Monday, October 18, 2010

F League Doubleheader - October 17, 2010


I'm always on the lookout for something new to see in the Tokyo sports world. So I was intrigued when a friend mentioned the F League, a futsal league that is in its 4th season. There are two teams in the Tokyo area but both are located in the western suburbs more than an hour away, so I hadn't made the effort to visit either of them yet. Fortunately, the league had a special weekend with 5 games held at Yoyogi's National Gymnasium, located in central Tokyo. So I headed over on Sunday afternoon to catch a couple of matches and add another sport to my resume.

Futsal

Futsal is an indoor sport that resembles soccer mostly, but takes elements from other sports as well. The name comes from "futbol de salon" in Spanish which literally means hall football. Like soccer, only the feet or head are used to control and move the ball unless you are the keeper, who is allowed to handle the ball. The pitch is a hard floor that is about the size of a basketball court, with no boards or walls to keep the ball in play. Nets are set up at either end with a large crease area which limits where the keeper can hold the ball. There are four field players and one keeper on the pitch at any time, and substitutes are unlimited, even occurring during the run of play.

The ball is smaller than a typical soccer ball and is not nearly as bouncy. This leads to few headers and much more quick passing, which can be very exciting to watch. However, the lack of boards means the ball ends up out of play on a regular basis. There are no throw-ins though, the ball is placed on the ground and kicked back into play; it is also possible to kick directly at the net from a kick-in.

There are two 20-minute halves with stoppage time for goals and when the ball leaves the playing area. Like soccer, cautions are indicated by a yellow card, two of which leads to ejection. However, an ejected player is replaced after two minutes as a continuous 4-on-3 would be impossible to defend. Fouls are counted like basketball, once you have 5 fouls in a half you are in the penalty; a sixth foul leads to a penalty kick.

Those are the basics and with that knowledge you would be able to understand the game. The Wikipedia article linked above has more detail if you are interested.

Power play

One interesting rule that may only apply to the F League is known as the Power Play. When a team is trailing, they can pull their goalie, much like in ice hockey. But the substitute player must wear a different jersey in the same colour as the keeper's, and he can act as a keeper when the other team attacks. Below is Pescadola Machida player Reo Yokoe with a keeper's jersey.


F League

The F League began in 2007-08 and is now in its fourth season. There are ten teams, ranging from the northern island of Hokkaido down to Oita on the southern island of Kyushu. For me, it's great to find another league that I can add to potential road trips, although teams only play one game per week. The team from Nagoya has won all 3 championships so far and they look like they will add another one this season with a 9-1-0 (W-D-L) record.

The league gets some coverage and I saw highlights of these games last evening, but it is still a minor sport here, with about 2,500 fans showing up for the two games.

Game 1 -Shonan Bellmare 3 vs Deucao Kobe 3


Shonan Bellmare are based in Hiratsuka, which is about an hour minutes from Tokyo, so they had a small cheering section of about 30 fans along for the ride. The squad lies 9th in ten-team table with a 2-1-6 record. I should note that Shonan Bellmare is also the name of a J League club so I'm guessing they have some relatively wealthy pockets to support them. Bellmare's opponents were Deucao Kobe, who were 3rd at 5-1-3 but could only afford a couple of people to cheer for them.

The game got off to a quick start when Shonan's Motoki Tanaka sent a shot from a nearly impossible angle into the far top corner to give his team a 1-0 lead. It was a spectacular goal and a great way to get introduced to futsal for me. Kobe tied it up shortly thereafter when the Shonan defense fell apart, leaving Kohei Harada wide open to tuck one home. At this point, I thought futsal was an offensive game with lots of goals, but those two markers turned out to be all the scoring for the half. In fact, the majority of the game was marked by the failure to generate many real chances. The playing area is small and it's tough to kick a ball that size past defenders. Most attacking passes went out of bounds while most shots missed the net.


In the second half, Shonan's Bola, a Brazilian shown with the ball above, scored on a terrific free kick (below shows the ball in the net).


Thirty seconds later Masahiro Eto tucked home a perfect pass and it was 3-1 Shonan. But Kobe didn't give up, adding a second tally from Takuya Suzumura with 9 minutes to go, setting up an exciting finish.

This is where the power play came in. Kobe pulled their keeper with about 2 minutes left and went to attack with 5 field players. With just under a minute to go, Brazilian Chiago Okazaki blasted a shot that hit the back of a Shonan defender, caught the keeper going the wrong way, and ended up in the back of the net to tie the game at 3.

With only about 40 seconds left, Shonan tried the power play strategy, which I thought quite risky, but they couldn't convert and Kobe couldn't score on the empty net, so the match ended in a 3-3 draw.


Game 2 - Fuchu Athletic 4 vs Pescadola Machida 3

This game was billed as the Tokyo Derby as it pitted the two suburban Tokyo teams against each other. Fuchu Athletic is in their second campaign, and although they finished bottom of the table last year, they lie second this season. Machida, on the other hand, finished second last year but has dropped to 10th, with only 3 draws from their first nine matches. So essentially a match between a team on the way up and one on the way down.

This game started quickly as well, with Machida's Japinha, another Brazilian, driving home a rebound just 26 seconds in. But Fuchu tied it up when Machida left Goshi Koyama all alone in front of the net from where he slotted home easily. Then with 5 minutes to go in the first half, Thai national Lertchai Issarasuwipakorn (known as Rucchai here) finished off a perfect 3-way passing play to give Fuchu their first lead of the match.


In the second half, another Brazilian took center stage. Roberto Bourscheidt, known as Betinho and shown above, scored to make it 3-1 and when Fuchu added another to make it 4-1 with just over 10 minutes to go, it looked like the game was over.

But Machida went to the power play for those entire ten minutes and managed to score two goals in quick succession around the 15-minute mark: the first from Japinha on a free kick and then another about 20 seconds later from Shuji Kai, whose simple shot beat the screened goalie. Suddenly it was a close game again, and Machida continued with their power play strategy. Despite generating a lot of pressure, they couldn't muster the equalizer and fell 4-3 to cement their place at the bottom of the table.

How to block a shot?

Thoughts

The game can be fast, but the ball is out of play a lot. It comes back quickly enough though, so the 40 minutes of action is about 90 minutes of actual time including the 15-minute halftime. There were a couple of really nice goals off good passing plays, but for the most part the play is disjointed and rarely do you get 30 seconds of uninterrupted action.

There are few fouls in the game since there is so little space to actually run. For both games, there were just 24 fouls and most of these came late in the second game. The best thing is there was none of the rolling around in fake agony that ruins so many soccer games, players got up quickly unless they were really hurt.

The power play strategy was used quite effectively, resulting in 3 goals scored and none against. It definitely gives teams that are trailing a good option as it is quite tough to score on a long shot against the empty net and makes for exciting play as the substitute tries to run off the pitch to allow the keeper back on when the opposition takes possession.

One interesting bit of trivia is that the teams switched benches at halftime. This made changes on the fly a bit easier. Since benches are really just a bunch of plastic chairs, there wasn't any reason they couldn't do it, but it was something I had never seen before.

I'm a bit surprised they don't follow the bj League model and play two games on a weekend given the travel expense involved, but perhaps futsal is a bit more tiring.

Overall, I found these games mildly entertaining, but not so much so that I'll be making a trip to Machida or Fuchu just for one match. But if I see a potential road trip that involves futsal and another sport or two, I'll definitely consider it. But that's unlikely as I explain below.

Why Sports Road Trips are Tough in Japan

The main difference between the leagues here and in North America is that there are few weekday games here outside of baseball. So I have trouble finding a nice 4-games-in-4-days trip during the winter. There is a winter baseball league in Miyazaki right now, but little else around there. But the bj League usually has doubleheaders most weekends, while the J League only has occasional Wednesday night games. So it can be tough to find a multi-sport weekend with games every day that are reasonably close to one another. I'll keep looking though, because without roadtrips and sports, there's not much else to do.

Best,

Sean

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