Tuesday, 28 December 2010

TENTH IN '10!!: #8. Crowdgate

So for the uninitiated, the basic facts about Omiya and the Crowdgate Scandal are as follows:

1. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported three or four days after the Saitama Derby with Urawa Reds at the start of October that Squirrels president Seigo Watanabe had been accused of adding about 4000 to the crowd figure, increasing the official attendance from 29,000 to 33,000.

2. Making statements to the effect that such deception went against the founding principles of a competition that had set out to deal honestly and openly in its relationships with sponsors, fans and others, the J-League quickly indicated that an official investigation into the matter was a tip-top idea.

3. Watanabe headed up to Tokyo pronto for a visit to the league's headquarters, where he apologised for trouble caused and the related bad publicity, while also asking for more time for Ardija to carry out their own internal investigation.

4. Press speculation went into overdrive as to the nature of the punishment heading Ardija's way, the good name of a supposedly family-friendly club being dragged through the mud. Talk of even a big fine sounded the lesser of two evils as far as the fans were concerned but a points deduction was a potential disaster considering the vulnerability of Omiya's position in the standings, just a handful of points above the relegation zone.

5. Two and a half weeks after the Reds match, Seigo Watanabe confirmed that ever since the Squirrels moved back into the revamped Omiya Park stadium at the end of 2007, there had been systematic inflation of Ardija's match attendances to the tune of about 111,000 people, by virtue of the inclusion within the official crowd figure of volunteers and other categories of attendees that J-League rules said should not be counted.

6. In mid-November it was announced that Omiya had been fined ¥20m, the joint-highest penalty ever imposed by the J-League, but there was to be no points deduction.

That's pretty the briefest possible rundown of what happened, but with the benefit of hindsight and a wider perspective how has it all turned out for the Squirrels? Well, an important consequence is that the club now has new people occupying the three most senior positions within the organisation: the Director of Operations and Head of Administration were both fired, while Watanabe resigned as president and was assigned to other duties - presumably shifted sideways within parent company NTT.

Looking back, his is a presidency characterised not so much by dishonesty as incompetence. Watanabe in conjunction with Technical Director colleagues Satoru Sakuma and more recently Haruo Yuuki were responsible over the years for setting the team ridiculous targets, including a top-five league finish and an aggregate home attendance of 300,000 people, which were both aims for the 2009 season (setting these in context, Ardija's highest league finish had previously been twelfth and they had never in a given season managed to attract more than 200,000 people, never mind 300,000).

Until recently it looked as though none of those objectives had been met, except for the 2009 crowd target. Now, however, recent investigations make clear that even that was in fact missed by fully 48,000 people. No-one doubts Watanabe's enthusiasm, or that he was genuine in his support for Ardija. But he was never a person who could take the Squirrels forward and hence the club has been stuck in a rut since gaining promotion to J1 at the end of 2004. In other words, to enable Omiya to progress it was necessary for Watanabe to move on and although there isn't anybody who would have wanted it to happen the way that it did, it's a good thing that he's not in charge anymore.

Assuming, of course, that the new guy is better. The Squirrels' incoming president is Shigeru Suzuki, on paper an outstanding political choice within the current context as his background lies not only within NTT and Ardija on the one hand but also as a former J-League matchday commissioner on the other. That is to say, he's a company man as well as being someone with considerable experience of the football establishment, which will no doubt help to reduce the level of tension in Ardija / J-League relations.

Suzuki's incumbency so far can of course be measured only in weeks, but if forced to make an early judgement one might say that he already seems to be better attuned to the supporters than was his predecessor. For while Watanabe blundered through escapades such as the infamous June 2009 supporters' meeting at which fans' concerns seemed to be brushed aside as he and Haruo Yuuki backed their own decision to appoint Jang Wae Ryong, indications are that Suzuki is more willing to engage in dialogue with fan groups - a relationship that may start to bear fruit in the New Year. Knowing also that Ardija need to be seen to be whiter than white, Suzuki has also introduced a new spirit of openness via such measures as public announcements relating to individual players and their contract renewals and a 2011 policy not to stage home matches at Saitama Stadium - the source of the Crowdgate trouble, as venue of the October Saitama Derby.

Links with the Watanabe era have been cut as a result of the departure of Yuuki and although following the end of the season information about new signings has been slower in coming than supporters would like, at least there are now reasons to be optimistic about 2011 and Omiya's future. Jun Suzuki has been kept on as coach and on the playing side key players Rafael and Lee Chun Soo have agreed to stay on with the Squirrels. Crowdgate as temporary humiliation but beneficial in the longer term? At the moment, it's looking like it could be.



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