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March 2009

A Classic case

31 Mar 2009(Tue)

Football, they say, is a funny old game, but it has at least always made more sense to me than that other ball game they like to play here. Unlike most of my countrymen, I don’t actually have anything against baseball, I know what an RBI is, and I have been known to spend the occasional and most enjoyable evening at Koshien watching the Hanshin Tigers. I even understand that, despite matches taking twice as long to complete as a game of football, the number of variables involved in baseball means that even the top teams only win about 60% of the time – and the worst teams still win about 40% – so they end up needing to play 150 times each a season to decide who is the best. What I’ve never quite got, however, is why after playing six times a week, every week, for the best part of seven months, they then suddenly feel the need to discard their league tables completely, and determine the actual champions with a handful of ‘post-season’ matches over the space of just 28 days.

 

The recent World Baseball Classic is, of course, a special case. A commitment to the packed schedules of the North American, Japanese, and various other national leagues means that one month in pre-season is all the global competition is ever going to get, and a knockout format is therefore the only viable option. It does, however, seem strange to me that the same countries end up playing each other repeatedly in separate halves of the draw, and that while everything is do-or-die at the very end, the earlier rounds are full of repechage matches designed to give losing teams a second chance. The end result was that five of the nine matches played by each of this year’s finalists, Japan and South Korea, were against each other, and either side could still easily have made it to the showpiece occasion at Dodger Stadium last week even if they had lost all four of their previous meetings.

 

As it happened, it was two games all going into the final, and while extra innings may just have underlined further how little there is to choose between them, the eventual victory for Tatsunori Hara’s ‘Samurai Japan’ team deserves to be recognised and praised just as any other world title would. Japanese baseball is currently on a real high, with a succession of stars like Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka gracing the ballparks Stateside, and it is easy to forget that when Ichiro Suzuki led the batting averages in his debut season in the Major Leagues back in 2001, he was the first Japanese-born position player ever to even be there in the first place. Now that Japan has won both of the fledgling WBC tournaments played so far, perhaps the United States could do with shedding its ‘World Series’ mentality, and – just as England has had to with the sports it gave the world – accept that it could probably learn a few things from the way the ‘foreigners’ play their sport.

 

Still, it might not all be good news for Japan. Compounded by low birth rates and a shrinking child population, there are fears that the rise of football over the last 15 years could affect Japanese baseball to the point where the current high will be remembered as the peak before the fall. High school baseball at Koshien is a jewel in the Japanese calendar, but a drop in the number of children playing threatens the quality of both the tournaments themselves and the subsequent supply of players to the professional leagues. Perhaps, then, this innovative concept of having a world tournament actually feature teams from different countries should serve as inspiration for modernisation in Japan as well. Wider visions and less prescriptiveness will help ensure that the current momentum can be built on, rather than lost. With its stated aim of ‘creating sports clubs where you can enjoy whatever sport you want, not only football’, perhaps the baseball authorities need to swallow their pride and become a closer part of the J. League’s own 100 Year Vision.

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Bigger and better?

23 Mar 2009(Mon)

After two rounds of matches in this year’s expanded AFC Champions League, the new format appears to have got off to a great start. More participating teams from the so-called elite nations have increased the overall concentration of quality, and there have been plenty of high-scoring and thoroughly entertaining matches to enjoy so far. The Japanese clubs look doubly keen to pick off where they left off, with Nagoya Grampus, Gamba Osaka, and Kawasaki Frontale all currently topping their groups and yet to lose a game between them. Kashima Antlers, meanwhile, despite a heavy defeat to Suwon Bluewings in their opening Group G game, will at least fancy their chances of surpassing Shanghai Shenhua to qualify for the last 16 in second position.

 

The key word in all the AFC’s promotional materials regarding the tournament’s overhaul has been ‘professionalism’. The changes in the competition’s structure and, more significantly, its criteria for entry have been introduced to raise the level of Asian football both on and off the pitch, by forcing clubs and associations to comply with the new standards. With more places for already-compliant clubs in bigger countries, the thrashings routinely handed out to teams from the likes of Vietnam and Thailand look set to be a thing of the past. Representatives of smaller nations can compete at their own level in the AFC Cup – with the chance of a place in the following year’s ACL given to the winners – until they are ready for reassessment. As John Duerden points out in a rare article on Asian football in the Guardian, the AFC hopes that repeat performances from the same faces will also help breed the familiarity, stardom, and rivalry needed for the tournament to thrive.

 

However, although the principles behind the reforms make sense and the money involved is paltry in comparison, the AFC must take care to ensure that its Champions League does not end up driving too big a wedge between the haves and the have-nots, as we have seen in Europe. The last eight of the first competition under the UEFA Champions League moniker, in 1992-93, featured not one representative from the Premier League or La Liga, but instead such ‘lesser’ names as Club Brugge, Rangers, IFK Göteborg, and CSKA Moscow. Ten years later, however, with increased participation from the bigger nations, we had Manchester United, Ajax, and three teams each from Italy and Spain. This season, we have five of the same quarter-finalists as we did last year.

 

The shift has affected domestic football too. While the great appeal of the J. League lies in its unpredictability and in the six-way title races it so often produces, it is easy to forget that the European leagues were once much more competitive as well. As the 1990s brought the geneses of the Premier, Champions, and J. Leagues, the English title was contested by the likes of Norwich City, Blackburn Rovers, and (even as recently as 2003) Newcastle United, but we have now had the same big four sweeping up the seats at Europe’s top table for five consecutive seasons. Lyon have taken the French crown seven years in a row, while the Serie A title – which was won by Napoli, Sampdoria, and even Verona in the decade before the UEFA Champions League – now looks to be more the domain of Juventus and the two Milan teams than ever before.

 

Of course, it is only natural for clubs and supporters to look after their own interests, and for England and Japan to want their teams to be the envy of their respective continents. But today’s situation in Europe is very different to when Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest could win the European Cup 30 years ago, and the backlash is growing – even within UEFA – against the consequences of the Champions League’s current format and finances. However the growing ACL helps develop the sport in this region, it must not be at the cost of true competition.

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The ‘Q’-word – looking back on the Club World Cup

17 Mar 2009(Tue)

As unlikely as its achievement may indeed remain, the word ‘quintuple’ has been a new addition to the lexicon of many British football supporters this season due to its ever more ubiquitous presence in any reference to Manchester United’s potential trophy haul. Once upon a time, winning the league and FA Cup in the same season was known as the ‘elusive Double’, though the rarity of this feat has decreased dramatically since United and Arsenal managed it five times between them in just nine seasons (1993/94 to 2001/02). Even the Treble, though – in its truest sense – has only yet been secured by an English side once, while talk of potential Quadruples generally only arises in short-lived hyperbole, and rarely gives Celtic fans much cause to worry that anyone else in the world might equal what their team managed back in 1967.

 

But now, with the Club World Cup and the League Cup already in the bag for United, talk turns to a possible five trophies and this favourite new word, the Quintuple. In truth, though, the term has only really enjoyed common acceptance for about a month, as even into February, pundits and fans continued to refer to a potential Quadruple with equal or greater frequency. Even now that the other ‘Q’-word has begun to take precedence, scepticism over its meaning remains rife amongst non-United fans. If we’re going to count ‘that trophy they won in Japan’, why not count the Community Shield and pre-season friendlies as well?

 

Similar opinions have also been expressed in the British sporting media. Even at the time, UK newspapers and broadcasters gave the Club World Cup little priority, and damningly (if partially excused by the number of times it has changed), few commentators ever seem to refer to the competition by its correct name. On one of The Times’ football podcasts in late 2007, Gabriele Marcotti and Guillem Balague mourned the lack of coverage of Milan’s 4-2 win over Boca Juniors, and while this inferred a greater interest in the Club World Cup elsewhere in Europe, few British journalists seemed to share their view.

 

At the very least, though, United fans do seem to have embraced the competition. This is obviously much easier to do now the trophy is safely in the cabinet, but ever since winning the European Cup became an obsession for Matt Busby in the 1950s and 60s, United’s desire to buck established trends and seek new frontiers has been a source of pride to the supporters. The circumstances may have been quite different in 2008, but Sir Alex Ferguson has always been aware of this tradition, and successfully ensured that his players shared his desire not to return home from Yokohama without the cup in their hands. Whatever others may have to say about it, United fans will be proud to wear the World Champions badge on their new replica shirts next season.

 

Nobody, of course, believes that the Club World Cup will outrank the UEFA Champions League in terms of importance any time soon. Some of the criticism stems from the fact that United only had to win two games to be bestowed with the world title, but aside from the strange rule that has allowed Sepahan and Adelaide United to take part as the number two sides in Asia, I happen to think that the format is fine as it is. Two matches are, at least, better than one when it comes to tournament credibility. It might be nice to have even more, but it is hardly realistic to hope that the European teams will happily take further time out of their domestic schedules.

 

And this, of course, is the key point. Last year’s Club World Cup continues to be referenced in interviews and will forever remain with the players of Gamba Osaka – and, I’m sure, of Liga de Quito and the rest. Clubs throughout Japan have looked on enviously at Gamba and Urawa Reds, and are now striving to up their level and gain their own chance of facing a Manchester United or an AC Milan as continental champions. Eventually, not even that will be enough, and everyone will instead want to be known as the ones who beat the Europeans on the world stage. It is hypocritical of English fans, who bemoan the ever-increasing gap between the Premier League or the big four and the rest, to deny the rest of the world their stage.

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New beginnings

11 Mar 2009(Wed)

The J League is back. With 31 goals in the seven J1 matches played on the initial Saturday, and a number of surprise scorelines along the way – at least, as surprising as one can hope for in a league predictable only for its unpredictability – the opening weekend of the new season served up an exciting reminder of what we have all been missing throughout the winter months. All in all, affairs on the pitch seem to be shaping up nicely for the launch of a new, English-language service on the Football Japan website.

 

Starting next week, the Football Japan Minutecast will provide a round-up of the latest Japanese football news before and after every weekend of action in the J League and for the national team. The written articles will be available both from the main website and as an e-mail magazine service, while as the ‘cast’ part of the name suggests, we also plan to provide an audio version of the reports in the form of a brief, twice-weekly podcast for you to download.

 

Unfortunately, the system was not quite ready in time to allow my Minutecast feature on the opening day of the season to be published – this, and all subsequent editions will be available in the archive – but my first choice as lead story had been made an easy one by the incredible exploits of Montedio Yamagata. Before the weekend’s games, press attention had inevitably focused on the big match in Kashima, where the Antlers embarked on their mission to record a third straight title with a 2-0 win over the 2006 champions, Urawa Reds. On a personal level, I was obviously pleased that Leandro and Cho Jae-Jin had both got off the mark to help Gamba Osaka win 3-0 away to bogey side JEF United Chiba, and even that Davi had scored twice on his Nagoya Grampus debut against Oita Trinita after I had said last week that his contribution could be key in this year’s title race. However, none of this should be allowed to steal the limelight from the J1 new boys, whose 6-2 thrashing of three-times champions Jubilo Iwata – at the Yamaha Stadium, no less – was perhaps the most explosive introduction of any debuting side in Japanese top flight history.

 

Their manager, Shinji Kobayashi, may have seen it all before in his time with Cerezo Osaka, but despite Yamagata’s relatively comfortable run to second place in J2 last season, this is still a relatively small club that had only once previously challenged for promotion (in 2001) in ten seasons in the J League. Neither they nor their 21-year-old double goalscorer, Yu Hasegawa, who had lived a rather nomadic, goalless existence until joining Montedio last season, could have asked for a more emphatic way to announce their arrival on the big stage against such a name side.

 

Obviously, we should not read too much into a single round of fixtures, and scoring four times in the last fifteen minutes may have added a rather unfair gloss to the scoreline, but the defeat for Jubilo only underlines the fears I expressed two weeks ago for their safety this season. Conceding six goals is a worry at the best of times, but more significant is the fact that Yamagata and Sanfrecce Hiroshima do indeed look, at the very least, better placed to mount a challenge for survival than the relegated Tokyo Verdy and Consadole Sapporo sides they have replaced. If Alex Miller’s JEF United Chiba can indeed pick up points at anything like the rate they managed after the Scot’s arrival midway through last season, this should mean that any weaknesses shown by Jubilo will go more heavily punished this year.

 

With the short, accessible format of both the text and audio versions, the new Minutecast service will aim both to help keep football fans from overseas in touch with the latest goings on in Japan, and to provide material of interest to Japanese fans keen to practise their English. Links and further information will, of course, be provided both on this page and elsewhere as soon as the system is up and running smoothly. We look forward to inviting you to subscribe and get all the latest need-to-know news in your inbox or on your MP3 player in time for the end of work – or the journey in if you are in Europe – every Monday and Friday.

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J1 in 2009: The top half

3 Mar 2009(Tue)

(Continues from previous article)

 

At the top end of the J1 table, two titles in a row for Kashima Antlers and a 3-0 win over Gamba Osaka in Saturday’s Fuji Xerox Super Cup suggest that Oswaldo de Oliveira’s side remain the team to beat, and had this been three or four years ago, I would certainly have made them favourites to clinch an unprecedented third consecutive J League crown. However, increasing emphasis and Japanese prominence in the AFC Champions League have seen Kashima’s successes over the last couple of years somewhat overshadowed – not to mention their right to compete in two FIFA Club World Cups being taken away – by the international glory of Urawa Reds and Gamba. After seeing the latter defeat Adelaide United three times to set up a meeting with Manchester United last year, Kashima’s regret at not having overcome the Australians in the last eight of the ACL would have only grown deeper, and the Antlers could be forgiven for making continental progress the top priority this year.

 

Who, then, is best placed to supplant them as champions? Jeremy Walker writes this week about the difficulty of selecting a dark horse for the 2009 title, but the beauty of this year’s J1 as the opening day approaches is that it would not be a shock to see any of about six teams end up on top of the pile. All of this makes it very difficult to see how a side like Vissel Kobe really can break through and challenge for the ACL positions, despite significant investment from their wealthy owners. In a year of little transfer activity overall, Kobe are unusual in that their best XI this season could feature as many as four new faces, and this certainly gives them a better chance of moving up the league than, say, Yokohama F Marinos. However, they will still likely be reliant on the failure of teams like Oita Trinita, FC Tokyo, and Shimizu S-Pulse to prove that last term’s performances were no overachievement, and the Vissel fans and owners will have to be patient enough to realise that even a top eight finish would still mean progress.

 

Despite the continental competition’s expansion this year, Urawa will have no ACL distractions for the first time since they won the league in 2006, freeing them for a targeted assault on title glory while as many as four rivals contend with additional fixtures and international travel. It is questionable, however, just to what extent the problems that dogged the team last season have actually been solved, and former SC Freiburg coach Volker Finke may be excused a transitional year in which to restore the Reds’ team harmony and winning mentality, with a top three finish a reasonable first target. Gamba, meanwhile, will also be giving top priority to the league, after eighth position last year more accurately reflected the troubles suffered throughout a season memorable ultimately for their cup successes at home and abroad. In four signings of proven quality, Akira Nishino has filled holes in terms of defence, attack, and overall squad depth, but any points dropped while the new-look team is still gelling could be crucial come December.

 

Nagoya Grampus and Kawasaki Frontale may not have the ACL experience of Kashima or Gamba – with Frontale’s elimination in the 2007 quarter-finals being the only time that either has taken part before – and it therefore remains to be seen how two of last year’s major risers can deal with the pressures of competing on two fronts. Both, though, have largely retained the strong squads that did so well last season, and a league title would represent the first and biggest step towards legitimacy for two teams whose rolls of honour to date consist only of a pair of J2 titles for Kawasaki and two Emperor’s Cups in the 1990s for Nagoya. Replacing Shimizu-bound forward Frode Johnsen with the exciting Brazilian Davi could just give Grampus the cutting edge necessary to go all the way this year.

 

2009 J1 table prediction

1. Nagoya Grampus

2. Kawasaki Frontale

3. Gamba Osaka

4. Kashima Antlers

5. Urawa Reds

6. Oita Trinita

7. FC Tokyo

8. Vissel Kobe

9. Shimizu S-Pulse

10. JEF United Chiba

11. Yokohama F Marinos

12. Kashiwa Reysol

13. Sanfrecce Hiroshima

14. Omiya Ardija

15. Albirex Niigata

16. Kyoto Sanga

17. Jubilo Iwata

18. Montedio Yamagata

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