Posts Tagged ‘Yuto Nagatomo

12
Jun
12

Japan aims to stay on roll in clash with Australia

Japan’s first two games in the final round of qualifying for Brazil 2014 went better than anybody could have expected, with 3-0 and 6-0 home wins over Oman and Jordan, respectively.

Tonight they take on Australia in what is sure to be their toughest game yet. The players are confident, though, and as Yasuhito Endo, Keisuke Honda, Eiji Kawashima and Yuto Nagatomo said after the romp over Jordan, they are aiming for a third consecutive win in Brisbane.

02
Mar
12

Zac: Japan doomed by lack of will

Japan lost 1-0 to Uzbekistan on Wednesday night, condemning Alberto Zaccheroni to his first home defeat in charge of the Samurai Blue.

After the match I gathered reaction from Zac and the players for The Daily Yomiuri.

29
Feb
12

Zaccheroni’s building project ready for next battle

Japan play their final match of the 3rd Round of Asian Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup against Uzbekistan tonight.

Both teams are already through so all eyes are on Alberto Zaccheroni’s team selection, and in particular Ryo Miyaichi.

31
Jan
12

Should I stay or should I go?

Scouts from overseas are incresingly looking to recruit Japanese players, for whom the lure of foreign football is hard to resist. Sometimes though, staying put could be the best thing to do…

Since the 2010 World Cup finals Japanese players have become – rather like Luis Vuitton handbags for the nation’s women – a must-have accessory for many European clubs.

Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Arsenal are three of the biggest sides to have picked up bargains, in Yuto Nagatomo, Takashi Usami and Ryo Miyaichi. Others, including Shinji Kagawa and Atsuto Uchida, have developed into regulars at their new teams, and enjoyed great success in their domestic divisions and the Champions League.

While several have been able to make the step-up with relative ease, however, many more have seen their progress grind to something of a halt overseas.

Among those whose stories have been far from idyllic are Eiji Kawashima, who is languishing near the bottom of the Belgian First Division for the second consecutive season with Lierse, Kisho Yano, who struggled for minutes at Freiburg and is desperately seeking a transfer, and Tomoaki Makino (Koln), Yuki Abe (Leicester City) and Masahiko Inoha (Hajduk Split), all three of whom have already moved on – the former pair back to Japan with Urawa.

The reality of living and working overseas is not the same as the idea of it – particularly for Japanese players.

Japan, like England, is an island country and thus fairly inward-looking. Foreign travel is far from the norm here – and when people do venture abroad it is usually as part of carefully planned, all-Japanese tour groups – and the level of English is among the worst in the world.

When players who are used to being wrapped in cotton wool back home are suddenly thrust into a completely alien environment, then, it can be difficult.

Further to this, with the level of the J.League constantly increasing, a move to a different country may not always be the best option.

I spoke to Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s winger Mihael Mikic shortly after Inoha had sealed his move to Hajduk Split last July, and the Croatian couldn’t believe the Japan international had made such a choice.

“I cannot understand that Inoha from Kashima Antlers is going to go to Hajduk Split in Croatia. This I cannot understand,” he said.

“You know the Croatian League has only one good team; that is Dinamo Zagreb. Dinamo Zagreb for the last six years is the champion. All the other teams are not a high level, you know? But maybe he’s thinking something. Somebody from Europe will see him,” he continued.

“But I think now, in this moment, he has a better chance if he stays and then goes to a team in Germany or Italy or Holland.”

The apparent desperation of players to head overseas in an anywhere-will-do style can come off and provide a great life-experience, but playing-wise it can backfire, and such a plunge should not be taken lightly.

“[They] must make the choice of a good league; Bundesliga, Serie A, Spanish league, England or Italy,” Mikic went on to explain.

“These five leagues, or France or Holland – that is also ok. In Russia the fight for the six top teams is also good, but now another country in Europe? That is not a good choice. That is my opinion.” 

His words came to ring true in the case of Inoha, and as well as placing his national team spot in jeopardy the 26-year-old must also now think very carefully about his next step.

He most likely does not want to swallow his pride and come back to Japan at this point, but will another European team be willing to give him a chance?

If he had heeded Mikic’s advice and continued to establish himself at Antlers then a side in a bigger league may well have been convinced by his undoubted ability and come in with an offer, either now or perhaps in the summer.

That is something that the likes of Hiroki Sakai, Genki Haraguchi and Hiroshi Kiyotake must certainly bear in mind, with the next 12 months almost certain to bring speculation and offers for their services from overseas.

All three of those players have the potential to become the next Kagawa or Uchida, but they need the right club to facilitate that progression – and for the time being that may well be their current employer.

21
Oct
11

Shooting Stars

Football fans the world over love a new star. The constant hunger for fresh articles analysing their performances, critiquing them and predicting or declaring their downfall make it difficult to arive at balanced judgments of their true abilities. In Japan this is process is particularly pronounced and shelf-life seems to be set at around six months….

A couple of years ago it seemed as if all of Japan’s prospects at the 2010 World Cup depended solely upon Shunsuke Nakamura.

He was the media darling and his struggles with injury and poor form created thousands of column inches in the build-up to the tournament.

Then Keisuke Honda came along and became the go-to guy for comments, seemingly established as the new face of the Samurai Blue.

While the CSKA Moscow ‘star’ is still of central importance to the success of the national team his is not the name most spotted on shirts at the stadium at the moment though, with first Shinji Kagawa and then Yuto Nagatomo rising to the top of the pile on the back of their moves to Europe. 

Of course, every country likes to have their hero, and a new face upon which to pin a nation’s hopes is not in any way unique to Japanese football.

The frequency with which the idol is changed here – and the speed at which they are elevated to the summit – is fairly unusual though.

The reason I say ‘star’ in relation to Honda is not meant in any way to detract from his abilities as a player, but in all truth he is yet to really achieve enough to warrant the term.

Yes, he scored a couple of goals at the World Cup and looks to have the ability to make it in one of the bigger leagues, but at 25 he is still stuck in Russia and very few fans outside of Japan know much, if anything, about him.

The manner in which home-grown success stories are overblown in Japan projects daunting expectations onto the players though, and this most recently resulted in Kagawa cutting a forlorn figure around the team in the build-up to the Tajikistan game.

“I want to get my goal. If I can score then maybe my performance will jump up,” he said when questioned for the umpteenth time about the ‘slump in form’ that had seen him go three games without scoring for the national team.

Just three games.

“I only want to focus on the next match and I want to play to my real ability,” he continued. “But this time maybe the most important thing is to not think. If I can play like that then maybe that will be my best performance.”

That last observation hit the nail firmly on the head. My impressions from watching him of late were that he had been trying to do too much. Trying to carry the team. Trying to live up to his billing.

He clearly has the ability so let’s just let him play the game the way that comes naturally to him – and has brought about his success to date – and not get on his back when things aren’t going exactly to plan. 

His magnificent pair of goals against Tajikistan (although I still think the second was a cross, and so did Yasuhito Endo) demonstrate that he has lost none of the ability that caused his rapid rise from J2 to the Bundesliga.

Even so, he felt the need to qualify this after the game, telling reporters that, “my confidence depends on what happens in the future. I have to keep going.”

While it is good to seek improvement, the players should not fear their next game and the negative headlines that may appear if their performance dips a little.

Football players are not tarento. Their shelf-life is not just six months and they will have ups and downs. We don’t need a new face every time the leaves change.

Hiroshi Kiyotake and Genki Haraguchi seem to be the next duo vying to be the latest luminous-booted starlet who proves that Japan’s Got Talent, but let’s not get carried away.

Genki’s had a good season considering the atrocious form of his club, while Kiyotake’s settled well into the national team in his first few appearances.

We shouldn’t forget the old proverb about the foolishness of constructing houses on sand.

 Instead of building players up too quickly and then knocking them down with similar haste, let’s give them a bit of time to lay their foundations before we proclaim them as ‘world class’ or past it.

12
Oct
11

Japan v. Tajikistan Preview

On Tuesday night Japan played Tajikistan in their third group game in the third round of Asian qualification for Brazil 2014.

I wrote a peview ahead of the match for The Daily Yomiuri, which can be found here.

30
Jun
11

Nadeshiko aiming for the top at the World Cup

The Japanese women’s football team – Nadeshiko Japan – got their World Cup campaign up-and-running on Monday with a win over New Zealand. Before the side left for Germany I spoke with captain Homare Sawa about her aims and expectations for the tournament.

People inside and outside of the country have been getting very excited about Japanese football recently, with the nation finally seeming to make an impact on the global game.

While Nagatomo and co. become the poster-boys of this development and are, quite rightly, being lauded for their success though, I wonder how many people can name the Japanese player who has already played over 160 times for the country and appeared at five World Cups?

Well, that is exactly what Homare Sawa achieved on Monday, as the Nadeshiko beat New Zealand 2-1 in their first group game of the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany.

Sawa, now 32, made her first appearance at a World Cup finals back in Sweden in 1995 at the age of just 16, and having spent half of her life as an international footballer she believes that this year’s competition will be her last.

I spoke to the Nadeshiko captain last month as the side trained in Akabane, where she was very open and friendly and spoke of her desire to make this World Cup her most successful.

“This time my situation is different from other World Cups, the first time I was only 16 years old, the youngest player,” she said. “But now I have grown in experience so this time should be the best World Cup for me. I think this will be my last time.”

The thought of the Nadeshiko at a World Cup without Sawa seems a little strange (it has only happened once, after all), but the women’s game, like the men’s, is going from strength to strength and the next star of the side will be taking to the field alongside Sawa in Germany this year.

Mana Iwabuchi, who is juggling her University studies at Komazawa Joshi Daigaku with her blossoming football career at NTV Beleza, is being broken into the team gently, but while great care is being taken with her development there is no mistaking the undoubted talent that she possesses.

I asked Sawa if, having made her World Cup debut at a similarly young age, she had any advice for the 18-year-old Iwabuchi, and she looked a little surprised at the suggestion and laughed.

“Not at all; of course not! Nothing specific but I would like her to enjoy this World Cup and to enjoy the experience and everything that goes with it.”

When I press a little more she insists that the young striker does not need any special tips, having already appeared in several international tournaments at youth level.

“This time is senior so will be different but she already has lots of experience playing in world competition. Full national team and the younger ones are different, of course physically, height and weight and physical strength, but also the mental side, the intelligence of the players.”

Iwabuchi showed very few signs of being troubled by these aspects at last year’s East Asian Football Federation Championships, grabbing two goals against Chinese Taipei, and I ask Sawa what she thought of the youngster’s instant adaptation to the full national team.

She breaks into a smile and says, “In my first game I scored four goals though, against the Phillipines! Then I was 15…”

While this is, of course, spoken in jest, such friendly banter can serve just as well as – if not better than – serious advice to motivate young players, and having Iwabuchi on top form going into the tournament, along with fellow strikers Shinobu Ono – who was top scorer when the Nadeshiko won the Asian Games gold last year – and Yuki Nagasato, will be vital if the side are to achieve Sawa’s goal of exiting the World Cup with a medal.

Having failed to get through the group stages in China four years ago this will be no mean feat, but with the tournament set to be Sawa’s last World Cup she intends to give everything for the cause, and I genuinely hope she succeeds in her aim.

“It will be very, very difficult to get a medal in the world tournament,” she said, before concluding typically, “but we will try. I think nothing is impossible so we will try.”

     *          *          *          *          *          *          *           *          *          *          *          *          *    

Further comments from Sawa san can be found here, in a preview I wrote for the-AFC.com.

27
May
11

One step Atsu time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it is. Or at least, it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15
Apr
11

Gotta catch ’em all…

Suits say the funniest things…

A couple of weeks ago so much of what I hate about the English Premier League was summed up by one man in a suit. Gavin Law is his name and he is the group head of corporate affairs of Standard Chartered – the bank that this year became Liverpool FC’s shirt sponsor in the most expensive deal ever (20 million pounds per season).

The combination of the words ‘corporate’ and ‘football’ instantly sends a shiver down my spine but Mr. Law’s recent comments – when he suggested that the bank would like Liverpool to sign some Asian players for commercial gain – annoyed me, even by the standards I usually set for the bilge spouted by people in his profession.

He was quoted by The Independent and Liverpool Echo as saying:

“We would love the club to have players of nationalities from the markets in which we operate. They are not going to get them from all 75 but if they could sign some – if they could get a Korean, Indian, Chinese player – look what Park [Ji-sung] has done for [Manchester] United in terms of coverage in Korea.

Oh no…

“Liverpool are more aware than most other clubs we’ve spoken to of the commercial opportunity for them. If they can sell a million shirts with another Mr. Park on the back, why wouldn’t you?” 

Mr. Law, please stop before you say something really stupid…

“The markets in Asia and the Middle East are so nationalistic, they are very proud about their countries. One appearance from a player, say from Dubai in the Premier League, and you’d have the whole of Dubai watching it.”

Ah, like that.

“The Kenny magic is all around the world, everybody believes Kenny can take the club (forward) and that means they stay focused and that means they stay in the newspapers around the world… we are looking for brand awareness.”

Let’s leave it there shall we?

Ok, the problems with these comments are fairly obvious, but let’s take a second to dissect them a little.

Firstly, there is the suggestion that the club could collect nationalities from Asia and the Middle-East, rather like Pokemon. Footballing ability appears to be a secondary concern, as long as they can catch them all (although Mr. Law seems a bit put-out that limits on squad size would prevent this becoming a reality).

Then the example of Park Ji-sung; a player who’s popularity in Korea – and Manchester – is such because he is a key member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad. He was not signed because of how many t-shirts the club can sell in Korea – or Manchester – (they sold plenty without him), but because of what he brings on the pitch.

To assume that “Kenny” would gladly sign any old “Mr. Park” to increase shirt sales implies that Mr. Law is not as close a confidante of the Liverpool caretaker-manager as his casual first-name-terms approach would suggest.

Next up, the declaration that “the markets” – I guess in non-corporate-speak you could refer to them as “people” – “in Asia and the Middle East are so nationalistic”.

Mr. Law, let’s call him Gavin, not only suggests here that he is more than willing to exploit the fans in this part of the world, but he is also foolish enough to declare it publicly.

Furthermore, while supporters here are perhaps slightly more enthusiastic consumers than elsewhere, they are also becoming more cynical of the European clubs’ motivations – because of idiotic statements like those made by Gavin – and tend now to wait until a player achieves success before they get too excited.

Unfortunately, comments like these from people with no understanding of the game can only hinder the steady progression of Asian players’ in Europe. Just as the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo begin to establish themselves in the top leagues, attention has been rediverted to their commercial potential.

Rather than opening the door to the likes of Keisuke Honda – who is reportedly angling for a move to the Premier League – I would advise such players to perhaps take these views into account before deciding their next move, and to maybe join a club which exhibits a genuine interest in their abilities on the pitch rather than the impact they can have on the profits off it.

07
Apr
11

Cop out?

The will-they-won’t-they concerning Japan’s participation in the Copa America is dragging on a bit so I decided to clear it up for Weekly Soccer Magazine.

The J.League and JFA certainly have some tricky decisions to make over the coming weeks, and just how the five rounds of postponed J.League matches can be made up in an already packed schedule is not an easy problem to solve. 

Luckily I have had a lot of time on my hands lately though, and so have been able to come up with the answer for Mr. Ogura and Mr. Ohigashi: and the good news is that the J.League and Copa America can both still go ahead.

Essentially there were three options available:

Option 1. The national team travel to Argentina with any players that Zac wants to take and the J.League keeps the mid-season break as scheduled. The five rounds of matches are then made up throughout the course of the season, with one extra round per month in May, June, September, October and November.

Option 2. The national team withdraw from the Copa America and during that scheduled five week break the J.League make up the matches.

Option 3. The national team still take part in the Copa America and the J.League play rounds 2-6 at the same time. Either Zac is asked to function without any J.League regulars, or clubs are asked for their co-operation in the matter.

 

None of these options are ideal and somewhere along the line somebody is going to have to compromise. However, the recent events in Tohoku mean that flexibility is required – and should be expected – to resolve the situation.

Initially I was leaning towards the first option. All of the J.League players are professional athletes who are paid to keep themsleves in top physical condition. As such, asking them to play five matches a month rather than four is not a particulalry big demand. As a fellow journalist pointed out to me the other day, if Crawley Town of the English Blue Square Premier League (5th Division) can play twice a week, then surely J.League players can.

The problem with this option though was the break in the middle of the season. The more I considered it, the more that five-week period bugged me. It would essentially be a week for each player who is actually likely to be missing from the J.League and featuring for Japan in Argentina (Nishikawa, Inoha, Tulio, Endo, Maeda). This seems like an awful lot of time to be wasting when there are games to be played, and so I began to consider option 2.

The national team pulling out of the Copa America would ease the strain on the players but it just seems a little drastic – again bearing in mind the number who will actually be missing from the J.League. There are a few other domestic players who are on the fringes of the national team (Iwamasa, Kashiwagi, Fujimoto, Honda) but their spots could easily be filled by young J.Leaguers yet to cement places at their clubs, or J2 or University players.

 

And so I settled for option 3; the best of both. But, are J.League teams asked to get by without their stars or does Zac have to choose his squad solely from overseas players and the lesser-lights?

The latter. The Copa America is, essentially, meaningless. Japan are travelling to Argentina to gain experience (and probably make a few yen, of course), and none of the J.League players who will be missing out are lacking in either. The European-based players will have finished their seasons by then and will bring more than enough quality to the squad, with the remaining places being taken up by satellite members of J1 teams, second division players and members of Sekizuka’s Under-22 team.

If I were in charge, for example, my squad would look something like this:

Eiji Kawashima, Shuichi Gonda, Shunsuke Ando; Atsuto Uchida, Takuya Okamoto, Michihiro Yasuda, Maya Yoshida, Tomoaki Makino, Yasuyuki Konno, Yuto Nagatomo; Yuki Abe, Makoto Hasebe, Hajime Hosogai, Keigo Higashi, Akihiro Ienaga, Ryo Miyaichi, Kazuya Yamamura, Daisuke Matsui; Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda, Takayuki Morimoto, Shoki Hirai.  

Still a strong line-up, with some potential Samurai Blue regulars of the future getting some crucial experience around the full national team, while the J.League can go about its business as usual until December.

So there you have it, problem solved.




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