Starting XI: Lost in Football Japan

Welcome to a continuation on the regular series on The 94th Minute, called “Starting XI”. This is where I ask various people, who are fans of football, a number of questions to get to know them better! The first few questions will differ for each person, but the final question will always be:

“Who would be in your all-time, favourite starting XI?”

This is a question where anyone can be put into their starting eleven, whether they are famous footballers, football legends, past or unknown players who had an impact on their childhood, or even players they have played with or coached. Anyone is acceptable in their XI providing they give a reason for their inclusion!

The twelfth instalment of the series is an interview with Chris Hough, a Plymouth Argyle fan, who is the founder and presenter of the absolutely excellent Japanese groundhopping and culture blogsite and YouTube channel, Lost in Football Japan. I wanted to know more about the website and its corresponding YouTube channel, groundhopping in Japan, the Japanese football scene in general, and finally, the players he would choose in his all-time starting eleven.

Profile Pic

Here is Chris’ latest groundhopping video, where visited Veertien Mie, a club inspired by the late great Johan Cruyff:

 

Q. Could you give the readers some information on your excellent blogsite ‘Lost in Football Japan‘, and how it all came about in its creation?

I moved to Japan in January 2017 and fully intended to watch a lot of football. So I researched my local team, which was Omiya Ardija, but then hit a stumbling block: all of the information was in Japanese. I’d only just moved to Japan and had no Japanese language knowledge, so I couldn’t work out how to get to the stadium or how to buy tickets. This put me off and I didn’t watch a single game during my first year in the country. But by the time the 2018 season had rolled around, I was absolutely itching to get to a game. I was also feeling a bit braver by this point having spent time studying Japanese and having got more used to life in Japan. So I took the plunge to make a mini-trip out of my first game, catching a bus north to watch Vegalta Sendai versus Albirex Niigata in a Levain Cup group match. It was in March, so absolutely freezing. And the Levain Cup, which is also known as the J.League Cup, isn’t the most popular competition, so the stadium was very sparsely filled. But the atmosphere created by the pockets of hardcore fans was incredible, even on a freezing cold night for a much-maligned midweek cup competition. I was completely hooked and decided to go to another game the following week.

Omiya Ardija
The logo of Omiya Ardija, Chris’ local team in Japan.

I also wanted to share my experiences of watching football in Japan, so upon returning from Sendai I set up Lost in Football Japan. I set out to write pieces combining travel, culture, history and football, to inspire people to discover Japan and football in the country. And I’ve since added guides on buying tickets and getting to the stadiums to help people who feel unsure about travelling around Japan.

Towards the end of 2018, I also started a YouTube channel and this season I’ve stepped up the video making because I feel it’s the perfect platform to show off the incredible enthusiasm Japanese football fans have for their teams. It’s a completely different style of support from what I’ve experienced in the UK. And the stadiums, too, are really special. Some are ultra-modern, a few have old-school charm and then there are the ones in locations so beautiful that you spend the game just gawping at the scenery.

Lost in Football Japan is now a blog and YouTube channel that I hope captures everything amazing about Japanese football.

 

Q. What has been your favourite groundhop that you have done during your Japanese travels?

At this time, I’ve currently been to 36 grounds around Japan, but funnily enough it’s two teams in the same prefecture, just 40 miles apart, that have stood out the most for me. Nagano prefecture is a mountainous region a couple of hours from Tokyo in central Japan. It’s a stunning place, with jaw-dropping mountain views everywhere you look.

I first experienced this part of Japan for a Matsumoto Yamaga game. It was a mid-week, Emperor’s Cup third round match against Urawa Reds last July. Usually this means a half-empty stadium due to Japanese people working such long hours, combined with the Emperor’s Cup not being a major draw. But when I arrived at the stadium it was absolutely buzzing. I had an unreserved seat ticket, but there was nowhere to sit. So I perched myself high up at the back of the stand, leaning over a railing and looking out at the utterly brilliant madness. The fans were unbelievable. It was non-stop noise from the warm-up onwards. They were waving flags, beating drums, singing in unison at the top of their lungs. And added to all this was the juxtaposition of Yamaga’s boxy, angular stadium against the backdrop of cloud-shrouded mountains. The match ended with a 1-0 defeat for the home side and an almighty downpour. It was an unforgettable experience. Highly recommended for anyone visiting Japan.

Matsumoto Yamaga currently play in J1, the top division. But down in J3 is AC Nagano Parceiro, who I went to watch earlier this year in May. And wow. I was speechless when I saw Nagano U Stadium for the first time. It’s a purpose-built football stadium – unfortunately not the norm in Japan – and blessed with a backdrop that looks like a watercolour painting. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but it really is one of the best stadiums in Japan, despite AC Nagano only being a third-tier team. And it’s not just the stadium that makes them special. The fans are on another level. A loyal group of supporters pack the stand behind the goal and make full use of the incredible acoustics at the stadium. They’re also incredibly welcoming, and fully included me in the celebrations, more so than at any other club I’ve visited. It’s a heart-warming football club and one that I really hope can climb up through the J.League. Everything is set up for them to be a success.

 

Q. Do you have a particular Japanese team that you follow, and if so, why did you choose them?

AC_Nagano_ParceiroIt probably won’t come as a surprise after the previous question that I quite like AC Nagano Parceiro. I have plans to go back and watch them later this season, purely as a fan, and I hope to get to more of their games next season. Choosing a team to support in a new country is always difficult. There isn’t always a lot of logic to it. I’d been to 25 other stadiums before catching an AC Nagano game, and they were the first club to really grab me.

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Q. How has the J.League changed from when you started watching it, to now? Has the standard of the league improved?

I’ve only been watching the J.League properly since the start of the 2018 season, but even during that short time there have been changes. The biggest change has been the emergence of Vissel Kobe as the J.League’s home of ‘galaticos‘. Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Thomas Vermaelen have all joined the club since I started watching the J.League. And they already had Lukas Podoloski on the books. Vissel have also announced their aim to become “the biggest club in Asia”, but so far the results haven’t come. It’ll be interesting to see if they stick with this policy or instead invest more in younger, Japanese talent.

 

Q. If you could make any improvements to the J.League, what would they be and why?

There needs to be an improvement in the quality and quantity of English language information, especially when it comes to buying tickets. I mentioned earlier about Vissel Kobe signing big name players from overseas, but they only produce the bare minimum in English language content and don’t even have an English language ticket service. That seems like a missed open goal to me. Only a handful of clubs have English language support. It makes it so difficult for fans from overseas to catch games. I really hope this situation improves in the future.

Vissel Kobe

 

Q. If someone wanted to come to Japan to watch some Japanese football, where would you say are the best places or teams to watch a game?

Tokyo is usually the starting point of any Japan adventure, and there are a couple of teams in the capital to watch. The biggest is J1 club FC Tokyo, who play at Ajinomoto Stadium in the western suburbs of the city. They share the stadium with Tokyo Verdy, who play in J2. However, this stadium is absolutely massive and there are often huge empty spaces. But this is probably the most accessible team to watch in Tokyo.

For something a little wilder, I’d recommend heading half an hour out of Tokyo and into Saitama prefecture for an Urawa Reds game. They play at the incredible Saitama Stadium 2002, which hosted games at the 2002 World Cup. And the Reds fans are something else in Japan. The atmosphere at Saitama Stadium is on another level; a level of barely contained passion that feels on the brink of boiling over at any second. It’s an exhilarating football-watching experience and one that shouldn’t be missed while in Japan.

 

Q. Is there anyone in the J.League, or Japan in general, that you think people should keep an eye out for – who are the next big stars from Japan?

The rising star in Japanese football at the moment is Takefusa Kubo, who Real Madrid signed from FC Tokyo this summer. He’s currently out on loan to Real Mallorca and is already a huge fan favourite in Japan. He’s only 18, but there’s a huge amount of expectation on him. But he really is an exciting prospect. A incredibly talented attacking midfielder who seems on the right career path.

And in the J.League itself, one player who looks set to make the move to Europe soon is Vissel Kobe forward Kyogo Furuhashi. He’s fast, composed, a clinical finisher and hard-worker. Playing in front of Andres Iniesta and alongside David Villa has really helped him develop as a footballer. He’s not the youngest at 24, but could be making a big impact for a European club soon.

 

Q. Is there a particular club, stadium or city that you have not visited yet, but are very eager to visit in the near future?

There are two that are really high on my list for next season.

F.C._Ryūkyū

The first is FC Ryukyu in Okinawa, Japan’s southern islands. I’ve never been to Okinawa before, but it looks like a truly beautiful place of palm trees and white sand beaches. The culture in Okinawa is also said to be quite different from that in the rest of Japan, with the region having been an independent country in the past. I’d love to see how that translates into the support for their only J.League team.

Kagoshima_United_FCThe second is Kagoshima United in Kyushu, south-western Japan. There’s one big reason why I want to go and watch them: Sakurajima, a very active volcano, looms over the city and can be seen from the stadium. Kagoshima United even have a volcano on their badge. It’s part of the identity of the city. And Kagoshima has played a massively important role in the history of Japan.

 

Q. What are your future plans or wishes for ‘Lost In Football Japan‘?

Improvement is my constant goal. I want each new blog and video to be better than the last. And by improving, I hope I can introduce more and more people to football in Japan. It’s such a wonderful place to catch a game. Every club has its charms, and you can see how much the teams mean to their local communities. Many of the clubs may be new when compared to those in more established footballing countries around the world, but there’s real passion for the game here. And it often feels like supporting the local football team is the only outlet people have for showing pride in the hometown. Watching football is an unforgettable way to see a different side to Japan. And I hope Lost in Football Japan can be the platform that showcases this.

 

Q. Finally, which players are in your all-time, favourite starting eleven?

Starting XI - Lost In Football Japan
Chris’ all-time, favourite starting eleven players.

Formation: 3-4-3

Goalkeeper: Nigel Martyn

Growing up in a small village in Cornwall can often leave a kid feeling like there’s no way out. Quite literally when there isn’t even a bus stop. But discovering football made me dream. On the weekly outing to the nearest town, I would scour the shelves of all the reputable newsagents looking for any football-related content I could get my hands on. It was Shoot magazine, though, that I more often than not ended up buying. And it was on these pages that I discovered something that blew my mind. A profile of then Crystal Palace goalkeeper Nigel Martyn included all the vital football stats a 10-year-old could possibly need. Oh, and that he was born in St Austell, Cornwall. I’d found a football player I could truly relate to. He must have understood what it was like to grow up in this beautiful, yet remote, part of the UK. But it didn’t stop him from achieving his dream. Obviously it helped that he was a bloody brilliant goalkeeper who went on to play for England 23 times. I can’t think of anyone better to marshal the defence of my Starting XI.

 

Central defender: Tomoaki Makino

Moving to Japan in 2017 was a culture shock to the system. In those early days of living in a new place that bears absolutely zero resemblance to your home village, everything seems new and exciting. Oh, and confusing. Which was the overriding feeling I had when I saw Tomoaki Makino doing a one-man haka before an Urawa Reds game. “I tell myself that I will win and I am better than my opponents,” is how he described this ritual during an interview with the AFC media channel recently. Football is about the characters and Makino is definitely one of a kind. He’s also enjoyed an excellent career, starting out at Sanfrecce Hiroshima before ending up at Urawa Reds following a short spell with 1.FC Köln. In that time he’s also picked up 33 caps for Japan.

 

Central defender: Fabio Cannavaro

Fabio Cannavaro
Fabio Cannavaro

A World Cup winning, Ballon d’Or receiving, European football conquering giant of the game. There’s hardly anything more than needs to be said about Fabio Cannavaro. He captained Italy to the 2006 World Cup, won two La Liga titles with Real Madrid and generally haunted the nightmares of the planet’s best forwards. But there’s also one more reason why I’ve chosen him. And I apologise now for what’s probably going to be classed as a humble brag, but Fabio Cannavaro is unique in this Starting XI as the only one who I’ve actually met. Technically, I met him twice (I wasn’t stalking him). The first time was a brief handshake and apology before he disappeared into the crowd at a party. The next meeting was the following day for a sit down interview. He was incredibly generous with his time, happily offering up his opinions on football and fully explaining the finer points. And he was humble, too, apologising about his English, despite it being excellent. A class act on and off the pitch, I’d make him the captain of my Starting XI.

 

Central defender: Graham Coughlan

Graham Coughlan
Graham Coughlan

Sometimes in football it’s not about the prestige of the honours or the size of the trophy cabinet. It’s about what the player signifies, which might not even be the same for every fan. But for me, Graham Coughlan is synonymous with the best Plymouth Argyle side I’ve ever seen. He was instrumental in our rise from Division Three to the Championship, primarily as a defensive rock, but also as a surprisingly prolific goal scorer. He inexplicably hit the back of the net 11 times as we won the Division Three title in the 2001/02 season. That made him the top scorer for the league winners. How many central defenders can boast of that achievement? It came as no surprise when he was voted into Argyle’s Team of the Century to mark the club’s 100th anniversary. It was a no-brainer to feature him in my Starting XI, too.

 

Defensive midfielder: David Friio

David Friio
David Friio

David Friio’s arrival at Home Park marked the beginning of an extraordinary time for Plymouth Argyle. We weren’t used to signing unknown French midfielders. He was an exotic name on the team sheet who became an instrumental player on our rise from Division Three to the Championship. This was such an enjoyable time to be an Argyle fan and Friio became a cult hero over the five seasons he spent in Devon. He was a tenacious box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal. I’ll never forget his first half hat-trick in a 7-0 thrashing of Chesterfield at Home Park. Seeing his name on the Argyle team sheet always used to make me smile. I couldn’t possibly leave him out of my Starting XI.

 

Central midfielder: Georgi Kinkladze

I was going to put another defensive midfielder in this spot for some much needed stability. But then I thought, “to hell with that, let’s have Georgi Kinkladze instead.” Back in 1995, I used to get all of my football news from Ceefax. In many ways, Ceefax was better than social media. It was concise, it was accurate, and there weren’t any ‘clickbait’ headlines. There also weren’t any videos. This might sound like a negative point. But it added to the mystery of a foreign signing rocking up at a struggling Premier League club. That club was Manchester City – hard to believe now. And that mystery foreign signing was a random Georgian lad. What happened next was incredible. It looked like the ball was glued to his feet. He just glided past everyone. Did what he wanted. Without even breaking a sweat. His goal against Southampton in 1996 seemed to defy the laws of physics. He spent only three seasons at Manchester City, which turned out to be the best of his career. But you know what they say: the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

 

Attacking midfielder: Omar Abdulrahman

Omar Abdulrahman
Omar Abdulrahman

Football should be fun sometimes. Why not audaciously chip the ball over the defence to beat the offside trap? What’s wrong with a Cruyff turn in your own penalty area? A Panenka during an Asian Cup quarter-final shootout? Go for it. Obviously it helps when you have the ability to do all these things. Which Omar Abdulrahman certainly does. He may not be a big name around the world, but he’s a superstar in the UAE. And it’s in the Emirates where he’s made the biggest impression, starting out with Al Ain, where he went on to make 127 appearances. After a season-long loan in Saudi Arabia with Al Hilal, he’s now back in the Arabian Gulf League with Al Jazira. It’s a shame he never got a chance to play in Europe – he had a two-week trial with Manchester City in 2012, but a potential move broke down due to work permit issues – but it’s been a joy to watch him bring a touch of flair to club football in the Middle East. He’s a true artist on the pitch with the imagination and ability to turn a game on its head.

 

Attacking midfielder: Shunsuke Nakamura

You’re probably reading this thinking that I’ve picked another retired player and that I’m stuck living in the past. But Shunsuke Nakamura is still going at the age of 41 with Yokohama FC in J2, the second-tier of Japanese football. He usually sits on the bench these days, but he’s still capable of making an impact. And by impact, when Nakamura is on the ball, we mean a pin-point set piece delivery or wicked free kick. He’s a Celtic hero, with good reason, and an absolute legend in Japanese football. His name on the team sheet is still enough to draw in the crowds. And I love the fact that he still wants to be involved as a player. To me, that shows real passion for the sport. It also helps that Yokohama is the city of his birth; it’s like he’s come home to finish his career. Oh, and one other interesting point about Yokohama FC: Nakamura isn’t their oldest player. That honour goes to Kazuyoshi Miura – or King Kazu to us mere mortals – who is still on the books at the age of 52. There’s hope for us all yet.

 

Forward: Eric Cantona

Eric Cantona was the first footballer I truly idolised. Collar up. Number seven on the shirt. Outlandish skill. Incredible penalty technique. Every kid in the playground wanted to be Cantona. Yes, there was controversy, but it was all part of his story. His goal-scoring record was immense, but it was more than that. Even as a young football fan, I could tell how hard working he was. He seemed to cover every blade of grass. The perfect captain material. I’m not even a Manchester United fan, but he’s still one of my favourite footballers of all time.

 

Forward: Mickey Evans

They say never go back. It won’t be the same. You’ll just end up tainting your legacy. Well, I’m glad Mickey Evans didn’t heed that advice, because his second spell with Argyle was just as important as his first. As a young forward, he helped us achieve promotion from Division Three through the play-offs. He left Argyle to save Southampton from relegation (four vital goals in final months of the 1996/97 season helped save their Premier League status). While on the South Coast he also won his one and only Republic of Ireland cap. Via West Brom and Bristol Rovers, he made his way back to Home Park. He was no longer the prolific goal scorer of old, but his work rate and hold up play was vital to our system. We couldn’t have reached the Championship without him.

 

Forward: Dean Ashton

This one is a little sad. The injury that ended his career at 26 was incredibly cruel, because Dean Ashton is one of the best players I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. It’s not often the Argyle fans give an opposition player a standing ovation, but Ashton fully deserved it on a night where he tore our defence apart, scoring twice and setting up the other in a 3-1 win for Crewe Alexandra in Division Two back in 2003. He went on to play for Norwich and West Ham in the Premier League, picking up a solitary England cap before retiring in 2009. It’s hard not to think of what might have been.

 

A massive thank you to Chris for answering my questions and being a brilliant guest on the Starting XI series! I have certainly learnt a lot about Japanese football, and to keep an eye out on the fortunes of AC Nagano Parceiro for the next few years. Also, I enjoyed his choices for his starting eleven, with that midfield being especially creative and exciting!

To find out more about Lost in Football Japan, the links to the website, YouTube channel, social media accounts, etc. can be found below:

 

To read or catch up on the previous Starting XI episodes, they can all be found at the following link HERE.

If there you have any feedback, comments or suggestions who I should interview next in the series, let me know either below in the comments box, tweet me @The94thMin or email me at the94thminute@gmail.com! It would be good to hear what you think about the series, and what have been your favourite episodes so far!

Diolch!

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