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Rakuten, Referees and the Rising Nagoya

Sunday 9th September 2018

Andres Iniesta settled his family in Japan. No further mid-season excursions will occur. The Barcelona legend embedded himself at Vissel Kobe. In the month's first two home games, he made the score sheet against Jubilo Iwata and Sanfrecce Hiroshima in consecutive games. 

Victory against Shonan Bellmare followed but then a cruel twist of fate. Kobe suffered four defeats in 12 days, mustering one goal in the 360-minute nightmare while plummeting down the table to seventh. Elimination from the Emperor's Cup compounded their misery. Dreams of continental football next year may be dashed.

The J.League's other Spanish import, Fernando Torres, played a hand. He scored the final goal in Sagan Tosu’s cup win against Vissel. The two big-name Spaniards in one game was a treat for just the one.

Elsewhere, Nagoya Grampus are enjoying a phoenix-like resurgence. They were bottom. Rock bottom. Many wrote off the club. Supporters tried to make their half-empty glass half-full, eying a return to J2 as an opportunity to win a match again. The club stuck by manager Yahiro Kazama who won promotion last year. Come August, the club woke from its slumber.

Hopeful signs appeared last month, albeit unrecognised. Still bottom, they held table-toppers Sanfrecce Hiroshima goalless. A mean feat considering. Opponents rarely take anything from the purple-clad side.

Since that draw, they've won six in a row. Gary Lineker and Arsene Wenger’s former side boast the division's best form. They are the club to beat despite sitting at the foot of the table for so long. 

Jo is the spark. The former Manchester City forward proved his worth with 12 goals in the last six games. Forget Will Grigg; Jo is on fire. Hattricks against Gamba Osaka and Urawa Red Diamonds made up for another slow start to life in Japan. The Brazilian's on 18 for the season, matching his full title-winning season with Corinthians in 2017. Countryman Gabriel Xavier has his back, providing the lion's share of assists on Jo's goals.

Nagoya must build on their momentum in the final ten matches. Currently 11th, they’ve turned it around but the sooner safety is guaranteed, the sooner they can turn their thoughts to the future.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima remain in pole position despite an inconsistent August. Four wins, two draws with a loss in there too. While their spirit may be out of alignment, Sanfre maintain a nine-point advantage over their closest rival. Two or three wins should wrap up the title. 

Patric is still on the rampage, lining up to take the golden boot for the season. Shibasaki is playing well, too, the attack going through the playmaker.

Kawasaki Frontale are second. They beat Sanfrecce but retaining their title is still a long shot. They must rely heavily on other clubs. Their continued presence in continental competition holds firm. The top three J.League squads qualify automatically. 

FC Tokyo, Consadole Sapporo, Cerezo Osaka, and Velgalta Sendai chase the same dream. Any of the three can finish third, booking their flight to Asia next year.

Happiness and light is well and good, but there is a dark side to football. V-Varen Nagasaki aren't enjoying their first J1 season. They are last in the league, eight points from safety. It’s been a long haul for the initiates who are too often outclassed.

Experience doesn’t always have the answers, either. Gamba Osaka won league titles. They're among the most recognised Asian clubs, with the advent of FIFA video games, maybe even the world, but former glories haven't saved them from a torrid season. Sloppy defence paired with limited creativity leaves them facing the drop.

Fernando Torres’ Sagan Tosu are third-bottom, facing a relegation-promotion playoff. Time remains to forego that necessity. Also trying to stave off relegation are the inconsistent quartet, Kashiwa Reysol, Yokohama F-Marinos, Shonan Bellmare, and Shimizu S-Pulse. None have found strong form this season. Any could go down should they continue to cast about in vain.

In more turbulent news, officiating quality has dropped. Several Horribly wrong decisions have been made. This isn't a reaction to calls against my clubs. It's a league-wide problem. Offsides are routinely given the wrong way. Decisions surrounding penalties are just as subject to scrutiny. Stone-cold fouls are excused, dubious infractions awarded. These things are happening and the supporters are very aware.

Main J.League broadcaster DAZN's in-play broadcasters traditionally remain polite, never questioning decisions.  At least once this term they've made an exception, defying societal norms to call out the match official. Higher-ups still avoid replays that incite controversy, no replays, no chance to review. But we live in the digital age. The consumer can record games to watch on time delay, then create their own replays. If the quality continues to diminish, social media will take up the debate.

Wrapping the JFA and J.League in cotton wool doesn't help. Unresolved and tacitly condoned errors hurt the product. Everyone suffers. It's unhealthy for the league's further development. J.League can attract Iniesta, Podolski, and Torres but such stars won't stay if the league is poorly run. This is a problem the federation can't sweep under the rug.

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Warren Smith

A British and J.League soccer enthusiast, now local to Yokohama, Japan. A keen Arsenal supporter. Has been known to play the game every once in awhile, once likened to Xherdan Shaqiri. 

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