Sunday, 17 October 2010

Agent Orange: Orange Watergate

I'm writing these words during the middle of the Gamba Osaka game and as I type, Omiya is trailing 3-1. Mato Neretljak was thrown out on a straight red, which means that three Omiya players have been sidelined because of yellow card/red card problems multiple times. Eleven player-games have been missed because of card accumulation. Contrast that with both the Tohuku squads in J1 - Montedio Yamagata and Vegalta Sendai - who this year have yet to receive a red card between the two of them, in spite of aggressive, defensive styles. Both teams put together have lost only six games to card accumulation.

I haven't seen either Mato's violation or that of Shunsuke Fukuda, so to be fair I can't say if they were or weren't warranted. I will say that my first inclination is to think, Hey, maybe the refs are screwing us again. For five years of my Omiya fandom, I was a guy who could see the big flaws in our team and just kind of accepted that calls would go against us because we were the weaker squad. This year, however, has seen a string of very, very dubious calls, including:

  • a game in which an obvious goal wasn't allowed
  • a PK awarded when an opposing player pushed our defender in the back and earned the call for... I'm not sure
  • a farcical game in which two of our players were run off with red cards
  • a guest referee who gave a dubious red in a derby match
  • a referee who waived the offside rule for a good thirty minutes and 
  • numerous other games when fouls are not fouls for the opposition, but are cardable offenses for us.
The past ten days has seen a slew of articles about the "unforgivable" act carried out by Seigo Watanabe and company in padding the numbers. I'm still pissed off that our esteemed President did this and then tried to lie about it. However, more and more I am becoming convinced that this crime could be found out very easily in over half the teams in the J-League and the reason that hasn't happened is because the J-League doesn't want to know about it. Especially when your stars are icons.

For Ardija, this seems like a problem that could have been fixed easily. Watanabe proposes that the J-League picks an independent auditor to monitor our attendance count (at Omiya's cost) for an undetermined time that satisfies the J-League. We get a reprimand and are put on probation for three years. If we have another violation, a huge fine. After that, points docked. It's solved... took me three minutes to come up with that. The J-League, however, has to investigate. Do due diligence and check out whether or not a crime occurred. Even though a crime occurred and the perpetrators have confessed.

What's the point of dragging this out? What's the point of letting Omiya twist in the wind during the key period of the year for teams to recruit college and high school players? What penalty could you hand out that would be equitable to the crime, considering that the longer you delay, the more credibility and ability to sell the team to prospective fans, sponsors and new signings gets worn away? The J-League has to know that pointing the finger will mean that sponsors lose faith in the word of the club.

In an economy that has seen even the biggest team in Japan lose sponsors and strugglers like Oita Trinita, Tokyo Verdy and now Shonan Bellmare scrambling for anyone to put their name on the front of the shirt, who would the J-League behave that way to a club such as ours that is already finding it hard to find fans and sponsors? Why would the J-League do something that on the face of it looks like giving somebody a death sentence for stealing a candy bar?

I think that the J-League wants Ardija to lose their sponsors - or, more specifically, sponsor. I think they are dragging this out because they want NTT and DoCoMo to pull out of Omiya. I think they want NTT DoCoMo to move to another Kanto squad who is dominant but under-acheiving in a very large market. I think they want NTT DoCoMo to replace the sponsor that this big Kanto team just lost last year. I think that the J-League wants DoCoMo on FC Tokyo shirts in the near future. And a case can be made for DoCoMo doing it.

So, dear readers, strap on your tinfoil hats and dig in to Agent Orange's giant conspiracy column! Apologies in advance if I start sounding like an anonymous Slovenian poster railing about Korean mafia money.

The case for NTT sponsoring FC Tokyo

In the past year, FC Tokyo has been represented on the National Team by Naohiro Ishikawa, Takuji Yonemoto, Shuichi Gonda and the insufferable Sota Hirayama. They had two more players, Yuto Nagatomo and Yasuyuki Konno, represent Japan in the World Cup. Their players pepper every team in the National Team system. The man in charge of administering the National Team is a long-time former team leader and a man familiar with every member of the squad.

Omiya for its part had Takuya Aoki take a National Team trip to Yemen and not see any playing time. I guess you could count An Yong Hak playing for North Korea, but An Yong Hak doesn't really appear in games anymore and North Korea is North Korea. Even casual National Team watchers can identify a guy like Konno. Who (if you don't follow the league or team with any effort) on Omiya is identifiable? Who is a name on this team? Who is a star? Nobody.

FC Tokyo, while not achieving all that much in terms of trophies, is important because of their place in the world. Literally. With the slow, sad, creeping demise of Tokyo Verdy into J2 purgatory and a possible death, FC Tokyo finds itself (through no fault of its own) the preeminent team in the nation's capital. They sit around third or fourth in a list of best-supported teams in the J-League, hovering at around 25,000 fans annually, which is almost double the "alleged" number of fans reported by Ardija.

FC Tokyo have games on non-paid/non-cable national televison at least once a year. Omiya has appeared on TV nationally once - in 2005, when the team reached the semi-final of the Emperor's Cup. FC Tokyo, in the midst of their slump this season to sixteenth place in the table and the dismissal of their coach, has appeared on covers of both weekly soccer magazines and El Golazo last month alone. They appeared on covers for their Nabisco Cup win, season previews and stints during the season. Omiya has never garnered the cover of one of the weekly soccer magazines in their J1 history; as far as I know, they have never garnered a cover at all.

NTT DoCoMo could take the large amount of money they give to Omiya and offer to replace at FC Tokyo Life Value, an unknown fuel company whose longevity and prestige are far lower than DoCoMo. They could go in and automatically get more exposure and free publicity for their product by putting their name on FC Tokyo shirts. They would automatically have the ability to directly reach at least 10,000 more people on a semi-weekly basis. They would get more bang for their buck.

NTT DoCoMo already is a minor sponsor for Ventforet Kofu, Avispa Fukuoka and Albirex Niigata - in other words, they do seem to be committed to the game. Why not get their name on a team with a far bigger reach than the one they have? Why hasn't NTT decided to do this already?

Well, two reasons. First, it's really hard for companies who are identified with a product to pull out. Can you imagine Panasonic jumping ship for Urawa Reds or Hitachi deciding that Kashiwa Reysol was not worth the effort and jumping ship to Kawasaki Frontale? NTT for better or worse is the backbone of Ardija. Really, they fund almost every part of the team. Ticket sales aren't doing it and other sponsors aren't giving enough: Fuji Pharmaceuticals could actually pull out next year because of the financial troubles they are in now. If NTT decides to pull out, it would probably be the death of a team that it has backed for over forty years. Jumping to a direct rival would be especially cruel.

Second, the J-League had a similar situation with ANA deciding to merge Yokohama Flugels with crosstown rival the Marinos. The PR hit to ANA and the league was traumatic. Flugels were a sympathetic team to the public and the players were regarded as heroes for the brave way they fought through a rough situation. NTT does not want to be branded as a disloyal entity. And the J-League does not want to go through another "tragedy".

Making Ardija toxic

Here's where I go off the rails with conspiracy talk! I think that the longer the current "investigation" goes on, the more stories about Omiya being a dirty club come out. I think the more Omiya is painted as a dirty club, the more the fans will buy into this perception. Non-fans already see Ardija as a weak, unappealing team as it is. Every year, most of the experts look at our team on paper and judge that we are relegation fodder.

I think the role of us as scrappy underdog has already worn on the nerves of people in the media and in the J-League offices. We have no stars, no real commercial appeal and we have no real aspirations to be more than what we are. Star players don't want to play here and it's becoming increasingly apparent that we are hated only slightly less by the refs than Vissel Kobe. Kawasaki Frontale insulted royalty and are treated better than us. I think the J-League wants us to go away.

The fastest way to do that is by cutting off the money. I think that if we had Shunsuke Nakamura on our team, there is no way we would be hearing anything about an investigation. I think if we had Yasuhito Endo on our team, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Because our biggest star year in and year out is Chikara Fujimoto, we are in the cross hairs now. I mention those Nakamura and Endo specifically because there are still rumblings that both Gamba and the Marinos have done number-padding in the past.

I think that the J-League is specifically doing this to us in order to make us so toxic that NTT will be the sympathetic party if they leave. I think the J-League are going to milk this story for all it's worth, in order not only to make themselves look like an entity that takes corruption seriously, but also to make it almost impossible for NTT to stay with the club. I think that more "details" will come out of this investigation.

I also think that this stream of stories talking about the deception by Ardija doesn't happen with the tacit approval of J-League headquarters. The Urawa stories came and went fairly fast. The cameraman attack didn't come out until after the investigation was completed. Have you heard much about Montedio Yamagata and their staffer with child porn? I think the J-League want to match up one of its bigger franchises with one of its bigger sponsors. Why?

The Japanese Premier League

A while ago, Ken Matsushima over at Rising Sun News had a very detailed piece about a prospective new J-League with three tiers and only ten teams in the top division. Eventually that number would increase, but at the start, the ten best teams in Japan would start the league. I think that the J-League desperately wants the country's biggest market to be represented in that division. Starting out a league with a representative from the capital makes sense.

But in its current state, FC Tokyo doesn't have the backing to spend on good foreign products. Since Lucas left, they really haven't had a top-notch foreign import. NTT has proven in the past that they will spend on foreign products. Every year they have a decent foreign centerback. Recently they have spent on forwards who have produced at respectable clips. NTT is willing to be a player in the foreign transfer market, something FC Tokyo is more hesitant to do.

Coming out of a Nabisco Cup-winning year, FC Tokyo opted to only add a couple of project foreign players, a young and well-regarded defender from Oita and a midfielder on the outs at Niigata. The results haven't been good. When the team suffered a rash of injuries, they stayed rather quiet in the transfer market, only adding the over-rated and disappointing Masashi Oguro as a loan.

NTT meanwhile gave over funds for two former Korean World Cup members and Norio Suzuki. Both teams are still in danger of being relegated, but one has stabilized while the other - with a lot of big names and past and present national teamers - has stumbled. If Kobe wins on Sunday, FC Tokyo will find itself in danger again. And the J-League can't put them in a new Premier League if they are in J2.


I'll admit it sounds a little wacky. A lot wacky. Rubber room wacky. But you gotta admit, it has a slight ring of believability to it.

It's just my theory... there's only rumors of NTT leaving Omiya at the moment and none linking them to FC Tokyo. As I write this, Omiya has lost 5-1, four of those Gamba goals coming after a red card in the nineteenth minute of a tie game. As I write this, Omiya will plan for a game with yet another back four. As I write this, Yamagata and Sendai are the frontrunners for the Fair Play award and are almost assured of living to see another year of mediocre play in J1. As I write this, we are still barely holding our head above water both in the standings and in the board room, waiting to see what the J-League will do to us next.

I only pray that somebody from Vissel tries to rape a panda. That might save us.



Anonymous,  18 October 2010 at 01:18  

Definitely a card it was an awful high karate style kick to the face, totally reckless. A red ? maybe a bit harsh. I hope Squirrels can forget the nightmare.

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