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June 2002

Ronaldo's back!

29 Jun 2002(Sat)

Did you see Ronaldo's fantastic winning goal against Turkey in the World Cup semi-final?

No, neither did I.

And I don't think the Turkish goalkeeper, Rustu Recber, did either.

When Ronaldo received a pass from midfielder Gilberto Silva, there seemed to be little hope of scoring a goal from that position.

After all, there was half the Turkish team in front of him, and he wasn't even in the penalty box yet.

But the defenders gave him enough space to accelerate into the danger zone, and then four of them closed in on him ready to make the tackle.

Suddenly, from nowhere, the ball was in the back of the net!

It was incredible, as there was very little back-lift in his right-foot shot as he toe-poked the ball toward the far corner.

The keeper got his hand to it but could not prevent the ball from flying into the far corner.

It was not a Ronaldo goal at all, as he usually goes around defenders and beats the keeper in a one-on-one situation. That's his trademark.

This was more like a goal from Romario, the master poacher of the penalty box who was Brazil's star man when they won the World Cup in 1994 but who has been left out of the last two World Cup squads.

But coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has been proved right in his selection.

Brazil does not need Romario when they have Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, who was suspended for the semifinal after being sent off, harshly, against England.

To witness that special goal against Turkey was to see a true genius at work; a player who can win a close match with a piece of brilliant, unpredictable skill.

It was inventive. It was outrageous. It was Ronaldo.

Having spent the first round of the World Cup in Japan, then the second round, quarter-finals and first semi-final in Korea, this was my first opportunity to watch Brazil.

I was not disappointed, despite the slender margin of victory over a Turkish team who played some neat, attractive football but lacked the killer punch.

After the game, in the mixed zone (the official area where selected media can interview the players as they leave the dressing room for the team bus), Ronaldo himself described the goal as a Romario special, and declared that his "nightmare" was finally over.

The nightmare began on the day of the 1998 World Cup final in France, when he had a seizure, and continued with a serious knee injury, followed by a host of minor setbacks.

"Now, every goal is a victory," he said.

"Every time I enter the pitch it is an honor and a joy."

Although he still does not resemble the sparkling, explosive dynamic player he was four years ago, the 25-year-old superstar still has enough quality to win the Golden Boot for the tournament's leading scorer and also to win the World Cup for Brazil.

He has 10 World Cup goals in total, only two behind the legend Pele, who scored his 12 goals in four tournaments from 1958 to 1970.

Is Ronaldo a legend also?

If Brazil win the World Cup on Sunday against Germany for a record fifth time, and Ronaldo scores twice, then he can take his place in World Cup history.

If it's an honor and a joy for him to enter the pitch, it's an honor and joy to watch him.

Unless, of course, you happen to be German.

 

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Agent: Korean players could be new Scandinavians of European football

26 Jun 2002(Wed)

An England-based soccer agent believes the success of South Korea in the World Cup could change the landscape of European football.

As the Koreans have made progress through the tournament, several players have attracted the interest of European clubs.

Star striker Ahn Jung Hwan, for example, is said to be a target for Chelsea and Everton, while fellow forward Seol Ki Hyeon has also impressed scouts from English Premier League clubs.

Park Ji Sung, who plays on the right side of Korea's three-man attack, could also move from Kyoto Purple Sanga to Italy, as several Serie A clubs think he is as strong and dynamic as Hidetoshi Nakata.

At the moment, Seol plays for Anderlecht in Belgium.

He signed a three-year contract last summer, so still has two more years to go.

This does not mean he will stay with Anderlecht, though, because he spent most of his first season on the bench.

His British agent, Michael D'Arcy, said Anderlecht had been very surprised by his strong performances in the World Cup.

"They have been impressed, because I think they have been playing him out of position for Anderlecht," said D'Arcy.

"They have been playing him as the No. 1 striker, with his back to goal, but his style of play is much more suited to playing wide and running at defenders with the ball at his feet. This is how he has made his mark in the World Cup."

Anderlecht officials hope to keep Seol, but if he cannot get guarantees that he will be playing regularly next season, he could ask to move on. The Belgian club should then collect a high transfer fee after getting him for nothing after just one year at Royal Antwerp.

Seol is still only 23, and joined Antwerp in the summer of 2000 straight from university.

D'Arcy believes 60 per cent of Korea's starting eleven could play at the highest level in Europe.

"I think they could be the new Scandinavians of European football," added D'Arcy.

"The Scandinavian players are always very strong physically and always give 100 per cent. Teams know exactly what they are getting when they sign a Scandinavian player, and I feel the same can happen with the Koreans.

"We have always known Korean players and Asian players have ability. Now the rest of the world can see it, too."

D'Arcy said the most important factor was choosing the right club. It was no good signing for Arsenal because the level is too high, as Junichi Inamoto has found out.


 

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Will the world respect Asia's World Cup?

24 Jun 2002(Mon)

A conspiracy to get South Korea into the semifinals?

Or a sequence of mistakes by match officials which have, by coincidence, penalized South Korea's opponents?

I must admit I left Gwangju on Sunday morning with mixed feelings.

First, I was delighted to see an Asian team in the World Cup semifinals, and see a nation's people united in celebration.

Second, I could not help feeling sorry for Spain, who had been on the wrong end of some terrible blunders by the referee and/or the linesmen.

The worst case came early in extra time. Joaquin, who had a marvelous game on the right wing for Spain, got to the deadball line and crossed into the middle, where Fernando Morientes headed home.

The linesman on the far side signaled that the ball had gone out of play before Joaquin crossed, but TV replays clearly showed it had not. The replays also showed the linesman perfectly positioned to make the call, and how he got it wrong is a mystery.

In Korea's defense, though, as soon as the linesman's flag went up, the referee blew his whistle and the Korean players, including goalkeeper Lee Woon Jae, all stopped. I am sure even Morientes knew the whistle had gone, but he thought he might as well head the ball into the net anyway.

So Spain, Italy and Portugal have all been knocked out by South Korea, who had never won a game in 14 attempts at five previous World Cups. Sounds suspicious?

The conspiracy theory goes like this:

Tickets in Korea for matches not involving the Korean team are not selling well, and fans are not traveling from overseas because of the cost and distance. FIFA desperately needed Korea to advance from the group stages to maintain interest in the tournament and prevent a financial disaster for the Korean organizers and an image disaster for their biggest product.

Now that Korea have won through to the semifinals, that match against Germany in Seoul on Tuesday will be a sell-out. If Korea lose, so will the third-place playoff at Daegu on Saturday.

If Korea win the semifinal against Germany, the final will be sold out anyway...and envious Japanese fans could have the last laugh by selling their final tickets to Koreans at a huge profit on the black market!

While the Europeans will claim there is a conspiracy to keep Korea in the tournament, the more logical explanation is that the officiating has simply been bad. And not only in Korea's matches.

This is the biggest problem for FIFA.

Some referees have given fouls for nothing, such as when Junichi Inamoto scored a perfectly fair goal against Belgium, which would have put Japan 3-2 ahead. This would go against the conspiracy theory aimed at keeping the host teams in the tournament as long as possible.

No, it's great to see an Asian team in the semifinals for the first time.

I just wish they could have progressed in less controversial circumstances, otherwise the rest of the world may not be giving Asian football, or Asia's first World Cup, the credit it deserves.


 

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Velappan stands up for Asian football

23 Jun 2002(Sun)

Asian soccer chief Peter Velappan is right. Who needs Perugia?

Velappan was commenting on the incredible outburst by the Italian club's owner, Luciano Gaucci, after Perugia player Ahn Jung Hwan had scored the goal to eliminate Italy in the World Cup second round.

Gaucci said that Ahn's contract would not be renewed when it expired at the end of June, as the club was not interested in keeping him.

"When he arrived at Perugia he was like a little lost goat who didn't even have the money to buy a sandwich," said Gaucci.

"He became rich without doing anything exceptional and then, at the World Cup, he ruined Italian football."

Velappan reacted angrily to Gaucci's comments, and it's good to see Asians standing up for themselves against Europe, just like the Asian players of Japan and Korea have done at this World Cup.

Velappan said that Perugia only signed Asian players to make money on replica shirt sales, TV deals and sponsorship by Asian companies.

In this respect, Velappan is right, and Ahn does not need Perugia.

I visited Perugia last October to watch a Saturday night game against Roma.

The next day I took the train up to Parma to see Hidetoshi Nakata play against Piacenza.

Perugia is a beautiful, historic city, with breathtaking views of the mountains of Umbria.

Perugia Football Club, at the bottom of town, is a shambles. The stadium is old and falling apart, and the facilities for the players, officials, VIPs and media are a disgrace.

The club hit the jackpot, however, by signing Nakata from Bellmare Hiratsuka after the 1998 World Cup for just US$3.3 million.

Nakata was a revelation, scoring twice on his Serie A debut against Juventus. Fans in Japan and around Asia bought Nakata No. 7 Perugia shirts in their thousands, and Japanese tourists flocked to Perugia, which is a short train journey from Rome.

After just one and a half seasons, Perugia sold Nakata to Roma for $16 million, a profit of over $12 million, not including all the money they made from shirt sales, TV etc.

Perugia then tried to do the same with China by signing Ma Mingyu and in South Korea by signing Ahn.

Both deals were loan signings only, not permanent, because Perugia did not want to spend a lot of money and lose it all if the players were not as good, or as marketable, as Nakata.

Of course, they weren't, as Nakata is a phenomenon on and off the pitch.

Ahn spent most of his time on the bench at Perugia, and I don't think Gaucci was ever interested in paying the $4 million to his Korean club, Pusan I Cons, to make the deal permanent.

Italy's defeat gave Perugia and Gaucci the chance to win some publicity.

But the Italians, once again, have come out as the losers.

 

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What next for Japan?

21 Jun 2002(Fri)

Now that Philippe Troussier's reign as Japan's head coach is over, what will the Japan Football Association do next?

Various names have been linked with the vacant post already.

They include Aime Jacquet, who led France to the 1998 World Cup on home soil; fellow Frenchman Bruno Metsu, who has masterminded Senegal's spectacular World Cup debut; the much-traveled Bora Milutinovic, who has coached teams at the past five World Cups; and the Dutchman Guus Hiddink, who has become a national hero in South Korea.

Troussier often said in Japan that he was the kind of coach who specialized in building a team.

This can be seen from his work in Japan, as he took charge of the youth team and the Olympic team as well as the national team.

From the youth team, Troussier took players such as Koji Nakata, Junichi Inamoto, Mitsuo Ogasawara, Masashi Motoyama and Naohiro Takahara into the senior squad.

This has left Japan with a very strong base on which to build for the future.

What Japan needs now is a coach to take them to the next level.

Of the names mentioned, Hiddink would be perfect, but it is highly unlikely the Dutchman would now move from Korea to Japan should the Japan Football Association offer him a job.

All the links built up between the two countries in preparing for the World Cup would be shot down in an instant, so Hiddink now seems to be out of bounds.

Milutinovic specializes in taking teams through to the second round of the World Cup, although he did not come close to doing that with China this time. Japan should be aiming higher.

Jacquet would be highly desirable for the Japan Football Association, as he is older, wiser and calmer than Troussier. Jacquet would be much easier to handle and deal with than the fiery Troussier, who clashed regularly with the JFA in his early days before becoming untouchable due to his results and his popularity with the fans.

Metsu has a similar background to Troussier, working in Africa and earning the reputation as a wanderer, a maverick.

Metsu recently married a Senegalese woman, and even has an African name: Abdoul Karim Metsu. Maybe Africa is his spiritual home now.

Jacquet looks to be the favorite.

But Hiddink would be the best man for the job.

 

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Troussier remains a mystery to the end

19 Jun 2002(Wed)

Japan's World Cup is over.

And so is the controversial, but successful reign of national coach Philippe Troussier.

The Frenchman has constantly surprised people with his selection policy, often appearing determined to be eccentric in whom he picks and whom he leaves out.

In this matter, he was as unpredictable as ever, and Japan's 1-0 defeat by Turkey in the second round leaves a feeling of regret.

For Japan's three group games, Troussier had played a 3-5-2 formation, with the two strikers being the Kashima Antlers duo of Takayuki Suzuki and Atsushi Yanagisawa.

Although they had scored only one goal between them, Suzuki's equalizer against Belgium in the first game, they had played well as a pair and tired out defenders with their strong running and work off the ball.

It was amazing, therefore, for Troussier to leave them both out for the Turkey match. Surely this was a case of Troussier worrying about the opposition rather than concentrating on his own team, as he must have felt Turkey knew exactly what to expect from the Antlers combination.

So instead he picked Akinori Nishizawa and the Brazilian turned Japanese Alessandro "Alex" Dos Santos.

This was baffling.

Nishizawa had not played in any of the three group games, while Alex has never played for Japan as a striker, only as a left-winger in Troussier's five-man midfield.

In this respect, Troussier handed the initiative to Turkey instead of going with what had got Japan through to the second round in the first place.

Nishizawa is an infuriating player, often appearing to lack commitment and concentration. In fact he was thrown out of the national squad by the previous manager, Takeshi Okada, because of his lack of application at a training camp.

Troussier, surprisingly, has shown uncharacteristic loyalty to Nishizawa, who was a miserable failure with Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League and before that with Espanyol in Spain. Both Suzuki and Yanagisawa are more reliable and play better with the team as a whole.

Although Alex hit the angle of post and bar with a left-foot free kick, and Nishizawa had two openings in the second half, a header straight at the keeper and a shot which flew over the bar, Japan seemed to have lost the momentum and rhythm which had swept them to the top of the group.

And why did Troussier leave Hiroaki Morishima on the bench until five minutes from the end?

The busy little striker had changed the course of Japan's game against Tunisia, and he must have felt very frustrated to be confined to the bench again.

It's such a pity that Japan never seemed to get going against Turkey, and surely this was due to Troussier's changes.

The Frenchman had done so well with Japan, but you still get the feeling they could have beaten Turkey had Troussier played with his tried and trusted lineup.

It was not a good way for the Frenchman to end his reign.

 

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Korea under the spell of Hiddink Syndrome

17 Jun 2002(Mon)

If you think Philippe Troussier is a hero in Japan, this is nothing compared to the status of Guus Hiddink here in South Korea.

The Dutchman seems to be on the front and back pages of every newspaper, on every TV show and on the mouths of all Koreans.

The fact that he has guided South Korea to their first victory in the World Cup, then their second victory and, with it, a place in the last 16, is being viewed as much more than a sporting achievement.

It has given the nation its identity, its pride and removed the inferiroity complex it possessed in previous World Cups.

For example, just read a section of the Editorial in Sunday's edition of the English language Korea Times newspaper:

"Can people in other parts of the world imagine how more than 2 million citizens took to the streets and gathered before large screens nationwide to cheer their team with one heart, in such an enthusiastic and festive atmosphere?

"The triumph of our players does not only mean football glory, but also upgrades our international prestige and boosts the morale and confidence of the people."

Strong words indeed from the Koreans, who had played in the World Cup on five previous occasions, dating back to 1954, but had drawn four and lost 10 of their 14 matches before this event kicked off.

Korea is under the influence of what is being called the Hiddink Syndrome.

Some citizens are suggesting the country needs another public holiday, called "Hiddink Day," in honor of South Korea's historic 2-0 victory over Poland on June 4.

And there are reports that the stadium in which that victory took place will be renamed the Busan Hiddink Stadium.

The coach has become the dream man for many Korean girls of all ages, and there are even Hiddink lookalike dolls, T-shirts and other merchandise available in Korea's many, bustling markets.

It wasn't long ago, however, when Hiddink's job appeared to be in jeopardy.

Korea had performed badly in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in Los Angeles at the beginning of the year, and large sections of the Korean media were calling for the coach's head, just like the Japanese media did with Troussier right through to the spring of 2000.

But the two European coaches have remained firm and committed to the path they were taking.

It has been a tough road for both coaches, as they have challenged the culture of the country and challenged the players to be more expressive, more confident and more positive.

Now the people and the players, and even the short-sighted media, can see that Hiddink and Troussier were right all the time.

This is only the beginning of the awakening for the Far East, no matter when the end comes for the co-hosts in this crazy World Cup.

 

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Japan: A never ending story

16 Jun 2002(Sun)

Japan's World Cup adventure will run into a third week after their heroic efforts in winning Group H.

Although Philippe Troussier's Boys in Blue needed only a draw against Tunisia at Osaka on Friday to advance to the best 16, there was never any doubt they would go for the win.

And they got it with a display as good, if not better, than the one they produced in beating Russia 1-0 last Sunday to record their historic first World Cup victory.

In the sunshine of Osaka, Japan's players bloomed all over the pitch and took their African opponents apart with a sizzling second-half display.

Their next opponents are Turkey, at Miyagi Stadium near Sendai on Tuesday afternoon, and there is no reason why Japan cannot go even further in only their second appearance at the World Cup.

Turkey started slowly in Group C, and needed a 3-0 victory over a very disappointing China to clinch second place ahead of Costa Rica.

But Japan have nothing to fear against the Turks, who beat a weak Austria team in a two-leg European playoff to qualify for the finals after finishing second in their group to Sweden.

Turkey will also have two players suspended for their match against Japan: Emre Asik and Emre Belozoglu, while Japan will go into the game with a full squad available.

Five players--Junichi Inamoto, Koji Nakata, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, Kazuyuki Toda and substitute striker Masashi Nakayama--were all on a single yellow card after Japan's first two games, and a second caution against Tunisia would have brought a suspension for the second round.

But such is the discipline in the Japanese team that none of them, especially the defenders Nakata and Miyamoto, and the tough-tackling midfield duo of Toda and Inamoto, received a card.

Japan and Turkey have met only once before, in the annual Kirin Cup competition on June 15, 1997, at Osaka, where Japan won 1-0 with a goal from Hiroaki Morishima.

The same player opened the scoring for Japan against Tunisia in the 48th minute after coming on as a substitute at half-time, and Morishima remains one of Troussier's favorite and most reliable players, even though he cannot command a place in the starting lineup.

He is always bright and busy, and just won't leave defenders alone. He has a true eye for goal, too, and wasted no time in lashing his right-foot shot into the Tunisian net on his home ground where he plays his club football for Cerezo Osaka.

Although Troussier has started every match with two strikers, Atsushi Yanagisawa and Takayuki Suzuki, supported by Hidetoshi Nakata from midfield, many observers feel Japan plays better with only one striker, supported by two midfielders.

This tactic worked wonders in the second half, with Suzuki on his own and Nakata and Morishima attacking the opposition from deep positions.

When Troussier plays with two strikers, Nakata often has too much to do on his own in midfield, and Morishima takes a lot of the workload off his shoulders.

Nakata was a giant against Tunisia, and thoroughly deserved his headed goal in the second half, and his MVP award.

After scoring his goal, he blew a kiss on his left hand to Daisuke Ichikawa, who had crossed the ball from the right wing.

And when Nakata was substituted in the 84th minute, his teammates lined up to shake his hand as he walked off the pitch.

On the touchline, Troussier did the same, and gave him a friendly pat on the backside as he headed for the dugout.

Blue Fever is reaching epidemic proportions in Japan, and Troussier says his team has built up a "dynamic momentum" during the three World Cup games.

And it's a momentum that can carry them past Turkey on Tuesday.

 

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Japan cannot afford to relax

14 Jun 2002(Fri)

Japan can afford to lose their final Group H match against Tunisia at Osaka Nagai Stadium on Friday afternoon and still qualify for the second round.

But they cannot afford to relax.

After their heroic, historic 1-0 victory over Russia on Sunday, Japan are in an enviable position at the top of their group, looking down on their European rivals and also on the north Africans.

This is how the group looks:

Japan have four points and a goal difference of +1.

Russia have three points and a goal difference if +1, but they have scored one goal fewer than Japan.

Belgium have two points and a level goal difference.

Tunisia have one point and a goal difference of -2.

So the mathematics are simple for Japan.

If they beat Tunisia, they will win the group with seven points.

If they draw, they will qualify for the second round with five points.

If they lose 0-1, they will still qualify, regardless of the other match Friday between Belgium and Russia at Shizuoka. This is because Tunisia would have four points, but a goal difference of -1, while Japan's goal difference would be level.

So what should Japan do?

Play cautiously for a draw, or go for the win?

All the indications are they will go for the win, because if they finish top of the group they would avoid a second-round match with Brazil, who look certain to win Group C.

Japan's opponent, at Miyagi, near Sendai, on June 18, would therefore be against the team that finishes second in Group C, Turky.

The fans simply can't get enough of Philippe Troussier's Boys in Blue, and team kit sponsor Adidas has sold around 300,000 replica shirts in the past two weeks, almost half their projected sales of 700,000.

Blue Fever is sweeping the country, and this was in evidence following Japan's 1-0 victory over Russia.

All around Japan, fans were celebrating boisterously and looking forward to Friday's next stop on their World Cup adventure.

Japan beat Russia without their captain and central defender Ryuzo Morioka, who was injured during the 2-2 draw with Belgium.

Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, wearing his Batman mask to protect his broken nose, stepped in and had an excellent game, breaking up attack after attack with his well-timed tackles and interceptions.

Even if Morioka is fit, Troussier will probably keep Miyamoto in the team as he is confident and a natural leader.

Miyamoto is an intelligent person and an intelligent footballer, with his ability to read the game compensating for his lack of pace.

Troussier may be tempted to make one change, however, and that could mean him leaving out Shinji Ono in place of the Brazilian-turned-Japanese Alessandro "Alex" Santos.

Alex is a dangerous, exciting left-winger, and the coach may feel his speed and ability to dribble past his full-back could open up the slow Tunisian defenders. Ono has looked tired after a long season in Europe.

I cannot see Japan falling at this last hurdle in the group, as the country is fully behind them, and many other people around the world, too, after their dynamic displays so far.

 

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Japan arrives on World Cup stage

11 Jun 2002(Tue)

What a night for Japanese football!

Not just the manner and style of Japan's heroic 1-0 victory over Russia, nor the fantastic atmosphere inside International Stadium Yokohama, but also the way in which Japanese fans celebrated long into the night.

First the game.

Japan, knowing that anything other than a win would leave them with a difficult task of qualifying for the second round, beat a strong Russian team by showing the collective spirit Philippe Troussier has fostered for the past four years.

Junichi Inamoto once again was Japan's goal hero.

In the 2-2 draw against Belgium, Inamoto had embarked on a swashbuckling run through the Belgian defense before lashing a left-foot shot into the net.

This time he was on the end of a sweeping move in the 51st minute. Koji Nakata played the ball into the box from the left wing, and an exquisite touch from Atsushi Yanagisawa cleared the way for Inamoto.

Although there was a suspicion of offside, Inamoto calmly slotted the ball right-footed past Russia's goalkeeper, Ruslan Nigmatullin.

Inamoto, who has spent the past year on the Arsenal training field and occasionally the bench, never once being given his chance in the Premier League by Arsene Wenger, is playing like a young man with a point to prove.

A man possessed, in fact.

It was a great team effort, however, that earned Japan their very first win in the World Cup.

In France four years ago they lost all three games, and then drew with Belgium in their opening match here.

So victory here was a logical progression, and now they have a great chance of qualifying for the second round with only Tunisia, the weakest of the four teams in Group H, to play at Osaka on Friday.

The atmosphere was incredible, with virtually all the 66,000 fans wearing blue.

After the game, the scenes on the route from the stadium to Shin Yokohama Station were astonishing.

Not known for their boisterous behavior, the Japanese displayed an outpouring of emotion and national pride usually seen in South America.

Car drivers tooted their horns and flew the Japanese flag out of the window, groups of supporters chanted in the street and sprayed beer into the air, and strangers hugged each other and exchanged high-fives.

I had a grandstand view of this from a street-side bar with a few colleagues, and when the Japanese discovered we were English, they began chanting "Beckham! Beckham!"

We replied: "Inamoto! Inamoto!"

Welcome to the World Cup party, Japan.

You have been late to arrive, but I think you will be a respected guest from this day on.

 

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Open World Cup gains momentum

10 Jun 2002(Mon)

Everyone said it was going to be an open World Cup, with a number of teams capable of winning.

It is proving to be just that, with fans and media not knowing what to expect next.

France, the holders, lost on the opening day, 1-0 to Senegal. Then they could not beat Uruguay, and face the real possibility of going out in the first round.

Argentina started well by beating Nigeria 1-0, but then lost unexpectedly to England by the same score, despite enjoying 65 per cent of the possession.

Italy also began well, beating Ecuador 2-0 with two goals from Christian Vieri. When Vieri scored his third goal of the tournament, a majestic header to give Italy the lead against Croatia in the second half, they looked to be heading for a second successive victory.

But Croatia showed remarkable passion and skill, scoring twice in three minutes to record a famous 2-1 victory. Thousands of Japanese fans wearing the azzurri blue of Italy had flocked to Kashima to watch their Serie A super heroes, but they left the stadium more dazed and confused than Italy's players.

Only Brazil of the traditional powers have won their first two games, against Turkey and then China, and their poor qualifying record, with six defeats in 18 games, is now forgotten and irrelevant.

The confidence they have gained from these two wins puts them right up there among the favorites.

The same can be said for Spain, who have also won both their opening two matches, coming from behind to beat Paraguay 3-1. Could this finally be Spain's World Cup?

Even Portugal, a dark horse for the championship, lost 3-2 to the United States.

The "neutral" territory of the Far East for the traditional giants from Europe and South America, the heat and humidity, the ever-narrowing gap between the great and the good...all these factors have combined to make it an exciting and open World Cup.

 

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England fans provide the greatest surprise of World Cup

10 Jun 2002(Mon)

There have been a few shocks and surprises at this World Cup.

But perhaps the biggest of all has been the behaviour of the England supporters.

They have been magnificent, the best of all visiting teams, both in terms of numbers and in the atmosphere they have created.

Ever since the World Cup draw was made in Busan on December 1, and England were drawn to play in Japan, the Japanese media have been full of hooligan stories.

Sensational, over the top and lacking understanding of the issues involved, the Japanese media have served to scare the life out of the normal Japanese person.

In this respect, then, the media have been disappointed and the people are puzzled and delighted at the same time.

After the England-Argentina game at Sapporo Dome on Friday night, I spent a couple of hours walking round the city centre.

The scenes were incredible.

Walking toward my hotel from the bus stop, I could hear a loud roar coming from the distance.

"Oh no," I thought, "the England fans are gathering for trouble."

As I approached the jumping, excited crowd, I was relieved to see they were mainly Japanese.

There were around 10,000 England fans in a crowd of 35,000 at Sapporo Dome, creating a crescendo of noise.

But there must have been another 10,000 Japanese fans wearing Beckham or Owen shirts, clapping along politely to the England songs.

In the town centre, it was the Japanese youngsters making all the noise.

They were leaping around, singing songs and having a great time. England fans were right in the middle of them, and chants changed from "England" to "Nippon", with the England fans singing along with the Japanese.

Although it was 3 o'clock in the morning, the streets were full of fans and locals watching the celebrations.

The only people who seemed worried were the local police, whose aggressive behaviour really does test a person's tolerance and patience.

They formed a circle round the group of fans, and held their flashing batons in the air to make sure their exuberance was confined to a small area. You could see the panic in their eyes.

So for the police to see this outpouring of emotion from their own youngsters, this spontaneous celebration with the England fans who were supposed to be terrorising them, this was a huge World Cup shock.

The cost of coming to Japan and staying in Japan, plus the measures of the British government in preventing over 1,000 convicted trouble-makers from leaving the country during the World Cup, have played their part in keeping the hooligans away.

Also, the England fans themselves have conducted their own self-policing, alienating anyone who looks like they may spoil the party.

No matter what happens in the next three weeks on the pitch, those scenes in Sapporo will always be a treasured memory. This is how it should be whenever England play away from home, and hopefully it is the start of a new, hooligan-free era.

 

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Americans' victory will not go down in history

8 Jun 2002(Sat)

Yes, of course the United States' 3-2 victory over Portugal was a surprise.

But I feel it will not, and should not, go down in World Cup history as one of the all-time shocks of the tournament.

Much of the media has been describing the Americans' win as the equivalent of Senegal's victory over France in the opening game.

I strongly disagree, for the following reasons.

First, Senegal's 1-0 win was indeed one of the all-time surprises, because it was Senegal's first ever game in the World Cup finals and France were the reigning world champions.

This is why the result deserves its place in World Cup history. The fact that Senegal is a former French colony and their coach is French just adds to the romance.

Now let's analyse the United States-Portugal game.

The Americans had appeared in the World Cup finals on six previous occasions before 2002, reaching the semifinals in 1930 and even beating England 1-0 in 1950 (now that is one of the all-time shocks, perhaps only second to North Korea's 1-0 victory over Italy in 1966).

Furthermore, this is the Americans' fourth consecutive appearance, starting at Italia 90.

So the Americans are not World Cup rookies, as many people have projected them, and several of their leading players have played in Europe for many years.

As for Portugal, we all know they have some wonderful individual players, such as Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Fernando Couto, but what's their World Cup record?

This is only their third appearance in the World Cup, and their first since 1986.

So Portugal have missed the past three World Cups, whereas the Americans have been at them all, frequently losing but gaining valuable experience all the time.

It was a shock that the United States led 3-0 in the first half, and a surprise that they eventually won the match 3-2.

But it is only because of the extravagant skills of Portugal's leading players that the result has been elevated to legendary status.

In Euro 2000, Portugal reached the semifinals before losing to France with a penalty kick in sudden-death extra time. Maybe this was their peak.

In one or two more World Cups, United States 3 Portugal 2 will take its rightful place in history, as an upset.

It cannot compare to France 0 Senegal 1.

 

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Croatia fails to live up to expectations

6 Jun 2002(Thu)

Everyone was surprised when Croatia finished third on their World Cup debut in France four years ago.

But no one seemed surprised at all when they lost their first match, 1-0, against Mexico at Niigata on Monday afternoon.

Although the names of the Croatia players are familiar, such as Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker and Alen Boksic, try taking a look at the date of birth of these star attackers.

Suker, who was the World Cup's top scorer in France with six goals, including the winner against Japan, is now 34 and the team captain.

On Monday he tried to score with an ambitious left-foot volley in the early stages, but was never in the game again and was substituted in the 64th minute.

Prosinecki is 33 and retains all his silky skills, but he was slow in midfield and wasted a few corners and free kicks. He was taken off at half-time.

Boksic, who missed the last World Cup because of injury, is the "baby" of the attack at 32 years old, but he never got a kick and was replaced in the 67th minute.

If the Croatians were expecting Mexico to treat them with respect, they were wrong.

Every time Croatia had possession, the Mexican fans whistled relentlessly, and when a move broke down they jeered noisily.

The Mexican fans, around 6,000 of them in the beautiful bright sunshine of early summer, made a splendid sight in Niigata's Big Swan Stadium.

They had filled every bullet train out of Tokyo from the crack of dawn with their giant sombreros, drums, whistles, wooden rattles, songs and tequila, and they were in fine voice throughout the 90 minutes.

"Ole! Ole!" they chanted, as Mexico played the ball about comfortably, and this was in only the fifth minute!

In the heat and humidity, Croatia looked old and tired, and it was difficult to remember how they had done so well in the last World Cup.

Their next game is against Italy, and a second loss would make it virtually impossible for them to get into the second round.

No one will be surprised if they go home quickly this time.


 

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Asia must show its power

5 Jun 2002(Wed)

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is always saying Asia should have more places in the 32-team World Cup finals tournament.

In this World Cup, for example, Asia has four: co-hosts Japan and South Korea, plus Saudi Arabia and China.

Asia would have had five here if Iran, who finished third in Asia's qualifying competition, had beaten the Republic of Ireland in a two-leg playoff.

But does Asia deserve five full places for the 2006 World Cup, which is what the AFC general secretary, Peter Velappan, is hoping for?

Looking at Asia's record so far, especially after Saudi Arabia's embarrassing 8-0 defeat by Germany, the answer has to be "No."

Here are some hard facts concerning previous World Cups, which make for painful reading for Asian football fans:

Nine teams from Asia have played in the World Cup, dating back to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in 1938.

These nine teams have played a total of 44 matches, but have won only four games. They have drawn eight and lost 32, scoring 33 goals and conceding 108.

This is a dreadful record, a history of humiliation.

How many soccer students can name the four victories?

The first one came in 1966, when North Korea caused the biggest upset in the history of the World Cup by beating Italy 1-0.

Asia had to wait until 1994 to record its next victory, as Saudi Arabia beat Morocco 2-1 and then Belgium 1-0 in the group to advance to the second round.

Asia's fourth victory came in 1998 when Iran beat the United States 2-1.

And that's all.

The AFC argues that over half the world's population of 6 billion lives in Asia, so the continent deserves a bigger representation in the World Cup.

So should the World Cup be about bringing together the strongest teams from the world, from whichever continent they come from, or about having a tournament reflecting the popularity of football on every continent in equal measure?

For example, should Europe and Asia have the same number of entries?

Surely it cannot be the latter, otherwise there would be too many one-sided matches and the World Cup would lose credibility.

No, Asia must prove itself on the pitch.

Only then can FIFA feel confident to award Asia more places.

 

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The long wait is over for Japan

4 Jun 2002(Tue)

On Tuesday night, four years of frustration will end for Japan when they take to the field against Belgium at Saitama Stadium.

After qualifying for the World Cup finals for the first time in 1998, Japan returned home from France in disgrace...losing all three matches, including their final one against Jamaica's Reggae Boyz.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for the nation, who had been expecting great things of their team on the World Cup stage, despite the fact they had no experience of the World Cup and no tradition in football.

National coach Philippe Troussier and his team have been ready for this match since the end of last year.

That is when Troussier said his preparations were complete in terms of tactics, technique and strategy. Only one or two places in the 23-man squad were to decide, and that's now been done.

The atmosphere in the Japanese camp is very positive, and the players can't wait to walk out there on Tuesday evening into the cauldron of Saitama Stadium.

The team is fit, fast, positive and now has natural leaders emerging. Most of them are in midfield, where Hidetoshi Nakata is in great form.

After a slow start with Parma last season, Nakata is playing some of the best football of his life, and has already taken on the responsibility of scoring the team's goals.

Shinji Ono had an excellent debut season with Feyenoord, while Junichi Inamoto has returned to Japan from his season on the bench at Arsenal a much more complete and dynamic player.

Even though he has seen little action with the Gunners, he's learned a lot from the world-class stars on the training pitch, and is determined to do well at the World Cup to guarantee his future at Arsenal.

Japan can win this game against Belgium, who are decimated by injury.

But they know it will be tough, as the Belgians have qualified for their sixth consecutive finals appearance and reached the semifinals in 1986.

Winning would be perfect for Japan to whip the country into a frenzy, but they must not lose this first match, as it would put the pressure on them for the game against Russia on June 9.

A draw would be okay, and the fans and players must remember this and not lose their discipline or their composure at the start of a three-game league.

Expect Japan to record a record TV rating for this game, perhaps as high as 70 percent of the country will watch this occasion.

Blue Fever is sweeping the country.

 

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A famine or a feast?

3 Jun 2002(Mon)

One of the best things about being at the World Cup is the number of celebrities on the sidelines.

For a football reporter, it's like being a child in a candy store, trying to decide where to go next.

Coming out of the FIFA Congress the other day was a familiar face: Dragan Stojkovic, a veteran of two World Cups for Yugoslavia and now the 37-year-old president of the Yugoslavia Football Federation.

''This is completely different for me,'' said Stojkovic, talking about the FIFA elections.

''I have always seen football from the side of a player. I have concentrated on my game, on my job, but now I think I am in politics!'' he added.

Stojkovic is as entertaining off the pitch as he used to be on it.

When asked which country he thought would win the World Cup, he said: "France is the favorite, the No. 1, the champion, but nobody is talking about Brazil.

''I will tell you one thing: Brazil will be a fantastic team. This is a chance for them.''

Stojkovic also said he felt Japan could qualify for the second round, especially after watching Yugoslavia play Russia in a four-team tournament in Moscow in mid-May.

''Russia is not so good. It is a good team but not so strong, so I really believe I will see Japan in the second round.''

Japan's key players, he said, were Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono, as well as the powerful center forward Takayuki Suzuki.

''Suzuki, I love his play,'' said Stojkovic. Quite a compliment.

The next day, attending a McDonald's function, who should be there as chief guest but Franz Beckenbauer, who, looking at his smart, lean figure, does not appear to eat much junk food.

Beckenbauer complained, not about the Big Macs but about there being too much football.

''You see Zidane and Figo playing for Real Madrid and they play 70-80 important matches per season,'' said the German legend.

"It is too much and they must be tired. If you are tired you risk injury. That is the problem. We need less games, it's very simple.''

Later that day, British actor Roger Moore (a former James Bond and married to a Swedish woman who comes from the same town as Sven-Goran Eriksson) took part in a press conference organized by FIFA and the children's charity UNICEF.

Moore is an ambassador for UNICEF, and put the World Cup into perspective with the following announcement: "In the time it takes to play the World Cup, 30 days, 1 million children around the world will die unnecessarily because of war or famine or disease.

"During every 90 minutes, 540 children will contract HIV, and 85 will die of AIDS, while 400 children will lose their parents.''

These are shocking figures as we eat our Big Macs and drink our World Cup Budweiser beer.

Is a player getting a red card or breaking a bone in his left foot truly a tragedy?

I don't think so.

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