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A worthwhile experiment – the Suruga Bank Championship

1 Aug 2008(Fri)

The Suruga Bank Championship, whose first edition was held at Nagai Stadium in Osaka on Wednesday evening, represents part of the J League’s initiatives geared at challenging on a global stage. The future of the A3 Champions Cup, contested between teams from Japan, China, and Korea since 2003, is currently in doubt due to problems with sponsorship and non-payment of prize monies, but the J League and the JFA have remained unwavering in their vision to create further opportunities to develop Japanese football through international competition.


Results in the ACL have been highly promising, and the FIFA Club World Cup now of course offers places both to Asia and to the host nation, but Japan has gone even further this year, with two new tournaments being launched to play off against top teams from North and South America. As winners of the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup in 2007, Gamba Osaka earned the right to represent Japan in both.


In contrast to the Pan-Pacific Championship, which was held in pre-season back in February, the Suruga Bank Championship 2008 came in the middle of a busy league schedule for Gamba, ensuring that the risk of it turning into a mere friendly was largely avoided. However, it was difficult to avoid questioning the actual significance of victory in a tournament between the winners of the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup and the Copa Sudamericana. Gamba were not, after all, champions of the J League last year, while (as South American football journalist Tim Vickery discusses in his BBC column) the South American equivalent of the Champions League is actually the Copa Libertadores, making it slightly inaccurate to refer to the  champions of the lesser regarded Copa Sudamericana as kings of the continent.


Indeed, the Copa Sudamericana winners, Arsenal, finished only tenth in the Argentinean Clausura tournament last month, and were hardly well known in Japan. With many Gamba supporters living and working in the north of Osaka, it was unclear just how many would actually make the trip to Nagai in the south of the city for this 7pm midweek kickoff, even if it was the only truly viable venue for such an international competition.


In the end, an attendance of some 19,000 people meant that the stadium was less than half full, but put another way, this figure did represent a 2,000-person increase on the crowd at Banpaku for the Oita Trinita game last Saturday. In a venue boasting far better acoustics than Gamba’s home stadium, the crowd generated a fervent atmosphere, while at the same time enjoying a change of pace to the league games in which they too have been suffering of late.


Akira Nishino had called for his side to play true, Gamba-like attacking football, but against strong, defensive-minded opponents, his players were rarely able to trouble Mario Cuenca in the Arsenal goal. Facundo Sava, a former teammate of Junichi Inamoto at Fulham in the Premier League, did cause Gamba’s defence problems on more than one occasion, but this match had 0-0 written all over it from beginning to end, and it would have been no surprise to have seen a penalty shootout. However, even though Gamba were able to strengthen their midfield and ball retention after Shu Kurata was brought on for Masato Yamazaki, Nishino had warned of Arsenal’s set piece strengths before the game, and Carlos Casteglione finally opened the scoring following a corner in the 86th minute to secure a 1-0 victory and the inaugural title for the South Americans.


The sheer joy expressed by the victorious Arsenal players represented, for me, the iconic scene of this match. Having never won a single title domestically, the Argentineans were clearly delighted to follow up their Copa Sudamericana win with another international success, and having overcome both an 11,000-mile journey and the stifling heat of the Osaka summer in order to do so, the ovation they received from the Gamba fans on their lap of honour was richly deserved. A bigger name such as River Plate or Boca Juniors may have attracted more spectators, but victory would have meant less to a team used to major title success, and this demonstration of Arsenal’s commitment to the competition may have been just what the Suruga Bank Championship needed.


Nishino lamented his team’s lack of strength in his post-match comments, and Gamba’s striker problem was certainly there for all to see yet again, but he will at least have taken satisfaction from the valuable experience earned by his younger players. Taking a broader view, both JFA President Motoaki Inukai and J League Chairman Kenji Onitake expressed in their programme notes that the most important thing about such international competition is to use this experience to improve the level of Japanese football as a whole. Only the future will tell as to whether this has been successful, but at least in terms of the learning experience for the players and the chance for fans to witness a different world of football, this positive experiment is surely a worthwhile one.

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