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March 2011

King Kazu sparkles as Japan remembers victims of Tohoku earthquake

30 Mar 2011(Wed)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

For 90 minutes, the people of Japan were invited to smile yesterday evening as the football community paid tribute to the victims of the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

 

In place of the previously scheduled friendly with New Zealand, the Japan national team played a high-profile charity match against a J. League ‘Team as One’ wearing the yellow and blue colours of the FIFA Fair Play logo – and, incidentally, of the stricken Vegalta Sendai club – in front of a sell-out crowd of over 40,000 people at the Nagai Stadium in Osaka.

 

First-half goals from Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Okazaki ultimately gave Japan a 2-1 win, but the result mattered little on an emotionally-charged occasion as fans of various clubs across the country mixed and sang together in the spirit of national unity.

 

Indeed, the undoubted highlight was a 30-minute cameo from legendary striker Kazuyoshi Miura – still active with J2 side Yokohama FC at the age of 44 – who crowned off the evening with a superbly taken consolation goal for Team as One.

 

Though remaining loyal to the largely youthful playing resources that achieved Asian Cup success in Qatar two months ago, Japan boss Alberto Zaccheroni used the occasion to test his famous 3-4-3 formation as an attacking alternative to the contemporary 4-2-3-1. Wing-backs Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida were given freedom to roam ahead of a defensive trio of Yasuyuki Konno, Maya Yoshida, and Masahiko Inoha. Ryoichi Maeda led the front line alongside Okazaki and Keisuke Honda.

 

The opposing eleven selected by Nagoya Grampus coach Dragan Stojković had an average age of just over 30 and consisted largely of players that had contributed to the national team under previous managers Zico and Takeshi Okada. Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka resumed their World Cup defensive partnership in front of J. League MVP Seigo Narazaki, with Shinji Ono in midfield and Yoshito Okubo supporting Hisato Sato in attack.

 

North Korean Ryang Yong-Gi of Vegalta Sendai was the sole non-Japanese player in the side, and joined Toru Araiba and Mitsuo Ogasawara of Kashima Antlers as representatives of clubs directly affected by the disaster.

 

An abundance of attacking wide players enabled the Samurai Blue to consistently find space on the flanks to thrill the audience with a series of fast-paced attacks from the outset. The opening goal arrived after just 13 minutes via a trademark Endo free-kick from 25 yards, after Honda had been felled by Kengo Nakamura, and was marked by the entire Japan squad gathering on the touchline to salute the skies.

 

CSKA Moscow star Honda was then frustrated on the counter attack twice in quick succession, before finding space to make it third time lucky with a through ball that bisected the Team as One defensive pair and rolled perfectly into the path of Okazaki. The Stuttgart forward banished the memory of his Bundesliga goal drought with a confident dinked finish past Narazaki.

 

Wholesale substitutions at half time predictably shifted the flow of the match, with both managers keeping their pledge to field every one of the combined 46 players available to them. The more experienced Team as One gradually came into the ascendancy, with Sendai midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi rolling a shot narrowly outside the left-hand post of Japan’s third goalkeeper, Masaaki Higashiguchi.

 

Finally, with ten minutes remaining, the moment that everyone in the crowd had been eagerly anticipating arrived when Tulio rose above Daiki Iwamasa to head the ball into the path of ‘King Kazu’. The J. League’s oldest ever player took the ball into his stride, fired a wonderfully composed finish beyond the advancing Higashiguchi, and delighted his public further with – as promised – a ‘Kazu dance’ in celebration.

 

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Miura was the undoubted centre of attention after the game, and offered the following words in support of those affected by the earthquake.

 

“Wherever I go, I am constantly reminded that I am 44, but I have never given up on anything in football and it is my hope that those people who have been through so much pain recently will never give up either. This is the message that I hope has been conveyed through tonight’s game.”

 

Zaccheroni paid tribute to the Team as One hero, claiming “Today is the first time in my career that I have ever been so happy to concede a goal.”

 

Opposite number Stojković said “This game was important for the people who have suffered a lot. It showed a really strong message that they are not alone – that we are all together at this very difficult moment.”

 

 

Donations to support relief efforts for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are still being accepted by the Red Cross and a number of other charities.

 

Japanese Red Cross Society: http://www.jrc.or.jp/

British Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org.uk/JapanTsunami

American Red Cross: http://american.redcross.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ntld_main&s_src=RSG000000000&s_subsrc=RCO_NewsArticle

Global Giving: http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/japan-earthquake-tsunami-relief/

UNICEF Japan: http://www.unicef.or.jp/

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3/11

16 Mar 2011(Wed)

There is, of course, little value in discussing football at times like these. Those of us in Osaka were fortunate enough to be quite sheltered from the unfathomable tragedy unfolding in northeast Japan as the waves, seismic then tidal, hit on Friday afternoon. Under the Japan Meteorological Agency scale, which measures the degree of shaking at given points, the magnitude 9.0 earthquake was down to a level 3 by the time it reached this part of the country. Ground acceleration of this intensity was still enough to cause a significant swaying sensation in my 13th floor apartment, though presents little real danger. The first reason for concern was that the swaying simply did not stop.

 

Earthquake news is reported almost instantly via on-screen text on all major Japanese television channels, but the immediate and more convenient medium of choice for many in 2011 is social networking services. After five minutes, Facebook and Twitter were wondering why we were all still moving. After ten, the severity of the situation was slightly clearer; televisions had been switched on, normal broadcasting was being set aside, and tweets from Tokyo and the surrounding area carried an air of panic. We, of course, were the blessed ones. After fifteen minutes, my apartment – some 400 miles from the now-reported epicentre east of Sendai – was still rolling gently from side to side, like a small boat over a calm sea. Once the oscillations finally stopped, we could all sit and wait, helplessly, as the full horrors emerged.

 

Images of the tsunami that took an untold number of lives (officials in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures have said the final death toll will ‘unquestionably’ reach five figures) and left around half a million homeless were relayed around the world in real time. Information, particularly of an official nature, was less forthcoming. On Friday evening, telecommunications were disrupted even in Osaka; anywhere beyond Shizuoka, virtually no mobile phone calls or text messages would reach their destination. For some reason, the mobile data networks provided the only reliable service for much of the country, making Twitter an invaluable source of information for those near the danger areas, stranded without public transport in Tokyo, and/or simply unable to follow and respond to developments by any other means.

 

Colm Smyth, an Irish blogger on Arsenal FC based in Yokohama, was among a number of tweeters to serve effectively as roving reporters throughout an immediate aftermath during which details in English (or, indeed, any language other than Japanese) were at a particular premium. With hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of commuters in the Greater Tokyo Area forced to spend several hours walking or otherwise improvising their journeys home, social media served as both commentary and guide. Of course, the tweets could not reach everyone; the Go! Go! Omiya Ardija blog offers an account from a teacher in Saitama Prefecture who finally arrived home at 6.30am on Saturday, unaware of the true consequences of the quake that had rattled his school 16 hours previously.

 

By now, the sun was rising over the east coast of Japan to cast light on the horrors left behind. More than three days later, one can still only speculate on the full extent of the tragedy, with entire towns in ruins and ever changing, often conflicting news of potential meltdowns at a nuclear power station in Fukushima Prefecture. Yet inspiration may, at least, be found in the deeply-rooted ability of the Japanese people to pull together in times of crisis. A long history of disaster and recovery is testament to such human quality; here in Kansai, where memories remain fresh of the Kobe earthquake in 1995, the desire to help in any little way possible is ubiquitously evident and heart-warming.

 

Football, and other sports that unite communities, will naturally step onto the back burner for the time being. The announcement from the J. League that last weekend’s matches would be postponed came within three hours of the earthquake, and was followed by a further postponement of all remaining domestic fixtures throughout the month of March. Uncertainty over the extent of damage sustained at facilities used by clubs close to the disaster area – particularly Vegalta Sendai, about which information has been scarce – may affect rescheduling arrangements. However, contrary to rumours stemming from South America yesterday, the JFA has said it currently still intends for the Japan national team to participate as guests in July’s Copa America in Argentina.

 

One matter still to be decided is whether or not this month’s international friendlies, against Montenegro in Shizuoka on 25 March and New Zealand in Tokyo four days later, will indeed take place. The association initially announced that the games would go ahead as planned before retracting this statement late on Monday evening; a final announcement is due later on Wednesday. There are many factors to be taken into consideration, but I would echo the hopeful sentiments expressed on Monday by Sergio Echigo, the Japanese-Brazilian former player and current leading football critic. Translated directly from his personal Twitter feed, Echigo opines the following:

 

If all we look at is footage of the tsunami or the nuclear plant, we will never find the power to recover. But surely we have all seen from last year’s World Cup and this year’s Asian Cup just how the Japan national team can touch the hearts of the people? How, then, might football actually be able to help people throughout Japan unite towards a recovery?

 

If there are issues with electricity, we could switch to daytime kickoffs. If there are still risks of aftershocks, we could switch the venues to Kansai. We must not miss this chance to empower hundreds of thousands or millions of people. This is a time where the Japan Football Association must show its ability to take action.

 

Finally, the two Osaka clubs have been forced into action this week with away trips to China in the AFC Champions League. Gamba Osaka were unfortunately beaten 2-1 by Tianjin Teda but enjoyed the backing of an entire nation – including large numbers of Cerezo Osaka fans employing social media to pledge their support. The blue side of the city will hopefully repay this generosity in kind when Cerezo take on Shandong Luneng on Wednesday evening.

 

 

Donations to support relief efforts for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are being accepted by the Red Cross and a number of other institutions.

 

Japanese Red Cross Society: http://www.jrc.or.jp/

British Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org.uk/JapanTsunami

American Red Cross:
http://american.redcross.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ntld_main&s_src=RSG000000000&s_subsrc=RCO_NewsArticle

Global Giving: http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/japan-earthquake-tsunami-relief/

UNICEF Japan: http://www.unicef.or.jp/

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Ready to go – Part 3: Predictions

5 Mar 2011(Sat)

With just hours to go now until the J. League season kicks off with, above all, an Osaka derby, it’s time to put my cards on the table. Despite an unconvincing start in the Asian Champions League, Nagoya Grampus and Kashima Antlers are surely the class of the field, and I have gone for Dragan Stojković’s men to just about clinch a second straight championship. Gamba Osaka cling onto third, mainly by virtue of the fact that no one member of the chasing pack look categorically stronger, but Cerezo drop to ninth – and possibly lower if Vegalta Sendai and Kashiwa Reysol hit the ground running – as their slim squad battles on multiple fronts. Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Urawa Reds to enjoy the most improvement, but J1 to be a tough challenge for both Avispa Fukuoka and Ventforet Kofu. Finally, Vissel Kobe will still struggle but the final relegation spot goes to Montedio Yamagata. Fans of the latter should be comforted by the fact that I nominated them for the drop in 2009 and 2010 as well.

 

 

2011 J1 table prediction

1. Nagoya Grampus

2. Kashima Antlers

3. Gamba Osaka

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4. Sanfrecce Hiroshima

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5. Urawa Reds

6. Kawasaki Frontale

7. Yokohama F. Marinos

8. Shimizu S-Pulse

9. Cerezo Osaka

10. Vegalta Sendai

11. Kashiwa Reysol

12. Albirex Niigata

13. Jubilo Iwata

14. Omiya Ardija

15. Vissel Kobe

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16. Ventforet Kofu

17. Montedio Yamagata

18. Avispa Fukuoka

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Ready to go – Part 2: From the other hopefuls to those just hoping to survive

4 Mar 2011(Fri)

Last week, this column looked at the prospects of the four J. League clubs – champions Nagoya Grampus, Gamba Osaka, Cerezo Osaka, and Kashima Antlers – whose competitive seasons began with varying fortunes this Tuesday and Wednesday in the AFC Champions League. But which members of the chasing pack, without the added pressure of away trips across Asia to contend with, are looking best placed to mount genuine title challenges of their own?

 

Predicting the clubs set to break through and those more likely to simply break down is a notoriously tricky endeavour in Japan. While Nagoya’s return to the championship race was little surprise after a lengthy run in the ACL saw them drop to ninth in 2009, few would have expected newly-promoted Cerezo to overcome the loss of Shinji Kagawa and finish as high as third in their first top flight campaign since relegation in 2006. Even more shocking was the fall from grace of FC Tokyo, who – in an eerie parallel to the Oita Trinita side of the previous season – dropped down to J2 just 12 months after their highly talented squad had finished fifth in the league and won the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup. An outflux of key players to Europe over the winter complicates the situation even further in 2011.

 

Fifth and sixth respectively last term, Kawasaki Frontale and Shimizu S-Pulse are perhaps clouded by the most uncertainty as both prepare for transitional campaigns under new managers and with significant changes in playing personnel. This column’s tip for the title a year ago, Kawasaki started well enough but lost Eiji Kawashima and Jong Tae-Se after the World Cup. Falling some 18 points off the Grampus pace saw Tsutomu Takahata replaced after a sole season in charge by former defender Naoki Soma, who would have led Machida Zelvia to promotion from the third-tier JFL last autumn had their ground met J. League standards.

 

The loss of Vitor Junior is a blow, but Frontale got the better end of a deal that saw Yusuke Tanaka and Koji Yamase arrive from Yokohama F. Marinos with Hiroyuki Taniguchi heading the other way. Three senior defenders have been replaced by a trio of rookies fresh out of education, but much still depends on the fitness of veteran forward Juninho – who scored 14 goals in 19 appearances during an injury-hit 2010.

 

If the changes have been sweeping at Todoroki, S-Pulse are practically starting again from a whole new blueprint. For two years in a row, the Nihondaira club have looked the real deal over the first half of the campaign only to collapse in the second, and Kenta Hasegawa’s reign as manager came to a sad end with defeat to Kashima in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day. Out the door with him go 13 players, including fully seven regular starters.

 

Having led Iran to the last eight of January’s Asian Cup, replacement boss Afshin Ghotbi will look to a pair of 31-year-olds, Shinji Ono and new arrival Naohiro Takahara, to resume the creative partnership that once well served the Japanese national team. Alex Brosque (Sydney FC) and Daigo Kobayashi (Iraklis) have been brought in to offer attacking alternatives following the inevitable departures of Shinji Okazaki and Jungo Fujimoto, but the team lacks options both in defensive midfield and at full back, and it may well be that the loss of Takuya Honda to Kashima proves most painful. For Shimizu, it is surely all about the long term.

 

Over the past few seasons, Albirex Niigata have consistently offered a pleasant surprise; the only thing that Urawa Reds have offered on a regular basis is disappointment. It was therefore perhaps logical that the supposed bigger club from Saitama sought to rebuild by pinching the two standout names in last year’s Albirex squad, Marcio Richardes and Mitsuru Nagata. Richardes in particular is a massive coup after 16 goals – including seven direct free kicks and an improbable PK-FK-CK hat-trick – from midfield last season, and should prove a good role model for another Brazilian newcomer, the pacey 21-year-old Mazola from São Paulo.

 

Now led by former Reds midfielder Željko Petrović, Urawa have potentially profited from the winter’s transfer activity more than any other J1 club, and even accounting for the losses of Hajime Hosogai and veteran playmaker Robson Ponte, can boast a strong blend of established talent and youthful promise. Tenth position last year was an accurate reflection of the team’s atrocious underperformance, and while they perhaps still rely a little too heavily on Edmilson for goals, surely another season of stagnation is unthinkable. As for Niigata, Daigo Nishi’s move to Kashima is another loss, but Hisashi Kurosaki will look to rebuild with the trusted template of youth development coupled with intelligent recruitment – midfielder Naoya Kikuchi looks a good buy from Oita Trinita.

 

Sanfrecce Hiroshima appear a strong bet for an improved league position this season after their first experience of continental football last term. The squad is virtually unchanged from that which has finished fourth and seventh in the two seasons since Sanfrecce were crowned J2 champions in 2008, save for the departure of Japan defender Tomoaki Makino to FC Köln. Now 25, Hiroki Mizumoto gets another chance to finally realise his potential as Makino’s replacement after suffering relegation with Kyoto Sanga. Yokohama F. Marinos, meanwhile, have brought in the ever-hungry Masashi Oguro as a partner for Kazuma Watanabe, while there can be no more excuses for new captain Shunsuke Nakamura as he seeks to lead his hometown club to greater things than the eighth place finish of 2010.

 

Of the three newly-promoted sides, Kashiwa Reysol look comfortably the best placed to make an impact upon their immediate return to the top flight. Brazilian manager Nelsinho Baptista brings experience and tactical sophistication to a side that won J2 by ten clear points – with the best attacking and defensive records in the division – and has been further strengthened by arrivals such as Akihiro Hyodo (Shimizu), An Yong-Hak (Omiya Ardija) and Jorge Wagner (São Paulo). By contrast, Avispa Fukuoka have unfortunately lost a couple of key players and though the Kyushu outfit shouldn’t struggle quite as much as Shonan Bellmare did last year, survival will be a real challenge. Ventforet Kofu have done well to equip themselves with several players offering J1 experience, but might suffer from the fact that none of the established top flight clubs can surely be as bad as the 2010 Kyoto ‘vintage’.

 

One also worries for Montedio Yamagata and Vissel Kobe. Shinji Kobayashi’s side made a lot of friends upon arriving in J1 in 2009 and did well to consolidate their top flight status with 13th place last year. The returns to Kashima of loanees Yuzo Tashiro and Chikashi Masuda, however, mean much will depend upon a return to form for Yu Hasegawa, as well of the instant impact of new signings like defender Hugo Alcântara from Romanian club CFR Cluj. Kobe did superbly to go unbeaten over the last seven games of 2010 and secure their survival with a 4-0 final day win in Urawa, but lest we forget that they only did so at the expense of two of the weakest teams and perhaps the biggest bottlers in J1 history. Ambition is one thing, but comments by the likes of Yoshito Okubo about breaking into the top four hint, yet again, at ideas well above their station. The squad looks barely stronger than last season’s, and Kobe’s players will do well to remember that their first priority is to survive.

 

Masahiro Wada’s men may even need to rely on one of the top ten doing an FC Tokyo or Oita Trinita. Jubilo Iwata are little changed from 2010, meaning continued over-reliance on Ryoichi Maeda, but then again the 29-year-old hitman does have every reason to be confident after finally enjoying international success to go with his unprecedented two consecutive J. League Golden Boots. 2009 J2 champions Vegalta Sendai, meanwhile, could catch a number of sides that finished above them last year unawares after a string of quality signings, including centre-back Cho Byung-Kuk from Asian champions Seongnan Ilhwa Chunma and veteran striker Marquinhos – he of the 80 goals and three league titles in four seasons with Kashima.

 

Finally, Omiya Ardija hold the dubious distinction of being the sole Kanto-based J1 regular not to enjoy excessive adulation from the supposed national Japanese press. Considering how frequently they have beaten media darlings Urawa in the Saitama derby – most recently by a 3-0 scoreline in their pre-season friendly on 20 February – you would think people should know better by now, but such underestimation ultimately only serves to benefit the Squirrels. Substantial growth may be unlikely, but additions like midfielder Kota Ueda (Jubilo Iwata) and promising defender Kim Yong-Gwon (FC Tokyo) should at least help maintain the status quo of lower mid-table.

 

Full table predictions will be published on this page tomorrow morning ahead of the opening day’s fixtures.

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