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September 2011

Fanning the flames? Latest ‘news’ on Gamba Osaka stadium explored

29 Sep 2011(Thu)

On Tuesday of this week, the official website for the organisation raising funds to build a new, single-purpose football stadium for Gamba Osaka – concerningly monikered ‘Field of Smile’ – was updated with new developments for only the second time in the past six months.


For those of us who actually look at these things, the presence alone of wholly two additional articles in the list of news releases was enough to raise a fleeting gasp of anticipation. A subject of personal interest to this column, the proposed new facility had returned to the newspaper pages earlier in the month, and while the website’s previous update in August was just a disappointing blog post that may as well have read “We have nothing to say and can’t say it anyway”, it did teasingly add that they wanted (hmm, key word, perhaps?) to make an official announcement in about October.


27 September is about as about October as it gets, of course, without actually being October. Would these two new website pages reveal the flames to which the earlier media smoke had pointed? Click, click… no, sadly not. The first consisted of just four lines, stating that the organisation had held its sixth board meeting that day (we knew that anyway) and appointed someone named Shosuke Mori as its new chair. The second was slightly longer – twice as long, in fact – but served solely to elaborate upon who Shosuke Mori actually is (the chairman of Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) and of the Kansai Economic Federation, in case you cared).


So it’s back to peering through the smoke to see if there’s really anything burning inside – a familiar experience for Gamba fans, given the virtual absence of anything nearing concrete announcements and developments since news first broke of the stadium plans fully three years ago. Hopes were initially raised a couple of weekends back with an article in the Yomiuri Shimbun, and further information on proceedings at that dull-sounding board meeting was extracted by the Asahi Shimbun today. Smoke masks at the ready.



YOMIURI (Saturday 17 September)




The Expo ’70 Commemoration Park (Suita City, Osaka Prefecture) has emerged as the favoured candidate for the construction of J. League Division 1 (J1) football club Gamba Osaka’s new football-specific stadium, it was learned on Friday (16 September).


This, if true, is big news. Though plans for both the stadium design and the financing of its construction have, respectively, been in place for a year and two years already, the slight niggle has always persisted that Gamba don’t actually have anywhere to put it. The choice of the Expo Park – where the team’s current, outdated facility is located – would be a popular one; identity of location maintained as was the case when Arsenal moved just down the road to the Emirates, and no need for fans to reword any of their songs.


The concept for the stadium was originally announced in 2008, but discussions between Gamba Osaka and Suita City stalled after the two parties failed to agree terms for the facility’s maintenance costs. However, Suita presented a new proposal this July which would reduce the burden undertaken by Gamba, and with the club keen for the construction plans to be decided in time for its 20th anniversary in October, it is thought to be ready to accept.


The ‘it is thought to be’ sounds as frustratingly non-committal as most of the official prose that has been sporadically presented by the Gamba press office. But it is certainly true that the club had entered renewed negotiations with its current home city and that it is preparing to celebrate said milestone this coming weekend. It is understandable if the club wants (there’s that word again) to get things sorted to coincide.


The planned stadium will hold at least 32,000 people – making it eligible to host international matches – and will be built near Gamba’s training ground within the Expo ’70 Commemoration Park.


Meeting international specifications has always been Gamba’s objective – not least considering that regulations to host AFC Champions League matches are set to tighten in 2013. For the first time, the article uses a declarative ‘will be built’ without any qualifications. This seems to hint at an imminent announcement.


It is planned that the construction costs of 11 billion yen will be collected in the form of donations by a fundraising body led by Gamba, with several dozen companies – including the club’s parent, Panasonic – set to contribute a collective eight billion yen. The fundraisers will continue to approach additional, both corporate and individual parties to cover the remainder. The completed stadium will then be donated to Suita City, with Gamba taking responsibility for its operations. The fundraising body is expected to hold a board meeting in the near future at which it will confirm the official plans.


The fundraising structure was publicly announced before a home fixture with Shimizu S-Pulse in 2009 – which ultimately proved to be a PR disaster for Gamba president Kikuo Kanamori – with the complicated-sounding, dual-donation structure designed to ensure that no tax needs to be paid on the monies collected from those who ultimately fund the project. There has always been a paradox to the agreement in that no money can legally be collected until a site is determined, but securing a site in the first place is undoubtedly more problematic for not having the funds in place to guarantee the quick progress of construction. It is therefore reassuring to understand both that several charitable investors are already on board and that the club is not overly reliant on Panasonic – a company with plenty of fish to fry amid disappointing profit-loss figures, the crippling effect on export income of an unprecedentedly high yen, and a major business reorganisation following its takeover of Sanyo.


But what of this board meeting – is there any chance that our (Yomiuri’s) expectations have actually been met despite the limited official information offered thus far? Let’s see what light Asahi have been able to shed.



ASAHI (Thursday 29 September)




The president of J. League club Gamba Osaka, Kikuo Kanamori, visited Suita City Hall on Wednesday (28 September) to meet with the mayor, Tetsuya Inoue. The meeting was held behind closed doors, but according to Mayor Inoue, Kanamori reported that the fundraising body collecting donations to cover the construction of Gamba’s new stadium had held a board meeting on Tuesday (27 September) and decided to continue deliberating over the site for the facility.


Oh. ‘Continue.’ ‘Deliberating.’ That sounds very much like deciding not to decide anything.


Discussions over the construction of the new stadium began in 2008, when Gamba approached Suita and expressed its desire for the Expo ’70 Commemoration Park to be considered as a potential construction site. In January of last year, the city presented three conditions to Gamba: (1) The stadium should be built by Gamba and then donated to the city; (2) The designated administrator for the stadium should cover any portion of the lease paid by the city to the Commemorative Organization for the Japan World Exposition ’70 that exceeds the equivalent value of the fixed property tax on the land; (3) The costs of any major repairs and maintenance on the facility that may be anticipated in future should be covered by the designated administrator. Discussions soon reached a deadlock as Gamba requested that the city cover the lease and maintenance payments in their entirety, and had consequently been frozen since March 2010.


This is not new information, but does at least eloquently summarise the reasons behind the 15-month stall in discussions and, hence, developments – in Suita, anyway.


Suita reopened discussions with Gamba following the appointment of Inoue as mayor this June. It is understood that Gamba explained to the city on 16 September that “We are also in negotiations with Takatsuki City. We hope to soon decide between Suita City and Takatsuki City as our official construction venue.” Mayor Inoue stated that he told Kanamori on this date, “Please choose Suita.”


One imagines that the prior deadlock was borne of a stubbornness on both sides; equally, it is quite conceivable that the new mayor’s desire for J. League football to remain in Suita has caused both club and president to believe not only that discussions can be resumed, but also that Gamba are suddenly in a much stronger negotiating position. It has been public knowledge from the outset that other locations in northern Osaka have been explored. If one of the first things that Tetsuya Inoue did as mayor was present Gamba with a better deal, perhaps Kanamori has seen his opportunity to play hardball and is willing to sacrifice the October deadline before which the city’s offer was designed to be passed.



Gamba will line up against Urawa Reds on Sunday in a black strip specially commissioned to mark the occasion of their 20th anniversary but, as it stands, no new stadium to put the icing on the birthday cake. With each passing day and hour, the chances of the status quo being broken in time for the celebrations grow slimmer; should the Urawa match pass with no announcement, a further, prolonged wait is highly likely. As ever, it would appear that no news is purely that.

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Qualifying the qualifiers

16 Sep 2011(Fri)

At long, long last, it appears that fielding players out of position so as to avoid modifying the system has finally convinced the Japanese domestic media of Alberto Zaccheroni’s intentions. While the Italian’s reign thus far has been irritatingly dominated by misplaced excitement over his trademark 3-4-3 formation, the man himself has always openly admitted that this is nothing more than a backup option. Ever since day one, ‘Zac’ has sought to utilise the confidence that stemmed from a successful 2010 World Cup and the excitement of a new golden generation to mould his Japan into a world-class 4-2-3-1 – a formation that ultimately failed under predecessor Takeshi Okada. It was therefore no shock when, after a brief trial of the 3-4-3 alternative this spring, the Italian returned to the former formation for August’s friendly with South Korea and the opening World Cup qualifiers against North Korea and Uzbekistan earlier this month.


The recent double header – the Samurai Blue’s first competitive matches since winning the Asian Cup back in January – did, however, serve to highlight a number of key issues that will require solving over the next 24 months. Zaccheroni is the latest Japan manager to embark upon the particular duality of developing a team capable of taking on greater global challenges as underdogs, while still having to prepare the side to beat lesser Asian nations against which they start as heavy favourites. A lack of cutting edge against opponents content to play for the draw has been a common Japanese affliction in previous World Cup qualifiers (and in Qatar), and while the 1-1 draw in Tashkent on 6 September was quite acceptable, a laboured, last-gasp home victory over North Korea four days earlier felt all too familiar. (Literally so, seeing as Japan had beaten the Chollima 1-0 in similar fashion at the same Saitama Stadium back in 2005.)


In this regard, it was slightly surprising to witness no real tactical modifications to break through the nine Korean players that seemed permanently stationed in their defensive third; at least, until Pak Kwong-Ryong’s red card on 84 minutes prompted the cavalry charge that brought a headed winner for Maya Yoshida deep into injury time. Perhaps this implies that Zac is not yet satisfied that his players can use the 3-4-3 alternative effectively. Another possible explanation, however, is that backup full back Yuichi Komano is not quite as ideally suited to a more dynamic role on the left wing as the injured first choice, Yuto Nagatomo.


The other major absentee for the two September qualifiers was Keisuke Honda, and it was Zac’s insistence on bringing in replacements to fulfil an identical role in the roving three that finally convinced the wider Japanese press that, under this manager, 4-2-3-1 remains categorically the way forward. His choices of understudy, though, were intriguing. Yosuke Kashiwagi, who started against North Korea, had hardly impressed at the Asian Cup, while the visit to Uzbekistan saw Makoto Hasebe pushed forward to sit behind striker Tadanari Lee while Yuki Abe was recalled to the skipper’s usual volante position.


In both cases – especially the latter, when Zac was forced to pull Hasebe back into a temporary 4-1-4-1 to stem the Uzbekistani tide before half time – Japan looked rather narrow and unbalanced until the stand-ins were replaced by a more natural creative midfielder, Hiroshi Kiyotake. It could well be that, despite still not earning an international start, these developments have served to establish Kiyotake as first-choice reserve, and as the likeliest eventual challenger – next to Takashi Usami of Bayern Munich – to Shinji Okazaki’s position alongside Honda and Kagawa in 2014.


Hasebe will surely continue to sit behind the attacking midfield trio in future, but the makeup of the volante pairing remains a key long-term issue for Zac to solve over the next three years. While the majority of the overseas-based internationals are aged 25 or under, Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo will be 30 and 34 come the next World Cup. Even with greater experience, combined with Zac’s careful coaching, it is hard to see that the absence of a more destructive player in either of the deeper-lying positions won’t remain exactly the same problem as it was for Okada once Japan emerge from the very different challenges of qualification. Much will therefore be anticipated of Hajime Hosogai’s education at FC Augsburg and, later, Bayer Leverkusen. A genuinely established number nine would be nice, too – but that’s a story for another time.

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