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?

Advertisements

Asian Champions League 2013 – after Matchday 4

Since I don't post pictures of Socceroos often.

Since I don’t post pictures of Socceroos often.

North Korea. What about ’em, eh? Making Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese forget to hate each other? Imagine how dreadful it is for Japanese teams and supporters to make away trips to China and Korea. But well, in the current vicious (by 21st century standard) stadium atmosphere in Europe, thank the Lord any spat between a Korean and a Japanese on the pitch can be solved by a double yellow card. The last time Japanese players had laser beam pointed at them was in Jordan (still, no excuse for me to miss my penalty kick, said Yasuhiro Endo).

The amount of Korean and Australian…and even Japanese…players in Gulf/Red Sea clubs has attracted my attention. Kwak Tae-hwi (formerly Ulsan) in Al-Shabab Riyadh. Go Seul-ki (formerly Ulsan) in El Jaish Doha. Shin Hyung-min (formerly Pohang) in Al Jazira Abu Dhabi. Nam Tae-hee (formerly Valenciennes) in Lekhwiya Doha. Mark Bresciano and Harry Kewell in Al Gharafa Doha. Takayuki Morimoto in Al Nasr Dubai. Alex Brosque in Al Ain. And Yoo Byung-soo in Al Hilal.

Which should make watching the AFC Champions League less stressful than used to be. In the end a Korean will still lift a trophy. Of course, it’s not always painless, as experienced by Lee Jung-soo when he, uhm, disagreed with his club’s gameplay against Suwon in 2011. Now he’s still in Al Sadd since the other option was worse – Guangzhou Evergrande.

Al-Shabab Riyadh: Passed Group A. Kwak Tae-hwi is a starter and played full time in all the four matches.

El Jaish: Runner ups of Group A with Iran’s Tractor Sazi on their tails. Go Seul-Ki performed quite poorly – subbed out twice and was also receiving yellow cards twice.

Al Jazira: On the verge of going out, almost. Two draws and two losses. Shin Hyung-min played in all matches.

_________________________________________________________________________

Lekhwiya: Tight race with Pakhatkor. Nam Tae-hee has scored six goals in the league (his best record), but yet to score in Asia. A starter who is consistently subbed out.

_________________________________________________________________________

Al Gharafa: Trying to keep up with the dominating Al-Ahli, although they are blessed with the unexpected terrible performance of Sepahan. Mark Bresciano has played twice in the competition, while Harry hasn’t (can he, legally?)

Al Nasr: Already out with four losses. In the team, Morimoto faces tough competitions from Bruno Correa (ex-Sepahan and Incheon) and locals Humain Abdulla Abbas, Hassan Mohamed, and Younis Ahmad. Goes without saying that Al Nasr’s main forward is Giuseppe Mascara. Here’s the twist – Morimoto has scored three times in Asia, in the playoff against Lokomotiv Tashkent, and then in losses to Al Ahli and Al Gharafa. League-wise, his kill rate is five goals out of seven games.

Wish list: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

Wish: That FIFA 14 features UEA Pro League

__________________________________________________________________________

Al Ain: Neck to neck to championship’s regular Al Hilal, and still can overtake Esteghlal. Alex Brosque is enjoying stable position as wingman to Asamoah Gyan and has scored two goals – but not against Esteghlal.

Al Hilal: The only reason I’m glad there’s Saudi League in FIFA 13. The only team capable to bring 50 thousand spectators into an ACL match. Yoo Byung-soo seems to be a sub option behind veteran Yasser Al Qahtani and Wesley, and he’s yet to make a mark as a super sub after coming out from the bench three times.

_________________________________________________________________________

FC Seoul: Top performers from Korea with patchy records (two wins, a draw, a loss). Cha Du-ri is now a seat warmer, Mauricio Molina is showing his age, and Japanese Sergio Escudero is settling quite well. The team rely on Dejan Damjanovic, Ha Dae-sung, and Adilson.

Buriram United: The rise of Southeast Asian football? They hold themselves quite well and are having a Mexican standoff with Sendai, which they held 1-1 in the cold north. Defenders Charyl Chappuis is the first half-Westerner Thai footballer and he plays well. And try to pronounce this Swiss sub – Chitchanok Xaysensourithone.

Vegalta Sendai: Qualification to playoff still not sure, but respect should always be given to these brave men. The goalscorers (three so far, same with Buriram) are the club’s most recognizable name – North Korean Ryang Yong-gi, Wilson, and 35 year old Atsushi Yanagisawa. Shingo Akamine is yet to show his magic this season.

________________________________________________________________________

Guangzhou Evergrande: You know they are at it again. The big question is can they reach the semi-finals. Huang Bowen is back in China and Dario Conca is still probably the best number 10 in Asia (well he’s number 15). Muriqui is the current top scorer in Asia, while in China he is challenged by Guangzhou midfielder Elkeson (not playing in ACL). Lucas Barrios, who could become a flop in China, has scored against Urawa Reds.

Jeonbuk: One win, three draws. Bad records for Jeonbuk. Especially their defense. Choi Eun-seong doesn’t only look old – he’s 42. Central Coast alumni Alex Wilkinson is still settling in. Jeonbuk are supposedly to be scary with Eninho, Kim Jung-woo, Kevin Oris, and Lee Dong-gook. They should have been.

Urawa Reds: The most popular clubs in Japan are back, in regular shape – battered and bruised. 21 year old Genki Haraguchi is striving to graduate into Samurai Blue, while Shinzo Koroki is drifting away from chance to wear the national jersey. They will not pass the group stage. Hopefully Haraguchi can play in Europe in three years time.

Muangthong United: Well, they do what they can. And yet with a point, they still have chance to qualify, due to Jeonbuk’s disappointing form.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

Genki desu ka? Hai, genki desu.

_______________________________________________________________________

Pohang Steelers: Same with Jeonbuk – one win and three draws. They are all-Korean this year, without any famous name. Surprisingly, they are doing well in the league, thanks to midfielders Cho Chan-ho, Lee Myeong-ju, and Hwang Jin-sung. Hwang Sun-hong legend in the making will depend on how they add up against Beijing, but certainly Hiroshima are no threat for them.

Beijing Gouan: They have Frederic Kanoute.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima: Turned out Hiroshima are not Asia-ready. Shusaku Nishikawa still have far to go before he can challenge Eiji Kawashima, and Mihael Mikic is never good enough. The biggest problem with Hisato Sato is that he seems to score only against Japanese keepers – a good argument against his return into the national team. And yes, I remember that he scored three goals in last year’s Club World Cup. Once against Al Ahly and twice to…Urawa. Well.

________________________________________________________________________

Kashiwa Reysol: I thought that Yokohama Marinos deserved the Emperor Cup better. I take it back. Their Brazilian spice still kicks. This time it’s Cleo, who played for Evergrande, and old timer Leandro Domingues. This is also a great springtime for Masato Kudo.

Central Coast Mariners: Another bad year for Australian football, with Kewell rather be unemployed than playing in the A-League. There are, however, glimmer of hopes for the Socceroos from Matthew Ryan and Mitchell “Duke” Duke.

Suwon Bluewings: High maintenance, low returns. Three 0-0 matches. With Jung Sung-ryong, Eddy Bosnar, Kwak Hee-ju, Kim Do-heon, Oh Jang-eun, Jong Tae-se, Stevica Ristic, and Dzenan Radoncic, Suwon still don’t know how to win. A failed Samsung product.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Saturday Comes

Where do you go? I wanna know.

So excited I was with the Olympics that I forgot that J. League and K-League were going on. In fact, K-League was done. Regular season wise. So now, on to the playoff round where Seongnam will beat everyone before losing in the final, and with Daegu and Gangwon having a break?

Not quite. This year the afterlife of K-League season introduces several changes – first like in Russia, there’s Championship Round and Relegation Round. Yes, finally there’s something called Relegation. There’s no such thing in USA but now it’s there in Korea. The name of the hell is Korea National League, coming soon in 2013. The name of heaven is ACL Champions League. Not a name to be associated with heaven, but let’s hope Korean clubs will win it again and again.

And Seongnam will not contest an ACL spot. With Seoul and Qatari clubs poaching their Colombians, Aussies, and Brazilians, they sit at number 10 below Daegu. No, not via FA Cup either – they lost to Ulsan at the 1/8 final. So if now you’re an aspiring Korean footballer and you want to become big, you have better options than Ilhwa Chunma. Good for Korea.

While the eight clubs (two more clubs than previous editions) will contest three Asian spots (four of them – Pohang, Gyeongnam, Jeju, and Ulsan have the KFA Cup backup) have time to rest until mid-September, national coaches around Asia are already preparing for the Brazil 14 Qualifiers, also held in mid-September. Next Thursday Japan will face UAE and Australia take an away trip to Lebanon. Korea will skip the friendlies, but already making headlines in the in brief section for recruiting Park Jong-Woo, probably now the most hated South Korean in Japan, into the roster for the match against Uzbekistan.

On the other hand, Al Zaccheroni have also made up his mind. He will not include Ryo Miyaichi and Hisato Sato. The former is “not having match fitness” while the latter, now the top scorer of J. League, would mean a change to the lineup, and Al Z is not interested with any change. Surely he can at least trade his place with say, Ryoichi Maeda or at least Genki?

At least, when Saturday comes, the world will see Shinji Kagawa playing again (Sunday actually). For his third match, and last weekend all Japanese was in relief – he didn’t embarrass. In fact now he’s seen as one of the best assets for Manchester United, besides van Persie. He’s not, groan, a ‘shirt seller for Far East market’ anymore. He’s the incarnation of Tsubasa Oroza, the number 10. Since Wayne Rooney has to play for number 10 and 9 roles for both Manchester United and England.

And so, now it’s back to leagues watch for me – tracking down European clubs where Japanese and Korean players are. There are dozens of them now, ten years after the post-Korea/Japan boom launched Takahara, Shunsuke, Seol, and Ji-sung to Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Netherlands. And in the past weeks, I did lose track. Week 1 was pretty sad, seeing Kagawa failed to pass Everton’s defense and looking for Ki Sung-yeung in Celtic’s lineup.

Now here’s a summary of how Japanese and Korean players in Europe are doing:

  • Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege) – the move upward after Lierse. He has conceded six goals, as much as Club Brugge’s Vladan Kujovic, but worse than Belgium’s national keeper Silvio Proto (just one goal gap), and Gent’s Sergio Padt. Fortunately, his team mates are apt in scoring goals.
  • Yuto Nagatomo (Inter) – He didn’t come to Indonesia few months ago, unfortunately, because he had to mark Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano. After a gloomy season, Inter are off to a good start against Pescara, where he played 90 minutes at the left back. Since the retirement of Lee Young-pyo, Korea are yet to produce his opposite.
  • Park Jo-hoo (Basel) – finally he’s a Red Devil once more. Integral to the defense of Basel, unfortunately last year’s surprise pack of the UCL fell down to CF Cluj, so no more sightings of him on Wednesday nights.
  • Maya Yoshida (VVV Venlo) – the very manly Maya, probably a successor to Marcus Tulio in terms of being an enforcer and a corner kick bulldog, is yet to move a better club. Even in VVV he’s competing with Ismo Vostermann for right center back. At least he has better chance of being a starter than Robert Cullen. UPDATE: Now Yoshida’s with Southampton. He might face Kagawa on Sunday.
  • Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart) – yet to play for his new club.
  • Hiroki Sakai (Hannover) – ditto.
  • Makoto Hasebe (Wolfsburg) – A real tough competition in Wolfsburg, since the slots for defending midfielders are taken by Robin Knoche and international player Marcel Schafer. Iranian winger Ashkan Degajah has better chance to be in the Starting 11. Even in the subs list, Hasebe’s current rank is below Czech’s Jan Polak. Even by Christmas he could be in the transfer market.
  • Hajime Hosogai (Leverkusen) – at least this pretty German-looking guy is on the bench, covering for Simon Rolfes or Lars Bender. The bad news is on the bench there’s also Junior Fernandez from Chile.
  • Keisuke Honda (CSKA) – Back to the tough neighborhood that is the Russian League and he’s comfortable at the left midfield, already scoring two goals from six appearances.
  • Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff) – Damn, and I had had made of fun of Cardiff :p. Has yet to play for the Red Bluebirds Dragons.
  • Koo Ja-cheol (Augsburg) – another year to survive the Bundesliga. The left wing is his. Last week he duelled against Robbie Kruse from Dusseldorf and both of them were substituted.
  • Ki Sung-yeung (Swansea) – there you are, I was looking for you in Celtic. Is expected to replace Jonathan de Guzman, and has to match Michu’s standard.
  • Lee Chung-yong (Bolton) – Welcome back Chungy. Rumors of transfer to the Premier League is counterbalanced for feeling of grateful for a club that nurtured him (and also Stuart Holden) during the long injury and comfortable starting place.
  • Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart) – Last year he could hold the competitors – Martin Harnik and Vedad Ibisevic. This season he expects to sit on the bench much longer, next to Cacau.
  • Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) – top of the world.
  • Mike Havenaar (Vitesse) – If Bony doesn’t deliver, then he’s off for the job, but he’s yet to save the day.
  • Park Chu-young (Celta Vigo) – That’s it, I don’t have to tune in for Arsenal anymore. Tipped to be the successor of van Persie, competing with Gervinho & Theo Walcott, Chu-young moves instead to somewhere nearer Monaco. No what? He’s Arsenal reserve no 30? Possible moves to Fulham or Norwich? But Berbatov also cancels Fiorentina for Fulham? So what’s his club now? Which one I should see? Ah well, at this rate he might play for Sangju Sangmu Phoenix.

And please keep these names in your pray:

Besides the regular intention for Takayuki Morimoto, also pray for Ryo Miyaichi, Atsuto Uchida, Michihiro Yasuda, Cha Du-ri, Tadanari Lee (esp. now he’s lost his love to pretty old man Gackt), Takashi Inui, Ji Dong-won, and Son Heung-min. Jesus loves you, said the Korean players.