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August 2009

[Interview] Nine months to South Africa 2010 – Part 1: Security

27 Aug 2009(Thu)

Japan was the first nation to successfully qualify for the World Cup back in June, but for many, next year’s trip to South Africa still represents a trip into the unknown. In the first of a three-part interview, I spoke about security issues with Marc Fletcher, a British doctorate researcher at Edinburgh University who recently spent 19 months investigating the football scene in Johannesburg.

 

 

The one issue that just won’t go away as we count down towards the Finals is safety. Sadly, it raised its ugly head again during the Confederations Cup, and as the European press continue to voice concerns, the South African officials appear more and more irritated as they dismiss them. As a Brit who’s spent the last year and a half watching football in South Africa, what’s your take on things?

 

Right, I only had one thing happen to me in those 19 months I was there. I had my camera stolen at the beginning of January this year in Jo’burg at Kaizer Chiefs vs. Mamelodi Sundowns. That was it. I have never once been physically threatened or intimidated. This one match was actually an interesting case because I accidentally got caught in a bit of crowd trouble just before the game. Some of the fans were trying to storm into the main stand when they only had the cheap tickets, so there was pepper spray being used and mounted police as well. But these instances were rare. At the Confederations Cup, it was far more organised in the ground itself. It was far safer, there was a much better security presence – people knew what they were doing far more than they would do in a normal South African domestic game. That was noticeable straightaway. There are still some problems that need to be ironed out, definitely, when it comes to security...

 

But what about away from the stadiums? The Confederations Cup wasn’t attended by many British reporters, but Gabriele Marcotti in The Times came back talking of treacherous drives at night and having a gun pulled on him at one point – if catered-for journalists encounter such perils, what chance does your average supporter have?

 

Fair enough. I’ve lived in Jo’burg, and throughout my work and the people I’ve met, I’ve heard stories of car-jackings and of being in shopping centres when there’s been armed robberies. But you have to acknowledge that, at least in Johannesburg, it is a dangerous city, but there are steps you can take to minimise the risk. When I did my research, I would be walking around areas of the city where I was told it was dangerous, but I just wouldn’t carry much on me. I would have a very cheap mobile phone, so even if it got stolen, it wasn’t the end of the world. I didn’t carry much money.

 

A lot of it is to do with the fear of crimes and with perceptions, rather than the actual reality. What you have in South Africa, in a way, are a lot of white South Africans who live behind their high walls and electric fences, with big gates, armed security guards, and panic buttons. They’re scared to leave their houses unless it’s to get in their cars and go to work or to the shopping centre – whereas in reality, for me anyway, it’s a lot different. I could walk or drive around in these areas. Quite often I would have a Kaizer Chiefs shirt on, and that made a lot of difference – people would come up to talk to me. But you’re just as likely to get mugged in, say, Sandton – one of the richest areas of the city – as you are to be mugged in the centre of the city, which is suffering from a lot of urban decay. It’s hit and miss.

 

So what should supporters do? Say, if you have a group of fans from Japan, which is obviously a very safe country...

 

Unfortunately you do have to go to that country, especially Johannesburg, with a certain mindset that, yes, something could happen to you. It’s not a nice mentality to have, and I developed that during my time there – a certain thick skin – but the thing is to just get over it and get on with it. I knew of one girl who was walking around in the centre of the city with a big digital SLR camera, taking a lot of photos, and had absolutely no problems whatsoever. Her camera was worth around £500, but nobody cares. It’s all about fear and the perceived danger of crime, rather than the actual reality.

 

So the most important thing is to be aware, but just not overreact about such things?

 

Yeah. For us in the West, the stereotype of the Japanese tourist is one of having all their cameras on and taking tons of photos. And the thing is, there’ll be lots of people there doing that. There will be a much bigger police presence in the whole city, and I really do think that a lot of the locals will also look out for tourists. They might try to sell them something, but fair enough! With the experiences I’ve had, a lot of people just wanted to look after me because a) I was white, b) I was foreign, and c) I was crazy enough to go to their local football matches. And a lot of people really enjoyed showing me how they lived their lives and how they watched and supported football. So I think the vast majority of South Africans will want to welcome the tourists and look after them. It all goes hand in hand.

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Culture shock

18 Aug 2009(Tue)

Debate surrounding the influx of overseas players into English football is nothing new, but an article published on the BBC website ahead of the start of the Premier League season last weekend highlighted just how much things have changed in the last twenty years. The 1989-90 season – immediately before the Italia ’90 World Cup that reignited the passion of middle-class England for its national game, and three years before the start of the Premier League and its hitherto untold financial world – was one in which the foreigner was still a bit of a novelty. Even the biggest clubs generally had no more than one or two players hailing from outside the UK – champions Liverpool were the exception with five – and even then, the vast majority were born just the shortest of flights away on the peripheries of the European continent.

 

Nowadays, of course, the ratios have almost flipped entirely. Newly-promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers have the highest proportion of UK-born players in their squad at 20:8, but 20-year-old Theo Walcott is the most senior of Arsenal’s four British first-teamers that fight for their places alongside 23 born overseas. The talents that grace the Premier League in 2009 come from as far and wide as Guadeloupe (Wolves’ Ronald Zubar), Kosovo (Lorik Cana of Sunderland), and Gabon (Daniel Cousin of Hull City), while the continent of Asia is represented by an Iranian (Andranik Teymourian of Fulham), an Omani (Bolton Wanderers ‘keeper Ali Al Habsi), and three players from South Korea (Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United, Seol Ki-Hyeon of Fulham, and Cho Won-Hee of Wigan Athletic). Sadly, however, a new season has once again kicked off without a single Japanese player on the books of any of England’s 20 top flight teams.

 

Curiously, very few English players ply their trade abroad in spite of such competition for places, but a tendency for those born domestically to stay at home is about the only thing the Premier League’s player pool has in common with the Japanese top division. Unbound by EU laws on freedom of movement for workers, the J. League’s three-foreigner restriction has maintained the proportion of overseas players at a relatively even level over the past 17 years, with – if anything – a slight shift from the occasional marquee player to a more uniform pattern of lesser-known Brazilians, plus a handful of Koreans now that an additional ‘Asian’ slot has been added this year. Just as Gary Lineker’s injury-plagued spell in Nagoya all those years ago did not exactly herald a succession of Englishmen to follow in his footsteps, only three Japanese footballers have yet made the journey from J. to Premier – Hidetoshi Nakata, who spent a reasonably successful year with Bolton before retiring; Junichi Inamoto, whose nomadic existence had its ups and down; and Kazuyuki Toda, whose four games for Tottenham Hotspur are probably best forgotten.

 

The argument about physical football and smaller physiques may be a lazy one, but that’s not to say it’s incorrect – indeed, it’s worth pointing out that two of the three South Koreans deemed good enough for the Premier League this year do have a grounding in Guus Hiddink’s all-action 2002 World Cup side, while the first thing that Wikipedia cares to say about the third, Cho Won-Hee, is that he ‘is famous for his physical strength and fighting spirit’. If we divide Western European football down cultural (and linguistic) lines, it is little surprise to see that Japanese exports have enjoyed greater success in ‘Latin’ leagues like Serie A, where skilled players enjoy more time on the ball, than they have in the ‘Germanic’ north.

 

There are signs, however, that this could be about to change. Building on the foundations laid by Shinji Ono at Feyenoord, Shunsuke Nakamura’s exploits with Celtic have shown his compatriots that it can be done, and while Keisuke Honda captained VVV Venlo to the Dutch Eerste Divisie title last year, Makoto Hasebe was a regular performer in VfL Wolfsburg’s run to an unlikely first ever Bundesliga crown. Honda, in particular, is now attracting much interest from a number of European clubs following an explosive start to the new top flight campaign in Holland, but in an ideal world, one hopes he will stay put for now before moving to England in a year or two. A carefully managed Germanic education could have great knock-on effects for Japanese football at large.

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Nearing the end for Endo et al?

4 Aug 2009(Tue)

My first ever trip to Banpaku, almost six years ago on Saturday 25 October 2003, was to see a 3-1 win for Gamba Osaka over a Nagoya Grampus side still yet to lose their Eight. The result allowed Gamba to leapfrog their opponents into eighth place in the 16-team, second stage J1 table – but just four points behind leaders Tokyo Verdy 1969 as the title race warmed up nicely with four matches left to play. On the grass bank behind the north goal – the first ‘stand’ of its like I had ever seen – the leaders of Gamba’s two main hardcore supporter groups shook hands and announced an end to a disjointed segregation that had previously seen each belt out different songs at the same time. Finally, a slightly inebriated bloke from one of the groups invited me and a friend – the only two foreigners in sight – to come and join him at the front, thus kick-starting my affections both for Gamba and for the same people I still see every fortnight now.

 

It was three weeks later, when I was back for a second taste of curva action, that I first witnessed a midfield featuring Yasuhito Endo, Hideo Hashimoto, and Takahiro Futagawa.

 

Gamba were, if we’re honest, never any more than outsiders for the silverware that year or in any of the ten J. League seasons that preceded it, but those days – like the grass behind the goals – are now a thing of the past. Steady improvement in 2004 was followed by four glorious years in which Gamba won every domestic and continental trophy available to them and, as champions of Asia, finished third in last season’s FIFA Club World Cup. Form has not always been consistent, and coach Akira Nishino has found himself switching from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 to accommodate the players that come and go on an annual basis, but with fellow midfielder Tomokazu Myojin not arriving from Kashiwa Reysol until 2006, the Endo-Hashimoto-Futagawa triumvirate stands alongside current skipper Satoshi Yamaguchi as the only common factors throughout this golden age. The ability of explosive forwards like Araujo, Masashi Oguro, and Bare to score more than Gamba’s notoriously leaky defence let in may well have been what ultimately pushed the team over the line each time, but top-heaviness was nothing new at Banpaku. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the midfield that ensured they would always be in contention in the first place.

 

This year, however, fortunes on the pitch have not been so good. Gamba lie 14 points off the pace in eighth position – where they ended up finishing last year – but while the domestic crisis that followed the departure of Bare midway through last season was tempered by the run to glory in the AFC Champions League, 2009 offers no such respite. After a couple of injuries put paid to a promising start, Gamba’s inability to rediscover their form has seen them surrender their continental title at the first knockout stage, while hopes of a third Nabisco Cup final in five seasons were ended by a woeful capitulation to Yokohama F Marinos in the first leg of their quarter-final. Worse still, the thing that has angered supporters most has been the apparent lack of resolve shown by the players. In recent years, it has almost been the Gamba way to start slowly before saving the day with a swashbuckling second half, but when things haven’t gone their way this term, there seems little – barring a supersub performance from Hayato Sasaki – that anyone can do about it. The question that, sadly, we must now ask is whether this brilliantly dependable Gamba midfield has lost its ability to dominate matches like it used to.

 

At 29 and 30 (in Hashimoto’s case), Gamba’s talented trio may lack the youthful energy they had at 23 and 24, but it would surely be premature to claim they might just be over the hill already. Indeed, their performances up until the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day suggest they remain more than capable of competing at the highest level. However, in one sense, perhaps this is the problem. Sir Alex Ferguson has repeatedly emphasised the hunger of his players at Manchester United to win again and again each year, but for every footballer who shares this desire, there will more who wonder where they go from here once a full set of medals hangs proudly around their necks. With Gamba having undoubtedly overachieved last year and lacking the resources that United enjoy, the experienced faces may no longer consider it worth getting out of bed for a mid-table battle. Futagawa has, admittedly, had his injuries, but Hashimoto and Endo remain regulars in the national side, and as such, will need no reminding that there’s a World Cup on next year. One can only hope that neither goes the way of Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, who was effectively relegated to fourth-choice centre-back in 2006 due to a series of phoned-in performances for his club, before travelling to Germany as captain of Japan that summer.

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