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July 2011

Midway musings – Part 1: A relegation battle that, well, flatters to deceive

25 Jul 2011(Mon)

Once Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka have played their game in hand on Wednesday – rearranged from its original May date to allow Gamba to get to Australia and back for an AFC Champions League clash with Melbourne Victory – every team in J1 will have completed the first half of their respective league programmes. Here are a few thoughts on the season as it stands.

 

1) A win for Avispa would have been far more entertaining for the rest of us

Let’s be honest. Avispa Fukuoka have been a bit of a laughing stock since returning to the top flight as the third-best team in J2 last year. That’s what nine – NINE – straight defeats from the start of the campaign will get you. But even throughout that run there was something slightly endearing about them as, albeit without ever looking very good for an entire 90 minutes, they always kept their chins up and showed more than an occasional flash of brilliance.

 

There have been blitzing, excitable counterattacks – not least when racing into a 2-0 half-time lead away to current pacesetters Yokohama F Marinos (Avispa lost 3-2). Plenty of other good sides have suffered real frights – Kashima Antlers trailed 1-0 in Fukuoka before coming back in the second half to win 2-1; both Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata were left hanging on for single-goal victories; while Kawasaki Frontale almost surrendered a 3-0 home lead earlier this month as Hideya Okamoto struck twice and just ran out of time to find a third. Only last week, Avispa missed out on a famous win away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima by the width of a goalpost in stoppage time.

 

Missed opportunities notwithstanding, a long-awaited draw away to Vissel Kobe in mid-June triggered a slightly better spell where eight points were collected in as many games ahead of yesterday evening’s meeting with second-from-bottom – and freefalling – Montedio Yamagata. Victory would have taken them off the foot of the table for the first time, and you just wondered if it mightn’t spark a wave of confidence on which the Kyushu club could stop flattering to deceive and finally make a real go at recovery. Alex Miller’s JEF United Chiba secured survival in the final minutes of the 2008 season with 37 points having only taken ten from the first 17 games; Yoshiyuki Shinoda had an even more unlikely task on his hands, but precedent at least suggested it was possible.

 

That is, until they (I don’t want to keep on saying ‘flattered to deceive’) lost. The 2-0 scoreline ended a run of five straight losses for Yamagata and takes them back to within seven points of Vissel Kobe in fifteenth. And given that they were a point – now four – ahead of Avispa in the first place, their prospects of mounting a resurgence are indeed statistically more likely. But then, Montedio are consistently mediocre. You can’t see them pulling them it off and you can’t imagine it being anything like as much fun if they did. I do hope I’m wrong but, with all due respect, the current bottom two will almost certainly still be last and second last come 3 December.

 

2) One or more ‘big’ clubs will stay up purely because there are too many even worse teams about

Almost certainly my most favourite thing about the whole J. League – partisan loyalties aside – is its sheer enduring competitiveness. We are used to there being a real hatful of title contenders; the identity of about half of which remaining quite unpredictable year on year. We know by now that the table’s inherent closeness means that ACL commitments can have a crippling effect on league form – especially while four teams are involved in the group stages through to mid-May. What we’ve not often seen before, however, is so many supposedly established clubs within sniffing distance of sixteenth place this late into proceedings.

 

The still very real danger of Urawa Reds seeing themselves as too big to go down has been covered here before. They did well to recover from an early red card for goalkeeper Nobuhiro Kato to beat Ventforet Kofu 2-0 on Saturday but are still only four points above the dotted line and defeat would have pushed them below. Zeljko Petrovic’s arrival as manager was supposed to herald some desperately-needed continuity; if it has, then only in terms of a continued downward spiral.

 

Vissel Kobe have probably even learned themselves by now that they’re not really a ‘big’ club, despite the ideas above their station, but the Kansai region’s third team are still just one place and two points above the drop zone – exactly where they finished last season. More alarmingly, Kashima Antlers are only ahead of them on goal difference (albeit with two games in hand); an aging squad having slumped horribly and now further weakened by the curious transfer of Japan defender Masahiko Inoha to Hajduk Split of Croatia. Cerezo Osaka have the very valid excuse of an ongoing ACL campaign – which only came about in the first place because a thin squad overachieved so brilliantly last year – but even a series of big wins in recent weeks has only taken them above Urawa on goal difference. Rodrigo Pimpão has already left, and with Asian football back on the calendar from September it could yet be 2006 revisited (Cerezo were relegated a year after nearly winning the title) if Takashi Inui soon follows him out of the door.

 

No club should ever be allowed to take their top flight place for granted and, as such, this is all another delicious source of entertainment for the J1 observer this year. Or, at least, it should be. The fact that two of the three relegation places are all but decided in late July means most of this lot will still be safe no matter how useless the fare they dish out over the next four-and-a-bit months. And, even acknowledging Mike Havenaar’s coming of age, deep down we probably all expect Kofu to end up sixteenth.

 

(More to follow soon)

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Champions of the world – the Nadeshiko example

21 Jul 2011(Thu)

It wasn’t so much the victory, nor even its glorious significance. It was the sheer manner of it all.

 

Nadeshiko Japan had never played in a Women’s World Cup final before. Last Wednesday’s confident 3-1 victory over Sweden was the first time they had ever even featured in the last four, following group stage exits at the previous three tournaments and a sole, lonely quarter-final appearance way back in 1995 – where Tamotsu Suzuki’s side were thumped 4-0 by the United States.

 

Indeed, a past record of no wins, three draws, and fully 21 defeats against the Americans was almost as embarrassingly one-sided as the Pearl Harbor references a small minority of U! S! A! fans always insist on tweeting at such times were embarrassingly stupid. Most recently, Japan had gone down to a pair of predictable 2-0 losses within the space of four days in pre-World Cup friendlies hosted away in Columbus, Ohio and Cary, North Carolina back in May.

 

Befitting their status as clear favourites, FIFA world number ones, and potential champions for a record third time ever, the United States were immediately the dominant force as the 2011 final kicked off in Frankfurt. Not in terms of possession statistics, perhaps, but certainly in terms of obvious threat. Hitting their opponents with pace and power to exploit specific vulnerabilities in the Japanese back four, Lauren Cheney had the first chance on goal inside a minute. Abby Wambach smashed the ball against Ayumi Kaihori’s crossbar with a rasping shot from 18 yards that had the Japan goalkeeper well beaten. For half an hour, the onslaughts kept coming.

 

But the Nadeshiko had gained, throughout this tournament, a reputation of their own to befit – as ‘the Barcelona of women’s football’. It may have been somewhat extravagant, and certainly tactically unrepresentative, but Japan patiently weathered the storm, passed their way out of trouble, and rediscovered their stride. By half-time, they were arguably even looking the better team.

 

In a pairing of two quite simple 4-4-2s, there was always bound to be space in which each side could operate. The second period began with the Americans again on the front foot – half-time substitute Alex Morgan hitting the post early on – and while their superiority was not quite as blatant as it had been before, it did lead to the opening goal; Morgan indeed finding room between the central defenders to fire past Kaihori.

 

Falling behind to the United States was a familiar pattern; however, Japan were not beaten. They maintained their composure and harried their opponents, forcing the mistakes that allowed Aya Miyama to scramble home the equaliser with time running out.

 

Extra time was a much more even affair, but Wambach struck what could have been a killer psychological blow when rising to powerfully head the Americans back in front on 105 minutes.

 

Still they refused to lie down. The Nadeshiko swarmed forwards, looking all the more confident despite their plight and the lack of time available to them. Yukari Kinga had the energy to burst through the tiring American defence from right-back, and the composure to lob the ball over Hope Solo only to see it cleared away for a corner. This mattered not. Just three minutes from the end, inspirational captain Homare Sawa found sufficient wits and vision about her to conspire with Miyama, dash to the near post, and flick home from a near-impossible position.

 

Now Japan knew their efforts had not been in vain. Now the momentum and the smiles were with them. Norio Sasaki in particular bore the expression of a punter in the aisles at a manzai comedy show rather than a professional coach trying to appoint penalty-takers, and effectively admitted as much afterwards. Come the shootout itself, and Kaihori – who, at just 5’ 7”, had always appeared a clear weak point in goal despite her obvious ability – suddenly bore the stature of a ten-foot Mr. Tickle. Usually the notorious epitome of sporting confidence, the Americans nervously missed their first three kicks, and the Nadeshiko celebrated in ecstatic disbelief.

 

There are always plenty of little spin-off stories to every football match. This year’s Women’s World Cup final attracted the most tweets per second – an incredible 7,196 – of any single event in the (admittedly still quite short) history of Twitter. Despite kicking off at 3.45am and the trophy not being presented until nearly seven, viewing figures on Japanese terrestrial and satellite television were ‘abnormally high’. Two rounds of J. League action were almost forgotten entirely in the build-up and aftermath. Sawa – the tournament’s best player and top scorer – and company will hope that such interest translates to support for women’s football at club level, where even top players still earn a pittance. Sasaki might reflect on his fortune regarding the earlier elimination of England, against whom he had been outclassed by Hope Powell in the group stage, and France, who showed against England a similar guile in adapting tactically to the precise opposition.

 

But throughout this World Cup, the Japan manager and his squad have been painfully aware of their responsibilities as representatives of a nation still reeling from that most horrific of natural disasters just four months ago. Before the historic quarter-final win over hosts and holders Germany, they were shown a graphic slideshow of images taken during and after the earthquake and tsunami. Central defender Asuza Iwashimizu, who saw red for a desperate challenge in the last minute of the final, hails from a village in Iwate Prefecture close to the disaster areas. Until just days before 11 March, left-back Aya Sameshima worked at the now stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima – where supersub forward Karina Maruyama was a former colleague.

 

As much as their victory on Monday morning (Japanese time) brought enormous joy and hope to those watching back in Japan, the Nadeshiko performance over 120 minutes plus penalties was simply the most perfect model of Japanese resilience, determination, and sheer stubbornness to recover and thrive again in the face of adversity.

 

This is a story that simultaneously transcends sport and takes it back to its purest, emotional form. The longer the emotions and the example set by Nadeshiko Japan remain fresh in the nation’s memories – setting other, trivial implications aside – the better.

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Nadeshiko and the English perspective (Part 2)

8 Jul 2011(Fri)

Nadeshiko Japan 0-2 England women (Continued from Part 1)

 

The notion – not one that stemmed from inside Japan, I should add – that Nadeshiko were the ‘Barcelona of women’s football’ was always unhelpfully grandiose, but it was at least reasonably accurate that Tuesday’s meeting in Augsburg should be billed as a clash of cultures. As the Japanese players stood in line with eyes closed and hands on hearts, demonstrating as they did far deeper feeling for the still-not-entirely-destigmatised Kimigayo than their normally passive male counterparts, NHK’s touchline reporter reminded us that England were expected to counter their skilful passing game with long balls and plenty of physicality.

 

This was perhaps an oversimplification, but the Three Lionesses nonetheless came out of the blocks at speed and were able to use the long throw-ins of defender Sophie Bradley as a means of testing the thoroughness of Japan’s preparations. In response, their opponents’ early attacks were initiated more gradually via Homare Sawa, who began from a notably deep position in central midfield before looking to rove forwards in support of her more advanced teammates. On two such occasions, she was unfortunately let down by the poor control of Kozue Ando and Aya Miyama in promising positions.

 

On 15 minutes, Karen Carney provided the perfect distinction between a long ball and a long pass by precisely bisecting the Japanese central defenders to leave the lone English striker, Ellen White, through on goal. Struck on the bounce, her lobbed volley caught Ayumi Kaihori in absolute no woman’s land; dropping comfortably into the net despite the goalkeeper’s desperation to recover the ball at the second attempt.

 

Japan were evidently flustered by the opening goal. As England confidently continued to break from the back, the Nadeshiko players began making mistakes – frequently losing possession or getting caught out of position. Star forward Yuki Nagasato grew noticeably frustrated with the lack of opportunities coming her way, repeatedly struggling with her first touch and fortunate to escape punishment for a high foot into an English torso. Ando was denied by a superb sliding block from Bradley on the edge of the 18-yard box, and it was not until the final minutes of the half that the favourites were able to force a spell of real pressure through sustained possession in wide areas. Even then, it was England who went closest to a second – Kaihori atoning for her earlier culpability by superbly pushing a spectacular volley from White onto the crossbar.

 

First half formations

First half formations

 

There was, however, an intrinsic caveat to the Japanese ladies’ struggles. Their male coach, Norio Sasaki, had kept with a basic 4-4-2 after victories in their previous two matches, but Hope Powell countered with four changes and lined England up in a 4-2-3-1. The numerical disparity in midfield areas immediately compromised Japan’s usual fluency, while a high defensive line further compressed the play and denied space for incisive passes toward Ando and Nagasato.

 

Equally crucially, the English number four Jill Scott was given license to break out of central midfield down the right-hand side. This pulled Mizuho Sakaguchi out of position, causing the dangerous Sawa to be distracted from her attacking instincts by a greater responsibility to attend to Kelly Smith. Indeed, until her withdrawal just after the hour mark, Smith worked terrifically hard at number ten in a defensive capacity too – closing down quickly whenever Sawa did manage to get hold of the ball.

 

The end result was that Nadeshiko were forced to attack the flanks – though they did not seem to realise this for 35 minutes – and since this match was always supposed to be Japanese ‘skill’ versus English ‘physicality’, such a concession was clearly a risk worth taking for Powell. Goalkeeper Karen Bardsley was an impressively commanding presence whenever crosses arrived in the penalty area, and even those she didn’t collect personally were generally well dealt with by her defence.

 

At the opposite end, the English attacking players demonstrated effective positional rotation – a weapon then sharpened (and, indeed, made slightly narrower) by the introduction of Rachel Yankey for Jess Clarke at half-time and, later, Eniola Aluko for the tiring Smith. Four minutes after the latter change, White came wide to collect a ball on the left wing, allowing room for the advancing left-back Rachel Unitt to cross and the onrushing Yankey to skilfully push the ball past Kaihori for England’s second.

 

Formations after key second-half changes

Formations after key second-half changes

 

If Sasaki had been caught off guard by his opposite number’s formation, there was no excuse for his failure to adjust the Japanese tactics accordingly as the match progressively slipped away from them. Nagasato did have one chance from a Miyama free-kick at 0-1 but volleyed wide with her left foot when she really ought to have gone with the right; aside from that, the pattern of positive wide play followed by non-threatening crosses and corners was all too predictable. Karina Maruyama was easily the most effective of those to enter the fray from the bench – initially replacing Ando up front, then switching to the left and finally the right flanks with subsequent substitutions – but for all her skill and movement, Sasaki’s refusal or inability to depart from 4-4-2 meant the end result was inevitably identical. Japan enjoyed 55% possession but only managed three shots on target. It was ironic that the outcome of this Women’s World Cup match should be swayed so significantly by the failings of the one man to have a direct influence on either side.

 

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This must not, however, detract from the enormous credit that Hope Powell deserves for producing a team that was both cannier and better organised than the more individually-talented Nadeshiko Japan. Already awarded the OBE and CBE for her services to women’s football, and named amongst the most influential gay and lesbian people in the UK, the 44-year-old has crafted her current World and European title challengers through a long-term vision that puts the men’s game in England to shame. Pointedly, an article penned by Powell for the Guardian last year stressed the importance both of continuity and of youth tournaments as a active means of developing young players; views that contrast starkly with the disregard shown by English clubs, media, and fans towards the men’s U-17 World Cup and recent European U-21 Championship.

 

The second decisive difference in Augsburg, other than the effectiveness of the respective managers, returns us nicely to the initial premise introduced in Part 1. Having made a strong case for the defence in her interview with John Ashdown, Karen Bardsley’s command of her penalty area showed decisively that female goalkeepers can indeed do their talking on the pitch as well. But at just 5’ 7” (170cm), Ayumi Kaihori in the Japan goal conceded fully four inches (10cm) to her opposite number – and even falls just short of the height at which my own low-key goalkeeping aspirations were abandoned as a teenager. Her smaller stature left Kaihori horribly vulnerable for England’s first goal, and while by no means at fault for the second, one did wonder if a more imposing figure between the sticks mightn’t have made a tricky finish for Yankey that bit harder. Even with that one genuinely excellent save from White, it only needed to be that good in the first place because of Kaihori’s physical difficulty in covering the entire goal.

 

This is clearly no-one’s fault – least of all Kaihori’s – but crucially, such matters can and will still distract the casual viewer. Basic errors were common on both sides, with even the otherwise-solid Rachel Unitt air-kicking an attempted clearance at one point and right-back Alex Scott falling over the ball to end a promising England break. Even more frustrating than the repeatedly sloppy first touches was the slowness with which opponents would react, meaning such mistakes routinely went unpunished. Limited investment in women’s football still often means limited participation, both in terms of practice hours and numerically. The latter factor means there won’t always be a pool of talented, 6’ 5” (196cm) goalkeepers ready and available. But sadly, what this can all result in is an uncomfortable sense that the action on the pitch isn’t quite as good as it could be.

 

That said, the hesitations of the occasional observer are not the be-all and end-all. As with tennis and other sports where competitions for each gender peacefully coexist, men’s and women’s football should of course be enjoyed as individual entities without excessive comparison. As Football Japan writer Izumi Nemoto mentioned in her blog (in Japanese) on Wednesday, the value of the Women’s World Cup is demonstrated by the way Nadeshiko Japan are already inspiring the next generation. Perhaps success in Germany might accelerate a similar process in England. The presence of passion is undeniable, and for this, the sport deserves our support.

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Nadeshiko and the English perspective (Part 1)

7 Jul 2011(Thu)

There were three major reasons behind my decision, at the age of eight, to become a goalkeeper.

 

The first was fairly classic; I was in love with the now sadly deceased Manchester United custodian Les Sealey, who had stepped in for a confidence-shot Jim Leighton in the 1990 FA Cup final replay, angrily refused substitution despite having his leg sliced open to the bone in the following year’s League Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday, then returned heroically just 24 days later for the Cup Winners’ Cup final (when it was still actually possible to beat Barcelona in a European showpiece).

 

My second reason, lazily but just as logically, was that I loved sports but detested running, so being essentially confined to 18 yards of longitudinal movement suited me down to the ground. Finally – and the real clincher when you’re at primary school – I had just started a ‘club’ with my best mate Joe. Our respective membership numbers were 1 and 2, so it was only natural that we should play as goalkeeper and right-back once we grew up and formed our own football team to take on the world.

 

With a little bit of coaching, I wasn’t actually that bad, and might even have kept the ‘keeping up a touch more seriously had my body’s failure to continue growing (well, upwards anyway) beyond the age of 16 and a height of 5’ 7½” (171cm) not prompted a sensible switch to casual futsal. For pureness of enjoyment, though, the sheer innocence of those initial dabblings would probably have been hard to surpass anyway. My primary school team was rubbish – really rubbish – but my proudly bemused parents would always hear at some length about the ‘great dives’ I had made rather than the limited effect they had on preventing the 0-6 and 0-7 scorelines.

 

In the United Kingdom at least, the image of women’s football has long been dogged by the stereotype of similarly well-intentioned goalkeepers whose talent and technique are nonetheless well short of sufficiently compensating for a smaller physical stature. Such preconceptions were raised and challenged in a recent interview with England number one Karen Bardsley by the Guardian’s John Ashdown, who has been stationed in Germany to provide excellent and – for a UK journalist – almost unprecedentedly comprehensive coverage of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It is hoped that publicity surrounding the tournament, which enters the knockout stages this Saturday, will provide a long-needed boost for the underfunded women’s game in England and its new, semi-professional FA WSL (Women’s Super League).

 

But there will be no overnight revolution. Public interest remains low, and while not derisory as such, much of the UK media coverage – Ashdown aside – has felt as if born from a sense of obligation. The BBC has shown each of England’s matches live, but only on its ‘red button’ interactive television services as opposed to a full airing on one of the state broadcaster’s main channels. In print and online, our relentless obsession with the ‘top’ of the men’s game means that stories on £20 million pre-season bids for Samir Nasri or John O’Shea’s medical at Sunderland are guaranteed to attract exponentially more readers, hits, and clicks.

 

Japan could not provide a starker contrast. A reshuffling of the domestic calendar means that, unlike most of Europe, July is packed full of more J. League fixtures than ever; but no matter, for in virtually all terrestrial television and other mass media football coverage, the men have been forced to share equal billing with both their juniors (in the FIFA U-17 World Cup – another tournament almost wholly ignored in the UK) and their female counterparts. Sports bulletins begin with news on how Nadeshiko Japan are getting on with their preparations in Germany. As is routinely the case for women’s football at the Olympics or even during qualifying campaigns, the excitement on the streets is noticeably genuine. While difficult to identify which originally played the respective roles of cause and effect, this combination of widespread coverage and public interest creates a prosperous cycle to mirror the vicious cycle of disinterest back in the UK.

 

This latter point hints, in part, at a degree of cultural conditioning through the media, and when I notice fellow British (male) writers based here in Japan speak enthusiastically about the prospects for Nadeshiko success, I assume that this interest has likely been provoked by the local environment rather than a previously frustrated, inherent passion for women’s football per se. To my slight shame, however, I have never yet found myself inclined to board this same bandwagon.

 

There’s never time to watch everything, after all, and my conscious choice of midweek action to complement the rich J. League offerings this year has been the Copa America, for which NHK picked up the live broadcast rights to all 26 matches on the assumption that Alberto Zaccheroni’s lads would be taking part in at least three of them. For Japan’s opening two matches at the Women’s World Cup, I was content with quick highlights on the news, internet, and Yabecchi FC. This was sufficient to enjoy a well-taken hat-trick by the impressive Nadeshiko captain, Homare Sawa, as well as to ruefully notice that her two headed goals were aided by the timid positioning of a Mexican goalkeeper who may as well not have been there.

 

But then, the final round of matches in Group B pitted my adopted nation against the land of my birth. The obasan in the office excitedly asked for my opinions. I was embarrassingly unqualified to respond. With no games that night in the Copa America anyway, perhaps this was the perfect opportunity to actually sit down and objectively observe the pinnacle of the women’s game.

 

 

(Continues in Part 2)

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