Nichols vs Arnold: Perceptions of Japanese football

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    Australian U-23 Mitchell Nichols, right, fights for the ball with U-23 Japan's Yusuke Higa during their friendly soccer match in Niigata, Japan, Wednesday, June 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

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    As I gaze over my regular football information repositories that include blogs, social media and more formal online media I see a glaring double standard in people’s opinions on the J.League.

    Firstly let’s take Graham Arnold’s appointment as the new Vegalta Sendai manager.

    As a manager who had a rough trot as Australian manager and was generally lambasted and derided by everyone, Arnold made a successful transition into club football with the Central Coast managers going on to win titles and generally keeping his side at the pointy end of the table.

    Arnold has now gone international and has received praise not only for his forward thinking vision but also encouragement that it will put a spot light on Australian managers and (pending on his success) will enable more coaches to travel overseas to test their mettle in league’s across the world. Well done Graham, I’m with you and cheering for you all the way!

    Now let’s look at another Australian who’s looking to make a transition.

    Mitch Nichols, a Brisbane Roar centurion and now (what I would regard as) Melbourne Victory’s star 2013/14 signing is looking to make a home in the Land of the rising sun.

    Cerezo Osaka have made it public they are chasing the experienced midfielder for their upcoming 2014 J.League and Asian Champions League tilt.

    Cerezo, the ‘smaller’ of the two Osaka clubs, have finished an incredibly respectable fourth in the 2013 J.League and have secured their ACL spot through virtue of Hiroshima and Yokohama, teams that have already secured their spot through league qualification being the two Emperors Cup finalists.

    Cerezo is also bringing in new personnel on the management side of the game with Ranko Popovic signing from FC Tokyo to the Cherries.

    Popovic has seen Nichols ply his trade in two Asian Champions League matches when Brisbane played FC Tokyo, both at Suncorp and the National Stadium.

    However if you’re like me you will be quite surprised to find that the public reception of Nichols potential transfer away from Melbourne has been met with mixed reactions something generally not seen when Arnold made his announcement.

    Among the concerns, some of which are valid, some of which are not, relate to the standard of the J.League, the fee that will be paid, the potential advantage/disadvantage to Nichols career and his standing in the Australian national team by moving to a distant land.

    Firstly the J.League is Asia’s (both East and West) premier domestic club competition. It is not at all like China or Korea. I draw this distinction because there have been a few players who have not had the greatest of experiences in those locations.

    Chinese teams tend to jettison any and all foreign players if their league finishing position is not as high as they would have hoped, and continued corruption and match fixing issues plague the league.

    K-League is a bit of a football quagmire, with very strange attendance fluctuations, no promotion/relegation (In a geographically small country with incredible transport links with a proud, long and competitive football pedigree) and extremely limited English language coverage.

    My two case studies for this would be ex-Brisbane Roar footballer’s Luke De Vere (See also: Matt Simon) who, to the best of my knowledge, played nine K-league games in 2013 and Chinese experiment Matt McKay who bounced from Korea to China playing for Changchun Yatai before his contract being mutually terminated.

    What Japan has done in around 25 years to domestic football in their country is nothing short of remarkable.

    They have created a stable, quality club competition who consistently produces stars for both the Samurai Blue and foreigners (former Tokyo Verdy striker Hulk, anyone?).

    Japan has no less than 52 professional clubs with the establishment of ‘J3’ next season plus many others in the transition from semi-pro to professional.

    The fee that will be paid to Melbourne Victory is a valid concern. I, like many Australians, am sick of seeing players taken for peanuts (by world standards) and being forced to find replacements from local leagues care of insufficient transfer fees.

    Melbourne has rejected Cerezo’s initial bid and are awaiting a secondary offer (with Popovic reportedly very keen to secure Nichols signing).

    So what are the potential pros and cons to Nichols career by moving to the J.League? Firstly, let’s rip this off like a band-aid and just face facts, as I eluded to before, the gulf between the A-League and J.League is vast.

    Whilst Nichols career may improve by facing stiffer competition week in, week out he will also have to deal with much greater scrutiny and play against a higher standard of opponent that will be less forgiving.

    Nichols time in Brisbane was oft mired in debate between fans and also coaching staff with the 24-year-old dropped to the bench on occasion for what could best be described as ‘interest levels’.

    To be brutal; sometimes he showed up, sometimes he didn’t. If Nichols had a blinder he was (and is, at Victory) one of the best players in the league.

    If he dropped his head, his laziness could be infuriating for supporters and staff alike. I however believe Mitch is the real deal.

    A potential permanent Socceroo whose pace and vision will serve him well. If he drops his head in Japan however, his pants will be well and truly pulled down.

    Which leads me to his standing in the national team. My thoughts on the subject can be succinctly described that if Lucas Neill could play for Omiya and captain Australia, then there should be no issue for Nichols to manage this feat.

    English language coverage of the J.League is good and a medium-haul flight through the A-League off-season gives Ange Postecoglou and/or his staff no excuse not to view his stocks in the flesh.

    The league is of a good standard and facing the rigours of such a competition as well as the maturity gained from moving to a foreign country will serve his plight well.

    I think Mitch would do well to test himself in the J.League, I regard it as a stepping stone in his career and very beneficial if he intends on making a future move to Europe.

    The double standards that exist for Nichols when compared to Graham Arnold are perplexing, one way to look at it is that the Victory posses more supporters than the Mariners so the outcry is larger.

    I would however like to see Melbourne get a fair fee for his services. His potential move, along with Graham Arnold’s highlights the increasing standard of Australian products both on and off the pitch.