“Sliding doors” may be an over-rated concept, but sometimes it makes you think. Think about how things could be different seen from another perspective, especially in a country like Japan, where football is young and pro-football is even younger. J. League has gifted us wonderful histories, but how could this league become if regional criteria would come into play?
We’ve always heard that Kansai and Tokyo metropolitan area are the strongest in this country (with the risk of overpopulation in these areas), but is this true also in football? Looking at which clubs won the title in the last years, you would say “no”: Hiroshima and Ibaraki Prefecture looked good. And a Saitama-based club brought home the continental trophy after being the last one to win it, a decade ago. But it would be the same with Prefecture-based squads?
So we came up with this little fantasy league, where every player is chosen due to his birthplace and so due to his prefecture. It was a strange game, but it led us to a different view of Japanese football. In every episode, we’ll try to visit Japan for what it is, a land with different landscapes and scenarios. We did it also to value everything that this nation can offer: we’re no travel guides, but we may add here and there some general tips for every prefecture, besides their football history until now.
A few rules:
- Every squad features from 11 to 23 players, depending on the depth of the Prefecture;
- Not every Prefecture has its own squad, since not everyone of them was able to feature the needed players to form a team;
- You will find many surprises.
So let’s go with episode no. 2, where we’ll talk about Aichi Prefecture. If you wanna read the previous episode about Ehime, here it is.
Located in the Chūbu region (the central region of Honshu island) and the key-part of the Tōkai region, Aichi Prefecture isn’t a big area of Japan (ranked 27th among all the prefectures), but is hugely populated (4th, just behind Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka) and then has a deep density (5th). Between the Hananoki and the Kakitsubata, Aichi rose with one of the fastest growth-rates in 2000s: this happened also because on the West side of the Prefecture, there’s Nagoya, the 3rd biggest city in Japan, yet not so much a protagonist when Japan is mentioned among foreigners. Companies like Denso and especially Toyota (there’s an homonymous city, formerly called Koromo until 1959) are located there, making Aichi a key-factor for the Japanese industry.
And the history in sports isn’t so different, because Nagoya features a club which won Japan Series 2007 (Chunichi Dragons), the true masters of futsal in Japan (Nagoya Oceans) and of course the local team, Nagoya Grampus. Despite featuring legends like manager Arsène Wenger and players Gary Lineker and Dragan Stojković, Grampus didn’t achieve that much in terms of success. Despite winning two Emperor’s Cup (1995 and ’99) and one Japanese Super Cup (1996), the chase to the title never went well. This until 2010, when the squad – coached by Dragan Stojković, who came back, this time on the bench – finally achieved the great run.
Nagoya Grampus didn’t face that luck after Stojković left: mild seasons, many managers and then the 2016 relegation. The immediate bounce back to J1 – through a suffered play-offs’ final – and the huge money spent under Yahiro Kazama will push the club back to glory? Aichi Prefecture would need it, since the other teams in football – like FC Maruyasu Okazaki or FC Kariya – are featuring respectively in JFL (4th tier) and Tōkai Adult Soccer League (5th division).
You would expect a big player featuring for such an important Prefecture in Japan. Yet, Aichi’s football sons are not exactly the most celebrated players of J. League. Just look in goal: we would have to pick between Junto Taguchi (currently at Albirex Niigata), Ryota Suzuki (today at Tokyo Verdy) and Toru Hasegawa, who played an excellent 2017 season at Tokushima Vortis, but he hasn’t feature in the whole 2018. We picked the last one (class ’88), probably the solidest option among the three possible choices.
In the backline, we could field Genta Miura (’95) as a right-back, since the Gamba-based defender can play on the flank. Then you could pick a couple like Kazuki Oiwa (’89) and Ryo Shinzato (’90) in the centre, while Nagoya Grampus’ Yukinara Sugawara (2000!) is a forced choice as a left-back. You could also choose Kosuke Shirai (’94), who is a ductile player and he can actually play as a left-back or right-midfielder.
To cover the defence, you could pick two unsung, but solid players. From one side you Takayuki Seto (‘86), who chose a strange path for his career. But in the end, it worked: after being in Brazil and playing indoor football in his youth, Seto grew in Romania and dedicated his efforts to Astra Giurgiu, with a little loan-parenthesis to Osmanlıspor. Alongside him, Ryota Isomura (‘91), who recently signed for V-Varen Nagasaki after a small period at Albirex Niigata and mostly a huge part of life spent at Nagoya Grampus, the club which launched him.
On the flanks, we find another Grampus-product like Koki Sugimori (‘97), who’s finding his way through a loan to Machida Zelvia. On the left, instead, there’s probably the biggest regret of Japanese football in the last decade. We heard a lot about Ryo Miyaichi (still a ’92), but the premises didn’t match reality. Was his fault? I’d say no, because injuries never let him be free of expressing his football, made of a speeding acceleration (John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic must have lived some nightmares) and really great expectations when he signed for Arsenal in 2011. We would probably wait him to feature in the 2014 World Cup squad. Or 2018. Instead, he’s still haunted by injuries at St. Pauli and he played just two games with Japan under Alberto Zaccheroni.
In front, you could pick Sho Ito after a hat-trick against Vegalta Sendai? No, you can’t. But you can still see a great couple for Aichi Prefecture’s attack. You have a Japanese footballer on the rise like Takuma Nishimura (’96), who’s having a great year with Vegalta Sendai. The breakout season for a solid talent, who found space and the right club to shine. Alongside him, there’s a non-Japanese, since Jong Tae-se (’84) has internationally played for North Korea and featured in a World Cup game, despite being born in Japan and his parents having South Korean citizenship. But most of all, the striker came back to Japan in 2015 after a German adventure (between Bochum and Köln) and a period in South Korea. Shimizu S-Pulse are still thanking him for the many goals he scored in the last three years.