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March 2010

73 days to kick-off

30 Mar 2010(Tue)

Among the issues to repeatedly arise in the interview about South Africa with the British researcher Marc Fletcher that appeared in this column last year was a conflicting duality of local and global perspectives and interests. Now, with just 73 days to go until the opening game between the host nation and Mexico kicks off on 11 June, this same conflict is being drawn into harsher focus as reports circulate the world about the prospect of empty seats at the majority of World Cup matches this summer. According to the Daily Mirror and a number of other online sources, some 650,000 match tickets of the 2.95 million put on sale in total are still yet to be snapped up.

 

Having attracted much criticism domestically for their decision to prioritise income from overseas visitors over a larger allocation to South African residents, the organisers will be particularly disturbed by the suggestion that over half of the unsold tickets – around 330,000 – have been returned from among the 570,000 originally distributed to the 31 other competing nations. Airlines and tour operators the world over had predictably hoped to cash in during the months of June and July as well, but limited flight availability and extortionate prices are being cited amongst the key factors behind the refusal of many international fans to travel. Six South African airlines have been investigated for allegedly colluding to hike their fares on domestic routes. One can only hope that a sensible conclusion will be reached to allow all available tickets to be purchased locally at fair prices, thus bringing a silver lining to this issue and enabling everyone to get on with looking forward to the show.

 

Meanwhile, not even the minutiae of making travel plans in this supposedly evermore globalising world are immune to the quirks of different national habits. A perusal of the main Japanese travel agents’ websites last week brought up some very attractive fares for flights to Johannesburg – I think the cheapest was 70,000 yen (about £500 today) – until I realised that you actually have to click through about three screens until they tell you what’s actually still available. The ‘limited flight availability and extortionate price’ rumours alluded to above were then promptly confirmed by the literally dozens of times I saw the word ‘FULL’ displayed in red that same evening. In terms of what did have a ‘Purchase’ icon next to it, the best that one site could offer was a whopping 320,000 yen (about £2,300), and while I did manage to bring the figure down to around 250,000 yen (£1,800) elsewhere, this quote was still a fair way out of my price range.

 

I eventually got lucky with a UK-based travel agent, taking advantage of an exchange rate of 138 yen to the pound that means the latter is worth only two-thirds of what it would be were everything right with the world, and of the fact I would be paying with a Japanese credit card. At least, that was the plan. The payment screen kindly reminded me to ensure my billing information was spelled 100% correctly lest my card be rejected, but while there was space on the page for three lines before the postcode, my address here in Osaka contains five. What’s more, the character limits on the boxes that were there meant I couldn’t just combine two lines into one, and attempting to enter my details in Japanese script was simply a non-starter. After several failed attempts at payment, I blew the dust off my old British debit card and tried to use that, but a recently-introduced ‘Verified by Visa’ system requires prior registration and apparently you can’t do that online if you live overseas. Well that was that, then. I pushed away my mouse and just telephoned the travel agent instead. Things were so much simpler in the 1990s.

 

Anyway, this is all just a very convoluted way of saying that this column will be reporting from the World Cup in South Africa later in the year. Look out for special features and podcasts from Johannesburg at the beginning of July.

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I had wanted to write a fun article about the first Osaka derby in four years, but...

16 Mar 2010(Tue)

‘Oh! A foreigner!’

 

I inadvertently startled a fellow supporter just over a week ago, on the opening day of the season. Personally, I’ve never considered my face or physical appearance in general to be all that scary, but either way, this woman – who looked to be in her late thirties or early forties – was clearly not used to my white skin and Anglo-Saxon features. Such awkward moments can be a little frustrating in this age of communications and globalisation, but then again, the racial palette of Japan’s population remains highly homogenous and, when put in this context, perhaps her reaction was understandable. It is only human to fear the unfamiliar.

 

A few days later, as the city of Osaka began gearing up for its first derby match since September 2006, the board of Gamba Osaka decided to show their human side as well. Sadly, however, the alien concepts that they appear unable to comprehend are irony and – most crucially – the sociology and culture of the sport in which their club is involved. Below is a translated excerpt from a news release posted on the Gamba website on 9 March.

 

 

[Warning] Derogatory banners and supporters’ chants

Shortly before kick-off in the match against Nagoya Grampus at Banpaku on 6 March (Saturday), a derogatory banner towards the opposing team was displayed near the centre of the ‘A – Home’ stand. In addition, derogatory chants towards a certain other team have also been performed in the Gamba supporters’ sections at matches so far this season.

Gamba Osaka hereby announces that it will impose severe sanctions, namely immediate expulsions and life bans, on any persons or groups deemed to have acted in an improper fashion within the Gamba Osaka supporter areas.

 

Such actions may include – but are not limited to – the performance of chants or the display of banners that include derogatory, defamatory, juvenile, or otherwise insulting language. Any other actions deemed improper by the club shall be subject to similar sanctions.

 

We are well aware of the excitement felt by our supporters ahead of the first ‘Osaka derby’ in four years. However, we do not consider any insulting behaviour towards opposing clubs and players to be beneficial to either Gamba Osaka or its players, nor do we believe it to add to the value of the ‘Osaka derby’.

 

Such shameful behaviour in Gamba Osaka supporter areas and the appearance of banners so shocking as to make one cover one’s eyes has, before now, served as nothing but a true embarrassment to all the players, staff, and other fans and supporters associated with Gamba Osaka.

 

 

The eye-coveringly shocking banner to which this news release refers was directed at Marcus Tulio Tanaka, whose popularity in northern Osaka has never been especially high since a couple of altercations with Gamba players during his six-year spell at fierce rivals Urawa Reds. Its simple message – ‘TULIO RECALL’, with a Toyota logo painted in the middle – was a nod to how a breakdown in contract negotiations had seen the Japanese international defender released by Urawa to join a team sponsored by the Toyota Motor Corporation, which has of course had to recall several million vehicles due to a series of faults in recent months. Fine, this was never exactly meant to be welcoming, but in a city with the comedy traditions of Osaka, it is baffling that anyone would fail to understand the topical irony.

 

Meanwhile, the chant alluded to above was one that has been sung by Gamba fans without complaint at all previous matches against Cerezo Osaka for at least a decade. Its lyrics, and a rough English translation, are as follows:

 

La la-la-la...

Pinku-iro no buta-yarō ga nirande-ru!

Iwashite mae!

Cerezo merda!

 

La la-la-la...

The stupid pink pigs are looking at us!

Let’s make ‘em pay!

Cerezo are shit!

 

Again, it is hard to argue that the implications here are overly friendly, but the song is clearly still no more serious or sinister than any of the other football chants that poke fun at local rivals in every other stadium in the world. Songs that are genuinely slanderous, insensitive to deaths or other tragedies, or inciting to actual violence should indeed be condemned, but nobody ever feels the need to telephone the police or the fire brigade whenever Manchester United fans sing of putting ‘the Scousers on the top and the City in the middle’ of a big bonfire every Guy Fawkes Night.

 

Conservative critics in Japan may point to ‘untranslatable’ cultural differences, but while this country seeks to import the culture of this global game it is inevitable that the celebrated tradition of derby banter will arrive in some form as well. I must admit my own shock, when arriving from England in 2003, at the sheer ‘un-Japaneseness’ I found in the sight of Gamba fans enjoying the same social opiate in football as so many millions do throughout Europe, Latin America, and Africa. Whether the club’s board would accept it or not, the passion, humour, and emotion shown by these central supporters have attracted not only foreigners like me, but also large numbers of locals to keep coming back and paying their admission fees as well.

 

The hardest part of Gamba’s announcement to excuse is its timing. Whatever the board’s understanding of football in general, they would surely have anticipated the negative reaction of the supporters who generate the atmosphere in the stands, as well as the fact that such dissent would not have died down in just five days. As it was, the fans’ excitement at the derby was tarnished with a tension that meant that patience at events on the pitch was in short supply. The sense of occasion was diluted and the players bore the grunt of this frustration when they failed to deliver the victory that was demanded. Further protests will surely follow. In short, the ‘warning’ on the Gamba website was far more provocative than anything ever chanted on the terraces of Banpaku.

 

Perhaps the greatest success of the J. League to date has been its recognition of the need for its clubs to become rooted in their communities and play a genuinely contributing role within local society. This is exemplified by the on- and off-the-field successes of popular, established clubs like Kashima Antlers and Urawa Reds. However, there remain some outfits that have evolved little from the offspring of corporate teams they started out as two decades ago. Supporters who do cross a line deserve to be sanctioned. But Gamba can never hope to develop if its board are unable to think outside of traditional Japanese business parameters, and panic at the sound of anything that isn’t the parent company song.

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Unpredictable? J1 in 2010

5 Mar 2010(Fri)

History has shown that it is a fool’s game to try and forecast the outcome of a league that routinely maintains half a dozen or more title challengers until the very last weeks of the season, but then again, that’s never stopped anybody before. With four Japanese representatives in the ACL again, an interesting set of new arrivals from J2, and a two-month break in mid-season for the World Cup, the 2010 J1 season is if anything looking more unpredictable than ever.

 

A poll of 34 pundits for a Japanese football magazine had Kashima Antlers coming out on top again, and as I discovered last year, it is never safe to back against the club that has now won three league titles in a row. That said, there is a sense that the current side may be coming to the end of an era. The honours were secured last year thanks largely to an explosive first half of the season before the team’s weaknesses were brutally exposed in a run of five straight league defeats in autumn. There have been few changes in close season, and with several of the first eleven now past their 30th birthdays, a first ever AFC Champions League (ACL) title would probably be the larger carrot if they were forced to prioritise.

 

Their opponents in last weekend’s Fuji Xerox Super Cup, Gamba Osaka, have set an identical goal of a domestic and continental double, but unfortunately for them, this is not where the similarities with Kashima end. Last season was certainly a story of two halves – sublime in Asia but terrible at home until summer, before a valiant return to J. League title race contention following their ACL elimination in the last 16. The aging midfield responded superbly to the criticism they received midway through the year, but while there are still young players coming through, it is hard to see a reason that Gamba should cope with an assault on two fronts any better than they did last term. A pre-season injury crisis and the resultant lack of opportunity for Akira Nishino to try out his new strikers hardly help matters.

 

So, who else? My tips for the top twelve months ago, Nagoya Grampus, ultimately ended up proving better than anybody how hard it can be to combine domestic and Asian competition, sinking down to ninth in J1 as their first ACL campaign saw them reach the semi-finals. Dragan Stojković’s side will, however, undoubtedly benefit from this experience and – crucially – the fact that they are now free to concentrate on J. League matters in 2010. Young defender Maya Yoshida may have departed for VVV Venlo of Holland, but the signings of Japanese internationals Marcus Tulio Tanaka (from Urawa Reds) and Mu Kanazaki (from relegated Oita Trinita) both represent real coups. Previously goal-shy Australian forward Joshua Kennedy proved a shrewd acquisition last summer as a replacement for the Qatar-bound Davi, and his goals could help Grampus make a real push at the title this year.

 

I can’t shake the feeling, however, that 2010 just has to be the year that Kawasaki Frontale finally banish their trophy jinx. Going so near and yet so far in four different competitions last season (and playing 52 games along the way – more than any other J1 side bar Nagoya) was a sickener, but the players will have grown from their experience and should be doubly determined never to taste such heartbreak again. Well-travelled Japan midfielder Junichi Inamoto looks an intelligent addition to an already strong and well-balanced squad, and while losing manager Takashi Sekizuka was a blow, his successor, Tsutomu Takahashi, has been with the club for many years and led them to second place in J1 as caretaker boss in 2008. Even a ‘group of death’ draw and an opening day defeat in the ACL could serve as a blessing in disguise – making it through would be a boost to confidence, while early elimination only frees them up to focus on the league.

 

As for the best of the rest, Shimizu S-Pulse could have won the title last year but for a late collapse, and the arrival of former Feyenoord and VfL Bochum midfielder Shinji Ono will help their push for an ACL spot at least. Hot on their heels will be FC Tokyo, who could be in genuine contention for the first time if their young strikers Sota Hirayama and Ricardinho can find form. Sanfrecce Hiroshima possibly overachieved in finishing an excellent fourth on their return to the top flight last year, and even the club itself does not appear to be anticipating a repeat in light of the added challenge of the ACL and the departure of midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi to Urawa Reds – who, meanwhile, still have many unresolved issues despite a number of new arrivals.

 

Vegalta Sendai and Cerezo Osaka were both highly impressive in J2 last term, and neither ought to be heading straight back down to whence they came as long as their winter signings help them off to a good start (Cerezo in particular have fed well from the corpse of Oita Trinita, but will want to get points quickly in case star man Shinji Kagawa leaves for Europe after the World Cup). Shonan Bellmare, however, still have a squad that looks better suited to the second division and are thus favourites for the drop.

 

One also fears for Montedio Yamagata’s second season in J1, after they started so well last year but ended up needing to win a couple of six-pointers late on to survive, having seemingly being found out come summer. The final relegation place is probably the hardest to decide – I’ve gone for Kyoto Sanga, but Vissel Kobe should watch their backs too as neither of these two Kansai rivals inspire a great deal of confidence ahead of the new campaign. Omiya Ardija are a popular relegation choice for many, but their transfer activity looks positive (not least the arrival of former Oita defender Yuki Fukaya) and they are well used to defying the critics by now.

 

2010 J1 table prediction

1. Kawasaki Frontale

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2. Nagoya Grampus

3. Kashima Antlers

4. Shimizu S-Pulse

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5. Gamba Osaka

6. FC Tokyo

7. Urawa Reds

8. Yokohama F Marinos

9. Sanfrecce Hiroshima

10. Jubilo Iwata

11. Albirex Niigata

12. Cerezo Osaka

13. Vegalta Sendai

14. Omiya Ardija

15. Vissel Kobe

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16. Kyoto Sanga

17. Montedio Yamagata

18. Shonan Bellmare

 

(Click here to see how the predictions I made in March 2009 matched up – or didn’t, as the case may be – with last year’s final standings.)

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Unpredictable? How my J1 forecasts fared last year

4 Mar 2010(Thu)

In the interests of fairness and transparency, it’s only right that my 2009 predictions be exposed for what they were. Below are the final J1 standings for last season, together with where I had expected each team to finish in March:

 

1. Kashima Antlers (my prediction: 4th)

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2. Kawasaki Frontale (2nd)

3. Gamba Osaka (3rd)

4. Sanfrecce Hiroshima (13th)

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5. FC Tokyo (7th)

6. Urawa Reds (5th)

7. Shimizu S-Pulse (9th)

8. Albirex Niigata (15th)

9. Nagoya Grampus (1st – champions)

10. Yokohama F Marinos (11th)

11. Jubilo Iwata (17th – relegated)

12. Kyoto Sanga (16th – relegated)

13. Omiya Ardija (14th)

14. Vissel Kobe (8th)

15. Montedio Yamagata (18th – relegated)

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16. Kashiwa Reysol (12th)

17. Oita Trinita (6th)

18. JEF United Chiba (10th)

 

(Well, as I keep saying, the J. League is simply unpredictable. Click here to see my best efforts for the 2010 J1 table.)

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