Winning is key if Ange Postecoglou is to make it big in Japan
Ange Postecoglou will need to get up to speed quickly in Japan, because the J. League is a competition unlike any other13 February 2018 | Mike Tuckerman
Here’s hoping Ange Postecoglou kept an eye on the Japanese Super Cup.
The annual season opener was won 3-2 by Cerezo Osaka over defending J. League champions Kawasaki Frontale in front of just under 42,000 fans at Saitama Stadium. Postecoglou’s first opponent as new Yokohama F. Marinos coach? Cerezo Osaka.
The former Socceroos tactician could hardly have asked for a more difficult introduction to Japanese football. Not only do F. Marinos travel to Osaka to take on last year’s Emperor’s and League Cup double winners Cerezo in their opening fixture, but four of their first five league games are away from home. And they don’t even play their first game at their usual Nissan Stadium home until Round 6 – in the Kanagawa Derby against Kawasaki Frontale.
Before then, Postecoglou faces several uncomfortable looking away fixtures, as the Tricolore get set to face Kashiwa Reysol, Urawa Reds and Shimizu S-Pulse in quick succession. Kashiwa Stadium and Nihondaira Stadium will be a sea of yellow and orange respectively for the visit of Postecoglou’s men, while Urawa Reds’ Saitama Stadium fortress remains the loudest venue in the J. League.
In the meantime, Postecoglou will get his first taste of hometown action against Sagan Tosu at Yokohama F. Marino’s decidedly small Mitsuzawa Stadium (pictured) – a compact open-air facility that barely holds 15,000 fans. Like many Japanese cities that hosted fixtures at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, F. Marinos split their home games between a modern World Cup stadium and a smaller boutique ground.
And it’s the size of the cavernous Nissan Stadium that could cause Postecoglou the most headaches. With a capacity of 72,000, it’s by far the J. League’s largest venue. But with F. Marinos averaging attendances of just under 25,000 last season, it means Postecoglou’s players are invariably greeted by a sea of empty seats at most home games.
Postecoglou’s first such game at Nissan Stadium is the derby against local rivals Kawasaki Frontale, for whom talisman Kengo Nakamura finally won the J. League last season after countless near misses for his only professional club. Postecoglou is charged with the task of bringing the good times back to Yokohama, but the loss of one of F. Marinos’ favourite sons Manabu Saito to Kawasaki hasn’t exactly filled Tricolore fans with confidence.
Yokohama F. Marinos may be one of Japan’s biggest clubs – even if the ‘F’ in their name deserves its own asterix – but it’s been a long barren spell since the Tricolore won back-to-back J. League titles in 2003 and 2004. They have only a 2013 Emperor’s Cup trophy to show for their recent efforts, from the same season they finished a solitary point behind league champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
That Emperor’s Cup win was followed by investment from the City Football Group, who took a stake in the club as minority shareholders. It’s their influence that has brought Postecoglou to Japan’s second largest city, and their global network of strategists should insulate Postecoglou from the vagaries of Japanese corporate culture that often plague foreign coaches in the J. League.
Postecoglou’s team have only recently returned from a training camp in the warm climes of Kyushu, where 39-year-old veteran Yuji ‘Bomber’ Nakazawa was installed as club captain. The former Japan skipper remains a ferocious leader on the pitch – when he plays – but elsewhere the Tricolore’s stocks look somewhat thin on the ground. They didn’t have a single player called up to Japan’s recent East Asian Championship squad – Kawasaki had five – while last year former club legend Shunsuke Nakamura decamped to Jubilo Iwata in a huff.
It means plenty of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Australian import Milos Degenek (pictured), much-travelled Portuguese attacker Hugo Vieira and Macedonian starlet David Babunski. Yet one of Postecoglou’s most important appointments undoubtedly occurred off the pitch. One-time A-League midfielder Naoki Imaya will act as Postecoglou’s translator during his time in Yokohama, and Imaya’s job to relay Postecoglou’s instructions to his players is a vital one.
Hailing from Melbourne, Postecoglou knows all about living in multi-sport cities – and amidst all his other duties, he’ll also do well to keep an eye on the fortunes of the city’s baseball sluggers, the Yokohama BayStars. After years in the doldrums, the BayStars reached the season-ending Japan Series last season with Nippon Professional Baseball legend Alex Ramirez at the helm. And they did so playing in front of big crowds, in a country where the football and baseball seasons run simultaneously throughout summer.
But if the essence of football is universal, then what will really make Postecoglou popular in Yokohama is simply winning. He may have been disappointed to see Cerezo Osaka win the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day – thereby claiming the final AFC Champions League place on offer – but in truth the lack of a continental campaign can only help Postecoglou’s domestic ambitions.
And he’ll need to win if he’s to impress his City Football Group backers. The J. League might be a step up in class to what he was used to in Australia, but then so too is the pressure.
Mike Tuckerman lived in Japan from 2006 to 2009.
j.league, yokohama marinos, ange postecoglou