Lords of the Transfers – The Company of Signings

Given the timetables of the season, Winter is always a particular frame for Japanese football fans. It’s time to discover new teams, scour all the rosters to find old friends and trying to guess who’s gonna be a bargain and who’s gonna disappoint everyone (we all had our first romances, we all had our disappointments).

Of course, this has become easier throughout the last decade, when Internet exploded in its full power and expanded the possibilities of many fans to discover more about Japan and the moves in the Winter transfer market. But the technological empowerment wouldn’t be enough to get you there; what you might need are devoted fans, who then turned themselves into sort of gatekeepers for all your info.

Especially transfers-wise, three figures have emerged in the recent years. Two are German and work on Transfermarkt; one is Italian and his weapon is an Excel spreadsheet. This might sound comical at first, but their contribution has been crucial for all J. League fans to know more about the upcoming moves, the returns, the goodbyes and every possible move made by all clubs – pro and amateurs – during the last Winter transfer market.

J. League Regista wanted to understand more about how these data were gathered, why they did this work in the first place and what’s their motivation behind this huge commitment. Since their efforts are shining once again on Twitter and on the Internet in general, we thought of asking them some questions and understand why the sacred flame of this methodical spirit harbors their souls.

Transfers time? Yeah!

1) You follow Japanese football with great passion, but keeping account of all transfers is another matter: how and why did you start this?

Stefan – During the early 2010s, I did a lot of work in Wikipedia’s football department trying to keep a couple of leagues up to date; first in the English version, then in the German one. However, as this was quite time-consuming while not allowing for too much (editorial) detail, I was looking for a software system with more automated processes and information. Transfermarkt offered me this system, so I sent my first corrections in late 2016. And before I knew, Tobias asked me to handle the transfers of the pro clubs.

The formal addition as a data admin for Japan happened a couple of weeks later; as J1 to J3 were already taken, I volunteered to specialize on the then abandoned JFL, with the known effects. *wink*

The idea to break JFL news on Twitter, however, was born out of a relatively spontaneous mood at the beginning of last season, just for my own (laughs). By the end of the season, though, the number of followers suddenly began to ascend and went “through the roof” at the point Michael Master began to retweet my content.

Michael – I think I’ve started to update the transfer news with the proceeding I’m currently using from 2016, which is composed by a mix of tweets and an always updated-Excel sheet, available through Google. It started by accident, just like I think it happened to many to fill the lack of games. Obviously, this happened also due to my personal passion, finding a way to make it grow also through the pause between seasons.

Tobias – I started following the Samurai Blue during the 2002 World Cup, but I wasn’t too aware about the J. League until I’ve attended my first game in 2008, in Suita. It took me three more years to actually invest time on reading more about the league and the teams: I found a great place to discuss the league in German in the Transfermarkt dedicated forums.

In 2014, I helped keeping the Japanese league and teams up to date – a volunteer job known as a “data scout” for Transfermarkt –, where I, first, focused on the newly founded J3 League, gradually inheriting the J2 and J1 League with the departure of other data scouts. With the help of Stefan, we’ve been taking care of the league transfers since 2017 more accurately.

Before that, the work was quite crude and we updated the squads ahead of each season with all the transfers dated to January 1st or July 1st, because we didn’t have time to check all the team pages every day. The more we researched on Japanese football throughout the year, the more sources we found. Like us, some Japanese pages developed over time (e.g. Football-Lab.jp, J’s Goal) and we stumbled upon other websites just by chance (jslganbare.altervista.org; Soccer-db; Atwiki/Taronja), while helping us improve the data base even further. In these days, with the transfer ticker of J’sgoal where they collect every transfer, we now can provide transfer dates on the day with the chance of having a lot more data to the player than many other sites.

This kind of scratches the “why” I like to do this. With every match day, every match report, every linked player profile or transfer, the data base grows and becomes more valuable to every user who is interested in Japanese football. To find a player profile that even Japanese pages lost track of and combine their knowledge with the inherited information of those Transfermarkt profiles to a certain degree is fun. I hope people will find the information as useful as I loved the whole process of gathering all the data.

2) Someone could say that precision comes with more information and possibilities. You helped many fans having more English-related info about Japanese football, but did you in the end find yourself being more informed about Japanese football by updating the transfers in the different divisions?

Stefan Well, yes and no. Yes, because I learned a lot about the way the Japanese clubs do their business: standard contract lengths for high-school players, rolling yearly contracts for most of the senior players, starting the season in February, JFA Designated Players, breeding-type loans for U-23 players, etc.

And no, because it is kind of hard to keep track of every club during the off-season, especially during the time between the end of the J2 regular season and mid-January. For example, I cannot name more than a couple of players on the current Albirex roster despite the Swans are among my favorites. Hopefully, this kind of gaps are gone by the time #JPred2020 starts. 😀

Michael – In the end, I think it’s exactly the opposite: through the fact that I’m following Japanese football during the season, this brings more info to me and leads to having a better preparation about the motivations why certain transfers happen in the first place. However, the transfer market itself can be a source of info about single players, especially foreigners who just arrived into the league. Besides, staying updated by acting myself on the info helps me memorizing all the moves and getting prepared to the upcoming season.

Tobias – I guess the amount of info makes it almost impossible to really keep track of everything, but in the end it’s always fun to find a player whose name you have read some years ago when he transferred from Team A to Team B, to see a player make a move for Europe or somebody who returns to Japan after having featured in minor leagues worldwide for several years.

When I started learning about the J. League, I wanted to get to know players like Shinji Kagawa or Shinji Okazaki way before they make a move to Europe. Nowadays I have the reverse problem, by having so much basic knowledge about players that probably will never feature in the Bundesliga or other European competitions. Yet the basic approach to maintain four divisions and lower league teams for the Regional League Champions League or Emperor’s Cup, the historic J.League data, Japan Soccer League and the history of the Emperor’s Cup all updated hinders my personal expertise even on those teams I favor.

3) Which is the most fascinating element about Japanese transfer market for you?

Stefan – There are two elements. First, the way how especially the lower pro teams manage every year to build mostly competitive squads despite sometimes exchanging their whole group of players (Exhibit A: Thespakusatsu before the 2019 season) or heavily depending on loans. Secondly, the large numbers of Brazilians which somehow find their way into the top leagues.

Michael – Waltz of goalkeepers? I’m joking. Surely, I appreciate more the pitch time, although it may seem the contrary, given how much effort I’m putting on the update of the transfer news. When the league starts, I usually spend less time on Twitter because I’m following several games even on delay during the week, so to avoid spoilers I’m accessing the SNS only between Thursdays and Fridays, at least in the Home section.

In the Winter, I can hang around on Twitter much more time than during the season, also for keeping contact with other Japanese football followers. What’s fascinating is the will to understand more about a certain transfer, how a player will behave with the new team, both to see this happening esthetically (by the meikan) and then seeing him performing on the pitch, evaluating how he will fit into the new system. What will he bring to his new team-mates? This is really interesting.

Tobias – The Japanese transfer market is a special one, as most players run on annual contracts and basically will never generate a transfer fee (which kind of hinders their value raise on the Transfermarkt site). Yet the market is shuttered from an outside view, since Japanese media don’t give any info on contract length or paid transfer fees, which makes transfers like Noriaki Fujimoto to Vissel Kobe very special for us, as we learned about a domestic transfer fee which is seldom.

Also you have transfers that makes on the outer world no sense at all, yet here we are with Peter Utaka – who was loaned by Sanfrecce Hiroshima from Shimizu S-Pulse and then had a good season – was transferred (maybe even bought?) the next year, just to be immediately loaned to FC Tokyo. Or the other young players whose contracts are extended annually while being loaned to a different team every year.

4) The best and worst transfer in Japanese football you’ve ever taken notice of.

Stefan – Hm, that is a hard question. The best transfer probably has been Andres Iniesta, who raised Vissel’s game immediately by a mile. If only Mikitani would have more patience with his kantoku and try to balance his spending sprees a bit more (less offensive-heavy)… The worst, at least of the last decade… Diego Forlan. Picture-perfect example how a team orbiting around a single star can plunge deeply.

Michael – Since I’ve been making the updates, which is 2016… the best? Tough answer to give. In recent years, certainly some signings have gone under the radar, but they’ve been really solid (just think about Marcos Junior and Serginho, or Leonardo and his impact in the lower leagues). That’s solid scouting.

About the worst ones, I try to forget them in a bit if the name doesn’t ring me a bell immediately, but I wouldn’t wish the Galovic and Brucic of the world to anyone who loves a Japanese club. I took some foreigners as an example because in their ranks it’s pretty clear who performs correctly and who lets down everyone.

Tobias – There have been several bad transfers in recent years, even though it is difficult to qualify one as the worst, as they may be bad for different reasons. Lukas Podolski is IMHO down there among the worst transfers. With his move to Kobe, Vissel planned something big, yet his inability to adapt to the Japanese culture made it impossible to rely on him as much as you’d think for a player of his name.

The same happened wth Fernando Torres: even though Sagan Tosu searched for so long for this type of transfer, this has almost been disastrous for the club’s fortune. From a player perspective, Kazaki Nakagawa to Yokohama F. Marinos was a dreadful transfer choice. The chance to move to a J1 side for a young and promising player must be appealing, yet he lost his spot at FC Ryukyu to now move back to J2 with Kyoto Sanga,  where he might fight for promotion, but has to work much harder for a starting spot within a newly built team.

Yosuke Ideguchi to Leeds United was also one step back in his career; as I said though, all of them are bad for different reasons. As you noticed, all those moves are more recent transfers. The reason for that is my more basic oversight on Japanese football so I hardly remember transfers from several years or decades back. But hey, that’s what the database is for, right?

The best transfer in recent years in my opinion was Leonardo to Gainare Tottori. Whoever found him at Santos B and lured him to move to J3 League deserves a raise (within Gainare’s small financial boundaries), as Tottori in hindsight shopped two shelves above its head.

5) The best and worst transfer in Japanese football you’ve ever taken notice of in this session.

Stefan – Best transfer in this window? Clearly Leonardo to Urawa Red Diamonds: they finally seem to have a solid guy aside from Shinzo Koroki, who knows where the goals are located. I mean, the guy provided a spark for both Gainare in 2018 and Albirex in 2019. As for the worst transfer… good question, only time will tell. Perhaps the unexpected change of names in Suzuka (Unlimited → Point Getters).

Michael – As far as we’re concerned for this season, some clubs seemed to have moved properly on the transfer market with clear choices: Kashima Antlers opted to strengthen their defensive line, Kyoto Sanga instead tried to balance all the big signings, while Kashiwa Reysol have expanded their options in the roster. About the single players, I’m happy to see Hidetoshi Miyuki playing in J1; the worst move might be the move of Douglas to Vissel, since S-Pulse are losing a key-member.

Tobias – The worst might be Ado Onaiwu to Yokohama F. Marinos from Urawa Red Diamonds’ perspective. It is more than obvious Urawa offensive line needs a revival and Onaiwu showed great potential with both Renofa Yamaguchi and Oita Trinita in the last two seasons. If it wasn’t for Leonardo’s move to Saitama, this loss would’ve been not only unnecessary, but imbecile. About the best transfers, I have three candidates up to now (Tobias gave his opinion on January 20th): 1) Tarik Elyounoussi to Shonan Bellmare; 2) Douglas to Vissel Kobe; 3) Daiki Sugioka to Kashima Antlers.

6) This is more a general question, but still… do you think there’s something Japanese football could improve in terms of transfer market? And if so, which element would that be?

Stefan – Yes, there is indeed an element. The secrecy around contract lengths and especially transfer fees by both the clubs and Japanese media is annoying at times. In general, it’d be great if everybody involved would be a bit more open on the subject, at least in terms of communicating the length.

Both aspects usually only seep through when non-Japanese media report those on compatriots joining a J. League club or, sometimes, when player agents provide the data to Transfermarkt. However, I also understand that such a cultural change needs to be embraced by the involved parties and it will take time to be fully implemented.

Michael – The aspects which could hugely improve through the market are the presence of longer contracts and a possible update by the club about the eventual move (length in the contracts never get a mention in press releases). Through contracts of this type, maybe they will generate and improve other factors: above all, more power by clubs themselves on the players’ agents.

Tobias – Apart from the beneficial effect on the player, I assume multi-year contracts might be an improvement for their assets. You see how some players – like Takehiro Tomiyasu, who was sold for 800k € by Avispa Fukuoka and sold for 9M. € from St. Truiden to Bologna. Or Daichi Kamada, who was bought for 1.6M € by Eintracht Frankfurt and now has an estimated worth of 10M € on transfermarkt.com – had a lesser value and then exploded.

I won’t say that any Japanese player might reach those heights, especially since their cheap transfer fees for many Japanese players might be their best shot for a move to Europe, yet multi-year contracts might help bring money into the Japanese market and even out the fact that almost no foreign player accepts a one-year contract without compensation.

Last but not least, for our hobby and for the sake of the fans discussing the league, releasing some information on player contracts might be a fun thing to do.

We can’t thank enough the three people in questions, but we strongly suggest you to give them a follow on Twitter and to please follow their work, because it’s amazing and full a passion:

We all hope they’ll be able to keep their solid work going on. Please, keep yourselves around for 2020 season. Soon new special will drop on Regista to present the upcoming year ahead of us!

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