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Sahara Cup 2005: J's Youth
I thought I'd wrap up the results of the Sahara Cup, the annual J's Youth Cup I've been following out of the corner of my eye. Since these games are not televised (at least not included in my cable tv package), it has been extremely helpful that J's Goal website has been posting game highlights.


Shimizu S-Pulse Youth 6-2 Gamba Osaka Youth
>>Click to launch video digest stream

Vissel Kobe Youth 1-1 (PK 3-1) Yokohama F Marinos Youth
>>Click to launch video digest stream


As someone who spends time writing about football in Japan, I have to admit it is easier to find overarching themes if the teams that consistently make it to the top are to some degree predictable. But if this year, and writing for this blog, has taught me anything, it's that sometimes lessons can be learned in the exceptions to the rule. You have teams with undeniable strength in defense, you have teams that are young and can become unstoppable if they get momentum, you have teams that take advantage of individual excellence, you have teams with tremendous presence in their veterans and leaders, you have teams that have managers who know how to strategize.

The Sahara Cup finals this year took place between two teams that weren't really expected to end up there. It wasn't Gamba Youth, with their artillery of talent. It wasn't Verdy Youth, who were aiming for their third title of the year. And it wasn't even Marinos Youth, with their army of players with international experience.

Both Shimizu S-Pulse and Vissel Kobe Youth clubs have had so-so years. But the fact that they made it to the finals in this final competition of the year does show that they have grown and acquired on a game to game basis a strength of character and power of spirit. Not to mention, a mental cohesion and balance of the team. And maybe it is fitting that in this final month of the year, when it is easy especially for young players to start getting distracted and lose focus, other teams that have depended on pedigree and individual talent could not put forth that little bit extra to clinch a win.

Shimizu S-Pulse Youth 4-1 Vissel Kobe Youth>>Click to launch video digest stream

Both Shimizu and Vissel managers were far from impressed when they first took over their respective teams about a year ago. One said he couldn't believe this was the youth club for an actual professional J league team, the other said of his team that in the Youth clubs theirs was the worst team. Under their harsh but perhaps honest evaluation, it took them a year or so, both teams gradually matured and got their act together -- and the result was their ascension to the finals of this Cup just before the close of the year.

Both sides played with a 4-4-2 system, with their strength in defense and liking their attack via the sides. But Shimizu had one ingredient Vissel didn't -- attacking options via the top scorer Nagasawa. Shimizu put on an aggressive display, pressing well and switching to a speedy attack when they gained possession. Kobe, in retrospect, may have gotten overly careful and played too timidly. Though Kobe were helped by some good saves from their GK, and woke up to play some good football in the second half, Shimizu had the momentum and took it to the final whistle.

The Youth program is of course foremost seen as the developing grounds for the professional stage. And in that respect, the current Youth scene, characterized by the lack of eye catching break-out talent, is something that has people worried with respect to the future. But it is also important for these young players to acquire a taste for winning. Football is a sport, and in the end winning is everything in the pros. The art may be in the technique and talent, but the drama is in the knife's edge difference between losing and winning.

Congratulations to Shimizu S-Pulse Youth!
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