They say you should never meet your heroes, for you are only likely to be disappointed. Of the stars I idolised during childhood, Les Sealey succumbed to a heart attack in 2001 at the tragically young age of 43, while I am neither a journalist of sufficient statue nor in the right geographical location to have yet been afforded an encounter with Peter Schmeichel or Nigel Mansell. But if the logic behind the old maxim is sound, then theoretically it should work in reverse as well.
Last Thursday, at a function in honour of Hiroshi Kagawa’s induction to the Japan Football Hall of Fame, I had what turned out to be the utter pleasure of chatting at length with Kikuo Kanamori, the president of J. League club Gamba Osaka. The most direct of my prior dealings with the Gamba board had occurred back in 2005, two and a half years before Kanamori was named as successor to Izumi Sano, when I was invited to present the results of an investigation into the club’s standing within local society conducted for my undergraduate dissertation back in Oxford. Then, the supporters’ representatives I had interviewed warned me that a ‘native’ understanding of football would find few kindred spirits in a room of directors that had essentially been shifted sideways from the parent company. Sadly, they were right; my timing could not have been worse. Gamba were suddenly title challengers and the once-empty stands were full. I was dismissed for suggesting that this newfound success had merely masked, not solved, the underlying problems.
To call Kanamori an anti-hero would perhaps be an exaggeration, but though the club has made progress off the field since his appointment, the president’s public persona has undoubtedly made him a difficult bedfellow for regulars behind the goal. Gamba’s hardline stance on what supporters may and may not sing – slurs such as ‘recall’ and ‘pig’ are now very much taboo – is considered grossly oversensitive. Ironic too, given that Kanamori’s decision in July 2009 to tell protesting fans to “shut up” sadly undermined any sense he went on to talk afterwards. Meanwhile, the elephant in the room as far as social developments are concerned is always the new stadium, and while everyone agrees on this idea in principle, an idea is all it remains more than two years after plans were originally announced.
It came as a slight surprise, then, to witness the enthusiasm with which Kanamori asked me about the research I had undertaken before his arrival. A wry smile was offered as he pre-empted my recollection of the then-directors’ reactions, before making the astute – but, considering his position, nonetheless remarkable – admission that Gamba remain a “second-class club”. There had been, he confirmed, a distinct feeling in the boardroom that the J1 title in 2005 and a Nabisco Cup win two years later meant that the blue half of Osaka had arrived as one of the big boys. “One of my first tasks as president was to try and beat this mentality out of those who’d been there from before. Even winning the Asian Champions League in 2008 did not automatically make us first-class. In terms of social integration, we are not at the level of Urawa, Kashima, or Niigata.”
This latter premise was painfully illustrated on the public holiday last Tuesday, when only 11,347 people – barely a fraction more than would have attended a similar fixture six or seven years ago – deigned to turn out for the afternoon kick-off with Shonan Bellmare. Although several thousand down on this season’s average, the figure is significant as this was the first home fixture since Gamba’s mathematical title hopes had been erased, and therefore supports any ‘fair-weather’ hypothesis about the nature of the new fans filling seats since 2005. Kanamori’s reaction betrayed a noticeable sadness at an attendance that fell well below the club’s expectations. “I was shocked,” he sighed. “We have a lot still to analyse regarding our position in the hometown.”
‘Analysis’ is a wonderfully vague term used by businessmen, researchers, and journalists alike to cover all manner of efforts, but while the quintessentially Japanese corporate path that led this 61-year-old former Panasonic executive to the presidency of its affiliated football team only adds to the supporters’ suspicions, Kanamori certainly does show plenty of desire to learn. Unlike the millionaire owners of many a more celebrated European club who will push a manager long before he would ever sanely consider jumping, the Gamba supremo quickly cites the examples of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger as evidence that continuity under Akira Nishino remains the only option.
“When I called Nishino into my office the day after those fan protests against Shimizu, I think he thought I was going to sack him,” laughs Kanamori. “I told him not to worry – his job was never in question. The team was 19 points behind Kashima at the time, but immediately went on a run of wins and so nearly caught them.” Quite how related the two events actually were is difficult to ascertain, but the president’s assertion that any football club – and thus the education and initiative of its directors – must focus on the team and supporters above all else will at least be met with little disagreement. He readily confirms the need to rejuvenate the playing ranks, particularly in an aging midfield, over the coming close season, and promises to put his English skills to the test if I can dig out my old dissertation for him.
The footballing and social legacies of Kanamori’s reign must be determined by decisive action, not words, but it is highly comforting to hear him talk the talk with far greater eloquence and conviction than his public image had suggested him capable. I believe that I and other observers in northern Osaka may have been hasty in judging our president, and now hope for the opportunity to prove that Gamba were wrong to ignore my findings five years ago. Even if we still don’t agree, there does appear hope for club-supporter relations yet.