December 24--It’s been a very interesting year for baseball in Japan. That’s right, I said baseball.
Yes, I know this column is supposed to be about football, but just let me explain!
Baseball has dominated much of the sports news in recent months, but for all the wrong reasons.
Two clubs have merged due to enormous operating deficits, a new one has been allowed in, but only after much debate, and suddenly baseball realises that it must change drastically to keep its audience.
The J.League, meanwhile, has been quietly getting on with its own business.
Huge crowds for the two-leg championship play-off, a new name on the Nabisco Cup, the first division expanding to 18 teams and the J.League to 30 teams fro next season after starting with 10….
It was no coincidence that, a couple of months ago, a North American colleague admitted to me that ‘’the J.League is embarrassing Japanese baseball.’’
But you won’t find anyone in the J.League gloating about this, because they know they are still planting roots around the country and that there is a long way to go yet.
But 2004 was a very satisfactory year for the game in Japan, at club and international level.
FC Tokyo won the Nabisco Cup to give a trophy to their army of supporters, who brighten up every ground with their songs and their exuberance. Yokohama F Marinos won the first stage of the championship and then defeated second-stage champions Urawa Reds on penalties to retain the league title. Head coach Takeshi Okada was rightly voted Manager of the Year, as his experience and pragmatism was carried on to the field by his players.
Reds missed out on both trophies in Guido Buchwald’s first season as manager, but they have the spending power and the magnetism to attract better players in certain areas of the team for next season. The Nabisco Cup final, and the two championship games, did not have many goals, but from a purist’s point of view, this highlights the rise in quality, of coaching, technique and strategy, individually and collectively.
Neutrals would probably have preferred a 5-4 in 90 minutes, but too many goals in high-scoring games like this can be attributed to bad defending rather than clever attacking. It was also good to see a defender, Yuji Nakazawa, win the J.League MVP award, as I feel defenders are overlooked too often for these awards due to their lack of star quality and creative flair. Justice was done on this occasion, and Nakazawa was a worthy winner.
Nakazawa, of course, was outstanding for Japan at the Asian Cup in China, where Zico’s men defended the trophy won by Philippe Troussier’s team in Lebanon in 2000.
In addition to this, Japan won all six games in their World Cup qualifying group, conceding only one goal during the laboured 2-1 victory in Singapore, and a place in Germany is well within their grasp next year.
The biggest disappointment of the year (but not the biggest surprise) was Japan’s performance at the Olympics. Following the qualifying campaign in spring, things began to fall apart, and I am sure head coach Yamamoto would do things very differently if only he could turn the clock back.
All in all, though, it was a solid season of growth for football in Japan.
As I said at the start, baseball was dominating the sports pages for a while, as football took a back seat.
But, as they say, no news is good news.
And 2004 was a good year for the J.League.