« July 2008 | Main | September 2008 »

August 2008

Missing our derby

29 Aug 2008(Fri)

The supporters of Cerezo Osaka ought to be well used to contrasting streaks of good and poor form by now. The team had not originally been considered a candidate for the J1 title in 2005 when an unbeaten run of 16 matches – including seven wins on the bounce – saw them propelled to the top of the table, only to blow their chance of glory with three straight draws including the ‘Agony of Nagai’ on the final day. The following year, contrarily, saw a spell of 12 games without a win either side of the summer break – encompassing seven successive defeats – plunging Cerezo into an ultimately unsuccessful battle against relegation to J2, with their fate being decided by another run of no wins in the final five. This spring saw Levir Culpi’s side once again run off seven straight wins to put themselves right in contention for a return to the top flight, but their chances have been severely damaged by a record of just 12 points in the 14 games since then. With Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Montedio Yamagata looking unstoppable in first and second, the battle for third place and a promotion/relegation playoff is intensifying just as quickly as the scrap to avoid such a fate at the bottom of J1.


Taking my place as I do among the more fervent Gamba Osaka supporters, I am obviously surrounded most of the time by a fair amount of anti-Cerezo sentiment. After a badly out-of-sorts Gamba had been overtaken by Cerezo in November 2005, I went for a meal with some of my more prominent fellow fans, where the general consensus was that ‘it will hurt if we lose the league, but not as much as if they win it’. In the end, the Agony of Nagai served as a miracle for Gamba, and the derby matches the following year saw Gamba fans taunt their rivals with T-shirts depicting Akinori Nishizawa’s tears and chants of ‘Cerezo, did you cry?’. Even at the final game of that season, when Gamba faced off with Urawa Reds to decide the title, the same supporters declared their intentions with a banner reading ‘Title No. 2 for us, J2 for Cerezo’, showing that the home town rivals were still not far from our thoughts.


However, even though the news of Cerezo’s relegation initially brought consolation to the Gamba supporters as we suffered at the sight of Urawa’s championship celebrations, the realisation hit home on the return journey that there would be no Osaka derbies in 2007. These two matches had always been something to look forward to regardless of the form of each team, and were naturally the first dates to check for when the fixture lists were published at the start of each year. Though we may still laugh just the same whenever we learn of a Cerezo loss via the scoreboard at Banpaku, our smiles may have had a certain wryness to them of late as the sense of what we are missing has grown.


There are four professional teams in the Kansai area, and with Vissel Kobe returning to the top flight at the same time that Cerezo were relegated, it is not as if we are completely without derby matches. However, although people do still enjoy the so-called ‘Kansai derbies’, these still do not bring quite the level of passion as the real thing between the two Osaka sides, and indeed the most painful thing for Gamba fans about last weekend’s draw with Vissel was the fact that the Kobe side’s late equaliser was scored by Yoshito Okubo, a former Cerezo player. Among the current J1 members, the ‘national derbies’ with Urawa Reds tend to evoke the highest levels of excitement and tension – unfortunately, excessively so back in May at the Saitama Stadium – but despite the attention these fixtures attract across the country, they still do not quite compare to fighting it out with the neighbours.


The city of Osaka is some way from reaching a level where every single person is either Gamba or Cerezo, and there is still plenty the clubs themselves could be doing about this, but that issue is best left for another time. For those of us that love football, in any case, the Osaka derby is a matter of competing for local pride, with Gamba fans singing passionately about how ‘we are the only Osaka’, and Cerezo fans displaying defiant banners in English reading ‘Real Osaka’. The difference in divisions itself may be a source of pride for Gamba, but without a derby there will always be a sense of distance, and the meetings will only be missed more and more the longer the status quo persists. Dare I say it – perhaps even the Gamba fans might be a little pleased if Cerezo’s next streak is a winning one.

Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

The joys of summer

23 Aug 2008(Sat)

The winds of change may have made everything different by 2010, but under the existing calendar, I think this is probably my favourite time of year. After a dramatic climax to the 2007/08 season in Europe, I endured the lack of sleep to watch an excellent European Championships, and even when the football back home finally stopped for its summer break, the J League was just awakening from its own brief interlude. For a fan of both European and Asian football like myself, there is something to enjoy every single month of the year.


The Osaka heat may be a tad uncomfortable, but the reason that I like this time of year is that just as the long-awaited start to the new league campaigns in England and the rest of Europe are upon us, the Japanese season is beginning to heat up nicely. On matchday 22 of the J1 division this weekend, all eyes will be focused on league leaders Kashima Antlers’ clash with third place Nagoya Grampus, but the following day will also see bottom club Consadole Sapporo attempt to end their three match losing streak and close the gap towards relative safety in a direct meeting with Yokohama F Marinos, currently occupying the relegation/promotion playoff spot. Be it in the race for the title or the battle to avoid the drop, there is always something to keep your eye on.


This may be a point that I have made before, but the J1 league table this year remains quite unfathomably dense, and still just 15 points separate the top 16 teams as we reach the two-thirds point of the season. Somewhere in the middle, there remain a number of sides who could realistically harbour both hopes of title glory and fear of relegation, and it is simply impossible to predict how the final table will end up. With the Nabisco Cup and the Asian Champions League also entering their final stages, the excitement and anticipation will only continue to rise, but even when it all dies down here, the British clubs will be just warming up for their busy Christmas campaigns, and the whole cycle will begin again.


This cycle, however, now looks set to end if the current discussions about an autumn-to-spring season – as announced by JFA President Motoaki Inukai last month – come to fruition, but while I may be a little sad for selfish reasons to see things change, a move to this new calendar is something that is long overdue. Albirex Niigata and other clubs in regions susceptible to heavy snowfall have protested against the idea of football in winter, and this has already caused the J League’s policy to have been delayed from its original target date of 2006, but if facilities can be secured to allow these teams to play and train all year round, the pros of the transition will far outweigh the cons.


The press reports last month largely highlighted the greater ease that aligning the Japanese and European seasons would bring to transfer activities in each direction, but even greater benefits will be found in the distinction between ‘winter sports’ and ‘summer sports’ as we have in England. Like cricket in England, the Japanese summer sport of baseball is well suited to the warmer months, with matches taking longer to complete but involving less running, supporters able to enjoy proceedings more leisurely, and dry conditions required for play to go ahead. While football rests for the much cooler summers back home, it does seem a little strange that the J League players are forced to run around for ninety minutes in the stifling heat of the Japanese summer.


Supporters may also benefit from escaping the heat, but the most important point to this distinction is the enforced discrepancy between the baseball and football calendars. While a certain degree of overlapping is unavoidable, the sports would not be forced to compete for the attention of the press and public to quite the same extent if their respective season openers and title races occurred at different times of the year. I clearly remember when, in the autumn of 2005, both Gamba and Cerezo Osaka fought for the J1 title until the final day of the season, but barely the slightest recognition of such footballing prosperity could be found in the city centre amid the fanfare, flags, and commemorative merchandise celebrating the Central League victory of baseball’s Hanshin Tigers. I may have less to do in the summer, but perhaps it would be nice to celebrate the next league title in May after all.

Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Ladies lead the way as men search for meaning

19 Aug 2008(Tue)

As I mentioned in my previous article, I had intended to remain free of European prejudice and enjoy the Olympic football tournament throughout the O-Bon holiday here in Japan, but for the ‘Sorimachi Japan’ men’s team, the chances of winning a medal were effectively over before the holidays and indeed the opening ceremony in Beijing had even begun. Drawn in a difficult group alongside the 2005 World Youth Championship runners-up Nigeria, and the two-time (2006 and 2007) defending European U-21 champions Holland, it had been imperative that Japan got a good start with victory and three points against the United States. However, a crushing 1-0 defeat made qualification from the group an almost insurmountable task, and the team ultimately limped to three straight losses and an immediate exit from the competition.


The United States actually looked set to inflict a shock defeat on the Dutch in their second game, before conceding an equaliser in stoppage time, and it is possible that Japan and the other teams in the group may have underestimated the Americans a little. Certainly, Japan did show a degree of improvement in their subsequent matches, but did not look like scoring an equaliser against Nigeria even after Yohei Toyoda’s goal had briefly kept their hopes alive, and once again fell to a one-goal defeat in their final game against Holland when conceding a clumsy penalty, having looked like value for a point.


Regardless of details, a non-appearance in the knockout stages and a record of zero points in finishing bottom of the group will go down as an embarrassing failure for Japan. Even more worrying, however, was the lack of potency displayed by the team’s forwards. Results may have been quite different at this Olympic Games had crucial chances not been missed, but at the crux of this matter lies the painful truth that this situation is nothing new to Japan. The national team has often suffered on the global stage through a lack of goals and the absence of a truly world class striker, and with this U-23 generation representing the future for Japan, it may not be a problem that can be solved easily.


Unlike most of the sports at the Olympics, football is unusual in that a gold medal does not mark the game’s ultimate achievement, with the true world’s best being determined at the World Cup, and this too is a major reason why Europe tends to rather overlook the tournament as I mentioned before (indeed, the popular British website Football365 refused to even print the results of the Olympic matches for this very reason). The enthusiasm shown, conversely, in Japan and other parts of the world was what has attracted me to the football at the Beijing Games, but at what it is essentially an age-group tournament, the most important thing about this Olympic experience is how it is channelled in order to further development in the future. The Japanese men unfortunately fell some way short of the kind of medal-winning performance that would inspire a nation, but it is now essential that the players selected in China – and indeed Japanese football itself – learn from these difficult times and ensure that their participation in the Olympic Games will have been worthwhile.


The women’s football competition, of course, has been dramatically different both in terms of its general significance and of the performance of Japan. Unlike the male competition, the women’s event ranks alongside the World Cup in terms of its worth in determining true champions, with no restrictions on age and a complete line-up of wholly full-strength national sides, and this makes the performances of ‘Nadeshiko Japan’ all the more remarkable. Women’s football in Japan was facing crisis just eight years ago, with a failure to qualify for the Sydney Olympics and a succession of teams pulling out of the L League, and indeed the national side’s best ever results on the global stage before Beijing were only a pair of quarter finals (once each at the World Cup and the Olympics), but the players will now face off against Germany for bronze in Thursday’s third-place playoff. Women’s football may live in the shadow of the men’s game, but the exploits of Nadeshiko Japan this year have captured the country’s hearts and deserve recognition across the globe.

Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

The two faces of Olympic football

6 Aug 2008(Wed)

In what has now become a regular peculiarity of the Games, the football competitions at the Beijing Olympics will kick off on Wednesday (women) and Thursday (men) of this week – before the actual opening ceremony is held on Friday. Japanese television, newspapers, and magazines have already been full of special features on the football tournaments, and the warm-up matches held in the country have attracted packed houses and passionate atmospheres. Supporters are debating their favoured line-ups for ‘Sorimachi Japan’, and even people who never normally watch football are pondering Japan’s chances of grabbing a medal this year. In short, the country is looking forward to a major footballing event that, in its eyes, ranks on a par with the World Cup or the continental competitions.


Meanwhile, the European press and public are also full of anticipation for the Games, but talk about the football competitions is minimal, and the only references that can generally be found in the news are to a sense of hassle surrounding the event. Concerned at the clash with the start of the league campaign and with the Champions League qualifiers, FC Barcelona have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against Lionel Messi’s call up to the Argentinean Olympic squad. German clubs Schalke and Werder Bremen have also taken similar measures, while Real Madrid flatly refused to release Robinho for the Brazil team on the grounds of fears over injury. Debate continues to rage between FIFA, which cites release for international competitions as written rule, and the clubs who claim that the Olympics are nothing to do with the international calendar. Ultimately, the teams and their supporters will have to shrug their shoulders at the loss of their players, but few in Europe will have been particularly willing to send them off.


The United Kingdom is, of course, an especially complicated example. Having reached the last four of the 2007 UEFA U-21 Championship, England would technically have qualified for a place at the men’s football tournament in Beijing, but since it participates at the Olympics under the banner of Great Britain – along with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – the final spot at the Games went to fifth-placed Italy instead. Before the FA abolished the distinction between amateurs and professionals in 1974, the English amateur team did represent the UK in the Olympics, and won the gold medal in 1908 and 1912, but the failed attempt at qualification for the Munich Olympics in 1972 would be its last. Nowadays, British football has little relationship with the Olympics whatsoever.


Ahead of the 2012 Games in London, the British Olympic Association has laid out plans to form a British team especially for the event. However, the Football Associations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have come out in opposition to the proposal, fearing that it would lead to the loss of their respective footballing independence, and even though Sepp Blatter initially confirmed this independence as set in stone, the ever-unreliable FIFA President has recently been far less reassuring on the issue. Although a football equivalent of rugby union’s Lions would likely bring much excitement to the British public, it would seem that there is much distance to be overcome if this is to be made a reality.


Attitudes to Olympic football in Japan are therefore virtually a polar opposite to those in the UK, and the Olympics may indeed have been the most important competition in Japan’s footballing history to date. Making its first ever appearance at the 1936 Games in Berlin, the Japan national team came from behind to record a famous 3-2 win over Sweden, and appeared again in Melbourne in 1956 while the country was still in a period of recovery after the war. Under the leadership of the German coach Dettmar Cramer, Japan reached the last eight at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, before winning the bronze medal as Kunishige Kamamoto finished as top scorer in Mexico City four years later. More recently, several members of the Olympic side that defeated Brazil in Atlanta in 1996 went on to represent Japan in its first ever World Cup appearance two years later. 2008 will be the fourth consecutive Games in which the Japanese men’s football team has taken part, and the players will be hoping that they can follow in the footsteps of their predecessors and make their mark both for the U-23s and for the full national side.


Despite the fact that Holland will actually be present at the competition, a look at the sports pages of its largest newspaper, De Telegraaf, revealed no news about its Olympic footballers this Monday unless you trawled through the minor articles. The apathy that Europe shows towards Olympic football is unlikely to change in this day and age, but if the 12 non-European competitors out of the 16 teams in Beijing show the kind of positive spirit demonstrated in the build-up by Japan, we should still be in for some excellent football and vibrant atmospheres. This year, I plan to remain unswayed by the lack of interest back home – when in Rome, after all – and look forward to seeing the likes of Messi, Alexandre Pato, and of course Michihiro Yasuda et al in action.

Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

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.

Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

« July 2008 | Main | September 2008 »