Soccer / J. League | J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Keisuke Honda calls for Japanese clubs to focus on defending

by Dan Orlowitz

Tuesday’s Asian Champions League game at Edion Stadium in Hiroshima marked exactly 4,112 days since Keisuke Honda had last stood on a Japanese pitch representing his club rather than his country.

The former Samurai Blue star was not quite impressed with what he saw.

Just over 12 years and three months since Honda played his last game for Nagoya Grampus before joining Dutch side VVV Venlo, he returned to Japan as a member of Australia’s Melbourne Victory, scoring the 1-1 equalizer in an eventual 2-1 defeat to host Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Honda, whose club career has taken him to Russia, Italy, and Mexico, rejected overtures for a J. League comeback after the 2018 World Cup, instead becoming the A-League’s biggest marquee Asian signing yet.

After Tuesday’s loss, he revealed dissatisfaction with the Japanese league’s progress despite the recent arrival of stars such as former Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta.

“Since Iniesta came I sometimes watch Vissel (Kobe) games,” Honda told reporters. “My impression is that the J. League’s style hasn’t changed since I played here. It feels like the tactics haven’t matured.

“Every team wants to play passing soccer, but it’d be nice to see teams develop their defense more. It might mean not being able to do everything you want to do on the attack, but without that challenge (Japanese) players won’t improve.

Honda, who retired from the senior national team after the World Cup but hopes to represent Japan at Tokyo 2020, repeated his call for young Japanese players to go abroad.

“It’s hard (to improve) in the J. League which is why I keep telling players to go overseas,” Honda continued. “Even if efforts by (Vissel owner Hiroshi) Mikitani to improve the J. League show progress, Japan needs time before it can become capable of contending for the World Cup without its players going overseas, like Germany.”

AFC rules stifle crowds

The Hiroshima-Melbourne match sold out on Tuesday afternoon, in part thanks to Edion being limited to less than one third of its usual capacity of over 36,000.

Those restrictions for Champions League games come as a result of Asian Football Confederation stadium regulations which require that “All spectators shall be seated. Their seats shall be individual and separated, affixed to the structure (e.g. the floor) and comfortably shaped, with backrests to provide support.”

The rule essentially forbids the use of bench seating or standing areas in the competition, which is why large swaths of Edion as well as the standing areas behind the goals at Kawasaki Frontale’s Todoroki Stadium will go unused this year.

“It’s a waste to have this much empty space,” Honda said on Tuesday night. “Sanfrecce play good soccer, so they should have more people supporting them than they did tonight.

“It feels wrong that we came to Japan and the stadium wasn’t full. The AFC’s rules should be changed.”

There is hope for long-suffering Sanfrecce fans, who despite winning three league titles since 2012 have seen plans for a new stadium delayed for years due to bureaucratic infighting in the notoriously baseball-slanted city. Last month, officials approved Hiroshima Central Park as the site of a new soccer stadium which is expected to open in time for the 2024 J. League season.

Maezono urges patience

Thursday afternoon will see Samurai Blue head coach Hajime Moriyasu announce his squad for the team’s upcoming friendlies against Colombia (March 22, Yokohama) and Bolivia (March 26, Kobe).

With the J. League in full swing, some have called for 17-year-old midfielders Takefusa Kubo of FC Tokyo and Daiki Matsuoka of Sagan Tosu, both of whom have had breakout starts to the season and are expected to play key roles in Japan’s Olympic squad next year, to get their maiden senior call-up.

Not so fast, says former Samurai Blue star Masakiyo Maezono.

In his regular column for Livedoor, the retired midfielder urged caution in particular with Kubo, comparing him to French star Kylian Mbappe.

“I don’t think you need to treat a 17-year-old like a kid, but Kubo’s going to be a key figure in the national team eventually and I believe the timing of his debut needs to be considered with care,” Maezono wrote on Monday.

Blind soccer returns to Tokyo

International blind soccer will return to Japan next week with the second edition of the IBSA Blind Football World Grand Prix.

The tournament, which is scheduled to take place from March 19-24 at Tennozu Park in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, is an important test for Japan’s national team as it prepares for the 2020 Paralympic Games.

Japan will be joined by Spain, Colombia and Russia in Group A, while 2018 WGP champions Argentina, Turkey, England and Thailand will contest Group B.

Matches will be broadcast live on YouTube, links for which may be found at www.wgp-blindfootball.com.