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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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