Five Things about J. League 2014

You don’t need Nike or adidas to win the league.

J. League 2014 has wrapped up this month, with Gamba Osaka resurrected from death to ascend to the top. Just like the birthday boy (yea, actually He was born around May and 25th December is actually the birthday of Roman god Invictus Sol). I was going to call J. League the ________ League of Asia but that won’t work. Premier League? Not enough international stars (more on this later). Bundesliga? Might work ten years ago, plus now the best of J. League play in Bundesliga (ten years ago it would have been Serie A), but Bundesliga is now waaay better than Premier League.

Serie A then? Let’s see…famous names who are terrible in Champions League? Yes. A shadow of their 20th century selves? Yes. Corruption and match fixings? No, that would be China. Openly racist and sexist directors? Racist and sexist yes, but not openly. International fans who never abandon them? Yes. Fertile pool for future superstars? That works for Japan but not Italy.

So J. League is not even the Serie A of Asia. Because J. League it’s better, although it’s true that Honda looks more dashing wearing adidas’ Milan shirt than Umbro’s Gamba Osaka shirt (hey, you don’t see him playing for Urawa, do you?) Now he only needs to score several more goals for Milan and everything will be alright.

So, what’s 2014 about for Asia’s most popular league?

1. Like Japan, J. League is getting insular.

Japan’s response to the rise of China and Korea? Retreat to the mountain. The corporate owners of J. League teams don’t like how the world put their brands as an option besides (even behind) their Korean and Chinese competitors. Panasonic, owner of Gamba, experienced a resurgence in the 2000s from Lumix digital cameras, but now non-Japanese smartphones have put pocket cameras out of business, and professional photographers prefer Canon and Nikon (fellow Japanese, thankfully) for the big guns. Hitachi, owner of Kashiwa, has stopped making TV.

As J-pop refuses Western influences in contrast to K-pop and Japanese fanboys cling to the infantile AKB48 (mature-looking Korean girl bands are too scary for them), Japan is also cutting ties with its traditional Korean connection. Sagan Tosu were a serious contender for the championship thanks to coach Yoon Jung-hwan and playmaker Kim Min-woo. Could not bear the idea that a Korean could bring a traditionally minnow team to lift the trophy, the club fired Yoon on August. Tosu ended up not going to Champions League 2015, but the Japanese face of Sagantus is saved. I wonder if chairman Minoru Takehara or the governor of Saga was just aware of the Korean history epic Roaring Currents that summer.

So J. League clubs decreased the number of Koreans (on the other hand, many Koreans looking for international experience seem to prefer Arabian clubs. Plus, J. League teams still prefer Koreans over Australians for their Asian Foreign Player slot) but keep the Brazilians as acceptable foreigners. Sure, there are exceptions from Europe, but no African and Argentine played in 2014 J. League Division 1. Credit though, to Shimizu, who employed a Croatian-Canadian, a Slovenian, and a dark-skinned Chinese-Dutch.

 

2. Big Name Foreigners Cannot Flourish in J. League

J. League was the first Asian leagues to feature European legends – some continued to coaching like Zico, Dragan Stojkovic, and Guido Buchwald. But Japan was out of money by 1997 and never recovered its glamor, and now China and the Gulf have it.

Cerezo Osaka tried a play from Shanghai and Guangzhou clubs and recruited Diego Forlan – best Uruguayan footballer before World Cup 2010 – and Brazilian-German striker Cacau who was also in South Africa 2010. The result? Seventeen losses. Cacau played only eleven matches and scored five goals, while Forlan scored seven goals and a couple in Asia. Still, very disappointing for a man who played in 2014 World Cup. A Manchester United fan who scoffed at him in 2004, saying he’ll only good enough for an Asian league in ten years time, couldn’t get any more accurate than that.

So, why can’t big name foreigners flourish in J. League? First, only one club tried it. Cerezo’s town rivals Gamba won the league using two forwards who were benchwarmers back in Brazil.

Second, the money. If Patric and Lins would be good enough in 2015 AFC Champions League, they will be approached by richer Arabian or Chinese clubs (the Arabs from oil and sovereign funds, the Chinese from property and trade networks) . Thanks to their disastrous responses to the rise of Korea and China (instead of studying what works), Japanese conglomerates are struggling to keep their business afloat, and thus cannot be generous with their football clubs’ budgets. On the other hand, Australians and even English envy Japan’s talent development – at least the academies are working.

 

3. Will J. League Blow Again in 2015 AFC Champions League?

This is like the English and Italian problems. The world sings their clubs’ names. Children on the farthest corners of the world wear club jerseys bearing names like Oscar, Gerrard, Totti, and Vidal. But they have the slim chance of winning the 2015 UEFA Champions League (it’s zero for Liverpool). Worse than Japan, England and Italy have the slimmer chance to win the continental cup.

So why Japan keep on losing in the ACL? Let’s blame it first on distance. Do you know that compared to the distance of St. Petersburg and Madrid, the distance between Hiroshima and Dubai is…aw, forget it. They even could not hold a night in Seoul or Guangzhou, let alone Sydney.

Actually in 2014 Japanese clubs held themselves well in the group stage. Kawasaki were better than Ulsan. Hiroshima prevailed over Beijing. Cerezo defeated not only Buriram but also Shandong. Yokohama were unlucky enough to be grouped with both Jeonbuk and Evergrande. But if they could not handle flight fatigue to Guangzhou and Sydney, how could Korean clubs and Western Sydney prepared themselves for trips across India and the Arabian Sea?

So it went down to money and motivation. I don’t think club owners ordered their teams to throw away the match. But maybe the players and the managers themselves were not that interested with Asian tours. Since the double years of 2007 and 2008, it seems that Japan saw no point of Asian adventures – just like how they treated the competition in 2004. Ironically, once more Japan let the Koreans took the glory – and now even the Australians.

 

4. Do Japanese next best things need J. League?

There is Son Heung-min and there is Ryo Miyaichi. Both skipped local competitions and tried their luck in Europe. Miyaichi is lucky to be listed for the provisional Asian Cup squad, but I don’t blame him if he enjoys the abuses against Arsene Wenger. Son, on the other hand, gets all Cristiano Ronaldo’s perks at least in Korea.

Of course parents of non-European football prodigies worry if Europe will be the nightmare of their sons’ careers. It happened to Takayuki Morimoto and Hiroshi Ibusuki. Sota Hirayama made a career suicide when the sleepiness of Almelo killed him. Now he won’t wear the three-legged crow crest again, but at least he can see the lights of Tokyo every night.

So it’s better to see if you’re good for J. League first, then for the national team. Like Okazaki or Uchida. The miracles of Kagawa and Honda won’t happen to everyone (Honda was practically unheard of outside Japan when he was playing for Nagoya). Then again, we have enough Okubos and Usamis to show that J. League might be the final frontier for the rest. The twist is that the world’s best Asian footballers (or even athletes) play outside the system. That’s why they are specials.

 

5. What will Happen to J. League in 2015?

J. League 2015 will return to the two parts system, Latin American style, topped with Korean or Australian style championship play-offs, in an attempt to draw back spectators and sponsors. British commentators are skeptical and football hipsters mourn the loss of its volatile nature. Maybe that’s what actually the suits want to settle. Maybe they want two Kanto clubs to act like Chelsea and Arsenal and two Kansai clubs (hmm…bit difficult now, eh?) to act like Manchester United and Manchester City. Nagoya can play Liverpool.

How it will effect Japanese football quality remains to be seen. I mean, look at Australia. Where have they gone wrong? To market their clubs well, however, club owners have to market their corporate brands better. I love Panasonic earphones, but of course they are jokes for Beat and Audio Technica wearing students. Pajero drivers are increasingly seen as dicks (female drivers included) in Southeast Asia, and uh, Sumitomo, what are you selling again?

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East Asians in Europe Prospect for 2013-14

New season in Europe and bigger competition for Asian players to win the starting 11 position (or at least being the steady sub). At the stake is the call up to represent their national sides in Brazil 14.

Australia certainly have less footballers playing regularly in England and Italy compared to ten years ago (and on the surface, more of them play in the Middle East and Asia), but that don’t necessarily mean they are out of Aussies playing in Europe.

Mark Schwarzer is certainly still be Australia’s number one in Brazil, and he is willing to sit for Petr Cech if that means he can train with Chelsea (more importantly, Chelsea was willing to grab him. Seems they really don’t have any sub goalkeeper left besides Hilario.

The big daddy

The big daddy

Similarly, Mitchell Langerak is the understudy of Roman Weidenfeller, who will certainly become one of Germany’s prime choices. He is yet to play for guard the posts for Australia. Matthew Ryan, formerly a Mariner, is the first pick for Club Brugge in Belgium and is competing tightly with Japan’s Eiji Kawashima (more on Japan section). No such luck for Adam Federici, now the sub goalkeeper at Championship’s Reading. Similarly Brad Jones wishes that he’d have more air time with Liverpool, seeing that Belgian Simon Mignolet (with big ambition himself) has settled well in his debut at Anfield.

Top three: Schwarzer, Ryan, and Langerak or Jones. Their toughest competition would be Eugene Galekovic.

Luke Wilkshire is playing his sixth season in Dynamo Moscow but the competition is tough with younger locals. Michael Zullo is struggling to get into the Utrecht bench, while Rhys Williams is having less competition in Middlesbrough – ditto for Jason Davidson.

Top four: Well, that’s all we have. David Carney is in New York, Lucas Neill is in Omiya, Japan, and Jade North is in Brisbane.

Tommy Oar has secured his winger position in Utrecht and how many rivals you think James Holland can get in Austria Wien? Mile Jedinak look strong in Crystal Palace. Tom Rogic is still hoping for his Celtic moment, Nikita Rukavytsya must fight for his position at Mainz, and Terry Antonis is developing in Parma. Carl Valeri hopes he can do something with newly promoted Sassuolo, Ben Halloran must try harder in Fortuna Dusseldorf, and finally Adam Sarota is still recovering from injury in that Little Asia club called Utrecht.

Top four: Oar, Jedinak, umm..well, not very promising is this? Cahill is in America while Bresciano is in Qatar. Holman is in UAE while Nichols is playing for Melbourne. Victory.

Robbie Kruse is of course Australia’s great hope, that if he can prevail over the Sam-Kiessling-Son trio. Mathew Leckie is steady with FSV Frankfurt, while Eli Babalj is waiting for his star to fall at AZ.

Top two: Kruse…and Leckie. A-League’s best are Thompson and Duke, while Kennedy is still in Nagoya and Brosque is still in UAE.

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Samurai Blue is still in terrible form with only two players standing out: Kagawa and Honda. And Okazaki now and then. Still, it doesn’t hurt if they keep their German conversation club going.

Eiji Kawashima bounces back from his humiliation with Japan in the Confederations Club and friendly against Uruguay with four clean sheets with Standard Liege, now number one in Belgium. Looking forward for Liege vs Brugge.

Top three: Nothing much here – Kawashima, Nishikawa from Hiroshima and Gonda from Tokyo. With Hayashi from Sendai trailing, but he’s pretty old.

Atsuto Uchida is one of the most high profile right back in Bundesliga and is now linked with Arsenal. It’s all up to him (remember that I wrote that Wenger disrespects his Asian players). Yuto Nagatomo hopes for a better year with Internazionale with him performing. Gotoku Sakai is the prime right back for Stuttgart. Maya Yoshida, however, faces a tougher second year with Southampton. Hiroki Sakai enjoyed a promotion to the first team with Hannover.

Stay. In. Gelschenkirchsence...Germany.

Stay. In. Gelschenkirchsence…Germany.

Top four: With all these boys, we wonder how the hell Japanese defense was terrible.

Makoto Hasebe is sitting pretty for Wolfsburg’s bench, Hajime Hosogai holds Berlin’s midfield, Takashi Inui is playing for Frankfurt, Yuki Otsu is staying with VVV in Eerste Divisie…and welll….Ryo Miyaichi and Arsenal. Ah-ha.

Top four: Hosogai, Inui, it depends if you think how VVV fares against Nagoya or Kashiwa. Otherwise, there are Aoyama and Takahagi from Hiroshima and Yamaguchi and Ogihara from Cerezo.

These are the best bits: Depends on the month, Kagawa and Honda can be forwards or midfielders. The surprise is that Keisuke Honda stays in CSKA, but he knows damn well he’s the best in Russia. Shinji Kagawa, on the other hand, didn’t show his super-ness in Manchester United’s Japan tour and had better times with the national team (thank God). Remains to be seen if he’ll get a place in Moyes’ scheme. With Bony in England, now Mike Havenaar is Vitesse’s point man. Time for him to work on his magic. Hiroshi Kiyotake has scored for Nurnberg while Shinji Okazaki faces the similar gauntlet to Havenaar – being the main striker – for Mainz.

Top two: Honda and Kagawa, with sadly somebody gotta give for Brazil. Not to count that there at least one player from J. League. I’m among the Sato faction, but he can turned out be Kakitani.

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Finally, Korea. Which are in deep shambles. If Guardian Football recruits fans again for Brazil 14, I’ll go for Korea again seeing there are plenty British covering Japan. And Australians covering Australia. Heck, sometimes I do the explanation for Koreans in Indonesian media as this big expat group is too silent to explain themselves.

There’s no Korean keeper in Europe.

Park Joo-ho plays with Okazaki in Mainz. If Nikita can return to form, then Mainz have the complete Asian outfit. Yun Suk-young isn’t a part of Queens Park Rangers’ new Empire image (they defeated Ipswich Town with 9 English, 1 Irish, and 1 Canadian last week. Not that any Southeast Asian cared).

Top four: Euh, can I talk about how Korea recruited all Japan-based defenders instead for the friendly against Peru? At least they were tight.

Koo Ja-cheol looks good in a Wolfsburg shirt (just ask Makoto), the Welsh Kim Bo-kyung and Ki Sung-yueng look OK despite their defeats, and Lee Chung-yong stays loyal with Bolton.

Top four: Nobody nobody but them.

Son Heung-min looks alive in Hamburg, unlike Ji Dong-won and Park Chu-young.

Top two: Son and well, shall we give Park another chance?

Yes please.

Yes please.