In a sort of wasting time.interesting research kind of deal, I decided to search on Youtube (it is great, isn’t it?) to find a random match from the annals of the J.League, and compare it with today’s action.

Very luckily for me I stumbled upon a Mitsuzawa matchup between Yokohama Marinos (NOTE – not F.Marinos…) vs Urawa Reds Diamonds. As I watched the game unfold, I took notes about things that interested me and things that I thought could be compared with the game as it is today.

For presentation purposes, here is the game itself:

 

Pre-game

Yikes! Is that Matsuki on the commentators list? I think it is, you know. For the uninitiated, Yasutaro Matsuki is the football commentator you want to be, but rules for impartiality prevent you from becoming. These days, you can hear him mostly when Japan (at various) age levels are playing – and for the vast majority of the game he acts as the unofficial cheerleader. He appeals for penalties, he appeals for fouls, he criticizes the ref when he gives a decision against Japan and he celebrates like crazy when Japan score. He’s not impartial, that is my main point.

It seems, according to the pre-match graphic, that Urawa came into this game in a good run of form. In matchday 20 they spanked seven past a hapless Kashiwa Reysol, while they beat Fukuoka on penalties in matchday 21 – yes, back in those days they weren’t allowed to have draws.

The teams

For current J.League fans, a recognizable face appears in the centre of the Yokohama defence in the shape of Masami Ihara who is, of course, the current manager of J1 side Avispa Fukuoka. Also in the team is his fellow 1995 J.League Team of the Year-er Masaharu Suzuki. According to the team graphic, they’ll line up in 3-2-3-2 formation. We’ll see how that plays out.

For the visitors, Guido Buchwald is at the centre of their defence, while they can also call upon the services of Japanese international Masayuki Okano. Urawa must do without 1995 golden boot winner Masahiro Fukuda, out through injury.

The location

The setting for this game is the Mitsuzawa ground in Yokohama. Modern J.League fans will be used to seeing F.Marinos play at the cavernous Nissan stadium, but at the time this match is being played, Nissan Stadium was still under construction and wouldn’t be ready for another year or so.

Lots of “purists” like Mitsuzawa anyway, because of the lack of a running track surrounding the pitch and the compactness of stadium. When it is full, it can give a very good atmosphere. These days (as in 2016) Yokohama FC are the main tenants and they very rarely get anything near approaching a full house.

Kick off

So, we have a French referee – Bernard Salle – in charge of today’s game. The appointment of foreign referees to J.League games is still a practice that happens in 2016. Most recently, I can think of an Australian referee in J2 league between FC Gifu and V-Varen Nagasaki. In 2016 it is done as an exchange programme between the J.League and Australia’s A-League, although judging by the comments that supporters in both countries posit, neither group are really enamoured with the project.

Salle’s resume tells me that in 1996, he took charge of 15 J1 second stage games and only brandished one red card. Can you imagine a referee these days averaging that? It is a bit of a stretch. It will be interesting to see how he handles this game.

After kick-off, the first thing I’ve noticed is the sound. The is the now usual wonderful display of flags & banners from both sets of supporters, but the sound surprises me. Almost immediately Yokohama go on the attack and as soon as the ball reaches somewhere close to the Urawa penalty area, the sound of chanting is almost drowned out by more of a shrill – the sound of a group of teenage girls screaming (a sound reminiscent a group of girls greeting the latest flavour of the month boy band). That isn’t to say it doesn’t happen in 2016 – it does. I remember watching a game between FC Gifu & Cerezo Osaka where there was a large contingent of female supporters for Cerezo – somewhat clumsily dubbed Cere-Jo’s (‘Jo’ being the Japanese word for woman) by the media in Japan who, rather like Donald Trump, never miss a chance to brand something/someone. But there wasn’t the same sort of high pitched sound like the one from Mitsuzawa.

Another thing that slightly takes me off guard is that fact that all of the players seem to be wearing black coloured football boots. Puma King, Adidas Beckenbauer, Nike Tiempo – all of the classics are being repped. It is very much a contrast to the modern game, where black boots are the exception. I think the first time I saw someone wearing “different” coloured boots was when I watched a Celtic game and Paolo di Canio was wearing a pair of white boots. I always thought that people who wore white boots looked like they were running flat-footed. People in the UK (where I grew up) thought players that wore white (or other colours) boots were there to be taken down a peg or two – they were instantly on the “let him know you’re there” tackle list.

But one thing that is colourful is the Yokohama Marinos goalkeeper shirt. In the early days of the J.League, kits were about as colourful as they come and even though now they have been toned down a bit (although you can still find the bright colours of orange & yellow pretty prevalent) it was good to see Marinos rocking a multi-coloured version.

As for the game itself, Urawa took the lead early one thanks to a Guido Buchwald penalty, given after Ihara had brought down a Reds forward in the box. Buchwald, like most German spot-kick takers, made no mistake when blasted the ball high into the net.

Urawa started the game looking content to play long balls through/over the top of the Yokohama defence, and Ihara & company struggled to deal with it. In fact, in general there seemed to be quite a lot of punting from the goalkeepers and less of defenders picking the ball up and playing from the back. The current incarnation of Urawa Reds wouldn’t do it nearly half as much. Shusaku Nishikawa doesn’t really believe in kicking the ball away, he believes in either building from the back or firing off seemingly laser guided long passes to his forwards. The great Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel used to unleash unreal throws that started attacks during his days at Manchester United, but I think the “thing” of a ball-playing goalkeeper is a relatively recent injection into the game. It is something that I’ve noticed develop, particularly in Japan, over the last seven or eight years, and lots of time is spent on distribution in training and pre-game warm ups.

Urawa managed to hold on to that 1-0 lead for the remainder of the game to make it five wins from six. Truth be told, they were the better team during this game and could’ve won it more comfortably had Ihara’s deflection not cannoned off the crossbar in the first half, or if Oshiba hadn’t blazed a volley over from close range in the second half.

That isn’t to say Marinos didn’t miss chances either. Noda’s free header towards the end kind of summing up their off-kilter performance, although they probably felt unlucky that a header as the game mnoved into additional was cleared off the line, with Urawa defender Iwase not really knowing a lot about it.

Full time – Yokohama Marinos 0-1 Urawa Red Diamonds

So, what can we take from the game? Well, I for one, am pretty jealous of that atmosphere. I’ve only ever been to Japan national team games at Nissan Stadium, so I can’t comment on what the atmosphere is like at F.Marinos home games these days, but I’d be willing to put my neck out and say that having 15,000 packed into Mitsuzawa provides far more atmosphere than 30,000 in Nissan Stadium. BUT….it would only generate half as much money, which is what it is all about for certain people in the game.

Also, look at who Urawa Reds have in the centre of their defence – Guido Buchwald. West German, World Cup winning, Bundesliga winning central defender. True, he was in his mid-thirties when he came to Japan, but what I wouldn’t give to see a truly top defender plying his trade in the J.League these days.

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Japan doesn’t really produce high caliber centre backs, and China seems to sweeping up the big names that are willing to move to the far east. It will probably remain a pipe dream unless some of the new TV money is spent wisely by the clubs, and if the central defensive position becomes “sexy” again. There are some decent defenders in J1 – Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda, Takuya Iwanami to name three – but no-one that convinces me they will be a rock that Japan can rely upon for years to come.

Certain things in Japan haven’t changed that much since 1996 – now, much like 1996, the economy still suffers from deflation and the old puzzle of how to make consumers part with their money when consumers are convinced that things will just continue to get cheaper. Stimulus packages from the government of the time didn’t really change much (although in 1997 the economic forecast did pick up – but that was to be a short lived affair). Men still seem to spend a lot of time & money on post work drinks, much to the chargrin of their spouse/significant others, although to be fair, it seems like there is equal representation in the bars & izakayas on Friday & Saturday nights these days.

Certain social & cultural things have changed for the better – now there are more women represented in the higher echelons of business & government; childcare, while still in need of improvement is getting increasingly better. The Shinkansen network of bullet trains now cover almost the entire country – and they run almost exactly to the second of their schedules.

The Asian football landscape has changed significantly since those mid-90’s days. Now, China’s CSL can outbid any Japanese team when it comes to big name talent (not just Japanese teams, but seemingly any team on the planet), and the K-League is a better league when we look at continental competition.

The game in Japan has also moved on a lot since 1996, but Urawa v Marinos is still a marquee fixture between two “brand name” clubs in Japan. People still look forward to this game, and it still has its sprinkling of stars – although none of the caliber of Buchwald. Perhaps one of these teams will aggressively pursue a big name player with DAZN money (I’m yet to be convinced that ALL of the money will appear) but for now we should content ourselves with the fact, in Japan at least, Urawa Reds & Yokohama F.Marinos are still trading blows 20 years on. And long may it continue.

 

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