Teaching In Socks

Soccer Swans
March 9, 2009, 4:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , ,
i thought winning was the only thing.

half-time entertainment = mountains

On Sunday, I went to Kyoto with a few of my students to watch a soccer game. I went to several games last year to support my adopted team, Vissel Kobe, but this was the opening week of the 2009 season.

The professional league in Japan, J-league 1, was established the same year as MLS was in America; however, it is, it my estimation, relatively more popular in Japan.  While baseball is wildly popular and has a similar season, it is the only sport that the J-League really has to compete with for an audience.  It also helps that Japan has co-hosted a World Cup within the last decade, and soccer doesn’t carry the kind of stigma in Japan, the some feel it has in America

Thus, I found myself at a packed converted college stadium with around 17,000 other people to watch Vissel Kobe take on Kyoto Sagna. Being a new league compared ot Europe, the teams, and their fans specifically, look to Europe for inspiration in building traditions. As with anything that corsses language and cultural barriers, there are elements that are lost in translation.

Several team names are the most obvious examples of this. The most successful team over the last few years has been the Kashima Antlers. The translation of the city name Kashima literally means “deer island”. Still my students were delighted to learn what the word “Antler” meant, even though the team logo is a silhouette of a deer head.

Another popular team, Gamba Osaka, has a name with mixed derivation. “Gamba” in Italian means “leg”. “Gambaru” is a Japanese word for “do one’s best”.  I’m not sure many of their own fans pick on the cleverness of the nomenclature. My students actually argued over the root of this name until we checked the internet to discover that they were both right.

However, I think the names of the two particpants of the match I attended are the most interesting of the bunch. Vissel Kobe is a derivation of two English words into what might be described as an English non-word. Kobe is famous for it’s shipping port, which prior to the earthquake in 1995 rivaled Tokyo’s, thus the owners or marketing wizards in charge combined the word “victory” with the word “vessel”, hoping to capture the spirit of the city. Instead they created this lexicographical mutant, which I had always assumed was denoting a corporate sponsorship of the team by a vacuum company. (Please note, I do not condoen Vacuum compnay sponsorship of professional sprts teams unless it’s one of the following The Dyson Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Cubs brough to you by Hoover, or the Washington Oreck-Generals) (SubNote: The New Jersey Dirt Devils may also be acceptable).

While, Vissel is a non-word, I found that even less people knew what “Sagna” meant even though it has actually etymological roots. I will confess I had to turn to Wikipedia for this one, but the article stated that “Sanga” is a Sanskrit word for “group” and is an homage to Kyoto’s tradition as the epicenter of  Buddhism in Japan.

I’m not sure which is a more peculiar choice for a team name, a modern cocktail of two words, or a word from multi-millennium old language that has about a total of 14,000 living speakers remaining, none whom live in Japan, let alone Kyoto (that I know of).

Nomenclature aside, a game was played between the “victorious ships” and the “group”. While there were moments of inspired play, it was evident that this was the beginning of the season.  While Kyoto Sanga spent a good portion of the start of the match and the end of the match backed up against their goal, they were able to grab a goal in the middle and keep a clean sheet and the 1-0 victory.

Having read the soccer-sociologist bible, “How Soccer Explains the World” a few years ago, I’m always trying to look at the game as something greater than just soccer– rather and entity indicative of a social identity. On Sunday, two things stood out in this regard. First, the league allows each team a quota of four foreign born players. Almost league-wide these players tend to be Brazilian or Korean–and I would say a brief survey suggest they are predominantly Brazilian. Brazilians are to the J-League what Americans are to Japanese baseball.

While in one respect this can be attributed to the surplus of soccer talent in Brazil,  while in Japan I have learned that during the 1980’s there was an engineer exchange program between Brazil and Japan. many Brazilians came over to Japan as part of a program to train engineers. There are several cities in Japan that have substantial Brazilian populations. I imagine that this program, over time, has forged a national familiarity between the two countries, and soccer has become part of the social currency exchanged.

Stylistically too, the Brazilian players compliment the Japanese style of play. Although I’m not sure to what degree Brazilian influence has crafted the Japanese style any more than any other country; from loose observation what I saw, and have seen from the national team, appears to be something that feels organically Japanese.

Goals and chances may begin with a variety of ways, but the preferred method of attacking always seems to include lots of short, quick passes, delicate footwork, clever and calculated little runs complimented by these intricately weighted balls designed to dissect the defense rather than overpower it or out-run it.

Watching Japanese soccer always reminds me of Oragami. I think of this way: if you asked an American or German to turn a a piece of paper into the shape of a swan, they would get out pair of scissors and swfitly cut the paper into the proper shape (and Germans would yell cuss words the entire time and measure things in millimeters). However, A Japanese person would undertake the process by executing a sequence of precise folds, exuding  diligence  with each step until creating this fascinating  3-d representation.

In soccer terms, this can be a frustratiing process to be audience too. Whether it be Vissel, or the Japanese National team (which is notoriously guilty of this style of soccer for better or worse), I often find myself wanting to shout at the player to play more directly. The again, America’s soccer record doesn’t give me much leverage in any suggestion I would make.

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