Posts Tagged ‘Santos


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.


More than a club

2011 saw Barcelona further establish themselves as the best team on the planet. As well as winning pretty much every trophy available to them they are also edging closer and closer to the ultimate accolade…

As I discussed in last week’s column, the Club World Cup is far from being the official word on who is the best team in the world.

To an extent, the ease with which Barcelona cruised to the trophy serves as further proof of that. In truth though, it is becoming increasingly apparent with this set of players that the usual rules don’t apply.

At half-time in the final I was watching the highlights in the press room and said of Xavi’s exquisite control ahead of his assist for the first goal, “It’s not fair, they’re too good.”

A Brazilian journalist sat nearby laughingly agreed and gave me a look that said “what can you do?”

According to Neymar after the game, the answer is very simple: nothing.

“We did everything we could but Barca are too strong,” the Santos striker shrugged with a wry smile.

This had been a theme during the Catalan giants’ week in Japan, with opponents queuing up to praise Pep Guardiola’s incredible side.

Al-Sadd’s head coach Jorge Fossati perhaps put it best after seeing his team picked apart in the semi-final.

“Barca has a kingdom, but who can defeat this kingdom?,” the Uruguayan asked.

Al-Sadd and Santos may be at a lower level than some of the biggest European sides who are best placed to topple the club that is ‘more than a club’, but they represent the best in Asia and South America right now.

Even when faced with Manchester United (in this year’s Champions League final) or Real Madrid (the day before they flew to Japan) Barca came out comfortably on top.

“Barcelona is the best club team in the world,” Fossati added. “Whoever they play against they are the best team in the world. That is logical to say.”

The strength of the team rests not only with their phenomenal attacking ability and abundance of sublime individual talents, but also in a fantastic work-ethic and understanding which is a direct result of its fabled La Masia academy.

Something that always strikes me about the side is the way they hunt in packs as soon as the opposition get the ball, making it incredibly difficult to place them under any real pressure.

Guardiola referred to this aspect of his side’s play after the final, highlighting the attention to detail they pay to each specific opponent.

“We have very high quality players and also try to analyse the opponents and find space in which to use the ball,” he said. “The players just capture the ball and move around and make chances. It is not so complicated.”

It may not be complicated to them, but exactly how to stop them certainly has everyone else scratching their heads.

Santos’ head coach Muricy Ramalho was similarly at a loss, and yet again referred to Barca as the best in the world.

“We tried to stop their players as much as possible, but I don’t think it’s easy to find a team anywhere in the world that can beat Barcelona.

“I thought of many things, but to control the game or steal the game from Barca is very difficult. It’s no use talking about the shortcomings of Santos and we should be humble and accept that Barca is the world’s best club.”

Cesc Fabregas was also at pains to point out the amount of hard work that has gone into building such a phenomenal team.

“If you see that it’s easy then it’s because we played a very serious game, very professional and disciplined then that made it look easy but it wasn’t easy at all,” the former Arsenal captain said of the game with Santos.

After having had to put up with the likes of Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh until he returned to Camp Nou, I asked just how much fun it was to now be lining up alongside Xavi, Messi and Iniesta.

“It’s great,” he said with a grin. “They are the best players in the world. I’m taking advantage for my game to have more opportunities because they create so many spaces and so many chances.”

The ‘best in the world’ line is pretty unanimous, then. It surely can’t be long until the same can be said of the ‘best ever’ tag.


For the game? For the world?

Barcelona provided some sumptuous entertainment on the way to claiming the Club World Cup title, and Kashiwa Reysol also benefited from the tournament. The real winners were Fifa though…

At the start of the season I wrote in this column that I was pleased to see Kashiwa Reysol back in J1, ending with the line, “One thing’s for certain; with Kashiwa back in the mix 2011 will be kept interesting. The future’s bright.”

Little did I know back then just how brightly the Sun Kings would shine. As well as becoming the first ever side to claim back-to-back J2 and J1 championships they also earned the rare opportunity to take part in the Club World Cup – with their momentum taking them all the way to an exciting semi-final against Santos.

Speaking after their qualifying victory against Auckland City, captain Hidekazu Otani – one of the unsung heroes of the team – epitomised the spirit behind Reysol’s success.

“It’s not just about participating, but the whole team feels that we want to leave a good result,” he said.

“The experience of every single match in this competition is valuable to all the players and the team.”

His coach Nelsinho agreed, reflecting on the growth of his side after they secured their place in the quarter-finals against Monterrey.

“My players now have more confidence, they are more mature. We have won J2 and, by taking it step by step J1 as well. By winning this game, we have more experience”

I have absolutely no doubt about that but, while the competition does provide a fantastic experience for clubs such as Reysol, I have to admit that I see it as little more than a charade to make FIFA even more money.

With the greatest respect to the likes of Auckland City – who, let’s not forget, are an amateur club – they don’t represent anything like the best teams in the world, and to suggest anything otherwise hints at either ignorance, stupidity or lies (none of which are particularly alien to the world’s governing body, of course).

Myself and a fellow English journalist (Ben Mabley of Football Japan) discussed the pros (mainly Ben) and cons (mainly me) of the tournament ahead of the kick-off, and while I agreed that, in principal, it was a good idea, in practice it just doesn’t work.

The concept of a tournament to determine the true ‘Best Club in the World’ is great on paper, but economic factors mean that each of the continental champions comes into the competition on a hugely different footing.

Regardless of whether they won the competition or not, we all know that Barcelona are the best team out there, and aside from yet another El Clasico against Real Madrid we’re hard pushed for someone to really challenge them for that crown.

The closest side from outside of Europe to being able to do that is probably Copa Libertadores champions Santos.

In his welcome address in the official programme for the Club World Cup (¥3,000 each – ‘For the game. For the World’), Kazu touched upon that fact – while at the same time performing perhaps the biggest name-drop I have ever seen.

“During a conversation with Pele the other day,” Kazu began, “he commented that, “People continually ask me about a game between Santos FC and FC Barcelona, but who said they will be in the final?””

Kazu then continued, “You could say there is a gulf in quality between the continents, but the gap has been narrowing in recent years. The will to win is universal and there is an equal chance for every team.”

Ben made a similar point, and while Reysol’s efforts against Santos were impressive I’m still not convinced.

Everybody in the build-up to the competition wanted to see the Catalans (and Messi) square off against the Brazilians (and Neymar) in the final, so what would have made more sense (but less money) would have been to skip straight to a game between those two sides – as was the case until the Intercontinental Cup came to an end in 2004.

 I’m all for trying to improve the overall level of the game around the world, but rather than just giving the African, American, Asian and Oceanian champions the chance to swap shirts with a celebrity player, FIFA could perhaps try and focus its efforts on distributing and regulating the obscene amounts of money in the game a bit better in order to create a more even playing field.


Barcelona carves name in history

Barcelona made official what we all knew on Sunday when they became the champions of the Club World Cup.


I was lucky enough to be at Nissan Stadium to witness their triumph first-hand, and gathered some recation for the Daily Yomiuri.


Club World Cup semis set up Barca-Santos final

It was the game everybody wanted to see before the tournament began, and after victories over Kashiwa Reysol and Al-Sadd, respectively, Santos and Barcelona are set to square off in the Club World Cup final on Sunday.

I was at both games and gathered reaction from the key players in Toyota (Reysol-Santos) and Yokohama (Al-Sadd-Barca) ahead of the final.


Reysol must improve in next round

Kashiwa Reysol didn’t have much time to prepare for their Club World Cup opener, only clinching their maiden J1 crown five days before the competition began.

They still managed to seal a victory over Auckland City in their first match, but know they need to improve for their next game against CF Monterrey of Mexico.


Rare double has Reysol raising its bar

This season Kashiwa Reysol became the first Japanese side ever to win J1 the year after claiming the J2 championship.

I was at Saitama Stadium to see them complete their historic triumph, and got some reaction from the key players for The Daily Yomiuri.

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May 2023