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November 2010

Second impressions

30 Nov 2010(Tue)

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.

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Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma provide J. League with food for thought

18 Nov 2010(Thu)

“I admit I was quite arrogant and condescending as a player. But now as a coach I’m champion of Asia, so I must be pretty great after all.”

 

Shin Tae-Yong, head coach of new Asian champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, was in understandably good humour during the post-match press conferences on Saturday after witnessing his charges beat Iranian outfit Zobahan 3-1 in the final of the AFC Champions League (ACL) in Tokyo. The ‘Pretty Great One’ – an Eastern rival, perhaps, to Jose Mourinho’s ‘Special One’ – was however unable to shed any light as to why the J. League clubs have fallen behind of late; instead preferring to extol the virtues of a South Korean K-League that has now produced the last two ACL winners, as well as all four East Asian representatives in this year’s quarter-finals.

 

It was, of course, perfectly justifiable that the Seongnam head coach should wish to reemphasise what was both a personal and a national success. Zobahan had entered the final as the immovable object, a newfound reputation earned on the back of seven clean sheets in 11 matches (which saw them account for 2009 champions Pohang Steelers, as well as Saudi giants Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal), but the Koreans were a picture of mental and tactical composure.

 

Seongnam’s defensive line was marshalled expertly by the captain, Sasa Ognenovski, whose opening goal on 29 minutes appeared to irreversibly confuse the Iranians’ entire game plan. Attacks were developed through the midfield with lightning speed, keeping the ball low and combining sharper brains in the centre with superior runners on the flanks. Above all, the movement of the front three – effortlessly swapping positions as Colombian star man Mauricio Molina broke forward in support of nominal strikers Cho Dong-Geon and Song Ho-Young – demonstrated a rhythmic and penetrative quality to put most of what we normally witness on Japanese football pitches to shame.

 

Indeed, the only slight surprise and disappointment was that the unremarkable nature of all three goals failed to reflect the panache of the build-up play. Corner kicks accounted for the first two, with Ognenovski’s scrambled opener followed by a close-range header from central defensive partner Cho Byung-Kuk. A massively fortuitous deflection then left midfielder Kim Cheol-Ho with an open net to seal the deal late in the second half, after Zobahan had suddenly resurrected hope against the run of play through Mohammadreza Khalatbari.

 

The highlight reels will, however, matter little to Seongnam or to man-of-the-match Ognenovski, whose own contribution was made all the sweeter by the bitter experience of a 5-0 aggregate defeat in the 2008 final during his time at Adelaide United. Then, as now, the more defensively-minded underdogs had never quite coped with falling behind, for as the Australian again reiterated to journalists on Saturday, “Gamba Osaka were a really great side”. His use of the past tense was surely a mere grammatical necessity, but the contrast with the present resonated ruefully for those of a Japanese inclination.

 

The back-to-back triumphs for Urawa Reds and Gamba in 2007 and 2008 almost feel like a bygone age, but why was glory so fleeting for the J. League representatives? Keisuke Honda hit upon an uncomfortable truth back in spring when he tacitly accused some of his international teammates of aiming no higher than being the best in Japan, but similar charges could equally be levelled at their employers. The carrot of the FIFA Club World Cup undoubtedly raised the profile of the ACL enormously – especially while the former was hosted in Japan – but the clubs that gave the continental challenge a real shot quickly found that doing so interfered with domestic success.

 

Urawa famously blew a ten-point lead over the final five games of the league season as the exertions of Sepahan took their toll, while an eighth-place finish in 2008 remains the only time that Gamba have fallen out of the J1 top three in the last seven seasons. The relative neglect with which fans and the media have since begun to treat the ACL again restores that convenient opportunity for clubs to sweep Asian defeats under the table.

 

This horribly insular, and worryingly inherent tendency is still not enough to justify having no teams make it past the round of 16, but may yet point to another underlying issue. Right now, there is little economic grounding to support the old, arrogant assumption that Japanese domestic football must be better, and that its leading clubs could always beat their K-League counterparts if they really had to. The J. League might talk up the largely one-way influx of Korean players it has attracted since the introduction of a ‘fourth foreigner rule’ reserved exclusively for Asians, but this could just as easily suggest that the K-League has been a more successful breeding ground for talent.

 

Seongnam brushed aside both Gamba and Kawasaki Frontale en route to the final, and even a 3-0 defeat at Todoroki came with the caveat of top spot in the group having already been secured with two games to spare. In the various other, more evenly-matched encounters in this year’s competition, the Korean sides were often able to surprise their Japanese opponents with sufficient tactical nous to win through when it mattered most. With much of the J. League only just escaping from an era where ‘tactics’ meant choosing between a back four and a back three, this shouldn’t really come as any great shock, but given that South Korea is Japan’s closest and most direct footballing rival, it is rather incongruous that the K-League receives next to no coverage on this side of the sea on whose name the two countries still cannot agree.

 

Heightened attention towards European leagues like Serie A and the Bundesliga may provide excellent encouragement to individual players, but serves as a poor barometer by which to judge this country’s teams. Learning more about the competition closer to home would benefit not only those with a direct influence over matters on the pitch, but supporters and neutral observers as well (incorporating K-League highlights into a mainstream TV programme like Yabecchi FC might be a little much to ask, but it shouldn’t be out of the question for J. League Time on NHK-BS1 or SkyPerfecTV’s J. League After Game Show). There is no reason why sessatakuma – a wonderful Japanese expression meaning ‘improve through friendly competition’ – should not be pursued within East Asia on an everyday club level.

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Out with the old – Part 2

10 Nov 2010(Wed)

An opinion piece on the always informative Go! Go! Omiya Ardija blog this Monday suggested that Gamba Osaka are too unlikeable to root for in the title race, in part because “Their fans are hyperbolic in their exploits, going waaay (sic) over the top in not only celebrating good moments and condemning bad plays against them, but also being overly dismissive of good performances by opponents”. Having conducted a certain amount of research into the attitudes of the Banpaku public myself, I would refute the accusation of arrogance as a general rule, and perhaps any perceived hyperbole could be excused as compensating for a ‘stadium’ that is far from imposing. That said, a particular dichotomy has doubtlessly emerged in the stands at Gamba over the past five years.

 

Any club enjoying a sustained era of trophy success will inevitably attract a number of Johnny-come-latelies, to which a broadly unattractive ‘big club’ mentality will sadly often be inherent. Gamba is no exception, but by contrast, the fans that were there before the 2005 title-winning campaign – let us not forget that the (then) 23,000-capacity Banpaku was seldom even half-full until the mid-2000s – have retained decidedly more of a ‘small club’ mindset. Referees will always be against ‘us’, the media remain unashamedly biased towards the Kanto region (this might actually be true), while the most Gamba-like thing the team could ever do for its most loyal supporters in any given match or season is to let them down.

 

Most telling, however, is the manner in which these supporters’ expectations have manifested themselves throughout this time. There is a genuine fear, or even sense of resignation, that the club have not done enough to capitalise on their achievements such that they might truly become one of the big boys. This refers not only to delays with the new stadium and in establishing proper social roots that might draw in more than just fair-weather fans – both well covered on these pages – but also in terms of the playing personnel.

 

Akira Nishino has overseen all six of the major trophies in the Gamba cabinet and deservedly won many plaudits for his faith in youth, but nonetheless remains astonishingly unpopular with large sections of the Banpaku support who question his transfer activity, alleged tactical naïveté, and regular failure to make effective use of substitutions. As such, they assert that success has occurred largely in spite of Nishino, rather than because of him, thanks to a golden generation of midfield talent that he happened to luck upon. Silverware should, therefore, have been more forthcoming – especially in the league, where Gamba have never once reached (dare I say) Kashima-like consistency despite that 2005 crown. Where there might have been a sustained dynasty now exists growing concern over what happens next, when the current era ends.

 

At least the critics on the terraces probably won’t have to wait too long to find out. After losing 3-1 at runaway J1 leaders Nagoya Grampus in late August, Gamba wrestled themselves back into contention for this year’s championship with six wins from their next seven, only to then drop five points to relegation-threatened Vissel Kobe and FC Tokyo in their two most recent fixtures. Few in Osaka were overly shocked, however, for the run of victories had been borne rather from reserves of experience than out of actually playing well.

 

Winning goals at Albirex Niigata and Kawasaki Frontale arrived, respectively, in the final minute and from a long-range deflected effort. The 3-2 derby win came only after Cerezo had somehow been allowed to fight back level from two goals and a man down. Even the 5-1 thrashing of Omiya (and I say this not only for the benefit of those associated with Go! Go! Omiya Ardija) was pure good fortune on Gamba’s part alone – the visitors looked the better side at 1-1 even after the red card for Mato Neretljak, and it took a superb solo effort from Takashi Usami to settle nerves both on the Banpaku pitch and in the stands. The toils then endured in winning by the odd goal at Kyoto Sanga (they of the 16 points from 29 games) last month were the precursor to an even more embarrassing performance and result against Vissel.

 

A virtual constant throughout this spell has been Gamba’s reliance on the nous of that famed midfield triumvirate – Yasuhito Endo, Takahiro Futagawa, and Hideo Hashimoto – each of whom are into their thirties and whose collective experience in the Gamba first XI totals 34 seasons. While it may have been premature to question their desire last year, and Endo’s performances with the national team and prowess at set pieces suggest he will be around for a while yet, it is surely at least unrealistic to expect the trio to serve as the main source of drive and inspiration much longer. Throw in the 32-year-old Tomokazu Myojin, recently recovered from an ankle injury, and fast forward a couple of years, and you get a situation akin to Sir Alex Ferguson nursing not only Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes through the autumn of their careers, but Nicky Butt and David Beckham as well.

 

Privately, senior boardroom figures at Banpaku have shared similar views on the urgency of a generational transition. The emergence of Usami and Shoki Hirai has helped out in attack, but Nishino’s ability to confound his critics with intelligent defensive and midfield acquisitions over the next few transfer windows will ultimately be what determines his legacy.

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Out with the old – Part 1

2 Nov 2010(Tue)

When the club management at Gamba Osaka met with influential supporters’ representatives last week, the main topic of conversation was the progress of plans being made for a new home ground and, in particular, the shape of the stand from which the latter party will be singing their songs. The stadium design currently favoured by the club, drawn up by Takenaka Corporation, features a ‘VIP layer’ of executive boxes sandwiched between two tiers of seating. Supporters’ groups, however, are pushing for the home end to be remodelled into an 8,000-capacity, single-tier structure that would stand as an iconic wall of blue to inspire Gamba players and fans alike, while also intimidating visiting opponents as a convenient side effect.

 

The arguments both for and against the existing design lie in its uniformity. Architects and club directors praise the clean symmetry of four virtually identical stands, but while the artist’s impressions are admittedly pleasing on the eye, new stadiums built with a similar ethos throughout Europe in the past decade and a half have often been criticised as contributory factors to an overall decline in atmosphere. Those that have survived the changing times and developed more organically are, as a general rule, all the more beloved of their tenants’ supporters despite – or perhaps largely because of – the quite distinct characters to the structures extending up from each respective edge of the playing surface.

 

Undeniably the most famous individual stand in the United Kingdom is the Spion Kop at Anfield. While recently deposed owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett did little to warrant even the slightest acclaim during their tumultuous reign at Liverpool, the plans released under their watch for a new facility in Stanley Park (which to this date remains peacefully green and free of diggers) did at least retain a distinctive, single-tiered bank behind the home goal. Japanese newcomers to coverage of the Bundesliga, meanwhile, cannot fail to have been wowed by die Südtribüne at the Westfalenstadion, from which an astonishing 25,000 of the most vocal Borussia Dortmund fans can roar on Shinji Kagawa and company. By unfortunate contrast, the expansion of Old Trafford has concentrated most of those who wish to sing Manchester United songs (and are still willing to pay Glazer prices) into just one of the Stretford End’s two tiers.

 

‘Call leaders’ at Gamba are insistent that imitating the ‘kop’ style is the only way of maximizing the value that the supporter experience can gain from, and give to, the club. A glance both at the examples above and the circumstances particular to Japan and the Kansai region suggests their logic is sound. At a club that has traditionally struggled to draw supporters – especially before on-the-pitch success finally arrived five years ago – to a Banpaku stadium with perhaps the worst excuse for acoustics in J1, the central supporters’ groups have at least managed to keep 2,000 people coming back to the so-called Curva Nord every fortnight with their passionate singing and idiosyncratic Osakan humour. Their hope now is that a single tier four times as large would allow their effect to be magnified exponentially, not only in terms of reverberating volume but also synergistically – with more to enjoy, greater freedom for those attracted by the enjoyment to show others what the fuss is about, and thus significantly heightened chances that Gamba and their new home might finally become symbols of which local residents could be properly proud.

 

For a club that has been rightly chastised in the past for ignoring its followers, it is refreshing to see that Gamba has lent an ear to supporter opinion on this matter, but the niggling fear is that chairman Kikuo Kanamori will merely prove to be the talker of the talk that Hicks and Gillett once were at Anfield. The movement for a new stadium first became public more than two years ago, and despite Kanamori’s announcement of an ambitious funding structure (the project will rely largely on public and private donations, which will be exempt from taxation on the proviso that the completed facility is then wholly donated back to the control and possession of local government authorities) before the home match with Shimizu S-Pulse in July 2009, the club is still yet to secure a suitable site for construction. Without this, Gamba cannot legally even begin to collect the funds that will enable them to break ground. Suita was removed from the list of candidate venues for Japan’s 2022 World Cup bid back in March, and whatever happens now, the dream of a new stadium is set to remain purely that for many years yet.

 

 

* Further details on the Gamba Osaka stadium project can be found (in Japanese only) at http://www.field-of-smile.jp/. One can only hope that this URL is not indicative of any official name for the eventual arena. Not only does the sheer grammatical awkwardness bring me back to my rant of a few weeks ago about how 350 million native speakers of English are routinely ignored in this country, but ‘Field of Smile’ just sounds like an agriculturally-themed play centre for underprivileged children.

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