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January 2010

Counting on a Dodô

25 Jan 2010(Mon)

From Kolo Touré’s insistence on being the last player onto the pitch (even when this means waiting for a teammate until after the referee’s whistle) to John Terry’s urinal preferences, footballers remain a notoriously superstitious bunch, and their love of matchday routines so devoid of obvious logic has naturally influenced and been imitated by many a Sunday League wannabe or fan who contends himself with dressing like his heroes on the terraces. My personal record of dabbling into these murky waters extends only to a briefly-owned pair of lucky pants in 2007 – with which I discovered that I would enjoy a guaranteed winning probability of 75%, as long as the team I happened to support generally won three out of every four games anyway – but since then, I have reached the reasonably watertight conclusion that we’ve all been looking at this subject the wrong way around.

 

Baselessly idiosyncratic pre-game preparations are, as we all know, by their very nature unlikely to influence the outcome of any game of football, but once we have accumulated a certain amount of statistical data about past outcomes (another guilty pleasure of a certain type of football observer), there’s nothing to stop us employing trend analysis tools (better known as ‘hindsight’) to determine whose pair of pants were cursed and whose, as it were, contained the Midas touch. For example, all known and related formulae will tell you quite clearly that, if Gamba Osaka are playing more than 100 miles away from their own home stadium, then I should never, ever be there watching.

 

In my last ten trips to see Gamba games outside this safe zone – I’m generally OK within Kansai or as far as Nagoya – my record reads just one win, just one draw, and fully eight defeats. This hasn’t even been a lean few years for my team. I was there for the Nabisco Cup final defeat on penalties in 2005 and subsequent collapse in the run-in, but missed the final day miracle when we beat Kawasaki Frontale 4-2 and clinched the championship in the last minute of the season. I did see the 2006 title decider go the way of Urawa Reds, who’d also denied me a trophy celebration in that year’s Super Cup, but when I decided to give the following season’s curtain-raiser a miss, we only went and hammered the same opposition 4-0. Once I finally broke my duck in the 2007 Nabisco Cup final, I decided to lay low for a while, until reverting to type with a couple more defeats in 2008, and a devastating 5-1 mauling in Kashima that put paid to our league title hopes last November. Needless to say, I was safely home in the UK for Gamba’s back-to-back Emperor’s Cup wins, and only watching on TV for the second leg of the AFC Champions League final in Adelaide 14 months ago.

 

However, I’m not panicking too much about my desperate plight as I realise that, as with all such matters of sophisticated mathematics, you have to take the rough with the smooth. Take, for example, the recent signing of Brazilian youngster Dodô, who joins Gamba on a ‘C’ contract that allows overseas players yet to celebrate their 20th birthdays to circumvent the usual ‘foreigner’ allocation. I witnessed this explosive forward in the flesh twice during his brief spell with Ehime FC in J2 last year, and each time was thoroughly impressed with a level of raw skill, speed, and invention that set him apart from his teammates. Crucially – and this is my point here – the 19-year-old capped his displays with fine goals in both matches, and while these were ultimately the only two occasions he found the net in eight matches played in orange, he does therefore have a 100% strike rate whenever I am cheering him on. You can say what you like about sample sizes; if picked to play, I fully expect Dodô to guarantee us 17 goals in the league at home this year, and at least have a jolly good go at banishing my curse should I ever venture to see him play on the road.

 

Superstition’s whimsy aside, the signings of Dodô and former Portuguesa striker Zé Carlos last week represent an intelligent evolution of Akira Nishino’s policy of bringing in Brazilian forwards with J. League experience. This tactic has seen a succession of relative big shots in and out of the doors at Banpaku – generally bringing with them plenty of goals before leaving turmoil behind when they up sticks without notice – but Dodô is a fresh diamond who will surely benefit from a good polishing by the youth-friendly Gamba coaching staff. A more immediate impact will be expected of the 26-year-old Zé Carlos, who is new to Japan but scored 34 goals in 73 K-League appearances with Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors between 2004 and 2008. His spell with the latter saw him play against Gamba on the way to ACL glory in 2006, and one hopes that having just spent 18 months recharging his batteries back in Brazil, he will arrive suitably motivated for his next Asian challenge.

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Back from the land of the ice and snow (albeit admittedly not the one that actually inspired the Zeppelin lyric)

18 Jan 2010(Mon)

All in all, it seems like I timed my trip back home pretty well. 24 hours after I wolfed down my last proper British breakfast (black pudding included) and flew out of Bristol, it and almost every other airport in the country was forced to close its doors and runways as a thick blanket of snow covered virtually every square inch of Great Britain.

 

The first indication I had of the disruption came when, at the very peak of my jet lag, I stared confused at the big hole in the Japanese satellite TV schedules at 5am where the Carling Cup semi-finals were supposed to be. Both games had evidently fallen victim to the weather (or, possibly, to the clubs’ fear of litigation arising from wintery mishaps occurring on their properties, but that’s another can of worms), and a few days later, only two fixtures survived the most heavily disrupted weekend in Premier League history. Jealous though I was of the friends I’d left behind – with their snow days, snowballs, and, in one case, an igloo – I quickly found comfort in the pile of DVDs I’d received for Christmas, as well as in the thought that I’d have been far more cheesed off had the elements prevented me from enjoying English football while I was actually in the right time zone for a change.

 

As it was, the fortnight I spent back in the UK was merely very cold and icy, meaning that while I did fall on my behind a couple of times, I had no problems catching a match or two. Any New Year’s Day grogginess was shivered out of my system in the largely unsheltered away end at Fairfax Park, as my annual pilgrimage to support my local eighth-tier club Taunton Town took me about ten miles up the A38 for a local derby with Bridgwater Town. Taunton are now in the midst of a third successive battle against the drop since flirting with promotion to the heights of the Southern League Premier Division in 2007, and not even a man advantage for the final quarter of an hour (courtesy of a thoroughly entertaining off-the-ball bust up) was enough to help them recover from a 1-0 deficit stemming from an unnecessarily conceded penalty. 24 hours later, on FA Cup third round Saturday, I travelled with my Luton Town-supporting uncle to watch the Hatters, currently seventh in the fifth-tier Blue Square Premier, go down by the same narrow scoreline away to League One side Southampton.

 

Bridgeytaunton

Bridgwater Town v Taunton Town (yellow), 1 January 2010

 

The nature of my personal interests means I am often asked by people both back home and in Japan about how J. League clubs might fare in the English league system, and vice versa. With only one official match (Gamba Osaka 3-5 Manchester United in 2008) to go on, the history books provide little in the way of direct comparison, and my default answer is to claim that while the very best J1 clubs should fancy themselves on technical merit against most of the Premier League’s bottom half, the age-old problems of physical strength would almost certainly see them bullied into a relegation battle over the course of a season. Lower down the pyramid, on the evidence of the first two days of 2010, you would probably have to look as far as the sixth-tier Japanese prefectural leagues or even beyond to find a team so bad that even Taunton Town might beat them, but a fitting analogy for Southampton-Luton is even more open to conjecture. The Saints have fallen a long way since their 27-year stay at the highest level of English football ended in 2005, but one suspects that the speed of their play alone would give them a strong chance of survival were they suddenly transplanted into the Japanese top flight. Luton’s drop from grace has been even more dramatic, but one hilariously missed open goal from Adam Newton aside, there still appeared to be more quality and higher-level experience in their display than is regularly shown, say, by the similarly orange Ehime FC side in J2 that I look a little shine to last autumn.

 

Sotonluton

Southampton v Luton Town (orange), 2 January 2010

 

Still, although hollow threats of ‘see you outside in the car park’ (usually shouted across 20 metres of segregation) rarely make anyone look too clever, banter between opposing supporters is one thing I do often miss about back home. The derby occasion brought over a thousand supporters to Bridgwater on New Year’s Day, and ensured that the entertainment was supplemented with heckles so heavily accented that I would need several pints of scrumpy to even begin to emulate. At St. Mary’s, meanwhile, the two sets of fans combined gallows humour with jibes at the degree of each other’s misfortunes, with the Luton contingent quick to ring out the Pompey chimes and hail the influence that Harry Redknapp had on Southampton’s relegation in between his two successful spells down the road at their local rivals. Aside from the odd taunt at a particular, long-standing foe or the cry of ‘J2!’ to a doomed opponent, one rarely hears anything to compare even when a J. League crowd might constantly sing for 90 minutes, and while you wouldn’t wish the kind of financial mismanagement that has plagued so many British clubs over the last decade on anyone, I do wonder if the supporter experience in Japan – even at my own club, Gamba – couldn’t sometimes be a little more imaginative and interactive.

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