Sanfrecce Hiroshima keep the host flame alive

P1040517QUIETLY, QUIETLY, the FIFA Club World Cup kicked-off in Yokohama’s impressive stadium (left) with Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima beating Auckland City in the play-off to see who went through to the last six. Only 19,000 people attended the game, which Sanfrecce won 2-0. Yusuke Minagawa and Tsukasa Shiotani scored the goals, one early on and the decisive second 20 minutes from time.

People ask why Japan is frequently chosen to host this annual event, which is still struggling to make any sort of wave of interest in Europe. Game of the People has a theory.

Since the competition became a yearly gig, it has been hosted in Japan (seven times), the United Arab Emirates (twice) and Morocco (twice). Aside from “spreading the love” and the possibility that sponsorship has been more readily available from those regions, it could just be that FIFA, realising the commercial benefits of having a host nation club to keep the competition bubbling, doesn’t want a significant club side to be playing “mine host”. In other words, a really strong host may steal the show. FIFA undoubtedly wants one of the winners of their confederations’ major competitions to come out on top. No danger of that happening in Japan, Morocco or the UAE.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima may be a benign force at this year’s Club World Cup, but they could well reach the last four. They face TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Osaka on December 13, with the winners facing Argentina’s River Plate.

Sanfrecce may find TP Mazembe a tougher proposition than the New Zealanders. Les Corbeaux (the Ravens) won the CAF Champions League for the third time in seven years in 2015, beating Algeria’s USM Alger in the two-legged final 4-1 on aggregate. They reached the final of the Club World Cup in 2010, losing to Inter Milan.

The Japanese are no fools, though, having won the J-League three times in four years. They secured the 2015 title (a new format for Japan, incidentally) by beating holders Gamba Osaka 4-3 on aggregate. The star man was 21 year-old Takuma Asano, who has been earmarked as a player who could become one of Japan’s greatest ever. Asano, who has already been capped by the “Samurai Blue” three times, scored the vital goal to clinch the J-League for Sanfrecce.

Another man to watch is Douglas, currently on loan from Tokushima Vortis. He was Sanfrecce’s top scorer in the league this season with 21 goals. Game of the People saw him in action last year in a J-League Cup game at Urawa.

Sanfrecce play at the Hiroshima Big Arch stadium, attracting around 17,000 people to its games. The club was formed in 1938 and has had a series of names throughout its history. It was originally founded as a company team, Toyo Kogyo Soccer Club. Later known as Mazda Sports, they became Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 1992. They have had some famous names involved on the coaching side: Wim Jansen, a member of the Dutch 1974 World Cup team; Stuart Baxter, the travelling Scot who managed all over the world; and Bill Foulkes, a member of the Manchester United 1968 European Cup winning team.

FIFA Club World Cup
December 13 games
Club America (Mexico) v Guangzhou Evergrande (China)
Sanfrecce Hiroshima (Japan) v TP Mazembe (Dem Rep of Congo)
(both in Osaka)
twitter: @gameofthepeople

The J-League and evolution

imageJapan were the first team to qualify for Brazil 2014, apart from the hosts of course. Reaching the World Cup finals is becoming a regular occurrence for Japan, it will be the fifth consecutive tournament they have taken part in, underlining that they are one of Asia’s top football nations.

Japan’s love of the game was boosted by their co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup, so much so that they want to do it again. With the world looking for an excuse to take the 2022 games away from Qatar, Japan have voiced their interest in stepping-in to provide a more palatable environment. Tokyo will be the venue for the 2020 Olympics, so there is some logic in another double-whammy of the type that will benefit Brazil this year and in 2016.

But Japanese football, which on TV looks like a cross between Disneyland and a Baseball audience, is not without its problems. Only recently, at Urawa Red Diamonds in Saitama, a banner was unfurled declaring that “Japanese only” fans were welcome at the stadium. This shocked Japan’s football authorities to the point where they forced Urawa to play their next home game behind closed doors. The banner was meant to discourage foreign fans from sitting in certain areas of the stadium. Urawa, rather naively, felt it was not racist in any way.

Racism and Urawa are no strangers, however. In 2010, the club was fined USD 50,000 after their fans hurled insults at foreign players on the opposing team.

And like many other countries, Japan now has a possible match-fixing scandal to contend with. When Sanfrecce Hiroshima, J-League champions for the past two seasons, recently met Kawasaki Frontale, unusual betting patterns were discovered. Like the racism, the J-League thought it was immune to such toxic influences.

It is especially important that Japan does not gain a reputation for racism at a time when the J-League is looking ambitiously beyond its shores. It has also become a destination for players eager to pick-up a big pay-day before they retire. Diego Forlan, one of the star players of the last World Cup, is the latest big name to fly east. He joined Cerezo Osaka after a long career with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Japanese clubs don’t just have their eyes on veteran talent, though, as they look to broaden their fan base beyond the Land of the Rising Sun.

The J-League is also looking to acquire pan-Asian appeal, notably in South East Asia, where the top Japanese clubs have started to trawl for new players. They are calling it “The Asia Project” and it includes a partnership with the Indonesian Federation.

With this in mind, there are high hopes that the performance of Indonesian forward Irfan Bachdim at Ventforet Kofu will be the first big success of the scheme. The last player to be touted as the poster-child for Project Asia was Vietnam’s Le Cong Vinh, but he left his club, Consadole Sapporo, because he was homesick.

Crowd issues and corruption may strike at the heart of the Japanese game, but as more people get interested, they are also symptoms of a sport in expansionist mode. It’s unlikely that Tokyo, Yokohama and Hiroshima will experience the sort of crowd problems that have plagued Europe for decades, but they would be wise to ensure that banners that echo the spirit of Apartheid are not wanted. The Japanese have faced, and overcome, far more daunting tasks.