KASHIMA, IBARAKI PREF. – The effects of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have reached into every corner of Japanese soccer, but Kashima Antlers defender Daiki Iwamasa is determined not to let them smother his team’s title challenge this season.
The seven-time J. League champions have long since returned to their damaged training facilities, but ongoing repairs to their stadium have forced a continuing life on the road. Tokyo’s National Stadium is providing refuge until Kashima Stadium reopens on June 4, but recent results have betrayed a team desperately yearning for home.
Despite a successful Asian Champions League group-phase campaign that earned Kashima a last-16 clash with FC Seoul on Wednesday, its J. League form has been elusive. Last Sunday’s defeat at Kawasaki Frontale gives Antlers just four points from four games, and Iwamasa admits the nomadic life is taking its toll.
“Basically the most important thing for us is to make sure that these things don’t have an impact on us,” the 29-year-old said at Antlers’ training ground earlier this week. “Whatever is thrown at us, we have to make sure it doesn’t determine whether we sink or swim.
“Other teams have had to deal with interruptions, but some have had it for longer than others. That means it has a different effect on the players’ physical condition. You can’t say it has absolutely no impact at all.”
When Antlers do finally return to Kashima Stadium, however, Iwamasa knows the wind will be firmly in their sails.
“Not being able to play at Kashima Stadium has had a big effect,” he said. “In terms of the way the team plays, the lift that playing at Kashima Stadium gives us is very important. Playing away is a different matter, and playing in Kashima also has an effect on the opposition. I hope we can be back there in front of our own fans soon.”
Before then there is the matter of Saturday’s visit to Urawa Reds. Meetings between the two sides have had a significant say in the destination of the title in recent seasons, but with Kashima currently 15th and Urawa one place below, this year’s encounter promises to be a more humble affair.
“It’s just the beginning of the season, so the league table is not something that’s worth paying attention to,” Iwamasa said. “Both teams have had problems, and as rivals this is a big game for both of us. Whoever wins will have the confidence to go on and win other games. It’s a chance to really get things started.”
But having made his national team debut at the age of 27 against Scotland in 2009, Iwamasa knows an early start is not everything. The reward for the center-back’s international patience was a game-changing substitute appearance in January’s Asian Cup final, steadying the ship as manager Alberto Zaccheroni reshuffled his tactics to pave the way for Japan’s 1-0 win over Australia.
“Going into the tournament, my No. 1 target was to play,” Iwamasa said. “I wanted to play a lot and make a big contribution, and I don’t really feel that I achieved that. But a lot of players had been used in the starting lineup throughout the tournament, and not everyone was capable of doing what I did in coming in, coping with a change of formation and tactics and making a contribution. So I felt I played my part.”
But Iwamasa’s international development, like the rest of his teammates, will not extend as far as this summer’s Copa America. The Japan Football Association this week finally declined its invitation to the South American championship after two months of deliberation, leaving Iwamasa wondering what could have been.
“The J. League had to be moved into July because of the disaster, and in a way I suppose it couldn’t be helped,” he said. “But for Japanese football it was a one-off chance, and it was a tournament that the players really wanted to take part in. But we had the Asian Cup this year, and now it’s important that everyone goes back to their club teams and thinks about what they can do there.”
Missing the chance to work further with a manager steeped in the defensive traditions of Italian soccer adds to the frustration.
“I’ve been a fan of Italian football and defensive tactics since I was a kid, so for Zaccheroni to be able to explain things to me first hand is a great lesson for me,” Iwamasa said. “He looks at the players and the circumstances with a very clinical eye. He’s very methodical in his decisions.”
As a qualified math teacher, Iwamasa can surely relate.
“When I started university, I didn’t think I would be able to become a professional footballer,” he said. “Ever since I was young I’ve enjoyed teaching people, and I always wanted to be a teacher. So I studied and got my qualification, and then I went in a different direction. Originally I wanted to be a teacher and manage the school soccer club. Now when I retire, management is something I’m thinking about.”