Today marked the third anniversary of the most pivotal game in Omiya Ardija's J1 history.
Not for the end result. After ninety minutes of gutsy hustle and hanging on for dear life, the Squirrels finally succumbed in extra time to a highly motivated juggernaut in the form of the Urawa Reds. No, the pivotal moment of the pivotal game came later, when the Omiya brains trust (led by the Dark Prince of Personnel, now Ventforet Kofu GM Satoru Sakuma) saw a gritty but overstretched squad get to the semi-finals of Japan's premier football competition and decided to strengthen by spending two years' worth of reinforcement budget on seven players with long resumes.
The results varied from star (Daigo Kobayashi) to starters (Yoshiyuki Kobayashi, Yukio Tsuchiya, Yasuhiro Hato) to contributor (Naoya Saeki) to disappointment (Kota Yoshihara) to unmitigated disaster (Saul "Speedy" Martinez). Three years, four head coaches and one terribly frustrating 2007 season of no reinforcements (which saw the team a breath away from J1 mortality) later, and Omiya finds itself at a crossroads again. Was it the best idea to overspend? Maybe not, but as we speak Omiya prepares itself for year five of life in the big leagues. Not bad for a team on a budget.
Now after a (relatively) successful season in a beautiful new stadium all their own, the team is a buyer in a player-heavy market with big guns like Urawa sitting out because of the awful economy. One of the Ardija targets appeared today in his familiar #22 Yokohama F Marinos uniform against Gamba Osaka, the new Asian champions. The two teams were playing not only for a place in the Emperor's Cup final - as the Squirrels and the Reds were three years ago - but also for the last Japanese slot in the 2009 ACL.
Yuji Nakazawa played 120 minutes for a team he has been the face and heart of for seven years. For most of the game he dominated, disrupting the offense and shutting down Gamba's dangerous Brazilian striker Lucas with quick decisions and physical play. Unfortunately, deep into extra time his tired legs betrayed him. Nakazawa was unable to cut off a pass to a streaking Masato Yamazaki, who put the only goal of the game in the net. The loss not only ended Yokohama's chance at a trophy for 2008, it took away a big selling point in their negotiations with Nakazawa. There will be no ACL for the Tricolore.
Now Nakazawa has to choose between a team with huge resources from its internet sponsor who is willing to open up the purse and overspend on players, but who has at the same time offered no clear indication of what kind of team it will field in 2009 (Vissel Kobe); or a team where he is legendary, where he is familiar with everyone and everything, and which cemented him as a fixture in Japan's National squad (Marinos). Or alternatively, Nakazawa could opt to join his "hometown" team.
He could come to a team and play for a coach - incoming Ardija boss Jang Wae-Ryong - that helped turn him into the player he is, when the two of them were at Verdy Kawasaki. He can come to a squad serious about spending money to become a champion, but one that is lacking in talent in many key spots and one that seems to be in constant flux. It's a tough choice and a risk for not only the player but the team as well. Nakazawa is pushing past thirty, he's approaching 300 games as a J-League player and has a good number of World Cup and Asia Cup qualifiers staring him directly in the eye. The possibility of a breakdown or a drop in skill is real.
However, the guy is a winner. More importantly, Nakazawa can singlehandedly take over a game with his skill and decision-making. He's a difference-maker in a league that has relatively few. Even fewer are available. He's also a guy that gets the benefit of the official's whistle, which Omiya hasn't had on a consistent basis. So, on January 10th we will see what decision Yuji Nakazawa makes on his future. If he decides to come to Omiya and plays like everyone knows he is capable of, maybe we'll look at the result of tonight's semi-final and realise who the real winner was.
Nine People You Should Have A Problem With In 2009
Because, for GGOA's new columnist Agent Orange, nothing says Christmas more than a list of people you should have nothing but contempt for in 2009. You're welcome.
1. The Director Of Merchandising At Omiya Ardija
Seriously, do you hate money? Your lack of ideas, dearth of quality goods and lack of stock on hand is thoroughly frustrating.
First off, why are all your sizes skewed towards 15-year-old girls? As I go to more and more games, I'm seeing an increase in my wide-bodied brethren NOT wearing Omiya merchandise. Why? Well, I'll tell you. No-one wants to see a rotund person in a skin-tight orange replica Denis Marques jersey, man-teats framed just right under a strained Lotto jersey, stretching the D and the X to the limit. I know, I've looked in the mirror before a game.
Second, why don't you sell away jerseys? Here's a hint. Around August, when no-one will buy S-sized jerseys because they are, y'know, adults, release the away jerseys. People will buy them because they WANT to give you money. No, it's true. People want to buy Ardija stuff. So make it easy for them.
Third, plain blue hat. Omiya shield, adult size, adjustable - not mesh. I'll take six.
Finally, Chikara Fujimoto bobbleheads = good! Mascot towels = bad! Give it a rest already.
2. The First-time Foreign Eurosnob Fan
Say you get an extra ticket for an Ardija game and you have a friend at work who happens to enjoy the beautiful game. You've had discussions in the past about the World Cup, European leagues and Champions League, etc. So you think to yourself, "Hey, it could be real cool to watch an Ardija game with this cat. Let's do it!" Bad idea.
You will spend the next ninety minutes listening to this "expert" ramble on about the low quality of football on display (I'm an Omiya fan, not blind, you moron). They will then proceed to tell you how poor your fans are, compared to the opposition. After that, they will ask you stupid questions about the league in general and then respond about how their Colaship team (Wankerton United or whatever backwater of bad teeth and effeminate personality they crawled out from) would put ten past the best J-League squad: the Urawa Antlers.
Then they will tell you that they are sooooooooo glad that they didn't pay for this garbage, because (pause for a swig of smuggled-in discount beer) it's only the best for them. Finally they will try to smooth everything over by saying thanks, even though the game was trash. Just give the ticket to a homeless guy. You'll have a better time.
3. Yosuke Kataoka
I have to go with Yosuke Kataoka as the player I am going to like the least this coming year. Maybe it's because he has the quick wits and acumen of a lemur. Maybe it's his undying urge to backpass, no matter what the situation. Maybe it's because he gets consistent playing time, even though he has the propensity to make truly stupid mistakes.
The one time I met him, he wasn't especially pleasant. Sure, he could've been having a bad day or broke up with his girlfriend or lost a pet. It doesn't matter. He should treat me with respect. I AM A BLOGGER AFTER ALL!
No, the reason I hate him is because the sexy bartender is a huge Kataoka fan and that pisses me off.
4. The Sexy Bartender At Omiya Hub
Why do you insist on being infatuated with that sub-human excuse for a midfielder, you temptress of the tap? It's because of his stomach muscles, isn't it? A guy masters eight-minute abs and you get all gushy in the knees. Seriously, one big stomach muscle is better than a ton of little ones. After all, what's better at a party, a six-pack or a keg?
5. The J-League Message Board Poster
Every year, some fool will pop off about how it's 100% certain that Omiya will be one of the teams to be relegated. During the year, another fool will pop off about how great it is that a big club (usually Urawa) beat Ardija because they are filled with overpaid internationals and they deserve to win... oh yeah, and that Omiya should be relegated.
Near the end of the year, more of these fools will pop off with absolute certainty that Omiya will be one of the teams that goes to J2 and joke about how great it will be for Omiya to play so and so because of a stupid reason that hilarious only to said idiot.
Finally, Omiya will survive and people will say they were very lucky to survive because the team that went down was much better and it wasn't deserved. Year Five of this garbage starts on March 7th.
6. The Cell Phone Guy
This one is pretty generic, but it happens all the time. I get to the game early, pick a secluded spot and wait for the game only for this guy to come at minute five and stand in front of me, yelling in his phone so the only thing I experience at the game is him. Oh yeah, usually he smells of BO, tobacco and those awful tuna mayo rice triangles. Same guy finds me on trains as well.
7. The Reds Fan
Not all of 'em (though let's not rule that idea out). I have one specific one in mind. There's a guy who comes to Omiya games clad in all Urawa gear. Dirty hat, old jersey and scarf. I'm not sure if his wife drags him to Omiya games or if he's just a cheeky old git, but I wish some kid would come up and pop him right in his red diamonds if you know what I mean.
8. Yuji Nakazawa of Omiya Ardija
It might be very unfair but after accepting a huge contract, you gotta expect the pressure to be on you. Anything short of a championship in some form or other and you will look like a bad signing. I also tend to worry about a guy who has a lot of miles on the clock and extra World Cup qualifiers ahead. A bit scary, if you ask me.
Today GGOA is delighted to introduce a brand new feature to the site, with the first in a series of typically contemplative pieces from Steve that come under the heading of Agent Orange...
I have never known an Omiya team without the numbingly slow reflexes of Hiroki Aratani between the sticks. I have never seen an Omiya team without the looming threat of Hiroshi Morita lining up at the top and killing all offensive momentum with an errant shot or awful pass. I have never attended an Omiya game without the lurking fear that Takuro Nishimura would come into a game and make a crucial mistake that would cost us a goal, or send us a man down with a particularly clumsy foul.
I have experienced this dread for as long as I have been an Omiya fan. At first, it wasn't strong. Most of my early supporter angst had been caused by a portly dirty blond by the name of Tuto, who now finds himself thrilling the masses in Shonan and who managed to hit everything but the back of the net, displaying the accuracy of an old Iraqi scud missile. It wasn't until he left that the blinders of Tuto hate were removed and I was able to see the true ineptitude of these three fantasistas. It seemed that in every game they could not get head and body on the same page.
Now they are gone.
For two and a half years, Aratani was the starting goalkeeper for Omiya. He never let the squad get completely embarrassed, but there was always the fear that he would concede a soft goal to doom the team to another loss. On one occasion, he faced one shot... and lost the game 1-0. In 2007 he started to put together a string of decent performances and looked capable in net, but a forearm injury ended his season and his tenure as the Squirrels' first choice keeper. He didn't complain when Koji Ezumi took his spot and remained professional in a tough situation.
Takuro Nishimura came to Ardija from the hated Urawa Reds and always approached the game with a big toothy grin and a ton of energy. A string of five games getting booked with red cards essentially relegated him to reserve team status. Nishimura wasn't the most skillful of players but on occasion he could take an opponent off a dribble and contribute a dangerous shot or pass.
Hiroshi Morita came to the team in 2004 and will go down in Squirrels lore as the man who scored THE GOAL. Morita could play 85 minutes of the most shockingly inept soccer ever seen to man and then score in the 86th when you least expected it. One of his most memorable goals was a tap-in against the run of play against the soon-to-be Asian champs and crosstown rivals Urawa, which helped the team survive relegation in 2007.
All three seemed to really enjoy being members of the Ardija squad, and off the field all three are really nice guys who wouldn't hesitate to talk to a fan or take a picture, even with one who muttered obscenities about them under his breath. So now we will see them possibly suit up for different squads next season. Morita is already rumored to be heading to Yamanashi to rejoin the dark prince of the front office, Satoru Sakuma, at Ventforet Kofu. Now I don't have the fear of them making a crucial mistake that costs us a game or puts us on the edge of relegation.