Soccer / J. League | J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Seasoned veterans in demand in J. League offseason

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

The J. League’s new 10-year, ¥210 billion broadcasting deal may not have led to any big-name overseas signings just yet, but there has been plenty of action on the domestic transfer front as clubs retool for the coming season.

Cash-rich Chinese clubs continue to make global headlines for their lavish spending, but it is perhaps more in keeping with the J. League’s habits that the biggest moves over the offseason so far have involved seasoned veterans. Former Japan playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura has left Yokohama F. Marinos for Jubilo Iwata on a two-year deal at the age of 38, while 34-year-old striker Yoshito Okubo has joined FC Tokyo from Kawasaki Frontale.

Nakamura joined Jubilo after his relationship with boyhood team Marinos soured over the direction the club is taking under the influence of stakeholder City Football Group. Nakamura complained that his off-field responsibilities as Marinos captain were proving to be a distraction, and Jubilo manager Hiroshi Nanami offered him a sanctuary where he could fully focus on playing.

“I wanted to end (my career) in a way that leaves me no regret, fully burned out,” Nakamura said as he left Yokohama earlier this week. “When I thought of a place where I can face football properly, it wasn’t here.”

After making only 19 league appearances for Marinos in an injury-interrupted 2016 season, however, it remains to be seen how much Nakamura can contribute to the Jubilo cause. The midfielder was named J. League player of the year as recently as 2013, but Jubilo finished 13th last season and it is asking a lot of a 38-year-old to be their saviour.

Okubo’s move to FC Tokyo appears a safer bet, after the fiery forward finished top of the J. League scoring charts for three straight seasons in four hugely successful years at Frontale. Okubo’s career was drifting at Vissel Kobe before he joined Kawasaki in 2013, and Tokyo will hope his renaissance continues after swapping one Kanto club for another.

“In order to win the title, I want to use all the experience I have gained and give everything I have to the team,” said Okubo.

Nakamura and Okubo are the biggest names on the move so far, but there have been plenty of intriguing transfers elsewhere. Lightning-quick forward Kensuke Nagai will join Okubo in Tokyo’s attack after leaving relegated Nagoya Grampus, while Masato Kudo will attempt to fill Hisato Sato’s sizeable boots at Sanfrecce Hiroshima after returning from a year in MLS with Vancouver Whitecaps.

There are still 1½ months to go before the league kicks off, and there will doubtless be more moves to come before clubs begin to finalize their squads.

But unlike the Chinese league, expect the comings and goings to be modest in nature.

Back to work: Some J. League clubs have already convened ahead of the 2017 season, and Avispa Fukuoka will be keen to put the pain of last year’s relegation quickly behind them.

The Kyushu side finished rock bottom in its first top-flight campaign in five years, and manager Masami Ihara is already setting specific targets as he plots a route back to J1 at the first time of asking.

“First things first, we need to make sure we stay tight in defense,” Ihara said at Avispa’s official season-opening event earlier this week. “Last year we conceded 66 goals, which was the worst in J1.

“To gain promotion, we need to make sure we concede an average of less than a goal a game over 42 games. If we concede 40 or above, I don’t think we can make it. I also think we’re going to have to score more than 60 or 70 goals.”

Yesterday’s hero: Spare a thought for Norihiro Yamagishi.

Two years ago, the goalkeeper was preparing to lead Montedio Yamagata in the first division after becoming a cult hero just months earlier when he scored a stunning injury-time headed goal in Montedio’s J2 promotion playoff semifinal win over Jubilo Iwata.

Now, the 38-year-old finds himself surplus to requirements at Yamagata and starting afresh at Giravanz Kitakyushu, having completed a loan move to the J2 side earlier this week.

“I’m very grateful to have been given the chance to take on a new challenge, and I want to give everything so that Giravanz can achieve promotion this year,” said Yamagishi. “I’m looking forward to sharing the good times with the Giravanz fans in their new stadium.”