Thursday, 26 April 2018

J League History: 2008

In 2008, the J.League celebrated its 15th year with one of the most evenly matched league campaigns ever, and though there were a few gripes from the usual Eurocentric quarters suggesting that there was something "wrong" with a league where it really IS possible for nearly any team to beat any other team, most fans were more than happy to trade the suspense and entertaining competitiveness of the J.League for the greater predictability and supposed "structural maturity" of a league where anyone with an ounce of common sense can predict which teams will finish in the top three, even before the season begins.

Admittedly, life in the J.League is difficult for the "Miha" ("idol worshipper") media and their bandwagon-jumping trend-followers. Unlike most sports and pastimes, it is hard to find many big teams with big stars and big names who you can rave over, pretend to follow as a loyal fan, and not not end up feeling embarassed at the end of the season when their "fovourites" end up finishing midtable. But for most true football fans, this is no real loss. Although it may be agonizing, at times, to see the title race knocked off course again and again, as the league leaders fall to less-fancied opponents, the suspense and beautiful unpredictability are rewards that more than make up for thius supposed "loss". And for folks who prefer the predictability and glamour of perennial stars who always win, rather than the messy suspense and excitement of a wild, constantly shanging title chase, European teams are always a safe haven for glory hounds (as we will discuss in greater detail below).

Of course, the J.League has always been much more closely contested, with much greater parity than most European leagues. In addition, some will point out that for all the supposed "parity" that we like to rave about, one team -- Kashima Antlers -- has won fully one-third of all the titles since the J.League was founded. These are legitimate points. But while we often point to the closeness of title races in recent years when discussing the issue of parity, a far more compelling indicator is the fact that few teams (apart from Kashima) manage to remain consistently in the top tier. In this sense, 2008 provided a clear indication that clubs can dictate and strongly influence their fate -- at least over the long term -- based on how well (or how poorly) the coaches, team management and even the fans fulfill their roles. During the year, relatively small teams from lesser cities managed to capture headlines and even some silverware thanks to good organizational skills, good coaching, and good support from the local fan base. Oita Trinita provided one good example, capturing the Nabisco Cup and remaining in the title chase until the final month of the season despite the fact that team resources are more limited than even the league average. Similarly, Montedio Yamagata earned promotion to the J1 in 2008, providing the same sort of hope for small-town teams that Ventforet Kofu generated a few years ago.

But the real eye-opener was the struggling performance of several former league powers, who squandered the funds, the fan base and the team cohesion that took them to the top of the heap. Tokyo Verdy has already earned a spot in J.League history as an example of how NOT to run a football team. Prior to the formation of the J.League they were the richest and most star-studded club in Japanese football, and they won the league crown in the first two seasons while attracting huge crowds. But Verdy tried to be a "nationwide team" rather than cultivating a local fan base. At first, this made them the ultimate bandwagon: not only did high school girls ooohhh and aaaahhh from the stands as the media fawned over them, but they actually WERE the media (in the form of parent company Yomiuri). But as is the case with most bandwagons, success only lasted until the end of the parade.

As soon as football lost its "trendy" appeal, fans disappeared and Verdy found itself in increasingly difficult straits (as we discuss in greater detail on the Verdy team page). The club collapsed by the end of the 1900s and by the end of the J.League's first decade they had been relegated. This season they finally fought their way back into the top division, but once again a combination of poor coaching, poor team chemistry and utterly atrocious team management doomed them to another spell in the J2. As the year ended in a shock loss and demotion to the J2 on the final day of the season, Verdy fans finally could take no more. Several hundred fans staged a sit-in at the stadium and refused to leave for over six hours, until finally a group of coaches and lower-level management came out, discussed their greivances and convinced them to go home. But the acrimony -- piqued by the team president's refusal to show up and face the fans -- seems to be deep-rooted, and it is hard to see how the team can return to the J1 (much less the ranks of title contenders) until management changes its ways, and finds a way to make peace with the fans.

But Verdy was not the only former title-winner to struggle in 2008. The Yokohama Marinos -- title winners in 1995, 2003 and 2004 -- also had a rough patch that saw them slip into relegation danger. It wasnt until the final month of the season that the Marinos recovered, and again, there appear to be problems associated with management and the fan base which could continue to plague the club if not addressed. 

. Team Pts GP W D L GF GA G.Dif
1 Kashima Antlers 63 34 18 9 7 56 30 +26
2 Kawasaki Frontale 60 34 18 6 10 65 42 +23
3 Nagoya Grampus 59 34 17 8 9 48 35 +13
4 Oita Trinita 56 34 16 8 10 33 24 +9
5 Shimizu S-Pulse 55 34 16 7 11 50 42 +8
6 FC Tokyo 55 34 16 7 11 50 46 +4
7 Urawa Reds 53 34 15 8 11 50 42 +8
8 Gamba Osaka 50 34 14 8 12 46 49 -3
9 Yokohama Marinos 48 34 13 9 12 43 32 +11
10 Vissel Kobe 47 34 12 11 11 39 38 +1
11 Kashiwa Reysol 46 34 13 7 14 48 45 +3
12 Omiya Ardija 43 34 12 7 15 36 45 -9
13 Albirex Niigata 42 34 11 9 14 32 46 -14
14 Kyoto Sanga 41 34 11 8 15 37 46 -9
15 JEF United 38 34 10 8 16 36 53 -17
16 Jubilo Iwata 37 34 10 7 17 40 48 -8
17 Tokyo Verdy 37 34 10 7 17 38 50 -12
18 Consadole Sapporo 18 34 4 6 24 36 70 -34

 

Promotion/Relegation Series

10 Dec Vegalta Sendai 1 - 1 Jubilo Iwata
Nadison (41')   Takyua Matsuura (53')
13 Dec Jubilo Iwata 2 - 1 Vegalta Sendai
Takyua Matsuura (41')
Takyua Matsuura (70')
  Ryan Yong-Gi (89)

 

Scoring Leaders

Rank Player Team Goals (PKs) Shots
1 Marquinhos Kashima Antlers 26 (4) 106

 

J.League Awards, 2008

MVP Marquinhos 32 Kashima Antlers
Rookie of the Year Yoshizumi Ogawa 24 Nagoya Grampus
Golden Boot Marquinhos 32 Kashima Antlers
Coach of the Year Oswaldo Oliveira 57 Kashima Antlers

Best Eleven

GK Seigo Narazaki 32 Nagoya Grampus
DF Marcus Tulio Tanaka 27 Urawa Reds
Daiki Iwamasa 27 Kashima Antlers
Atsuto Uchida 20 Kashima Antlers
Satoshi Yamaguchi 30 Gamba Osaka
Yuji Nakazawa 30 Yokohama Marinos
MF Yasuhito Endo 30 Gamba Osaka
Yoshizumi Ogawa 24 Nagoya Grampus
Kengo Nakamura 27 Kawasaki Frontale
FW Marquinhos 32 Kashima Antlers
Atsushi Yanagisawa 31 Kyoto Sanga

 

Perhaps the most disturbing event of the year for Yokohama was the spectacle of the club trying to woo Shunsuke Nakamura back in the middle of the European season, despite the fact that existing stars like Yuji Nakazawa were griping about poor pay and poor treatment, while openly discussing plans to leave if the team didnt pay more attention to their needs. Only a fool would think that signing a single player -- no matter how talented -- could solve all of Yokohama's problems. But then, perhaps that says more about the calibre of the team's executives than anything else.

 

If Marinos fans had a bit of a scare in 2008, for Jubilo fans the suspense was unbearable. The once-proud team -- league champions in 1997, 1999 and 2002 -- floundered on the brink of relegation for almost the entire season, and were forced to fight for survival in a promotion-relegation series against Vegalta Sendai, which they managed to win by the narrowest of margins. Jubilo has been in a downward spiral ever since their last league title, though it was only in 2007 that the situation really started to look critical.

 

Like Sanfrecce Hiroshima, another poorly managed and poorly coached team, Jubilo has a wealth of young talent that makes their poor won-lost record in 2008 hard to comprehend. Injuries did make things difficult for the team, but a lot of the trouble was clearly due to poor coaching, poor player selection, and the lack of a clear team spirit.

 

More importantly, though, Jubilo seems to have lost its fans. Like Verdy before them, many of Jubilo's followers seem to have been fair-weather fans. When the titles stopped coming, so did the audience. Surely this is not just a reflection of the character of people in the Iwata area; rather, it reflects the team's failure to appeal to fans effectively, and develop a solid base that will stick by the team through thick and thin.

 

Part of the problem seems to have been the club's failure to understand that you cant attract crowds by coddling so-called "fan favourites", keeping them in the lineup even after they clearly pass retirement age. People may buy shirts with Hiroshi Nanami or "Gon" Nakayama's name on the back, but if the players dodder around the pitch and look like the washed-up codgers they are, the fans wont be back the following week. This should be viewed as a cautionary tale for every club in the league. If even a successful team like Jubilo can fall into this sort of crisis, it can happen to anyone.

 

Despite the struggles of some teams, there was a great deal to be positive about in 2008. The title chase remained suspenseful right up until the penultimate week of the season, when the Antlers finally opened up enough of a gap to make the final week more of a coronation ceremony than a nail-biting finish. In addition to the expected presence of the Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale (as well as Urawa Reds and Gamba in the early part of the season), upstarts Oita Trinita made a very compelling run, while perennial underperformers like FC Tokyo and Nagoya Grampus provided signs that they might finally be ready to challenge for some actual silverware.

 

As we alluded to at the top of the page, there was some disappointment about the fact that Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds fell out of the race in late October, and ended up finishing closer to midtable than to the title contenders. This reflects a new factor that would emerge to affect the competitive balance of the entire J.League. After years of being roundly ignored by Japanese clubs, the Asian Champions League finally emerged as a meaningful competition. In addition to the more lucrative prize money, teams that win the ACL receive a degree of international publicity that exceeds even that of the league champion. The Reds and Gamba claimed back-to-back ACL titles in 2007 and 2008, and rode that success to international recognition. This showed everyone the potential for Asian success. Unfortunately, this creates something of a dilemma for the teams that earn an ACL spot. Now that the Asian title is worth fighting for, both in financial terms and publicity value, teams have to make a calculated decision about how much effort they are willing to invest in the ACL campaign.

The vast distances involved in travelling to remote parts of Asia for midweek matches, and returning for a weekend league tie, make it virtually impossible for even the largest clubs to vie for both a J.League crown and an ACL title. The Reds' late-season collapse in 2007 was just one illustration of the difficulty involved. Gamba Osaka suffered a similar fate in 2008, hoisting the Asian trophy but finishing in eighth place in the J.League. Prior to these performances, no ACL winner had even managed to even finish in the TOP HALF of the domestic table during the same year that they won the Asian title. An ACL berth is clearly a double-edged sword for J.League teams, who lack the finances and player depth to sustain a competitive effort in BOTH competitions. This would become even more apparent in subsequent years, as highly competitive teams like Gamba Osaka and Cerezo Osaka succumbed to relegation because they invested too much effort and energy into the ACL campaign.

The simple fact is that a team cannot expect to take long journeys to a remote corner of Asia for the ACL knockout round, and remain fresh enough to contest critical matches at the end of the domestic season. In 2008, there were clear indications that the Antlers held back, not committing their full energy to the ACL. They dropped out in the quarterfinal round, but remained fresh enough to claim the League crown. Gamba and Reds opted to pursue the Asian title, but as a result, fell out of the domestic race during the critical month of October. Unless someone invents a new technology that allows teams to travel from Japan to the Persian Gulf or Australia in 2-4 hours, rather than 12-14, this compromise will probably continue. Teams have to decide how much energy they are willing to expend on the ACL, and recognize that chasing one prize will probably mean giving up on the other.