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April 2011

Sendai smiles top the bill

25 Apr 2011(Mon)

How wonderfully fitting that Vegalta Sendai should pull off a comeback worthy of the headlines in the first round of J. League action since the earthquake of 11 March wrought devastation across much of the club’s home city and surrounding area. International midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi had played the match – away to Kawasaki Frontale – in specially prepared white boots bearing the Japanese kanji kizuna, representing the ‘bonds’ that have brought people together over the past seven weeks. The mass of travelling supporters, many of whom will have experienced personal tragedy and upheaval through the disaster, displayed a banner that translates as ‘To all our friends, thank you. Until we have our hometown back again, we will never be defeated’. They were greeted by their hosts behind the opposite goal at Todoroki with an enormous flag reading ‘Forza Sendai’ and graffitied with hundreds of signatures and messages of support.

 

Before kick-off, the written sentiments were echoed in song, with each set of fans chanting the name of their opponents before joining together for a moving rendition of the Take Me Home, Country Roads melody. Perhaps the occasion had an effect on what unfolded as a rather turgid first half, but after falling behind before the interval, the Sendai players were roused by a slightly fortuitous Yoshiaki Ota equaliser 17 minutes from time. A quarter of an hour later, when Jiro Kamata rose to head home another teasing set piece from Ryang Yong-Gi, it was the first time in their history that Vegalta had come from behind to win a top flight match away from home. Their manager, Makoto Teguramori, retired back to the bench mid-interview with SkyPerfecTV after the game as he struggled to hold back the tears. Todoroki Stadium has seen its share of drama over the years – albeit often concerning the visitors to Japanese football’s perennial bridesmaids – but this was another day that will live long in the memory.

 

The first round of domestic fixtures since opening weekend certainly provided more than enough to fill the sports pages. A linesman’s flag in second half stoppage time against Rui Komatsu, introduced as a substitute only moments earlier, meant that Cerezo Osaka had to settle for a disappointing goalless draw at Montedio Yamagata, but theirs was the best result of Japan’s four AFC Champions League (ACL) representatives. Indeed, the team in pink – or white, on this occasion – weren’t just the sole member of the quartet to muster a point, but the only to avoid defeat by three goals. City rivals Gamba had remained unbeaten in 14 matches against Sanfrecce Hiroshima dating back to 2001, but went down 4-1 at the Big Arch. Kashima Antlers suffered a 3-0 ‘home’ reverse against Yokohama F Marinos at the National Stadium in Tokyo. Champions Nagoya Grampus lost by the same scoreline away to Urawa Reds.

 

With an ongoing Asian calendar meaning that the ACL participants were the only clubs to have remained in competitive action since the Tohoku earthquake, it had been theorised by many that they should benefit from increased match sharpness. As it transpires, Grampus et al have likely instead suffered from the decidedly on-again, off-again nature of their springtime programmes. Performances in the ACL have certainly been far from spectacular, even if at least three of the four should still make the last 16 (ironically, the one side currently outside the qualification places is Cerezo). By contrast, the other 14 J1 clubs had been able to focus solely on preparing for this past weekend and appeared all the fresher for it. Continental football takes its toll even on far richer European clubs, and while there may still be a slightly higher concentration of stars at the top end of last season’s table, the results of the last two days auger well for the continued competitiveness of the J. League as a whole.

 

In any case, it is most refreshing that all of the talking points can now stem from events on the pitch again. Ever since Easter weekend – admittedly an irrelevant designation in this country – was confirmed as the resumption date for league activity, there has perhaps been an unhealthy amount of time to devote to the unavoidably ugly debate over the conditions of Japan’s participation in the Copa America. Everybody seems agreed that the decision to take part after all is essentially a very good thing, but few are keen to foot the metaphorical bill. Now we have six J. League matchdays scheduled for July instead of the original one, clubs must find the dividing line between patriotic support and protecting their own interests.

 

Reportedly, the Japanese clubs have asked that a strong majority of the Copa America squad – perhaps 15 of the 22 – be recruited from overseas. For the ‘integrity’ of the domestic competition, of course. FIFA and CONMEBOL have offered their cooperation to this end, but VfB Stuttgart have already explicitly stated their reluctance to release Shinji Okazaki for what would be his third international tournament in little over a year. Meanwhile, a highlight of the J1 members’ conference earlier this month was the Jubilo Iwata representative likening the enforced absence of Ryoichi Maeda and Yuichi Komano to playing chess without a queen and a bishop. How Maeda would feel about being called a queen, one cannot be sure, but the tide of opinion apparently shifted slightly later on when Gamba president Kikuo Kanamori claimed he would have few qualms about sending Yasuhito Endo to Argentina.

 

Discussions can now continue in the background while the rest of us find more worthwhile pursuits – including three more J. League matchdays – with which to distract ourselves throughout the Golden Week holiday. This column will return in a fortnight when the season will, at last, have begun to take shape.

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Pioneers – Nagatomo vs. Uchida

14 Apr 2011(Thu)

A couple of years ago this week, I wrote a piece on these pages about two former foreign J. Leaguers, Hulk and Park Ji-Sung, who had launched their careers in Japan’s second tier before later facing each other in the last eight of the UEFA Champions League for FC Porto and Manchester United, respectively. Last season saw audiences in this country wowed by a cameo from one of their own, Keisuke Honda, in the knockout stages of the same tournament after his winter transfer to CSKA Moscow. But the remarkable impact that Japanese football has made on the world so far this decade has been underlined over the past eight days with a milestone of yet greater significance, as full-backs Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo appeared on opposite sides of the same quarter-final in Europe’s premier club competition.

 

The only slight shame was that the tie was effectively over before the battle of the blue samurai began. Though left-back has been a problem position at Internazionale, Nagatomo has been used sparingly by coach Leonardo during his two months at the San Siro thus far, and by the time he was introduced a quarter of an hour from the end of last week’s first leg in Milan, opponents Schalke 04 were already 5-2 in front. Having been the subject of a campaign in the Gazzetta dello Sport and other sections of the Italian media in the days since, Nagatomo lined up from the start of Inter’s mission impossible in Gelsenkirchen last night. This meant sharing not only the same pitch but the same flank as Uchida, who played 90 minutes in the initial meeting and retained his position at right-back for the hosts.

 

The pair had their first direct encounter after five minutes, when Nagatomo did well to deal with a quick break from his compatriot, though the favour was returned soon afterwards. With such an improbably emphatic advantage to fall back upon, Schalke were content to allow Inter the ball but deny them space in central areas, forcing Samuel Eto’o closer and closer to the touchline as he fought in vain to stamp his impression on proceedings.

 

On at least one occasion, this led to the slightly incongruous sight of Nagatomo cutting inside towards the penalty area as the Cameroon striker collected the ball on the very edge of the pitch. When Inter’s most industrious duo were able to combine for Ehime’s most famous export since satsumas to demonstrate his trademark overlapping runs and cross the ball beyond Uchida, he could really have done with Eto’o – he of the 32 goals already this season – in the middle to finish things off. As it was, Leonardo’s side lacked the momentum and belief to match their 60% share of possession, and all too often Diego Milito was left isolated to fight a losing aerial battle with the commanding Manuel Neuer.

 

With 82 minutes played, Benedict Höwedes raced through a static nerazzurri back line onto a delicately scooped pass from the evergreen, ever-elegant Raúl, to fire home the goal that secured a 2-1 win on the night, a 7-3 aggregate scoreline, and the end of Inter’s reign as kings of Europe. Typically, Nagatomo was the one visiting player to spot the run and sprint desperately back from his advanced position to try and save a lost cause.

 

Defeat was a rare setback after a year that has taken the 24-year-old from J2-bound FC Tokyo to the club world champions – via the World Cup, Cesena, and a starring role in Japan’s Asian Cup success this January – but more regular opportunities will surely follow. Il Capitano Javier Zanetti may be Inter royalty after 16 years with the club and 12 sporting the armband, but celebrates his 38th birthday later this year and was never a left-back by trade anyway. Fellow positional rival Cristian Chivu, again, is really a converted central defender and, to boot, the one man in Milan capable of picking up red cards quicker than Zlatan Ibrahimović. Leonardo cannot fail to have noticed that Nagatomo was central to much of what did go right for his side at the Veltins-Arena. The Gazzetta certainly didn’t.

 

The man making the headlines on the pink pages showed characteristic humility and generosity after the game. “I was determined never to give up but must accept the result,” said Nagatomo. “Now, my hopes – and those of everyone else in Japan – are with Uchida. This is a great experience for us. I have no doubt that we will be able to keep on growing in future. The fact that two Japanese players have been able to face each other (in a Champions League quarter-final) is down to those who have paved the way before us, and I would like to express my thanks to all of them.”

 

Uchida is certainly the right place to look for inspiration. 18 months Nagatomo’s junior, the three-time J. League champion with Kashima Antlers was not alone in coming down to earth with a bump as Felix Magath tinkered with the Schalke side that finished second in 2009/10 and promptly lost the first five games of the current campaign. A succession of different players were used at right-back, including Höwedes, veteran centre-back Christoph Metzelder, and midfielder Christoph Moritz. After a difficult bedding-in period, Uchida finally established himself in the starting XI in late October, from which point results began to improve.

 

The Shizuoka native has been a constant fixture ever since, and an increasingly assured presence at both Bundesliga and Champions League level. Though perhaps not as eye-catchingly dynamic as Nagatomo, Uchida offered a notable attacking presence in the last 16 against Valencia and at the San Siro last Tuesday. Yesterday, combining with Höwedes and Kyriakos Papadopoulos, he did everything that was asked of him defensively as Schalke comfortably secured their progression. New manager Ralf Rangnick, who has now overseen four straight wins since replacing the unpopular Magath last month, has been duly impressed. “I’ve only known Uchida for three and a half weeks but he’s impressed me a lot so far,” said the former 1899 Hoffenheim boss. “He’s still young, but very mature, very fast, and he can go far.”

 

What began as a nightmarish season for Schalke now sees the Gelsenkirchen side back in the top half of the table, favourites to win the DFB-Pokal ahead of next month’s final against second-tier MSV Duisburg, and looking forward to a European semi-final against Manchester United. Assuming he stays fit, Uchida will be the first Japanese player ever to appear in the last four of the UEFA Champions League. The draw will pit him against one of the world’s finest attacking left-backs in Patrice Evra, who suggested this week that Inter wanted him before Nagatomo. Tactically, it will also be interesting to see whether Sir Alex Ferguson deploys Park Ji-Sung – ten years on from his J2 winners’ medal with Kyoto Purple Sanga – as a ‘defensive’ left-sided forward to counter the threat of Uchida.

 

Having suffered the heartbreak of being dropped for tactical reasons at the World Cup in South Africa, the man himself is ready for the challenge. “No matter how good your own team is, the semi-finals will never be easy,” said Uchida after the second leg with Inter. “But I’ve always believed I was capable of playing on such a stage, and it won’t be long before more of us are here (in Champions League semi-finals) either. We need to show that Japanese footballers can produce ever greater things.”

 

 

* The JFA today officially reversed its original decision to pull out of the 2011 Copa America in Argentina following a plea from the organisers. See tomorrow’s Football Japan Minutecast for more details.

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As one (postscript)

5 Apr 2011(Tue)

Click here for the main article on last week’s Team as One charity match.

 

An interesting subplot to the Team as One match was the tactical experiment deployed by Alberto Zaccheroni in his first outing with the national team since January’s Asian Cup. Following prior consultations with his players, the Italian made use of the opportunity to test out his famous old 3-4-3 formation at a time where the attentions of the wider public were rightly concerned with matters other than scorelines and performances. Maya Yoshida and Masahiko Inoha flanked Yasuyuki Konno in defence, with Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo given carte blanche to roam up and down the wings. Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki would float inside onto their stronger feet from the right- and left-hand sides of the forward three, respectively.

 

The manager was asked in his post-match press conference whether this could become Japan’s main system in future. Obviously, this is wildly unlikely: Zaccheroni clearly still holds the 3-4-3 very close to his heart after the success it brought him with Udinese and Milan in the late 1990s, but even he admitted that it is very difficult to teach properly – especially with limited time available for a national team – and can thus portray an unhelpful tendency to collapse into a back five. More to the point, there is little reason to believe that Japan should abandon the so-far successful blueprint to develop a team over the mid- to long-term around the contemporary 4-2-3-1 style – Zaccheroni insisted throughout Japan’s adventures in Qatar that getting the players used to this setup was of greater importance than short-term glory.

 

Nevertheless, the one major issue that needed resolving was a lack of potency against weaker opposition content to play for the draw. As exhibited in the first half on Tuesday, having essentially seven outfield players with the freedom to attack can allow for both exciting, fast-paced movement and sheer numerical pressure in the final third. Zaccheroni expressed his pleasure at the success of an experiment designed to offer the side an alternative if and when required. Japan’s playing personnel, he added, appeared well adaptable to 3-4-3.

 

Considering the role performed by the least attacking of the three midfielders (usually Sergio Busquets) in Barcelona’s progressive 4-3-3, retreating so far as to virtually form a back three when the full backs have advanced, the old Udinese style is perhaps not such an astronomical jump from Takeshi Okada’s formation at the World Cup, where Yuki Abe was a last-minute addition to offer defensive cover in midfield. Expect to see 3-4-3 next time Japan are struggling for goals against a Jordan or a Syria.

 

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The abandoned group stage of the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup has been reorganised into a straight knockout tournament, with new dates for the five J1 and six J2 matchdays postponed in the wake of the earthquake set to be announced a week on Friday. J. League officials have repeatedly implied that domestic fixtures will now have to be played in the heat of July – a month originally set aside for the national team’s participation in the Copa America in Argentina. JFA president Junji Ogura has travelled to South America for talks this week with the tournament’s organisers and with regional confederation CONMEBOL.

 

As discussed on these pages previously, Japan can now field a virtually full-strength national XI comprised exclusively of overseas-based players, with enough in reserve to fill most of the remaining places in the squad. However, as ‘guests’ of a region outside of Asia, the Samurai Blue will likely have trouble securing the availability of players whose clubs would not be compelled to release them from their rare period of rest and recuperation. This being the case, it would surely be impossible for Zaccheroni to remove fully 23 players from their J. League duties should the calendars indeed end up clashing.

 

But surely the JFA has had time to consider this already? The issue with overseas-based players has existed all along. It might have been useful to give second-string players international experience against the likes of host nation Argentina and Colombia, but certainly of far greater help to the overall blueprint were the full senior squad to have travelled. Even without the J. League players, the established elite could be augmented with the likes of Ryo Miyaichi and perhaps one or two university-based players. It will be a great shame if Japan are forced to withdraw from the Copa America either way, but less so if they wouldn’t ever have been able to give it their best shot in the first place.


Edit: It was announced on Tuesday morning (Japanese time) that Japan have indeed officially withdrawn from the 2011 Copa America. Potential replacements include Canada and Costa Rica.

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As one

4 Apr 2011(Mon)

As a translator by trade and a sceptic by nature, the name ‘Team as One’ sounded a little awkward at first, but come Tuesday night at the Nagai Stadium in Osaka it could not have been more apt. Forget, for a moment, the fact that all of Japan’s star names from the Bundesliga and the rest of Europe had been allowed to return for the occasion (it was, after all, a designated FIFA date and there had originally been a friendly with New Zealand scheduled anyway). Leave aside the excitement and novelty of seeing old favourites grace the ‘international’ stage once more. The truly enduring image of this charity match in aid of the victims of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan will be that of fans from every part of the country – including directly-affected clubs like Vegalta Sendai and Kashima Antlers – creating a patchwork of colours as they sang, cheered, and absorbed every moment together.

 

The perfectly observed minute’s silence was interrupted only by the clicks of the press photographers’ cameras. Fans and players alike were quick to express thanks to the rest of the global footballing community for their support – which has ranged from banners to donations and more unique gestures like Valencia printing their shirt names in katakana for their game against Sevilla. Once the match kicked off, the 40,000-plus crowd were quickly thrilled by a trademark Yasuhito Endo free-kick, before star attraction Keisuke Honda pierced the Team as One defence to lay up a goal for Shinji Okazaki on his first appearance in Japan since leaving Shimizu S. Pulse for VfB Stuttgart.

 

The second half brought the anticipated plethora of substitutions, giving 44-year-old Kazuyoshi ‘King Kazu’ Miura his chance to score the goal that everybody craved but few genuinely believed would happen. He did score, and how. The only glaring omission from an otherwise fantastic script was a comical last-minute penalty against Alberto Zaccheroni’s national team, contrived so that opposite number Dragan Stojković could strap on his boots and raise the decibel levels even higher.

 

For the first time in 16 days – though it felt much, much longer – Japan could raise a collective smile. As each of us tries to help in our own little way, many of us in Kansai been inspired – empowered, even – by the sheer spirit and determination shown by those in less fortunate parts of the country. As a foreigner, the unity of the Japanese people in such times of crisis is equally moving. The Team as One game raised over 22 million yen (about £165,000) through cash donations on the night alone. Further fundraising matches were played over the weekend at the homes of Ehime FC, Avispa Fukuoka, and Matsumoto Yamaga; two more are scheduled for this Saturday (9 April) at Shimizu S-Pulse and Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Football, as the greatest modern example of a shared global culture, is merely a medium for such generosity, but the past few weeks have shown both Japan and its sporting friends across the world at their very best.

 

A postscript to this article can be found here.

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