Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 30, 2010: The dateline on this article tells its own story…
I am on assignment in Almaty, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and in temperatures just above freezing, and with Japanese football a million miles away.
Sadly, after visiting Japan for the first time some 20 years ago and working there from 1997 to 2009, my J.League journey is over and, along with it, my regular column on Japanese football.
After many wonderful years following the J.League, as an occasional visitor to Japan from Hong Kong in its debut season of 1993, through to working full-time in Tokyo from 1997, I have decided to move on to the next challenge in my Asian sports career in China; working for the Olympic Council of Asia in the build-up to the Asian Games in Guangzhou this November, and beyond around the continent.
I felt an instant attraction to Japan on seeing the old Yomiuri team play Hong Kong’s most popular club, South China, in the old Asian Club Championship in Hong Kong Stadium. This must have been around the 1990-91 season, and it stays in the mind because of the amount of missiles thrown at the Japanese bench from the Chinese fans throughout the 90 minutes and for the appearance of the straggly-haired wizard, Ruy Ramos.
This began my association with Japanese football, and following the national team around England in the Umbro Cup in the summer of 1995 convinced me that I would move to Japan some day from Hong Kong to see what was happening in this rapidly developing football culture.
I have never regretted a minute of the journey, which took me to three World Cups in France, Japan-Korea and Germany. The only Japan match I missed in those campaigns was the Turkey home game in 2002 – I was in Korea for the second round – and remember the cheers and celebrations of the Koreans all around me in the media centre when Japan lost 1-0. So much for cooperation!
I have thoroughly enjoyed writing my biweekly column, and hope an insight from an Englishman -- who grew up on the terraces as a young fan, survived the hooligan years of following Newcastle United around the country and then secured my one-time dream job of actually reporting on Newcastle for a morning newspaper in the north-east of England -- has provided some talking points for Japanese football fans.
My contribution and observations must end here for the time being. But who knows? Like Newcastle United rising again, and maybe JEF United, too, I might be back…
Good luck Japan!