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December 2001

Emperor's Cup needs fresh format

30 Dec 2001(Sun)

Japan's Emperor's Cup: a tournament fit for a king, or one in desperate need of change?

It should be the first, but it has become the second as this year's event stumbles on through December.

This is the 81st edition of the Japan Football Association's showpiece event, which began after the JFA received a trophy from their English counterparts to be played for annually.

But this is where the similarity between England's FA Cup and Japan's FA Cup ends.

The English version captivates the nation, and many others too around the world, with its shocks, its surprises and its romance.

The Japanese version?

Well, no one seems to care much, including the teams.

After qualifying competitions are held around the country, the cream from the various prefectures comes to the top for the first-round proper at the end of the long league season.

Like in England, the top club teams join the action in the third round, but then often face a university side.

This season, six of the 16 first division teams went out in the third round, and many observers felt they were not exactly disappointed to lose, as their Christmas and New Year holiday could begin early and the players could have a nice break before training resumes in mid-January for the start of next season.

Only one team from outside the two-division J.League reached the fourth round: Sagawa Express, a Tokyo-based parcel delivery service.

Their opponents in the last 16 were division two-bound Cerezo Osaka, so there was a decent chance of an amateur team reaching the last eight.

Was the nation gripped by the prospect?

Not at all. Only 2,042 fans turned up at the neutral venue of Toyota Stadium near Nagoya. This is another problem for the Emperor's Cup.

The schedule from the first round through to the final is drawn up before the tournament kicks off, and matches are played around the country to promote the game.

There is no random draw after each round, no crowding round the radio or TV to see who you've got next. Manchester United or Mansfield Town? Old Trafford or Field Mill?

Japan's system leads to strange situations, like the one two or three years back when the first Kawasaki derby between Verdy and Frontale was played at Kumamoto, at the other end of the country! (Coincidentally, these two teams met in this year's quarterfinals, and only 8,000 fans turned up at Tokyo Stadium, which holds 50,000.)

Or like this season's semifinals, when Urawa Reds will have home advantage in their Saitama stronghold against Cerezo.

The saving grace of the Emperor's Cup, however, is the final, which is played on New Year's Day. It is a great day in the Japanese sports calendar, but what proceeds it does not do justice to a tournament which needs reorganizing from top to bottom to inject much-needed interest and prestige.

After all, even the Emperor himself cannot attend the final because of his own New Year commitments at the Imperial Palace.

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Brazilian influence a bad one

27 Dec 2001(Thu)

Urawa Reds needed only two of their three Brazilians to beat JEF United Ichihara 2-1 in the Emperor's Cup quarterfinals on Monday.

With speedy striker Emerson back home in Brazil attending to his sick mother, Tuto and new recruit Harison carried the fight to United.

Although neither of them got on the scoresheet, they had a big influence on the match.

While some of it was good, such as the exquisite passing with the outside of his right foot by Harison and the movement and ability to hold up the ball by Tuto, a lot more was bad.

As United took control of the first half, Urawa's play under Brazilian manager Pita had a familiar pattern to it.

Harison would collect the ball in midfield, break forward and then tumble theatrically when the slightest contact was made by an opponent.

He would then roll around in apparent agony, his yells clearly audible above the noise of the crowd in the compact Sendai Stadium, and Tuto would run toward referee Naotsugu Fuse appealing for the ref to brandish a card.

It was very unsavory stuff indeed, something Japan's professional league, at the end of only its ninth season, could well do without.

United were not entirely blameless either, and their captain Shigetoshi Hasebe set a bad example in the early stages by also pretending he had been seriously hurt in a tackle.

Hasebe lay holding an ankle, but when FIFA referee Fuse took no notice, he jumped straight to his feet and rejoined the action immediately, his "injury" miraculously healed in a matter of seconds.

In the case of Harison, however, justice was done when United took the lead on 34 minutes with a goal from Bosnian midfielder Edin Mujcin.

Harison lost possession in midfield and, surprise surprise, stayed down appealing for a non-existent foul.

Instead of getting back to help out his teammates, he preferred to try and con the referee, and as he sulked on the floor, Mujcin shot United in front.

Fans could have expected more of the same if Emerson had been playing, as he's a master at using his lightning pace to win free kicks and penalties when he could often race clear.

This is a worrying trend in Japan, and Urawa's Brazilian contingent are contributing significantly to the plague.

The Reds fans are the best in the country and will be looking forward to Saturday's semifinal against Cerezo Osaka at Saitama Stadium.

But hopefully Tuto and Harison will acknowledge their responsibility to the Fair Play flag carried out before each game, and show the brighter side of their nation's proud football heritage.

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Joy for Ogasawara, despair for Narahashi

23 Dec 2001(Sun)

Kashima Antlers fans would have had mixed emotions when national coach Philippe Troussier named a 40-strong squad for a January training camp on Friday.

Shining brightly among the midfield contingent was 22-year-old Mitsuo Ogasawara, who has played a leading role in Antlers' two back-to-back league championships in 2000 and 2001.

But conspicuous by his absence was the dashing full-back Akira Narahashi, regarded by many--including Antlers' Brazilian boss Toninho Cerezo--as the best right-sided player in the J.League.

Six more members of the talented Kashima squad were also included: goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata, central defender Yutaka Akita, midfielder Koji Nakata, who plays on the left side of defense for Japan, attacking midfielder Masashi Motoyama, plus strikers Takayuki Suzuki and Atsushi Yanagisawa.

But once again Troussier overlooked Narahashi, who was a key member of previous national coach Takeshi Okada at the France World Cup.

Of the nine Japanese players selected recently in the J.League Best XI for the 2001 season, Narahashi is the only one to miss out on Troussier's first squad for next year as the countdown heats up to the World Cup.

It is a mystery to many why the Frenchman continues to ignore the claims of the 30-year-old Narahashi, whose swashbuckling runs down the right flank, aggressive tackling and non-stop motor make him one of the most impressive players on view.

Since taking over as national coach in September 1998, Troussier has adopted a 3-5-2 formation, and the general feeling is that Narahashi would be the ideal man for the right side of midfield.

But what goes against him in Troussier's eyes is his occasional lack of discipline, when he can be caught too far upfield once an attacking move breaks down, and a tendency for taking the wrong option when he's too near his own goal, putting unnecessary pressure on his defense.

While Narahashi can get away with such lapses in the J.League, they are the sort of mistakes which will be punished ruthlessly at the top level, and Troussier feels there is no going back.

The Frenchman constantly stresses team work and discipline, and he must feel that Narahashi, despite all his positive aspects, is too much of a risk in his strict tactical formation.

But this will be of no consolation to the player, who always plays his heart out for the whole 90 minutes, or for the fans, despite their delight in seeing Ogasawara in the squad.

The youngster first made his mark under Troussier as a member of the national youth team which reached the FIFA World Under-20 Championship final against Spain in Nigeria in 1999.

But such is the competition for places in central midfield that Ogasawara was not even close to winning a place in the Olympic under-23 squad for Sydney last year.

His sparkling form in the league, however, has contributed to the Kashima club's decision not to renew the contract of veteran Brazilian playmaker Bismarck, who won two league titles with the former Verdy Kawasaki and three more with Antlers following his transfer in 1997.

As Ogasawara and his teammates continue to dream of playing in next year's World Cup, Narahashi must be wondering where he's gone wrong.

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Things are looking up for downcast JEF fans

20 Dec 2001(Thu)

Supporters of JEF United Ichihara should have been in festive mood as the season draws to a close in Japan.

After all, their team, usually involved in fighting relegation battles, finished a highly creditable third in the recently-completed J.League, behind Jubilo Iwata and champions Kashima Antlers.

But players, officials and fans alike were shocked when Slovenian manager Zdenko Verdenik announced he would be leaving the club and taking over at Nagoya Grampus Eight next year.

Then, at the J.League awards night, the club was overlooked in all categories.

South Korean striker Choi Yong Soo, who scored 21 goals in his debut season, was in the running for the Player of the Year award, while Slovenian central defender Zeljko Milinovic was among the candidates for the Best XI after an outstanding campaign.

But neither player made it into the Best XI, which was dominated by Antlers and Jubilo, and the remarkable achievement of manager Verdenik also went unrewarded.

There is light at the end of the dark tunnel for JEF, though, as 28-year-old World Cup striker Choi looks set to sign a new, improved contract to keep him at the Chiba prefecture club next year.

Club spokesman Yoichi Risho said: "Choi had very good results this season and is very popular with the fans, so we want him to stay.

"However, his manager in Korea says three Bundesliga teams in Germany are interested to sign him, although our president has received no official offer.

"We have offered him a new deal for next season and he is thinking about it, but we don't think there is any big problem. We are confident he will stay."

If Choi signs it would be a huge boost to JEF fans, and Risho added that Milinovic had also agreed to sign a new contract.

On the managerial front, Verdenik returned to Slovenia after announcing he would be joining Grampus, as the club thought he would not be motivated enough to take charge of the team in the end-of-season Emperor's Cup.

His assistant, Sugao Kanbe, was promoted to caretaker manager, and has guided JEF into the quarterfinals on Dec. 24, when they play Urawa Reds at Sendai.

Risho added that negottiations with a European coach were at an advanced stage, and they were hoping to make an announcement by the end of this week.

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Mottram will be missed

16 Dec 2001(Sun)

When Mitsuo Ogasawara won the J.League championship for Kashima Antlers with a brilliant free kick, it signaled a sad end to the season for Jubilo Iwata.

It also meant the end of the career for the match referee, Leslie Mottram.

The 50-year-old Scotsman hung up his whistle after the game, but will return to Japan in January to begin a three-year contract with the Japan Football Association as chief instructor.

This will involve working with around 70 referees, assistant referees and referee inspectors around the country, trying to improve the quality of officiating in the nine-year-old professional J.League.

Although Mottram had a reputation for being a little quick on the draw, producing yellow and even red cards out of the blue, so to speak, he did set a fine example to other referees on several fronts.

He first came to Japan in 1996 after refereeing at Euro 96 in England and at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

One area in which he excelled was at in determining if a player was injured or not.

Too often in the J.League players stay down on the ground after an innocuous challenge.

Whereas a Japanese referee would tolerate the histrionics and call for the medical team, Mottram would tell them to get up and get on with it in no uncertain terms.

And after a few seconds of self-conscious and pointless play-acting, the humbled player would suddenly be on his feet and running around with full mobility.

One of Mottram's major tasks will be to educate the Japanese referees regarding this unsavory element of the game, as well as the growing concern of diving.

"The Japanese refs know the laws of the game inside out, probably better than I do word for word," says Mottram.

"But putting them into practice is another matter. It is very difficult to referee with a rule book, because sometimes you must use your common sense and do things which go against the rules."

What he means is that refs should have a "feel" for the game, for the spirit of the game and also the situation of the game at any one time.

"I think the biggest problem for Japanese referees is man-management skills, and that has to build up gradually. It does not happen overnight," he adds.

"In Europe, the referees and players tend to understand each other, whereas in Japan some players can be confused because one week one referee will punish one thing but the next week another one won't."

Mottram, a four-time winner of the J.League Referee of the Year award, believes there is far too much misconduct in the game these days, with players who cheat and con their way to free kicks and penalties being hailed as heroes.

"Fair play? The words exist only in the FIFA fair play flag, not in professional football, and I don't hold out much hope of the situation improving in the near future," he adds.

But he will start trying to change that in Japan when his new job begins next month.

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Cerezo showing he still has some special moves

13 Dec 2001(Thu)

When Toninho Cerezo speaks, people listen.
And when Toninho Cerezo dances, people cheer.

This was the show-stopping moment of the J.League's glitzy awards night at Yokohama Arena on Monday.

The Brazilian boss of Kashima Antlers was going up to receive his prize as Champion Manager of the Year after steering the Ibaraki club to a second successive league title.

After walking up the red-carpeted steps to the stage, Toninho suddenly broke outin a break-dance style movement, bringing admiration from the dignitaries and a couple of thousand young female fans who cheered their heroes like they would a J-Pop star.

"I learned that from Fujimoto of Sanfrecce," explained Toninho, referring to the post-goal celebrations of Hiroshima's Chikara Fujimoto.

Once the laughter had died down, Toninho said he was amazed what the J.League had achieved in its 10 years' existence in terms of skill, tactics and fan support.

"In my experience I have never seen anything like this in the world," said Toninho, who was a member of Brazil's brilliant midfield in the 1982 World Cup in Spain alongside Zico, Falcao and Socrates.

The quartet was known as the "quatros hombres d'or" (the four golden men), and the Brazilian knows he has a few of his own golden boys at Kashima, such as Best XI members Koji Nakata, Mitsuo Ogasawara and Atsushi Yanagisawa.

He also had special words of praise for Jubilo Iwata, whom Antlers beat 3-2 on aggregate in the two-leg championship playoff.

"I thought both teams had such high ability and tactics and skill," he said.

His comments received royal support from Prince Takamado, patron of the Japan Football Association and a member of the Imperial Family.

Referring to the second leg of the playoff, which Antlers won 1-0 in sudden-death extra time with a free kick from Ogasawara, Prince Takamado said: "It was a really wonderful game, so rich in content.

"Ten days before that we had watched the Toyota Cup in Tokyo between the champions of Europe and South America, and I felt that the J.League game was so much better than that."

Fine words from Prince Takamado, and a fine break-dance from Toninho Cerezo, showing he still has some special moves when the spotlight is on.

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J.League MVP wide open

9 Dec 2001(Sun)

The J.League's annual awards night takes place Monday night, and the race for the main prize appears to be wide open.

There are several players who deserve special attention, and the judges must be in a difficult position picking one winner.

Jubilo Iwata, who finished 17 points clear of nearest challengers Kashima Antlers over the two stages of the season, have a couple of strong contenders in midfielder Toshiya Fujita and evergreen striker Masashi Nakayama.

Fujita was named MVP of the first stage, and continued this good form in the second stage after recovering from a couple of minor injuries.

His intelligent play and ability to link defence to attack was behind much of Jubilo's success, and he would surely be a candidate for the national team if there was not so much competition for places in central midfield.

As for Nakayama, who won the MVP award in 1998, he just never stops scoring.

He bagged 16 this time to finish sixth in the scoring chart, but was the highest-placed Japanese player behind five overseas strikers.

Another remarkable fact was that he played in all 30 league games, proof of this veteran professional's ultra-professional approach to the game.

Antlers must have a chance, too, with young midfielder Koji Nakata, one of national coach Philippe Troussier's favourites. He plays defensive midfield for club and left defence for country, and is maturing into a fine all-round player.

Consadole Sapporo's Brazilian striker Will had an outstanding debut season in J1 following his move from Oita Trinita. He scored a league-high 24 goals in a mediocre Consadole team, keeping them in the top flight almost single-handedly.

Equal second in the scoring chart was J.League rookie Choi Yong Soo, who scored 21 goals, the same as Nagoya's Ueslei, another Brazilian.

Choi missed the start of the season through injury after his transfer from Anyang LG Cheetahs, but quickly found his touch with JEF United.

He arrived in Japan with a reputation as a mean and aggressive goal-scorer, and lived up to that tag against all-comers.

It's a tough call, but I would be tempted to give it to the Korean striker Choi, and the Manager of the Year to Zdenko Verdenik, who guided JEF United to third place overall, a fine achievement for a club which is usually fighting to avoid relegation.

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Ex-Cerezo coach says Nishizawa has made big mistake

2 Dec 2001(Sun)

Former Cerezo Osaka manager Rene Desaeyere believes the career of national team striker Akinori Nishizawa has gone backwards after leaving the J.League.

Desaeyere said he advised Nishizawa to move to Belgium to further his career, but the player wanted to play in a more glamorous league.

"I could have got him a club in Belgium where he could have become stronger as a player and improved his game, but he said he had already played in Holland and didn't like it there," said the Belgian, who was part of the Belgian FA delegation at Saturday's World Cup draw.

"If he'd have gone to Belgium first, then he could have moved to Spain or to England, but I believe he has lost three years by going to Espanyol and now to Bolton Wanderers."

Nishizawa failed to make the grade in Spain and is struggling to get on the substitutes' bench for Bolton in the English Premier League.

Consequently, this has put his World Cup place in jeopardy, as he has no chance to show national coach Philippe Troussier if he is in form or not.

Meanwhile, Desaeyere has warned Japan that defense will be the key to a solid start against his native Belgium in next year's World Cup.

The Japanese will kick off their Group H campaign against the seasoned European campaigners at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Tuesday, June 4.

But Desaeyere says Japan must not throw caution to the wind in an attempt to grab three points.

Asked if Japan could beat Belgium, he replied: "Why not? It is not going to be easy, but a draw is still possible.

"Japan has a nice offensive team, but Belgium is good in organization and will play a counter-attacking game.

"I think Japan should concentrate on their defense; that is the key. They should beware of their defense, otherwise that could be a problem.

"The Japanese public are going to push them forward and think Belgium is not strong because Japan is happy to be drawn with Belgium."

The only time Japan and Belgium have met was in the Kirin Cup at Tokyo National Stadium on June 3, 1999. That match ended in a 0-0 draw, and Belgium would be happy with the same result next year at Saitama.

Desaeyere, who is hoping to return to Japan as a coach, said Belgium still had attacking flair, despite a reputation for discipline and organization.

"Players such as Emile Mpenza, Bart Goor and Marc Wilmots give Belgium some good offense, and Wesley Sonck is emerging as an exciting player for Genk," added Desaeyere.

"It will not be easy for Japan to win, but it is the opening game and every host country of the World Cup has qualified for the second round. I think Japan can do the same, even though Russia and Tunisia are also strong. I have confidence in that.

"Overall I think it is a very balanced group and there will not be too many goals. All four of them have a chance to go through to the second round."

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