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February 2012

Club World Cup diary (Part 7)

28 Feb 2012(Tue)

Friday 16 December 2011: Yokohama

17:30 After what was undoubtedly a much longer semi-final day for them than it was for me, given that the work I had to file didn’t need to be done until this afternoon, it is my pleasure to welcome Sean Carroll and Cesare Polenghi to my temporarily rented pad for the football journalists’ equivalent of a jam session.

The Football Japan Minutecast has become a major staple of a website originally launched to serve as a vehicle for the official Japan Soccer Archive; a work in progress being painstakingly compiled by the great Hiroshi Kagawa and for which I have the honour of producing the English-language edition. Though it could do with more publicity and funding in order to reach more listeners outside of Japan – an inevitable difficulty for a small company with its fingers in several pies – Cesare tells me that our Minutecast access figures are similar to those recorded at Goal.com for English-language articles on Japanese football. This is quite pleasing – and thank you very much to everyone who listens – but I still think there is more that can and should be done with it.

Of course, the original concept of summing up the week’s news in a minute or so was pretty short-lived considering the speed and brevity that necessitated. My own inexperience, both in recording and with editing software, meant that the first load were read too quickly and didn’t sound especially good either. But over time, the normal weekly podcasts have been extended to around six minutes, covering everything in slightly more detail (as requested by numerous listeners) and at a much more listenable pace.

Having discussed the possibility with a number of other Japan-based, Western writers in the past, the Club World Cup has finally presented the opportunity to try something different. With Cesare and me both joining Sean in Kanto for the next few days, the three of us have decided to record a 30-minute, Football Weekly-style discussion of 2011 in Japanese football. I meet them at Isezaki-chōjamachi station and lead them first to the nearby convenience store, where we can pick up some snacks and (a small amount of) beer to fuel the informal atmosphere we have planned for the ‘pod’.

It is a rare and most enjoyable opportunity to share a project with two esteemed professionals, beyond the usual extent of swapping or translating quotes in the mixed zone. Neither Sean nor Cesare are unfamiliar with the sight of a television camera lens, so my little digital voice recorder is hardly likely to be distracting. Despite minimal preparations bar the briefest of suggested running orders I had e-mailed them both yesterday, each of the three parts are recorded very smoothly in single takes that will require very little editing.

We get a tad carried away and overrun to a still-just-about-acceptable-so-no-biggie 49 minutes, but it is a lot of fun and I hope that this is conveyed to and shared by our listeners. There certainly wouldn’t be a market for a full-length English-language podcast on Japanese football every week, but if people enjoy it then we could perhaps do three or four per year. It is only annoying that, despite managing to bring everything I needed for the day job, I have left my Minutecast jingles in Osaka and so won’t be able to put the thing online until I get back*.

(* You can listen to the finished podcast here.)

20:30 Having the Tokyo-based Sean around is also handy for his local knowledge of where we might go out for proper drinks afterwards and who might like to come along and join us. Cesare is initially somewhat reluctant – tired since his recent trip to Italy, he now claims to be dying of “a cold or something worse” and, despite his spritely participation in the podcast, had to use the breaks between the three parts to have a bit of a lie down on my weekly mansion bed. Stepping outside into the cold does little to invigorate the Italian veteran in our midst, and he cuts a slightly pathetic figure as we board the subway bound for central Yokohama with his head leant against my shoulder. He openly considers heading straight for his hotel until receiving confirmation from Sean that their mutual (female) friend Momoko ‘Momo-chan’ Nagasaki will be joining us for dinner. Naturally, Cesare smiles, it would be rude if he didn’t at least stay for one.

Cesare sensibly saves his energy for company worth the effort

We settle on our izakaya – for which, delightfully, the literal translation would be ‘a place where you go to be and drink alcohol’ – and Cesare and Sean take turns to explain to me why Momo-chan, part of the production team for the JSports programme ‘Foot!’, likes them best. Their banter is both entertaining and, to some degree, a persuasive argument as to how living in the capital (as Cesare also used to) would be clearly more conducive to making media and football contacts than in baseball-obsessed Osaka. When the apple of their eyes finally arrives, I let the pair of them continue their well-spirited one-upmanship and concentrate instead on getting to know Momo-chan myself. It is an outcome that suits me rather well.

The four of us are joined for a brief cameo by Lewis ‘Nobuyuki’ Tosey, another fine writer – when he finds the time – who moved to Japan quite recently. His evident mixture of national identities is further confused by an amusing anecdote in which he confesses to having inexplicably adopted a French accent – while speaking English – to beg Philippe Senderos to stay at Arsenal upon bumping into the Swiss defender in a supermarket car park. Much to Nobuyuki’s and Sean’s disappointment, however, an all-nighter is not on the agenda and they must take the last train back to Tokyo – leaving me and a suddenly very happy and energetic Cesare to escort Momo-chan for a nightcap or two at her friend’s bar elsewhere in Yokohama.

Ako, the landlady who has been expecting us, offers a warm and friendly welcome to ensure that my first ever evening out in Yokohama – in the past it has always been literally up and back for the football, as with the trip to Shimizu on final day – ends as enjoyably as it began. My adopted home of Osaka has a reputation for passionate hospitality, and although that can sometimes put people off, it often has the effect of making Tokyo feel cold and insular to visitors from mine and other parts of the country. Momo-chan and Ako, however, are quick to convince me that Yokohama should not be bracketed in with the global megalopolis next door. Here, the locals genuinely are local as opposed to being there because they have to be.

Ako kindly extends last orders for us to get one more round in; and then another when our 21st-century inclination to ‘check in’ at her bar on Facebook presents us with an electronic free beer coupon that even she has never seen before but is more than happy to honour.

Saturday 17 December 2011 – Yokohama

Fan-bloody-tastic. No, seriously. Today is my sole day off in a ten-day stretch before I fly home for Christmas in the very early hours of Wednesday morning and that means I can have a lie-in. Living by oneself can gradually wear away one’s sense of guilt or resistance towards setting the alarm clock for a post-meridian time; this effect is magnified in my weekly mansion room where, after a lovely night yesterday and a new city to see more of, it sort of feels like I am on holiday. A quick trip to the convenience store, however, reveals that it is cold enough to justify seeing only a little bit more of this city later – until then, it is time to enjoy the free air-conditioned heating and Issue Three of The Blizzard, which conveniently arrived for me in Osaka last weekend. With apologies for the self-indulgence, it is a genuine thrill to see my own name listed alongside those of so many, far more illustrious contributors.

I take as leisurely a shower as possible in a room that combines bathtub, sink, and toilet into a space normally considered just about large enough for one of them. It reminds me of the almost identically-designed facilities at the tiny ‘one-room’ flat rented by my first ever girlfriend in Japan when we were at university back in 2004. She’s the only one of my exes (it’s not a long list) with whom I have remained on friendly terms and, having heard that she’d recently moved to Tokyo, I send her a text to see if she fancies a drink tonight once I’ve done my Christmas shopping.

Mansion_2 Every mansion needs an en-suite bathroom

On the advice of Momo-chan and Ako, I return to the area of Yokohama where we went out last night to finish up buying presents much more expediently than I had anticipated in an unfamiliar city. I even managed to find some yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) soap for my old secondary school friend Elena in Taunton, which Ako insists is the must-have beauty secret in Japan right now. To be honest, she would know. With no reply from my ex in Tokyo, I resign myself to a night in front of the television. Naturally, she texts the second I slot my card-key in the door to say she could go for a quick one (drink) if I was anywhere near Shibuya now. Not even the right city.

20:30 Upon a few moments’ solitary contemplation, however, I arrive at the disturbing realisation that this is no bad thing – I actually don’t have time. After tomorrow’s final, I will have to take the Shinkansen back to Osaka on Monday, where I have a Christmas party with old friends that night. Then I’m going to need to edit yesterday’s podcast and pack my suitcase on Tuesday before travelling to the airport. All this is going to leave about five hours to do two days’ worth of day job. Crap. The only way I can possibly meet all deadlines and quotas is to get a good day’s headstart while I’m still in Yokohama. Which means now. Bugger. The clock says nearly nine; if I start immediately and go into super turbo mode I might be done just after 1am.

My usual working backdrop is FM802 in Osaka, but apparently you can’t get local radio stations from other localities in Japan, even via the internet. In need of some urgent rejuvenation, I swallow my pride and load up Absolute 90s – the first time in my life I have ever listened to a radio station with a decade in its name. It is astonishing easily to sing along to unremarkable tunes from your teenage years – There’s Nothing I Won’t Do by JX, for example – even if you’ve not heard or thought of them for 15 years. Good. I think that might actually have got my brain in gear.

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Interview: Steinthór Freyr Thorsteinsson, Icelandic master of the flip throw-in

25 Feb 2012(Sat)

Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni was able to use Friday night’s friendly with Iceland in Osaka as an opportunity to gently ease the likes of Chikashi Masuda, Junya Tanaka, and Naoya Kondo into the international arena. But in what was otherwise a somewhat eventless, straightforward 3-1 win for the hosts – played with a tempo and atmosphere quite befitting a pre-season game – it was a little-known midfielder named Steinthór Freyr Thorsteinsson who dramatically stole the morning headlines and the hearts of the 42,000-strong crowd.

The Icelandic number seven, who plays his club football with newly-promoted Norwegian Tippeligaen side Sandnes Ulf, entered the game as a substitute at the start of the second period and promptly wowed the Japanese public with a series of eight ‘flip throw-ins’.

Much to the amusement of his teammates, Thorsteinsson was the undoubted centre of attention at full time. Cesare Polenghi (Goal.com) and I caught up with him to find out more about his impressive party piece.

How long have you been taking flip throw-ins like that?
I first tried it in the under-17s. I’m 26 now, so I’ve been doing it for almost ten years.

Do you do it in every game?
Yeah, usually. But when it’s rainy weather then I don’t do it – I play in Norway and it rains a lot there. It was pretty slippery now, and I almost fell some of the times, so I was thinking about not doing it. You know, it’s not very fit to do it if you are going to injure yourself! But at least I had the confidence to do it so I did it. Usually I throw longer if I have more grip – I think the last one was really good but the other ones were only OK. At least the crowd was pleased, though!

You repeatedly attracted the biggest roars of the night – do fans always react like that?
Yeah, it was similar when we played against Mexico. I think there were 65,000 people watching, and every time I took the ball it was just crazy.

The noise would have been incredible if you had actually scored – and you nearly did.
With that last one, then I think we had guys in the box who thought it wouldn’t go that long, but then it went long. But usually, I can throw it to the back post. So in my former clubs, like when I played in Iceland, then I just aimed at the goal and the guys would just have to head it in. We scored a lot of goals out of them in Iceland.

Have you ever created a goal from a flip throw-in at international level?
Just when I was with the under-19s, we scored. Not with the ‘A’ team – we’ve gotten really close but not scored yet. I think, especially, if it had been hotter and I could have thrown longer then I think we could have created much more chances. That’s probably our advantage because we had the bigger players… well, not me (Thorsteinsson is 171cm/5’ 7”), but the other ones!

Perhaps you should come and play in the J. League – with tricks like that you could be a big star in Japan.
We will see! Maybe I will get a contract, I don’t know. Maybe more people in Japan will try to do it too!

Thorsteinsson’s antics clearly left an impression on his opponents too – Japan defender Tomoaki Makino was heard telling teammates, perhaps only half-jokingly, that he intends to start practising the technique tomorrow...

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Club World Cup diary (Part 6)

23 Feb 2012(Thu)

Thursday 15 December 2011 (contd.): Osaka – Yokohama

10:30 Unequivocally the greatest perk about working from home is the fact that, when you do wake up with a hangover and a good two or three hours short of the kind of sleep that might have quelled it, you’re not forced to put up any kind of appearances for anyone. No compulsion to shave, shower, or even change out of whatever you slept in*. No obligation to smile nor maintain any pretence that you don’t feel as rough as hell – which, quite often, can be the roughest bit.

(* Of course, I can only speak from the perspective of a single male living alone. Flatmates/live-in partners may insist upon certain hygiene standards.)

The impending trip to Yokohama, however, means that such luxuries are fleeting today – leaving me thankful for the quality of the saké so kindly bestowed upon me by Honda-san yesterday evening. I reckon I’ll be fine with a top up of Ukon no Chikara, plus maybe a can of Red Bull and a bready breakfast on the platform at Shin-Osaka station. My little suitcase – the kind with which people are often infuriatingly allowed to take up half the hand luggage space on aeroplanes despite being a good chunk larger than the seldom-used metal size guide things you see at check-in – has been packed during a brief window earlier in the week with four days’ worth of clothes that I’m not going to need to take back to England next Tuesday. I spend a quarter of an hour or so exchanging e-mails with the day job office and copying the necessary work stuff onto my laptop to take onto the Shinkansen.

Dressed, suitcase in tow, and still a little fragile, I step into the freezing outdoor air and make the short trip north to get the big train east. I’m not entirely sure what happened to that mild start we had to December, but at least the visible breath* – plus my recently-acquired Christmas album by West Country legends The Wurzels – is helping me to feel a bit more festive ahead of the present shopping I’m going to have to squeeze in on Saturday. Resourcefully, I hold my Shinkansen ticket between my lips as I switch bag-carrying hands to use the automatic ticket gate. The magnetic back evidently operates under the same principle in cold weather as a frosty ski lift pole; the unexpected ripping sensation is not pleasant. Good start.

(* This is not a reference to the hangover. My teeth are brushed and I always carry a box of Mintia in that pocket-within-a-pocket on the right-hand side of jeans and casual trousers**.)

(** I’m concerned that some of this is making me sound like Alan Partridge.)

Undeterred, I buy my breakfast and board the bullet train. At more than a hundred quid each way even when you do purchase your tickets at the curious little discount shops dotted about Japan’s major cities, the Shinkansen is certainly not cheap; but you can’t knock it for comfort and efficiency. Logistically, I’m going to need to do the bulk of my day job before even arriving in Yokohama, so down goes the Red Bull and out comes the laptop (there’s a plug socket and Wi-Fi and everything). This is a new experience and one that makes me feel a bit like a Japanese businessman.

For some reason – possibly the caffeine or exhilaration at the receding hangover – I am proud enough to immediately share this sensation on Facebook. My Polish pal Wiktor, who is well immersed/has his head forced under in salaryman culture, tells me that to be truly authentic, I need to order a beer and type as loudly as possible so my fellow passengers all know how hardworking I am. I settle instead for an alternative Japanese stereotype and snap half a dozen or so pictures of Mount Fuji as we speed past.

I’ve climbed that, don’t you know. Looks far nicer from afar, mind. And with snow on it.

14:00 I manage to finish up all the translation work that has been sent to me thus far and board the Yokohama subway to Isezaki-chōjamachi – an impressively long string of seven kanji characters (
伊勢佐木長者町) even if it does fall short in syllables to the Nishinakajima-minamigata (西中島南方) station I passed through in Osaka this morning. With no expenses money forthcoming for this particular trip, I have eschewed a traditional hotel for what is known as a ‘weekly mansion’ – which has cleverly been hired for just four-sevenths of a week.

Whether mistakenly or ironically, ‘mansion’ is the name bestowed in Japan upon blocks of characteristically rather small flats, while the weekly variety is a relatively new concept designed to provide low-cost, short-term accommodation for people who just need somewhere to stay. There’s no room service and few staff, but I do get a fridge, microwave, washing machine, and free internet. At less than 4,000 yen per night, the quality of my ‘one-room’ flat is a pleasant surprise. Should my descent into Partridgedom ever reach the point where I am forced to spend 183 days in a travel tavern, this would probably do quite nicely.

Internet is working – handy, considering this was something of a deal-breaker for the day job. I e-mail off my translations and am delighted to discover that nobody has sent me any additional work to do. This frees up a bit of time to grab a coffee with erstwhile Twitter and now real-life buddy Colm Smyth – technically justifiable work-wise on the basis that Starbucks has Wi-Fi. He is back off to Ireland for Christmas tomorrow, which is a shame as I don’t know anyone else in the city and was rather hoping the drinks would be a little more, well, Irish. But we enjoy a most pleasant catch-up nonetheless and he kindly points me in the direction of a few parts of Yokohama to check out later, before I take the subway back towards the stadium.

17:30 Toyota’s whammy of publicity during this tournament is so multi-faceted that it even gets to rob one of its major domestic rivals, Nissan, of sponsorship rights for the 72,000-seater facility that must now be known as the Yokohama International Stadium for the next few days. As was the case last time I visited – for a bigamous meeting of my two distant loves, Gamba Osaka and Manchester United in 2008 – the streets to the ground are lined with purveyors of inauthentic merchandise. The curiously high proportion of English accents among the sales pitches make for a scene reminiscent of Only Fools and Horses; albeit doing rather less for the reputation of my homeland.

I exchange pleasantries with FIFA’s resident (and most hospitable) Yeovilian, Alex Stone, before heading to the press room to catch up with Cesare Polenghi of Goal.com, Alan Gibson of JSoccer Magazine, and Sean Carroll of the Daily Yomiuri. Having covered all four matches thus far between us but not one yet together, it is a belated opportunity to exchange thoughts with Sean – who is midway through a bit of Amazon shopping for gloves to combat the cold winds that we had each endured in Toyota earlier in the week. He is a lot more sceptical about the significance and intentions of the Club World Cup than me, but like everyone else – undoubtedly including a fair number of journalists who don’t need to be here but are delighted at the opportunity – is at least looking forward to seeing Barcelona.

Which British motorway runs north from Rugby to Gretna? Trivial matters in the Yokohama press room with Cesare (left) and Sean (centre)

19:30 The demand is such that the organisers have set aside an overflow section for press seats in what would normally be the public part of the stand. It is, however, a curious balance. I have an entire row of seats to myself but no desk on which to place my computer and notebook, while many spaces in the normal tribune remain empty and – given the absence of name tags – unallocated. At half time, I wait for the one well-known jobsworth who previously told off the journalists from Qatar for using their cameraphones to disappear from view, and instead politely ask a younger, female assistant if I could take one of the empty desks. With refreshing common sense, she quietly informs me that she could not possibly authorise such a switch but wouldn’t necessarily need to be looking in my direction were I to move of my own accord. We share a subtle smile as I head off to gather my stuff, though our burgeoning love affair is ended at full time when my quick “thank you” is met with a look that fuses guilt with sheer panic.

The second semi-final itself is played out to a pantomime-like atmosphere, with a good majority of the handsomely paying public almost certainly not regular J. League watchers and spending most of the 90 minutes in silence; waiting for Lionel Messi to do something clever so they could woo their admiration. I tweeted before the game that, were it legal in this country, I would have placed a bet on Al-Sadd with their inevitably enormous odds as the unashamedly defensive style they had demonstrated against Esperance and throughout the Asian Champions League meant that they likely wouldn’t be fazed by Barcelona’s domination of possession. The theory proves sound for 24 minutes as the Qataris sit deep and take joy in comfortably frustrating their illustrious opponents. Ironically, however, it is a catastrophic mix-up between goalkeeper Mohamed Saqr and former Portsmouth left-back Nadir Belhadj that allows Adriano an open net for the first of four.

22:30 Despite his understandable deflation and reluctance to stick around for too long afterwards, Al-Sadd captain Abdulla Koni remembers me from Sunday and kindly stops to chat for a few minutes. For the Barça players, however, our hopes of conversation are compromised slightly by the fact that two of the three players who definitely speak English, Gerard Piqué and Cesc Fabregas, spent the entire game on the bench. Sean manages to get centrally positioned within a melee of people speaking to a surprisingly eloquent Javier Mascherano, while I listen in on an interview in Spanish with Carles Puyol for which the Japanese interpretation is minimal, cliché-ridden, and of little use.

I join up with Sean, Cesare, and Alan to compare notes and – along with pretty well everyone else who doesn’t get to watch European superstars on a regular basis – wait for 20 minutes in hope of a word with Messi. It eventually becomes apparent, with the help of a good-humoured FIFA press guy from Portugal, that the little Argentine has done a fast one and sneaked out a back door without passing through the mixed zone. Such antics could result in a nominal fine for his club – along the same lines as the penalties for, I don’t know, racist chanting – but we are assured that words will be had and Barcelona must be considerably more cooperative after the final. This suits me. At a thankfully more sociable hour than after the quarter-final penalties, I say my goodbyes and head back to my little mansion.

(To be continued. Click here for Part 5.)

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Club World Cup diary (Part 5)

15 Feb 2012(Wed)

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.

Wednesday 14 December 2011: Osaka – Kobe

A couple of weeks ago, I received an invitation from Katsumi Honda, my boss at Football Japan, for our company’s little end-of-year party*. His suggested dates were tonight or tomorrow – nicely coinciding, therefore, with the semi-finals of the Club World Cup. I had already made plans for the second semi in Yokohama but squeezing in an additional trip back to Toyota the night before was going to be a logistical nightmare – in terms of transport, accommodation, and above all the day job – so I expressed my preference for the Wednesday.

(* These are essentially like work Christmas parties in the United Kingdom, although generally carry less of an association with frolicking in stationery cupboards** and, with no Christian tradition in Japan, are instead known locally as bōnenkai; literally ‘forget-the-year parties’.)

(** Does anyone actually do this? Comments below, please. Feel free to keep your own stories anonymous if preferred.)

Happily, this seemed to work out best for everybody else as well, and so on the night that Kashiwa Reysol became the first Japanese club team in history to play a competitive match against the champions of South America, I would have the pleasure of enjoying it all in some very esteemed company indeed. Honda-san’s guest list included Hiroshi Kagawa, the chairman of the company, Japan’s most prolific football journalist with a career dating back over 60 years, and an inductee to the Japan Football Hall of Fame; Izumi Nemoto, Kagawa-san’s personal assistant and a fine writer in her own right with Football Japan, the JFA, and Cerezo Osaka’s website among others; the son of another hall of famer who had captained Japan in the 1950s; and a former ‘quasi-semi-professional’ (plug: see p.182, The Blizzard Issue Three) footballer from just before the J. League era.

The 7pm start provides the ideal excuse to finish up early – despite working from home, alone, I seem to have assimilated the Japanese habit of working until well after dark – and dash out of my flat to head 15 or 20 miles west on the train to just this side of Kobe. The power of smartphones allies quite conveniently with the fact that Japanese public transport does exactly what it says on the tin (or, in this case, timetable), allowing me to walk through the door of the bar at seven on the dot. Three of our party have already arrived. Curiously, however, there doesn’t seem to be a television.

19:30 Thirty minutes and two beers later, Kashiwa versus Santos kicks off in Toyota. So far, the only real mention of it has been from Kagawa-san, who reckons this year is the first time that the club world champions will have been decided in his country (including the old Toyota Cup, dating back to 1980) without him actually being there. Still no sign of a television. Really starting to worry now that I am the only one who cares about this thing.

21:15 Apparently I was the only one presumptuous enough to expect the actual football to be on the agenda this evening. Good job I’m recording it. At the very least, by this point everyone on the table has their phones out looking to see if Kashiwa can somehow pull back the 3-1 deficit. I feel a little bit left out that I’m the only one of the usual group of us on Twitter (that’s me and the approximately nine people who actually read my articles, I jest hopefully) not to be tweeting. But the evidence that the Club World Cup isn’t passing everyone by after all – plus a welcome shift to some rather tasty saké after the fifth beer – provides sufficient comfort. Kampai.

Thursday 15 December 2011: Kobe – Osaka

00:30 I stumble home, take my handy matchday notebook from last year’s AFC Champions League final (it has a little half-page pitch on every double page for you to fill in line-ups, etc) into the living room, and press play. Unlike with J. League coverage, the local broadcaster has mercifully provided a secondary audio feed so that I can swap the often infuriating Japanese commentary with the soothingly familiar voice of John Helm – who I happened to bump into in the corridors of Toyota Stadium on Sunday and, like most commentators I suppose, didn’t look anything like I had pictured in my head.

Back when was I was working in an office, on the days where I had turned up hungover I would always put in so much extra effort that my productivity actually rose, lest I open myself up to the accusation of unprofessionally allowing my personal life to affect my job. Ideally, though, I prefer not to have to concentrate on anything immediately after the drinking session – even if it is only a football match and bit of note-jotting. This sofa is so comfy. I’d quite like to go to sleep on it.

03:00 Right, all done. Quite a good game, as it turned out. Now time for bed. Bit of a headache already. This trip to Yokohama is going to be fun in the morning.

(To be continued. Click here for Part 4.)

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Club World Cup diary (Part 4)

11 Feb 2012(Sat)

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.

Sunday 11 December 2011 (contd.): Toyota – Nagoya

There’s perhaps a 40-minute wait before the players start filing through on their side of the plastic fencing and the Arabic journalists rush forwards with dictaphones outstretched. Jun’s and my instructions from Cesare are to get whatever we can, in whatever language – the data files can be e-mailed to someone who’ll understand them elsewhere. Even then, there is still the issue of recognising everybody – few of the Qatari players are exactly household names in Japan – and butting into other people’s interviews upon ascertaining who wants to speak and in what tongue.

Jun spots and dashes over to the Brazilian forward Leandro, a non-playing substitute tonight but a former star in our neck of the woods with both Vissel Kobe and Gamba Osaka. Meanwhile, a stylishly-dressed Kader Keïta, the Ivorian international, starts chatting in French with an Algerian journalist so I position myself to ‘share’. I can understand about three-quarters of what he’s saying but don’t have the spoken French to ask anything back – which is a shame as Keïta kindly gestures to welcome any questions I may have and all I can offer in response is a “merci beaucoup” to send him on his way. Just as I’m about to cut my losses, however, I notice the skipper Koni finishing up an interview in English over in the corner of the room. Now, that I do speak. Understandably delighted with his goal and the victory that sets up a dream date with Barça, he is happy to let me take over for what I guess I can call an exclusive:

Nobody expected much from Al-Sadd when you entered the AFC Champions League in the qualifying rounds, but you overcame so many hurdles and just kept winning. Now, as champions of Asia, you’ve won again tonight – the confidence in the squad must be amazing?
Yeah, it really is. It’s very amazing because, like you say, we started in a very difficult moment in qualification. Sometimes we lost two games, or we lost one game, and it was not easy. But we continued to work because we are a team of good players – some young players, also some older players, but we are all working together. Thanks to God, today is something very nice – to play in the Club World Cup is not easy, so I’m delighted that we won our first game.

And now is it all about the experience when you go to play Barcelona?
Of course, you can’t compare the two teams. It’s not easy. I believe in God, you know – I’m a Muslim so you have to know what is realistic. They are the best team in the world. Of course we will go and try to beat them but we are not favourites; we are only 10% to beat them. For them, we will just come to enjoy ourselves – and wish to Allah that they will cool down so we can play our game and go through!

The good people at Goal thank me profusely for my work, but ultimately decide not to use either interview. Oh well – easy come, easy go. I bump into Asif again, who is somewhat upset as he has just received a bollocking from one of the Japanese stewards for taking a photograph of him and his travelling companion. The JFA are notorious sticklers for this, which is little surprise in a country that almost seems to pride itself on its unquestioned kimari – essentially ‘the way things are’. I agree entirely that journalists should not use cameras in the mixed zone where we have the privilege of interacting with players, but to clamp down on souvenir shots taken in the stands seems a little heavy handed seeing it’s not as if our smartphones will capture anything of commercial value or that fans seated a few feet away could not. Undoubtedly, the Qatari guys had only wanted to show their Facebook friends that they had visited Toyota for the big game.

19:15 I return to the press room in the hope of getting something quick to eat before the Kashiwa game. A year ago in Abu Dhabi, our hosts had put on an extravagant free buffet for the press with all sorts of food from across the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe. In what was undoubtedly part of whole PR exercise for the emirate – and a pretty successful one, at that – they simply couldn’t do enough for us; to the point where a waiter noticed me about to leave the dining room and persuaded me to stay because I hadn’t yet sampled the delicious range of hummus they had available. Here in Japan, image portrayal is probably less of a pressing concern as the only means of obtaining hot food is to walk outside to the other side of the ground and queue up with fans at the public food court – for which there certainly isn’t enough time. There are a few sandwiches available for purchase indoors but they look decidedly service station-like; I settle upon paying 150 yen for a piece of Walkers shortbread and a complementary bottle of water.

By the 7.30pm kickoff time, conditions have become somewhat wintry and despite the excellent view we enjoy high up in the press tribune, there is little comfort to warm the soul as Monterrey of Mexico put the home favourites under the cosh for much of a goalless first half. But there is a small treat in store during the interval as Cesare kindly introduces me to former Red Star Belgrade and Marseille legend Dragan ‘Piksi’ Stojković, now manager at Nagoya Grampus. The Serbian’s language is colourful but good-natured as he rues the fact that six straight wins at the end of the season were not enough to overhaul Reysol and secure a place in the Club World Cup for themselves. It might have been different, he reckons, if Grampus hadn’t been forced to travel to Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates for a midweek Champions League game, or if Urawa Reds had actually deigned to field a single striker against Kashiwa last weekend.

Jun generously hands me a kairo – a disposable pocket warmer which, unlike my new Qatari pal Asif, is not as Egyptian as it may first sound – for which the instructions tell me I am supposed to shake and provoke some sort of reaction that will heat it up. Ten minutes of constant shaking does nothing other than risk suspicion as to what I might be doing under my desk. I keep tweeting the comments that will serve as my notes to prepare a Minutecast tomorrow, but my fingers are freezing and increasingly less mobile. Is there such a thing as typing gloves? Now very much giving a good account of themselves, Kashiwa take the lead in spectacular fashion through Leandro Domingues, but an equaliser from Humberto Suazo soon afterwards is bad news for several reasons – mainly that we’re going to have to sit and shiver for at least another half an hour. It is about 10.30pm by the time Ryohei Hayashi finally converts the winning penalty in the shootout. My kairo is barely even tepid.

23:00 The mixed zone is unsurprisingly a busier place than after the previous quarter-final as a mass of local reporters wait to speak to the victorious Kashiwa team, with whom many will of course have had personal dealings in the past. One thing that often tends to happen in Japan, though, is that most journalists won’t try and stop players themselves but are quite content to instead crowd behind the one who does and simply record everything. Personally, I find this both boring and pointless – everybody ends up with exactly the same quotes, for a start – and would much rather speak more intimately with a less celebrated name. In the end, I am reasonably pleased with my yield – a quote from goalkeeper and shootout hero Takanori Sugeno to help out Goal.com and an interview with goalscorer Leandro Domingues that I can use for tomorrow’s Minutecast. I also join a number of others in chatting with Reysol’s left-winger, Jorge Wagner, but by the time his interpreter is available it is pretty clear that player and journalists alike are itching to leave.

Back in the mercifully warm press room, I share, compare, and – where necessary – translate player and manager quotes with Cesare. This – right at the end of a long evening – is where the visible work takes place in terms of actually producing output. Extra time and penalties have made it a hell of a rush, but we are just about done in time to take the final press coach back to Nagoya at 1am. Even with the overflow seats in the aisle all folded out, there is barely enough room for everybody with cameras and equipment in tow as well. Neither the crowding nor the progressive drowsiness is helped much by the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Japanese eco-consciousness that dictates that public transport in winter must be artificially heated to perspiratory temperatures. I guess this is what people mean when they say football journalism really isn’t a very glamorous job at all. Incidentally, some four hours after I first shook it, the little kairo in my pocket is now positively boiling.

Monday 12 December 2011: Nagoya – Osaka

It is a 15-minute walk back from where the bus drops us off to Hotel 1-2-3, where Cesare has kindly reserved a twin room for us both. We stop off on the way at one of Japan’s thankfully ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores to belatedly pick up some dinner – which, to be honest, doesn’t prove to be masses more appetising than the sorry little sandwiches on display in the stadium. The hotel is garish to the point of being amusing, with bold blocks of red, orange, yellow, and brown tiles coating the walls; but while the gentleman who welcomes us warmly at the front desk looks like he must have been around since the décor was installed 30-odd years ago as well, we are grateful for a place to stay that doesn’t mind the obscenely late-night check-in.

Our twin beds are crammed in to the extent that there is barely an arm’s space between them, and the only way to access the front door or bathroom from the far one is to climb over the other. It matters little as we lifelessly munch on our microwave meals and check what’s been happening in Serie A. I take the near-side bed as I’ll be first out in the morning, leaving Cesare to his beauty sleep ahead of duties with the Inter Channel. Dinners are cleared away, showers are taken, and the clock passes four as the two of us finally retire.

08:50 Technically, I am on duty for my day job from nine. ‘Technically’ is going to be my favourite word this morning as I slide out of bed and e-mail the usual check-in to the office from my phone. It’s a good thing I work to a quota and that, today, nothing seems pressing. I quietly gather my things and head out to the subway station en route to the Osaka-bound Shinkansen – leaving the slumbering Cesare’s bright yellow hair clashing violently with the walls and the neatly-hung pink shirt he insists will look brilliant on television.

(To be continued. Click here for Part 3.)

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Club World Cup diary (Part 3)

10 Feb 2012(Fri)

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.

Sunday 11 December 2011: Osaka – Nagoya – Toyota

Hooray! I actually get to be a journalist today. The lop-sided – and quite reasonably so, in my opinion; albeit not in everyone’s – nature of the FIFA Club World Cup means that while the champions of Europe and South America will automatically await in the last four, the remaining quartet from the rest of the planet must first duke it out in a double-header of ‘quarter-finals’ to be played at the spectacular Toyota Stadium in, well, Toyota. Opened in 2001, this 45,000-seater facility was constructed despite already having been removed from the shortened list of Japanese venues for the co-hosted World Cup twelve months later, and is too remote from the far larger city of Nagoya to serve as anything more than an occasional home for 2010 J. League champions Grampus. However, the local automotive giant likely doesn’t mind too much when both stadium and municipality names complete a triple whammy of publicity during a competition of which it is the long-term presenting sponsor.

Though it will entail getting up far earlier on a Sunday morning than I usually prefer (i.e. at all), I arrange to meet Cesare Polenghi, the Asia Managing Editor for Goal.com, by ‘the clock’ in Nagoya Station shortly before noon. After a short journey up on the Shinkansen, it soon transpires that there are two prominent timepieces at opposite ends of station, but my Italian friend’s recently-bleached hair at least makes him an easy spot. He is jet-lagged from a quick trip to Milan to interview Yuto Nagatomo for Internazionale’s official Japanese television programme, making my 8am alarm call seem something of a trivial complaint, but says that his disturbed sleeping patterns at least enabled him to catch the nerazzurri’s 2-0 win over Fiorentina – a game for which he will be commenting when the Inter Channel record an ‘as-live’ broadcast tomorrow. This way he gets to sound extra insightful and even prophetic.

Cesare kindly escorts me to the Castle Hotel down the road where FIFA have curiously hired a guest room from which to issue their media passes (apparently our actual accommodation this evening will be rather more ‘budget’). Having collected his pass ahead of the playoff match on Thursday, he passes the time while I fill in the necessary forms by flirting overtly with the all-female team of Japanese press liaisons in three different languages. Suddenly he doesn’t seem so sleepy anymore. We catch up with Jun Nagata, a Goal.com freelancer I know from events hosted by SIX (the company that operates Football Japan) for a collective of Japanese football writers and administrators called Salon 2002, and board a half-full media bus to Toyota. The three of us talk business, plus a bit of late-1990s rivalry between Manchester United and Juventus, before Cesare remembers he’s tired again and opts to rest his eyes.

Cesare (right) and I pretend to be doing something important

13:30 Greeting us at the stadium is Alex Stone, a FIFA Senior Media Relations Manager whom I had first met at the 2010 tournament in Abu Dhabi and who happens to hail from Yeovil – a pleasant source for bonding as encounters with fellow sons of Somerset in the spheres of international football are an unfathomably rare privilege. The previous year, our Emirati hosts had gone all out with the hospitality and left the administrative stuff in the capable hands of Alex and his colleagues, but on this occasion, the Japanese organisers had apparently rejected FIFA’s central systems and insisted upon doing things their way. In practice, this meant that instead of applying online for seats in the media tribune plus passes to press conferences and mixed zones – and being informed in advance whether said applications had been successful – journalists were supposed to turn up at the stadium on the day to see what we had been allocated. Part of the reason that my little group had turned up some three and a half hours before kickoff was concern over the possibility of not receiving anything.
“I have absolutely no idea how they think they know what everyone wants or needs,” smiled an evidently bemused Alex as we renewed acquaintances and shared similar tales of the need to pick your battles with Japanese authorities. “I can only assume it must be telepathy. In any case, I’ve got a hundred or so extra passes to hand out at my discretion, so...”

We collect our respective envelopes and proceed to the press room – stopping on the way so that Cesare can introduce, nay, sell me to Futoshi Nagamatsu, the JFA’s Media Operation Manager (apparently my embarrassment at essentially having my CV name-dropped to someone I’ve never before met is just British reserve that I really need to get over). Upon arrival, we sit down and discuss who’s doing what. I agree to share the post-match quotes I manage to gather with Goal in exchange for accommodation expenses; as well the little brown pass that actually entitles me to enter the mixed zone. The latter is swapped with Cesare for the silver press conference card that I had been allocated but never required in the first place. My telepathic transmitters can’t quite have been tuned to the right frequency.

The international nature of the tournament makes for an infinitely more cosmopolitan press room than before your average Japan match. I get chatting with a friendly journalist from Qatar called Asif, who shows me his newspaper and the feature he’d compiled on the World Cup that his own country* will controversially host in 2022. He laughs at the notion that the event could be brought forward to January; assuring me that everyone will have a great time and any concern voiced about the weather is just narrow-minded moaning on the part of a few Europeans. As for Al-Sadd, the surprise winners of the Asian Champions League who will kick off today’s proceedings against Esperance of Tunisia at 4pm, Asif insists that they have better quality players than they’re often given credit for but admits their defensive nature doesn’t always make them much fun to watch. He reckons it’s 50-50 as to who goes through to face Barcelona in Yokohama on Thursday.

(* “Well,” says Asif, “I’m actually Egyptian. But then most people who live in Qatar aren’t actually from there either, so what does it matter?”)

With still a couple of hours to kill, I leaf through the official tournament programme – with whose contents I am already largely familiar as I was the one hired to do about half of the translation from Japanese to English. Experience of the industry in this country, however, makes me wary of translations butchered by non-native speakers without consultation for layout purposes, and frustratingly it doesn’t take long to find examples of this practice in action here either. Still, I suppose that makes the lack of a personal credit on the contents page a blessing in disguise. I take a stroll outside the stadium to have a look at the fans, food, and merchandise. Despite the naturally larger numbers of people there to support the ‘home’ side, Kashiwa Reysol, the overwhelming presence in terms of both noise and colour is from the Esperance contingent. “Trois à zero” is the confident reply when I ask a group of travelling supporters for their predictions.

16:00 Sadly for them, Al-Sadd are as ruthless going forward as they are stubborn defensively, stealing the cheekiest of 2-0 leads with goals on the counter either side of the interval through Khalfan Ibrahim and captain Abdulla Koni, despite seemingly being dominated by the Tunisians virtually from start to finish. The silenced red and yellow fans are spurred back into action by an Oussama Darragi strike to make the deficit 2-1, but their heroes have two ‘equalisers’ disallowed and the final whistle triggers an angry response from the stands. At least one Esperance follower makes it onto the pitch beyond the Japanese security guards, who admittedly rarely get much practice at anything through their J. League duties. Down in the mixed zone, Alex hopes that the brief cameo of a mindless few is not the maker of tomorrow’s headlines.

(To be continued. Click here for Part 2.)

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