January 21, 2010 - The World Game
With his side stuck in the relegation places and the cold weather closing in, Matthew Spiranovic had more chance of contracting frostbite than he did of battling his way back into the starting eleven at 1.FC Nürnberg.
As soon as the calendar flicked over and the transfer window sprung open, it was no surprise to see Spiranovic swap the Bundesliga for the Land Of The Rising Sun courtesy of a year-long loan deal at Saitama giants Urawa Reds.
No sooner had the 193cm central defender put pen to paper than Australian fans began to question the wisdom of the move, with some wondering just how much game time Spiranovic would receive at Japan’s best-supported club.
Such fears can be laid to rest, because Spiranovic will walk into the starting eleven of a Urawa side currently in the midst of transition.
The tall defender is a like-for-like replacement for Urawa’s former talisman Marcus Tulio Tanaka – who incensed Reds officials by criticising them for the sale of veteran Alex to rivals Nagoya Grampus midway through last season.
After a series of fiery clashes with Reds supporters at the back end of last season, Tulio has likewise departed in a huff to Nagoya and paved the way for Spiranovic’s arrival at Saitama Stadium.
Here he will play under the auspices of former Freiburg coach Volker Finke, who is looking to rebuild the Urawa squad after a couple of barren years.
The Socceroos hopeful could prove a key figure in Finke’s plans, with former Japan international Keisuke Tsuboi looking a shadow of his former self last year, leaving only the ageing legs of veteran Satoshi Horinouchi to call upon as a viable alternative.
He may have struggled to crack the first team in Nürnberg, but Spiranovic will have no such problems at Urawa.
From a former second string defender to a current second division one, Mark Milligan is another Aussie to have pitched up in Japan, although he’s done so in entirely different circumstances at relegated JEF United.
The Chiba side had never been relegated from any level of the Japanese game, but after a shambolic 2009 campaign saw them finish bottom of the J-League, they dropped into the second tier alongside local rivals Kashiwa Reysol.
Some fans in Australia are predicting that Milligan’s new side will bounce straight back up, but that could prove a more difficult task than it first appears.
Not only will JEF need to fend off fierce rivals Kashiwa, they’ll also have to overcome a Ventforet Kofu side that collected 97 points last season and who have just signed ex-Kyoto striker Paulinho and ex-Japan youth international Mike Havenaar.
There are also seasoned regulars Consadole Sapporo, Tokyo Verdy and Avispa Fukuoka to deal with, who have all spent time in the top flight and are itching to make a return.
Then there’s the travel – with United swapping the relative luxury of trips across Tokyo for more far-flung destinations such as Ehime, Toyama and Kumamoto.
Ex-Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets defender Milligan could prove influential in the promotion campaign, but his new team-mates will have their work cut out for them if they are to make an immediate return to the top flight.
December 23, 2009 - The World Game
He may not have been greeted by crowds of biblical proportions upon his arrival in Nagoya, but there’s no doubt that Josh Kennedy is a popular man in Japan.
His star continues to rise, after the lanky striker knocked home a hat-trick in Nagoya’s recent 3-0 Emperor’s Cup quarter-final victory over FC Gifu.
Kennedy’s treble was a masterclass of predatory finishing: scoring first with a trademark header, adding a second through a tap-in at the far post and registering his third with a drilled left foot volley into the bottom corner.
His goals thrilled the home fans amongst the crowd of more than 12,000 on a chilly afternoon at Mizuho Stadium, and propelled Nagoya to a semi-final showdown with Tokai rivals Shimizu S-Pulse.
Kennedy’s first hat-trick in Japanese football may have been scored against second division opponents, but crucially it came against Nagoya’s cash-strapped local rivals – as FC Gifu struggled valiantly to advance in their quest for financial stability.
The Australian striker is now just a game away from one of the showpiece events in Asian football, with a capacity crowd set to descend upon the National Stadium in Tokyo for the traditional New Year’s Day final.
Nagoya supporters are desperate to see their star Australian striker in action on one of the most significant dates in the Japanese calendar, but it’s not just for his goals that Kennedy is so popular.
Softly-spoken, undemonstrative and above all – a team player – Kennedy has been a revelation in a league that has its fair share of demanding foreigners.
It’s apparent in his goal celebrations, with the target man always quick to congratulate his team-mates, and comes out in post-match interviews that invariably result in the Wodonga-born striker attributing his success to the hard work of those around him.
Kennedy is now hoping to steer Nagoya to their third Emperor’s Cup crown, but they’ll firstly need to overcome a Shimizu S-Pulse side playing on home soil.
The supposedly neutral venue for the December 29 semi-final is Ecopa Stadium – Shimizu’s home away from home, and located in an area that houses thousands of S-Pulse supporters.
Nevertheless, with the town of Fukuroi also just a short ride down the Tokaido Line from Nagoya, several thousand Grampus fans are expected to turn out for what should be a tense regional derby.
Kennedy will be joined at Nagoya next season by Japan international Marcus Tulio Tanaka and former Oita Trinita star Mu Kanazaki, and the high-profile duo will hope to move to a club playing AFC Champions League football.
The Emperor’s Cup might be Japan’s oldest football tournament, but it also offers the winners a place in the Champions League – as last season’s champions Gamba Osaka can attest.
Gamba are still alive in this year’s Emperor’s Cup, and they take on underdogs Vegalta Sendai in the other semi-final in Tokyo, with the Osakans looking to claim back-to-back Emperor’s Cup crowns.
They could find Nagoya standing in their way, with Grampus fans still dreaming of a happy New Year thanks to the outstanding form of their beloved Josh Kennedy.
November 26, 2009 - The Roar
If the AFC wanted to highlight just how pointless the Player Of The Year award is, they should have nominated Shane Smeltz for the gong.
The big Kiwi striker was in fine A-League form throughout 2009, scoring goals galore for both Wellington Phoenix and Gold Coast United.
Nevermind that Smeltz represents a non-AFC nation at international level, since logic appears to have little bearing on who is named the region’s best player.
If it did, we might be toasting the success of Tim Cahill given his outstanding form for both club and country, or perhaps celebrating the form of Mark Schwarzer.
We could otherwise be lauding the exploits of young South Korean striker Park Chu-Young, scorer of the opening goal against the Socceroos in Seoul last September.
The Monaco hitman has already registered strikes in wins over Paris Saint Germain, Marseille and Boulogne this season – no small feat for a 24-year-old from Daegu.
Instead, it was Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo who claimed the crown, and few could argue with the merits of rewarding one of the most dominant players in the J.League – even if his influence on the national team is limited.
Those who insist that the award is open only to players plying their trade within the AFC are mistaken, as the nomination of Hong Yong-Jo from Russian club FC Rostov attests.
North Korean skipper Hong was nominated to a fifteen-man shortlist on the back of his stellar form for the national team, but his cousins from down south had no such luck.
By finishing third at the 2007 Asian Cup, Korea Republic qualified automatically for the 2011 finals alongside reigning champions Iraq and traditional heavyweights Saudi Arabia.
With no Asian Cup qualifiers to contest, players from all three nations were at a disadvantage when it came to accruing enough MVP points to win the AFC Player Of The Year award.
Yet even the simple task of playing well appears to hold little relevance to the award on offer.
Bahrain defender Sayed Mohamed Adnan finished equal second in the rankings – despite missing a crucial penalty in Bahrain’s World Cup playoff against New Zealand, while his club side Al-Khor currently sit rock bottom of the Qatari League.
However, it’s the decision to lock European-based players out of the running that makes a mockery of the AFC Player Of The Year award.
And it’s a farce compounded by the fact that the decision was made on a whim because Manchester United star Park Ji-Sung couldn’t attend the ceremony in 2005.
The AFC wants it star players to turn out in the flesh to accept their awards, yet their scheduling hinders even Asian-based players.
I’m sure title-chasing Gamba Osaka were thrilled to see Endo in Kuala Lumpur just days before their J. League clash with leaders Kashima Antlers, although he at least had Kengo Nakamura from fellow high fliers Kawasaki Frontale to keep him company.
The whole thing reeks of a lack of professionalism at a time when the AFC’s mantra is to modernise the Asian game.
It doesn’t help that some fans in the region can be frustratingly shortsighted.
Those who insist that a lack of players in Europe means that Asian footballers are ‘substandard,’ are often the first to suggest that only Asian-based players should be honoured by the AFC.
If the AFC is so hell-bent on honouring the locals, they should create a separate category for overseas-based players so that the likes of Osasuna talisman Javad Nekounam and Venlo midfielder Keisuke Honda are not forgotten.
Otherwise the AFC Player Of The Year award is destined to end in an annual debate on which players were overlooked, instead of becoming the celebration of personal achievement it’s intended to be.
July 23, 2009 - The Roar
As far as debuts go, it wasn’t half bad. One played, one scored — and Josh Kennedy’s maiden Nagoya goal made a mockery of Japan Football Association chief Motoaki Inukai’s claims that the J. League is “boring.”
Inukai has prior form when it comes to spouting rhetoric that hardly seems based on the notion of “for the good of the game.”
“For the good of Urawa,” more like it – with the former Reds supremo sounding more like Sepp Blatter every day with his litany of hare-brained schemes.
First it was a call to align the J. League calendar with Europe, despite the fact that weather conditions make it impossible for northern clubs to play throughout the winter.
Then it was Inukai’s suggestion that the League Cup revert to an under-23 competition – prompting tournament organisers the J. League to bluntly demand that the JFA “mind its own business.”
Now Inukai has decided to throw his toys out of the pram over the fact Brazilians continue to dominate the goal-scoring charts in Japan.
Stop the presses!
So incensed is Inukai that Japanese players don’t shoot as often as their Brazilian counterparts, he has seen fit to label the J. League “boring.”
This is despite the fact that the J. League has averaged a healthy 2.75 goals this so far season.
Last weekend, nine league games produced a total of 27 goals. Japanese born-players scored 20 of them.
They scored 13 out of 14 goals in the League Cup quarter-finals last Wednesday as well, but apparently this is not enough for Inukai – who seems to crave the whiz-bang of a scoreless draw between Wigan and West Ham to keep him awake.
I hope he didn’t nod off during Kawasaki Frontale’s most recent clash with Vissel Kobe, because he’d have missed one of the goals of the season from former Japan captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto if he did.
Did Shimizu S-Pulse attracting a capacity crowd to the Nihondaira foothills for their clash with defending champions Kashima Antlers not set the pulse racing?
Or how about bottom club Oita Trinita recording just their second win of the season against the might of Urawa Reds?
Ah yes, Urawa Reds.
My wife reckons I’m a conspiracy nut, but there’s no denying that when it comes to the rub of the green, Urawa are on the receiving end every time.
It hasn’t helped them usurp Kashima Antlers as the top dogs in Japan.
But it sure helped them lift the 2006 Emperor’s Cup title, as the Reds enjoyed the luxury of playing every round prior to the semi-finals at home.
Their disputed penalty shoot-out win over Jubilo Iwata in the quarter-final was one of the dodgiest outcomes I’ve ever seen.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t wait to see Josh Kennedy run out at Saitama Stadium against Japan’s most protected species on Saturday night.
The fact that Inukai complained exclusively about Brazilians when the likes of Kennedy, Frode Johnsen and Ilian Stoyanov got on the scoresheet last weekend speaks volumes for a mindset that views all foreigners as the same.
I can guarantee that Shimizu S-Pulse fans don’t care whether it’s Shinji Okazaki or Norwegian striker Johnsen who bangs them away for their beloved side.
Maybe Inukai would be better served mentioning some of the positive aspects of Japanese football.
Why doesn’t he comment on Pedro Junior’s remarkable transformation from a ho-hum third-string striker at Omiya Ardija to one of the league’s hottest players at Albirex Niigata?
Where are his comments on the mercurial Lee Keun-Ho returning to spearhead the Jubilo Iwata attack?
No – if it’s hot air you want, Motoaki Inukai is your go-to man.
But if it’s the most exciting league in Asia you’re after, feel free to ignore Inukai’s agenda-driven rhetoric and look no further than the J. League.
April 9, 2009 - The Roar
A round of mixed results in the AFC Champions League will have left A-League fans scratching their heads this week. Hopes were high after Newcastle Jets held Nagoya Grampus to a credible draw at Mizuho Stadium. But with Kawasaki Frontale dishing out a footballing lesson to a stunned Central Coast Mariners, the question remains: can A-League clubs ever compete with the Japanese?
A few home truths need to be faced before A-League clubs can think about bridging the gap.
Without wishing to employ the words “technical and tactical,” Australians need to see beyond the impressive budgets and Brazilian wizardry available to many Japanese clubs and start recognising what ideas we can borrow to improve our own football.
And we should start by looking at training methods.
Is it any wonder that Kawasaki Frontale employed two converted midfielders in the form of Yusuke Mori and Kazuhiro Murakami to play as attacking wing-backs?
It’s not just because Mori and Murakami have spent most of their careers as midfielders that they looked so accomplished going forward.
Instead it’s the fact that Japanese players are drilled incessantly in the art of close control and ball skills.
And when I say drilled, I don’t mean a few training sessions a week by the time they are in their twenties.
Japanese players are considered by FIFA to be the most technically accomplished in the world at age sixteen because by that time they have been practicing ball skills for at least ten years.
The school system helps – Japanese children are used to drilling endlessly in any number of topics – and that kind of regime helps condition young footballers to put in the practice required to become a professional.
And the kind of football demanded by Japanese coaches, with players interchangeable and adept at playing any number of positions, is what encourages teams like Kawasaki Frontale to play the combination football that so embarrassed the Mariners.
Elementary mistakes don’t help, of course, and after Hiroyuki Taniguchi scored most of his ten goals last season with his head, you’d think a Central Coast defender might have picked up the little midfielder in the box.
It’s not like Lawrie McKinna even needed to watch last season’s DVD – Taniguchi scored from a header against Nagoya Grampus just last week.
Speaking of Nagoya, they looked fairly uninspired against Newcastle Jets, with Gary van Egmond’s side slightly unfortunate not to go on and win their clash at a balmy Mizuho.
I’m not sure where “Dutchy” pulled the idea that Nagoya are one of the favourites to reach the final from – personally I thought Grampus might struggle to get out of the group stage – and they were comfortably beaten by Kawasaki Frontale in the J. League last weekend.
But once again it was a Japanese player in Keiji Tamada – not the much-vaunted Davi – who did the damage against Newcastle, and the Jets were slightly fortunate that last season’s J. League Rookie Of The Year Yoshizumi Ogawa was in unusually quiet form.
All the imports in the world don’t change the fact that Nagoya’s exciting teenager Sho Hanai or Kawasaki’s one-club man Kengo Nakamura are locally produced.
Even Kawasaki’s Chong Tese is a product of the Japanese youth system. He may be a North Korean international, but the star striker was born and raised in Nagoya.
Football Australia has taken steps to redress the issue by introducing a much-needed Youth League, but it’s of little value unless Australian clubs start to implement some of the training regimes that are bringing Japanese teams so much success.
And having joked a couple of months ago to Simon Hill that I could see Kawasaki putting ten goals passed Danny Vukovic, I’m a little alarmed that my facetious prediction wasn’t that far off the mark.
It took the Socceroos thirty-two years to make a second World Cup finals appearance.
I hope it doesn’t take that long before A-League teams can compete on a consistent basis with their Japanese counterparts.
April 3, 2009 - Soccerphile.com
Has there ever been a more pointless merger than the one between Yokohama Marinos and Yokohama Flügels?
English speakers certainly seem to consider the merger irrelevant. It’s rare to see a non-Japanese outlet refer to the new entity by its full name – Yokohama F. Marinos.
But while Japanese football is not exactly sitting atop the upper echelons of the world game, the merger between Marinos and Flügels has global ramifications.
The Japanese have always had a certain way of doing business, and mergers are common practice between two companies struggling to make ends meet.
But when chief sponsors ANA and Sato Kogyo announced in 1998 that they could no longer foot the bills to run Yokohama Flügels, it triggered one of the most bizarre sagas in recent football history.
With an approach so casual it should bring tears to every self-respecting football fan, the Flügels management approached city rivals Marinos with an eye to merging.
This was music to the ears of the Marinos management, with the Nissan-backed outfit struggling for cash amidst a severe economic downturn.
The two clubs readily agreed to merge, and without consultating supporters, Marinos and Flügels fused into one in what was practically an overnight operation.
Only those present will know the full details of the scenes that followed, but it’s tempting to imagine those responsible for the merger announcing the deed with just a hint of a satisfied smile crossing their lips.
It would soon vanish.
If the misunderstanding of football culture from the men-in-suits was mind-boggling, then the public response was emphatic.
The rotten eggs routinely pelted at management of both clubs soon conveyed the message, while one hapless Flügels official was memorably – albeit illegally – struck on the head by a flying megaphone from the stands.
But having made their decision before the 1998 season had even come to a conclusion, there was no turning back. If there’s one thing that Japanese corporations struggle to do, it’s admit making a mistake.
History will show that Yokohama Flügels went on to win their last professional game. They lifted the Emperor’s Cup by beating Shimizu S-Pulse in an emotion-charged final at the National Stadium in Tokyo.
More importantly though, disgruntled Flügels fans refused to concede defeat.
Incensed by the clandestine merger, they simply formed their own club.
Yokohama FC now fly the flag for former Flügels fans, and they became the first ever fan-backed club to reach the Japanese top flight – spending a solitary season in J1 in 2007.
Veteran striker Kazu Miura just broke the record as the oldest goalscorer in J. League history while on the books at Yokohama FC.
The merger wasn’t exactly easy on Marinos fans either – who live with the stigma of one of the grubbiest moments in J. League history.
The Tricolore are likely to be in the news again over the coming months, with the club reputedly trying to lure prodigal son Shunsuke Nakamura back to Nissan Stadium.
It would be a shame if the European press overlooked the significance of the “F” in the F. Marinos name.
After all, while the merger added a seemingly superfluous letter to one club’s name, it also achieved something else of note.
It made Japanese fans realise that football should be influenced by fans – not by corporations.
In the current economic climate - with some European clubs struggling with spiralling wages bills and indebted to fly-by-night corporate sponsors - that may be a lesson well worth studying.
February 19, 2009 - Soccerphile.com
If Ernesto “Che” Guevara was alive today, he would find Japan a maddening place to launch a revolution.
It’s not because he polarises opinion in The Land Of The Rising Sun. There’s no debate over whether he was a freedom fighter or blood-thirsty mercenary on the streets of Tokyo - most young Japanese are familiar with his face only because it adorns the tackiest of designer handbags in the capital’s upmarket boutiques.
No, old Che wouldn’t find a fervent hotbed of dissent threatening to tear apart the fabric of Japanese society. Conditions are not ripe for revolution here.
Instead what Che would find are tottering elected officials desperately clinging to power. A corrupt and lifeless Liberal Democratic Party guilty of the stilted thinking that sees the country creeping backwards while the rest of the world moves forward. And the occasional drunk finance minister.
It’s a bit like how the J. League is run. Plenty of posturing, lots of empty rhetoric, but in the end - no real change.
The “Asian berth” rule is a prime example. It caused a stir when it was announced, because it was supposed to revolutionise the Japanese game. Sceptics, however, wondered if the new rule was legislated solely to expand the J. League’s pipeline into the Korean Peninsula. So it has proved.
Far from opening doors to new talent, the Asian berth rule has simply seen the J. League pillage from their neighbours across the way. Clubs in both J1 and J2 have been busy adding to their collection of Korean stars. Omiya Ardija even plumped for a Korean coach - the widely respected Chang Woe-Ryong - while Gamba Osaka’s record-breaking deal for Jeonbuk striker Cho Jae-Jin was made under the auspices of the Asian berth rule.
But has anything really changed? Chang Woe-Ryong has already spent the vast majority of his coaching career in Japan. Cho Jae-Jin made his name at Shimizu S-Pulse. And before that, the likes of Hong Myung-Bo and Hwang Sun-Hong long ago proved to Japanese fans that Korean players are amongst the best in the region.
That’s scant consolation for the Iranian and Chinese stars hoping to test themselves in one of the toughest professional environments in Asian football - to say nothing of players from the less developed South-East Asian leagues. And what of Australia? Not one J. League club seems to have displayed a genuine interest in signing an Australian player.
If J. League clubs believe that they will have the last laugh thanks to such conservative recruitment policies, the joke is on them.
The Asian berth rule has revolutionised the Asian game. Leagues across the length and breadth of the vast Asian Football Confederation have decided to adopt the rule -and so has the AFC itself, with the rule set to take effect in the AFC Champions League this season. Moreover, the Asian berth rule has awoken two of the J. League’s direct rivals from a long, languid slumber.
Faced with the prospect of losing some of its stars, the K-League has reacted swiftly. In came the likes of Australian international Jade North and seasoned Japanese midfielder Masahiro Ohashi - signing on at Incheon United and Gangwon FC respectively. Similar signings appear on the horizon, with Asia’s oldest professional league set to replenish its stocks by luring personnel from its nearest neighbours.
After years of torment and turmoil, China’s Super League looks to be on the rise again - slowly, to be sure - but it’s gradually stirring.
The carrot of a revamped AFC Champions League and the pot of gold it heralds means that more Asian teams are determined to entice quality personnel to their shores. That has seen the likes of ex-Socceroo John Aloisi join Shanghai Shenhua on loan, while arguably the A-League’s most explosive talent in the form of Joel Griffiths has joined his brother Ryan at Beijing Guoan.
The danger for the J. League is that by the time it wakes up to the potential talent on its door-step, Korean and Chinese clubs will already have put the infrastructure and scouting networks into place to exploit it. Far from attracting the region’s best talent, the J. League could be stuck with making do with the same Brazilian and Korean imports it has always attracted.
The Asian berth rule hasn’t revolutionised Japanese football at all. Instead it has prompted more of the same. No lucrative TV deals have been signed, no exotic names have been enticed and no new relationships with foreign clubs have been arranged - as far as anyone in Japan can tell.
If Che Guevara visited Japan today, he would find the same suspicious conservatism and archaic bureaucracy in the J. League that blights the nation’s political landscape.
And he would discover that, in Japan, revolutions are run at a snail’s pace.
February 5, 2009 - ESPN Soccernet
The 2010 FIFA World Cup may be more than a year away, but Japan’s upcoming World Cup qualifier with Australia in Yokohama could yield an answer to a question that has left many fans in Asia scratching their heads. Are Japan good enough to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup?
Japan coach Takeshi Okada certainly thinks so. In a video message broadcast in December at the opening of a new sports store in Tokyo, the Sankei Sports daily claimed that Okada drew applause when the normally straight-laced tactician made an uncharacteristically bold statement.
“We will seriously aim to finish in the top four at the World Cup,” said Okada - perhaps unaware that his stunning proclamation was about to relayed throughout the region. “Some people may laugh it off but I think it is possible.”
What makes Okada’s statement all the more unusual is that the Blue Samurai have struggled in World Cup qualifying so far. Their nadir was reached with a 1-0 defeat in the first round of qualifying to Bahrain in Manama, and as if to prove it was no fluke, Bahrain beat Japan by the same score in an Asian Cup qualifier just last month.
Those two defeats have set tongues wagging throughout Asia, particularly with Australia keen to assume the mantle as the region’s premier team. They sowed the seeds of an intense rivalry by beating Japan in the group stage of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, before the Blue Samurai exacted revenge by knocking out the Socceroos on penalties in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.
That Asian Cup appearance proved disappointing for both teams, with West Ham United defender Lucas Neill’s claim that Australia would go through the tournament undefeated looking foolish the minute eventual champions Iraq beat Australia in just the second group stage game.
Neill’s statement nevertheless seemed to get under Japanese skin, and Japan’s players were quick to voice their opinions in the build-up to a fiery Asian Cup quarter-final.
Former Portsmouth keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi claimed that he was “burning for revenge” after Australia’s World Cup victory, while defender Yuji Nakazawa bluntly predicted that Japan would win the match 3-0. His prediction didn’t quite ring true, but both men proved pivotal in the shoot-out - Kawaguchi saved two penalties before Nakazawa smashed home the winning spot-kick.
Now the burgeoning rivalry is set for another chapter and far from cooling tempers, Japan coach Okada has instead heaped fuel on the fire. “We definitely want to beat Australia and I think it is possible. I want to shut them up,” Okada told reporters after his side had thrashed Qatar 3-0 in Doha.
Australia’s laconic Dutch coach Pim Verbeek has refused to be drawn into a war of words ahead of the latest clash. Verbeek knows Okada well - the two both coached in the J-League in 2003 - and he will realise that there is little to gain from engaging in pre-match psychological warfare.
All the pressure is on Japan, and having so far taken maximum points in the final round of qualifying, Australia can afford to lose in Yokohama and still cruise through to the finals in South Africa.
Japan are hardly in dire straits themselves, but having announced their grand plans to finish in the top four at the World Cup, they could soon be left with egg on their faces if they are unable to overcome Australia at home. That’s partly because the Australian media will be quick to trumpet an away-day win - Australian sporting success is always good for circulation - and partly because Japanese fans have historically had high expectations for their team.
Recent defeats have dampened those expectations, but by the time Japan run out in front 70,000 fans at a packed Yokohama International Stadium, coach Okada will no doubt hope that his players can hold their nerve. They’ll be desperate to have wrapped up qualification by the time they travel to Melbourne for their final World Cup qualifier, and with a tricky away trip to Uzbekistan also looming on the horizon, Japan can ill-afford to leave anything to chance.
Australia hardly need any more encouragement themselves. Undaunted by his failed Asian Cup prediction, Socceroos skipper Lucas Neill was confident that his side would finish in the top two of their five-team qualifying group, telling West Ham’s matchday program that, “other than the hosts South Africa and Italy, we could be the first team to qualify, which will be a nice statement to make to the world that last time was not a fluke.”
Plenty to play for in Yokohama then, where there is much more at stake than just World Cup qualifying points. Both Japan and Australia believe that they can do some damage in South Africa, but they will want to do so as the region’s top-ranked side.
Korea Republic fans may of course disagree, but for many Japanese and Australian fans, their upcoming World Cup qualifier in Yokohama could settle some matters of regional supremacy. No hint as yet whether it could answer Japan’s other burning question; whether they are good enough to reach the World Cup semi-finals.
January 27, 2009 - Goal.com
When the A-League kicked off in late August 2005, the euphoric reaction from Australian football fans was both pleasant and predictable.
Having witnessed the fractured National Soccer League grind to an abrupt halt, the advent of the A-League swept through the Australian game like a proverbial breath of fresh air. With “All Night Dwight” on board, the future of Australian football looked bright indeed.
Fast forward to Season 4, however, and cracks are beginning to emerge. Foremost among them is an unyielding player drain that is threatening the quality of the product on display. What was once considered an Australian rite of passage is now wreaking havoc with A-League squads, with many of the league’s best and brightest swapping the domestic game for a career overseas.
Australians have always tried their luck overseas, ever since the great Joe Marston ran out for Preston North End in the 1954 FA Cup Final. But where it was once common for Australians to spend their formative years refining their craft on home turf, Australian players of all ages are now heading overseas in unprecedented numbers.
The lure of the English Premier League has much to do with that, not the least because many Australians settle for a contract in the lower reaches of the English game when top flight clubs fail to come calling. However a new destination has suddenly emerged and it is not, as was widely predicted, Japan.
When the J. League announced it’s much-hyped “Asian berth” rule, it heralded an earnest round of hand-wringing from certain quarters in Australia. One such outlet was Gold Coast United’s rent-a-quote coach Miron Bleiberg – who was quick to urge A-League clubs to throw open the door to Asian players – only to dilute his message somewhat by promptly signing a trio of Brazilians.
While the J. League was allegedly tracking several Australian stars, near-neighbours and football rivals in Korea Republic were also lining up their targets. In the blink of an eye – or so it seemed – Socceroos defender Jade North had been snatched from under the noses of North Queensland Fury by K-League outfit Incheon United, before Sasa Ognenovski suddenly inked a deal with Korean giants Seongnam Ilhwa – after many had assumed that Japan would be his next destination.
Now Sydney FC midfielder Simon Colosimo is allegedly on the verge of signing with K-League club Chunnam Dragons, leaving the A-League without three of its most identifiable stars.
The sudden emergence of the K-League as a threat is a double-blow for the Australian game, which has long been forced to fend off the advances of European clubs.
Already this season A-League fans have seen Central Coast midfielder Mile Jedinak sign for Turkish club Gençlerbirliği, while exciting Perth Glory striker Nikita Rukavytsya is now on his way to Dutch outfit FC Twente.
They join the likes of former Central Coast defender Michael Beauchamp and ex-Newcastle Jets playmaker Nick Carle to have packed in a career in Australia for a shot at glory in Europe.
As if the double-pronged threat from Korea and Europe wasn’t enough, China has now emerged as yet another new horizon for Australian players. Trail-blazing Beijing Guoan midfielder Ryan Griffiths looks set to be joined by his brother Joel – for many one of the most exciting talents to have graced the A-League – while the much-travelled Mark Milligan could be on his way to Shanghai Shenhua.
The difference, perhaps, between K-League bids and offers from China is the enduring perception in Australia that the Chinese game remains a final frontier. China’s Super League may once again be on an upward spiral, but past corruption scandals and on-field violence means that it doesn’t quite project the same clean-cut image as the K-League.
There’s one other caveat – and it’s an unspoken one in Australia. While Australian players remain off the radar for Japanese clubs, it’s hasn’t stopped J. League teams from busily replenishing their stocks for the upcoming season. Under the auspices of the “Asian berth” rule, several J. League sides have been steadily picking off Korean talent.
The influx of Korean talent to Japan shows no sign of abating, and it helps to explain why Australian players are suddenly in vogue in the K. League. Those departing K-League players must be replaced – and they could soon be replaced by Australians.
With two new teams entering the league in the form of Gold Coast and North Queensland next season, playing stocks in Australia could soon run thin unless A-League clubs convince several more Australian players to return home.
Gold Coast has already started the process with the marquee signing of Socceroos midfielder Jason Culina, while this season’s inaugural National Youth League has proved a goldmine of talent for embattled Sydney FC coach John Kosmina.
The threat of the K-League just won’t go away though. With a well-established network of scouts and eye-catching wages, the lure of Korea is understandable.
And with a tight salary cap in place and Football Australia seemingly at a loss as to how to stem the player drain, the K-League could soon become the next destination of choice on what, for many, seems like a perpetual exodus.