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November 2009

The curse of the commentator

18 Nov 2009(Wed)

I have a tiny request that I would like to make this week to the commentators working on the various Japanese television channels, terrestrial and satellite, that cover international and overseas football.


While perhaps still lagging behind the bewildering array of offerings available in the UK, Japanese football coverage is now sufficiently comprehensive that, either side of the national team’s bore draw in South Africa on Saturday, I was able to feast my eyes on both New Zealand versus Bahrain and England against Brazil. Had I sufficient energy/insomnia, I could have then sat up until six a.m. watching Vicente del Bosque’s Spain add Argentina to their list of recent victims in Madrid. This is undoubtedly a good thing, as is the smattering of Bundesliga, Serie A, and La Liga options that nicely complement my J. and Premier League viewing each Saturday (which, unlike back home, is unaffected by rules prohibiting the transmission of three o’clock kick-offs). However, while I appreciate that it would doubtless be impossible for broadcasters to procure the funds, human resources, and probably even press passes to send a full commentary team to every single live match in person, I do wish they’d at least try not to make their detachment from the heart of the action so bleeding obvious.


It has reached the point where I’ve set my TV to switch to the secondary audio feed whenever there’s one available, whether I understand the host broadcaster’s language or not. My grasp of Italian, for example, may extend no further than ‘campionato di calcio italiano’ (for which I have Saturday mornings on Channel 4 back in my secondary school years to thank), but getting up to watch Manchester United’s trip to Internazionale back in February was all the more entertaining for the pair of excitable commentators from SKY Italia. Their insights were entirely lost on me but the enthusiasm they conveyed from inside the bowels of the San Siro was not; while over on the main feed, their counterparts in some studio in Tokyo offered little in the way of style or substance to shake the impression that it was just two blokes chatting idly away on the sofa. Which, unless your names happen to be Gary and Tony, is generally only interesting to the ones forging the ass grooves.


Normally, the satellite channel WOWOW stands out amongst all the Japanese broadcasters for their excellent coverage of Spanish football, but sadly, it seems not even they are unfamiliar with the correlation between distance and ignorance. On Saturday evening, the lead commentator was most surprised to see Wayne Rooney first out of the dressing room with the captain’s armband (news he could have learned well in advance either here, here, here, or if he preferred a source in Japanese, here), and the game was well and truly up by the time the players of England and Brazil formed two lines either side of the centre circle, heads solemnly bowed, a few moments later. If it was poor form not to recognise immediately that ‘oh, it must be a minute’s silence’, it was worse that the commentators should continue discussing who the gesture might be for after the referee’s whistle had hushed (almost) everyone else.


Guys, we all have days where we haven’t really prepared. I understand that not being there in the flesh makes both inspiration and up-to-the-moment information that bit harder to come by. I even accept that, in the heat of live television, our brains may not immediately make the connection between the mourning footballers in front of us and the tragic suicide of the German goalkeeper Robert Enke that had dominated the world’s sports press for the previous four days. But, for God’s sake, please at least try and engage the viewer by making it look like you know what you’re doing. Even if you do have to blag it.

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Crime and punishment

10 Nov 2009(Tue)

Ten years ago last week – as a sixth-form student about to face university admission interviews – my first-hand experience of Japan began with seven days spent in Tokyo. Blown away as I was, though, with the lights of Shinjuku, the gadgets of Akihabara, and the cultural awakenings of the Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa, this was of course just the tip of the iceberg. While many Westerners only ever sample the capital, any enthusiast will at least want to visit Kyoto as well and sample delights such as Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji before claiming to have ‘seen’ Japan. Ideally, he will travel between the two cities by bullet train too, taking a north-facing window seat (numbers ending in ‘E’, not ‘A’) to gaze at Mount Fuji on the way past, and have timed the trip to coincide with the blooming of the cherry blossoms (latest updates available on any good weather forecast) and thus ensure that his photographs match the postcards he sends home.


For the quirkier completist, however, no spotter’s guide to Japan would be complete without the sighting of a line of besuited gentlemen, bowed down at 45 degrees in apology for some recent scandal or misdemeanour. Admittedly few will ever travel to a football match for the purposes of checking this particular box, but those who had were in for a treat at Todoroki on Sunday as the players of Kawasaki Frontale – dressed in matching grey suits, and led by the similarly-attired manager Takashi Sekizuka and club chairman Shinpei Takeda – embarked on a lap of the pitch and offered similar gestures of regret to each of the stadium’s four stands.


Frontale were, of course, in the proverbial doghouse for the manner in which some of their players had reacted to defeat in the Nabisco Cup final against FC Tokyo last Tuesday – the fifth time this as yet trophyless club has finished as runners-up in a major competition. So disgusted was JFA president Motoaki Inukai after the game that he told reporters he wished he ‘hadn’t been there to see such a disgrace for the whole of football’, and spat out his hope that the prize money of 50 million yen (about £330,000 – count ‘em) be returned. In Kawasaki, Takeda voluntarily complied with this request days later, and forced his entire playing staff to write letters of apology to those they had offended. Their crimes – and those of a sensitive disposition should look away now – were to have greeted this latest heartbreak with frowns rather than smiles, for the midfielder Yusuke Mori (who has been individually suspended) to have chewed gum on his way past the royal box, and, in scenes never before witnessed on a football field, for two or three players to have removed their silver medals shortly after receiving them.


One can only wonder what effect having their bottoms spanked so publicly had on the players’ mentality. After all the bowing was over and the suits had been swapped for more conventional kit, Kawasaki struggled to break down a JEF United Chiba side headed for near-certain relegation with the third most porous defence in the league; a stark contrast to their previous league outing against title outsiders Sanfrecce Hiroshima, in which they scored seven without reply. One point ahead of Kashima Antlers as the J1 title race enters its nervy final month, a Frontale fan might have taken the reaction at the National Stadium as a positive sign that the players hate defeat, and would therefore be doubly determined to avoid another failure in the league. Instead, they had the fact that JEF United absolutely needed a win themselves to thank for the spaces that opened up at the back and allowed Renatinho to clinch a 3-2 victory for the home side in second half stoppage time.


While the JFA’s determination for professional footballers to show a good example to children should be praised – alas, this an area in which we may have become a little blasé in Europe – it is hard to avoid the suspicion that their energies would be better directed towards matters more pressing and, you know, 21st century. For all their successes in developing Japanese football over the past two decades, perhaps the JFA could do with a bit of modernisation just as much as most other large organisations here. Perhaps Mori and company just happened to catch Inukai on a bad day. Or perhaps the former Urawa Reds chairman simply recalled being caught masticating in the royal box himself, back when some of his players shunned medals following their own defeat to FC Tokyo in the Nabisco Cup final of 2004. Now that, Mr. Inukai, is a spotter’s badge.

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