The japanese game face

2009 was a disappointing year sports-wise for two of the nation’s biggest teams, one in baseball, the other in soccer.
In terms of the kick ‘n’ chase game, Urawa Reds of the J-League have long been seen as the most popular in the land. Games at their home stadium in Saitama are always a huge pull for both TV audiences and fans of opposing teams from around the nation; a trip to Saitama Stadium akin to a trip to the Wembley of old in London.
Sadly, after winning the J-League for the first time in 2006, and adding the Asian Champion’s League trophy to their cabinet a year later, the past couple of years have seen the Saitama giants falter. 2009 started in questionable form and the team was soon left reeling after losing a couple of relatively easy matches to lesser opposition.
The whole thing snowballed around the mid-season break, and entering the homestretch in October, the Reds were 10 points off the pace and the less than proud owners of a played 27, won just 12 record compared to a 26/15 record for then league leaders Kashima Antlers, the team that dominated the J-League for much of the late 90s.
Over in the hit ‘n’ run game meanwhile, the Hanshin Tigers struggled all through the season, but as is so often the case, never once wavered in terms of fan support.
Central League honors went the way of the Yomiuri Giants once again but in such a one horse race as the league has proven to be in recent years, it was all about the also-rans. This year Hanshin was in a battle to the bitter end with Tokyo Yakult Swallows after making up a large gap through the summer and early autumn. As is always the case, the Pacific League teams fought a much closer battle with Nippon Ham Fighters, Fukuoka Softbank and Rakuten Eagles the eventual winners of post season slots.
Tigers fans are known around the nation as being some of the most loyal in the game, with almost every game at Koshien Stadium down in Hyogo Prefecture a sea of yellow and black. Even at away games the numbers of fans donning something yellow, black or both usually outnumber the locals, and Tigers fans decked out in costumes that resemble those worn by ‘bosozoku’ biker gangs are not unusual, with yellow hair (read: true yellow and not blonde) an increasingly amusing phenomena and crowd puller when away from home.
As with the dedication of Urawa Reds fans in soccer, if only the Hanshin fans would once see past the ‘blind devotion to the cause’ concept, the pressure they bring to bear on their team for failing so successfully over the years might pay off in terms of silverware. Or then again…
Just what 2010 brings of course remains to be seen in both disciplines, but in as far as the Reds go, managerial changes are not an impossibility as they are currently on their fourth German coach in just five years. Whether or not they opt for another European head honcho is anyone’s guess. They should be looking at improving their midfield and towards giving the fans the performances they expect. When teams such as Niigata and Hiroshima are finishing above the Reds, something is wrong.
So, as is, the Manchester United wannabes (they wear an identical kit to the residents of Old Trafford over in the UK and the MUFC abbreviated form of their name is not a coincidence) of Asia need a clear out in the rank and file starting eleven. Too often, big ‘names’ dominate the team sheet when far from at the top of their game giving little opportunity for the young-bloods to come through.
Hanshin Tigers on the other hand are the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma. Winning just doesn’t seem to put their fans off, which might be one factor behind the lack of hunger this writer sees in their performances year in, year out with 2009 no exception.
Come late January and the start of pre-season camps, talk will turn to their being able to put together a run good enough to give them a shot at the title as it always does. Similar comments will be heard over in the Red’s own pre-season base.
Only the players of both teams can answer the call and influence that one, but with Yomiuri operating as usual in baseball by snapping up all the best and brightest in the land, and Chunichi Dragons, even Yakult Swallows looking more effective this year, 2010 could end up a lot closer than 2009. The same adage applies with Kashima getting into stride in the J-League and Gamba Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale regularly challenging for honors now, making 2010 the time for the big guns at Urawa to sound off, or fall silent.

Story by Mark Buckton
From J SELECT Magazine, December 2009