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February 2010

Ready for kickoff in the Asian Champions League

22 Feb 2010(Mon)

When Takashi Sekizuka stunned the Kawasaki Frontale players at the end of last year by stepping down from his post as manager for the second time – ostensibly in light of the team’s narrow failure to turn promising runs in each of the four competitions in which they competed into actual silverware – one had to wonder if he’d not had one eye on the group stage draw for the 2010 AFC Champions League, held in Kuala Lumpur on 7 December.


With the 32 qualifiers split into West and East sections until the quarter-finals and teams from the same national association kept apart, each of the four Japanese representatives were guaranteed to be paired with sides from both China and South Korea, with the tightness of the group then hinging on the identity of its final member – a 50:50 chance of either a dangerous meeting with Australian opposition, or the somewhat easier proposition of a minnow from Southeast Asia. A-League champions Melbourne Victory certainly represented the shortest possible straw as far as Kawasaki were concerned, but as if that wasn’t enough, the addition of Chinese Super League winners Beijing Guoan and K-League runners-up Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma as well looks to have made their Group E a real group of death. If Sekizuka decided he didn’t fancy it, you couldn’t really blame him.


As it is, tomorrow’s visit to Seongnam represents Frontale’s first competitive fixture under the permanent charge of former head coach Tsutomu Takahata, who stepped in temporarily during a period of ill health for his predecessor in 2008. The new man at the helm is able to call upon national team midfielder Junichi Inamoto, who returns to the J. League this season following almost nine years in Europe, and will look to get his quest to finally secure Kawasaki’s first ever trophy on track with victory against the most decorated side in Korean history.


Inamoto’s old club, meanwhile, look to have things a little easier. Gamba Osaka embark on what appears set to be their biggest challenge of the group stage on Wednesday with a trip to Suwon Samsung Bluewings, but Cha Bum-Kun’s side are a shadow of the 2008 double winners who went on to thrash Kashima Antlers 4-1 in their opening continental fixture twelve months ago. Suwon finished down in tenth position in the 15-team K-League last season, and only scraped back into the ACL thanks to a penalty shootout victory over Seongnam in the final of the Korean FA Cup last November. Gamba coach Akira Nishino has striking problems, with Cho Jae-Jin suffering a broken bone in his right hand and new signing Zé Carlos told to stay behind and lose weight, but one feels that even if the Osaka club were to slip up this week, they should have few difficulties qualifying from a group that also contains Henan Construction (who finished a surprising third in the Chinese Super League) and Singapore Armed Forces FC (who conceded 19 goals in six group matches last year).


Indeed, the toughest hurdle that awaits the 2008 Asian champions could once again come immediately after the group stage. Should Gamba, as expected, make it through in either first or second, they will face a side from Group E in what for a second year will be a one-off, do-or-die eliminator in the last 16 – throwing up the prospect of a rematch against Kawasaki.


The latter’s 3-2 victory at Banpaku at the same stage last year came about after they had surrendered top spot in their group with a surprise 2-0 loss at home to Pohang Steelers on matchday six – both sides had already been guaranteed qualification – and it remains a source of frustration to some Japanese observers that the Koreans were then able to go all the way and clinch the title without facing another J. League opponent (Nagoya Grampus – the weakest J. League representative on paper – then beat Kawasaki in the last eight, before their tame elimination at the hands of Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad in the semi-finals put paid to any hopes of a Japanese three-peat). It will be interesting to see how ACL newcomers Sanfrecce Hiroshima fare in their encounter with the defending Asian champions in Group H, which also contains 2008 runners-up Adelaide United (who qualified as 2008-09 A-League runners-up but finished bottom in the recently completed 2009-10 regular season) and Shandong Luneng (who scraped into fourth place in the Chinese Super League on head-to-head record).


This season, country protection in the quarter-finals should hopefully prevent a repeat of last year’s succession of all-Japanese knockout ties, but the new rule will not apply in the event that three or more teams from the same association are still standing at this point. Whether the J. League is able to achieve such domination as in 2008 will likely depend on the ability of three-times defending domestic champions Kashima Antlers to overcome their demons on the continental stage. Oswaldo de Oliveira and his players have spoken in pre-season about a desire bordering on obsession to fill the ACL-shaped hole in their club’s trophy cabinet at the fourth attempt. However, while Kashima usually have no problems making it out of their group – this year’s draw with Korean champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Chinese runners-up Changchun Yatai, and Indonesian side Persipura Jayapura looks manageable enough – they are still yet to win a single knockout tie in the competition’s history.

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Problems close to home

15 Feb 2010(Mon)

The East Asian Championship may attract little attention throughout the rest of the world but it should serve as an interesting point of reference to observers in the United Kingdom, following as it does an almost identical template to the old Home Internationals. The British Home Championship was the world’s first ever international football tournament, pitting England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (later Northern Ireland) together in round-robin competition on an annual basis from 1884 – some 46 years before the inaugural FIFA World Cup – and lasting exactly a century until its eventual demise following the 1983-84 season. Alongside contemporary sociopolitical factors such as hooliganism and the Troubles, reasons cited for its cancellation include fixture congestion and declining supporter interest, but recent nostalgia for the old British derbies has given rise to a resurrection of sorts in the form of the 4 Associations’ Tournament, whose first edition will be played in the Republic of Ireland next year.


The inaugural hosts take the place of England, meaning that the new competition becomes an all-Celtic affair but undoubtedly lacks its greatest potential draw. The Football Association are said to agree to the idea of a relaunched Home Championship in principle, but fear that fixture congestion makes English participation impractical – which may as well be a paraphrasing of Phoebe Buffay’s immortal line: ‘I wish I could, but I don’t want to’.


In any case, the Irish (and indeed their three opponents) will certainly hope to fare much better in their new adventure than the Japanese national side did as hosts of the East Asian mini-league this month. Negative press has surrounded Takeshi Okada and his squad since even before the tournament kicked off, with a 0-0 draw in their warm-up match with Venezuela on 2 February serving as a dismal prelude to a similar goalless stalemate in Japan’s opening fixture with China four days later. Attendances were highly disappointing – the hosts were booed off then by a half-full Ajinomoto Stadium before beating Hong Kong 3-0 in front of just 16,368 at the National Stadium in their second game, while the two matchdays not involving the home side attracted less than 7,000 supporters between them. Finally, even when crowds did pick up for the decisive match with South Korea last night, Japan were beaten 3-1 in a game where just about everything that could have gone wrong for them did just that. As his opposite number, Huh Jung-Moo (who looks more and more like ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano every time I see him), danced on the touchline in celebration, Okada was left to defend both his position and his target of a semi-final appearance at the World Cup in front of a nation baying for blood.


There were, of course, a number of mitigating circumstances. The fact that the tournament kicked off a full month before the start of the club season (with the Japanese squad meeting up in Kagoshima just 24 days after the Emperor’s Cup final brought an end to the 2009 calendar) meant that neither individual players nor the team as a collective ought to have been in much better condition than they would be for any other pre-season friendly. This most likely affected attendances too, as did the absence of star names plying their trade in Europe where domestic competition takes precedence over international matches on dates not pre-approved by FIFA. Eventual champions China undoubtedly benefited the most from the resultant levelling of the playing field, and whereas Japan and South Korea have the small matter of a World Cup to prepare for, glory in East Asia really was the be-all-and-end-all for Gao Hongbo and his men.


Still, however immaterial Japan’s ‘failure’ at the East Asian Championship may indeed be when viewed in such practical terms, the psychological effects of the critical fallout and the forwards’ continued woes in front of goal could prove an unwanted distraction ahead of the considerably more important challenges that await. Okada is under pressure, and attempting to instil a siege mentality into his squad might now be his only option given that much of the bad feeling stems from above. The repeated outbursts from Motoaki Inukai may well be justified were they aired in private, but for the president of the JFA to speak so vociferously to the press about his national team and manager is surely both unprofessional and entirely unhelpful.

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Supōtsu in Japaniizu

1 Feb 2010(Mon)

The restrictions of the Japanese phonetic alphabet – with five pure vowels and only 14 consonants to fit around a (fairly) rigid CVCV pattern – may leave a certain scope for confusion, but the extent of this country’s lexical borrowing continues to know few bounds. Upon flicking on the TV yesterday evening to catch what was ultimately a straight-sets defeat for Andy Murray in the Australian Open tennis final, I was initially disappointed not to have the option of an audio feed from the host broadcaster as I often like to choose for football, but I needn’t have worried as it turns out English is the only language this sport makes any sense in anyway. When, in a rare and all-too-brief moment of hope for British fans, the Japanese commentator kindly informed us that Murray led faivu gēmusu tu surii, sāvingu fō za setto (five games to three, serving for the set), you had to wonder if any casual Japanese viewers would have the faintest clue what on earth was going on.


This is probably quite an extreme example, and it does of course follow reason that when part of a country’s culture is exported overseas, it should take with it a certain amount of vocabulary. English, for example, has seen no reason to translate the names of karate, judo, or any of the other martial arts that arrived in its spheres from Japan; nor even the kihon (basics), kata (forms), or waza (techniques) that budding karateka or judoka might learn in the dojo where they are practised. For all the naitokurabu (nightclubs) and hanbāgā (hamburgers), you are bound to get a bit of karaoke and sushi in return.


No doubt aided by the relatively recent nature of its popularisation, bastardised Anglicisms are notoriously abundant within Japanese sakkā (soccer – I shall resist the urge for an Anglo-American debate by acknowledging that futtobōru can be a blanket term for a number of codes, including ragubii etc). A game in the riigu (league) or kappu (cup) begins with the kikkuofu (kick-off), after which a middofirudā (midfielder) might attempt a surū pasu (through pass) or an ārii kurosu (early cross) to a fowādo (forward) in the penarutii eria (penalty area). Supposing the intended recipient has not strayed ofusaido (offside), there are then three possible outcomes: either this tiimumēto (teammate) will shūto (shoot), a difendā (defender) will burokku (block) and concede a kōnā kikku (corner kick), or the opponents will kuriā (clear) and perhaps try and mount a kauntā atakku (counter attack) of their own. Failure to achieve the right result, of course, runs the risk of being subjected to būingu (booing) from your own sapōtā (supporters).


Although you do get the odd exception creeping in from a third language – ‘defensive midfielder’, for example, is boranchi after the Portuguese volante, while J. League fans inspired by Serie A might sing forza ragazzi or facci un gol – this probably all serves to underline the ‘universal language’ claims both of English and of football itself. Things can, however, get a little confused when you throw in wasei-eigo, which are essentially pseudo-Anglicisms invented by – and/or for the dubious benefit of – Japanese who don’t really speak English. Heddingu (heading) is all well and good in the present participle, but feels a little strange when used without any morphological alteration to mean ‘header’, and is derived into the even more cumbersome heddingu shūto when the striker tries to divert the ball into the net off his noggin. An attempt on goal from just outside the eria is called a middoru shūto (‘middle shoot’), which I can’t decide if it’s actually quite handy or just plain wrong, while a defender’s illegal use of an arm to burokku would just be a hando (‘hand’), with no mention of the poor ball whatsoever.


Meanwhile, the amount of borrowings used within management speak, both in business and in sporting circles, suggests that virtually any loan word can become a buzzword with the right suit and tie, and this makes you wonder where it’ll all eventually stop. Perhaps we should be thankful that football and language in general haven’t quite reached the level of tennis just yet, but then again, I suppose corruption wouldn’t be corruption without the odd little perk for some. It would certainly save me a lot of time each week if, instead of painstakingly translating these articles for the Japanese version of my column, I could simply produce a Japaniizu bājon obu mai koramu instead.

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