2009-11-28 Fagiano Okayama 0-1 Ventforet Kofu
Posted by stefanole on 2009/12/15
Although I have been planning on going to see Fagiano play for a while now, their poor performances and odd scheduling habits (Sunday evening football, anyone?) have meant that we’ve always been busy doing other things. Once I found out that there would be a rugby Top League game the next day though, we made sure to keep the dates free for a weekend watching two of Football’s various codes in action.
The timing was perfect, since this was Fagiano’s last home game of the season, their first in the J-League. Unfortunately, somewhere between their promotion from the Japan Football League and their début in the professional J. League, someone at the club decided to change the colours of the home strip. This might sound trivial, but when a team elects to play in shocking hot pink, and has snack bars selling “Fagi Foods”, it gives you the feeling that somehow the Universe is in balance. So I was very disappointed to see that the strip has been toned down for the 2009 season, into a maroon and dark blue combination (with gold letters on the back, which as far as Claire is concerned is a stroke of genius). My disappointment was not sufficient to stop me from adding a Fagiano t-shirt to my growing J. League collection, however.
Predictably, the club made an effort to try to pull in the fans and celebrate their evolution into a professional team. While these efforts were underwhelming, they did follow the traditional three-pronged pattern of attack: First was the release of a limited edition (1,000) plush toy of Fagi-kun, the Okayama pheasant mascot (for the uninitiated, Fagiano means “pheasant” in Italian). Second was the recruitment of 50 students to administer free face-painting and bequeath washable Fagiano tattoos on unsuspecting members of the public (yours truly included). Finally, Okayama pulled out all the stops by announcing that team manager TEZUKA Satoshi would be the beneficiary of a retirement ceremony at the end of the game. Hardly thrilling stuff, but I couldn’t expect too much of a club that has slipped back onto the bottom of J2, after squeezing into the J-League on the last day of the 2008 season.
Sarcasm aside, the match was important in the context of the race for promotion to J1, as Kofu desperately tried to claw back some of the ground lost to Shonan Bellmare. Ventforet lost their head-to-head clash with Bellmare last week, which left them needing to overturn a three-point deficit with only two games to go. Also playing on their minds will have been the fact that Kofu had not beaten (or even scored against) Okayama until this game, their previous encounters this season being a goalless draw and a surprise 0-2 victory for Fagiano in Kofu.
Fagiano on the other hand went into the game relatively stress-free, as there will be no relegation from J2 at least until the division reaches 22 teams (there are 18 currently, and only Giravanz Kitakyushu will promote from the JFL for next season, so Fagiano will be safe at the end of the 2010 season also). The only pressure the players would have felt, other than a desire to avoid the ignominy of finishing bottom, would have been a wish to put in a good performance for their manager’s final game in charge.
The character of the game was the predictable result of these differences in motivation. Ventforet seemed very nervous, and were probably keen to perform in front of the impressive travelling support that had made its way down from Yamanashi-ken (Chubu). The contrast with the relaxed Fagiano was marked, but there was still an obvious gap in quality as Kofu looked dangerous on the counter-attack, with pacy Brazilian forward Maranhão in particular looking good going forward. Still, Fagiano had what looked like a good shout for a penalty turned down after half-an-hour, as AOKI Kota was bundled over in the box (an incident which was missing from the television highlights, which in Japan means it was probably a penalty).
As the second half started, myself and Claire talked about how the match was going, and I said I was hopeful about Fagiano’s chances of coming away with another surprise victory. They did not look particularly sharp with their attacks, but they were moving the ball around reasonably well. Ventforet had failed to control the game as they should have, as the team with the best away record in J2. But I was concerned about Kofu’s extra quality up front, and although Claire pointed out their complete lack of momentum and cohesion, I was afraid that they would steal the game with a lucky break or better finishing. In the end, they did it with both.
The only goal of the game came just after the hour, and was due to the naivety of the Okayama defence just as much as it was Kofu’s superior attack. The offside trap failed to capture Ventforet’s MATSUHASHI Masaru after the ball was lumped forward by a Kofu defender. But rather than chase him down and remove the opportunity of a one-on-one with MAGO Hidenori in the Fagiano goal, the Okayama defence mostly opted to stand still with their arms in the air. Once I saw that the defence was more interested in appealing in vain for an offside flag, I knew that the home team were in trouble, and Matsuhashi did not disappoint.
Although the rest of the match was a lot more interesting than the first half (something which was not entirely unexpected due to my previous experience with Japanese football at this level), it did not produce any more goals. Kofu had a header scrambled off the line that would have wrapped the game up, but Okayama also had a goal disallowed for offside. TAKEDA Hideaki scored from MIKI Ryota’s knock-down, but replays showed that Miki was just inches offside.
The Kofu players seemed more relieved than anything else after the final whistle, and it would seem that they are really feeling the pressure of the fight for the last promotion place. The same must be true for their rivals Shonan Bellmare, as they could only draw 0-0 at home to Thespa Kusatsu.
As for Fagiano, the result was a shame because the team looks like it has some decent young players. In fact, the entire 27-man squad only has two players over the age of 27, and the average age of the starting XI was just 24. Local-boy and midfielder SENOO Ryusuke caught my eye with some good control, and seemed to have a positive attacking attitude. He was substituted late on, probably in recognition of his hard work. Also recognised for his good game was goalkeeper MAGO Hidenori, who according to Japanese-language J-League site J’s Goal, was the best goalkeeper of the round in J2.
The stand-out player for me though was Okayama’s captain and striker, KIYAMA Kohei. Kiyama plays the game with the maturity and leadership of a player at the peak of his career, so I was very surprised to discover that he is only 21 years old. Even more surprising is that the 2009 season is his third for Fagiano, and that he came to Okayama while they were still in the Chugoku League (on the fourth step in the national pyramid). He was awarded the Rookie of the Year award for his performance in the JFL last year (the third step, a semi-professional league below J2), and with his 18 goals was instrumental in securing Okayama’s promotion to the J-League. It was disappointing then to find out that Kiyama is only on loan from Tokyo Verdy, after having come through their famously productive youth system from the age of 11.
This unusual arrangement may be explained by the fact that Fagiano’s chairman, KIMURA Masaaki, is an alumnus of the prestigious Tokyo University and Goldman Sachs, and as such may have the personal connections to secure such a favourable long-term loan deal. Indeed, rumours that the old boys’ network was giving Fagiano a helping hand up the football ladder first surfaced in 2007, when the club became the only team ever to be granted J. League Associate Membership before having reached the JFL (Associate Membership is a requirement for any team wishing to promote to the J. League, since league position is only one of the requirements for promotion).
The postscript to this game does not read particularly well for either team. Fagiano confirmed their bottom finish on the final day, after losing away at Kataller Toyama. Ventforet also just missed out on a return to J1, as they were pipped to third place by a single point. Rivals Shonan Bellmare came from behind to beat Mito Hollyhock 3-2, and so secure the win they needed to guarantee a return to J1 after a ten-year absence.
As for the future, Fagiano are continuing to put their faith in young players, and I have heard that they will be signing two graduates of Hiroshima Kannon high school in time for next season (Kannon are this year’s winners of the Hiroshima prefectural tournament after beating Minami in the final, and will go on to contest the national tournament in the coming weeks). They will certainly not be out of place at Fagiano, as the starting lineup featured two previous students of Hiroshima Minami HS. And with Sanfrecce Hiroshima continuing to produce talented footballers, the Chugoku region provides good opportunities for aspiring young players.
If the club can now start to attract more experienced players to compliment the talented youngsters already at the club, then Fagiano may be able to mature under Kimura’s leadership. Hopefully, his new manager will have the contacts and the skills to mould a successful team. As it is, this game and the season as a whole, would seem to indicate that the youth-only approach is not one that will bring the club success.