26 | 07 | 2014

Aussie Hatchet Job Scandalizes Sendai


Axe-Grinding 101

Following Graham Arnold's departure from Vegalta Sendai, several articles have appeared in the Australian press presenting a very harsh view of the Tohoku-based club. If true, they would be highly newsworthy. However, it seems that the writers have a strange aversion to fact-checking.


Just two days ago, in a report on the weekend's J.League results, I discussed the difficulties that Graham Arnold was having at Vegalta Sendai, and noted that if he failed to get the team on an even keel by the end of April, he might be looking for a new job. As it turned out, he did not even last that long. On Tuesday evening rumours began to circulate and by Wednesday morning the sports tabloids were already reporting his resignation. Superficially, this was a pretty typical story of a somewhat untested coach trying to step into a very difficult position, and failing to make the grade. There are a few lessons to be learned, and some insights that coach Arnold's short tenure may provide to other foreign coaches considering an offer from Japan.

However, I was far more intrigued by the way that this story was handled by the press (especially in Australia), and the reactions it provoked, than by coach Arnold's resignation itself. This is not the first time that press treatment of a story on the J.League has caused confusion and embarrassment to all parties. In fact, it has been a very common problem where overseas reporting on the J.League is concerned, and one that is difficult to explain away on the basis of "poor communication" or some supposed "language gap". In just the past few years, erroneous stories in the Australian press have created problems for at least a half-dozen J.League clubs. Perhaps this is a good time to take a look at the situation, and ask why the Australian press, in particular, has spawned so many "scandals" involving J.League clubs. Let's start by examining the reports printed in the past two days about Graham Arnold and Vegalta Sendai.

Late on Tuesday night, a few of the online editions of Japanese newspapers - in particular, Sports Nippon (http://www.sponichi.co.jp/soccer/) and Sankei Sports (http://www.sanspo.com/soccer/soccer.html) - ran breif articles reporting that Coach Arnold had stepped down. The term used in Japanese - "kainin (解任)" - simply means that the person no longer has a job. It requires additional context before one can determine if the correct translation would be "was fired" or "resigned". By the following morning, the Japanese papers were all offering full details which noted that club and coach had reached a mutual decision to terminate Arnold's contract. The coach had given his assessment of what had to be done to get Vegalta on the right track, team management informed him that his requests could not be met, and both agreed that it was best to dissolve the contract immediately and move on.

Nevertheless, many reports on Australian media sites not only stated that Arnold had been "fired by the club", but went so far as to editorialise with phrases that either implied that it was a hasty decision, or even directly criticised the club for firing Arnold too quickly. Late in the day, media outlets like SBS, The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald had corrected the original stories and published the accurate account of how the decision was reached. The rest of their reports, however, included information of a less informative nature. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the report on sbs.com.au.

"Arnold said he was not happy with the fact that 17 players in his squad were over the age of 30 and that he felt his hands were tied when it came to bringing in new players."

This report prompted Sendai fans to leap up and rush over to check the calendar, wondering how they could have slept through three or four full seasons. While Sendai does have a fairly mature squad, it is certainly not so old as to cause serious problems Only one field player is over age 32 (Atsushi Yanagisawa, who is 36). There is also a 34-year old goalkeeper, one player aged 32, two 31-year-olds and four players aged 30. That adds up to eight field players and one keeper over 30 (and one of them had his 30th birthday two weeks ago). One has to ask how SBS concluded that Sendai has "17 players over the age of 30." Perhaps they meant to say that Sendai has "30 players over the age of 17?"

If this was a rare case of a spurious statistic that someone failed to fact-check, it could be easily overlooked. But the Australian media has a long history of reporting such whimsies. The same article that gave the "17 of 30" statistic also noted that Arnold was the first Australian to coach in the J.League. An impressive thing to put on his resume, perhaps, but one wonders if Eddie Thompson (Scottish-born, but an Australian citizen when he coached Sanfrecce Hiroshima from 1997-2000) is rolling over in the grave at this slight.

Even more controversial was the widely-reported claim that Yasuhito Endo's annual salary at Gamba Osaka was 3 million dollars. This statistic was printed repeatedly for a period of several months, in dozens of Australian newspapers, over the course of the 2008 season. It was often accompanied by a similar claim that Gamba's ace striker, Jader "Bare" Spindler, earned US$5 million a year. Salary information is considered private, personal data in Japan, so it is illegal for a club to release the figures or for a newspaper to print them. However, in response to a direct query, a Gamba spokesperson confirmed in late 2008 that "none of our players currently has an annual salary that exceeds US$1 million".

This sort of misreporting has even caused legal problems for players and clubs in both Japan and Australia. For example, in January 2011 a large number of leading Australian publications, including SBS, FourFourTwo and The Australian printed articles claiming that Shimizu S-Pulse approached Alex Brosque more than six months before his contract ended, asking him to move from Sydney FC to Shimizu. Brosque had a buyout clause in his contract which S-Pulse was willing to meet, and the player was ready to leave for Japan to conclude the deal. But because of the baseless claims, Sydney refused to release him until two weeks later, by which point both clubs had been seriously embarrassed and Brosque had been forced to hire lawyers to defend his interests and ensure his release. In the end, even Sydney FC conceded that they had acted on incorrect information.

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While the wording of the SBS article about Graham Arnold and Vegalta Sendai was vague, I have not seen any quotes from Arnold saying he thought his squad was "too old." In the absence of any verifiable quotes, I had to assume that this error came from some writer with an axe to grind, and not from the coach. It certainly came off sounding that way. Sure enough, by the end of the day on Wednesday I spotted an article posted on "The World Game", which may have been the source of the most glaring errors in the Arnold story.

Written by Scott McIntyre, the article comes off sounding like a personal demolition of Vegalta Sendai from someone on an emotional rampage. What makes it most disconcerting, though, is the enormous number of blatant factual errors mixed in among the personal insults and accusations. In addition to the aforementioned "17 of 30" comment and the "Arnold was the first Australian", here are some additional "facts" that have obviously been plucked out of some bizarre fantasy world by someone with no regard whatsoever for truth, much less fact-checking.

"By contrast the group contained just three players under the age of 25."

Sendai has the following players on its roster:
Yuki Muto (25)
Kohei Hattanda (24)
Koji Hachizuka (23)
Daniel Schmidt (22)
Hiroki Yamamoto (22)
Hiroshi Futami (21)
Keita Fujimura (20)

That makes either six or seven, depending upon what you mean by "under 25"

"That left Arnold with two keepers with just a single J.League appearance between them until, after repeated pleas, the club allowed Danny Vukovic to be signed on loan – after the season had begun."

These keepers were on the Sendai roster at the start of the season:
Shigeru Sakurai (GK) - 12 seasons, 162 appearances
Daniel Schmiidt (GK) - 3 seasons, 1 appearance
Kentaro Seki (GK) - 7 seasons, 59 appearances

I think that's more than two keepers.

"There was also a ridiculous imbalance in the positional makeup of the squad with just one front-line striker, half a dozen defenders and almost 15 midfielders."

This actually sounds like the positional balance on most J.League teams. But for the record, the following players on Vegalta would all be considered "front-line strikers": Wilson, Atsushi Yanagisawa, Shingo Akamine, Yuki Muto and Takayuki Nakahara. Three of those five would in no way be categorised as midfielders by ANY person who follows the J.League closely.

"It’s my understanding that a proposal was put to the club to ‘move-on’ four of the veterans that were taking up almost $3 million of the club’s budget and bring in a half dozen or so of the best young players in the country. The idea was rejected outright and Arnold was constantly told he’d have to wait until June to make any moves, not that it would have helped because Vegalta doesn’t employ a domestic scout."

Even at its peak, and even under the highly regarded Makoto Teguramori, Sendai had difficulty attracting talented youngsters (who have 51 other teams to choose from, at least a dozen of which would be viewed as "better teams"). Given that Teguramori struggled to attract top rookies, how exactly does this writer think that Sendai was supposed to do so when Teguramori had already announced his departure? As for "moving on" four veterans, there are only two who might be considered "too old to be of peak value", as clarified above. Those are Atsushi Yanagisawa and Ryan Yong-gi. If you seriously believe that Vegalta would benefit by kicking those two out, you obviously do not follow the J.League.

As for domestic scouting, Vegalta not only has four names listed in the section directly under the "Kyouka Bucho" (literally: team strengthening director"), all of them Japanese, but it employs the likes of former NT striker Tomoyuki Hirase as a so-called "ambassador". While Hirase does a lot of other PR-related things for the club, his main value comes form his network of contacts, which are essential for attracting players to a club in Japan.

"He’d walked into a club which, since 1997, had only had two non-Japanese managers and both of those lasted barely a year."

Zdenko Verdenik took over when Hidehiko Shimizu was fired, midway through the 2003 season. Although his coaching style and tactics did not achieve great success, he completed his 2004 contract and was only asked to step down after it expired, a year and a half after he took over. Joel Santana, whose results were even less impressive (the team finished fifth in J2 under his management, in 2006) also finished out his full, one-year contract before stepping down.

On and on the article rambles, rarely straying into the realm of verifiable fact, but taking pains to not only accuse Vegalta Sendai of the most unbelievably scandalous behaviour, but also making claims that could cause personal difficulties for people who currently work in the J.League. For example, consider this comment:

"The former coach of one of those players the club did buy told me privately that he couldn’t believe Sendai had picked him up."

Sendai only signed three active players in the offseason, and two of them could not possibly be the ones referred to. So in other words, Scott McIntyre may just as well publish a big headline stating: "Afshin Ghotbi told me - Scott McIntyre - that he thinks Kohei Hattanda is a crap player". Whether or not this is an accurate claim, it cannot possibly be something that Ghotbi would want broadcast all around the J.League.

The kicker in this article, though, is the following sentence, delivered with no qualification whatsoever, apparently as an assertion of fact.

"It was a job made much harder by the resistance to change from several of the older players; many of whom had been plotting against him from the inside."

A rather bold accusation, one would think. Why did The World Game see fit to publish such a potentially libellous claim without asking for some sort of supporting evidence? Given the huge number of glaring factual errors in the piece, it is hard to take the rest of the story at face value. Many J.League clubs do indeed have problems of weak front-office management, and Vegalta could be one of them. Nevertheless, most of the claims and criticisms dont stand up to scrutiny. Among other things, McIntyre claims that Vegalta players were in poor physical condition, and did not make any real effort in training. For those who have always viewed Vegalta as one of the most hard-working, hard-running, dedicated units in the J.League, the accusation is a bit hard to credit.

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As noted in my article that ran on Monday on ONE World Sports, the problem that Arnold DID face in trying to introduce his philosophy arose not from age itself, but rather, from the fact that most Sendai players had spent four or more seasons under Makoto Teguramori. Most were experienced veterans who might have been a bit resistant to change, particularly when the agent of change was a guy who couldn't even speak their language. The players did, in fact, try to adopt the coach's strategies and formations. However, the results of eight games (four losses and two draws in league play, a loss and a draw in Nabisco Cup action) suggested that his ideas did not suit the style of play used in Japan. It is only natural that players would start to doubt their coach's instructions after seeing his strategy fail eight times.

As for the resignation itself, my impression is that Arnold took on a job he was not prepared for, based on expectations that were unrealistic. When reports first emerged identifying Arnold as a likely successor to coach Teguramori, I had the impression that he (and the Australian press) had misconceptions about the club and its character. The presence of Sendai in the ACL last year may have given Arnold the idea that Sendai was a big club with big ambitions. In actual fact. Vegalta is a rather small club with a tight budget, from a populous but slightly "backwater" city. Sendai has far more similarities to Hobart, Australia or Green Bay, Wisconsin that to Sydney, Melbourne, New York or Los Angeles. Vegalta wanted a coach who could keep the team on an even keel for a year or two as it adjusted to the departure of a hugely influential figure. After a year of settling in, he might have convinced team executives to think about longer-term goals. It was unreasonable, though, for him to expect the team to make dramatic changes and shell out even more money. Sendai had already brought in two players and several staff members requested specifically by coach Arnold. For a small and conservative team like Vegalta, this was already too ambitious.

When Arnold's misconceptions were shattered, I think he did the right thing by speaking to the executives and making a quick decision. He surely would have been given another month to get results, before Vegalta considered sacking him. But that probably would have just delayed the inevitable. As Arnold struggled to instill a new concept that Sendai really didnt want in the first place, it just would have created more frustration for everyone concerned.

When I first read of Arnold's departure, I thought he should be commended for recognising the reality of the situation, and allowing the club to start a new chapter as soon as possible. However, following the Scott McIntyre article (which certainly READS like a ghostwritten screed against the club by Arnold or one of his close associates), I have to wonder. If it turns out that this was an article that Arnold assisted in creating, and served as the main source for, then the former Central Coast and Vegalta boss has a lot of explaining to do. After reading McIntyre's extended character-assassination-by-proxy, J.League fans have a right to know whether Arnold approves of the criticisms posted. If not, he owes it to his former employers to distance himself from this article immediately.


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