The end of the journey

1 Apr 2010(Thu)

Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 30, 2010: The dateline on this article tells its own story…

I am on assignment in Almaty, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and in temperatures just above freezing, and with Japanese football a million miles away.

Sadly, after visiting Japan for the first time some 20 years ago and working there from 1997 to 2009, my J.League journey is over and, along with it, my regular column on Japanese football.

After many wonderful years following the J.League, as an occasional visitor to Japan from Hong Kong in its debut season of 1993, through to working full-time in Tokyo from 1997, I have decided to move on to the next challenge in my Asian sports career in China; working for the Olympic Council of Asia in the build-up to the Asian Games in Guangzhou this November, and beyond around the continent.

I felt an instant attraction to Japan on seeing the old Yomiuri team play Hong Kong’s most popular club, South China, in the old Asian Club Championship in Hong Kong Stadium. This must have been around the 1990-91 season, and it stays in the mind because of the amount of missiles thrown at the Japanese bench from the Chinese fans throughout the 90 minutes and for the appearance of the straggly-haired wizard, Ruy Ramos.

This began my association with Japanese football, and following the national team around England in the Umbro Cup in the summer of 1995 convinced me that I would move to Japan some day from Hong Kong to see what was happening in this rapidly developing football culture.

I have never regretted a minute of the journey, which took me to three World Cups in France, Japan-Korea and Germany. The only Japan match I missed in those campaigns was the Turkey home game in 2002 – I was in Korea for the second round – and remember the cheers and celebrations of the Koreans all around me in the media centre when Japan lost 1-0. So much for cooperation!

I have thoroughly enjoyed writing my biweekly column, and hope an insight from an Englishman -- who grew up on the terraces as a young fan, survived the hooligan years of following Newcastle United around the country and then secured my one-time dream job of actually reporting on Newcastle for a morning newspaper in the north-east of England -- has provided some talking points for Japanese football fans.

My contribution and observations must end here for the time being. But who knows? Like Newcastle United rising again, and maybe JEF United, too, I might be back…

Good luck Japan!


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Park: There's just no stopping the Korean dynamo

23 Mar 2010(Tue)

March 22, 2010: What a credit Park Ji Sung is to his club, country and to Asian football!

Anyone who watched the Manchester United-Liverpool match live from Old Trafford on Sunday could not have failed to notice another astonishing performance from the all-action Korean midfielder.

The crowning glory, of course, was his superb diving header to seal United's 2-1 victory, hurling himself where the boots were flying and making the net bulge at the famous Stretford End. It really was a proud moment for Park, and no doubt for many people who have played a big part in his development and rise to stardom.

One of those would be Pim Verbeek. I interviewed Pim fairly recently at Saitama Stadium about Park, and the Dutchman said Park had been given a rough ride when first arriving at PSV Eindhoven from Kyoto Purple Sanga.

Basically, the more refined and technically sophisticated Dutch players thought Park did not run like a footballer, did not look like a professional footballer and did not play like a footballer. In the end, though, Park won them over with his attitude, his commitment to training, his energy on the pitch and his selfless running for the team. He could, in fact, play a bit, too, and his Champions League performances in the semi-finals against Milan one season played a big part in his move to Old Trafford.

And while he still looks a bit rough around the edges, giving the ball away carelessly and occasionally running up a blind alley and losing possession, his link-up play with Fletcher and Carrick made sure United dominated most of the game against Liverpool.

What I really admire about Park is how he puts himself between ball and opponent, not afraid to take the hits from behind and the studs down his ankles. He uses his body so well to protect the ball, and once he is in that position it makes it very difficult for an opponent to take it off him. This is why he wins so many free kicks, as any touch from an opponent coming in from behind is a foul.

In that same conversation with Pim, the Dutch coach said that, technically, Park was not in the same class as Nakata, Ono and Nakamura, but his physical stamina, energy and team ethic had taken him beyond the achievements of Japan's talented trio. Sunday's fantastic winner was yet another example of this.


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Beckham injury will bring mixed emotion

16 Mar 2010(Tue)

March 15, 2010: When David Beckham pulled up lame while playing for Milan on Sunday, the groans and sighs could be heard around the football world.

It looked serious from the outset, especially as there was no one near him – and the sight of him in agony on a stretcher told its own story; that his World Cup was over before it had even started.

Many Beckham fans – including myself – feel sorry for him, that his international career has ended this way without joining his country in South Africa. That is, of course, presuming there is no amazing recovery and unlikely comeback.

But while many Beckham admirers will miss him wearing the Three Lions, there will be many others delighted that he is no longer in the running for a place in the World Cup squad – and I am talking about the English media here.

Yes, I am not joking, Japanese readers, as I know this concept is alien to you, who worship your stars and stand by them through thick and thin. I attended four England games at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and was amazed by the anti-Beckham comments of some of the English press. They did not try to hide their loathing and contempt for Beckham, arguing that basically he was an impostor in the England squad and did not deserve to be on the same field as his teammates.

On one occasion a couple of English newspaper reporters almost came to blows as one attacked Beckham and the other defended him, so I dread to think what it would have been like four years on with Beckham in the squad in South Africa. That is not going to happen now, though, and in some ways this will come as a relief as the media can actually concentrate on the football rather than the Beckham circus, although I am sure they will find lots more frivolity to divert their attention.

For me, however, Beckham will remain a giant for all he has done for club and country. I was at Saint-Etienne in 1998 when he was sent off against Argentina – silly and petulant, agreed, but I support Gary Lineker’s opinion that it was never a red card offence – and I was at Sapporo Dome when he fired in the penalty to beat Argentina four years later.

There will be some now laughing at Beckham’s plight, celebrating his downfall and saying he deserved what he got, but it shows how out of touch the media can be with public opinion, judging by the reaction at Old Trafford when he returned with Milan last week, and of the club officials following his injury on Sunday.

Must admit, though, that I am not a big fan of his tattoos...


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Honda gives Okada plenty of options

9 Mar 2010(Tue)

March 8, 2010: Keisuke Honda as a forward?

Must admit that one caught me out the other night, when Japan played Bahrain, but at least it showed that Takeshi Okada is thinking hard about energising his team.

A couple of days before the match I was discussing Honda with a fellow foreigner and Japanese football observer, and he said his ideal central midfield pairing for Japan would be Inamoto and Honda. He was tired, he said, of watching Japan play lots of pretty little passes in midfield and around the box without an end product.

Both Inamoto and Honda, he added, were prepared to grab hold of a game by the scruff of the neck and make things happen; they were prepared to roll up their sleeves and take the game to the opposition, with Honda in particular always prepared to have a crack at goal, no matter the distance.

“But what about Hasebe and Endo?” I countered. “Okada loves those two in his engine room.”

This pair, along with Shunsuke and Kengo, Matsui and Okubo, could fight it out for the two wide positions in midfield, my colleague reasoned.

In short, he wanted some power and some adventure in there, and thought Inamoto and Honda could provide it, both defensively and going forward.

Okada must be thinking on similar lines, as he pushed Honda well forward in the Bahrain game for exactly this reason: to have a go at the opposition and show some dynamism and initiative.

As I said, this move took me by surprise, as I always thought of Honda as a wide player; on his natural left side, as an orthodox winger in front of a solid left back, or on the right, cutting in from the wing and peppering the goal with his tremendous left foot.

Whatever position Honda plays, I hope he keeps this sense of adventure and retains the confidence to take the game to the opposition.

For all the experience of Hasebe, Endo and even Shunsuke, I still think they lack this ability to really get hold of a game and dictate it; to really step up and drive and inspire their team mates when they need to add some urgency to their play.


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Matsui, Morimoto under the selection spotlight

2 Mar 2010(Tue)

March 1, 2010: Even though both teams have already qualified for the Asian Cup finals in Doha next January, the Japan-Bahrain match on Wednesday night will still be significant for at least two of the Japanese players coming back from Europe.

I am thinking of Daisuke Matsui and Takayuki Morimoto, whose places in the final squad for South Africa are far from assured.

Even though many fans believe - or maybe “hope” would be more appropriate -- Morimoto can be the saviour of the team, due to the potential he shows with Catania in Italy, the hard, cold facts of his national team career provide a sobering thought. So far, Morimoto has made only two appearances for Japan, as a substitute against Scotland and then as a starting member against Togo.

Although he scored a nice goal against Togo, the quality of the opposition left much to be desired and the 5-0 scoreline was one of the most lop-sided matches the national team must have ever played.

In Morimoto's favour, of course, is the dearth of quality strikers around in Japan, but he still needs to do a bit more for the national team to cement his place in the World Cup squad. A solid performance, some power and some presence in leading the line against Bahrain, is what Takeshi Okada will be looking for, and obviously a goal or two from Morimoto would help to seal the deal.

As for Matsui, he still blows hot and cold for the national team, and Okada has been very patient with him when he has not been producing. Similar to Okubo, in fact.

Matsui always looks the part - great touch, good movement, dangerous and lively - but the end product is often missing. I still feel he needs to cut down on the flashy stuff and show more substance, and this competitive match with Bahrain will give him the chance to do just that.

Of the other players called back from Europe, Hasebe and Honda are assured of their places in South Africa, and will not be under the same kind of pressure as Matsui and Morimoto.

So there is still much to play for, even though the job of qualifying has been completed by both teams.


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Shunsuke's return will be welcome boost for Japan

23 Feb 2010(Tue)

February 22, 2010: Japanese football needs a lift at the moment, and it looks as though Shunsuke Nakamura is going to provide it.

With spirits low after the struggles of the national team in the East Asian Football Championship, the fans, media and probably even the players need something positive, something to boost their self-esteem and their confidence.

So even though Shunsuke is coming back because he has failed to make the grade in Spain, this will not affect the way he is welcomed home: as a returning hero.

After failing to land him last summer when he decided to leave Celtic, Marinos will not want to make the same mistake this time; putting the Nakamura camp firmly in the driving seat when it comes to negotiations over his salary, the length of his contract and his signing-on fee. The deal is not done just yet, but it looks as though both parties want it completed quickly so the player can settle back into the J.League and work on his match fitness.

Then he can turn his attentions to the World Cup, and Takeshi Okada will feel relieved to have him back in Japan as opposed to sitting on the bench at Espanyol.

Even though it didn't work out in Spain, no one can blame Nakamura for going there and fulfilling his childhood dream. I don't believe it was primarily about money; it was simply that, at 31 years old, he had one last chance to play in the league he most admired, and would have regretted it for the rest of his career if he did not take it.

Switching from Scotland - a third-tier league in Europe, and where he was playing for one of the big two - to Spain, where the pace was much quicker and the competition much tougher and his team was not among the elite, proved too much at such an advanced stage of his career.

But he can still emerge from the experience with his reputation intact, and bring his star quality to Japan at a time the football scene really needs a spark.


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Can it get any worse for Japan?

16 Feb 2010(Tue)

February 15, 2010: A miserable failure.

That’s the only way Japan’s campaign in the East Asian Football Championship can be regarded after their 3-1 defeat to South Korea on Sunday.

A 0-0 draw with China was a bad start, and even the 3-0 win over Hong Kong was unconvincing as Japan toiled to put the finishing touches to their undoubted superiority.

So one victory from three home games and a third-place finish in a tournament Japan was looking to win represents an unmitigated failure on the part of the hosts, and you wonder how they can regroup and find the confidence and spirit they will need before heading to South Africa in less than four months.

And no excuses, please, that there was no Shunsuke, no Hasebe, Honda, Matsui, Morimoto…Japan had enough experienced players in the likes of Endo and Kengo, Okubo and Tamada, to really step up and take charge of the game, but they could not rise to the occasion.

Korea’s second goal summed up the gloom in the Japan camp, as Lee Seung Yeoul’s shot struck the back of Nakazawa and flew over a stranded Narazaki and into the back of the net. When your luck is down, that’s the kind of goal that goes in.

Shortly after, the Koreans really rubbed it in when Tulio was dismissed in another penalty box scramble. Captain Kim Jung Woo made sure the referee did not miss his player lying on the floor, and the sight of another Korean player clenching his fists and celebrating when the red card came out was particularly distasteful. To celebrate a goal is one thing; to celebrate when an opponent is sent off smacks of a deliberate ploy to trap him. “Fair Play Please”….what a joke!

So maybe justice was served early in the second half when captain Kim followed Tulio down the tunnel for his late tackle on Okazaki, after his first-half caution for a foul on Okubo.

Japan needed to show a lot of character to get through this game, but they ended up well beaten 3-1 and ahead of only Hong Kong in the final rankings.

Can Japan get any worse in the coming weeks? I really can’t see a saviour or a change of fortune in these uncomfortable days for coach Okada.


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Disgruntled fans give Japan the pressure they needed

9 Feb 2010(Tue)

February 8, 2010: Takeshi Okada wanted some tough matches in the build-up to the World Cup, and the East Asian Championship has already given him one in the 0-0 draw with China.

Unlike a meaningless friendly against a European glamour team playing at half-strength and half-pace, this was a proper match in an official tournament and brought with it the pressure and conditions the players needed.

Japan could not win it, and very nearly lost it but for the late penalty save by Seigo Narazaki, whose importance to the team at the World Cup in South Africa cannot be overstated.

Even though Japan could not be faulted for effort or for commitment in a frequently furious encounter with a determined China team, their inability to score and win produced boos and jeers from the Ajinomoto Stadium crowd.

Good on the fans, I say, as this can only help toughen up the players in the run-up to the World Cup. We all know the players get spoiled in the J.League by their tolerant, forgiving supporters, and that national team games attract a fair percentage of “fashionistas” who love to wear the blue and cheer for their own personal favourite to the bitter end.

So the reaction at Ajinomoto Stadium will serve Okada well, as he will be able to observe the players in a more hostile environment. Some players will rise to the challenge and others may buckle under the pressure and expectation, helping the coach in his selection of the final 23 players for the World Cup.

The next match, against Hong Kong on Thursday, should not provide much of a test, unfortunately, as the gap between Korea and Hong Kong on Sunday night was vast. But still, Japan will need to score early to settle nerves and build up some momentum, just like Korea did, so this will bring its own kind of pressure, too.

When chances come along, Japan will have to relax and take them clinically, rather than snatching at them in a panic and adding to the tension at the next opportunity.

They will need to get the fans on their side, and need to gain confidence as well as the three points before the crunch match with Korea on Sunday.

So this is turning into a very worthwhile tournament for Okada – more than he could have imagined or perhaps even wanted.


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Japan’s bid is sound, but…

2 Feb 2010(Tue)

February 1, 2010: Several of the countries bidding to stage the 2018 or 2022 World Cup could hold the event at the drop of a hat.

One of them, of course, is Japan, as the stadiums, infrastructure and fan base are all in place to guarantee a smooth and successful tournament.

However, this doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea for Japan to be bidding again, so soon after co-hosting the 2002 World Cup with Korea (ditto Korea, who are bidding only for 2022 this time).

So while Japan’s bid is sound, and has the high-profile backing of, among others, former national team coaches Philippe Troussier, Zico and Ivica Osim, I think their chances of victory are slim at best – much less than Tokyo’s chances were of being awarded the 2016 Olympic Games.

First, the 2018 World Cup is surely going to Europe, as football’s richest continent will not have staged it since Germany 2006. FIFA President Sepp Blatter said as much recently, so it really looks like a lost cause for the other continents. While England, the 1966 host, is regarded as the favourite to win 2018, Russia has emerged as a dark horse and must not be ruled out from pulling off a major surprise when FIFA votes in December.

Japan’s best chance, then, would be 2022, but again I think there are countries more deserving of Japan; countries who have not held it before and who would open a new market, a new frontier, for FIFA.

Specifically I am thinking of Australia, and I would like to see the Aussies awarded 2022. This is a great sporting nation, and they would stage a fantastic World Cup. Critics talk of a lack of football tradition in Australia (or maybe “soccer” is the more appropriate word on this occasion) compared to rugby league, rugby union, Aussie Rules football and cricket, but the sports-loving locals in the big cities would really embrace the tournament and turn it into one long festival.

Having attended the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and travelled around to watch Japan in Canberra and Brisbane, the atmosphere was incredible, and I am sure this would be replicated for the World Cup but on a much grander scale – involving thousands and thousands of visitors from overseas.

I think Japan has a no-risk bid, but honestly I don’t know why they are having another go so soon after 2002, and why they think they can win.

If they are awarded the 2018 or even the 2022 World Cup, it will be a bigger surprise than if Takeshi Okada’s boys do actually reach the semi-finals in South Africa.


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Grampus: the Man City of Japan

26 Jan 2010(Tue)

January 25, 2010: Nagoya Grampus fans must be feeling pretty much the same way as Manchester City supporters at the moment: plenty of money flying about, star names coming in and talk of titles.

The big question for Nagoya is: can they rise to the top in the first season of their ambitious big-spending policy?

This is certainly the goal of manager Dragan Stojkovic and his employers; no talk of a top-three finish here to guarantee a place in the Asian Champions League for 2011 – only No. 1 is on the agenda.

Two of the new signings were unveiled on Sunday: Tulio from Urawa Reds and Mu Kanazaki from Oita Trinita. According to Stojkovic, Tulio had not been enjoying his football in recent seasons and the manager's goal was to put a smile back on his face at training and in his relationship with the supporters.

The manager will also be hoping the player's niggling injuries clear up, and Nagoya's failure to qualify for this year's ACL, after losing in the Emperor's Cup final on New Year's Day, may be a blessing in disguise for Tulio in a hectic World Cup year.

Personally, I was a bit disappointed when Tulio moved to Grampus, after all the transfer talk had focused on Europe – and in particular Wigan Athletic and FC Twente. I thought his ambition was to play in a good league in Europe and really test himself at a higher level, but obviously Pixie is a very charismatic and persuasive figure, and the salary on offer in Japan (thought to be 150 million yen per year) would have been hard to match for either of those two clubs.

Kanazaki is a great signing. He is my dark horse to make Takeshi Okada's World Cup squad because his speed, flair and unpredictability can add a new dimension to Japan's attack, especially off the bench in the last 20 minutes of a tight game.

Antlers, Reds and just about everybody else wanted to sign Kanazaki at the end of the season, but he had given his word to Nagoya and stuck to it.

Exciting times for Grampus fans, but a massive season ahead for Pixie as he must make an immediate impact with his expensive new team. Just ask Mark Hughes!


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