Asahi Shimbun, published in Tokyo, Japan. 30 June, 2010.
This is the fifth in series of brief and miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D). The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, and to fill some space amidst the World Cup frenzy…
Maybe it’s because the Dutch are often described as having a ‘philosophical’ approach to their football. Or maybe it’s because the old Monty Python skit on soccer philosophers (where Nietzsche was “booked for arguing with the referee; he accused Confucius of having no free will”) has been popping up lately. Or maybe it’s just me. But when contemplating Group E (Holland, Denmark, Japan, and Cameroon) I couldn’t stop thinking about philosophy.
I’ve never been very good with philosophy, mind you, but that may just be appropriate to the vain pursuit of trying to make sports seem profound. In other words, I know just enough philosophy to cobble together quotes from a big thinker native to each of the countries in Group E and then take those quotes totally out of context: as they might translate to the World Cup.
With Holland, for example, my occasional academic interest in sports and play has led me at various points to the well-known 1938 book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga. It’s the type of book that I know is supposed to be really good and profound—but I’ve never quite gotten it. Kind of like Dutch football. If they can’t win anything, and if they somewhat regularly fail to qualify for the World Cup (as in 1982, 1986, and 2002) then I find it hard to appreciate their genius—no matter how many Dutchmen tell me I’m supposed to.
But maybe the answer is in Huizinga? In Homo Ludens he takes a world historical perspective on play, explaining it as a lost art:
“As a civilization becomes more complex, more variegated, and more over laden, and as the technology of goods production and social life itself become more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, systems of thought and knowledge, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have all lost touch with play. Civilization, we then say has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over, and the agonistic phase, too, seems a thing of the past.”
Perhaps, then, the Dutch national team’s reputation for style over results is a symbolic move towards recovering the lost art of play? Damn civilization and its “rank layer” of “doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions.” Damn scoring goals when it matters. To play, to really play, is the thing. And to exit the World Cup somewhere around the middle of the knock-out stages.
Though the Japanese don’t have the same soccer history as the Dutch, East Asian philosophy also rings of prioritizing subjective experience—the momentary beauty of an elegant poem, the First Noble Truth of life as suffering. When I looked up the man the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls “the most significant and influential Japanese philosopher of the twentieth-century,” I found a similar theme. Though I couldn’t understand most of the importance of Nishida Kitarō, I could recognize the wisdom in the poetry he wrote to cope with the death of his first wife and four of his eight children:
The bottom of my soul has such depth;
Neither joy nor the waves of sorrow can reach it
This may just be the best the Japanese can hope for at the 2010 World Cup: to not worry about the joy or the sorrow (especially since there is likely to be more of the latter) and instead contemplate the depth of one’s soul.
Which brings me, obviously, to Søren Kierkegaard. The Dane, famed for his existentialism and his depression, may well have been talking to the current Danish national team in one of his famous quotes:
“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.”
Translation: in South Africa the Danes will either advance from the group or they won’t. And they will regret it.
Leaving only Cameroon, with somewhat less of a modern philosophical tradition but—make no mistake—some legitimate intellectual heft. In fact, one of the earliest (and best) essays offering a critical local perspective on South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup is a 2006 piece by Cameroon-born, Sorbonne-educated, South Africa-based post-colonial scholar Achille Mbembe:
“Every indication is that ‘Africa, the cradle of humankind’ will be the dominant theme of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. On the world scene, such platitudes will only further relegate the continent to the realm of folklore. Not only does such a theme smack of nativism, it does not say anything meaningful about who we are, who we want to be, and what our proposition for the world is.
That Bafana Bafana (the national football team) will not win this competition is a public secret. Now, if we cannot win on the soccer field and if our victory won’t be economic and financial, then we better start thinking hard about changing the very terms of what it means to win at all.”
Translation: The trans-national Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, with players who ply their trade in 11 different countries, will be serious.
Group E: The Group of _______________
In looking at the statistics for the nations of Group E (see below) the most striking thing is the relative wealth of Holland, Denmark, and Japan. Having those three countries in the group, the only one in the World Cup with three nations whose GDP per capita is over $30,000 per year, makes Group E easily the wealthiest group (on average) in the tournament. Not coincidentally, it is also the quartet with the highest average ranking on the UN ‘Human Development Index.’
Contrasting the statistics from Holland, Denmark, and Japan with those of Cameroon does, however, offer cause for some notes on global inequality. We all know the general cliché of Europe = Rich, Africa = Poor, but seeing the numbers up against each other in a soccer tournament somehow reinforces for me the tragedy of global inequality—the Dutch are struggling through ‘the great recession’ on $40,000 per person per year, while the Cameroonians manage on $2000. And even if we put money aside, looking at life expectancy ranges from Japan’s 82.6 years to Cameroon’s 50.4 years is simply shocking.
I did, however, find an interesting statistic in which Cameroon is equal to its European group mates: tax rates. According to NationMaster.com, Cameroon, Denmark, and the Netherlands are 1, 2, and 3 in the world for “the highest rate shown on the schedule of tax rates applied to the taxable income of individual” (at 60%, 59%, and 52% respectively). Japan, in relative contrast, looks like a Tea Partier’s paradise at 37th (at 37%). But still, combining the overall high tax rates, the somewhat fatalistic trend in each nation’s philosophical history, and the conventional soccer moniker, Group E reminds me that only two things are certain in life—and shall be ‘The Group of Death and Taxes.’
Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?
In this first African World Cup, Cameroon has to be a sentimental favorite. They are, after all, the African country who has played in the most World Cups (5), and their 1990 performances against Argentina and England are widely regarded as the point where African soccer began to be taken seriously around the world. I remember that opening game of Italia ’90 between Cameroon and Argentina like it was yesterday—the joyful exuberance of the Indomitable Lions, the fear and confusion of the Argentineans, Roger Milla dancing with a wild grin at the corner flag. But then I realize that memory is a funny thing, and I’ve probably been watching too many Coca-Cola commercials. The historical record suggests that famous game was actually a relatively brutal display of cynical soccer—by the end Cameroon had two players dismissed for violent play. Francois Omam-Biyik scored the only goal for Cameroon off a deflected cross and a goalkeeper error (Milla played briefly in the game, but his magical scoring run only started after the first game). Cameroon did play some nice soccer at points in the 1990 tournament, and their performance was iconic, but it wasn’t always pretty. Using my secret formula of soccer history and global politics, however, the history is enough to justify Cameroon going through.
And speaking of having one’s perceptions distorted by marketing and clichés, I have some grudges against Dutch soccer. First, because they get much credit for playing the ‘beautiful game’ and ‘total football,’ they seem to get a free pass for employing unrepentant leg-breakers such as Nigel De Jong. Second, the arrogance too often associated with Dutch football is hard to stomach. I can’t believe American viewers are going to be subjected to Ruud Gullit commentary on the World Cup after the hubris and embarrassment that was his tenure with the LA Galaxy. Third, in my experience Dutch soccer people love to tell anyone who will listen what an accomplishment it is for them to be “so good for such a small country.” And while they are certainly smaller than some of the other favorites, population-wise there are 10 other countries at the World Cup with fewer people than the Dutch—including group-mates Denmark who have only 5.5 million, compared to Holland’s 16.5 million, along with an equal number of European Championships and World Cups (one and zero). Of course, the Dutch do have some brilliant players, coaches, and teams; they can be a joy to watch. But in my mind they are out.
Finally, there is not much between Japan and Denmark for the other spot. I’m partial to the Japanese for sending one of their former World Cup goal scorers, Takayuki Suzuki, to my local Portland Timbers. Sure, he seems to have lost a step or five—but how many USL teams can claim players with World Cup goals? But my scales were ultimately tipped by learning that Danish center back Daniel Agger has a bit of the old Kierkegaard attitude in him (or on him): two of his many tattoos read, in Latin, Memento mori (“Remember you will die”) and Mors certa hora incerta (“Death is certain, but the hour is uncertain”). For quite literally embodying the ethos of this Group of Death and Taxes, Denmark is in.
Meaning that if there were any justice in the world Cameroon and Denmark would go through. But remember the lessons of the great philosophers: there is rarely any justice in the world.
Group E – Some Stats
|FIFA rank||Betting odds on winning the Cup||Population||GDP per capita||Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index||Life expectancy||Rank out of 117 nations on ‘highest marginal tax rate’||A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)|
It’s a snowy Christmas morning here in Chicago, and we won’t have much else for you today, but here are a few old winter favourites from the Pitch Invasion photo pool to enjoy. Merry Christmas to you all.
Perhaps the happiest fans in the world this weekend were in Hong Kong. The special administrative region of China, as I guess we should formally call it, has been competing in international football for sixty years, and yesterday won its first ever title, a gold medal in the East Asian Games football tournament.
A capacity crowd of over 40,000 watched the hosts, consisting largely of amateurs from the Hong Kong league, beat Japan 4-2 on penalty kicks, after a 1-1 draw.
This was no pansy field: Hong Kong defeated World Cup qualifiers North Korea in the semi-final (also on penalty kicks), and surprisingly crushed South Korea 4-1 in the group stage. Hong Kong’s East Asian rivals did not field their strongest teams, but that will do little to dampen the celebrations and a major spur to the sport’s growth in Hong Kong.
Today, our tifo series swings to Asia for the first time.
We check out Japanese fans at the Nabisco Cup (also known as the J-League Cup) final between Kawasaki Frontale and FC Tokyo, held earlier this week.
This video is a little slow to get going, but there’s some gorgeous colour, some impressive banners, and generally well choreographed displays from supporters of both teams.
And the coup de grâce: a mascot on rollerskates.
Much has been written in English about the impact of professional football in Japan. The media’s interest reached its peak in the run up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup, when two books in the form of Johnathan Birchall’s “Ultra Nippon,” and Sebastian Moffett’s “Japanese Rules” hit the shelves. Birchall’s account of Shimizu S-Pulse’s excruciating 1999 Championship Series playoff defeat to local rivals Júbilo Iwata is riveting. Yet his incredulous tone ultimately patronises S-Pulse fans and hints at the fact that Birchall is an interloper, with no prior knowledge of Japan and its culture. Moffett’s excellent “Japanese Rules” is a far more measured account, but the problem with both is that the books end with Japan co-hosting the World Cup in 2002. Coincidentally that’s about the time that the English-speaking world ceased to take an interest in the J. League, but much has changed since then.
Step into any Japanese top flight stadium as an uninitiated fan and the first thing that hits you is a wall of sound. Noisy support is de rigueur, and those who insist that J. League supporters are simply mimicking their counterparts in Europe and South America have clearly never attended a baseball game in Japan. From the multitude of unofficial fan clubs that crowd the terraces to the carefully choreographed chants that ring out for ninety minutes, J. League fans have arguably borrowed as heavily from their native baseball league as they have from European and South American football culture.
While baseball retains its image as a somewhat staid past-time in what is a relentlessly conservative country, football supporters in Japan broke the mould early, with Kashiwa Reysol fans setting the earliest trends for excessively passionate support. Kashima Antlers’ InFight were arguably the first well-organised fan club to travel the length of the country in support of their team, but these days it is Urawa’s travelling hordes who continue to polarise opinion. The Reds’ story is a well-worn one of a struggling underdog come good, but in a country obsessed with glamour, the extra twenty thousand fans to have recently clambered aboard the Reds roller coaster has sparked claims that much of Urawa’s support is made up of “plastic fans.” Whether that is the cause of the inferiority complex that Urawa’s more hardcore supporters lumber around with them is a mystery, but at any rate the most recent instances of fan violence have almost always involved the Reds.
Urawa fans deserve further scrutiny. At their best Reds fans produce an atmosphere worthy of any match in the Bundesliga – from which the Saitama club borrowed heavily in the mid-1990’s. Opposition teams are greeted by a cacophony of noise, with hopeful away fans forced to up the ante to compete with the vociferous support raining down from the northern end of Saitama Stadium. Yet Urawa’s hardcore support has grown increasingly boorish. From the days of supporting their team with relentless zeal at the dilapidated Komaba Stadium – which included a trip to the Second Division in 2000 – Urawa’s support has not only been diluted by the move to the far larger Saitama Stadium, it has also become increasingly inane. Instead of offering support to their team, many Urawa fans have simply taken to booing the opposition, and a string of more than three opposition passes prompts a predictable chorus of jeers from the Urawa faithful. There were more than a few wry smiles up and down the country, then, when Urawa inexplicably choked away at relegated Yokohama FC on the final day last season, handing the title to bitter rivals Kashima Antlers in the process.
The organised nature of support in Japan is often misunderstood, and stands in glaring contrast to the spontaneous outbursts synonymous with English football. The word fascist pops up from time to time to describe J. League fans – not because of any particular right-wing political leanings, but rather due to the rigidly organised nature of their chants. That has given rise to claims from some Euro-versed analysts that J. League supporters are not in tune with the action on the pitch, however such criticism overlooks the fact that Japan remains a group-oriented society. While J. League stadia offer fans the chance to cast off the shackles of an overbearingly formal social structure, that fans choose to do so in unison with their fellow supporters should come as no surprise in a country where the concept of wa – or group harmony – is one of the central tenants of its culture.
Elaborately choreographed card displays are one aspect of European culture that have made their way onto J. League terraces, while the fact that hardcore fans stand at J. League grounds makes the giant flag display an old favourite. Uniquely Japanese are the team slogans, however, which routinely delight English-speaking fans with their Babelfish-inspired Engrish. Júbilo Iwata’s “Hungrrrrry” invoked mirth from local rivals Shimizu S-Pulse this season, but the joke may be on S-Pulse for their “We Believe” slogan, with the club failing to inform fans to believe that a relegation dogfight was on the cards. Supporter groups also adorn themselves with some inspired translations, with Kyoto Sanga fanclub “Real Naked” making a name for themselves as a group of men who support their team in bare chests – fortunately for them the J. League is a summer-based competition.
Despite some of the more uniform aspects of J. League support, the match-day experience for all eighteen top-flight clubs differs from team to team. The 2002 World Cup may have left a legacy of international-class stadia, but it has proved problematic for some well-established clubs such as Nagoya Grampus, who alternate their fixtures between the ageing Mizuho Athletics Stadium in downtown Nagoya and the ultra-modern Toyota Stadium, situated some thirty-five kilometres out of town. That’s a situation mirrored across the league, with several top flight clubs regularly splitting fixtures between a variety of stadia. Given that clubs rent their grounds from local councils it has also led to some radical scheduling – with Kyoto Sanga “hosting” Yokohama F. Marinos hundreds of kilometres from the former imperial city in Kagoshima’s Kamoike Stadium, while Gamba Osaka played the first leg of their League Cup quarter-final against the Marinos in distant Kanazawa.
For foreign fans, supporting a J. League club can be a hit-and-miss affair. Some clubs welcome foreign supporters with open arms. In the case of FC Tokyo – perhaps the only J. League club to have lifted its influences straight from British football – one highlight is the annual UK Day, where holders of a British passport are entitled to discount tickets and are treated to standard English fare inside Tokyo’s cavernous Ajinomoto Stadium. With match-day line-ups announced in English and a rousing rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” belted out before kick-off, there’s no mistaking who FC Tokyo fans are paying homage to. Other clubs offer a nod to Japan’s sizeable Brazilian community – arguably the largest minority group in what is practically a homogenous society – with the Auriverde always on display when Júbilo Iwata take to the pitch. Still, in a country that remains largely suspicious of foreigners, many J. League clubs simply prefer to ignore the smattering of foreign fans that dot the terraces on a weekly basis, offering little in the way of support for non-Japanese speaking fans.
The days of extra-time and penalty shoot-outs to decide drawn games are long gone, while the two-stage championship has also disappeared from view. The image of the J. League as a mere “retirement home” for ageing European stars is also an enduring, albeit unrealistic point of view, with the league having instead matured into a legitimate, sustainable competition. Nevertheless while the forces of modernity will invariably continue to thrust the J. League into a wider global context, there’s no doubt that it remains a competition blessed with an alluring charm and a unique dose of East Asian exocitism.
All photos by Michael Tuckerman.
You might have noticed the photo daily feature has been MIA for a while. Frankly, I was burned out posting it every day for almost a year. But I do miss the photos, so here’s the first in a new “photo occasional” series, which might show up every day, week or year.
And we kick things off with a return to look at one of our favourite Japanese clubs, Sapporo, who hosted Yokohama for their first game of the new J-League season. They lost 2-1, but you can’t blame the fans, can you?
This is the story of Omiya Ardija, a Japanese team living in the shadow of their near neighbours, the Urawa Reds. Read the first part here, which looked at Omiya’s remarkable promotion to the top Japanese division, a joy tempered as their inadequate stadium was demolished at the end of the 2005 stadium, and the loyalty of their fans — the “Squirrel Nation” — would soon be tested further. In part two, problems mounted as 2007 began, fans’ questioning the club’s transfer policy and the “salaryman coach”, but the Squirrel Nation kept up their passionate support despite poor results. Would Omiya survive in the top flight, as they opened their new stadium?
Built at a cost of some 400m yen — much of which was paid by the local council — the rebuilt Omiya Park has a capacity of 15,000, similar to Shimizu S-Pulse’s Nihondaira ground, with four separate stands built tight to the pitch. In contrast to the direction in which football stadium design is moving in certain other countries, it is not an all-seater venue in that the stands behind each goal feature terracing at the front and seats at the back. The only roof is down one side over the main stand, another particularly striking feature being the colossal hairdryer-style floodlights.
NACK 5 Stadium Omiya in all its glory
For the Squirrel Nation, it was their new home. The official opening game of the NACK 5 Stadium Omiya — retitled following a sponsorship deal with a local radio station — took place in early November, when with just four rounds to go in the 2007 J1 season, Ardija hosted Oita Trinita. It could scarcely have been a more delicately balanced fixture: a crucial relegation six-pointer, in which both sides knew that a win would see them take a giant stride towards safety.
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a three part series by furtho looking at Omiya Ardija, a Japanese team living in the shadow of their near neighbours, the Urawa Reds. Read the first part here, which looked at Omiya’s remarkable promotion to the top Japanese division, a joy tempered as their inadequate stadium was demolished at the end of the 2005 stadium. Omiya were homeless, and things would soon go wrong on the field, too, testing to the full the loyalty of Omiya’s “Squirrel Nation”.
A Year In The Life
Throughout 2006 and 2007, then, the majority of Omiya home fixtures were played at Komaba Stadium, a charmless concrete bowl complete with an athletics track. The Squirrel Nation hated the place. It was 25 minutes’ fun-filled walk from the nearest train station, for one thing. And it was located in Urawa. Oh, and it just so happened to be something akin to the Reds’ spiritual home. In contrast to Omiya Park, the small crowds attending Ardija games at Komaba found it almost impossible to generate a proper atmosphere and the hardcore support, instead of being able to reach out and touch the goalnets as they had been used to, were fifty yards from the action.
Editor’s note: Urawa Reds spent the past week basking in the global spotlight at the World Club Cup, but there’s more to Japanese football than them as Furtho explains in part one of a three part series looking at “Squirrel Nation”.
There’s half an hour to go before kick-off. Away behind one goal, a huddled group of fans dressed in orange strike up a chant, trying to ignore the torrential, sheeting rain and the fact that a good half of the seats around them are empty. Some of the soaked supporters wave home-made banners upon which they’ve painstakingly transcribed the names of their favourite players and, despite the unpromising conditions, they do a decent job of making some noise, creating an atmosphere and a sense of anticipation ahead of this, the first derby game of the 2007 season.
Their goal-shy team might not have much of a chance in the match ahead – recent results are hopelessly poor and the side are already in the relegation zone – but even so, the fans will do their best to encourage the players. This, after all, is why many of them wear orange replica shirts sporting the number twelve: collectively, they play the role of twelfth man and their job is to support the team all the way up to the final whistle. Who knows, maybe today there might be an incredible upset?
The response of the supporters in red behind the other goal – and indeed across most of the rest of the stadium, although they are nominally the away side – seems explicitly designed to crush any such optimism stone dead. It is a shattering, physical volume, coordinated by nominated leaders with military precision, drums and voices united in the absolute certainty that their team of choice are the strongest in the land.
For Urawa Reds were champions of Japan in 2006 and are top of the league again today. They have a fanbase that stretches far beyond their home in Saitama prefecture, from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south. They have the biggest budget and the best players and it is unthinkable that their diminutive near neighbours Omiya Ardija – the Squirrels, for God’s sake – might today be in with even a sniff of a chance of avoiding an absolute hammering.
The Reds fans have home-made flags, too. One of them shows a large cartoon fist coming down from the sky, like a Monty Python foot, to crush an Ardija logo. Another features a squirrel being tossed into a garbage can, while a third simply bears the legend OMIYA FUCK.
When Omiya’s mascot, a cheery seven-foot tall squirrel named Ardy, goes on a pre-match walkabout, the air is filled with catcalls, whistles and boos. As kick-off time approaches, the regimented noise from the Urawa followers becomes if anything yet more intense. The supporters wearing orange, meanwhile, continue to wave their banners and shake their umbrellas. You can see that they’re still singing as well. You just can’t hear them.
I would not like to take a penalty in front of Urawa Reds’ supporters at their Saitama stadium, myself. Watch this shootout from an Asian Champions League semi-final against South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa last week, and marvel at the spectacle of the giant flags. It’s really no surprise they won, is it?
(By the way, we’ll be featuring the ultras from Japan throughout the week in photo daily.)