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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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I'm waiting for my article to be published by a football site, and it contains one or two laid out here. The same instability affects K-League: Seongnam ends the regular season in 6th position, Pohang at ninth. Seems consistency to be at the top three is still a hard things to do Asia, Australia included.

As with J. League limited ambition, I'm worried that like many other things, the Japanese do not want to take the obvious cure. A Goal.com article is angry that reviews such as Yabecchi FC avoids discussing refereeing controversies, let alone criticizing the J. League.

That is to say, in my knowledge, it's almost unthinkable for the Japanese to say "We have to learn this thing from the Koreans" (you and other readers might know better). Like the EPL, J. League is more interesting and glamorous than the K-League (is comparing it with the La Liga fair enough?), but just look at the Asian Games - my Korea can kick your Japan's butt anytime.

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Posted by: rachat credit | 12/17/2010 at 03:55 PM

@ Mario

Belated comment but you forget that two huge deciding differences are that the K League doesn't have a relegation system and that they have a "playoff system" to decide the league champion. Both of these factors mean there is less pressure to do well and maintain a high standard in the league whilst pursuing Asian glory. Should you be near the bottom you can pretty much give up the league without fear of being relegated. Whilst if you yourself with a chance at the league title you only need to finish within the playoff spots as opposed to finishing heads and shoulders on the top of the table.

As for bring up the Asian Games since we are talking about FOOTBALL both the men's and women's teams took gold.

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