Text by “Eijinho” Yoshizaki
This debate seems to rear its head every year.
The Japanese football scene comes to life in February, with teams preparing for the looming Asian Champions League (ACL) and the start of the J League on 7 March. This year’s inaugural ACL
match will be between Kashiwa Reysol and Chonburi FC (Thailand). Kashiwa
managed a fourth-placed finish in the league last season and will play Chonburi
at home, with things getting even more serious from the 24th and 25th
of the following week.
Last season’s third-placed team:
Kashima Antlers will face reigning ACL champions Western Sidney (Australia). A
match so important that Kashima won’t be able to rely on the excuse of it still
being Japanese pre-season.
It also looks likely that we’ll
have a few Japan vs Korea matches before the J League has even kicked off. Two
of Japan and Korea’s titans—Urawa Reds (second place last season) and Suwon
Samsung Bluewings will come head to head in Suwon. Then J League-champions
Gamba Osaka will face Seongnam FC away from home.
Assuming all goes well for
Japan’s teams, they’ll face two more play-off matches with Korean opponents. Kashiwa
Reysol would play last season’s K League-champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors away, with
Kashima Antlers going up against FC Seoul also in Korea.
Now I’d like to move onto a
slightly meatier topic.
How does Korea view J League teams?
This an issue that I feel needs
We’re always confident of
beating J League sides.
When we asked head journalist at Sportal Korea—a Korean
football-focused news site—what he thought of the Japanese teams in this year’s
ACL, he had this to say:
“Gamba are seen as tough to beat,
the Reds are known for their hardcore fans, the Antlers are experienced veterans
and Reysol are the “Korea killers” (they beat Jeonbuk 5-1 at home in 2012 and
Suwon 6-2 away in 2013, both group-stage matches).
Overall, J League teams don’t
seem to be viewed as much of a threat. After all, unlike the past, there are
very few well-known Koreans plying their trade in Japan which naturally means
that news related to the league is much sparser.
However, while the media are
entitled to their opinion, what do the players think? We quizzed Jeonbuk’s
star-striker Lee Dong-gook (appeared in the 2010 South Africa World Cup) on the
matter before a group-league ACL match in April 2013.
He boldly stated “We play with an
unshakable confidence. Everyone’s sure they can beat any J League team.”
J League teams never make the final.
Of course teams are wary of
Japanese clubs, but it would be tough to say that they feel anything resembling
There’s a simple truth here that
you can’t dance around. It’s been a long time since Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka
consecutively won the ACL in ’07 and ’08. In 5 out of 6 years since then, K
League teams have made the finals, with three of those five resulting in Korean
wins. By stark comparison, Japan’s achievements in recent years only amount to
Nagoya Grampus making the last four in ’09 and Kashiwa in ’13. Last year,
Kawasaki Frontale fell to FC Seoul in the first knock-out round、with the loss at home on 17 May coming as an
especially hard blow. One of FC Seoul’s central defenders had this to say:
“We anticipated that they would
eventually fatigue after constantly attacking us in the first half. That’s why
we waited until the final 45 minutes to bring the fight to them.”
It felt like they’d seen right
through the Japanese tactics and there are a few reasons as to why Korean teams
tend to think this way.
Japanese teams don’t concentrate
It’s well documented that those
in the Korean football world see their teams as superior when it comes to club
football. However, people are aware that, in recent years, the national teams
have enjoyed similar success and that the J League is better managed
than Korea’s domestic league.
Wth that said, ever since Ang Jung-hwan left
Yokohama F. Marinos in June of ’05, there hasn’t been a star Korean National Team
player in the J League. Conversely, the number of young Koreans and those with
low wage demands have increased.
Recently, the following
kind of interaction has become increasingly common between Japanese and Korean
“This player fits the Japanese
style to a tee. What do you think?”
This is the stereotypical Korean
sales pitch when selling technical players, to which the Japanese agents always
“If he were truly a Japan-style
player then he’d already be playing here.”
The thought process behind this
seems to be: “If I a technical player can’t make it in Korea, they’d do better
in Japan where teams don’t defend as much.”
The Real Reason Why Park Ji-sung Came to Japan
Let’s look at Park Ji-sung’s
transfer from Myongji University to Kyoto Sanga in 2000. His university manager
publicly stated that he worried that “Park will be crushed unless he goes to
play in Japan.”
At the time, Park had been
selected for the Korean Olympic team, in spite of his small frame. This led to
much jealousy from older players on other teams who would take out their
frustration on the pitch—hence the worry that he would be “crushed”. However,
in Japan, there would be no such animosity.
Even now that we’re in the 2010s,
the common opinion that the K League is “much more aggressive” than its
Japanese counterpart remains unchanged. Sergio Escudero (former U-23 Japan
international) who plays as a lone striker for FC Seoul says “After a K League
match I always have at least five or six spots on my body which ache. You
really get a battering unlike anything I ever experienced while playing for
Urawa in the J League.”
There are no longer any top-class
foreign players in the J League.
“I remember J League teams used to have a lot
of skilled Brazilian strikers, which made them tough to play against.”
These were comments from Choi
Kang-hee, manager of 2011 ACL runners-up Jeonbuk. It’s hard to argue with him
as in 2007 when Urawa won the ACL they had both Washington and Robson Ponte. At
the core of Gamba Osaka’s 2008 winning team you would find Lucas, a player in
his heyday, and while he transferred to a Middle Eastern club mid-season, Gamba
also had Baré. What’s more, it was another Brazilian Gamba player named Leandro
who took the Golden Boot at the 2009 tournament. There’s an increasing amount
of support growing for the opinion that J League teams were only able to win
the Champions League thanks to the impact of foreign players. But now that
Japanese teams are no longer capable of that skillful play, Korean teams can
suppress them with their speedy, powerful style of playing.
Korean teams have a strong
self-belief that they do well in tournaments.
We talked with Choi Kang-hee, now
in charge of Jeonbuk once more.
“Koreans are very confident when
it comes to knock-out matches. We might fall behind when placed in a
season-long league setting with other Japanese teams, but we have confidence in
our ability to concentrate on the challenge at hand and win.”
Choi was referring to the
knock-out stages of the ACL which begin after the group stages. It’s likely
that this confidence comes from the national team’s successes. While Japan have
caught up to Korea in recent years with their performances at major
tournaments, Korea are always confident of winning when they play Japan head-to-head.
Korea’s record against Japan: 38 wins, 22 draws and 13 losses.
In the build up to this year’s
Asian Cup, I posted an article in Korean on Korea’s largest website: Naver. I
got many responses stating that Japan would be wrong to consider itself better
than Korea at football. I then mentioned how Japan managed to qualify from its
group with relative ease and hoped we would have a Japan vs Korea final. This
prompted a string of comments asking me “Do you even know the stats on Korea vs
The fans were certain that, when it
comes to knock-out matches in tournaments, South Korea would always be
victorious. While it is true that South Korea’s record stands at 38 wins, 22
draws and 13 losses, if you look at the statistics for matches played after the
J League’s inception it’s 8 wins, 6 draws and 9 losses.
Victory hinges on breaking down
the other team in key areas!
So, what should you be on the
look out for when watching a J League team play one from the K League? We spoke
to an attacking player who has playing experience in both leagues and he had
this to say:
“In Korea, there would be
times where I was wide open in key areas in the opponent’s half, but the ball
just wouldn’t come. That was rarely the case in the J League. That’s why I feel
that breaking down the opponent in key areas is one of the Japanese league’s
main strengths.” Shin Tae-yong (current coach of the Korean National Team), former
coach of 2010 ACL-winning team Seongnam FC is of the opinion that “One of South
Korea’s strengths is being able to completely immerse themselves in the fight
at hand and bypass the midfield if necessary. I’ve always felt that Japanese
teams are a little too obsessed with breaking down their opponent from
However, these comments make me
inclined to think that Japan may be best served by doubling down on their
strong points. Although I say that with the caveat that they must first be
fully prepared to throw away their original style of play if necessary. It’s
hard to watch Japanese teams continuously sticking to their tactics, even at
the cost of defeat.
It would certainly be nice to see
who would emerge victorious if a Japanese team took on a Korean one in a purely
physical contest from the get go. Either way, I believe that coming up against
a K League club is the perfect opportunity for Japanese teams to consider in what
manner they want to win.
As a keen observer of both the
Korean and Japanese football scenes, I always feel slightly lonely when
autumn rolls around and the ACL advances into its knockout stages. It’s
certainly going to be fascinating to see how Gamba Osaka do this year after
completing a domestic treble last season. All that’s left for them to conquer
is Asia and I think they really ought to kick things into full gear from
(This is a translation of the following article: http://number.bunshun.jp/articles/-/822705 which was posted on Number’s website on 17 February 2015.)