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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

Big clubs' shortcomings taking shine off J. League championship race


On the face of it, a league table where just 10 points separated the top 13 teams at the halfway point of the season would suggest an exciting contest, but this year's J. League has been more infuriating than it has been enthralling.

Andrew McKirdy

Going into the weekend's games, Urawa Reds held a one-point advantage over closest challengers Kashima Antlers, with the rest of the field snapping at their heels and threatening to overtake them at any time.

But the fact that Reds had garnered just 32 points from their 17 games, including two draws and five defeats, deflates the notion that the situation is one of healthy competition.

This year's J. League has been so inconsistent that Nagoya Grampus, which made a blistering start to the season, went on to lose six times and was still within three points' striking distance of the top at the halfway mark.

If things carry on like this, this year's champion will be in danger of being branded the best of the worst of 2008.

Former Urawa Reds manager Guido Buchwald once said that the J. League would be the fifth-best in Europe if Japan was a European country, presumably behind England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

His point was not that Japanese teams are better than the likes of Lyon, PSV Eindhoven, Porto, or any other big club from leagues outside the top four, but that the overall quality of the J. League is of a higher standard. The gap between Urawa at the top and JEF United at the bottom is not as pronounced as the gulf between Celtic and Falkirk in Scotland.

Buchwald may have had a point, but is parity always such a good thing?

A league where any team is capable of beating another at any time may sound like heaven for those bored of Manchester United and Chelsea's dominance in England, but if there are no superior teams to provide flair and color, the competition soon becomes a gray morass of uniformity.

The big teams' failings this season have provided no end of amusement for fans of other sides. Every league has teams whose size and success inspires loathing and worship in equal measures, and the J. League is no different.

Giant-killing victories are part of the magic of soccer, but fans of the underdog should be careful what they wish for. Many cheered when France, Argentina and Portugal went crashing out of the 2002 World Cup in the first round, but the satisfaction was tempered somewhat by the realisation that Denmark, Sweden and the U.S. would take their places.

Upsets cannot be upsets if the teams are all evenly matched, and while it may not be to everyone's liking, what the J. League needs now is for the big guns to start firing.

For all Urawa Reds' success off the field, the Saitama club has won only one J. League title in its history. When success finally arrived in 2006, Urawa promptly bought Yuki Abe, one of the best players in the league who did not already wear a red shirt.

The stage looked set for a period of overwhelming dominance, but a late collapse at the end of the season handed the 2007 championship to Kashima Antlers. Reds strengthened further by signing Naohiro Takahara from Eintracht Frankfurt, but the striker has flopped so badly that he has lost his place in the national team and been dropped to the bench by Urawa manager Gert Engels. All teams make bad signings from time to time, but given the size the club has grown to — awash with cash and boasting the most supporters in the country — Reds should really be out of sight of many of the teams now chasing them.

Kashima, too, has performed beneath its potential. The Ibaraki club has neither Urawa's funds nor fanbase, but it does have a strong squad and the means to add to it, not least by putting its strong connections with Brazil to use. Gamba Osaka looks jaded compared to the vibrancy of previous years, and Kawasaki Frontale has been disappointing.

It may be no coincidence that the national team draws heavily from these clubs, and the likes of Abe and his Reds teammates Keita Suzuki and Marcus Tulio Tanaka have had very little time to rest other than to recuperate from injuries. Gamba and Antlers have also been involved in draining trips abroad to compete in the Asian Champions League. The effects of non-stop soccer are becoming painfully apparent.

But things have to be seen in perspective. For all the points the big teams have dropped so far this season, the top of the league standings still has a familiar look. Reds' fans have not been happy at the way their side has performed — and have not been slow to voice their displeasure — but being in first place at the halfway point is not to be sniffed at.

The J. League has produced many exciting, good-quality games this season, and there will be many more before this year's champion is decided. The fact that no one knows who that will be guarantees an interesting run-in to the campaign, but if the leading teams keep passing up the opportunities that come their way, the 2008 champion will be crowned winner by default.



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