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August 2011

The trouble with J. League fans (Part 4/4 – Hope)

31 Aug 2011(Wed)

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We should remind ourselves, at this point, that hooligan-esque incidents remain isolated and that J. League terraces, much like Japanese society as a whole, are still extremely safe by global standards. Conversations with other fans and a perusal of online message boards reveal that philosophies and phenomena akin to those observed at Gamba and the other examples cited above are indeed present on many goal-ura stands across Japan; however, they are by no means indicative of the whole nor even the majority. In 2011, the important thing to note is that just as the on-pitch development of professional football in this country has moved out of its formative years and into a potentially more defining era, the very same can be said of the supporters.

 

As such, the directionality of their evolution is at a crucial stage. Copying the Italians was fine ten or twenty years ago; it is now time to ensure that the atmospheres created by the ōendan are both flavoured by and representative of genuine local identities. On a direct level, this could see the phasing out of overly ubiquitous Serie A chants in favour of melodies from Japanese popular music and wittier, bespoke lyrics (this certainly shouldn’t be difficult in a city with Osaka’s comedy traditions, for example, and the lyrical element at least is now showing gradual signs of improvement). In a much broader context, meanwhile, the established supporters have an opportunity – and a certain responsibility – to engage more deeply with society by actively seeking to incorporate its more positive elements, such as the inspiring togetherness and determination manifested in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

 

At clubs like Yokohama F Marinos, this is already happening. Brendan Wimsett speaks of a heart-warming example of supporter involvement within the local community: “My impression of the ōendan has done nothing but improve with each passing year. I don’t know about other clubs, but we have a special community which is also a recognised NPO called ‘Hamatra’. Hamatra is basically both an online networking site (SNS) and also a group that is responsible for printing out free fanzines which they give out to all supporters that come to the games. Though Hamatra is essentially a community, most of the editorial work, event management, social activities et cetera are actually handled by core members of the various ōendan.

 

“(These include) little activities like putting up posters to promote the club and litter picking activities around the city; right up to bigger tasks like arranging for several buses to take a load of supporters up to Tohoku to assist with the earthquake relief. All of these community-aimed activities are organised with an aim to bring the supporters together and make us feel a part of something special; at the same time as giving something back to the city we all love. These types of activities are largely made possible due to the huge efforts put in place by the ōendan members.”

 

Clearly, Hamatra appears an excellent model for the rest of the country to follow. In terms of generating atmosphere, appealing to others, and serving as a valuable outlet for emotional release, there is still room for ultras­-inspired ōendan on Japanese terraces; but any portents of racism, violence, or hostility must be identified, publicised, and eradicated. The task now for the J. League supporters’ groups is to exercise their privilege of leadership for the benefit of the many, and – together with the clubs they follow – ensure that a healthy balance be found between the various cultural elements, objectives, and ideals that mingle on the terraces in the coming years and decades.

 

 

Many thanks indeed to Steve Barme, Michael Hudson, Mike Innes, Mario Kawata, Brendan Wimsett, and the various anonymous ōendan members for their very kind input and cooperation in the compilation of this article.

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The trouble with J. League fans (Part 3/4 – Becoming the thing you hate the most)

30 Aug 2011(Tue)

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That said, the concept of an ultras-inspired hardcore grounded in social discontent will inevitably carry the risk of trouble unless properly managed. If Japanese workers have seen their employment and economic conditions worsened by events like the global financial crisis and the tragedy of 11 March this year, then it is reasonable to hypothesise that this may have contributed to an overspill into the more unpleasant elements of terrace culture. But over eight seasons of observations since my initial discussions with the influential Gamba supporters, there have emerged two additional trends that are likely both unhelpful and fairly unique to the Japanese paradigm. The first is an idealised obsession with ultras in other countries – especially Italy – that remains just as deeply rooted even as the J. League approaches its third decade. This is then exacerbated by the second: a retrogression toward some of the negative aspects of Japan’s culture that were formerly seen as targets for rebellion.

 

During a recent home match – ironically, against Kashiwa – I made the apparent mistake of inviting a trio of British friends to join me near the centre of the goal-ura stand just before kickoff. All three were semi-regulars at Banpaku, where we had indeed originally met, but not part of the ōendan itself. A number of other friends – Japanese and foreign, male and female alike – had previously been welcomed by the hardcore on various occasions between 2004 and 2009, and despite a recent cooling in their overall outlook, the midweek scheduling meant the rearmost row of the ōendan section was invitingly empty. Five minutes into the match, however, a senior member of the group – a former interviewee with whom I have always remained on very friendly terms – belatedly arrived at the ground and began remonstrating aggressively with the unfamiliar faces. I immediately intervened and apologised, but at half time – at which point my friends quietly retreated to another part of the stand – received a bollocking for not having followed ‘due procedure’.

 

This stance was telling: previously, there had never been a procedure. “Because I’m the leader and I say so” was the response my shocked friends had received when asking why they were in trouble. At the interval, my reasoning that three blokes keen to sing with the rest of us would be a more valuable presence than vacant concrete was quickly rejected. The senior members of the group had now drawn up a policy to determine who would be welcome to stand where, which should not be violated – even by another member – without prior permission. I went to search for my friends at full time; in my absence, a meeting was hastily called among the other ōendan members to ensure that nobody repeats such transgressions in future. There are no hard feelings (and I will be given a platform to air my concerns directly at a later date), but to me, all of this sounded suspiciously similar to the unchallengeable hierarchies, unnecessary rules, and fun-jading obligations so castigated by the very same leaders five paragraphs and nearly eight years ago.

 

“If you’re not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative at 40, you have no brain.”

 

The oft-quoted words above were almost certainly not, as is popularly believed, uttered by Winston Churchill – who crossed the parliament floor from Conservative to Liberal Party at age 30 before moving back again 20 years later – but their underlying logic remains widely relevant. In the case of the J. League terraces, most of the supporters who survived the mid-1990s boom and bust to form the goal-ura ōendan at Gamba and several other clubs had been in their twenties and thus ripe for a bit of rebellion. This spirit may have endured into their thirties; however, now that the next landmark birthday for these original members is the half-century, it is perhaps inevitable that it be dulled by the infusion of assumed seniority. Such tendencies transcend nationality and – like the university students who cry foul at inefficient Japanese conventions but grow increasingly less vocal with years of indoctrination as to why the company is their family and its deceased founder their God – even social class.

 

In football, this is unhelpful for several reasons. At the onset of the J. League – Japan’s first proper attempt to introduce professional football into wider culture – it was intelligent that fans should look to Italy and other countries for inspiration as to how their teams should be cheered on. After nearly twenty years, this should surely no longer be necessary; but conversely, certain senior ultras have developed idealised impressions of what is accepted – or goes on anyway – in Italy and are keener than ever to see their mimicked realisation through. There is no equivalent political agenda here, though, and one occasionally wonders if ōendan members who demonstrate hostility towards others truly understand why they are doing so. More worryingly, the older members now hold hierarchical influence over many more underlings who almost certainly do not.

 

This was a root cause behind the troubles in Saitama three years ago – originally provoked when a few teenagers took on board what they had learned and concluded that they should throw water balloons at the Urawa fans. Surely, the idea of hierarchy on the terraces is not only hypocritical to the original cries of social oppression but also self-defeating, as the rejuvenating enthusiasm of the younger new recruits is tempered by the obligations and limited voice that accompany their juniority – just as is the case in any other ‘rigid’ organisation. The trend remains in its infancy and it is the responsibility of those who feel discomfort to speak up, but it would be enormously distressing if the ultras-style ōendan movements – which, when channelled correctly, can generate terrific entertainment and crowd volume – were ultimately to exert a malign influence over Japanese football stadiums.

 

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The trouble with J. League fans (Part 2/4 – Social discontent)

29 Aug 2011(Mon)

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“Remove your hooligans from our society.”

“Remove your society’s hooligans from our sport.”

 

In the mid-1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret ‘no such thing as society’ Thatcher famously saw her theories of cause and effect subverted by the retort of a senior FA representative during discussions aimed at tackling the severe hooliganism issues that coloured English terraces. Indeed, as was witnessed with the recent (non football-related) rioting in London and other UK cities, it is little leap to suggest that public, violent disorder on any significant scale tends to find its roots in underlying socioeconomic tensions or unrest. Football’s troubles during Thatcher’s leadership coincided with crippling ‘social’ divisions that also produced mass disturbances away from the sporting arenas and have even been cited as historical triggers to the burning streets of 2011.

 

Soaring ticket prices have made the modern all-seater football stadia of the 21st century less reliable as a ‘mass’ indicator in England, but while there were many other circumstantial factors behind the violence between supporters of West Ham United and Millwall in August 2009, it felt somehow symbolic that Britain’s worst football-related clashes in several years occurred just as the country was feeling the pinch of the global financial crisis. Ultra activity in Italy, meanwhile, has multifaceted roots in political extremism which are well summarised here, but its association with a series of front-page incidents throughout the 2000s mirrored various other symptoms of social dissatisfaction under Silvio Berlusconi.

 

The minutiae of this relationship, between problems in football and wider society, are both complex and controversial. Accepting its existence, however, does at least enable us to consider its application within the J. League and thus look for clues within social issues – of which Japan, too, has several. Perhaps the most chronic of all is an inability to openly accept and acknowledge when such issues are clearly manifested, either as superficial problems or as the underlying causes thereof. The manner in which terrace incidents like those referred to above are quickly swept under the carpet, with mumbling authorities and an awkward media preferring minimalist coverage to anything approaching outcry, is a case in point.

 

The hardcore Gamba supporters I interviewed back in early 2004, as part of my undergraduate research into the role of professional football clubs within Japanese society, required little encouragement to blow the lid off. “I hate Japan,” I was told, to knowing nods all round. Why so emotive? Because society sucks here too. Politics was a choice between the centre-right party that had been in charge forever and the other lot who claimed to be different but essentially stemmed from breakaway factions of the same old guard anyway. Workers suffer at the whim of their companies. Securing the time off to attend weekend football matches was hard enough; a week-long family break virtually unthinkable. Hierarchies distinct from meritocracy are omnipresent and unchallenged, or unchallengeable. Alternative opinions are unvalued or unwelcome. A myriad of rules, usually unwritten, complicate people’s lives at every turn while serving little other evident purpose. Even things that are supposed to be fun, like school sports clubs, are equally coloured by jading obligation. Why, they asked incredulously, had I come to this country again?

 

Our discussions were stimulating and proved quite conclusively that Japanese supporters too – perhaps not everyone, but certainly the most committed – were able to view football as the same social opiate as has traditionally been the case for working class, match-going fans in Europe and South America. The terraces were the one outlet my new friends had to relieve their stresses and swap all this tatemae for a bit of good old honne. They could enjoy the camaraderie with a few drinks, shout at the tops of their voices for ninety minutes, and – where necessary – tell the referee straight out that he was a wanker.

 

With the short era of segregation now over, the knock-on effects of such liberation were enormously positive too. Despite the limited numbers, grass banks, and relatively poor team, the Gamba hardcore successfully created a lively atmosphere that extended well beyond their small gathering – in a manner similar to those in Urawa or Yokohama. Though an occasionally difficult relationship with its ōendan made it difficult for the club to admit publicly, a support more vocal than any Kansai rival undeniably helped attract many other fans to come through the turnstiles on a regular basis.

 

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The trouble with J. League fans (Part 1/4 – The ōendan)

28 Aug 2011(Sun)

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The recent incidents of hooliganism among Kashiwa Reysol ‘fans’ have been highly disturbing. At the away match with Kawasaki Frontale on 16 July, where a late Juninho penalty saw the Sun Kings lose 3-2, a 29-year-old male was arrested for punching a member of a rival ōendan group that had shared the stand behind Todoroki’s southern goal to – notionally, at least – support the same team. This flashpoint sparked a number of other violent scuffles and resulted, eventually, in the official announcement last Sunday that neither ōendan would be welcome at Reysol matches in future. Three individuals have been issued with life stadium bans, with the club promising an intolerant stance on any supporter activity that may be deemed provocative.

 

Mike Havenaar, the Japanese forward of Dutch descent who was subjected to racial abuse when Ventforet Kofu visited the Hitachi Stadium back in April, might argue that such a response is long overdue; as may the lone Shimizu S-Pulse follower beaten en masse outside the same ground in 2008. With the Kashiwa team having illuminated the top flight upon their return this season – still only separated from top spot by three points as we approach the business end of proceedings – it would be hugely unfortunate if their considerable achievements were overshadowed by the antics of a mindless few.

 

Gamba Osaka are another side to have been tarnished by a similar brush. For a period around the turn of the millennium, when the team was weak and the goal-ura stands at Banpaku were actually just grass banks, the club actually had to segregate its two major ōendan – whose respective ideals on how the terraces should be conducted were, evidently, violently opposed. Five years after the Banpaku Wall was brought down with peaceful reunification in 2003, a small number of Gamba fans provoked one of the most notorious incidents of hooliganism in J. League history, which ultimately led to Urawa Reds supporters charging the away stand and blockading the exits from their Saitama Stadium.

 

But while the very idea of independent, organised groups of supporters may immediately evoke unsavoury images of ultras and firms in European minds, there is little doubt that ōendan represent easily the most natural – perhaps the only – model for successfully introducing the culture of following football into the Japanese collective conscience. Mario Kawata, a long-time season ticket holder at Urawa, says of his club’s famous ōendan support: “They are more than just effective as they ARE the atmosphere at ‘Sai-Sta’. Many non goal-ura supporters follow the goal-ura with handclaps. I think this follow-the-leader style is very suited to the Japanese and that’s why they can be that organised. I don’t think the English-style voluntary chanting would work well in Japan.”

 

His sentiments are echoed almost to the letter by Brendan Wimsett of the Yokohama F Marinos fansite Tricolore Pride: “They (the three main ōendan) pretty much ARE the atmosphere! If we didn’t have them we would all be singing out of sync or maybe not even singing at all. They generally do have a positive effect on the rest of the supporters as they like to keep singing when the chips are down – which is good because it not only keeps our heads up, but also encourages the players.”

 

As has been demonstrated to an extreme by the incidents at Todoroki, Kashiwa, and Saitama, the ōendan presence is not always entirely positive. Kawata continues, “One of the negative effects would be lack of spontaneity; people follow the core no matter what. The ōendan style also means that the core tends to speak for the rest. I believe many members of the core Urawa ōendan are more sympathetic to (beleaguered manager Željko) Petrović than the rest of us, otherwise there would be much more pressure on him by now. Another negative effect might be that core ōendan supporters can sometimes be aggressive to ‘quiet’ supporters in the goal-ura – I think some of the ōendan supporters tend to think they are superior. But then if you don’t sing, you shouldn’t be in the goal-ura anyway.”

 

So when, and why, do Japanese fans finally cross the boundaries of acceptable behaviour?

 

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Midway musings – Part 3: The title contenders

10 Aug 2011(Wed)

(Continued from last week.)

 

4) Reysol remain the real deal

The inherent fallacy in penning multi-part articles for (essentially) a weekly column is, of course, the risk you end up running of speaking after the act. Having devoted a thousand or so words last time to the championship challenge of ‘leaders’ Yokohama F Marinos, Kazushi Kimura’s side were promptly removed from the summit with a 2-0 defeat at Kashiwa Reysol on Saturday – a meeting of the top two tragically overshadowed by the sudden death of former Marinos and Japan defender Naoki Matsuda at the tender age of 34. This result did, however, serve to conclusively underline a key theme to the J2 champions’ fortunes over the past two months: Reysol have not actually been found out after all. If not quite favourites, they still remain very much in contention for a unique title double.

 

Having moved seven points clear of their opponents with a hard-fought 2-0 victory in Yokohama back on 11 June, it must have been a little galling, at least, for Kashiwa fans to see this advantage turned into a two-point deficit ahead of the mid-summer rematch. But while Nelsinho Baptista had certainly led his men to an astonishingly quick start – the former result made it 22 points from a possible 27 – a glance at the rearranged fixtures calendar revealed that maintaining a similar pace throughout Japan’s more humid months was highly unrealistic in the first place. Questions were understandably asked after a 3-0 home drubbing at the hands of Jubilo Iwata, but a return of 19 points from a tricky programme of ten league fixtures since easily bettered par in a division as competitive as J1.

 

Reysol’s three defeats in this spell were both entertaining and qualifiable – second best to an inspired Gamba Osaka in a six-goal game of real quality; reduced to ten men for over an hour during a miserable 5-0 walloping at Gamba’s neighbours, Cerezo; and frustrated by a late penalty after fighting back from two down away to Kawasaki Frontale. But while they may not have the overwhelming bouncebackability of last year’s Nagoya Grampus, Kashiwa are incredibly good at turning one point into three, meaning that losses can be quickly offset by highly useful victories over the likes of Vegalta Sendai, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and Kashima Antlers. 13 wins is the most of any team thus far; two draws the fewest.

 

Teams have fallen away in the second half of the season before – Kenta Hasegawa-era Shimizu S-Pulse used to make an art form of it – but if Reysol can hold steady throughout a sustained run of difficult fixtures until the temperature drops in mid-September, they should have few problems keeping cool over an easier run-in. Nelsinho’s squad is a fine balance of experience, youth, and all-round quality, and while a core of ten players have each clocked at least 1,130 minutes (of a possible 1,800) of league action thus far, alternatives like Akimi Barada, Masato Kudo, and Akihiro Hyodo also demonstrate the talent available in reserve.

 

5) Gamba surely can’t get away with it forever

We’re only in early August and the 2011 Gamba Osaka side is already into its fourth, quite distinct iteration. First, we had the team of Adriano – still the third highest scorer in J1 despite packing his bags for Qatar in June and thus only having played half the number of games (or fewer) than any other member of the top ten. Despite his obvious potency, results were nothing extraordinary as Gamba appeared over-reliant on their out-and-out number nine; an unfamiliar protagonist at Banpaku. Indeed, the Brazilian’s departure heralded this season’s finest cuvée – with Takashi Usami coming of age as the forwards combined and rotated with devastating fluidity over a glorious three-week spell that yielded 13 points and 16 goals from five league games.

 

Usami’s graduation to Bayern Munich meant this vintage was strictly limited edition, however, and the characteristic ‘you score three, we’ll score four’ maxim was embarrassingly reversed in, well, a 4-3 reverse at relegation fodder Ventforet Kofu. This – coupled with the concession of two equalisers in a 2-2 home draw with Jubilo Iwata – reaffirmed the chronic defensive issues and nervousness on a one-goal lead that most acknowledged were always inherent but disguised, at least superficially, by the star quality that was now lacking. But then along came Rafinha for Gamba mark four – forging an immediate understanding with Lee Keun-Ho during an extraordinary 25-minute, debut cameo in Kashima that delivered one goal and two assists to turn a likely draw into a 4-1 rout. The 24-year-old has added crucial goals in two consecutive victories since.

 

The Gamba scouts have got lucky. While their work in recruiting Rafinha, clearly a closer fit to the team’s playing style than Adriano, must be highly commended, nobody could have expected the latest Brazilian number nine to settle so quickly; had he not done so, the failings of the past would have remained horribly exposed. Still enormously dependent on the old guard core of 30-somethings, Gamba have been crying out for rejuvenation with another quality midfielder and proper centre-back for at least two seasons. The ugly transition from version 2.0 to 3.0 last month highlighted how, even with a supposedly deep squad, the absence of one key player can be enough to derail everything. If there really is something wrong with Yasuhito Endo, or if Rafinha’s purple patch isn’t permanent, then it is easy to envisage another quick decline.

 

Gamba have already scored 46 goals – ten more than the next most prolific side, Kashiwa – but a tally of 35 conceded is worse than everyone bar Kofu and eight-points-and-counting Avispa Fukuoka. With both central defenders effectively contributing to both columns, the total sum of this year’s four phases has been simultaneously entertaining, exasperating, and nostalgically reminiscent of the 2005 side that ended with a for-against record of 82-58. Of course, Gamba somehow managed to win the league that year, but it surely couldn’t happen again. Surely.

 

6) And this, above all else, is why

Before the season kicked off, I suggested that continental commitments would be the biggest barrier to Nagoya Grampus retaining their title. Dragan Stojković promptly witnessed his charges collect just six points from as many league games while the ACL group stage was negotiated – a run that included embarrassing defeats at Urawa Reds (3-0) and Kofu (3-1). The side that had romped to J. League glory with three games to spare in 2010 were immediately ten points off the pace and languishing in the bottom half of the nascent table.

 

Then came Asian elimination at the hands of Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the round of 16. Now, all of a sudden, Grampus are unbeaten in 14 matches; winning the last six on the bounce. They have closed to within two points of Kashiwa and still enjoy the luxury of a game in hand. The squad is, if anything, slightly stronger than last year’s and, now that Danilson appears to be staying, looks set to avoid disruption through the European transfer window.

 

You know it, and I know it. Nagoya will be champions again this season, and probably by a margin of reasonable comfort.

 

This column will return after the Japanese O-Bon holiday.

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Midway musings – Part 2: The surprise leaders. Or are they?

3 Aug 2011(Wed)

(Continued from last week.)

 

3) Oguro a successful addition to 2011-style Marinos

While speculating with Gamba Osaka supporters in the winter close season about potential striking replacements for Lucas, Cho Jae-Jin, and ultimately Takashi Usami, the name Masashi Oguro was mentioned in passing. After netting 36 goals in 61 games during his final two seasons at Banpaku – the latter as part of a glorious 49-goal striking partnership with Araújo in Gamba’s 2005 championship campaign – the Toyonaka-born forward’s career stagnated badly in Italy, where he mainly sat on the bench during two goalless years with Torino. Relegation-bound Tokyo Verdy seemed a strange choice for his J. League return in mid-2008, but once Oguro rediscovered his mojo he was clearly far too good to be playing out his peak years in J2. A scoring tally of 33 in a year and a half with Verdy and Yokohama FC saw him finally given another opportunity in the top flight twelve months ago, albeit – again – only with a freefalling club from the capital.

 

FC Tokyo soon sank into the abyss, but with seven goals, Oguro at least showed that he still had the talent if someone was willing to take a chance. There was never any serious suggestion he would return to Gamba, but the armchair thinking was that even if not first choice, the local boy could still be a reliable backup and a valuable mentor to youngsters like Usami, Shoki Hirai, and Shohei Otsuka. At the very least, a Japanese version of Michael Owen at Manchester United – only with the considerably preferable status of returning hero rather than (in some fans’ eyes anyway) the untrustworthy mercenary who switched sides. Oguro eventually cropped up at Yokohama F Marinos and the rest, as the all-encompassing ‘they’ say, is history.

 

Or possibly even history in the making. Folks of a Kansai persuasion may have joked that ‘Agent Masashi’ was off to deliver a fourth side from the Tokyo-Yokohama megalopolis into the second division, but after 19 of 34 games, Marinos are top by two points. Now aged 31, Oguro has so far contributed six league goals at a rate of one every 173 minutes – second at the club only to Kazuma Watanabe (seven goals; 160 minutes), who suffered badly with second-season syndrome in an uninspiring side last term but appears revitalised by more evenly shared responsibilities this. Oguro does not always start and his two-goal display to rescue a 2-1 victory over Omiya Ardija on Saturday was the first time all season that he had completed 90 minutes, but whenever the new number 11scores, Marinos win.

 

Before last weekend, a cool, late breakaway sealed a 2-0 result at Urawa Reds; another brace completed a 4-0 first half romp over Ventforet Kofu; and this brilliant trap and finish in the recent Kanagawa derby with Kawasaki Frontale was the equaliser en route to a crucial 2-1 triumph for the Yokohama club. Oguro had been unlucky to strike the crossbar earlier in that match and, given the bearing his latest performance had on the league table come Sunday night, there is a sense that he is finding the old knack of timely intervention.

 

Marinos are nothing if not enduring. Their previous incarnation as Nissan were quick to embrace the advent of professionalism and, towards the end of the old JSL era, won consecutive trebles in 1988-89 and 1989-90. This was followed by a period of domination by the even wealthier Yomiuri/Verdy Kawasaki, but ultimately it was Yokohama who understood better what J. League responsibilities entailed, and a first title in 1995 signalled the start of a long decline for what is now Tokyo’s second club. Encompassing an uncomfortably enforced, effective takeover of neighbours Yokohama Flügels, the following seven seasons yielded just one stage title, a Nabisco Cup, and a host of narrowly-missed cigars; but at the climax of powerful cycles for themselves, Kashima Antlers, and Jubilo Iwata, it was Takeshi Okada’s Marinos who again rose highest to claim two straight championships in 2003 and 2004.

 

The club has, admittedly, been slow to adapt to the AFC Champions League era – six consecutive mid-table finishes (ninth, ninth, seventh, ninth, tenth, eighth) under six different managers a picture of consistent mediocrity – but, whether by accident or design, now finds itself perfectly placed to prosper in another new chapter for the J. League. The ever-accelerating outflux of both established and young Japanese talent to European pastures has a number of implications – mainly positive – but one is that to be the best in Japan, you only need to be the best in Japan.

 

To elaborate, let us take a look at the 2011 Marinos vintage from back to front. The central defensive pairing of Yuzo Kurihara and Yuji Nakazawa has started 18 league matches so far (all bar the 1-0 win at Cerezo Osaka, for which the former was suspended) and conceded just 13 goals – the fewest in the division. Here, the erstwhile Japan captain Nakazawa, now 33, offers 110 caps’ worth of experience to combine successfully with fringe international Kurihara, who is quietly reaching his peak at the age of 27.

 

In midfield, Shunsuke Nakamura appears to have recovered from the personal nightmare that followed him from Espanyol back to Yokohama and on to South Africa last year, with six J1 assists to date bettered only by Ryang Yong-Gi (Vegalta Sendai) and Yuichi Komano (Jubilo Iwata). He might not be able to run ten miles per game, but like David Beckham – to continue the English veterans’ analogy – his range of passing and set pieces means he doesn’t have to. 26-year-old Hiroyuki Taniguchi, uncapped but part of the Japan training squad in Sapporo this week, has been an inspired acquisition from Frontale.

 

The pattern is completed by that forward line of Watanabe – whose sole cap came in an experimental line-up against Yemen last year – and Oguro. Throughout the eleven, then, Marinos boast a core of players who have already seen the bright lights of Europe or World Cups, and others who perhaps never will but nonetheless offer sufficient quality for occasional international recognition. In short: the highest level of playing personnel remaining in the J. League and unlikely to leave any time soon. And, with uncapped Japanese youngsters like Usami (now at Bayern Munich) and ex-Kashiwa Reysol midfielder Yuki Otsu (Borussia Mönchengladbach) now heading up the list of Bundesliga exports, this may indeed be the best – even only – platform for any club to enjoy sustainable domestic achievement over the next few years.

 

Earlier this season, Marinos took advantage of the ACL representatives’ initial struggles to move up the table in a manner that Urawa Reds and several others couldn’t. But the fact that they have continued to flourish ever since is certainly no fluke.

 

(Final part to follow before the Japanese O-Bon summer holiday.)

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