Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Japanese Revolution?

As they took a 3-1 win over the Bermuda Select Team Tuesday night, there were a few new faces on the field for the Revolution. Among the new faces were Takashi Hirano and Takuya Yamada, a pair of Japanese nationals currently on a trial with the club during the team’s Bermuda excursion.

Hirano, 34, has played primarily on the left midfield during his 14-year career in Japan's top-tier professional soccer league, J.League. He also starred with the Japanese National Team in the late-1990s, where he earned 15 caps during his national team career, and participated in the 1997 World Cup qualifiers, before appearing in the 1998 World Cup. The Shizuoka native scored four goals in international competition for the JNT.

During his J.League career, he appeared in 340 matches, and scored a total of 53 goals. His most productive season was back in 1995, where he appeared in 50 games and scored 9 goals for the Nagoya Grampus Eight, the team in which he made his professional soccer debut only two years previous. In 2006, he saw limited action in nine games for the Yokohama F. Marinos, after a medical issue forced him to the sidelines for a majority of the J.League season. He was subsequently released after the season concluded.

Yamada, 32, began his career playing for Tokyo Verdy in 1997 before moving to Cerezo Osakain 2005. He has appeared in 296 J.League games and has accumulated four caps for the Japanese National Team, with appearances in 2003 and 2004. In late-2006, Yamada reportedly auditioned for Adelaide United, an Autralian soccer team.

During the course of the Revs tilt vs. Bermuda, neither assisted nor scored on any of the Revs three goals, although both appeared to hold their respective positions fairly well. Announcer Brad Feldman commented in particular on Hirano’s fine crosses in the 2nd half.

So with the above noted, one has to beg the following question: what do the Revs see in these seemingly “over the hill” players? Clearly, players with over thirteen professional seasons apiece behind them are certainly not at their respective peaks - if anything, both players’ peaks had passed some time ago. Although the team risks little in offering trials, one has to question the motive behind the invitations. Perhaps, the best way to view the club’s interest in Hirano and Yamada, both of whom are essentially free agents, could be the fact that neither would require a high salary nor a transfer fee should either stick with the club.

However, if one were to read deeper into the trials of these Japanese players, one could also posit that the Revs could be using these invitations as an attempt to ride the coat-tails of the widely-publicized arrival of Japanese superstar Daisuke Matsuzaka by the Red Sox this winter. Although the signing of Matsuzaka occurred outside of the soccer realm, one could see the regional (and quite possibly, national) impact of the enormous publicity garnered by the deal. Within days, Matsuzaka-branded merchandise flew off the shelves from Cape Cod to Caribou, eaten up by a hungry public enticed by the hype surrounding "the best Japan has to offer Major League Baseball." When he arrived at Fort Myers last week, he was surrounded by a phalanx of cameras and writers. The coverage, which dwindles down to that of the minutest detail (one such report noted that Matsuzaka-san “wore his sunglasses above his brow upon exiting the driver’s side of his black Cadillac Escalade” – riveting!) already has New England gripped in Dice-K Fever almost two months before baseball season starts.

It would be foolish to think that these very hijinks would converge upon the doorstep of One Patriot Place for any soccer player outside of David Beckham. However, the Revs could stand to gain at least a portion of this type of publicity should they sign a Japanese national. The announcement of such a signing would be much more pronounced due to the Matsuzaka factor alone. That being said, should a highly-coveted Portuguese national become unattainable, the next best international signing could be a Japanese player.

The J.League itself has become an increasingly more competitive league in recent years, and its fruits have borne such international stars such as Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura. In fact, many have compared the competition levels between J.League and MLS at about the same echelon. Given Nakata's recent retirement, if the Hirano and Yamada trials are unsuccessful, is there any harm in whispering an offer to the 30 year-old Nakata?

Often called the "Japanese David Beckham", Nakata is listed as one of the “Best 125 Living Footballers in the World” by Pele. He is indubitably the pride of Japanese soccer, and is both a sports and cultural icon in Japan. He owns a chain of restaurant-cafes in and around Tokyo, and also has a considerable profile in the fashion world, where he can be seen perusing runway shows in Europe. His status in Japan would entice a considerable Japanese media contingent here in the States that would rival the one currently surrounding Matsuzaka, thus spreading the international visibility of the Revolution brand to unprecedented levels. Granted, Nakata - if enticed to “unretire” - would command a much higher salary than a lesser-known Hirano or Yamada, unquestionably in the millions of dollars. But isn't this what the DPA is for?

In any event, one cannot underestimate the fervor to which the Japanese sports media covers its national stars abroad. Since Korea/Japan 2002, the popularity of soccer in Japan has increased dramatically. It has achieved a national following second only to baseball. With a large media contingent already anchored in Boston for Matsuzaka Mania, a short drive down to Gillette to cover another native son would make international coverage of a Japanese national even more convenient. It need not be a superstar like Nakata - a high-caliber J.League star would certainly suffice. One such candidate could be Kazuki Ganaha, a 26 year-old forward for Kawasaki Frontale. In 2006, he became the first Okinawa native to be capped by the Japanese National Team after scoring an impressive 18 goals for Kawasaki. Though his name is certainly not as glamorous as Nakata’s, it was only one year ago that Daisuke Matsuzaka was a relative unknown outside of the Far East.

That being said, the Japanese always do well to trumpet their prestigious athletes, and the arrival of a Japanese star in Foxboro like Ganaha would be no exception. It would come as no surprise if Japan were soon populated with soccer fans adorned in Revolution jerseys bearing the name of their newly-exported jewel. In short, this is the breed of publicity you cannot simply buy. The throng of accompanying Japanese reporters would become a de facto international marketing machine if the club were to land a J.League import.

In theory, a speedy forward like Ganaha, or even a speedy Jungo Fujimoto (2006 J.League Rookie of the Year) with a low transfer fee and/or salary could become a considerable dark horse option for the Revs to use its DPA on, should the signing of a Portuguese national not work out. The hype surrounding the signing of a Japanese player would, in effect, tap into a bastion of media coverage the team has never seen. Coverage of the club would be seen in a Japanese market ready to consume everything and anything associated with one of its own. On the field, the prospects of acquiring one of the aforementioned would only complement an already-talented forward line at a much lower price than a Luis Figo. It may be in the best interests given the sports climate in Boston alone, to say yokoso to a talented, less-heralded, Japanese player.

1 comment:

Pat said...

This article is old, but there are a lot of misconceptions laced within that I'd like to clear up -- if only for future reference.

- JLeague can and does pay good players more than MLS can currently afford with the salary cap (unless you're willing to shell out a DP.)
- JLeague clubs would not hand out very good players like Fujimoto or Ganaha for chump change. With a 3-foreigner rule, quality Japanese players are valued higher than their "face value."
- A couple years ago you may have been able to get a very good player for cheap (just look at xfer fees for players like Inamoto and Ono.) But this also had a lot to do with JFAs' push for players to go to Europe.
- That is not the case anymore, since the plights and treatment of players like Inamoto and Ono (in addition to many others) are now well known.
- Because of those plights there is actually a large distrust now of sending players out for the sake of it. This also puts the sword to the entire purpose of your blog -- namely that you want a Japanese player just to boost sales and attention.
- Japanese actually consider MLS to be a step below their league. I'm not saying that is the case, but that is definitely what they think. (And there are multiple players who couldn't cut it in JLeague that have played in MLS, not to mention the PPC was definitive even as a meaningless friendly.)
- Even as a DP, a Japanese player stands to lose any attention they could have had for the NT.
- Now consider the social challenges of a Japanese player abroad. Daisuke is a prima donna, but I'm sure you're aware how many "perks" he gets to make his life in Boston easier. Could MLS afford even half of those without DP status?


Put all of this together and you start to see why a good young Japanese player in the peek of their career is unlikely to even consider the option.

Especially when the intentions are so obviously shallow to begin with.