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May 2009

Just seventeen

26 May 2009(Tue)

‘A genius.’

‘The jewel in Gamba’s crown.’

‘Perhaps the most talented player the club has ever produced.’

 

The accolades heaped upon 17-year-old Takashi Usami were serious enough even before the Gamba Osaka forward had ever kicked a ball in professional competition. Outstanding performances last year both in Gamba’s J. Youth Cup winning side and in the AFC U-16 Championship for his country elevated Usami to the national footballing conscience, and fuelled no doubt by the information era – clips of his skills on YouTube have attracted tens, and even hundreds of thousands of viewers – the news of his promotion to the professional ranks as a second-year high school student earlier this year was greeted with nationwide anticipation. Had there been any Japanese football fans under whose radar he was still yet to fall, this will surely no longer be the case after a week in which he scored on his full debut (at just 17 years and 14 days old – a club record) in the AFC Champions League, earned his first ever J. League appearance against two-time reigning champions Kashima Antlers, and signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with German sportswear giant Adidas.

 

Of all this attention, however, it is the noise coming from within the club that is the most significant of all. The J. League may only be 16 years old and Gamba Osaka may have had their problems establishing roots in the community, but the recent success enjoyed on the field by Akira Nishino’s team has been built on the foundations of one of the finest youth academies anywhere in Asia. Alumni include Junichi Inamoto of Eintracht Frankfurt and former Japan captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, who have gone on to bigger and better things in World Cups and in Europe, while the current first team squads of both club and country have the Gamba school to thank for the likes of  Michihiro Yasuda and Hideo Hashimoto. For his coaches to mention Usami in the same breath as these players already – let alone suggest he is the best of all – is a staggering vote of confidence in the teenager.

 

We can but hope that that the player himself, and the fans and reporters that follow him, will remember to keep their feet on the ground. Masakiyo Maezono was the first and probably the best example of a Japanese footballer falling victim to the ‘star system’, but even without outside pressures, the development of young footballers is a notoriously tricky business. Satoshi Nakayama was once set to be the next big thing after finishing as top scorer in the 2002 Toulon U-21 Tournament and delighting Gamba fans with a series of match-winning goals, but he eventually only ever scored ten times in exactly 100 J1 appearances, and now finds himself playing out his peak years with Roasso Kumamoto in the lower reaches of the second division. In England, the name of Federico Macheda will live long in Manchester United folklore after the Italian 17-year-old’s contribution to the Premier League title this season, but only time will tell as to whether his tale will read along the same lines as Ryan Giggs or as Mark Robins.

 

For the time being, however, Usami’s chances are surely as good as any. Akira Nishino may be unlikely to copy Sir Alex Ferguson’s cheeky phone call to Fabio Capello about a place for Danny Welbeck in next year’s World Cup, but one senses that – like the Scot – there are few managers better equipped to help young players learn their trade domestically. Nishino’s experience and faith in youth is coupled with a humourless, professional discipline, and while Japan coach Takeshi Okada may have responded to news of Usami’s debut goal with an emotionless ‘oh, right’, his willingness to call up seven players aged 22 or under for the forthcoming Kirin Cup and World Cup qualifiers suggests that the chances will be there if young prospects prove ready to take them. It is impossible to know how Usami’s career is going to pan out just yet, but for fans of Gamba and of Japanese football, it will surely at least be a lot of fun finding out.

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Football in Kansai could be bed-ridden with flu

18 May 2009(Mon)

* Updated at 8.55pm on Monday to reflect announcement by Gamba Osaka

 

Despite being mainly confined so far to the two prefectures of Osaka and Hyogo, 130 confirmed cases of swine influenza currently makes Japan the nation most heavily afflicted by the potential new pandemic anywhere outside of Mexico, Canada, and the United States. The geographically localised nature of the infection’s spread has put authorities throughout the Kansai region on high alert, with a number of offices and schools – including the world-renowned Osaka University – making the decision to close for the week in the hope of stopping the situation from getting any worse.

 

Inevitably, in an industry that depends on thousands of supporters huddled together in close quarters, the region’s football clubs are no exception to the current concern. In a case of terribly unfortunate timing, all three teams near the affected areas – Gamba Osaka, Cerezo Osaka, and Vissel Kobe – are scheduled to play at home next weekend, and all are closely monitoring the situation in tandem with the J. League and local authorities, with postponements thought to be a real possibility. Vissel have already closed their soccer school and other fan services for the week, while Gamba have the additional, immediate concern of a home match against FC Seoul in the AFC Champions League this Wednesday to contend with. Despite press speculation that the game could be played behind closed doors, Gamba did announce late on Monday that it would go ahead as planned, but the club has cancelled its usual array of fan club and other matchday events, and issued a lengthy list of special health and safety measures to which spectators must adhere.

 

In Mexico, all four quarter-finals in the Clausura Liguilla league playoffs went ahead as scheduled this past weekend, but fear surrounding swine influenza has already forced its two guest representatives in South America’s Copa Libertadores – Guadalajara and San Luis – to surrender their places in the tournament’s last sixteen. The two sides’ matches had originally been relocated to Bogota before Colombian authorities vetoed the move, and Chile’s refusal to step in as a replacement left them both with nowhere to turn. Their plight was hardly helped by the infamous actions of defender Hector Reynoso in Guadalajara’s group match with Everton of Chile late last month – Reynoso spat in the face of Everton forward Sebastian Penco, before suggesting to his opponent that he had passed on the virus with it.

 

The closure of schools and other disruption in Japanese cities almost 9,000 miles away from Mexico undoubtedly makes the potential pandemic far more real in the eyes of local residents than faraway TV news images ever could. But while it would certainly be a shame if fans were forced away from Gamba’s top-of-the-table clash with J1 leaders Kashima Antlers on Sunday, or indeed any of the other matches taking place across the region this week, one hopes that the health-conscious public will retain its sense of perspective. Swine influenza is considered less deadly than the seasonal flu – not to be confused, as many do, with the common cold – that many of us will have contracted at some point in our lives anyway, while at the same time, a little hassle at some football matches is a small price to pay if we can help nip these infections in the bud.

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Golden Week ponderings

11 May 2009(Mon)

A few things I learned during the recent ‘Golden Week’ holiday here in Japan:

 

1) It is a very good thing when 29 April – the birthday of the late Emperor Hirohito and the start of the Golden Week holiday – happens to fall on a Wednesday, as it means that we get an eight-day break sandwiched between a pair of two-day weeks that don’t feel too much like hard work anyway. I sympathise with those who lost four days’ pay because their economically-pressed companies decided not to bother opening for these two mini-weeks, but I hope they were able to enjoy what, in Japan, was practically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend an entire fortnight off work.

 

2) Japanese corporate life continues to amuse. Just as I was beginning to enjoy my third or fourth beer of the holiday late on Tuesday (28 April) evening, my boss – not the one at Football Japan, I hasten to add – phoned to ask if I wouldn’t fancy working that week instead. I might have forgiven his cheek if he hadn’t just refused my request for slightly more paid holiday – proposed only as a compromise given that he had reneged on a promised payrise – on the grounds that I ‘already get the legal minimum and that should be sufficient’. I refused, of course, but in doing so, here it is my logic that gets questioned.

 

3) A trip to the wonderful Home’s Stadium Kobe for the ‘Kansai Derby’ was, as it is every year, a harsh reminder of what we Gamba Osaka fans are missing out on. An article in the Asahi Shimbun earlier this year criticised our volume levels at home, but while its author may have raised some valid points, he did rather brush over the fact that Banpaku – with its running track, shallow roofless stands, and huge gaps in the corners – could not have been designed any worse when it comes to acoustics. It is always a different story whenever we go away (even if we did lose the derby). Gamba, Panasonic, Suita City, anybody – please hurry up and build us a new home.

 

4) Tiredness after a trip to Indonesia seemed like a fairly lame excuse for Gamba’s insipid performance in Kobe, given that they had had five days to recover, but a distinct pattern is emerging for poor domestic results immediately after away games in Asia. Yesterday’s win over Kashiwa Reysol was the first time Gamba had avoided defeat after such a journey this season, having mustered only five points from four eminently winnable post-Asia league games last year, while both Kashima Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale have also suffered major upsets in similar situations. In their defence, however, Asian clubs do have greater distances to travel with lesser resources than their European counterparts, and I suppose that if the end result is a more level playing field domestically, all of this might not be such a bad thing anyway.

 

5) Though few Chelsea fans would agree following the dramatic manner of their semi-final exit last Wednesday, neutrals will surely be delighted that this year’s UEFA Champions League final will be contested between a pair of great attacking sides and, without doubt, the best two club teams anywhere in the world at present. For all Barcelona’s fireworks this season, however, Pep Guardiola was fortunate to survive a real tactical lesson from Guus Hiddink – will the rookie manager be able to hold his own against Sir Alex Ferguson?

 

6) The hypothetical dilemma I described in my first article on these pages last June – about the prospect of a meeting between my two loves, Gamba Osaka and Manchester United – was meant as a means of introducing myself as much as anything, but it eventually became a recurring theme and, ultimately, a reality as Gamba kept on winning when it mattered. They may struggle the weekend after away trips, but Gamba have won five matches out of five in their defence of the Asian crown so far, and with United one step away from retaining the European title, people are starting to ask me if my ‘once every 200 years’ prediction might not have been a tad pessimistic. I’m saying nothing... but with this year’s Club World Cup being hosted in the United Arab Emirates just before Christmas, a stopover in Abu Dhabi might have to be on the cards before my annual trip home.

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