Monday, 27 December 2010

TENTH IN '10!!: #7. The Lost Boys Of 2008

At the beginning of the last game of 2010, a paradoxically familiar and yet barely recognizable face showed up on the visitors' side in Yokohama F Marinos' Nissan Stadium. Gone was the long hair that had had to be tied back to keep out of his eyes, along with the little goatee that gave him a physical resemblance to former Omiya star man Daigo Kobayashi. The face was rounder because of all the chemotherapy treatments he had gone through over the year and the leg that he had used to pinpoint free kicks now was hobbled. If you saw from afar, you'd think the man was a retiree and not a professional athlete.

The only clue betraying the identity of Taishi Tsukamoto was that giant beaming smile that publicly only left his face during a heart-wrenching press conference which shocked and saddened all fans of Omiya Ardija, as well as being a catalyst for a show of generosity that stretched all across Japan. The story of Tsukamoto and, to a lesser degree, the entire Omiya class of 2008, is a story of tragedy, frustration and - surprisingly - hope. And it all came to a head this year.

It really begins at the close of 2007, when the earlier Grand Scheme of Technical Director Satoru Sakuma and previous coach Toshiya Miura to over-pay a large collection of journeymen players with long resumes and a lot of mileage on the legs had left the team on the razor's edge of relegation and short on money for reinforcements. The 2008 plan under new boss Yasuhiro Higuchi was targeted towards bringing in young talent who would replenish a team that was lacking new blood and fresh legs.

On paper, it was by far the best crop of new talent Omiya had ever brought in and arguably was one of the best hauls in the J-League. Included in the class were a speedy forward from Omiya youth who had helped his team reach the final four of the prestigious J Youth cup, a high school midfielder from Gunma who was already a fixture in the Japan National Team youth structure, a shutdown central defender from the college ranks, a pair of team-mates who boasted speed and confidence in front of net and a side defender whose free kicks and acumen along the flanks had helped him become the assist king for all collegiates in 2007.

And now? After three short years, lockdown defender Tatsuya Kawahara is already out of the J-League system. Kohei Tokita, one of the two speedy team-mates, is now plying his trade in J2 for a troubled Oita Trinita side. Still with Omiya, Daisuke Watabe finished another up and down season with a strong flurry, capped by a commanding two-assist performance against Albirex Niigata to help Ardija remain in j1 for another year, while Takuya Aoki claimed the starting spot in central midfield during the World Cup break and strung together an erratic year, with promising performances followed by extreme disappointments. Masahiko Ichikawa had a debilitating leg injury early in 2009 and failed to show any of the flashes of good play when he came back.

All five, though, are overshadowed by Taishi. Given the number 2 shirt as the heir apparent to long-time Squirrels captain Seiichiro Okuno, Tsukamoto was mysteriously absent during the annual fan festival in January. After having appeared off and on for Jang Wae Ryong throughout 2009 (and often finding himself behing Tokita for a first-team slot), it appeared as though he was not in the plans of Omiya. Pre-season training camp started and ended with no Tsukamoto and no news whether or not he was still a member of the team. Rumors floated around days before the press conference that Tsukamoto would be cut from the squad and that the organization had had to scrap all of the yearbooks because they needed to take out all of his pictures and biography. In hindsight, that would have been a happy ending.

Instead, we were all stunned as Tsukamoto and president Watanabe broke the news of the talented young defender's cancer battle. The team, which had been maligned for how they handled personnel decisions, handled this one in the best possible way by protecting Taishi's right to privacy until he was ready to make a definite announcement. The fact that they then kept him on the squad and included him as much as possible was one of the few very good things they did this year.

The climactic moment was in the season opener against Cerezo Osaka, when an emotional and focused Omiya squad ran over a team that would end the year as one the three ACL participants for 2011. The details aren't important now and the game itself was the only real bright spot for Jang in 2010, but it still remains as possibly the most memorable and poignant moment in a long season. Tributes of support were displayed by fans of Cerezo, Vegalta Sendai, Shimizu S-Pulse and FC Tokyo - and then they disappeared. The media started getting bored with the story, by first referring to Tsukamoto as "Cancer" Tsukamoto in headlines and then not mentioning him at all.

A story that would have lasted all year had it happened to a young talent at one of the bigger clubs got pushed aside and then became buried by waves of reports about Ardija's "accounting irregularities". As the matches went on, it kind of got lost by the Omiya supporters as well. Occasionally we would see Tsukamoto appear at games and a welcome report in the middle of the season said he had responded well to treatment. We'd see him in Kyoto and at the final home game at NACK, celebrated by a row of banners emblazoned with the eponymous number 2.

Finally, in Yokohama we might have witnessed Tsukamoto on his last day as a professional player, bald head, puffy face, limping and flashing his trademark grin from ear to ear. Watching two of his classmates from the class of 2008 trying their best to win a meaningless game and impress enough to earn starting spots for next year. All three offering hope in different ways that something good comes out of the disappointment of a promising group of players. For Aoki and Watabe, it's the hope that one or both can break through and be solid J-League players at the least. For Tsukamoto, it's the hope that he lives a long, happy and healthy life as a former professional soccer player.



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