February 28, 2021

Novelty and Nostalgia

 

The J.League's 2021 season kicked off this weekend, and though the disturbing number of stray passes and flubbed shots suggest that most teams are still in poor performance mode, there were plenty of highlight-reel moments as well. Two (no... make that three) of the top selections from that highlight reel were provided by some of the league's most recognized veterans, and members of the so-called "platinum generation" (which includes Yoshida, Honda and Nagatomo) - Yoshito Okubo and Akihiro Ienaga. The two were both members of the national team during the "Okada II" and Osim eras, and may well be playing in their final seasons as pros. Yet both were in top form on opening day, leading their respective teams to victory.

Those who have followed the J.League for any length of time will have recognized many of the names on the marquee this weekend. In addition to Ienaga and Okubo, former Antlers, Gamba, Frontale and Grampus striker Shuhei Akasaki scored a last-minute equaliser for his new club, Vegalta Sendai. Meanwhile, in the battle of Kanto-area giants, 39-year-old Yuki Abe gave the Urawa Reds a second-half lead, only for his former teammate Masato Morishige (33) to level the contest three minutes from full time.

For those with only a passing knowledge of the J.League, however, some of the most recognizable faces on display this weekend were not even on the pitch. When the J.League kicked off roughly a quarter century ago, hardly any of the coaches were Japanese, and only a handful (mainly assistant coaches) had actually played the sport professionally, themselves. This year, there will be numerous head-to-head clashes between former J.League teammates or league rivals, such as the Saturday evening match between Atsuhiro Miura's Vissel Kobe and Tsuneyasu Miyamoto's Gamba Osaka, whereas in the J2, the vast MAJORITY of teams is helmed by a former J.League player. Many famous former Japanese internationals are now leading lights in the coaching ranks, and one is even in team management (Shigeyoshi Mochizuki is the Chief Executive of SC Sagamihara, which earned promotion to the J2 this season).

One reason why I dwell on some of the famous names of yesteryear is that -- one of this writer's most recent projects will be to revive the old "J.League Hall of Fame" which once resided on the Rising Sun News website (1998-2015). At the moment, there is no front entrance to this part of the J.Soccer.com site, but individual pages are being added at a rapid pace. My goal is to commemorate (and in time, hopefully interview) every J.Leaguer who played at least 5 seasons or 75 caps during the League's first quarter century. As the season goes along, we will make more and more historical information available to JSoccer readers. For now, those who are interested in a trip down memory lane can just follow this link and use the tabs to browse some of the individual pages:

http://www.jsoccer.com/new/hall-of-fame/510


 

 2 - 0 

Friday night's season opener, in Kawasaki, was a fitting drama to kick off 2021. Though a careful analysis of the content would suggest that neither team is really in great shape, the Blue Dolphins certainly provided an early demonstration of their position as top contenders. Frontale and their 34-year-old right wing, Akihiro Ienaga, burst out to a quick start, with two clinical strikes. But despite the flashy finishes, some of the Marinos defending on Ienaga's two first-half goals was headslapping in its disarray. It was less a case of Frontale announcing their dominance, and more a suggestion to Marinos supporters that their defense is no more stable than it was last season. Even Ienaga offered proof that he is out of form, completely missing an empty net from just outside the six-yard box. Had he simply side-footed the ball along the ground, he could have finished off a hat trick by half time.

Frontale certainly showed themselves to be the superior team, and their 2-0 half time lead reflected dominance in every aspect of the game. Yet shortly after the break, defensive inattention and some rushed passes almost gifted the Marinos a way back into the game. In the same way, Kawasaki allowed Gamba Osaka back into the contest last weekend, in the Xerox Cup preseason extravaganza. Last year's dominant run was indeed impressive. But a level-headed analysis suggests that this was a case of everyone else being too exhausted to catch up. But that also reflected the unusual format of last year's campaign (due to Coronavirus). Many teams, in the past, have forged early leads in the J1 campaign, only to be hauled in by the constant pressure from every other team in the competition. Last year, the two-game-a-week schedule made this impossible. None of the "usual rivals" had the energy to make a real run at Frontale, and the "lesser teams" never had more than two or three days to prepare for a Frontale clash.

On the basis of their first two outings, Frontale certainly can claim to be the most smoothly operating and most experienced unit. They have the most experienced "team" in the J1 (that is to say, the "regular" lineup has played far more matches together, as a unit, than any of their main rivals). But this year, experience (= age) may not carry the same advantage it did last season. This year, youth and energy may play a more critical role. For one thing, the 2021 season will run for 38 weeks, since the number of teams this year increased to 20 (there was no relegation last season - again, due to CoVid). The additional games, and the fact that FOUR teams will be relegated at the end of the year, means that even contests against the weakest opponents will be hard-charging affairs, which take a great deal out of players, physically.

One of the few positives for the Marinos was the performance of rookie and recent high school graduate Ryonosuke Kabayama, who looked very dangerous in a 45-minute debut, but was taken off at half time when coach Ange Postecoglou chose to shore up the Marinos defense.

Date: 
26 February, 2021
Attendance: 
4,868
Location: 
Todoroki Stadium

  2

2 1H 0
0 2H 0

0  

Akihiro Ienaga (21')
Akihiro Ienaga (43')

 Scoring

 
Jun Tanaka  Cautions  

 


 

5 - 1  

If the opening match of 2021 left football fans in Yokohama fretting about the demerits of their defense, Saturday's first kickoff sent folks on the other side of the Bay City into similar bouts of pessimism. Perhaps part of the problem was simply the hard running and excellent team play by the hosts, Consadole Sapporo, but even the most faithful Fulie fan would have to admit that Consadole were flattered by a feckless defense. Consadole led 2-0 after 238 seconds, and the result never again seemed in doubt.

Yokohama FC avoided a relegation scrap last season for just three reasons - CoVid, Koki Saito and Kazunari Ichimi. While the Coronavirus is still lingering around in parts of Yokohama, Saito has departed for Europe and Ichimi plays for Gamba Osaka. The return of Shunsuke Nakamura to his home town of Yokohama may help to sell some additional tickets, but Fulie are already looking like prime candidates to fill one of the four relegation slots this year.

Consadole, on the other hand, looked very energetic and ... at least compared to other teams that played this weekend ... in pretty good team form. The opening goal, scored at the 1:58 mark, was simply a fortunate shot that Yoshiaki Komai fired from the edge of the box before the Yokohama FC defense had found its bearings. The ball took a deflection and crept just inside the left post. But the second goal was a well-worked, team play that ripped through the heart of the Yokohama defense, and was finished off nicely by Takuro Kaneko (who assisted on the opener).

The Snow Owls of Sapporo dominated play for the next 20 minutes, but on the half-hour a defensive blunder gifted Yuya Takagi with the ball behind the Consadole defense. The rookie slashed around the left flank on the dribble and centered for an unmarked Kleber to finish off. The reprieve did not last long. With three minutes to go in the first half, Consadole put together a genuine highlight reel play, with Chanathip Songkran dinking a perfect one-touch pass over the defense to another rookie, Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa, whose sparkling first volley hit Douglas Oliveira squarely in the chest and bounded across the goal line.

Just when it seemed like Yokohama would make it to the locker room without any further damage, Anderson Lopes took a speculative shot from the left which keeper Yuji Rokutan parried right to the feet of Kaneko, in almost the same position as his first goal. Kaneko fired away, and the ball bounded just inside the far post. Chanathip added one more tally in the second half, but as a competitive contest, this was over as soon as the halftime whistle sounded.

Date: 
27 February, 2021
Attendance: 
11,897
Location: 
Sapporo Dome

  5

4 1H 1
1 2H 0

1  

Yoshiaki Komai (02')
Takuro Kaneko (04')
Douglas Oliveira (43')
Takuro Kaneko (45+3')
Chanathip Songkran (77')

 Scoring

Kleber (28')
  Cautions Kleber

 


 

1 - 3

After Consadole's drubbing of Yokohama FC, the most one-sided victory on Saturday came from an unlikely source - Shimizu S-Pulse, in an away match at Kashima. The Antlers demonstrated the same defensive fragility that they did early last season, tumbling to a lopsided loss after seeming to dominate the proceedings for 75 minutes. Both players and coaches from the Antlers will be asking questions about their mental focus and poise under pressure, but on a more generous note Kashima did "outplay" S-Pulse for most of the contest. In fact, when Ryutaro Araki finished off a Kashima atttack that included a 30-second barrage of shots and deflections, the fans at Kashima Stadium seemed to think the contest was over.

But as we saw last year, the young Antlers back line still makes occasional blunders. Indeed, it was the "senior member" of that line - Tomoya Inukai - who failed to prevent Thiago Santana from collecting an inlet pass, a step goalward of the penalty spot. Santana soloed from there, carrying Inukai on his back and spinning to fire into the net.

The Antlers threw everything forward, looking to reclaim the lead that they had been stalking for 75 minutes. But in a brief S-Pulse counter, Carlinhos Junior took the ball into the left corner and was given far too much space. The Brazilian spotted former Trinita veteran midfielder Yusuke Goto, lining up for a run into the box, and looped a perfect cross between the Antlers defense and the keeper. Goto ran onto the ball with a stooping header, and the shocked silence that descended on Kashima Stadium was as thick as traffic on the Tomei Expressway.

To add insult to injury, Kashima ace Ayase Ueda accidentally deflected a late corner kick into his own net, to round out the 3-1 defeat. The result shows that the Antlers are still a herd of yearlings and young bucks, who will struggle to find the consistency of past champions. But they do show plenty of talent and potential, making them one of the key spoilers this season.

Date: 
27 February, 2021
Attendance: 
9,312
Location: 
Kashima Stadium

  1

0 1H 0
1 2H 3

Ryutaro Araki (75')

 Scoring

Thiago Santana (78')
Yusuke Goto (83')
Own Goal (88')
  Cautions  


1 - 0

If any match provided a perfect encapsulation of just how rough and rusty most J1 teams looked, this weekend, it was the Kansai Derby clash between Vissel Kobe and Gamba Osaka. Not that it was a dull match. On the contrary, those who want to catch a J.League rerun on one of the video tubey-type channels [not officially recommended] should definitely choose Gamba-Vissel. There was action galore - spectacular individual plays including saves by both keepers that will probably make the highlight reels. Shinya Yajima and Yuki Yamamoto both made flashy runs into the Vissel box, while Kyogo Furuhashi and Asahi Masuyama dazzled the home crowd. But there were also a dozen goal-scoring opportunities in which the ball essentially got down on its knees and begged to be put into the back of the net . . . . .

Yet the contest remained scoreless for 80 minutes. That statistic says just about everything that a writer can possibly say about the quality of the final pass, the indecisiveness of the typical shot, and the literally uncountable number of times that a player on the perimeter of the box - despite no pressure to penetrate or pass - just accelerated to the line and fired the ball straight into the legs of their defender.

Thankfully, that "unexpected moment of beauty" that Edevaldo used to talk about, swept in to save the day. In the 78th minute, a Vissel steal at midfield gifted Hotaru Yamaguchi the ball, right on the centre circle. Yamaguchi looked up, spotted Kyogo Furuhashi revving up the engines, and lobbed the ball immediately into the open green space behind Gamba's back line. As Furuhashi cut inside his defender he saw that the keeper was well off his line, so he sent his first touch looping in a high arc that cleared Masaaki Higashiguchi's fingertips, and dropped into the back netting.

Date: 
27 February, 2021
Attendance: 
2,938
Location: 
Kobe Wing (Noevir) Stadium

  1

0 1H 0
1 2H 0

0  

Kyogo Furuhashi (79')

 Scoring

 
Sergi Samper Cautions  


  2 - 0

Cerezo Osaka got their 2021 campaign off to a winning start, though the sending-off of Takumi Kamijima midway through the first half was the most decisive incident in the contest. Yoshito Okubo gave the Cherry Pinks the lead ten minutes later, with a thunderous running header. But Cerezo's inability to put the contest away (and indeed, Reysol's numerous chances to claim a point despite being shorthanded) made this a less emphatic victory than the score line suggests.

Date: 
27 February, 2021
Attendance: 
4,481
Location: 
Nagai (Yanmar) Stadium

  2

1 1H 0
1 2H 0

Yoshito Okubo (42')
Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (85')

 Scoring

 
Yusuke Maruhashi
Toshiyuki Takagi
Cautions  
  Sent Off Takumi Kamijima


1 - 1

While the Kansai Derby attracted most of the press coverage on Saturday, another regional rivalry probably had better reason to be atop the marquee. For all the money and PR Vissel Kobe throws around, they do NOT look like a potential title candidate this year. And while Gamba's prospects could be slightly better, they will need strong contributions from their younger players if they hope to match last year's second place. At least from this writer's perspective, Gamba benefitted from the same "unique factors" that elevated Kawasaki Frontale last season. Everyone was fatigued, so every game was played at 80% speed and 50% physicality. This is bound to favour a deep, highly experienced and team-oriented unit. Only time will tell, but the preseason consensus suggests that Urawa and Tokyo are in better shape to pursue a title this season than either Kansai club.

Why dwell on Gamba and Vissel, in a match report on the Musashi-no-kuni Derby? Because the two Kanto giants *should* have benefitted from the same factors that helped Frontale and Gamba, last season. Both the Reds and Tokyo have an abundance of experienced players who not only have played at the highest level (at least as NT members), but also have played together as a unit for many years. Tokyo's sixth-place finish in 2020 was therefore a big disappointment, only eased by the knowledge that their rivals for prestige and loyalty in the greater Tokyo area (the 10th-place Red Rhinestones) did even worse.

The explanation for their disappointing performances is not hard to identify, however. Both teams have a hard time being "teams". On the pitch, they always seem to play like a random collection of eleven individuals - all quite talented but completely disassociated with anything that might resemble a "team" concept. The Reds have been plagued by this problem for years, but in the case of Tokyo, the loss of a team dynamic seems to date from Takefusa Kubo's departure, in mid-2019. It almost seems as if every player wants to step into the role of "team headliner and highlight-reel idol."

Perhaps incoming coach Ricardo Rodrigues can change the culture in Saitama, though initial impressions suggest that Tokyo has a better chance of regaining the team chemistry and cooperation that carried them to the brink of a title in 2019. The match itself was entertaining, but plagued by the same lack of precision that we discussed in the match reports above. The opening goal finally came in the 75th minute, thanks in part to a defensive blunder on a set play.

The Reds won a corner kick on the right side, and though the initial header was weak, one Tokyo defender missed wildly with an attempted clearance, and a second allowed Tomoaki Makino to muscle him out of the way and deflect the ball back in front of net. Two more Tokyo players (including the keeper) had swipes at the ball, yet it only trickled out as far as Yuki Abe, about level with the penalty spot. Abe toed the ball through the crowd and into the low left corner, giving the home side the advantage.

But with four minutes remaining, Tokyo equalised on a set play of their own. The Coon-dogs executed a perfect free kick from 35 meters, with Hirotaka Mita curling a perfect cross in front of the Tokyo pack as they rushed the goal mouth. Veteran defender Masato Morishige was the one to make contact and head the ball home. A deadlock was a fair result for both teams, but Tokyo fans will probably emerge more optimistic about their chances in 2021, based on the overall contest.

Date: 
27 February, 2021
Attendance: 
4,943
Location: 
Saitama Stadium

  1

1 1H 0
1 2H 1

1  

Yuki Abe (74')

 Scoring

Masato Morishige (86')
  Cautions  

1 - 1

It is only natural for neutral fans to focus primarily on teams that are (or hope to be) in the title chase. This year, however, there is likely to be a lot more focus - even for solidly midtable teams - on the threat of relegation. Experienced J.League fans know just how easy it is for otherwise competitive clubs to stumble into the second division, based on just a month or two of disarray, injury impact or poor team chemistry. This year, the threat is at least twice as large, since four teams will be relegated at the end of 2021,rather than the usual 2-1/2. The outflow of top talent to Europe has weakened the pool of J1 talent as a whole, but teams in the bottom half are feeling the impact more than the "big" clubs, who have lured away many of the best players from domestic rivals.

Therefore the opening-week match between Oita Trinita and Tokushima Vortis (and the Shonan Bellmare-Sagan Tosu contest as well) was of enormous importance to their respective fans. Like most other matches this weekend, the contest was marked by a lot of sloppy and disorganized play, but surely few other contests included as baffling a blunder as the one that gave Vortis the lead. In the 38th minute, Tokushima began a slow foray onto attack, and the ball was lobbed towards the Oita box. Takeru Kishimoto chased after the pass, but as three Trinita defenders and the keeper all converged on the ball, it looked like a futile run. A step before the keeper arrived, a defender inexplicably lunged at the ball and knocked it loose. It ricocheted off the keeper, rolled between the other two defenders, and right to Kishimoto, who poked it into the empty net (Trinita names omitted, to protect the complicit).

Fortunately for the hosts, the Tokushima defenders were nearly as disorganized, when the time came for Oita to get a run at goal. In the 59th minute a long ball into space turned the Vortis back line towards their own goal, and as they watched Oita's Kenta Inoue chase the ball down and turn towards the middle, not one of them bothered to pick up one of the Trinita midfielders who were advancing towards the box. The cross was snatched up by Arata Watanabe, and stroked into the back strings. Neither team could add to the tally, and the match petered out in stalemate

Date: 
27 February, 2021
Attendance: 
7,012
Location: 
Oita (ShowaDen) Dome

  1

0 1H 0
1 2H 1

Arata Watanabe (59')

 Scoring

Takeru Kishimoto (37')
  Cautions  

 


 

 1 - 2 

Nagoya Grampus' third-place finish in 2020 came as a bit of a surprise to the preseason punters, who perhaps failed to appreciate the potential for Massimo Ficcadenti to "sharpen up" a slumbering club's status quo. A close look at the individual talent, however, suggests that the team already has most of the tools needed to contend for some silverware, and the addition of Yutaka Yoshida and Mu Kanazaki from Sagan Tosu added both experience and physicality. Grampus has added even more talent and depth over the winter. Much will depend on how well the likes of Kazuki Nagasawa, Manabu Saito and Yoichiro Kakitani can weld with their new teammates

Avispa Fukuoka, on the other hand, faces a tough uphill battle just to avoid the threat of relegation. As one of the two teams promoted in 2020, the Yellowjackets nominally rank 20th in a competition with only 16 safe spots. Avispa will field a strapping, physically imposing team that includes the J.League's first Belgian (Jordy Croux) and second Swede (Emil Salomonsson). But while they promise to give the top clubs a stern physical challenge, the relative time of possession (7:3 ?) against Grampus should be viewed as a pretty accurate sign of how much overall talent the team can call upon.

It did not take the Red Whales very long to demonstrate their dominance. In the third minute of play, winger Yuki Soma broke away down the left sideline, and as he neared the top of the box he fed the ball infield to the galloping Brazilian ace Mateus, who weaved his way through the box and fired straight through keeper Masaaki Murakami's five hole. Over the next ten minutes Soma had two shots on net, of his own, but Murakami managed to turn both of these away. As we have noted in the past, Soma still has several glaring weaknesses in his game. Antlers management lured him to Kashima in his sophomore season, out of respect for his penetration skills. But after watching the young winger balloon dozens crosses high over the crossbar or off into the cheap seats, they decided not to renew the loan. Last year we saw some improvement - not so much in his accuracy, but in his decision making - thanks to the support and the example provided by veteran Yutaka Yoshida. The 30-year-old can still get up and down the sideline faster and more deceptively than most players in their prime, and he seems to be one of the few wingbacks (left) in Japan who pulls back when his defender has the angle covered, rather than just blasting the ball futilely right into the opponent's legs.

Grampus failed to add to their lead in the first half, though not for lack of chances. The second tally finally arrived ten minutes into the second act, when Yoshida made a nice penetration move on the left flank and crossed in front of net. None of the players in the central melee could make clean contact, but the deflected ball dropped to Mateus at the far post, and the Brazilian swept it home.

As the contest wore on, Avispa tried to bully their way back into the contest with sheer physicality. As noted above, the Yellowjackets have a lot of big, athletic players with the sort of unflinching physicality that becomes second nature after playing a few seasons in the J2. But this backfired, as the Grampus players responded in kind, and a Fukuoka player was the first to fall foul of the ... ermmmm ... fouls. Taro Sugimoto - a former Kashima Youth graduate who played for Matsumoto last season - was having a solid afternoon in the centre of the Avispa midfield. Nothing worthy of a highlight reel, but he was one of the most consistent penetrators for the Yelllowjackets, and he repeatedly clashed with Yoshida on the right (Yoshida's left) flank.

However, around the hour mark Sugimoto appeared to "stomp" on Yoshida's instep. Whether deliberate or not, Yoshida was both hurt and outraged, giving the ref a long appeal for discipline. Soon afterward Sugimoto won a free kick with a pretty blatant dive on the edge of Nagoya's box, and in the wake of that play, Juanma bowled over Sho Inagaki after he had already released a pass. One can only guess what is going through the minds of players, what things they do "deliberately" and what sort of incidents are sheer accident. The bare facts are that roughly two minutes later, Inagaki scuythed down Sugimoto with a sweeping, *legal*, but knee-snapping tackle that left the Avispa midfielder hobbling, and unable to continue

Avispa responded with their first substantial offensive surge of the contest. About ten minutes from full time, Bruno Mendes headed a quick cross off the post. This triggered a steady run of unapologetic Route-One football from Avispa. In the 82nd minute, Mendes turned provider, heading a high ball on into the box for Akira Hamashita. Yoshida lunged at the ball hoping to clear it into touch, but the ball ballooned wildly over the keeper's head and into Yoshida's own goal.

For the remaining minutes, including five of relegation time, Avispa executed their "boot for the box" strategy to great effect. The home crowd urged the Yellowjackets onward, completely upending the momentum. But Mitch Langerak proved too good at snatching the ball off the high shelf, and Grampus held on for the win.

Date: 
27 February, 2021
Attendance: 
4,901
Location: 
Hakatanomori (Level 5) Stadium

  1

0 1H 1
1 2H 1

2  

Own Goal (82') 

 Scoring

Mateus (03')
Mateus (55')
  Cautions  


 0 - 1

Fans of Sagan Tosu may resent being grouped along with Bellmare as one of the teams whose focus this season will be on the "Fateful Four Drop-Slots". However, based solely on the talent the Magenta Magpies can call upon this season, they certainly do not look like title candidates. As noted above, the level of parity in the J1 means that everyone from midtable down has one eye focused - out of necessity - on the distance to the drop zone. This year's drop zone is twice as big as usual. For both Bellmare and Sagan, every point they can possibly secure is a step closer to safety.

Considering how important the contest was to both teams, the intensity was never lacking. But the final product left much to be desired. The home team very nearly got off to a flying start, when Yuki Ohashi pickpocketed a Tosu defender on the left sideline, dribbled down the flank and all the way across the top of the box before drilling a shot off the right post. This was by no means the only dangerous chance created by the hosts, and Sagan Tosu had at least twice as many. Unfortunately, like so many other teams in action this week, the lack of polish and sharpness was evident in every stray pass or shot into the stands. In this contest, the spectacle was compounded by a hyperactive pursuit of the ball which paid no heed to balance or direction. Essentially, twenty toddlers trundling after a ball in the gym would spend more time on their feet, and less on the ground, than Bellmare and Tosu did in the first half.

Tosu should have taken the lead in the 73rd minute, when a rumbling attack involving Kaisei Ishii, Nanasei Iino and Daichi Hayashi was somehow kept out of the net by scrambling Bellmare defenders . . . but in fending off the goal, they committed at least two and possibly three separate PK offenses. Somehow, referee Hiroyoshi Takayama failed to see ANY of them. It was only after six minutes of VAR discussion and an on-field review that the PK was finally awarded, and dispatched by Daichi Hayashi in the 80th minute.

No doubt the Magpies will be happy just to take three points home from this contest, considering how many chances they squandered. But a win is a win, and for the time being Sagan is in the top half of the table.

Date: 
27 February, 2021
Attendance: 
4,721
Location: 
Hiratsuka (LemonGas) Stadium

  0

0 1H 0
0 2H 0

1  

 

 Scoring

Daichi Hayashi (80')
Shun Nakamura Cautions Keita Yamashita
Eduardo

 


 

  1 - 1

If you managed to read this far, you will surely get the impression that the writer was disappointed in the quality of play, this weekend. The fault lies not with the players, or even with the early start to the season, though these are factors. I think it is far more likely that the problem is practical (if human emotions can be called "practical"). Life in general has been whipped into turmoil over the past 12 months, and players (coaches, referees, and perhaps even announcers) find it hard to get back to business, when the world seems so topsy-turvey. 

This concerns the writer greatly, because I am expecting a lot from the J.League, this season. Sports -- and football in particular -- has tremendous potential to help heal damage to the Soul of a society. Perhaps no country on earth understands this as well as Japan. On April 8, 2011, the headline I published on the "Rising Sun News" website read: "Football Saves Japan". That same headline would appear in some form in just about every newspaper or website in the country (some probably before my own), but it did not become a catchphrase - or a statement of the actual facts - until after Nadeshiko Japan had vanquished the USA in the Women's World Cup, later that spring. A country that was literally swept into ruin by a dark tide of destruction, found the hope and the inspiration to rebuild not only homes, but *lives*.

There is something about football, and about sports in general, which uplifts the spirits. Sport also opens up a space to put "wins" and "losses" in perspective. When your entire society - if not you personally then at least acquaintances or family members - is subjected to the sort of random yet devastating kick in the teeth that Japan suffered on 3/11, and which the entire world seems to be experiencing under CoVid, the simplicity and beauty of sport has a way of easing the stress and generating optimism.

The only problem is that . . . well . . . athletes are human too. They are facing the same stresses and disruptions that the rest of us are, and must be struggling to focus properly on their "jobs" as athletes. You could see this in almost every match this weekend, but somehow the Sanfrecce-Vegalta contest surpassed the others in the sheer number of times that a clear-cut scoring opportunity led to nothing, because of a clumsy touch, a stray pass, or a simple failure to do the mental things that professional footballers are expected to do. It seems so clear that most are not yet ready -- mentally, perhaps even more than physically -- to be playing games that "matter. It was hard to watch this contest, at times, because the players obviously knew how bad they were playing, probably better than the fans did.

Some Sanfrecce supporters may dwell on the negatives, and gripe about how many times their players blew easy chances to put the contest out of reach, following Junior Santos' 33rd minute opener. Certainly, the Purple Archers dominated the contest even in the early stages. After Simao Mate's clumsy trip of Junior Santos (ruled a breakaway foul, though a bit tame to be really worthy of red), midway through the first half, it was a totally one-sidesd contest.  

But the final score line illustrates the real beauty of the sport. Vegalta Sendai struggled badly last season, and unless they can achieve dramatically better results, with little in the way of "new talent", they look like prime candidates for relegation. But the incoming coach is none other than Makoto Teguramori - the man who led Vegalta back from J2 the last time they slipped into J2 mediocrity. Teguramori also happens to be the man who helmed the club in that magical 2011 season. 

History books and Wikipediums will tell you that Vegalta did not win anything that year. But history lies. In 2011, Vegalta won the heart of an entire country with their determined, unflinching, untiring, unwavering, unyielding and sure-as-hell-un-quitting attitude to every game, every goal, every dash for the corner or lunging tackle. No matter how long the odds, the Golden Eagles of the early 20teens could never be counted out. That is one of the qualities that "Saved Japan". The sheer human drama of watching a small group of rank underdogs (both Vegalta and Nadeshiko) rise above difficult conditions helped inspire an entire country to do the same.

On first viewing (particularly after Vegalta were reduced to ten men) the ironwilled intensity of effort that Vegalta's players displayed in turning away one Hiroshima attack after another did not register as clearly. It seemed inevitable that a second goal would eventually arrive, and the desperate defensive stand would come to naught in the same way that Reysol's did, against Cerezo. But on watching a second time, and knowing how the improbable final chapter will play out, it is impossible to avoid a rush of inspiration, watching the Vegalta Ten throw their bodies about, refusing to just concede the inevitable.

But with less than 60 seconds on the clock, the score line still read 1-0, Vegalta had possession at midfield, and the Sanfrecce players were starting to look as jaded as a cat that has toyed with its mouse for a full afternoon, and is losing focus. The Sendai midfield moved the ball cautiously forward, as the clock ticked towards zero. Then with a sudden burst of speed, veteran Kunimitsu Sekiguchi (head swathed in bandages from an earlier bit of wild swashbuckling) cut across the middle and through a defensive gap.  The Hiroshima back line collapsed on him, but Sekiguchi fired the ball into the crowd, and trusted to the gods of fortune. After deflecting off one defender, the ball bounded slowly towards the far (left) post, where Shuhei Akasaki swept in to fire past a helpless keeper. The Sendai bench exploded, the players on the pitch piled atop Akasaki, and a small knot of travelling Vegalta fans lost their inhibitions, if not their minds, in wild celebration (yes - away fans are allowed in Hiroshima, and in many other "outlying" cities, though not yet in Kanto or Kansai)

It was just one more improbable victory for the Beautiful Game. Once you bask in the emotional shower of surprise that always seems to accompany that sort of late comeback, the pessimism drains away all by itself. Vegalta fans will certainly be glad to have their old gaffer back, as the omens surrounding coach Teguramori seem to be positive. On the overall balance of play, in this game, it looks like Vegalta will need every point, just to stay clear of the relegation scrap. But as the Yokohama Marinos fan club used to say (long before Nike stole the slogan): "Impossible is Nothing."

The J.League is back. En-J your visit. 

Date: 
27 February, 2021
Attendance: 
8,820
Location: 
Hioroshima Big Arch (Edion) Stadium

  1

1 1H 0
0 2H 0

Junior Santos (33')

 Scoring

Shuhei Akasaki (90')
  Sent off  Mate Simao

Hits: 555