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February 2009

J1 in 2009: The bottom half

25 Feb 2009(Wed)

Having a vested interest in both European and Asian football means there is something to look forward to all year round, but the flip side of this is that it can take the edge off the start of the seasons. While the title races in the major leagues in Europe begin to heat up and the Champions League enters its knockout phase, it can, of course, be easy to forget that the new J League campaign is almost upon us as well. This year, however, has somehow felt rather different. I have still been watching as much football from back home as ever, but I am finding myself increasingly glued to the Japanese transfer news, excitedly watching uneventful Pan Pacific Championship coverage on television, and even going to rugby matches to fill the yearning void of real, live action. Put simply, I cannot wait for the 2009 J League to begin.

 

It may, I suppose, be partly down to this job, but I think the main cause for my excitement was the incredible end to last season that left observers crying out for more. Even if we leave aside the dual triumphs in the ACL and Emperor’s Cup achieved by my own team, Gamba Osaka – not to mention third place in the Club World Cup and a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with Manchester United – the 2008 J League season was more compact and competitive than ever before, and the drama just got better and better until the very end. A second successive title for Kashima Antlers came only after a head-to-head battle with Nagoya Grampus and Kawasaki Frontale on the last day, with three further teams having remained in contention until a weekend before. The scrap at the bottom was even closer, for everyone up to 13th place Omiya Ardija were still in danger going into their final games, and though Tokyo Verdy were ultimately destined to join Consadole Sapporo in falling back down to J2, their fate was only confirmed after a minor miracle up in Chiba. Needing to win and for other results to go their way, JEF United came back from 2-0 down in the final 16 minutes of the season to beat FC Tokyo 4-2 and avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth.

 

The effect of Alex Miller’s arrival as manager in mid-season was simply remarkable – having scraped just 10 points from their opening 17 games, Chiba accumulated 28 points in the second half of the season and would have finished fourth had they started in a similar vein – and this would suggest that a relegation battle ought not to be on the agenda in the coming campaign. The same, however, cannot be said of J1 mainstays Jubilo Iwata. Once the most successful team in the land, Jubilo finished way down in 16th last year, and ultimately had to overcome Vegalta Sendai of J2 over two legs to avoid having to swap divisions. Despite the managerial appointment of Masaaki Yanagishita, a man who knows the club inside out, the only new playing arrival of any note is defender Daisuke Nasu – a direct replacement for the departed Makoto Tanaka – and Jubilo look set therefore to rely chiefly on the injury-prone Ryoichi Maeda for goals once again. With Sanfrecce Hiroshima having stormed to the J2 title and, together with second-place Montedio Yamagata, looking a better bet to be competitive in the top flight than either Sapporo or Verdy were last year, the margins for error at the bottom are set to be tighter than ever in 2009.

 

This all means that teams like Omiya, Albirex Niigata, and Kyoto Sanga cannot afford to stand still either, but the new season will also be a critical year for another of the league’s bigger clubs. Yokohama F Marinos enjoyed back-to-back title successes as recently as 2003 and 2004, but after the heavy disappointment of one seventh place and three ninth place finishes since then, the team has now reached something of a crossroads. Like Jubilo, there has been little transfer activity in Yokohama over the close season, and the team will therefore stake its future on the performances of younger players such the returning striker Mike Havenaar. On loan at J2 side Avispa Fukuoka, Havenaar netted seven times in 2008, but the son of former Jubilo goalkeeper Dido has never previously scored in the top flight, and will need to learn quickly if his side are to recover their winning ways.

 

(To be continued)

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Status quo in Osaka – Part 2: A solution

17 Feb 2009(Tue)

(Continues from previous article)

 

In Gamba and Cerezo, having two professional football teams share its name is something Osaka has in common with only two other cities – Tokyo and Yokohama – in the whole of Japan, and this rare distinction must therefore be used to its advantage. Football throughout the world thrives not only on the hometown ideal of cultivating strong roots with local societies, but also on the rivalry that emerges between its various teams. The presence of a nearby rival not only helps keep the teams themselves on their toes, but more importantly, can serve as a major trigger to local interest in the game. However, in order to realise this within Japanese society, it would first of all be necessary to define more clearly exactly what each of the respective teams stand to represent.

 

Football cities are divided by all manner of identities, from the religious (Rangers and Celtic in Glasgow) to the social (River Plate and Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires) and the political (Barcelona and Espanyol), but the most common type of boundary is obviously the geographical. Even acknowledging all the emotive connotations associated with the name of the city itself, though, it really ought not to be too difficult to apply such a division to Osaka as well. Here, we have an unofficial but clear, even characteristic north-south divide that has become distinct enough for the dual urban centres of Umeda and Shinsaibashi/Namba to be known colloquially as simply ‘Kita’ and ‘Minami’ (the Japanese words for ‘north’ and ‘south’), respectively. Official administrative entities such as ‘Suita City’ and ‘Hokusetsu Area’ may be of little meaning to a footballing community, but were the city to be divided laterally – across, say, the river island of Nakanoshima or the old business centre of Honmachi – Gamba and Cerezo could simply and effectively take their respective roots in the northern and southern halves of Osaka Prefecture.

 

Of course, an extent of cooperation between the two clubs would be necessary if this reform was going to work, but as long as Gamba and Cerezo recognise that the best way for them to improve individually is to raise local levels of interest overall, they should realise that close coordination can indeed be very beneficial. The pair could even develop joint marketing strategies – ‘We are Kita’ and ‘We are Minami’ – to which a competitive element could be added if both used a shared approach to claim that ‘WE are Osaka’. If such initiatives proved successful in developing more obvious identities, similar approaches could be applied to Kobe, Kyoto, and other teams and regions throughout Japan.

 

This proposal is obviously not without its flaws. Cerezo would be forced to lose the northern tip of Osaka City from the domain of its current hometown, while Gamba, ostensibly the ‘bigger’ club, would be reluctant to distance itself from potential supporters in the south. However, such pitfalls would be clearly outweighed by the benefits of social integration and co-prosperity that could arise from proper cooperation. The fact that the Kansai teams have succeeded in attracting a relatively high proportion of children to their games is a good sign for the future in itself, and this would only be enhanced if a friendly rivalry could emerge even in the schools and playgrounds. At the risk of using a capitalist analogy to describe a socialist idea, Gamba and Cerezo should concentrate less on competing over slices of a small pie, and focus instead on making the whole pie that bit bigger.

 

When Internazionale beat AC Milan 2-1 on Sunday to move a step closer to their fourth successive Scudetto, half the city’s population would have been in raptures while the other probably began forging their doctor’s notes in order to avoid their celebrating colleagues at work or school the following day. Gamba versus Cerezo may never attract the same levels of global attention as the Milan derby, but it must at least be the aim to bring a similar level of excitement and rivalry to the offices and classrooms of Osaka as well.

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Status quo in Osaka – Part 1: The problems

12 Feb 2009(Thu)

The first major seeds of anticipation for the new J League season were sown last Friday with the announcement of the 2009 fixture lists, but as supporters and players across the country began to look forward to their opening matches next month, fans in Osaka were again left to rue the one game that was missing. Cerezo Osaka’s narrow failure to secure a top-three finish last season means that they will face a third straight year in the second division, and the local derby with Gamba will once again be absent from the calendar. It may not be a rivalry with the highest profile in the country, but for those of us with a vested interest, Gamba’s 3-1 win in the last Osaka derby in September 2006 feels like a very long time ago.

 

The rapid expansion of the J League immediately after its inauguration in 1993 was, in retrospect, undoubtedly less than ideal for the baseball-mad Kansai region in particular. Gamba had been one of the league’s ten founding members, but they were quickly joined by Cerezo in 1995 after the former Yanmar Diesel club had decided to leave their base in Amagasaki, near Kobe. Kyoto got Purple Sanga (now just plain old Kyoto Sanga) in 1996, before the old heartland of Japanese football was finally given a professional team to call its own, in the form of Vissel Kobe, the following year. In short, Gamba had gone from being the sole Kansai representatives during the J League’s initial boom to having to compete with three local rivals as the sport stagnated in the late nineties, and average attendances at Banpaku fell from their 1994 peak of 22,367 to a mere 7,996 in just five years.

 

In a part of the country with so much local tradition and pride, having to share the Osaka name has also caused problems for the two clubs concerned. As professional football was essentially being introduced as a fresh concept within Japanese society, the J League was intelligent enough to recognise the social importance of identity, and to implement a hometown system and a One Hundred Year Vision to compel its clubs to cultivate links with their local communities. However, Gamba have been forced to adopt the commuter town of Suita, where most people are first- or second-generation residents whose families first arrived in the 1960s or later and, as such, the extent of any roots established is rather limited. Aware of this, Gamba have sought to develop their advertising and social programmes to represent the wider Hokusetsu and Kita-Kawachi areas, but these too are rather awkward flags that few would rush to salute. Osaka is the only name that matters, and though Cerezo have taken the city itself as their hometown, an equal number of Gamba fans living within its limits means that no singular identity has been created here either.

 

The ultimate consequences of such issues were demonstrated in supporter surveys I conducted as part of my undergraduate research four years ago. The sheer ambiguity of Gamba’s sphere of influence was underlined by the wide variety of responses supporters gave as to where they considered the club’s hometown to be. Almost 80% of those questioned felt that Gamba had failed to establish real roots in the area, while more than half expressed dissatisfaction at the club’s treatment of its followers. Fans of Cerezo were not quite as angry as their counterparts at Banpaku, but the results of my survey at Nagai were similarly negative. Most worryingly, the representatives of Gamba whom I met to discuss my findings appeared dismissive of their significance.

 

Things may have improved and the boardroom may have begun to wisen since then, but wider interest in football in Osaka remains rather fickle. Though Gamba have started filling their small stadium, this has had much more to do with the team’s successes on the pitch than with the club’s efforts off it, as evidenced by the manner in which attendances fell again as soon as results took a turn for the worse last year. Cerezo, meanwhile, have seen supporter numbers fall by almost half since their relegation to J2. Issues like these clearly need to be solved if football is to develop in this part of Japan, but the best way of doing so may, however, be to turn the situation on its head. Having two teams in the city should in fact be a real positive.

 

(To be continued)

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Go figure

2 Feb 2009(Mon)

One of the most important things I ever learned about in school was correlation coefficients. It was ten years ago, I was sixteen, and a free-scoring Manchester United were fighting tooth and nail for the 1998/99 Premier League title with an Arsenal side boasting the best defence in the division. On the premise that this would fit my maths teacher’s instructions to ‘apply correlation coefficients to real life’ and produce a piece of A-Level coursework, I decided to use what I had learned in class to settle a debate amongst friends over the destination of the championship trophy. Which of football’s two most basic elements – scoring goals and ensuring that your opponents do not – was likelier to translate into more points in the context of a league season?

 

I won’t bore you with the details of the calculations – basically, you get a figure between -1 and 1, and the closer it is to either extreme, the stronger the relationship – but the results, as a United fan, were pleasing. The Premier League table for the previous campaign (1997/98) showed that the positive correlation between points and goals scored (0.905) was stronger than the negative correlation between points and goals conceded (-0.822), and similar results were repeated for each of England’s top four divisions. This meant that our Cole and Yorke should, therefore, trump their Adams and Keown when it came to the probability of trophies.

 

United, of course, went on not only to win the league but the FA Cup and Champions League as well, but despite having now assembled arguably the most valuable strikeforce on the entire planet, the team of 2009 is fast becoming better known for its strength at the back. Edwin van der Sar has just set a new English league record with 12 consecutive clean sheets, while five of United’s seven straight league wins since returning from the Club World Cup have been by a score of one to nil. Is defence, then, now becoming the best form of attack?

 

Again, the maths is looking good for United. Last season, conceding fewer goals (-0.945) was a stronger factor in winning points throughout the Premier League than was scoring more at the other end (0.879), and this has now been true in three of the last five seasons (with one, 2005/06, producing virtually identical correlations for each). In all but one – ironically, as it turns out, 1998/99 – of the five seasons before that, goals for had proved to be the more significant factor, and often by a comfortable margin.

 

Correlation coefficients (English Premier League)

1997/98: 0.905, -0.822 Attack most influential

1998/99: 0.827, -0.845 Defence

1999/00: 0.852, -0.806 Attack

2000/01: 0.905, -0.901 Attack

2001/02: 0.911, -0.798 Attack

2002/03: 0.931, -0.833 Attack

2003/04: 0.889, -0.899 Defence

2004/05: 0.837, -0.891 Defence

2005/06: 0.914, -0.914 No difference

2006/07: 0.954, -0.859 Attack

2007/08: 0.879, -0.945 Defence

 

The J League, too, may now be seeing the beginnings of a similar transition. The goals for column had always previously enjoyed the closer relationship with the points column since the single-stage season was introduced in 2005, but this trend was dramatically reversed last year, as goals conceded had a far stronger bearing on league position. This is not too hard to imagine if we compare the gung-ho nature of the title-winning Gamba Osaka side of 2005 (82 goals scored, 58 conceded) with the rather more cautious championship season for Kashima Antlers last year (56 goals scored, 30 conceded); nor if we remember that restricting their opponents to a meagre total of 24 goals helped Oita Trinita to a fourth place finish despite only scoring 33 times – fewer than everyone bar Albirex Niigata – themselves.

 

Correlation coefficients (J League)

2005: 0.807, -0.710 Attack

2006: 0.877, -0.740 Attack

2007: 0.820, -0.795 Attack

2008: 0.667, -0.810 Defence

 

This is not, however, necessarily indicative of a wider global trend. Figures for the top leagues in Spain, Italy, and Germany all suggest that scoring goals remains the most effective way of gaining points, while here in Asia, the same is also true of the South Korean K-League. Perhaps, then, a greater emphasis on defensive solidity is indicative of the strength of the leagues themselves – Manchester United’s European title in 1999 was the first for an English team in the post-Heysel era, and while only two more subsequently reached the last four of the Champions League before the trend shifted in 2003, the Premier League has produced two winners, three runners-up, and five beaten semi-finalists since. Japanese domination on the Asian stage, meanwhile, has also come at a time where domestic competition throughout the J League is more even and intense than ever before.

 

Correlation coefficients (other, 2007/08)

Germany (Bundesliga 1): 0.888, -0.737 Attack

Italy (Serie A): 0.934, -0.846 Attack

Spain (Primera Liga): 0.848, -0.788 Attack

South Korea (K-League): 0.769, -0.749 Attack

 

This could, therefore, mean that the stronger defences are again likely to prevail in the forthcoming 2009 J League season, and may also explain the fact that most of the few high-profile transfers this close season have involved defenders, but one should too perhaps exercise caution when considering these figures. It would take far more exhaustive analysis of more leagues over more years to come up with anything resembling definitive conclusions. Benjamin Disraeli did, after all, famously warn us of ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’, and as worded no less profoundly by Homer Simpson, ‘facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true’.

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