Football (Japan) Lost In Translation . . . Relaunched 2012!
Japan Football: Zaccheroni, Samurai Blue, and general J chatter
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J-League's Challenge Abroad
I've been looking at some of the comments made by Yokohama Marinos players in the wake of their elimination from the Asian Champions League. A number of them caught my eye.

"The reason for this final result lies with our loss in the first game of the group games at Home. The fact that we dropped that first game may be to blame for our elimination from the ACL. It's become very clear that in order to get results in the ACL, we cannot allow ourselves to be physically or mentally overwhelmed by the tight schedule."

"All the players were saying that today's opponent was rough and physically strong."

"This is what happens if you can't finish with a goal when you should have. Everyone has thoughts on this, but we had plenty of chances to win during all our games, including the ones at home. The fact that we couldn't make those chances work for us is the biggest reason for our elimination. Today, the "away" atmosphere was permeating from every inch of the stadium. From the ball boys to all the supporters, the emotion was clear: "We are going to make our team win." I think it's necessary for us in Japan to learn from them, and to be able to create this kind of away atmosphere when foreign teams come to Japan. We need to use the experience of today's game as fodder, and have that kind of mentality (of keeping the "world" within our sights) in the J-league."

In other words, no one mentioned how "technically good" the opponents were or how beautifully they played.... how their opponents played superior football. And perhaps this is the true test of Japan when they go face to face with teams from other countries. In Japan, the football culture is one that prioritizes organization and technique. We KNOW our players are competitive both as individuals and as a team unit. You can say that these ACL games are rough on the players schedule-wise. But the other teams have to play in worse conditions in their own leagues, some in much rougher climates, and also have their own league obligations just like everyone else. So what is the difference? I thought I'd mull things over in this entry and maybe keep some of these points in mind as I keep following football in Japan.

- Japanese clubs need to better prepare their players physically. Not just things like stamina, but a sort of physical presence -- strength, an aura of power, of wearing your absolute dedication to the win on your sleeve through the physical. And supporters need to back the players' motivation (at least when they are at home) by showing up and rooting, or booing when there are bad calls made by refs or when opponents do something unsportsmanlike or dangerous, etc. It seems from the comments above that Marinos were overwhelmed -- by the opponent and the crowds, even the ball boys were sending their message. Not because the Chinese team was better, but just that they wanted it more.

- Japanese on the whole are averse to playing dirty. Well, dirty is a...dirty, I guess what I mean is that we don't take every opportunity to create a home advantage where other countries do. We are very concerned with playing by the book. This is not just true of the J-league, but with the National Team also. In fact, I remember during the last World Cup qualifier game against Bahrain at home when Japan was leading 1-0 and there was some minutes left to the whistle, the ball boys were doing their jobs with great efficiency and honesty. The commentator, who is of Brazilian origin, was saying how he wished the ball boys would get clued in and take a little longer getting the balls back to the pitch. I personally like that Japan shows friendliness and fairness. But there is "fair" and there is "naive". I mean, as long as we are in the J-league bubble it might be okay to be naive, but once you play internationally you have to be ready for all sorts of things. There was a Jubilo ACL game where one of their players who was sitting on the bench got up and retrived a ball that rolled out of bounds near him. He picked it up and tossed it to the opponent for the throw in, but ended up getting sent out of the match because the opponent that he tossed the ball to collapsed on the ground claiming that he had thrown the ball at him maliciously.

- There has to be more concrete and aggressive preparation made by the clubs (and the J-league management) as they go into an ACL type competition. Looking at the dismal crowd turnout during the home games for Jubilo and Marinos and comparing that to what we saw in China or Indonesia, it's obvious that as far as Japan was concerned the ACL took place on Mars. I do remember that Jubilo tried to get more people to attend by launching last-minute PR campaigns (one idea was to give out free pork miso soup "tonjiru" for those who showed up, because they thought it would warm the crowds up in the winter night match). But really, that was too little too late. Assuming that 20,000 supporters wouldn't be able to fly overseas to away games, we have to make the home games actually work in favor of the J-league team. Otherwise, how can we demand that the players play for the pride of not only their clubs but also of the J-league?

- Japanese teams' biggest weakness seems to be reading and controlling the game particularly when other things are working against them. There are so many promising teams in the J-league, with their share of fun players to watch and a disciplined team concept/strategy. But I've seen so many games that are poorly controlled -- in other words, they don't score when they should, or they don't know how to organize their game when in the lead. They lose their focus, then crumble. This is a difficult thing to teach in a classroom setting, and only comes from leadership on the game pitch and repeated experience. It's unreasonable to expect teams to play beautiful football all the time, especially during these ACL games. In fact, with regard to the ACL games, the only thing of value to be gained is becoming champions and playing in the World tournament. It is certainly not a place to exhibit beauty for beauty's sake. Especially now, when the ACL still lacks status and very few of us have much interest in the profiles of other Asian clubs. This is not like watching Chelsea play Barcelona, where everyone knows the players and styles of both teams and look forward to the match-up.

Well, painful as the eliminations to Jubilo and Marinos are I guess in a way it's just an indication that J-league clubs are still not ready to play at the international level. Or maybe it isn't the club itself but the J-league in general that is not ready. And maybe the attitude that I gave above, of these games having no value except as a ticket to the World tournament, is adding to a vicious cycle. Though Reds supporters claim that had their team been in the ACL this year, they certainly would have made sure the stadium was full at home and their team would have performed better -- but looking at Reds' poor start this year in the league, it may be a blessing for them not have been qualifying this year.

The build-up to the ACL was very low. It's hard to make "J-club vs. Some Asian Club" sound exciting when nothing about the match-up motivates us emotionally. There's no history, no information, no stars, no rivalry. The only thing I can think of is if the political aspect in a matchup between, for example, China club vs Japan club could be played up PR-wise as a "grudge match" of sorts, but it's not really our style to play up that type of thing -- at least, after the North Korea vs Japan game I think we had enough of that, plus it goes without saying that it's an insult to the teams.

P.S. The tickets for the friendlies between J-league clubs and the various European superclubs are, however, surprise surprise, Sold Out a month ahead of the games.
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