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April 2002

Big chance for smaller clubs to shine

27 Apr 2002(Sat)

TOKYO (April 27): The World Cup is giving Japan's smaller clubs the chance to win some silverware this season in the form of the J.League's Nabisco Cup.
The tournament starts today (Saturday) around the country, with the 16 first division teams drawn into four groups of four. The top two teams in each group, after a six-round mini-league running through to May 12, will qualify for the quarterfinals in September.

The advantage the less glamorous clubs hold is that the leading players of the established powers, such as Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata, will all be missing. They are with Japan's national squad preparing for next week's Kirin Cup games against Slovakia and Honduras.
So this gives other teams a great chance to knock out the big boys and book themselves a place in the last eight.

Antlers, for example, will be missing goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata, midfielders Koji Nakata and Mitsuo Ogasawara and strikers Takayuki Suzuki and Atsushi Yanagisawa.
Jubilo will have defender Makoto Tanaka and midfielders Toshihiro Hattori and Takashi Fukunishi with the national team, while Nabisco Cup-holders Yokohama F Marinos cannot call on the services of defenders Yuji Nakazawa and Naoki Matsuda, and the midfield trio of Daisuke Oku, Shunsuke Nakamura and Yasuhiro Hato.
So with such an array of stars absent, teams such as Gamba Osaka and Vegalta Sendai must be serious contenders.

Vegalta have made an impressive start to their first season in the top flight, and are in third place after seven matches as the league takes a break for the World Cup.
On Saturday they play Jubilo in Group A at Kamoike, and Vegalta's only absentee is five-goal striker Yoshiteru Yamashita, who is making a late claim for a place in Japan's World Cup 23.

Gamba are in fourth position but will not have national team captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto to call on. Apart from this stylish central defender, who is such a strong reader of the game, Gamba are in tact, and have enough quality in all departments to finally win some silverware for the Kansai clubs.

Urawa Reds have no national team players, so will feel they have a chance of progressing from Group D with red-hot Brazilian Emerson leading the scoring charts on seven goals this season.

So there's a big incentive for the smaller clubs to lift their game, and end the domination of the J.League's powers.

Perhaps it's their best chance since the competition kicked off in 1992, the season before the league got under way.

ends

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Marinos lead the way in local transfer market

25 Apr 2002(Thu)

April 23: When a team struggles to survive in the first division one season, the owners usually aim for a quick fix.

That means sacking the foreign players and starting again with a new group, about whom little is known.

But the Yokohama F Marinos knew that there were enough good Japanese players around to revive their fortunes, and have turned from relegation candidates to championship challengers in the space of a few months.

Marinos, league champions in 1995, were in danger of dropping into the second division until the very last day of the season last November.

After staying up, the club retained two of its three Brazilian players--defender Naza and left-sided midfielder Dutra-- while allowing striker Marco Brito to leave.

Brito's replacement was the tried and trusted Brazilian Will, from Consadole Sapporo, but Marinos also made three important signings from Japanese clubs.

The result of this shrewd dealing is that Marinos lead the table after seven rounds of the first stage, ahead of Jubilo Iwata and Vegalta Sendai going into the long break for the World Cup.

At the back, Marinos signed the tall and confident young central defender Yuji Nakazawa from Tokyo Verdy, and he has fitted in quickly alongside Japan's best defender, Naoki Matsuda.

In midfield, Daisuke Oku was recruited from Jubilo Iwata after being promised a central midfield role. He was fed up of playing on the wing in Jubilo's five-strong midfield.

Up front, Will's partner is another ex-Jubilo man, Norihisa Shimizu, who was always on the fringes of the first team but rarely a regular starting member.

The Japanese players have justified the faith placed in them by the Marinos management, and the Brazilians are loyal servants of the charismatic manager, Sebastiao Lazaroni.

One cloud on the horizon, though, is the anticipated departure to Real Madrid, after the World Cup, of playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura.

Rumour has it that Lazaroni is keen to bring back to Japan the former Verdy and Antlers playmaker Bismarck, who was released by Kashima at the end of last season and is now with Fluminense.

With three Brazilians already on the books, one would have to stand down if Bismarck were to take Nakamura's playmaking place.

So Lazaroni still has much to do after the break to keep his team on top.

But the club's sensible transfer policy of buying what you know, rather than leaving it to agents with players on their books about whom little is known, has proved successful.

Maybe other clubs will start to follow suit instead of looking for the quick fix of expensive new Brazilians.

ends

 

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A great advertisement for change

22 Apr 2002(Mon)

TOKYO (April 17): If ever proof were needed of the total waste of time of playing extra time in J.League matches, last Saturday's game at Tokyo Stadium was it.
Tokyo Verdy and Vissel Kobe were drawing 1-1 at the end of the regulation 90 minutes.
In most countries around the world, the game would be over, the fans would go home with mixed emotions and the teams would have a point each.
End of story.

But in Japan, J.League organizers are still seeking a quick fix for the newcomers to professional soccer, so they must have a result if at all possible.
Thankfully they scrapped the penalty shootout after the 1998 season, but we are still left with two halves of 15 minutes, with a golden goal bringing an immediate end to the proceedings.

But extra time often displays the worst features of the game.
Players are tired after giving it their all for 90 minutes, and play in extra time reflects this.
Passes go astray (okay, so they do anyway when Verdy are playing these days!), tackles are mis-timed, players go down injured quicker than they do in normal time, and weaker teams just decide to defend for a further 30 minutes in the hope of denying their opponents the extra point (two points are awarded to a team winning in extra time, as opposed to three points for a victory in 90 minutes).
So when a golden goal is scored, it is often far from golden. It is as a result of a mistake by an opponent, tired and under pressure, and the losing team ends up with no points at all when they may have played reasonably well for almost two hours.

The J.League format has many critics, and they have been given even more ammunition this season because the J.League has scrapped extra time in the second division while retaining it in the top flight.
Two different points systems in the same league?
Bizarre.

One of the attractions of the game worldwide is the underdog visiting the home of a top team, and, through tactics, strategy and courage, holding off the home team and maybe snatching a goal on the break.
For the purists it makes for fascinating viewing, with extra time and golden goals reserved for knockout cup football only.

The J.League has achieved many things in a short time, since it kicked off in 1993, such as teams being based in home towns rather than just corporate offshoots with no identity.
The professional league has produced a conveyor belt of quality players for Japan's national team, but the format needs to fall in line with the rest of the world.

Anyone visiting the Verdy-Vissel game must have left convinced that extra time in league games is a total waste of time.
The match ended 1-1 after all.

ends

 

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Shunsuke: In or out?

18 Apr 2002(Thu)

Philippe Troussier always likes to play games with his players.

But I'm talking about mind games, not football games.

And it always involves his most talented players.

First it was Shinji Ono.

Then Hidetoshi Nakata.

Now it's Shunsuke Nakamura.

Will the left-footed set-piece sorcerer be in Japan's World Cup 23?

Only the Frenchman knows at the moment, but this week he gave the clearest indication that he will be, but not for his ability.

It will be more to please the fans and the business world, which Troussier accepts is very important in Japan as the game is still trying to establish itself.

At a typically animated press conference on the eve of Japan's friendly with Costa Rica on Wednesday, Troussier said his World Cup squad would be comprised of three groups of players:
1) About 14 players whom he regards as starting members. In this group we can put the likes of Nakata (Hidetoshi and Koji), Ono, Naoki Matsuda, Yasuhiro Hato, Kazuyuki Toda, Junichi Inamoto, Toshihiro Hattori, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, Hiroaki Morishima, Atsushi Yanagisawa, Takayuki Suzuki and Naohiro Takahara.
2) Players who can make an impact off the bench, or fill a number of positions. These will include Alessandro Santos, Tomokazu Myojin and, I believe, Masashi Nakayama. ''The second group is psychologically a different person,'' he said. ''They must be ready to for one minute, 10 minutes or 20 minutes.''
3) Players (one or two, he said) who may not play during the tournament, but who are good for ''sponsors, image and photos.'' Surely he is talking here about Shunsuke!

Nakamura has hardly been used in the past year, but Troussier suggested that he would be in the 23 after all just to keep everyone happy.

Is Troussier joking, or is he serious?

The problem is, you never know, as he frequently contradicts himself the next time he speaks.

The truth is, Troussier knew his World Cup 23 at the end of last year, and all these friendly matches are asking more questions than they answer.

New players come in and do well, such as Mitsuo Ogasawara and Santos, and Troussier cannot pick them all. Only 23.

Nakamura does not fit into the first category, nor the second, as he has said in the past that Nakamura would not be effective off the bench.

So category three is the route for the Yokohama F Marinos player to get in the final 23.

I think Troussier was serious, and that Nakamura is now in his thoughts again.

Troussier has a hard job finding the right balance and keeping everyone happy, and with many players of an equal level it is a tough task trying to read his thoughts.

But Nakamura must be even more confused than the Frenchman at the moment.

 

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What's ''gon'' wrong for Nakayama?

15 Apr 2002(Mon)

TOKYO (April 12)--The name of Masashi "Gon" Nakayama has been conspicuous by its absence in the two national squads announced this year by Philippe Troussier.

So what's happening with Japan's popular veteran striker?

Has he been dropped from Troussier's World Cup plans?

Or is Troussier simply looking at other players, knowing exactly what he will get from Nakayama?

I prefer to take the latter option.

Despite the fact Nakayama has not been picked for next week's friendly against Costa Rica, I feel he is already assured of a place in Japan's World Cup 23.

Maybe Troussier has even told him this, thereby allowing Nakayama to concentrate on his fitness and not push himself too hard.

After all, Nakayama is 34, and that's old to be playing as a forward in the World Cup (although Cameroon's Roger Milla would disagree).

Troussier regards Nakayama as a mood-maker, and feels he is great to have around the younger players.

He always displays passion and commitment, and pride in wearing the national team colors.

These are important qualities, and Troussier feels they are lacking in some of the younger players.

In terms of goals this season, Nakayama is not at his best, with only one in five appearances for Jubilo Iwata, taking his career tally to 127 in 225 league games.

But this should not be a factor with Nakayama, as Troussier already knows that the experienced striker knows the way to goal.

A couple of games without hitting the target is no big deal for this particular player.

When the pressure is on in the build-up to the World Cup, Nakayama is just the kind of player Troussier will need around him.

He'll be keen, excited and raring to go, and this self-confidence will rub off on the rest of the players.

After all, Nakayama has been there before, in France 98, and scored Japan's only goal of the tournament in their final match, a 2-1 defeat to Jamaica.

So my message to fans of Jubilo and Nakayama, whose nickname "Gon" comes from his likeness to a character on a late-night comedy show, is: Don't worry, he is already on Troussier's list for the World Cup.

It would be a major surprise if the Frenchman cast him adrift at this late stage, as Nakayama's contribution is vital to Japan's cause.

Even if he's only sitting on the bench.

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Nanami: What's all the fuss about?

11 Apr 2002(Thu)

Okay, so I know Hiroshi Nanami is a good player, but please!

His return to the Jubilo Iwata team last Saturday was greeted like the second coming, a typically way over the top approach from the Japanese media.

After six months on the sidelines due to knee problems, the 29-year-old left-footed midfielder went on for the second half of Jubilo's 1-0 win at Kobe, which was achieved with a goal after one minute of extra time from Takashi Fukunishi.

This meant Nanami played less than 47 minutes, but the Japanese media who worship him will be calling for an instant return to the national team, not just the squad.

But is Nanami so important to Japan's cause?

Is he such a great player at the highest level?

Can he add something to this dynamic young team built by Philippe Troussier.

Maybe I am in a minority of one amongst the media, but I say ''no'' to all three questions.

When I think of Nanami, my thoughts are negative, not positive.

I remember him giving possession away with a careless flick of the heel, even though the crowd roars at this piece of skill.

I remember him joining Venezia in Italy three years ago, and failing hopelessly to make the grade in a poor team. For the most part he was stuck out on the left wing, and looked happy to stay there, totally unable to make an impact.

And I remember him playing for Japan against China, when Troussier picked him on the left wing and Nanami did nothing except argue with the officials, something he learned in Italy.

I accept he was named MVP when Japan won the Asian Cup in Lebanon in October 2000, but it's important to look at the strength of the opposition: Uzbekistan? Iraq? Qatar?

Technically, of course, Nanami is a good player; excessively left-footed, a good passer of the ball and with good vision, and possessor of a dangerous free kick.

But it needs more than that to succeed at the highest level. It needs heart and fight and spirit and determination, energy and vibrancy. This is the area which causes me to doubt Nanami's worth to the squad.

Troussier says he is considering him for the left side of midfield, which surprises me as Nanami has no pace and rarely goes past defenders.

With Hidetoshi Nakata, Hiroaki Morishima and Mitsuo Ogasawara all ahead of Nanami in the queue for the central attacking midfield slot, the only position open for Nanami is as a defensive midfielder.

But Nanami is not comfortable as a ball-winner, and it's no good having someone in there if he can't tackle.

No, I am not convinced at all that Nanami is the savior of the team, but was not surprised by the media hysteria which greeted his return last Saturday.

I think it would be a backward step to select him. After all, the national team has done quite well without him in recent months.

 

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Low crowds baffle J.League

8 Apr 2002(Mon)

TOKYO (April 5): Come on Japanese soccer fans, what's going on?

This is the question being asked by J.League officials, who are puzzled at the decline in attendances at the start of World Cup year.

After four rounds of games, the average attendance is 15,440, over 1,000 lower than last season's figure of 16,548.

Even though the World Cup is just around the corner and interest is high, officials cannot understand why that is not being translated into higher attendances for domestic matches.

''Yes, we are aware of the situation and think it is a big problem,'' says Takehiko Sano, chief staff of the league's business planning department.

''The most worrying thing is that we just don't know the reasons for it. It's kind of scary.''

While newly promoted Vegalta Sendai have been pulling in the crowds at Tohoku, virtually filling their stadium for their three home games so far, other clubs have been struggling.

These include Nagoya Grampus Eight, who used to be regarded as a glamour club with the likes of Gary Lineker and then Dragan Stojkovic.

For a recent home game against Tokyo Verdy, just 7,231 fans turned up at Mizuho Stadium, followed by 11,279 for last Sunday's game against Consadole Sapporo.

Some observers feel that the sharp decline is due to the retirement last summer of Stojkovic, who attracted many supporters to watch his entertaining skills.

Add to the fact that Grampus have no national team players, except for second-choice goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki, and a mediocre team, and the crowds are not impressed.

Verdy, too, are in trouble, on and off the pitch. Only 8,349 watched their ''home'' game against Kashiwa Reysol at Tokyo National Stadium last Sunday, although the weather was atrocious with thunder and lightning and heavy rain.

Verdy could be struggling to stay in business at the end of this season, especially if they fall into J2.

The J.League was preparing itself for a decline in attendances after the World Cup, not before it, and this has sent a warning signal to all clubs, according to Sano.

''We were hoping the attendances would increase again this year going into the World Cup, but we knew it would be difficult,'' he added.

''It just goes to show that the league and the clubs cannot relax for a minute in our efforts to attract fans, because if we do we will die.

It is a universal thing for professional sports in any league.

''There is no special formula to solve the problems.''

Last season's average was the highest since 1995, when 16,922 turned up before the bubble burst following the league launch in 1993.

Maybe with better weather, and the Golden Week holidays coming up, crowds will pick up again, but the low crowds are a huge worry for league officials, especially if more of the pin-up boys from the national team leave Japan after the World Cup.


 

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Venglos impressed by Japan

4 Apr 2002(Thu)

With less than two months to go before the World Cup kicks off, Japan's national team is in pretty good shape, mentally and physically.

This is the view of Japan-based Jozef Venglos, one of the most respected figures in the game within the FIFA and UEFA coaching circles.

Venglos knows a thing or two about international football, having coached the former Czechoslovakia into the World Cup quarter-finals in Italy 12 years ago.

The experienced Slovakian manager, now in charge of JEF United Ichihara in the J.League, was mightily impressed with what he saw as Japan beat Poland 2-0 in Lodz last Wednesday.

But, at the same time, he is not getting carried away because it was just a warm-up match for the real business to come in Japan and South Korea.

''I think it was a very good performance by Japan and a very good result,'' said Venglos, who has also coached Aston Villa, Fenerbahce and Celtic during his long career.

''It showed the confidence and the spirit in the team, and also the team work. But perhaps, most importantly, it showed the players believe in themselves.''

The victory was Japan's first away win against European opposition in a senior international since they beat Iceland 2-0 in 1971, but came on the back of recent home wins against Yugoslavia (1-0) and Ukraine (1-0) and a 1-1 draw with Italy last November.

"No, I was not surprised by the result in Poland,'' added Venglos, ''because these are preparation games.

''Always you have to play a series of preparation games before a major tournament, and we must take them as such.

''Still, it is good for the mood and the atmosphere of the Japan team, and Philippe Troussier is doing well. But what counts is the World Cup games.''

Japan's star on the day was Parma playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata, whose superb passing and vision made him stand out from the crowd.

''You can see he is playing in Europe, and this is important because he is more experienced and more confident. The same can be said of (Shinji) Ono,'' added Venglos.

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Nakata answers all questions

1 Apr 2002(Mon)

March 28: The arguments are surely over, and so is the controversy surrounding Hidetoshi Nakata.

Against a big and occasionally violent Polish team in Lodz on Wednesday night, Nakata proved once again that he is head and shoulders above the rest.

Not just on the Japan team, but on the Poland team, too, as he ran the proceedings with a 90-minute display of control, vision, energy and his full range of passing skills.

Quite simply, Nakata was irresisitible and untouchable, scoring the first goal with a wicked drive and laying on the second in Japan's 2-0 victory with a gem of a crossfield pass into the path of Daisuke Ichikawa, whose cross was fired home by Naohiro Takahara.

Poland's coach, Jerzy Engel, described Nakata as "fabulous" and said it had been a pleasure to watch him.

Even Philippe Troussier, not known for praising individual players, let alone Nakata, was forced to admit he was "very satisfied" with Nakata's display and that he was an important member of the team as long as he knows the rules.

In Troussier's eyes, Nakata's talent has never been in question, just his ability to play within his team framework and also his motivation to play for his country.

In a typically animated news conference after the game, Troussier said Nakata's attitude had been completely different during his four days with the squad in Poland, and thought the reason for this was his humbling experience at Parma this season.

"Before, he came with five managers, two doctors and a helicopter. This time he came on his bicycle," Troussier said to illustrate his point.

Hopefully now, Nakata and Troussier will not be an issue, because clearly the Frenchman and Japan need Nakata, and he is maturing into an inspirational team leader.

In the past, Troussier has said Nakata is just one of 14 or 15 possible starting members, but deep down he knows Nakata is special.

On Wednesday he proved it, and with just two months before the World Cup kicks off, Japan could not be in better shape.

As Poland's coach Engel pointed out: "They haven't just got 11 good players, they have between 25 and 30 of a similar level.

"With one player like Nakata to organise the team, they can be very dangerous in the World Cup. They taught us a lesson, and Nakata was the best player on the pitch."

 

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