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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Six best Japan’s victories

Pele is my Homie

Yes, this is after a Guardian Football article. On the greatest victories of United States, written after the 1-0 upset against Italy in last week’s friendly, just when Japan surprisingly went down to Uzbekistan by the same score. So, as United States have their moments, and after seeing how Japanese forwards soon back at scoring goals and providing assists for their clubs in Europe*, I want to look at the Samurai Blue’s finest hours and halves. Unfortunately I won’t do the same for Korea since they have not won the Asian Cup for fifty years, and they have never been in Confederations Cup.

*Dortmund-Mainz 2-1 (Kagawa 77), Vitesse-de Graafschap 2-0 (Havenaar 73), VVV-NAC 2-1 (Cullen 85, Yoshida 87), Stuttgart-Hamburg 4-0 (Okazaki won a penalty kick for Kuzmanovic), Lierse-Leuven 0-0 (…okay, clean sheet for Kawashima)

1. Japan 15-0 Philippines, 1967 Olympics qualification

This is not in for the sheer brutality. Fifty years before, Philippines inflicted the worst defeat ever for Japan, 2-15, also in Tokyo during the Far Eastern Championship (see? Japan’s always crap when it comes to EAFF). That 1917 humiliation came the day after the Republic of China put five without reply against Japan – and might be responsible for the lack of interest of soccer (yes, Americans are not the only ones who call it soccer). Philippines, on the other hand, were one of the pioneers of football in Asia, especially since the Americans were keener to share the love for the sport, compared to the British in Singapore and Hong Kong.

After World War 2, however, Philippines lost interest at football just like the Americans did (despite the 1950 World Cup). In Japan, football was also behind rugby union, although the richest and advanced nation in Asia was keen to participate in any kind of international tournament, especially after hosting the 1964 Olympics, where the host defeated Argentina 3-2 before succumbed 0-4 to Czechoslovakia in QF.

The carnage against Philippines came in the first matchday of Group 1 qualification in Japan. Had the JFA received more funds and better training, names like Kunishige Kamamoto and Teruyuki Miyamoto could become the legends of Asia. You never heard of them unless you were Japanese (or an Asian football geek), since Japan didn’t come to 1964 Asian Cup and lost to Taiwan in the 1968 qualification. That’s right, Taiwan cared about football back in 1960s, continuing its Republic of China tradition. Even, Philippines’ lineup for the fateful day featured many ethnic Chinese. How the times have changed.

Japan had led two nil by five minutes, and 23 year old Kamamoto, who played for Yanmar Diesel (now Cerezo Osaka), scored his first at the 16th minute. He gained his third goal by the half hour mark. 27 year old Miyamoto (Yawata Steel, folded in 1999) had opened his account four minutes before. In total, Kamamoto scored six (including the last one one minute before time), while Miyamoto had four. Other scorers were Ryuichi Sugiyama, substitute Yasuyuki Kuwahara, and Masashi Watanabe. Poor goalkeeper Fertes was not substituted.

Japan continued its rampage the next days by beating Taiwan and Lebanon, before being held 3-3 by Korea despite 2-0 lead at half time. In Mexico City (Puebla, actually), Kamamoto scored hattrick against Nigeria (3-1), while Japan survived draws against Brazil and Spain (Watanabe, who also played for Yawata, scored against Brazil). Hungary humiliated them 0-5 but in the fight for bronze medal, Kumamoto scored two to upset the hosts. Had only he was born forty years later.

2. Japan 3-2 China, 1992 Asian Cup

It was the cruel irony for Korea. They had established themselves as the East Asian representatives for World Cup, twice. Japan had nothing against them (even well, to this day?). They even just hosted the Olympics to boot. Yet Japan, which just created a professional league, won the rights to host the Asian Cup, something that Korea has never done (really, this is a gap in the checklist for a country which has hosted a World Cup and will host the Winter Olympics). Yet, the Tigers didn’t have to visit Japan – they were knocked out in the qualification by…Thailand.

Japan won the Group A unconvincingly, earning narrow victory against Iran while played draws against North Korea and 1990’s West Asian representatives/whipboys UAE. And Japan consisted of J.League celebrities such as Ruy Ramos, Kazuyoshi Miura, and Masashi Nakayama. Were they overhyped? (in Japan there’s no such thing as ‘overhyped’ and ‘overrated’) Could they really qualify to USA 1994?

So they faced China in semi-final, which had good knack for coming back from one goal deficit, both against favorite Saudi Arabia and Qatar (Thailand failed to live up their credibility as the dark horses). China’s mistake was that they scored earlier. Xie Yuxin, first Chinese player to play in Europe (PEC Zwolle, which ceased business in 1990) scored right off the bat. The score stayed for 45 minutes, looked like Japan would blow it. Then, Masahiro Fukada (Urawa) scored three minutes into the second half, and Tsuyoshi Kitazawa (Verdy Kawasaki) turned over the game ten minutes later. But! China kept the drama alive through Li Xiao, before Masahi Nakayama (Jubilo, in case you forget) won it for the host six minutes from time.

So Japan defeated their best available East Asian rivals, which came close from creating an upset. They improved the defence and won the final match against Saudi Arabia through Takuya Takagi (Hiroshima)’s single goal. China have never been against a scary threat for Japan (at least the footballers) while Koreans only could see in envy when MVP Kazu Miura lifted the trophy. They would have the last laugh the following year.

3. Japan 8-1 Uzbekistan, 2000 Asian Cup

You could say that Japan flunked it. After winning the Asian Cup, they failed to qualify to the World Cup, J. League clubs were languishing in Asian Championship, they experienced that foreign coaches (who were also subjected into overexposure) could take the team into implosion rather than glory, while local coach Shu Kamo survived despite losses in 1995 King Fahd’s Cup and 1996 Asian Cup. They qualified to France in ugly manners and lost to Jamaica despite honorable 0-1 losses to Argentina and Croatia.

So – Japan would become the co-host of 2002 World Cup, and the leadership fell into Phillipe Troussier, who spent his managing career in Africa. While the senior team became a disappointing guest at the Copa America, the U-20 team reached the final of World Youth Championship. The young players were believed to be the great hope – figures such as Naohiro Takahara, Shinji Ono, and Atsushi Yanagisawa.

And Japan opened the West Asian campaign with a bang by humiliating Saudi Arabia 4-1, where young boys Takahara and Yanagisawa shined. Then came the humiliation of Uzbekistan. Both Takahara (Jubilo) and Akinori Nishizawa (Cerezo) scored hattricks. The scoreline was already 5-1 in the first half. It was a quiet silent atmosphere at Sidon, where only 2 thousands watched the game. Japan failed to impress in the third game against Qatar (some might say that they conserved energy). The semi final against China was a repeat of 1992 – China led by 2-1 with 50 minutes of play, and Japan’s goal came courtesy of Fan Zhiyi’s own goal. Nishizawa and Tomozaku Myojin (Kashiwa) saved the day, and the final was also a repeat of 1992 – Japan defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0. How the development had come a long way for Uzbekistan (other Central Asian countries couldn’t follow and Kazakhstan defected to UEFA two years later), and how Japan could be really irresistible in a big tournament.

4. Japan 1-0 Russia, 2002 World Cup

It’s never nice to draw analogy between football and military history, but coincidentally, Japan usually graduated by beating Russia. It seemed that the co-host had better draw than Korea which got Portugal and United States, but it was not that easy. Russia were top of the group in the qualification and banished the chances of Yugoslavia and Switzerland. Belgium were better than Scotland, and after all, qualified while their bigger, more handsome brother Netherlands failed. In short, Japan’s best hope was to defeat Tunisia, but the same thing could be said for Jamaica in 1998.

Korea won their first World Cup match by convincing 2-0 victory against Poland, so Japan felt the emotional pressure to do the same against Belgium. It was not to happen. Naohiro Takahara sadly had to miss the tournament to injury, while fans were outraged that Shunsuke Nakamura was not chosen by Troussier. Japan featured household names of Hide Nakata, Junichi Inamoto, and Shinji Ono in the midfield, and Nakamura would have completed the circle, with Myojin if necessary. As for forward, Japan relied on Yanagisawa and Takayuki Suzuki, who was impressive during the 2001 Confederations Cup where he scored a brace against Cameroon.

Suzuki did deliver to counter Marc Wilmots’ goal, and Japan were on path of victory after Inamoto scored (lesson: dyed blondes win). But van der Heyden equalized and Japan failed to match Korean achievement. Russia, meanwhile, had defeated Tunisia and were leading the group.

Troussier replaced Daisuke Ichikawa on the starting lineup with Myojin while retaining Kazuyuki Toda. Russia, however, switched from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 and reserved Beschastnykh, supposedly to face on Japan’s 3-5-2 formation. First half came tough. The sign of the crack up came in the second half when forward Pimenov (why not Vladimir B from the start?) was replaced by Sychev. Five minutes later, Inamoto scored. Beschastnykh came as Russia’s third sub before the hour mark, and you can smell fear behind Oleg Romantsev’s neck. Not Tsushima again. Suzuki failed to endanger Russia and was replaced by Nakayama – the curtain call for his hours of fame. Japan celebrated its first World Cup win after five attempts, compared to Korea’s 15. Although Tunisia held Belgium, Japan knew Round 2 was on the bag. And so they proceed with 2-0 victory. The unfortunate casualties were Japanese nationals who were beaten up by angry Russian fans. Tsushima indeed.

5. Japan 3-1 Denmark, 2010 World Cup

2000s were a game of two halves for Japan. While Korea eternally remembered 2002 with a smile despite later controversies, Japan retained the Asian Cup and won the honor of defeating Greece, the bane of Europe, in 2005 Confederations Cup.You could say the overconfidence ruled before the 2006 World Cup, as the media put too much trust on Zico (understandable for Kashima fans) and captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto even had the time to organize girls’ futsal match. When Germany 2006 came, Japan went in for rude awakening that only Shunsuke Nakamura and Keiji Tamada could actually play.

2007 Asian Cup were not supposed to be that bad for Japan – until they lost to Saudi – and then to Korea. Ivica Osim and his JEF United team were disgraced, and the victory against Australia was soon forgotten. The pessimism prevailed just before the 2010 World Cup as accountant/system engineer Takeshi Okada returned. Japan lost four friendly matches throughout April-May 2010, conceded at least two goals each time.

Blonde Keisuke Honda, however, prevailed over Samuel Eto’o. But when Netherlands prevailed and Japan had to win against Denmark, the analogy with the fate of Korea in 2006 appeared. Korea then defeated Togo, held France, but failed to go on after lost soundly to Switzerland. Denmark had the same points with Japan after defeated Cameroon.

Fans and players complained about the difficulty of employing free kick using the adidas Jabulani ball. Japan proved that it was not a big deal. Both Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo outwitted Denmark’s wall and Thomas Sorensen. Denmark returned through a penalty kick’s rebound, but then Honda rampaged and passed the ball beyond Sorensen to Shinji Okazaki. Usually only teams like Germany, Brazil, or Netherlands could beat Denmark with two goals margin like that. Japan failed to conquer Paraguay, which was motivated by model Larissa Riquelme who promised she would go nude in front of the team had they won the World Cup. But Japan, and also Korea, had proved that in the 21st century, Asian teams were no longer pushovers.

6. Japan 1-0 (0-0) Australia, 2011 Asian Cup

Australia want a friendly rivalry with Japan over the mastery of Asia. Japan might have taken the challenge after the outrage at Germany 06, although its real derby is against Republic of Korea. In any case, Japan and Australia were the top favorites to win, although the championship was held in West Asia. Japan started roughly, equalized in injury time against Jordan and defeated Syria through Honda’s penalty kick. They eventually ousted Saudi Arabia, which already lost to Syria and Jordan. 5-0, as Okazaki scored hattrick and Ryoichi Maeda gained two goals.

In quarter finals, Japan defeated the hosts 3-2 with twenty minutes remaining – Qatar’s goals came from its naturalized players, Sebastian Soria and Fabio Cesar. Semi final was a battle royale affair against Korea, and Korea were favored based on derby’s history. Both teams scored in extra time, but something very unexpected happened – Korea could not put a single goal in penalty shootout.

Came the dream final against Australia, where the Soceroos were again favored. The scourge of Japan, Tim Cahill was there, but he had only scored two goals against India. More dangerous were Mile Jedinak and Harry Kewell, and six different players scored in the 6-0 demolition of Uzbekistan. And Cahill came that close in early second half, but his header and its wild impact failed to cross the line.

Penalty shootout loomed and Mark Schwarzer was invincible as ever, but Yuto Nagatomo, the Cesena’s short side back that was much underestimated by Western punters in the World Cup, crossed to Tadanari Lee. He scored with a volley. Australians argue that Japan have not defeated Australia in 90 minutes. The last time Japan did was in 2001, 1-0 in Confederations Cup and 3-0 in AFC v OFC match. Incidentally, as rivals, both teams have not held friendly match since 1998, despite of ease of travel between Tokyo and Sydney and the presence of expatriates in both countries.

Sadly, Lee’s heroic achievement failed to raise the profile of Korean-Japanese in Japan and Korea (Tadanari was rejected by his team mates in Korea U-20 and he dates Korean-Japanese singer Iconiq, who is also shunned in both countries as ‘too foreign’). But Japan have defeated Korea in football multiculturalism, as now its national team features a Dutch and a Korean, both are made in Japan.