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?

Five things we learnt from AFC Olympics qualifications

Football at the Olympics

1. Japan have plenty of talents

What do you know. There was a chance that Japan would bottle the group and have to qualify to London through intercontinental playoff. Instead they top the group with the best goal aggregate and the best point. Past that fumble against Syria, Japan are simply the best U-23 team in Asia. Well, they are officially, after the gold medal at the Asian Games.

The biggest headache for Japan now is to choose their forwards. There are so many choices – All-European Otsu, Ibusuki, and Usami? Or tried and true J. Leaguers Nagai and Yamazaki? (Sorry, I still have some reserve on Yuya Osako). They certainly don’t want to be like Senegal which came with six forwards for the African Cup of Nations and lost all matches.

Certainly everybody has learned to stop calling a team “the Golden Generation”. Certainly pessimistic Japanese fans can recite these names: Shoji Jo, Yanagisawa, Robert Cullen, and sigh, Sota Hirayama. But the Japanese are happy to know that they are not Australians. Or Italians.

2. South Korea and Japan can alternately being unstable

Should I start call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Certainly they fight alot in many issues, they have host World Cup together and many Koreans grind themselves in the J. League. And like magnets, they often move to opposite direction (disclaimer: I suck at sciences). Korea played Qatar in Seoul National Stadium. Japan played Bahrain in Tokyo National Stadium. Qatar and Bahrain, are of course, the dee and dum of the Gulf. Certainly when you play in Seoul National Stadium you give your all and you don’t play half-ass, even if your club needs you for weekend K-League. Even when your rival for that position is arrested (sorry, can’t resist). And yet, Korea let 20 thousand supporters down. They come to see a goal. On the other hand, it was the turn for the Japanese to make the 30 thousands Tokyo residents proud. The lesson: Never, never assume that South Korea are more solid than Japan.

3. What shall we do with Australia?

Jesus. Four draws out of six games, which includes, of course, all home games. And here’s the now famous punch line. No goal. Even Malaysia could score three, all of them at Bahrain. The agony of the Olyroos would be too cruel and only could come from the fantasy of a Socceroos hater (there are many of them in Asia). I wonder if Australia couldn’t score a goal because they faced West Asian (including Uzbekistan) teams. No myth about physical advantage. Hostile and unfamiliar away matches, not to mention tiring. But how they could go down 0-2 at Tashkent is beyond my Acomprehension.

Australian media, luckily for the Olyroos, are both too optimistic and aloof about youth football to scream in panic. The women team also failed to qualify, ranked below Japan and North Korea at the final group stage. Now, the Australia U-23 team for the match against Iraq was drawn totally from A-League teams. Certainly, as a non-fan, I think Australian fans need to be somewhat panic with the state of their leagues and young talents. No one can deny that the Socceroos are still formidable, but I’m somewhat puzzled that young Aussies don’t play in Europe while young Japanese and Koreans are. Heck, if Europe’s too far, then play in Japan or Korea or China.

4. There’s still hope for UAE football

You cannot blame Star Sports to skip on Japan’s match yesterday. Of course the priority was for Malaysia, which match ran at the same time with Japan’s and Korea’s. The Uzbekistan v UAE match ran immediately after that, and it was really and dead or alive match. UAE’s senior team have taken severe batterings lately, and the junior team looked to be disappointed as well as Uzbekistan played before, er, 7500, are having a rising senior team, and led 1-0 at halftime. Made that 2-0 two minutes later. Theeen….Ahmad Khalil scored two goals in the space of two minutes. UAE held on for a draw…no, for a win, their fourth win in the group. The emirates achieved what their Gulf rivals failed to do, heck, even what Saudi failed to do, and condemned Uzbekistan to the torture of Play-off round. UAE have a decent league and AFC rules might check their clubs’ dependencies on Brazilian and aging European imports. Although, don’t expect the crowds to come. They are too beautiful to watch open air local football.

5. Malaysia are not Southeast Asia’s finest, but they have the flair.

Malaysia finished their group with total defeats and sixteen goals. But they often punched above their weights. Their national team were not supposed to win the AFF Cup. The Young Tigers were not supposed to win gold medal at the Southeast Asian Games. They were not supposed to aim for London. But they defeated Lebanon and braved long trips to Bahrain and Jordan and the prospect of being bullied by Japan (which happened well, in Kuala Lumpur). But they were not afraid.

Because apparently other Southeast Asian teams couldn’t bother with qualifying. Thailand carelessly fielded ineligible player for a narrow 1-0 win over Palestine. Singapore lost twice to Yemen when they should have won. Indonesia threw away games against Turkmenistan. Well, it was Vietnam’s bad luck to be pitted against Saudi Arabia. In short, lack of motivation and skills from the players, and more importantly, self-defeatism from their NOCs and football federations, disguised as realism. “We wouldn’t get a gold medal so why bother.” Ugh.

Malaysian national pride and willingness to improve and to compete, fortunately, trumped the apathy. They represented Southeast Asia, they lost badly, but they had tried with all their hearts.

And they scored!

The sad thing was Manchester United lost. Because they were lost, nobody really remembered Park Ji-Sung equalizer. In the same night, my wish from the previous post came true – Shinji Kagawa scored two goals against Hoffenheim, and Mike Havenaar scored for Vitesse before PSV put an end to their hope of a comeback. Hajime Hosogai also helped Ausburg scoring equalizer against Kaiserslautern. The only dent was Koo and Hasebe’s inability to fight Bayern Munich.

Kagawa and Havenaar’s performance both grabbed modest attention in Japanese media on Sunday, as well as assorted sports site. Unfortunately, they play in Germany instead of England. In the rest of Southeast Asia there are raging debates every day on EPL clubs, while in Indonesia people abuse each other over Madrid v Barcelona, but no one watches Bundesliga, let alone Eredivisie.

On Sunday, however, the fortunes of the Koreans and the Japanese turned over. Nagatomo played full time in Inter’s suprise defeat to Lecce, Okazaki came in at the start of the second half but Stuttgart were badly damaged in the last ten minutes, Uchida played only for the first half and got a yellow card to boot (and Schalke was able to turn the table once he was gone), and Yoshida was helpless as RKCĀ  mistreated VVV. Ji and Chu-Young spent the whole match again on the bench. Still, credit to Kawashima for clean sheet in away victory against Westerlo.

What’s the lesson? First, at least watching Japanese and Korean attackers are much less depressing than five years ago, when you got Takahara and Ahn and Seol and Lee Dong-Gook attempting to make a break in England and Germany. No, please don’t remind me on the last day of the Japanese in Serie A (I’m not talking about Yuto. I’m talking about Ogasawara, Yanagisawa, Oguro. And Morimoto). But as expected, their defensive sides, while have secured their names in starting XI, are still shaky. Even my favorite Lee Jung-Soo lapsed in the second half and almost letting go a three goals advantage as Al Sadd registered narrow 3-2 against Al Ahli in Qatar.

 

I think that’s all about Japan and Korea. Anyway, yesterday I found two names – first is Hiroshi Ibusuki, the current top scorer of Spain’s Segunda B Group 4. He plays for Sevilla B. A former youth player for Kashiwa, he has lived in Spain for three years and scored 35 goals. How about that, scoring 35 goals in Spain before you are 21 year old. In Japan U-23, however, he is still ranked behind Yamazaki, Nagai, Osako and Usami, just to name a few.

The second name is Xavier Chen, playing for Mechelen. I was wondering how could a Taiwanese playing in the Belgian Premier League, seeing that no Taiwanese plays even in Hong Kong First Division or J.League Division 2. Turned out he’s half-Belgian, the Taiwanese football federation claimed to know him when playing FIFA 12 (talking about scouting), and said that they had to race China which was also approaching Chen. I don’t think China is one of federations which are keen to naturalize foreign-born players, but let’s just leave the story like that.

On the other hand, Indonesians are in love with Radja Nainggolan, half-Indonesian Belgian midfielder playing for Cagliari, who was linked with Juventus, which is still a popular club in Indonesia. I’m glad that he has played twice for Belgium so Indonesian football federation cannot approach him for *sigh* naturalization. FYI, in FIFA 12 Chen is rated 67 while Nainggolan’s rating is 76, making him one of the top Asian players in the game, ethnically.