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July 2008

Bare-faced cheek

28 Jul 2008(Mon)

Although there was a small degree of controversy over Oita Trinita’s winning goal, as Lucas appeared to be felled in the build-up, the real reasons behind Gamba Osaka’s defeat on Saturday were entirely predictable following Bare’s sudden departure in midweek. Just as in the game against JEF United Chiba the previous weekend, Gamba blatantly lacked a focal point to their forward play, and even though two changes at the break did help them raise their tempo a little, the team still struggled to create many real clear-cut chances. Unused to the scenes unfolding before them, the home supporters angrily called on the manager to change things, but with a bench full of inexperienced youngsters, there was no obvious solution. If this were Football Manager, it was the kind of match you would want to reboot and try again until you happened upon a formation and line-up that actually did the trick.


The combination of Bare and Lucas had ultimately less than six months to develop and was still far from perfect, but with promising signs being shown of late, the mid-season timing of Bare’s decision to leave has not helped Gamba at all. Both players had started each of the 18 league games up to and including the JEF United match, combining to score 16 goals between them, and of the six goals contributed to this total by Lucas, four had come in the eight matches since Yokohama F Marinos were Gamba’s opponents on matchday 12. Lucas was the newcomer at the start of the season, but in the absence of his striking partner and fellow countryman, he will now be forced to play a more pivotal role in the attack.


The close season this year saw an unusually high number of personnel changes for Gamba, meaning that moulding the side together would be an issue from the outset, but the need to compensate for the loss of Bare presents an altogether unexpected and unwanted problem. Masato Yamazaki may have saved his team at the death in Chiba, but his record of just five goals in five years as a professional will not suggest to his manager that he should be the one to lead the line, and indeed he was back on the bench against Oita. Shoki Hirai, who was brought into the starting line up for this game, has only 97 minutes of league experience to call upon even if you count the 45 he gained before his withdrawal on Saturday. Injuries, illnesses, and Olympic duties have meant that Gamba have had to rely on their young players more than Akira Nishino will probably have hoped to this year, and while the success of the youth system should be a great source of pride for the club, the manager’s decisions in the coming days will be extremely important as Gamba continue to battle for honours in the league and Asian Champions League.


For an attacking team with a generally quite stable roster, Gamba have seen a surprisingly high turnover of striking personnel over the last few years, which has given Nishino a degree of experience in this market. Four of the forwards (Araujo, Masashi Oguro, Kohta Yoshihara, and Masanobu Matsunami) all left the side after contributing to a record of 82 goals and a title success in 2005, but the addition of Magno Alves and Ryuji Bando to the ranks saw Gamba record an almost identical total – 80 goals – the following year. Even when Fernandinho then left for Shimizu S-Pulse, Bare was brought in from Ventforet Kofu, and came second in the league’s scoring charts with 20 goals in his first season in 2007. Nishino has proven himself in the past to be adept at selecting Brazilian strikers with J League experience, but with an unusual struggle for goals added to the existing problems of formation and getting the best out of this year’s new additions, it is vital that he makes the right choice on this occasion as well.


With a transfer to Al-Ahli of the United Arab Emirates set to be confirmed, Bare will become the second Gamba player after Magno Alves (now with Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia) to be lured by the finances of the Middle East. It is easier for supporters to accept when players leave clearly for the sake of their careers, such as when Oguro went to Europe and Araujo returned to Brazil, but it is rather more nonplussing when their destinations do not represent an obvious step up from the J League. Japanese football may not be blessed with riches that can attract world-class players as was the case 15 years ago, and as the contrasting attitudes of Cristiano Ronaldo and his English teammates at Manchester United display, it is perhaps harder for a player to develop deep loyalty to a club outside of his home country. However, with Gamba receiving offers from two French Ligue 1 clubs last summer, Bare was certainly not without more competitive options, and this trend we are beginning to see is somewhat disappointing.

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Moving home at last?

23 Jul 2008(Wed)

The media reports on Friday about a new stadium for Gamba Osaka, and the subsequent announcement by the club itself, will have filled the team’s supporters with excitement and great anticipation. With envious looks cast even at the small but football-specific venues in Iwata and Kashiwa, let alone the top-class stadiums that the cities of Saitama and Kashima can boast, Gamba fans have long desired a more up-to-date facility of their own, and the club may be finally responding to such demands with an announcement that ‘the construction of a new stadium is, as of this year, our most important priority’.


Of course, the background to this news was slightly more complicated. The FIFA regulations for hosting matches in international competitions are set to be tightened as of 2011, and as was touched upon in the Gamba announcement itself, the Expo ’70 ‘Banpaku’ Stadium fails to meet the standards in a number of areas, ranging from capacity to the availability of covered seating and permanent drug-testing rooms. Over the last few years, Gamba Osaka has emerged as one of the new big three in Japan, alongside Urawa Reds and Kashima Antlers, but a new stadium of which players and fans alike can be proud is now urgently needed if the team is to further its development and continue to represent Japan in the Asian Champions League.


In a sense, one could say that Gamba is a victim of circumstance. As one of the ‘Original 10’, Gamba was the only representative of Kansai when the J League was inaugurated, and was not alone at the time in adopting a local, multi-purpose stadium as its home, but the league’s expansion and the hosting of the World Cup saw world-class facilities springing up throughout Japan, and it was Cerezo Osaka and Vissel Kobe that were blessed with the right to use the new grounds in this part of the country. However, this is now several years ago, and Banpaku remains as one of the poorer relations among the J1 stadia. Even JEF United Chiba has upped sticks to the more supporter-friendly, football-specific Fuku-Ari stadium, and Gamba’s search for a new home is now long overdue.


There is a certain, unsatisfying ambiguity to the home town that Gamba is actually targeting, and the club’s website suggests that a search for potential construction sites has been conducted throughout ‘the four main cities of the home town – Suita, Ibaraki, Takatsuki, and Toyonaka’, but the ‘Expoland’ park mentioned in the recent news reports would be an ideal site for the new stadium. Its situation, virtually adjacent to the current ground, makes for a location in which the team already has its roots, and as the example of Arsenal’s move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium demonstrates, it is important to the supporters that a sense of ‘home’ is not lost (even if the local football culture is hardly the same as Britain’s). The current, convenient transport and parking facilities would remain, and the move would make sense for all parties, including Expoland itself. The theme park, which has been closed since last December, has virtually no remaining credibility following a succession of safety incidents that occurred even after the tragic fatality in May 2007, and this opportunity to start again almost from scratch would surely be welcomed.


Gamba supporters obviously do retain a certain affection for Banpaku, and I personally look back fondly on the days where the stands behind the goals were still just grass banks, but when clothes are soaked and colds are caught on rainy November evenings, we all bitterly complain again that they haven’t at least built us a roof. There have been proposals and rumours of relocation before, including a potential site near JR Ibaraki Station, and while it is therefore probably best not to get too excited until an official decision is announced, supporters will be keeping their fingers crossed that this is the one that actually comes true. Last week’s official announcement talks of a ‘new stadium that the Gamba Osaka fans and supporters, and the people of the home town community, will be able to love as their own’, and it is my hope that the club will listen to the opinions of the supporters, and finally deliver with a stadium that meets their long-held expectations.

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Odds on entertainment

17 Jul 2008(Thu)

While casually looking through the British sports news on the internet the other day, my eye was attracted to an advert from one of the bookmakers. The advert enabled you to select the champion team for each of the top four English divisions, and calculated your potential winnings were you to proceed to put an accumulator bet on the same outcomes. When I entered my predictions, I was greeted with the attractive proposition that a ten-pound bet could ultimately leave me £10,806 better off. Although I did somehow manage to resist the temptation to part with my cash, my fascination with numbers led me to play around a little with other combinations, and this in turn led me to a somewhat startling discovery. When I looked at some of the lower-ranked sides, I noticed that two of the teams promoted to the Premier League from the second-tier Championship, Hull City and Stoke City, have been given title odds – just for a single bet – of 7,500-1.


Could it really be that unlikely in a league of just 20 teams? When Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Chris Kirkland was eleven, his father bet that he would represent England at senior level by the age of 30, and the odds he was offered then were only 100-1. Even in non-footballing contexts, bookmakers usually tend to quote odds of around 1,000-1 for things like Elvis Presley being found alive. This suggests that a Premier League title victory for Stoke or Hull is currently considered to be seven-and-a-half times less likely than events generally regarded as impossible. Even Tottenham Hotspur, rated as fifth favourites by the bookies, have longer title odds – at 66-1 – than the longest of any of the teams in the next three divisions.


However, a look at reality would suggest that the bookmakers are not far wrong. Even before the new season starts, it would appear to be virtually guaranteed that the same four teams as last year will take the Champions League positions. Exactly thirty years ago, a Nottingham Forest side led by the great Brian Clough won the First Division title a year after promotion, while Leeds United became champions just two years after coming up from the Second Division in 1989/90. Even the Premier League title of Blackburn Rovers, who were relatively wealthy by 1994/95 standards, came just three years after promotion to the top tier, but the time where such feats may be repeated has now passed us by. It goes without saying that money is the most major cause here, but such a status quo cannot be preferable for any English football supporter – even fans of the big four.


In stark contrast, however, the level of competition in the J League this year has risen to almost unbelievable levels. The completion of tonight’s matches (Thursday) will mark the end of the first half of the season, but we are still yet to see an elite group break away at the top, and just thirteen points separate Kashima Antlers in first place with Yokohama F Marinos in 16th, the relegation play-off spot. The Thursday scheduling of Kawasaki Frontale’s 17th league game saw the side fall to 11th in the table after Wednesday’s matches, and while they could rise to as high as fifth with a win over Shimizu S-Pulse at Todoroki, the team could fall still further to 14th if they lose. The possibility of such a swing in just one day brings heightened pressure to the players, and much tension to their supporters, but it undeniably makes for a great spectacle to enjoy.


Upon returning to the J League stadia after having watched the world-class football on display in an excellent European Championships last month, a number of supporters commented ruefully on how far Japanese football remains from these standards. With injury problems and personnel changes (including a manager, in the case of Urawa), Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds, and Gamba Osaka have each had spells this year where they almost could not buy a win, and it is fair to say that there has not been a single consistently excellent side at all this year. However, all three of the Japanese representatives will line up in the quarter finals of the Asian Champions League, and the fact that many other sides in Japan are able to compete domestically on a similar pegging to such continental performers would, conversely, point to the real progress that has actually been made throughout Japanese football.


Whatever may be said about the Premier League, its high standard of entertaining, attacking play means that it is unlikely to lose its popularity any time soon, but with the J League yet to be sullied by cash and continuing to see higher standards and greater competition than ever before, Japanese supporters can consider themselves quite fortunate. The appeal of this league lies in its unpredictability, and I look forward to witnessing exciting battles both at the top and bottom of the pile as we head into the second half of the campaign.


(By the way, a ten-pound accumulator bet on Hull City and the biggest respective outsiders in the next three divisions would apparently net me over 6.4 billion pounds if I were successful. While this is certainly tempting, I am sure that the only thing less likely than my winning would be the bookies actually paying me if I did...)

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Memories of a former hero - Masashi Oguro returns to the J League

12 Jul 2008(Sat)

When I came to Japan in the autumn of 2003 to study at Osaka University of Foreign Studies (now the School of Foreign Studies at Osaka University), it was naturally one of my first priorities to find a team to support, as I sought to learn more about football in this country. Although I had attended one Vissel Kobe game at the Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium when I was 18, this had not been enough to develop a real affiliation towards the team, and so I decided to visit each of the four teams in the Kansai area and sample the atmospheres at their respective grounds. It was certainly an interesting experience to attend matches at Nagai and at the Kobe Wing Stadium, but at Banpaku, I was quickly invited by one of the hardcore to join him and his friends at the front of the ‘stand’, and I quickly fell in love with the passion these supporters displayed on what was then merely a bank of grass. By pure coincidence, Banpaku was also close enough to be seen from my dormitory room if I poked my head around the window a little, and I decided to go and see Gamba the next time they were at home too, instead of travelling all the way to far-off Nishikyogoku (apologies to any Kyoto Sanga fans). From then on, I didn’t miss a single home game throughout the entire year of my course, and over this time I developed the affection for Gamba Osaka that I maintain today. Of course, this period coincided with the time that Masashi Oguro was first starting to shine in the blue and black.


Oguro had returned to his hometown club, Gamba, in 2002 following a year’s loan spell at Consadole Sapporo, but his first team opportunities were often limited at first, with the Brazilian striker Magrão tending to lead the line alongside Kohta Yoshihara. The following year, however, saw Oguro force his way into the starting line-up, initially as an attacking midfielder before taking his preferred position up front, and the man from Toyonaka began to show the country what he was capable of. When Magrão fell out of favour with the manager, Oguro seized his opportunity further, combining with Satoshi Nakayama and the newly-arrived Fernandinho to score 20 goals in the 2004 league season – the highest of any Japanese player in J1 – and underline his status at the time as, for me, the most important player in the side.


Even when I returned to the UK, I continued to bore my friends at university with my preaches that Oguro should be leading the line for the Japan national team as well, and even as a foreigner, it was a source of pride to hear that he had finally been called up and scored the winner in that game against North Korea. That year, 2005, would prove to be his last in Osaka, but he formed a truly remarkable striking partnership with Araujo that registered a combined 49 goals in the league alone, contributing to Gamba’s first ever J League title for the perfect parting gift. Having returned to Osaka with ideal timing midway through this eventful campaign, I naturally look back on this Gamba side with great affection, and while I supported Oguro as he sought to challenge himself overseas, I had always expected that Gamba would be his destination if and when he ever decided to return home. It therefore came as somewhat of a shock to hear the recent news that he had signed for Tokyo Verdy.


On Oguro’s official blog, there have been many comments from disappointed Gamba supporters, and the player himself has continued to speak favourably about his old club, but I suppose that, at the very least, it is a good job that he hasn’t joined any of our true rivals. With the natural east-west rivalry between Tokyo and Osaka, Gamba supporters may once have held a certain antipathy to the famous Verdy side when their own team was weak, but now that the roles have been reversed, few strong feelings remain harboured, and despite the obvious disappointment, this particular transfer has generally been received with understanding. I still recall the time when, as a pre-teen back in 1995, I was close to tears when Paul Ince, who had been a favourite with the Manchester United supporters, had signed for our deadly rivals, Liverpool. Ince had remained popular among the Old Trafford faithful even after his initial transfer to Internazionale in Serie A, but became a figure of hate after moving to the enemy, and it was a sight among the most painful I have witnessed to see his great joy at scoring against United in front of the Kop. Had Masashi Oguro transferred to Urawa Reds or Cerezo Osaka, a similar situation would have ensued.


The Gamba Osaka roster has generally remained quite stable, meaning that there have been few occasions where the team has come up against one of its former members. Looking back at the players who contributed to the championship victory in 2005, three retired from playing altogether when leaving the club (Toru Irie, Noritada Saneyoshi, Masanobu Matsunami), Tsuneyasu Miyamoto followed Oguro in moving overseas, and three others have been denied the chance to face their old side by signing for teams in J2 or below (Shigeru Morioka, Mitsuteru Watanabe, Ryota Miki). Even the players that have moved on to other J1 clubs – which for some reason always seem to either be Kyoto Sanga or play in orange – have failed to really make their mark in games against Gamba: Sidiclei lost his return match with Kyoto this season, Arata Kodama has a record of one win and four defeats with Kyoto and Shimizu S-Pulse, while Toshihiro Matsushita has recorded one draw and two losses since his move to Albirex Niigata. Although Kohta Yoshihara did score his first goal against Gamba in a dramatic 3-2 win for Omiya Ardija earlier this year, his side had not previously registered a single goal or point in the games he had played against his old club since leaving in 2006, and it is only really Fernandinho who has consistently performed. Having allegedly been discarded by club and manager, the Brazilian got his revenge on Gamba after his transfer to Shimizu last year, scoring the equalising goal in a draw at Banpaku, before adding his name to the scoresheet again in a 3-1 win for Shimizu at Nihondaira.


However, in my (possibly biased) opinion, the prospect of a meeting with Masashi Oguro will be more dangerous to Gamba than with any of the other aforementioned players. Having had little opportunity to perform at Torino, he will be looking to return to form in Japan, and despite any lingering affection he may feel towards Gamba, Oguro will be doubly motivated to shine against his old club. Whether or not we can still cheer for him will depend on whether or not he hinders our title bid, but I for one am already looking forward to the meeting at Ajinomoto Stadium on 28 September...

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Image is everything

7 Jul 2008(Mon)

Once my fellow coursemates and I had sufficiently adjusted and settled into the Osaka lifestyle during my spell at university in Japan, we would spend many a weekend doing what all good students do by partying in Umeda and Namba. My memory of the many times we all went out is understandably blurred in places, but one particular evening of drinking has always remained with me due to a somewhat bizarre exchange in which I found myself involved. One of the girls from the course had asked if she could bring a friend who was apparently quite interested in me, but much to my disappointment after such promise, it was ultimately a bloke from Singapore who joined us at the table, rather than an attractive female acquaintance. In any case, this gentleman promptly sat in the chair immediately to my right, and turned to me with a barely suppressed smile on his face.

‘Hello, Ben. You must be really great if you go to Oxford.’

Taken aback somewhat by such a superlative compliment from someone I had never met before, I tried my best to engage him in conversation, but to be truthful, his apparent awe made me feel quite uncomfortable, and I quickly sought another partner with whom to down a couple.


Looking back, of course, I am sure that this guy never meant to cause any problem, but it is certainly true to say that, as soon as the name ‘Oxford’ is mentioned, many people will inevitably react in some way. In some cases, this may lead to an immediately favourable impression in a job interview, while at the opposite extreme, others may instantly suppose you to be arrogant and ‘not the same as us’ – but either way, such impressions tend to be borne out of a preconceived image of the subject in question.


It was similar when I decided to study Japanese at university. Because I had chosen such an unusual (strange?) course to pursue, I not only startled the teachers who had expected me to go for maths or linguistics, but was also subject to comments from my peers that ranged from praise for such originality to minor ridicule as ‘some kind of manga freak’. (I probably wouldn’t argue with you if you suggested I may be a little strange, but I’d just like to add for the record that I have still never read any manga in my entire life.) I suppose that many people will have a certain image of Japan as well, and it is probably an unavoidable human trait to develop strong impressions from these images, even if we have no actual experience with which to back them up. Since leaving England, I have started to become aware that the same phenomenon may apply to my country’s national football team.


Whether it is because of its history as the birthplace of football, the performances of Manchester United and Liverpool in the Premier and Champions Leagues broadcast on global television, or the superstar status that the players have now risen to, there remains a strong image throughout the world of England being a country of soccer. The first time I saw a J-League game at Banpaku, many of the local supporters were openly delighted to meet someone from ‘the home of football’. During the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, I remember seeing thousands of Japanese supporting England on British TV, and will never forget the sight of a Japanese gentleman donning the three lions and bellowing out ‘God Save the Queen’ at the top of his (heavily accented) voice.


Even in the qualifiers for this year’s European Championships, Fuji Television’s satellite channel only showed one or two out of the dozens of games played on each matchday, but such was the appeal of England that I was still able to see us play almost every time. In the end, we were of course knocked out at this stage by Croatia and Russia, but still many people here in Japan – both passionate and merely occasional football fans – have told me recently how a European Championships without England was such a shame and made for a slightly strange viewing experience. If I am brutally honest, our national team has long been in stagnation and has given little other than disappointing performances for a number of years, but unaware or, perhaps, simply uncaring of such details, many people across the world continue to hold this highly positive image.


However, a problem arises when we, the English, believe in this image ourselves. When a friend at work told me before the 2006 World Cup that ‘they said on TV last night that England could win the tournament’, I remember flatly replying ‘yeah, obviously’, and I’m aware that this makes me as guilty as any other. It is certainly a flaw of the English supporters and tabloid press that we tend to overhype our team after one victory, before chastising the players again after one defeat. The thing that concerns me most, however, is the distinct possibility that our undoubtedly talented players have been taken in by this image while enjoying the money and the fame, before actually producing the results on the field.


For the first time in a while, though, we have been able to enjoy an excellent European Championships more calmly, unbiased by over-expectation and the inevitable despair of penalty shootout defeat, and this should hopefully have provided the opportunity for reflection. Replicating the quality of Spain or the style of Holland may be too much to ask for, but I hope that Capello’s England will at least perform to the best of their abilities in a manner akin to a Russia or Croatia, to bring pride back to the supporters and justify the favourable impression that still lingers in various parts of the world.

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