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November 2011

Three to go

18 Nov 2011(Fri)

Though it may not exactly have enjoyed blanket coverage in the wake of the lesson in contemporary Cold War history that was the Japan national team’s landmark trip to Pyongyang 24 hours earlier, Wednesday’s programme of third round matches in the domestic Emperor’s Cup offered a curious, microcosmic insight into the physical and mental readiness of the three remaining J. League title contenders ahead of the final three weekends of the season.

 

Already shorn of international stars Yasuhito Endo and Lee Keun-Ho, Gamba Osaka also opted to give veterans like Satoshi Yamaguchi and irreplaceables like Rafinha a rare break in what has been a long season. They promptly lost 3-2 at home to Mito HollyHock, fifth from bottom of the second division. Defending J1 champions Nagoya Grampus also rested a few older players, but demonstrated the depth of their playing resources with what was still a relatively strong starting eleven – including an opportunity for the exciting attacking pairing of Mu Kanazaki and Kensuke Nagai – to overcome J2 surprise package Giravanz Kitakyushu by a single Yoshizumi Ogawa goal.

 

And then there was Kashiwa Reysol – the J2 title-holders whose thinner squad was supposed to have quietly slipped away and left the big boys to sort out the silverware several months ago. Still incredibly top of the league table and thus about to embark upon the most important trio of matches in their history, nobody would have batted an eyelid had Nelsinho Baptista made wholesale changes and willingly sacrificed their midweek cup distraction. Sod that. The Sun Kings rested absolutely nobody and went out and battered a beleaguered Ventforet Kofu 6-1.

 

Their persistence has been astonishing, not least given that the season rescheduling in the wake of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami left Kashiwa with a tough concentration of fixtures against other big sides during the summer months. A lead in the standings that had only been threatened on goal difference throughout the first half of the campaign was taken away at the end of July, before their 2-0 loss in a battle of the top two at Banpaku on 24 August saw them briefly fall to fourth position. But even then, Reysol’s deficit was never more than three points. The difficult run ended with narrow, but vital home wins over Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya, and the team has come out the other side to collect maximum points from all bar one of their six, theoretically easier league matches since.

 

This has left them with a two-point advantage over the considerably more experienced Gamba, who have been there or thereabouts at the J. League high table for the past eight seasons. While Akira Nishino’s team has taken until autumn to settle down after a year of near-constant evolution, fans of glorious losers, black humour (as a Brit, that’s two ticks out of two for me so far), or downright schadenfreude will have been pleased to see that age and wisdom has yet to dilute that most endearing quality of bottling it when it really counts. The division’s overwhelming top scorers, Gamba failed to keep a single clean sheet in the first 18 games of the season but have shut their opponents out in seven of 13 since. Once they ascended to the summit, however, their credentials were soon questioned in a shock 2-0 home loss to Kofu, and the Kansai side slipped back to second place – where they somehow seem more comfortable – with a painful 4-1 loss at the Mizuho last month that revived the challenge of their hosts that day, Grampus.

 

Dragan Stojković will surely be hoping that the ruthlessness of that particular display and the maximum points collected from two league matches since are proof that Nagoya have recovered the characteristic consistency that deserted them through August and September. The reigning kings of Japanese football are just three points adrift of Kashiwa in third but have the best goal difference of the lot; deliciously – for the neutral, anyway – the leaders are at a disadvantage to either of their rivals should points tallies end up level. Just one slipup, therefore, is all it need take for the order to be shuffled again.

 

The eventual champions will finish with an average of only marginally more than two points per game, underlining – as if it were really necessary in this league – the difficulty that all candidates will face in achieving a 100% record over the final stretch. Kashiwa’s terrific ability to turn one point into three has been the cornerstone of their title charge, but equally, a record of just two draws but eight defeats will offer Grampus hope that any stumble will be of the variety that allows them to overcome the current deficit too. More to the point, most of the losses that Reysol have suffered already have come in unusual and unpredictable circumstances – including five-goal maulings at both Cerezo Osaka and Jubilo Iwata, an earlier 3-0 home reverse to the latter, and inexplicably poor displays against lowly Montedio Yamagata and Omiya Ardija.

 

As ever, the message therefore is ‘hard to predict’, but the forthcoming, antepenultimate weekend could easily be decisive as each of the contenders face differing challenges. Kashiwa embark upon arguably their hardest remaining fixture away to Shimizu S-Pulse, who have finally found some form of late with three home wins in a row and just one defeat – the derby with Iwata – in the last 11. Nagoya head to Yokohama for the biggest test left of their credentials, and while Marinos have seen both form and championship challenge evaporate over the past month or so, Stojković’s men simply have no margin for error. Finally, Gamba visit 13th-placed Albirex Niigata, which wouldn’t look so bad on paper were it not for the Osakans’ propensity to find banana skins where nobody else would look.

 

Indeed, such is the nature of the Gamba beast that one has long gotten the impression they would be best served going into the final day – like last season, away to Shimizu – still second and hoping for the right result from Kashiwa’s mouth-watering clash with relegation-threatened Urawa Reds. Should Nishino’s side find themselves top this Sunday evening, it would only add to the pressure ahead of their final home match with Vegalta Sendai on 26 November. All of which would suit Grampus, who face already-relegated Yamagata then Niigata in their last two fixtures, down to the ground.

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Guide to Japanese football stadiums (for Calcio 2000 magazine)

15 Nov 2011(Tue)

The December 2011 issue of the Italian monthly football magazine, Calcio 2000, features a guide to Japanese football stadiums penned by Ben Mabley and translated into Italian by Cesare Polenghi, Asia Managing Editor for Goal.com. The original English version of this article is printed below.

 

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World Cup

Inevitably, the most familiar of Japan’s football stadia to the wider world are those that were used as venues for the FIFA World Cup in 2002. The complicated nature of the co-hosting agreement with South Korea meant that the two organising countries built or renovated no fewer than ten world-class facilities each, with the 72,327-capacity Nissan Stadium in Yokohama (known as International Stadium Yokohama during FIFA competitions) hosting the final between Brazil and Germany.

 

The venue is also the regular home for both the FIFA Club World Cup final and J. League side Yokohama F Marinos, but its sheer enormity can harm the overall viewing experience. The stands are situated a significant distance back even from the running track that surrounds the pitch, making it somewhat difficult for supporters behind one goal to clearly observe the action at the other.

 

Nagai Stadium in Osaka offers considerably more favourable sightlines and ambience, with the roofs that sweep over the two main stands shaped to offer fantastic acoustics even when tenants Cerezo Osaka – the smaller of the city’s two professional clubs – struggle to fill even a third of the seats. Other multi-purpose facilities used in 2002 include the Big Swan Stadium, home of the unsuccessful but fanatically-supported Albirex Niigata; and the Oita Bank Dome, whose oval shape and Wembley-shaming six arches (which support a retractable roof) inspired the nickname ‘Big Eye’.

 

The greatest visual impact and matchday experience, however, are found at the three football-specific facilities that Japan constructed for its half of the World Cup. The largest is the 63,700-seater Saitama Stadium 2002 – fittingly the home of the J. League’s most popular club, Urawa Reds. This magnificent venue was bathed in a sea of red as its residents sealed the domestic title in 2006 and Asian Champions League glory two years later. Though the team now finds itself fighting an uphill battle against relegation to the second tier, attendances this season have still averaged above 32,000 – only Niigata, at just over 26,000, comes close.

 

In the west of the country, the construction plans for Kobe Wing Stadium survived the devastating earthquake of 1995 to host three World Cup matches seven years later. Originally boasting a capacity of 42,000 thanks to temporary, open-air stands at either end, the stadium has since been reduced to a more compact 30,000 but with a new retractable roof that further boosts its already impressive acoustics. Meanwhile, Brazilian great Zico was an advisor for the construction of the original, 15,000-seater Kashima Stadium and scored a hat-trick for the home side, Kashima Antlers, when it was first used on the J. League’s opening weekend back in 1993. It underwent a near-threefold expansion around the turn of the millennium and, despite suffering significant damage in the 11 March disaster this year, was successfully repaired and reopened just three months later.

 

The final three stadiums used in 2002 are all slightly unusual cases. Sapporo Dome on the northern island of Hokkaido is used for both football and baseball, with separate fields prepared for each and slid in and out of the dome as required. The stands are also designed to rotate and retract to suit the wildly different shapes of the two respective playing areas. Miyagi Stadium and Shizuoka ‘Ecopa’ Stadium, meanwhile, are both impressive, modern multi-purpose facilities, but despite the vast expense that went into their development, their remote locations mean they serve only as occasional homes for Vegalta Sendai and Shimizu S-Pulse, respectively.

 


Football-specific

The situation is even more bizarre at the Toyota Stadium, which offers a triple whammy of publicity for the automotive marque that had already lent its name to the entire city. Immediately recognisable for its accordion-like roof and the monolithic, terrifically steep stands that tower over either side of the pitch, the construction of this 45,000-seater facility got the green light even though it had already been rejected as a venue for the World Cup. Indeed, situated more than 20 miles from central Nagoya, reigning J. League champions Nagoya Grampus prefer to use their far smaller old stadium (see below) instead. The Toyota gets most prominence from its use in the Club World Cup, of which you-know-who is a major sponsor.

 

Other cities, however, have built modern, medium-sized facilities with specifically the J. League in mind. Sendai provided a far more attractive option for Vegalta in the shape of the atmospheric Yurtec Stadium, which seats 20,000 fans in close proximity to the pitch. J2 side JEF United Chiba have been based at their similarly-sized Fukuda Denshi Arena (commonly abbreviated to ‘Fuku-Ari’) since 2005, while Avispa Fukuoka’s smart Level-5 Stadium has also been used to bring international rugby to the island of Kyushu. Famous for its stunning views of Mount Fuji, Nihondaira in Shimizu was opened just before the launch of the J. League and has been named as the country’s best pitch four times in the past seven years.

 

Football-specific stadiums that predate the J. League are rare, but tend to prove popular with hardcore away fans craving the ‘authentic’ feel of a traditional European stadium. Notable examples include the Hitachi Stadium used by 2011 title challengers Kashiwa Reysol, Júbilo Iwata’s Yamaha Stadium, and the NACK5 Stadium in Saitama – home of Omiya Ardija and, with a history dating back to 1960, said to be the oldest football-only venue in Japan.

 


Multi-purpose municipal facilities

The majority of J. League clubs, however, begin life in somewhat generic, municipal stadiums built back in the 1960s and ’70s for athletics and various field sports. Such facilities tend to have shallow, roofless stands separated from the playing area by the ubiquitous red running tracks, making for unfortunately inefficient acoustics. While still prevalent throughout J2 and the non-professional levels below, this template stands out almost as a non-sequitur in the case of two J1 giants – Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka. When the latter were crowned champions in 2005, the ‘stands’ behind each goal were actually just grass banks – a phenomenon still visible at some second-tier sides like Ehime FC and Thespa Kusatsu.

 


The Holy Grail

Finally, there is one stadium that carries a greater spiritual resonance within Japanese sport than all of the above combined. The National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo is basic by today’s standards and can suffer as a football venue due to its running track, but will be remembered forever as the place where post-war Japan re-announced itself to the world as the hosts of the Summer Olympics in 1964. Built on the site of the similarly historic former Meiji Jingu Gaien Stadium (which dated back to 1924), the stadium also hosted the 1991 World Athletics Championships – including that long jump battle between Mike Powell and Carl Lewis – and was the revitalising home of the Intercontinental (Toyota) Cup from 1980 to 2001. It currently serves as the venue for all domestic cup finals, including the traditional Emperor’s Cup final every New Year’s Day.

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Handshakes, not fake sheikhs

9 Nov 2011(Wed)

This column has never set out to be a purveyor of gossip; much less, the kind of place its loyal readers might come for the delicious, revelatory scoops they couldn’t find elsewhere. That would involve a lot more very early mornings – I presume, anyway, otherwise surely people on the telly with something to hide would recommend lie-ins as the best way to catch them – and a fair bit less dignified, comfortable office chair, for a start. So what’s a boy to do late of a drunken Saturday evening, a good hour after the last train from party town made tracks for home (or, indeed, anyone else’s), when he spots the head coach of a major J. League football club sitting alone at the opposite side of the bar?

 

To set the scene a little, a perfect Saturday night for this, well, column will usually involve a nice bit of sociably concentrated alcoholic intake until minutes before said locomotive. Be it premature aging or unhealthy obsession, this way I get to get home for the 3pm Premier League kickoffs. But this particular evening was a good friend’s birthday and I had thus generously agreed to join in with an extended all-you-can-drink deal – a decision that had nothing to do with the fact that my English team of choice were playing on Sunday. By one in the morning, our short stumble through the Minami – literally ‘southern’ – district of Osaka had taken us to a small ‘martini bar’ whose Italian moniker might have fallen off the back of a Fiat but really implied a specific one-price-fits-all policy convenient for punters and pint-pullers alike.

 

Seven days later, this place would be full of nurses, zombies, and various others who evidently didn’t grow out of Halloween after primary school (shit – maybe I am just grumpy; I’m only 28), but even among a more conventionally-dressed ethnic mixture of 20- and 30-somethings from across Japan and around the world, a lone, 60-year-old Brazilian gentleman stood out as something of an outlier to the overall demographic. “Hey Ben,” a similarly wobbly British friend called me. “Over there – that’s the bloke from Cerezo Osaka I told you I’d seen here before. Come on, let’s see if he fancies a chat.”

 

Happily, Luiz Roberto Matter proved to be a most affable chap and spoke good conversational English as long as we made the effort – necessary anyway given the jukebox music and our inexpertly suppressed level of intoxication – to speak both loudly and clearly. Head coach and assistant to Levir Culpi at Cerezo, he appeared to have little more than a couple of Coronas inside him. While a touch melancholy at the departure that day of his visiting son, his friendly smile was unaffected by my mate’s revelation that I am far more likely to be found cheering on Osaka’s other professional club than catalysing the fading process befalling my old England 1966 shirt to fit in with the pink lot closer to this end of the city. Nor, even, by the slightly inaccurate follow-up that I was a ‘reporter’ – which I anticipated may derail a short encounter I had planned on keeping off-record anyway.

 

Au contraire. My partner-in-crime’s grandiose slur – not as in pejoratively – instead seemed to persuade Senhor Matter that we would be the perfect drinking buddies to open up to about all, er, matters. He happily accepted my offer of a replacement Corona and spoke with a blunt succinctness that anointed his carefully considered English with an honest yet jovial tone. No fake sheikh; just a warm, welcoming handshake. All right. Did he agree, then, that Cerezo had struggled to cope with the additional demands of the AFC Champions League in only their second season back in the top flight?

 

“Yes, of course,” Matter nodded. “Last year was very good for us but this year...” He raised his palm to indicate the up-and-down nature of the team’s form level. “Sometimes we have been here, but other times, here. We don’t have many players, and that’s because we don’t have any money. Your team, Gamba, have maybe three times more money than us. So they can pay people more.” Like Adriano, the Brazilian who scored 19 goals on loan at Cerezo in 2010 before a short-lived, but similarly explosive ‘permanent’ switch to Banpaku? The striker’s compatriot rubbed his right thumb across his middle and index fingers in the universal gesture for ‘loads-a-money’. “That man is all... this. He just wanted the yen.”

 

The achievement of finishing third and joining their neighbours in continental competition just twelve months after promotion from J2 was all the more remarkable for Cerezo’s reliance on a core of eight or nine virtual ever-presents. But this made the ‘shop window’ effect of unexpected success all the more damaging. “We have lost so many great players; not just Adriano,” rued a still-smiling Matter. “First Shinji Kagawa to Dortmund, then Akihiro Ienaga to Real Mallorca. Now Takashi Inui, also to Germany. (Recent national team breakthrough star Hiroshi) Kiyotake is very good for us, but I think he will of course leave one day too.”

 

There will surely be no shortage of suitors for Kiyotake, with the characteristic acquiescence of Japanese clubs as far as European opportunities are concerned eliminating any real obstacle when players are ready and willing. But with the 21-year-old attacking midfielder sidelined recently, Cerezo’s headline-maker during a carnageous second half of the campaign – results include a 4-3 win and 6-1 reverse against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, a formbook-confounding 0-4 home loss (to Ventforet Kofu) and 4-0 away win (at Jubilo Iwata) on successive weekends in October, and a 5-4 victory over Sanfrecce Hiroshima where they had trailed 0-3 at half time – has instead been the veteran striker Ryuji Bando.

 

“Mmm...” Matter searched for the right words to refute my suggestion that the former Gamba and Vissel Kobe forward – a Kansai man through and through – might have earned a little more pitch time. “You say that, but after his hat-trick we start him for two matches and… nothing. Then, after that, the same pattern again. He is already 32 years old. He did well to score, but we have seen that he cannot play every game now.” It is a fair point – a J. League record nine of Bando’s ten goals this season have come as a substitute, including two hat-tricks.

 

By now, the segment of lime has barely enough Mexican lager left to float in and we recognise we have probably accosted our new friend for long enough, so I decide to return to the noisier side of the bar after one last question about his future. Matter’s bold body language and forthright response typified the amusingly carefree air he had carried throughout our conversation. The head coach had his bit to say and didn’t mind who heard him.

 

“My contract finishes at the end of this year and I don’t think I will stay in Japan. Maybe, but probably not.” In one, sudden movement, he rested his elbow on the bar and outstretched his thumb and two leading fingers. “I have offers from three clubs in Brazil. Three big clubs. They are Cruzeiro, Atlético Mineiro, and Fluminense. This is very interesting for me, so if we agree something then I will go back home.” Given that Matter has been a loyal right-hand man for manager Culpi since the mid-1990s, joining the 58-year-old for two spells at Cerezo and at a host of Brazilian sides – including multiple stints at both Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro – any such dealings may well have additional implications higher up the chain of command.

 

So, what have we learned? During my taxi journey home and hangover recovery on Sunday, my mind converged on three different elements to ponder. Firstly, people about to leave their jobs for a better offer really don’t mind who knows about it. Secondly, football – or Japanese football, anyway – isn’t too glamorous for night spots where everything costs 500 yen. And finally, though several jokki of beer can frequently erase entire hours’ worth of conversations, actions, and locations from my accessible memory, when the topic is football I will remember every last word. Good to know.

 

I shook Senhor Matter’s hand again and he bade me a warm farewell as I left the bar shortly after 2am. Did it not matter, I jokingly inquired, that he had a game the following day; and away from home to boot? “Meh!” – or a Portuguese equivalent – he laughed. “As long as I’m at Nagai by 7am, it’s no problem.” 12 hours or so later, Cerezo recorded that 4-0 romp in Iwata. I like the way this man works.

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