Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Japanese perspective on football

Shimizu S-Pulse fans.
Shimizu S-Pulse fans are renowned as some of the most passionate in Japanese football.

I caught up with one fan - Shimizu-born Yuichi Korenaga - after Shimizu's most recent 2-0 win over Kawasaki Frontale, to discuss his opinion on Shimizu's season and his attitudes towards football in general.

MT: What do you think about S-Pulse's season so far?

YK: To be honest, it's pretty disappointing. We thought we could do a lot better since we finished fourth two seasons in a row.

MT: What do you think about S-Pulse reaching the League Cup final?

YK: That has made the supporters happy. Two or three years ago we went to the final for the Emperor's Cup and most of the players had no experience of winning a title. Only two players (Daisuke Ichikawa and Teruyoshi Ito) have experienced winning a trophy. The supporters are desperate for S-Pulse to win a title, and once the players win a title, they should be more hungry for another one.

MT: How do you rate the standard of the J. League compared to overseas leagues?

YK: The quality of the players is different. Of course in those top leagues, the quality is very high. In the starting years of the J. League, players like Zico were near-retirement... but they could still play. They were some of the top players in the league.

But now the speed of the J. League is very fast. Especially compared to South America, and even some European leagues. So the quality of the imports is very high, if you think of guys like (Robson) Ponte.

When the J. League started, the quality of the players was quite low. But nowadays, I don't think there's much difference. It's like Bebeto. He only played half a season for Kashima because he couldn't keep up with the pace of the league.

MT: So how has the J. League improved over the years?

YK: Until the Korea-Japan World Cup, the only people who watched games were hardcore soccer fans. After the World Cup in 2002, everyone began to watch soccer. And local J. League teams got more local fans.

MT: What do you think of the new "Asian berth" rule?

YK: That's hard! Last match against Kawasaki Frontale, they had three Brazilians (Juninho, Vitor Junior and Renatinho) and Chong Tese. So if they introduce the "Asian berth" rule, it means teams like Kawasaki can start with five foreign players out of eleven.

In some ways I think it's a good idea, if it will improve the level of the J. League. But at the same time, I don't know if they really need it.

MT: What about the AFC Champions League? Why did Japanese teams only recently begin to take it seriously?

YK: It was really important for Urawa to win the AFC Champions League last year. In 2000, S-Pulse won the Cup Winners Cup but hardly anyone knew about it.

MT: Why?

YK: I think one of the reasons is money. Winning the title for the J. League, or the Nabisco Cup or the Emperor's Cup... you get more money than you do for winning an AFC title. If you can get more money by winning a domestic title, why would you sacrifice your best players to win less money?

Title-wise, AFC trophies are important. But I don't think many people recognise them.

MT: Does the FIFA Club World Cup change that?

YK: I think Urawa winning the Champions League last year changed people's minds. Two years ago the Korean team (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC) played in the Club World Cup and we watched in Japan and thought, if we win the AFC title then we can also play in that.

I think the AFC Champions League will be taken more seriously now for two reasons. One is that there is more money now. The other reason is that we can improve our level of play and test ourselves in competitive matches against teams from Europe and South America in the Club World Cup.

MT: What's your opinion on the Club World Cup moving to the United Arab Emirates?

YK: I think it's normal. But we're losing the opportunity to watch some really good games. The Toyota Cup opened our eyes about the level of top-level soccer. That was the first thing.

Then in 2002 we saw "world level" soccer. So for the younger generation - who had never seen top-level soccer - they were shocked. That was the goal of the JFA Chairman, Mr Naganuma. He wanted Japanese people to see top-level soccer with their own eyes.

MT: Do you watch overseas football?

YK: I watch the Premier League and La Liga.

I like the Premier League... the level is really high. But lots of players are foreign players, not English players. I think that's one of the reasons the national team is having such a hard time.

At the same time, La Liga is really exciting and so is the way the Spanish national team plays, especially this year at Euro 2008. The way they played is really interesting. They had fun, but they were a really strong team as well.

MT: Do Japanese fans follow overseas teams because Japanese players play for them?

YK: Japanese soccer fans are always interested in what Japanese players are doing. So they try and watch them on TV... like Nakamura when he plays for Celtic.

In the past a lot of Japanese fans wore Perugia shirts and Roma shirts when Hidetoshi Nakata played for those teams. But that's when the national team was the most important thing. Nowadays more people support their local J. League team, so it's not as common.

MT: Getting back to the J. League, why do so many S-Pulse fans travel to away matches?

YK: It's like a lot of teams. Like Urawa.

But Shizuoka has a long history in soccer. Before the J. League started, more than half of the players in the national team came from Shizuoka. So we have a long history of watching soccer.

When players from other prefectures sign for S-Pulse, like (Keisuke) Iwashita, they can never believe that high-school football is broadcast on local TV from the quarter-final stage!

Shizuoka soccer is special. Everyone watches soccer, from high-school soccer up to the J. League.

MT: What does Urawa mean to you?

YK: Nothing [laughs].

They have some of the greatest supporters. But their attitude? I don't like them.

Urawa has the most supporters who go to the games and the second-most is Niigata. I've been to both stadiums. Urawa is more aggressive, even though most of their supporters are younger kids. Their supporters are... not really looking for a fight, but their attitude towards other supporters is really hostile.

But at Niigata they're all friendly. The crowd is made up of young kids and older people, and the way they come to the stadium is like they're having a picnic. They are there to have a fun time. And they respect opposition supporters. I really like that attitude.

MT: What do you think about the J. League's proposal to change to a winter-based calendar?

YK: I think they should. But at the same time it's really hard. We are not really used to going out (to watch soccer) in winter time. We can understand it to watch rugby. People think rugby is a winter sport, and winter is the time to watch college rugby. Even though it's cold, people go to watch college rugby in winter. But soccer is really hard. It's really hard to say whether it's a good idea or not.

MT: What will playing in winter do to crowds in Niigata, Sendai and Sapporo?

YK: They will still come. Especially in Niigata. And Consadole can still play in the Sapporo Dome.

But maybe next year Montedio Yamagata will come up to J1. So I'm not sure what they're going to do!

MT: What do you think of the national team?

YK: They're a joke!

MT: What's the problem with them?

YK: It's really hard to say. Lots of people really wanted to see how Osim could make the Japanese team. We could see the step up, at every single level, he really improved the team. That was really interesting.

Okada is the same, but he's more realistic. He takes the match that is in front of him more seriously. He's not thinking about the future.

Osim tried to use younger players, to give them experience.

MT: Do you understand the criticism from the foreign press towards (former JEF United coach) Osim for using five JEF United players?

YK: I thought the media was wrong about that.

From my point of view, Osim used those players from JEF United because he had already instructed those players on how to play as a team. So they knew what Osim expected.

I thought that, back then, those JEF United players were good enough to play for the national team.

MT: So what's your opinion of Takeshi Okada?

YK: That's a hard question! My point of view is that we should find a better head coach. But at the same time, after what happened to Osim, Okada did a pretty good job in such a limited time.

But he announced that we can finish in the top four at the next World Cup. I don't think so! He was dreaming... day-dreaming!

MT: Why are Japanese players struggling to score goals?

YK: I think lots of it comes down to cultural reasons. Our attitude is... don't be selfish. Even though our players should shoot, they choose to pass.

MT: Is that why Brazilians score so many goals in the J. League?

YK: I think so. Especially a player like Marquinhos. He's selfish, but I think a striker should be like that.

Most Japanese players put more value in passing. From a young age, Japanese players would rather play in midfield than as a striker. They would rather be a playmaker and "make the game" than score goals.

That's why we've had players like Endo and Shunsuke Nakamura and Nakata.

MT: What do you think about foreign fans supporting the J. League? Are you surprised?

YK: I think it's good. I'm not surprised.

Part of the reason that some people are surprised is that some Japanese people still think the level of the J. League is not that high, so they wonder why foreign fans would come to the ground to watch. So that's part of the reason.

But also a lot of Japanese fans think the only people who come to watch games are local people. But actually it's not always local people. Some of my friends live in Tokyo, they've never lived in Shizuoka, but they still support S-Pulse. So it's not always local people.

MT: How important is it for the J. League to increase its profile?

YK: That's pretty important, I think. It's like Urawa. The locals support them big time. So they can make good money, and they can run the team much better.

Other local teams have fans, but it's not like Urawa. So they can make money, but some J. League teams are in debt every year. But if they can make more fans, it's easier to run the team.

I think last year, Urawa made a difference (in the AFC Champions League). Now more foreign fans might start following Japanese football.

MT: Lastly, what do you hope S-Pulse achieves for the rest of the season?

YK: Now they're getting better. We've been joking that they're going to get fourth place again. Three years in a row!

In the league, we can earn a better position. At the same time, in the Nabisco Cup final, we should win the title. We're really desperate.

The supporters are really desperate (to win the Nabisco Cup) and at the same time we think it's a really good experience for all the young players, so that they know what the difference is between winning a title and not winning a title.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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3 comments:

Patty said...

Very informative and good questions.
It was a fun read. I wonder what Urawa and Niigata supporters would have to say.

cicciput said...

Very articulate and opinionated. I agree 101% about Urawa-hehe... Hey come to Kyoto in a few weeks. Our fans are friendly as well, and the city is quite nice in the fall.
Best, Gora of ORETACHI NO KYOTO.

nhat4 said...

hi you!