currently, after 24 games, the top 10 are separated by that margin.

At the halfway stage last year (19 games) Consadole Sapporo, in 6th, were the last team to be within 10 points of the leaders. Tosu, who eventually earned promotion with Consadole were just one point further back.

Whereas teams may not have overly rated their chances with only three places up for grabs in 2011, the fact that twice as many spots for potential promotion are available this year has resulted in almost double the number of teams being in striking distance of J1.

It seems that the chasing pack are picking up a stronger scent of potential success.

Of course that is not the only explanation, and it could quite reasonably be argued that the openness of the division is also down to no one side being able to establish themselves as the team to beat.

I’ve seen a fair few J2 matches this season and while the standard is obviously below that of the first division I’ve enjoyed most of them.

The games increasingly offer up good entertainment, although this is not always because of especially good play but often because of the opposite.

Decision-making is absolutely vital in football and far too frequently at the lower levels attacks break down or chances are afforded to the opposition because a player makes the wrong one.

The best example of this came when two of the sides jostling at the top of the table, Tokyo Verdy and JEF United, came head to head last month.

JEF were the better side but made consistently poor choices, while Verdy were much sharper and efficient when they had the ball and deservedly took the three points.

A couple of weeks later the tables had turned, with JEF the far more incisive team in their home game against Kyoto Sanga.

The visitors bossed possession but couldn’t make it count, and before Takeshi Oki’s team knew what had happened they were 3-0 down.

Takeshi Okada’s former right-hand man said after that defeat that his team had “collapsed” after conceding the first goal, and despite a spirited late revival they still returned to Kansai on the wrong end of a 3-2 defeat.

That wasn’t the first time they’d had that feeling, and I have also seen them leave it too late against Gainare Tottori and Yokohama FC this year, as well as conceding a late, late goal to lose at Shonan Bellmare.

A lack of composure has seen a talented group of players too easily affected by the flow of the game when steadier heads may well have kept calm to claim the win.

It is not only the players who have been making peculiar decisions, and although the J.League should be commended for having introduced the play-offs they, too, have also made some slightly strange calls with regards to the format.

Giving the higher ranked teams a slight advantage by hosting the one-legged semi-finals at their stadiums is understandable – if a little unfair – but deciding to award the victory to that side if the game ends in  draw is bizarre.

The final, too, will be contested in that manner – albeit at a neutral venue – which not only weighs the tie heavily in the favour of the team that finishes 3rd (or 4th, if an upset takes place in one of the semi-finals) but also raises the possibility of a fairly dour showpiece.

One team will know that a draw is enough to ensure their promotion and so may very well enter the game with a suitably unadventurous mindset; in short, like England.

However, all the teams know this is how things will be decided so are well aware of the value of finishing as high as possible.

Hopefully that will ensure that the action remains this close and unpredictable right up until the final exchanges.

11
Jul
12

Not playing the percentages

There is an increasing tendency to consider games of football in a very systematic way. Numbers and percentages are all well and good, but sometimes you can’t beat a good old-fashioned humdinger… 

Wherever possible I try not to write about specific games in this column.

The instant nature of the internet and social media means that by the time you get around to reading my views the match is already old news, but this week I really want to talk about the recent clash between Vegalta Sendai and Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

At kick-off Vegalta were top of the table and a formidable side who’d lost just once at home, while swashbuckling Sanfrecce boasted the league’s top-scorer in Hisato Sato and knew a win would take them into first place.

Often such games result in fairly cautious affairs – as evident the previous week when all of the top four drew their matches 0-0 – but that was not the case in Sendai, where these two produced a breathless contest.

Yurtec Stadium is, in my opinion, the best football venue in Japan, and I am always happy to have the opportunity to travel up to Tohoku.

The extra meaning taken on by Vegalta in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy has been well documented, and some subtle yet powerful posters in the underground at Sendai station (including one reading “We can hear your big support, we are not alone”) reinforced the role that the team has played in the recovery process.

The Sanfrecce fans unravelled a banner during the warm-up reading, “Let’s get to the summit together and enjoy the view”, but the home supporters weren’t going to let their team give up top spot easily, and their stirring rendition of “Country Road” had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.

Obviously buoyed by the incredible atmosphere in the stadium both teams started at a frantic pace, and while Sanfrecce made the slightly better chances it was Vegalta who opened the scoring when Wilson slotted coolly home after just 11 minutes.

They refused to sit on their lead though, and were pegged back right on the stroke of half-time when Sato was on hand to net Sanfrecce’s equaliser.

At that point both sides could have been forgiven for taking their feet of the gas a little but, thankfully, neither did.

Sato emerged from the tunnel at the start of the second half with a gesture to the away fans to double their efforts, and their response ensured that the teams picked up exactly where they’d left off.

A crunching tackle from Kazuhiko Chiba on Wilson caused a coming together on the halfway line which included Mihael Mikic and Vegalta coach Makoto Teguramori – who I can’t help but think of as the Japanese “Big” Sam Allardyce – and 10 minutes later Koji Morisaki put Sanfrecce in front immediately after coming on as a sub.

The home supporters weren’t giving up, though, and as deafening cries of “Sendai! Let’s Go!” reverberated around the ground the other Morisaki twin, Kazuyuki, underhit a back-pass to Shusaku Nishikawa and inadvertently played in Wilson for his second of the game.

Even after all of this toing-and-froing the teams and their fans continued to go all out for the win, and it looked like Sanfrecce were going to get it when substitute Hironori Ishikawa beat the offside trap and closed in on Takuto Hayashi’s goal.

While his powerful strike beat the big ‘keeper it didn’t find the back of the net, instead cannoning back off of the bar and ensuring that things ended all square.

That was a fittingly dramatic end to what was undoubtedly the best game I’ve seen so far this season, and although they’d seen their lead trimmed a little, these two deserved to remain in the top two places at the end of the round.

There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks about the “right” way to play football, with Spain being accused in some quarters of being boring.

I don’t for a second share that view, but while the Euros were being discussed in terms of formations, ball possession and pass completion rates it was nice to head to the stadium and see a contest with scraps, mistakes and goals aplenty.

Intricate and organised teams can be great to watch, but in terms of pure enjoyment you really can’t beat a game where two teams throw caution to the wind and just go at it.

08
Jul
12

Gonda has mind set on bringing back gold medal

Shuichi Gonda played in all of Japan’s qualifiers for the London Olympics and, despite a late scare, is now looking forward to testing himself against some of the world’s best players.

On Thursday I spoke to the FC Tokyo goalkeeper about his memories of and targets for the Games, his reaction to Akihiro Hayashi’s late challenge for the No. 1 jersey, and his thoughts ahead of the team’s opening game against a star-studded Spain.

04
Jul
12

Girls on film

Thousands and thousands of Japanese women watch, play and love football. Despite this it seems that they are not qualified to comment on the game on TV…

The relationship between women and football in Japan is a rather odd one.

Compared to most other countries the number of female supporters in the stadium every weekend is huge – with around 50% of those at games being women.

Also, with Nadeshiko Japan a genuine force within the world game and riding high on a wave of good publicity, women’s football is taken far more seriously here than it is in a lot more “developed” footballing nations.

There are several established female journalists covering the game in Japan, too, and every Japanese football broadcast features a female face.

Unfortunately, though, this is all-too-often the only thing they provide.

While the men alongside them tackle the serious issue of the game (well, they say “sugoi desu ne” (amazing) and “ii na” (good) a lot, if TBS’s coverage of the Euros is anything to go by), the woman in the studio is required to do little more than smile and introduce the start of the game: “sore de ha, kohan desu!” (so, here comes the second half).

The way in which they are treated as no more than decoration is embarrassing, and while employing attractive females to sit and look pretty is hardly unique to Japan, the fact it takes place – and is accepted – so frequently in a country where so many women have an interest in the game is astonishing.

On first impressions England would not perhaps seem the best example to use as a comparison – with Sky Sports populating its 24-hour news channel with, in the words of The Guardian’s Barney Ronay, “impossibly beautiful robo-babes” – but there are also females on English TV who play more active roles.

The likes of Gabby Logan and Helen Chamberlain, for instance, present popular football shows on which they take part in discussions about and offer opinions on the game, and the idea of football as a “man’s game” is treated as an increasingly old-fashioned way of thinking.

In early 2011, for instance, Sky’s main presenting duo of Richard Keys and Andy Gray were caught making sexist comments about a female linesman ahead of a Premier League match (including the suggestion that she wouldn’t understand the offside law), after which several other pieces of footage highlighting their derogatory attitudes towards women came to light.

They were duly removed from their jobs and roundly criticised for their idiotic behaviour – with most people finding it amusing that the pair genuinely seemed to think an individual’s gender would hamper their ability to understand football.

Such attitudes – while not justifiable, and certainly dying out – are a little less surprising in countries where females were not generally involved in the initial stages of football’s development.

When the J.League was launched in 1993, though, it was marketed at everyone, irrespective of their sex. There is, then, very little cause for such outdated views to be the norm in Japan.

The subject is undoubtedly one that can be discussed in the far wider context of Japanese society – but for the purposes of this article let’s keep the focus on the grinning-but-opinionless anchors on TV.

Aside from the blatant sexism on display, I have three main problems with the way the roles are allocated.

Firstly, as I have already touched upon, the men in the studio often provide absolutely zero analysis themselves, and so the suggestion that they are there to provide the content to counter the announcer’s form is laughable.

Secondly, while I readily admit that some of the girls in question – having been recruited from general talent agencies – probably don’t have much football knowledge, this is not always the case.

I have enjoyed several conversations with female announcers who perfectly understand the game, and I’m frequently frustrated when they are denied the chance to express those views on air.

Finally, what I find most bizarre is the way in which women such as Nami Otake are used.

Otake-san, as a former player, is granted the opportunity to discuss the finer points of matches, but only for women’s games.

Once the men’s matches are back on screen Otake-san is ushered out of the studio so a Johnnys fool can come in and gurn at the camera while repeating worn-out platitudes that offer no insight or enlightenment. Then the cute girl ushers in the commercials.

Sore de ha…

27
Jun
12

Sakai’s on the ball

Hiroki Sakai only played a quarter of his club’s matches in J2 in 2010, but two years on he’s on his way to Europe and has his sights set on a regular berth in the full national team…

On Sunday 7th March, 2010 I was at Hitachi Stadium with just over 7,500 other people to see Kashiwa Reysol beat Oita Trinita 2-1. 

Both teams were getting their seasons underway in J2 after being relegated in 2009, and each handed out seven J2 debuts as they looked to rebuild.

Hiroki Sakai was not among those making his first appearance in the second division – in fact he was still yet to appear at all in the J.League and would only go on to play in nine of Reysol’s 36 games as they romped to the title and an instant return to the top flight.

Two years later, however, and the explosive right-back has a J1 winner’s medal, has impressed at the Club World Cup, appeared for the full national team, and now earned a move to Europe.

I interviewed him towards the end of last season, and while he admitted that a transfer overseas would be hard to turn down, he didn’t seem sure that he was good enough.

“I want to aim for the highest level. If there was a chance I would of course want to go but I am not yet at that level,” he said.

“The team is good now so maybe that’s why I am able to perform well. During tough times I also want to see how much I can help and pull the team through. This I don’t know yet.”

His displays for a struggling Reysol team at the start of this season demonstrated that he can still perform when things aren’t going to plan, convincing Bundesliga side Hannover to part with €1 million for his services.

While Sakai may not have rated himself that highly, the Santos head coach Muricy Ramalho was clearly impressed after the semi-final of last year’s Club World Cup.

“Reysol were very good on the right flank,” he said after Sakai had capped another strong performance with a goal against the Copa Libertadores champions.

“Sakai was prowling that side so I had to adjust a few things,” Ramalho continued.

“He is a young player, very intelligent. This is, I think, his first season. I am sure he is learning a lot of things and if he can be patient he can do very well in the future.”

I spoke to Jorge Wagner about Sakai’s transfer after Reysol’s recent 4-2 win over Omiya Ardija, and he feels the 22-year-old’s move will be a huge loss for the Sun Kings.

“We have [Daisuke] Nasu and [Tatsuya] Masushima who can play at right-back, but Sakai has a very good understanding with Leandro [Domingues] so we will miss that combination,” he said.

While concerned for Reysol without Sakai, Wagner is convinced his teammate will be successful in Germany.

“He’s a very strong player – like a Brazilian full-back.”

This is perhaps not surprising, with Sakai having spent a period on loan in Sao Paolo with Mogi Mirim.

As well as improving on the pitch, Sakai told me last October how he used that opportunity to mature.

“I felt I had to get integrated into Brazilian culture. I had to forget and shed my Japanese culture and mix into the culture of Brazil,” he explained.

“When I went to Brazil if I didn’t try to integrate and just focussed on playing then in other situations away from training I would feel stress.

“By jumping straight in and trying to integrate that meant I didn’t feel stress when I was playing as well. That way I could concentrate on playing at a consistent level.”

I mentioned recently the pitfalls of not embracing your new surroundings after a move abroad, and Sakai’s understanding of this should stand him in good stead in Germany.

Next on his to-do list is the Olympics, after which he will surely be focusing on taking Atsuto Uchida’s right-back spot for the Samurai Blue.

When I asked him to compare himself to Uchida he highlighted the Schalke player’s experience overseas.

“I feel that he can play well against foreign players because of the fact that he plays abroad,” he said.

Sakai now does that, too, and judging by his success over the past two years it is hard not to see him making the position his own sooner rather than later.

20
Jun
12

Football Against Adversity: A Japanese Odyssey

The Inside Left is a new online football journal which, in their own words, is “dedicated to telling thought-provoking football stories – no news, gossip or reports, just the best comment, analysis and anecdotes from players, managers, supporters and a team of talented contributors who span the length and breadth of the globe, as well as the depths of the league pyramid.”

My small contribution to that grand aim was a piece on the increasing relevance of football to Japanese culture, something that was emphasised in the aftermath of the Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11th, 2011.

30
May
12

Feeling down

It’s a league where anyone can beat anyone. Unless you’re Consadole Sapporo, it seems…

Regular readers may remember that around this time last year I travelled to Sapporo in the hope of watching a game at the Dome. 

The schedule changes brought about by the earthquake sadly meant that wasn’t possible, but a trip to Miyanosawa (and a couple of bars in the city) left a positive impression so a couple of weeks ago I headed north to pay Consadole another visit. 

This time I was able to see a game at the World Cup venue, but even though the visitors FC Tokyo won 1-0 I am still yet to see a goal there.

After taking plenty of pictures around the venue (including one, of course, from behind the goal where David Beckham scored that awful (yet brilliant) penalty against Argentina in 2002) I had to hurry up to the press seats and missed the kick-off.

By the time I got there Kajiyama had already put Tokyo ahead (in the goal I’d just been crouched behind), and some great saves by Shuichi Gonda and awful misses by the Consadole front-line meant that was to be it as far as the scoring went.

That summed up the home side’s season so far, and as many predicted they have struggled to pick up points back in the top-flight.

When I spoke to their manager, Nobuhiro Ishizaki, ahead of the season he anticipated such difficulty, and stated that his aim was purely to keep the club in J1.

“The target is not to be relegated in the first season, which happens often,” he said.

“If a team manages to stay up, the players gain experience and it all gets much easier. The most important thing is to manage to stay in J1.”

In recent seasons unfancied sides promoted from J2 have caused a few surprises, and I had a sneaking suspicion that Consadole may have been the one to do so in 2012.

Of course we know how reliable my predictions are, and it turns out to have been Sagan Tosu who have carried their strong form up with them.

All is not lost yet, but things are not looking too good for the side and it’s vital they improve quickly if they want to stand any chance of avoiding an instant return to the second division.

Defender Jade North was understandably downbeat after the defeat to his former side, although he pointed out that, up to and including that game, Consadole had yet to be truly taken apart.

“It comes to a point where you think “what do we have to do to pick up points?” It’s not as if we’ve been losing by big scores, we fight right to the death, but…”

I suggested that, in a strange way, it may actually be better to get hammered 4- or 5-0, as that makes it easier to identify the things that need improving, and he could well have been paying attention as the team’s next game was the horrendous 7-0 reverse at Kashima Antlers.

That result will produce one of two outcomes: either it strips the players of any remaining confidence they may have had and they will slide inevitably to their doom, or, alternatively – and, admittedly, less likely – it will shock them into action.

“I think anyone can beat anyone on the day,” North told me after the Tokyo game. “It’s all about who turns up.

“For us now it’s battling to stay up. We’re just over a third of the way through.

“I think it becomes a mental thing after a while. With us at the moment it’s just hard to find that win. When you’re losing you forget how to win sometimes.”

The psychological drain of consecutive defeats is undoubtedly the largest hurdle to overcome, but North is not feeling sorry for himself and is well aware of what he and his teammates need to do to change their luck.

“We’ve got to find that winning mentality. Just pick ourselves up and roll our sleeves up.”

If they can do that and start to rack up some points soon you never know what effect that may have on the teams just above them.

They’ll have to be quick about it though, as they’ve given their rivals a hell of a headstart.

22
May
12

S-Pulse among new contenders as old guard struggles

The J.League is steadily earning a reputation for being an open and competitive division. The first third of this season has been no exception, and while some of the bigger clubs struggle in the lower-reaches of the table several unfancied sides are leading the way in J1.

On Saturday I was at Saitama Stadium to see two of these sides – Urawa Reds and Shimizu S-Pulse – go head-to-head, and gathered some thoughts from those involved on their title chances in 2012.

16
May
12

All bets are off

When it comes to calling the outcome of games my luck has been well and truly out of late. Then again, is anybody able to predict what will happen in the J.League…? 

I’m tempted to give up.

I always like to try and call the outcome of games with fellow journalists and fans ahead of matches, but in recent weeks almost every single prediction I have made has been wrong.

Perhaps worryingly for somebody in my profession my woeful inaccuracy is actually starting to become something of a defining characteristic.

I have never been one to benefit financially from betting on games, at university I used to buy a weekly “accumulator” – where a couple of pounds could become hundreds if the outcome of a handful of matches was correctly guessed – without ever coming close to striking it lucky.

Granted, I never did quite as badly as a friend who burst into the living room one Saturday afternoon with a list of about 20 matches which would have earned him tens of thousands, only to discover that the first one had already finished unfavourably, but my poor form did continue with my first few Toto attempts in Japan.

I’m now ¥100 a week better off after kicking that habit.

Rather surprisingly considering my lack of form in the field, last season I provided J.League game previews for a sports gambling website, part of which involved me having to guess the result.

After the first two rounds I had a fairly poor record and was reminded that my success rate would have an impact on whether or not I held onto the job.

I usually try my best to take negative feedback on board, but not that time.

I pointed out to my employer that part of the beauty of football – particularly in Japan – is that you never know for sure who is going to come out on top, before adding that the entire betting industry is built upon the premise of people thinking they know what is going to happen when they don’t.

They said they understood and I didn’t receive any more complaints – although, as I said, I no longer have that job. Hmm…

Anyway, thankfully it is not only me who struggles, and J.League players, too, are bemused by the lack of predictability in their division.

I recently interviewed Urawa Reds’ Tomoaki Makino, and he cited the erratic results in J1 as his favourite aspect of the domestic league.

“Compared to other leagues you don’t know which team is going to become champions,” he said.

“In Spain it is Barcelona or Real, Germany is Bayern or Dortmund. Japan is not like that. Every team has a chance to win the league. That’s the best, most interesting thing about football in Japan.”

Makino’s former Sanfrecce teammate Mihael Mikic agrees that the almost random nature of results makes for a fascinating competition.

“It’s unbelievable. At the beginning of this year I was thinking about who can be champions, and I thought it would be maybe from five or six teams,” the Croatian told me after his team’s 4-1 win over Kawasaki Frontale moved them into second place.

“Then I was thinking about who will go to J2. I thought maybe Sapporo, Tosu and, I was thinking third, I don’t know.

“But now Tosu is up and only Sapporo stays [lower down], so I don’t know who will go to J2 next year! It’s unbelievable how this league is so close.”

The three most recent champions – Kashiwa Reysol, Nagoya Grampus, and Kashima Antlers – all found themselves in the bottom half of the division after ten games, while unfancied sides such as Tosu, Shimizu S-Pulse and, of course, early pacesetters Vegalta Sendai are riding high.

It is tempting to suggest that those clubs will of course slip-up at some point soon, and that the natural order will be resumed, but recent seasons suggest that may not be the case.

Nobody expected Reysol to be so consistently good last year (or appalling this), for example, and Mikic feels that psychology is vital.

“I think this year the race will be very, very tight and who keeps their nerve and their confidence will win the league.”

Well, I think it’s fair to say that I’m losing my nerve, and my confidence is shot so perhaps I should give the predictions a rest for a while and just enjoy the games?

10
May
12

The Mixed Zone with…Tomoaki Makino

For the latest installment of my interview series on the J.League website I chatted with Urawa Reds and Japan defender Tomaki Makino.

Amongst other things he spoke about his year playing in Germany and subsequent return to the J.League, his role for the national team, and just what Japanese players need to do to be successful overseas.




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