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January 2012

Club World Cup diary (Part 2)

31 Jan 2012(Tue)

What’s it like covering football matches in the press box? What does being a semi-freelance writer actually entail? How do you combine it all with the day job? These are just some of the questions that beloved family members, friends old and new, and even exciting strangers on Twitter ask me with truly surprising infrequency.

Nevertheless, like in many professions the busiest part of the year is immediately followed by the quietest, and with the J. League clubs only just beginning to ease themselves into pre-season preparations, now seems like an opportune time to shed light on the above and, ooh, a modicum more with a semi-freelance writer’s diary of December 2011 – a footballing month dominated (in Japan, anyway) by the FIFA Club World Cup, hot off the back of the climax to the J. League season.

Any suggestion that this also conveniently serves as a means of easing myself into pre-season preparations following an extended Christmas break in the UK from which the mince pies and cider still require a bit of working off would be purely coincidental.


Thursday 8 December 2011: Desk – Sofa – Twitter

The trouble with having a day job – or one of them, anyway – is that going out to cover midweek matches requires a bit of advance negotiation. The FIFA Club World Cup gets under way tonight, and while missing out on any of the latter stage action in Yokohama was never an option, the holiday I’ll be taking to go back to the UK for Christmas means I’m a touch short of leeway to take many liberties aside from that. As such, it’s been another week almost entirely spent in front of one screen or other – mainly this one, at my desk. Fortunately, December has been reasonably mild thus far; Japan’s love of ‘eco’ technologies is confusingly contrasted by a widespread lack of double glazing and basic wall insulation, which can make the ‘office’ a touch chilly on the old typing fingers.

Aided along by iTunes and a spot of The Vaccines – which reminds me, I need to see about tickets for their gig in Osaka during the close season – I have endeavoured to remain productive enough to take advantage of all that’s going on in Japan right now while still keeping my contracted employers happy. After completing all daily quota requirements (and a bit more besides, the cheeky rascals), I recorded the weekly Minutecast on Monday, wrote a wordy review of the season on Tuesday, and penned a Blizzard companion piece for the fine chaps at In Bed With Maradona on Wednesday.

In a reversal of the usual roles, meanwhile, people seem to want to talk me too – which, if inevitably rather seasonal, is still always quite flattering. A British agent (as in football, not secret) wants me to liaise on a couple of potential transfers, which sounds like a fun way of using that Japanese degree seeing as I seldom write articles in the local language these days. A guy named Luke Geoghegan from This Is Futbol has requested an interview, while my new friend Michael Hudson has published a charming account at the ever-entertaining European Football Weekends of his recent trip down to Osaka for the Gamba fans’ end-of-season party. The proud Geordie neglects to admit that he fell asleep on my sofa, beer in hand, midway through the meeting of our respectively favoured Uniteds that night, however.

Of all places, I originally ‘met’ Michael through Twitter. Having previously seen little need to expand my social networking portfolio beyond Facebook – which serves as an invaluable means of gathering in one place with old friends some 6,000 miles west of here – I was requested to join up a couple of years ago by the Guardian so that my tweets could be fed to their website in real time as part of the World Cup fans’ network. The experience quickly taught me the error of my ways. Even just in terms of primary publicity, Twitter links were a key factor in doubling visitor figures to this column, the Football Japan Minutecast, and other English-language content on the site virtually overnight – though the Samurai Blue’s impressive performances in South Africa certainly didn’t hurt either. Then, as Twitter follower numbers increase, these kind followers can of course be directly and instantly informed of new articles whenever they are posted. This ensured that the readership did not drop off and indeed continued to rise, albeit at a more gradual rate, even when the sounds of vuvuzelas* had become a distant memory.

(* I still have two of the things here at home for nostalgic purposes. In practice, they do get the occasional blow while cleaning the flat or when hosting parties.)

But the real appeal and, indeed, surprising benefits of Twitter have come on a tertiary level. In some cases because they read my articles, in others because I read theirs, tweets have put me in touch with a number of fine people with whom I share similar interests. Sean Carroll, for example, is a British journalist with the Daily Yomiuri who also served on the Guardian’s World Cup fans’ network and with whom I was able to enjoy plenty of friendly online debate before we finally met at the Team as One charity match in Osaka back in March. Michael, his real-life chum Colm Smyth (a Yokohama-based ‘intermittent Arsenal blogger’), and I engaged in so much tweeted pub banter that we essentially became mates before actually getting the opportunities to meet in person. On occasion, the establishment of online communities can also lead to work, including my original contact with Alan Gibson, now editor at JSoccer Magazine; while a chance Twitter discussion with Michael back in January prompted a message from the most esteemed Jonathan Wilson, which in turn led to a cherished invitation to write for his then-forthcoming new quarterly publication, The Blizzard.

I suppose, in a sense, this function of Twitter acts like an extrapolated version of an online dating service – only since neither sex nor sexuality come into the question, what you have to say actually is the most important thing and it really doesn’t matter what you look like.

That said, English-language coverage of Japanese football remains enough of a niche market that, in one’s more paranoid moments, it can be easy to wonder exactly how far the audience extends beyond this nice little social network that we have gradually established. Minutecast listener statistics in the mid-to-low four figures offer a slightly more encouraging glimpse of reality, but like with John Duerden’s comment at the weekend, a good half of the feedback I receive via Twitter, Facebook, or the articles themselves tends to be from fellow Asian football writers. These are, naturally, the best kind of comments as both criticism and praise will be constructive and well-founded. But it sometimes makes you think: perhaps we’ve just got this little circle of us, composing prose purely for each other’s benefit? I’m quite tempted to try out Lee Hurst’s old joke about the lonely radio presenter doing the nighttime graveyard shift, who sought to ascertain the scale of his audience by gratuitously dropping an expletive into his broadcast.
“That was The B-52’s with ‘Love Shack’. Wanker!”
Seconds later, the studio phone starts ringing.
“Did you just say ‘wanker’ on the radio?”
“Yes! Are you a listener?”
“No, I’m another late-night DJ. What a good idea...”

But I digress. Another, more immediately practical function of Twitter in this line of work is to provide minute-by-minute-style coverage of matches (or something similar thereto). This is obviously facilitated by the real-time nature of Twitter but carries multiple benefits, as the tweets serve both as commentary for anyone following the game but unable to watch it on television and as personal memos from which I can write my pieces later (and thus would have to have been taking anyway). I admit that I can get a little carried away at times, but then I figure that most people who follow me like Japanese football anyway and, with plenty kind enough to share my in-game tweets, a typical Japan national team match can easily draw in a couple of dozen new followers.

Confined to my sofa for the evening kickoff from Toyota, as newly-crowned J. League champions Kashiwa Reysol get their Club World Cup campaign under way with the playoff match against Auckland City of New Zealand, I carry in the laptop and embark on a bit of shared note-taking. 90 fairly uninspiring minutes, with Kashiwa easing to a 2-0 victory, bring in a grand total of two additional Twitter followers. Hmm. Perhaps not everyone is as excited about this tournament as I am.

(To be continued. Click here for Part 1.)

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Club World Cup diary (Part 1)

30 Jan 2012(Mon)

What’s it like covering football matches in the press box? What does being a semi-freelance writer actually entail? How do you combine it all with the day job? These are just some of the questions that beloved family members, friends old and new, and even exciting strangers on Twitter ask me with truly surprising infrequency.

Nevertheless, like in many professions the busiest part of the year is immediately followed by the quietest, and with the J. League clubs only just beginning to ease themselves into pre-season preparations, now seems like an opportune time to shed light on the above and, ooh, a modicum more with a semi-freelance writer’s diary of December 2011 – a footballing month dominated (in Japan, anyway) by the FIFA Club World Cup, hot off the back of the climax to the J. League season.

Any suggestion that this also conveniently serves as a means of easing myself into pre-season preparations following an extended Christmas break in the UK from which the mince pies and cider still require a bit of working off would be purely coincidental.

Saturday 3 December 2011: Osaka – Shizuoka – Osaka

00:15
The end of the league season is naturally a hectic time and, even when you’re ‘only’ writing for the internet with the freedom of creativity and posting frequency so kindly bestowed upon me by Football Japan, it would feel a bit silly not to write some sort of final day preview. In fact, this is arguably even more important for an online freelancer, since the short-term increase in casual interest surrounding the J. League provides an especially opportune, er, opportunity to attract new readers and Twitter followers. Michael Brunskill, a cheery Mackem (and Director of Communications for the Football Supporters’ Federation in England) with whom I’ve been doing a bit of promotional work for The Blizzard, e-mails with news that his efforts to get me on BBC Radio Five Live and introduce the three-way title shootout that’s about to unfold in Japan have come to nought. Good job I did write that article, then.

Only trouble is that various distractions and a bit of a delay with the day job have meant that it’s already just into Saturday by the time I’m done and there’s still another article I want to write which is sort of now or never. My translation work is all conducted from home and there’s a set maximum that the company I’m contracted to can ask me to do on any given day – in practice, this limit is reached every single day, but this does at least give me a basis in terms of both income and time allocation around which I can plan everything else. It generally works well unless a document to be translated doesn’t arrive on time or there’s a load of follow-up questions that coincide with some writing I’d much rather be getting on with – which is really either just Sod’s Law or some sort of divine punishment for taking on two jobs at the expense of leisure time that could be spent with real people. Anyway, this second article involves playing out the last day of the season on FIFA 12 and then writing up a minute-by-minute-style commentary, which is why it needs to be done immediately. I crack open a Red Bull and get on with things; it proves to be even more enjoyable – at least for the writer – than I’d expected and I rattle out the fastest 2,000 words of my life to finish up by 2.30am.


04:30
This is quite extreme – I’m a night owl and tend to work best in the evenings but am usually finished by 10pm at the latest – and the crux of the aforementioned trouble is that I have to get up in a minute. A nervy 1-0 home victory over Vegalta Sendai seven days previously meant that my local team, third-placed Gamba Osaka, are still in the title hunt; giving me the excuse to travel up to Shimizu S-Pulse with the ultras on the final Saturday. I am to meet them in the usual place – a car park in Ibaraki, northern Osaka – at half past five. In the morning. “Will you be able to get a train to the rendezvous?” asks Chika, one of just two female members of the group whose roles – without, for once, wishing to delve into Japan’s sociological nuances – are essentially administrative. A quick bit of smartphoning reveals that if I walk the kilometre or so down to Osaka Station, I can get the first train to Ibaraki at 4.58am, leaving about an hour to sleep. Inevitably, my brain fails to shut down and I end up watching a DVD instead before showering and setting off for a shivery stroll into the city.

Going by road is easily the cheapest way to Shizuoka if there are enough of you, and this is indeed the means by which most of the ultras each travel to virtually every away match all season. Their commitment continues to astonish me given Japan’s notorious lack of free time in general; and puts me to shame a little since my road trips outside of Kansai were far more frequent in my student days than the one a year I tend to manage now. Still, the camaraderie remains fantastic and one away trek is often worth half a dozen or more home games in terms of getting to know one another better. Unless, that is, you manage to sleep the entire way for the first time ever. I must be getting older.


11:00
As is customary for the ultras (even at home games), we arrive with more than four hours to spare before kickoff, having stopped for a quick breakfast at a motorway service station that was a lot more rice and tuna than Little Chef. This is planned such that our stand behind the goal can be decorated with banners, flags and the like before the general public are allowed inside. For away matches when everyone travels up together, this is a necessary evil; but at home it is an enormous chore necessitated by the fact that J. League clubs tend not to own their stadiums and thus banners cannot be left in place.

This being Japan, most of the ultras feel compelled to always turn up at the earliest rendezvous time for appearances’ sake as much as anything. Unable to shake off that inexplicable British habit of doing more than one thing with my day, I usually turn about no more than an hour before kickoff wherever possible. That said, I have at least always enjoyed the thought-provoking nature of my friends’ desire to escape the suffocating obligations of Japanese working life with more obligatory tatemae on their days off.

The Gamba fans quickly turn the stand black and blue with their paraphernalia and, an hour or so later, themselves; wholly filling two tiers, which must look pretty impressive from the other end. A seemingly endless afternoon of waiting around soon reminds my body how low in quality that sleep in the car had actually been, though does serve as good practice for the 20-minute queue to get a beer and some lunch which will hopefully wake me up again. It doesn’t. Still, John Duerden – an East Asian football correspondent for the Guardian and ESPN Soccernet, with whom I had the pleasure of watching the 2010 AFC Champions League final during my first ever venture into a working press box – raises a smile by telling me on Facebook that he enjoyed that PlayStation article. What a nice man.


17:30
The first half is initially quite a struggle, both for my eyelids and for Gamba, as Sho Ito puts S-Pulse into an early lead. But all is righted when Lee Keun-Ho nets twice in quick succession late on, and the atmosphere is positively fervent throughout the second period as our boys go on to win 3-1. Unfortunately, the text messages from Alan Gibson, my editor at JSoccer Magazine, reveal that the title has gone elsewhere. Oh well – better this way than to have had it in our hands and blown it. I tweet the results and my congratulations to Kashiwa Reysol, store my thoughts to memory and essentially switch off for the duration.


23:50
About half of the ultras stay over in Shimizu to sample the local fish (and perhaps an Asahi or seven); getting out of the car to shovel down some more service station grub is about as much effort as I can muster. Talk on the motorway back is of an apparent farewell gesture from Gamba midfielder Kim Seung-Yong, rumours about the future of his compatriot (and star man today) Lee Keun-Ho, and how far our heroes are likely to fall next season under the anticipated leadership of Wagner Lopes. I bid a friendly farewell for the season to my most hospitable driver and fellow passengers and take the last-but-two train home to Osaka from Ibaraki.


Sunday 4 December 2011: Still in bed

14:30ish
Eyes still a little too bleary even for the so-called Retina display, I jab at my phone to see that fellow Brit Barry Valder has posted some photos of us taken from the home stand at Nihondaira. I was right; we did look quite impressive. Time to lie in just a little bit longer.

 (To be continued)

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