Asian Debate: Is The Japanese Game Losing Its Innocence?

Cesare Polenghi wonders whether an increase in standards of play in the J-League means a decrease of other qualities...
As the J.League matures, it is unavoidable that its matches absorb some of the characteristics of 'The Game' as it is played in the most advanced footballing nations.

This is mostly a positive factor, it means for example more savvy tactical arrangements and an overall more “respectable” level of football that reflects well in the growth of the Japanese National Team.

It is no surprise that Japanese soccer is now broadcasted on Eurosport and has its growing community of fans outside the archipelago as well.

But unfortunately, growing up also means that some of the outside influences “viruses” that were kept outside Japanese soccer are slowly eroding the naivety that made the Japanese league unique for many years.

Recently, the most disturbing aspect of the “latinization” of the J.League has been extreme time-wasting, performed usually by players rolling around while waiting for a slow stretcher to take them out and run the clock.

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This is not to mention the even more hateful “hide-the-ball-by-the-corner-flag-trick,” an epitome of anti-sporting behaviour that often annoyed the fans of the teams that were wasting time as well.

These practices have, however, drastically reduced over the last few months. Why and how we do not know, also because –as usual- the local media never discussed timewasting, let alone denounced it.

I just imagine that it became too much, and somebody in the J.League offices finally took notice, sent out a fax to all clubs, and soon coaches and players complied.

Alas, not all problems are so easily solved! Diving for penalties and free-kicks is now endemic in J1 as well, and while it used to be a Brazilian copyrighted technique, now some Japanese have mastered the art of flying—Albirex and Japan's Kisho Yano being perhaps the most peculiar representative of this new school.

Nobody likes to see players airborne but this has been part of the game for a while, and as the referees are not willing to enforce the law harshly against the transgressors, it is something that might stay around until technology helps.

However, what I think is new, and rather disturbing, is the increase in violence and the unneeded shows put on by drama-queens dressed up as players I have noticed during the last few months.

All while –as usual—the media are oblivious, and the law hits the culprits with a very soft hand. An example of this new trend, spectacular for his absurdity comes from the July performance by Masashi Oguro, of Tokyo Verdy FC.

Masashi Oguro

With his team 3-0 down, he engaged in a virtual duel with Yokohama FC (!!!) fans, and when he finally scored his useless goal with only few minutes left, he challenged the enemy (who were behind a fence, by the way) by running under their stands and by pointing at his name on the back of his jersey.

Also at Verdy a week later, their forward Leandro did even better, putting on perhaps the best spectacle of the season so far.

After a painful goal given away in the dying seconds of the game versus Ventforet Kofu, he waited for the final whistle to attack the ref, a few teammates and opponents.

In the end he needed to be escorted out by a massive bodyguard, who probably saved his career in Japan. The funny side of it came when after the game Leandro accused Arata Sugiyama, a very mild Venforet player, of calling him “Chimpanzee” in Portuguese.

The J.League board of directors took the case seriously, but nobody pointed out the fact that Sugiyama had probably just said a sentence including the word shimpan (which in Japanese means referee), a sound that the overheated Leandro took as a tailor-made insult by a polyglot opponent.

Who definitely likes to insult other people, in particular Kyoto Sanga FC fans, is Yusuke Mori. He is a bitter ex-player who has been now mocking for years his former supporters any time Kawasaki Frontale scored against them (which happened quite a few times).

Yusuke Mori

He did it again in July but he probably generated some bad karma for himself, as his team ended up losing deservedly 3-1. The same Mori was coming back from a very mild suspension of one week, after giving an Albirex player a bloody nose (there went an elbow…), and fighting hysterically against the security personnel who escorted him out of the pitch after the sacrosanct red card.

On the same ground of Niigarta, a couple of weeks before Grampus’ Brazilian Magnum (yet, another gentleman…) earned a quick collection of two yellow cards in little less than half an hour, the second for a hammer-foot sliding tackle that could have ended Toshihiro Matsushima’s career.

While asked to leave the field, Magnum found nothing better to do than playing a Cristiano Ronaldo trick with the ball, casually kicking it against Matsushima who was still on the ground.

A little riot followed. Disciplinary consequences for Magnum? None.  Kashiwa Reysol’s Yuzo Kobayashi, a blondie, was recently sent off for complaining after committing probably the twelfth foul or so against Gamba Osaka forwards. When asked to take an early shower, he dropped dead on the field in desperation.

As he finally left the pitch, the player wildly threw his shinguards around while making his way to the locker room.

So, from a certain point of view, as football in Japan becomes less of a game and more of a ritual celebrated by society, there is more pressure and results become more important.

However, as the league grows in quality and quantity, I believe it is important to protect its integrity as well, because decent and honest football is part of the Japanese tradition, and definitely has its importance.

J.League officers, coaches and players should all consider how their actions on the field and by the touchlines are now widely broadcasted. Even when the Japanese media glides over these episodes, fans are taking notice.

Is not only the players who are learning. We are getting a bit smarter as well.

Cesare Polenghi