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Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

Unsung heroes deserve spotlight


Gamba Osaka's Asian Champions League win may not be greeted with the same fanfare that heralded Urawa Reds' groundbreaking triumph in last year's edition, but then understated elegance has always been Gamba's style.

Andrew McKirdy

Urawa's victory over Iran's Sepahan last November marked the first time a Japanese club had won the continental title in its present incarnation, prompting an outpouring of pride and relief after years of underachievement.

That Urawa, the country's biggest and most aggressively marketed club, was the team to break the hoodoo meant the achievement was never likely to be played down, but Gamba deserves as much recognition after claiming the title with a 5-0 aggregate win over Adelaide United on Wednesday night.

Despite a huge catchment area, soccer has never enjoyed the popularity in the Kansai region that it has in other parts of the country, and limited attendances have undermined Gamba's attempts to keep pace with Urawa's financial power.

"Compared to our revenue, Urawa's earnings are huge because of their big fan base and massive stadium, which allows them to fix their ticket prices at a higher level," Gamba general manager Shiro Kuwahara complained recently.

Hefty income from benefactor Panasonic has nevertheless allowed Gamba to keep touch with the Saitama heavyweight, but it has been the work of the players and manager Akira Nishino that has really bridged the gap.

Gamba has its fair share of star names, but unassuming quality is its hallmark. If playmaker Yasuhito Endo is the team's sun, a magazine recently suggested, Tomokazu Myojin is its moon.

News photo
On the up: Gamba Osaka manager Akira Nishino lifts the Asian Champions League trophy on Wednesday. KYODO PHOTO

Former national team manager Philippe Troussier once said he would like his team to consist of eight Myojins and three flair players, but while the defensive midfielder played a crucial role for Troussier's Japan at the 2002 World Cup, the Frenchman's successors have not been as smitten.

Hideo Hashimoto has also not received the recognition his talents deserve, while Takahiro Futagawa, an impishly creative player with exceptional skill and vision, has only one cap to his name.

While others have ignored this low-key trio, Nishino has no doubts over their worth.

This year has by no means been one of unqualified success, however. Gamba looks unlikely to challenge for a second J. League title as the season comes to a close, and its ACL exertions alone cannot be held responsible.

The verve that has characterized Gamba's play in recent years has at times been replaced with jaded lethargy, and key signings such as striker Roni and defenders Mineiro and Hiroki Mizumoto, who moved on to Kyoto Sanga after only half a season, have failed to make their mark.

Gamba will need to dip its toe into the transfer market again this winter, but there are few managers better-equipped than Nishino to lead the charge.

The 53-year-old's record has been beyond reproach over the years, and Wednesday's ACL win stirred further curiosity as to how things would have turned out had Nishino been offered the national team job instead of Takeshi Okada this time last year.

The fact that Nishino is from Saitama means there will always be speculation he will do the unthinkable and defect to Urawa, but there is much for him to look forward to in Osaka.

"My dream is to have a football stadium for our club on English lines where fans are able to watch the game and the players up close," general manager Kuwahara said recently.

"The cost of building is very high in Japan but we have managed to secure half of the budget. To have our own new football stadium is crucial as we move into a new era."

If Gamba can harness the huge potential of an Osaka fan base, the stage will be set to match Urawa's success off the field. On the field, it has already been achieved.



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