E-1 Championship: The Opposition View on Japan

The EAFF E-1 Men's Football Championship between Japan and North Korea at Ajinomoto Stadium on December 9, 2017 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan.

Ahead of the East Asian Cup “Final” between Japan and South Korea, we spoke to Japanese football expert Dan Orlowitz to get his opinion on the enemy’s chances of beating the good guys in Tokyo.

1. Japan may be leading the group, but is there much enthusiasm from the Japanese public about this competition, or is it just seen as a waste of time?

The enthusiasm is definitely muted compared to World Cup qualifiers or even friendlies with the full squad – you can see that in the attendance, which barely crossed 20k in the opener and hit 18k yesterday. I doubt they reach 30k in Saturday’s final even if the JFA make a big push.
As I shot yesterday’s match I had a much better look at the crowd, and beyond the usual core Japan support it was mostly J.League fans coming to support “their” players. Lots of towel scarves and J.League unis being held up when at a full NT game everyone would be decked in blue!
It’s very much a niche tournament (not helped at all by the EAFF’s clueless rebranding) and the public understands that it’s the Samurai Who, not the Samurai Blue. But a trophy is a trophy and a Nikkan-sen (日韓戦, Japan vs. South Korea match) is a Nikkan-sen!
 
2. Similarly, how are the coaching staff seeing it? What kind of players did they summon for the competition and is it indicative of experimentation, or with an eye on the World Cup squad?
As was the case in 2013 (which featured the international debuts of eventual 2014 WC call-ups Yuya Osako, Yoichiro Kakitani, Masato Morishige, and Hotaru Yamaguchi – might have missed one or two others), this is probably one of the last best chances Japan’s coach (this time Halilhodzic) will get to evaluate the J.League’s best talent in one spot. Of course that’s somewhat of a misnomer as he didn’t have Urawa Reds’ players due to their CWC participation, and a number of Cerezo Osaka players (namely Hiroshi Kiyotake, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Kenyu Sugimoto) were out due to injury.
Most observers were sort of baffled at the # of Gamba players in the squad considering how poorly they did this season, and FC Tokyo’s two representatives hardly acquitted themselves well in the first match. But it’s good so far to see several important players get blooded: Kashima Antlers’ crop of youngins, Kashiwa Reysol GK Kosuke Nakamura, a couple others.
Yu Kobayashi really needed to step up after injuries and inconsistency plagued him in previous JNT squads and he did so with his goal against China – Halilhodzic gave him a lot of praise and I would say he’s got better odds than most of his teammates of going to Russia.
3. Japan have done well (result-wise) so far in this competition, pulling off wins in both of their previous two games. What was the key to their victories?
Ideguchi’s last minute stunner against North Korea.

The DPRK game was sort of a shitshow, won in the last minute when Japan finally remembered that they’re Japan and they were only playing DPRK. Against China they played with much more confidence and things clicked a lot earlier. They didn’t need to leave it until the last 10 minutes but overall it was a solid performance and Kengo Kawamata came on with enough brute force to “assist” Kobayashi on that goal. Gen Shoji’s stunner was 95% luck but they’ll be talking about that for a while. I certainly haven’t heard Halilhodzic praise his squad as much as he did last night… except for maybe the Australia game this year.

4. Coming in to the final match against South Korea, Japan need a draw to claim the championship, but a loss would see South Korea defend their title from 2015. Any idea on the tactical approach Halilhodzic will set up his side in in light of that? How do you reckon the game will shake out?

Halilhodzic wants Japan to Shoot the Damned Ball, something the national team has struggled with for the last few years. I don’t see them sitting back and playing for the draw because SK won’t let them. None of the cagy defensiveness of the women’s tournament here – I expect box-to-box action for much of the match.

5. Leaving the East Asian Cup for a moment, a quick comment on Japan’s group at the World Cup and prospects of advancing?

Japan could have gotten a Group of Death with Brazil and Spain, or a Group of Life with Russia, Croatia, and Egypt. Instead they ended up with:

– Poland (underrated in Japan because nobody knows their player except for Lewandowski, probably overrated by FIFA’s rankings as they’re only 18th in ELO)
– Colombia (underrated by virtue of not being Brazil or Argentina)
– Senegal (an African country nobody in Japan really knows but they’re sub-Saharan so surely they are all huge and fast)
In other words this is basically the same group as Japan got in 2014 – Poland are stronger than Greece and Senegal perhaps weaker than Ivory Coast. We didn’t get the Group of death like poor South Korea but nobody’s exactly rushing to book accommodations for the Round of 16.
6. This is of course a big rivalry in East Asian sport, but because only domestic players are participating, do you get the “rivalry feel” from the supporters, or it’s just business as usual?
The East Asian Cup all comes down to this. South Korea needs a win, Japan can claim the trophy with a draw.

There will be a bit of a rivalry feel on Saturday but it will be somewhat muted, as the game will be attracting more J.League fans than usual and we are a pretty friendly bunch. The Korean players from J.League squads might even get some applause, including ‘hometown boy’ Jang Hyun-soo! Certainly won’t be any banners like SK fans displayed in ’13 – not that Japanese fans have ever cared enough to do unique matchday tifo in the first place.

7. Lineup prediction / Score prediction (if you dare!) // Final thoughts?
 I think it will look closer to China than DPRK, with Ideguchi and Kosuke Nakamura both starting. As for a score prediction, Japan 2-1 SK with at least one goal coming in the first half.
Dan Orlowitz is Digital Media Editor for Football Tribe. Follow Dan on twitter @aishiterutokyo.
About Tim Lee 309 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?

6 Comments

  1. One thing you gotta respect about Japan (and other Asian countries I’m sure) is that the fans actually give a shit about the local clubs. It’s a national team game, and fans will be there to cheer for Jang Hyun Soo because he plays for the local club? That just seems wild to me compared to fans in Korea, where the majority of soccer “fans” can’t even name the foreign players in the K League.

    • I concur. Systematic issues with the K League (not all controllable) do mean of course that our culture of passion does not extend to our local clubs.

      Honestly, I don’t know why that is. The J League and CSL have great attendances. Is it simply because more people live in these countries? Are ultras/fan groups exclusionary/too hardcore in a sports culture where they are usually more inclusionary? (The simple chants and dances you do while at a baseball game in Korea while gnawing on some fried chicken…). Is it actually the stadium (and some of them just not being built for club football in the smaller cities (ie Busan, Daegu)? There’s got to be some correlation and causation in all this, but it’s baffled K League officials for decades.

    • You know, maybe something needs to *happen* to make football the *it* thing. The CSL became an *it* thing because money was suddenly and quickly being invested into clubs. Maybe instead of the weird city/corporate structure we should just own clubs like the rest of the world does instead of using them for promotional or touristic purposes. The citizen club model (I’m a Daejeon fan, we were the pioneers of this) is cool, but should be the exception rather than the rule. It’s no fun going to support the government team.

      Then again, KBO teams (baseball) are all corporation controlled so as to have the sponsor *in the name*… (go Hanwha Eagles! … Tavern bouncer is giving me the evil eye, too much ‘yagu’ talk…)

      • I’ll chip in a bit on this.

        One of the most important things the J.League has done since its formation is emphasize the importance of hometowns and grassroots development. All of the previous JSL clubs were forced to change their names, getting rid of their corporate identity and adopting a hometown+nickname (Yomiuri SC -> Verdy Kawasaki, Mazda SC -> Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Nissan FC -> Yokohama Marinos etc).

        Compare to the K.League, where it’s still Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, etc. Then think about all of the Korean clubs who have relocated, some multiple times. The J.League has only had two similar incidents – Verdy relocating to Tokyo (where they’ve since struggled and never build a reliable support base) and Yokohama Flugels being absorbed by Yokohama (F.) Marinos in what remains a controversial move.

        The J.League has solidified their grassroots-first focus with the Hundred Year Vision and the Club License System, which gives clubs an unquestionable checklist of what they need to get into the J.League. No youth system? No attendance? No revenue? No dice.

        Support-wise the league does an excellent job of analyzing demographics, for example in this annual report: https://www.jleague.jp/docs/aboutj/spectators-2016.pdf

        You can see income levels, genders, ages, travel habits – all of the things you need to market a club.

        Going down to the player level, players tend to be marketed much in the same way that musicians are marketed here – not untouchable celebrities but as humble artists who you can meet and shake hands and get an autograph from. Clubs regularly do fan service after training and in the last year or two players have gotten a lot better about using Instagram and Twitter.

        While I have plenty of criticisms regarding how the J.League promotes itself, they know their audience, they understand the limits of their market (viz. baseball dominating the media) and they’ve done their best to work around it.

        • But Daegu FC, Daejeon Citizen, Gyeongnam FC, these are all city-owned clubs without the chaebol ownership. Naturally, they all are near the bottom of the table, but chaebol clubs are the minority over two tiers, they’re just the best.

          I think they try hard to market players in that way but it’s just never worked. Financially it’s not a viable venture, because there aren’t fans in seats.

          Interesting though how the J.League does manage to get some attention and work around Nippon baseball. Does the J.League get laughed at by some people? Sneered at as if it wasn’t important? Because fan’s attitude towards K League is “ahaha why would you go watch K League you dumbass”

          • I think being owned by a city rather than privately is even more disadvantageous. What does a city government know about running a football club?

            It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, because in the end it’s fans who bring other fans. If you look at Urawa Reds, their support got so big over the years because of the massive effort Urawa Boys put into building that atmosphere behind the goal, and the club was able to capitalize on that atmosphere to build their hometown identity.

            Kawasaki Frontale have probably the best marketing/events team in Japan – maybe across all sports, not just the J.League. Godzilla kicking penalties! The team captain speaking live with astronauts on the ISS! F1 cars doing laps around the track!

            One of the challenges of football in Japan is that the market is so weirdly segmented. Baseball fans tend to skew older, and that’s reflected in the fact that newspapers cover baseball more than anything else. But the kids are kicking balls around.

            In football, you have national team fans (including what we call the ‘light-zou’ ライト層, aka ‘super-casual’ fans), you have J.League fans, most of whom also follow the national team, you have fans of Japanese players abroad (in particular Honda and Kagawa of course), and you have fans of European leagues (EPL is the most popular, more older fans follow the Serie A, younger fans follow Barca/Real, and then of course the Bundesliga due to the # of Japanese players). Then there are youth fans (again subdivided into academy youth and high school) who generally support the U-NTs, women’s soccer, etc.

            Now there’s some overlap between these segments, but only at certain points and only to a certain degree. In other countries everyone fancies themselves a little bit of an expert in everything, and even you’re a hardcore EPL fan you’ll watch just about any grainy stream if you’re bored on a Tuesday night. But in Japan you’re into Your Thing and that’s basically it.

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