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July 2002

Kansai clubs challenge established order

30 Jul 2002(Tue)

Isn't it great to see Gamba Osaka and Kyoto Purple Sanga right up there among the top teams in the J.League?

Variety is always good for the game, and helps to spread the soccer gospel around Japan.

Neither of the above teams has come close to winning the J.League championship, but their performances are bringing the crowds flocking back to Kansai.

At the time of writing, Gamba Osaka are third in the table with 21 points, five off the pace being set by the Yokohama F Marinos, and four behind second-placed Jubilo Iwata.

Kyoto Purple Sanga are fifth with 15 points and have won six matches in a row after losing their first four games of the season.

This is a fantastic effort by Kyoto and their German manager Gert Engels. In the latest round of games on Wednesday night, Kyoto beat the mighty Kashima Antlers 2-1 in front of over 18,000 fans packed into Nishikyogoku Stadium.

This is a huge crowd by Purple Sanga's modest standards, especially for a midweek fixture when they usually struggle to get 5,000.

No doubt the presence of South Korean World Cup star Park Ji Sung, making his first start for Kyoto since the World Cup, contributed to the big crowd, and let's hope Purple Sanga can keep it going.

As for Gamba, they have always had many good Japanese players in their ranks, and now have probably the best Japanese manager in the J.League in Akira Nishino.

A big reason (very big, in fact) for Gamba's rise is the goals of 28-year-old Brazilian Magrao, whose 1.92-meter, 84-kilogram frame is causing all sorts of problems for defenders.

Before the break for the World Cup, the former Verdy forward had scored only three times, but now has 10 after netting all four against S-Pulse, two against Grampus and the winner from the penalty spot at Hiroshima on Wednesday.

The Gamba-Nagoya game last week attracted 21,621 fans to the 23,000-capacity Banpaku Stadium in Suita City, which was more than watched Junichi Inamoto's farewell game for Gamba last July before leaving for Arsenal.

It was among the top five crowds in Gamba history, a throwback to the J.League bubble years of 1993 and 1994.

Clubs such as Antlers and Jubilo must be admired for the way they stay at the top, but the form of Gamba and Purple Sanga is contributing to this post-World Cup boom.


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Suzuki makes promising start as J.League chairman

25 Jul 2002(Thu)

There were some very encouraging words from the new chairman of the J.League, Masaru Suzuki, at his first news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon.

Responding to a question from a sports journalist, Suzuki said it was the J.League's intention to abolish extra time in the near future.

Personally, I think this is a huge step forward for the J.League, because I cannot think of another major soccer league around the world that uses extra time in league matches.

Suzuki, a former president of Kashima Antlers, said the World Cup had proved to Japanese fans that a draw could be an exciting result, such as Japan's 2-2 tie with Belgium.

I'm surprised that Suzuki only mentioned the 2002 World Cup, because I remember a very significant draw for Japan in a previous World Cup qualifying campaign.

I am talking, of course, about the 2-2 draw between Japan and Iraq in Doha in October 1993, a result which ended Japan's chances of qualifying for the finals in the United States the following year.

Japan, remember, were leading 2-1 with only a few seconds remaining when Iraq equalized. Japan dropped from first place in the six-team group to third place, missing out to Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

A draw is a vital part of football, and the J.League's decision to end league games after 90 minutes cannot come quickly enough.

Hopefully they will do it in time for the start of next season.

When the league kicked off in 1993, officials said fans wanted to see a winner in every match, so had extra time and then a penalty shootout, with three points for a win in 90 minutes, two for a win with a golden goal in extra time, and one for a win on penalties.

This was far too complicated, and thankfully the league abolished the shootout after the 1998 season.

Extra time, golden goals and penalty shootouts should be reserved for knockout football in cup competitions, not league matches.

I would also like to see the J.League play just one stage, not two, with the team winning the most points being crowned league champions without a playoff, which is very unusual in the mainstream soccer world.

This will not happen in the near future, though, as the two championship games bring in a lot of money from TV rights, sponsorship and gate receipts.

But scrapping extra time is a big step in the right direction.


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Search is on for next king

22 Jul 2002(Mon)

The king is dead! Long live the king!

This is an English phrase very appropriate in Japan at the moment.

It refers to the fact that once the leader is gone, another leader steps forward to become popular with the masses.

So J.League fans should not feel too downhearted that Takayuki Suzuki has left Kashima Antlers, and Shunsuke Nakamura is about to leave Yokohama F Marinos.

Suzuki is already in Belgium after agreeing to join the league champions Genk.

I watched Genk play at Lommel in March and feel Suzuki will adapt well to life in the Belgian league.

The football was fast and physical, and the atmosphere was fantastic inside the small stadium at Lommel.

It was very similar to the English Premier League, but on a smaller scale, and Suzuki should feel at home as far as the football is concerned, because he likes to play a physical game.

The Belgians must have been impressed with his goal for Japan in the 2-2 draw at Saitama, and Suzuki will need to show the same determination and spirit to make his mark against the big and strong Belgian defenders.

Alongside him will be Wesley Sonck, a bundle of energy and aggression and last season's leading scorer in the Belgian first division.

This is a good move for Suzuki, a good level to step up to, and he should develop personality-wise there, too, as he often seems too quiet and introverted for a center forward.

Nakamura will be heading for Reggina, who were promoted to Serie A last season.

Reggina are similar to Perugia: a small club whose only goal is to stay in the top flight and maybe challenge for the Italian Cup or for a place in the UEFA Cup the following season.

But Nakamura is no Hidetoshi Nakata, and he will have to step up the pace of his play to be effective in Italy. But he has the skill and the technique to survive in Serie A.

Certainly Reggina, whose fans are among the most passionate in Italy, is a better move than Real Madrid for Nakamura, who would have had no chance of playing in the Spanish league alongside Zidane, Figo and Raul.

To return to the theme of the article, the king of Kashima and king of the Marinos may be gone, but the younger players should be rising to the challenge of being the next star of the team.


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Engels says Kurobe can reach the top

18 Jul 2002(Thu)

If Japan's national team is looking for a new striker, Kyoto Purple Sanga manager Gert Engels thinks he's found one: Teruaki Kurobe.

The 24-year-old center forward set the second division on fire last season with 30 goals in 41 appearances as Kyoto bounced back into the top flight.

And Kurobe has carried on from where he left off by scoring six times in seven appearances this season as Kyoto occupy sixth place in the first division.

He missed one of the eight games due to suspension, but his six goals make him the highest scoring Japanese player in J1 alongside Jubilo Iwata's Toshiya Fujita.

Only the Brazilian duo of Emerson (Urawa Reds), with nine goals, and Gamba Osaka's Magrao, with seven, are in front of them in the scoring chart.

Engels thinks the former Fukuoka University student can continue to improve.

"Yes, he's off to a good start, including a hat trick against Verdy," says the German coach.

"He missed much of our preseason preparation because of a knee injury, but now his scoring record is good, with six goals in seven games.

"This is only his third year as a professional after coming out of university, and he is learning all the time."

Engels said that Kurobe's all-round game is developing quickly.

"He's always been a powerful player, and his main strength was his heading.

"But now he's playing much better on the ground, and is learning how to use his pace.

"He has to improve his movement, as he tends to wait for the ball to come to him in front of goal. He needs to move the defenders around more, so that he can get away from them."

From what he has seen already, though, Engels feels Kurobe can continue to learn and even win a place in the national squad.

"I think he has a chance, why not?" said Engels.

"He has a strong physique, speed and power. He can also improve his technique and his movement, and his instinct in front of goal will improve with experience."

Engels has set Kurobe a target of 15 goals this season, half his tally in J2 last season.

"I'd be satisfied if he scored every second game. If he finishes the season with 15 goals I'd be happy, but the team must play well to feed him with the chances.

"That's more important than one player," added the German.


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Marinos-Sendai set fine example

17 Jul 2002(Wed)

World Cup fever carried over into the J.League on Saturday when the first division resumed following a lengthy break. 

There were several attractive matches around the country, but I chose Mitsuzawa Stadium in Yokohama to watch the F Marinos-Vegalta Sendai game.

And I was not disappointed.

The stadium was almost full, with 14,762 fans, and even the nearby residents who can watch the action free of charge from their balconies overlooking the ground were out in force long before kickoff.

The atmosphere inside the stadium was very European, with a huge army of yellow-shirted Sendai fans behind one goal, opposite the Marinos blue at the other end.

The game was fast and clean, even though one player was sent off and three more were booked.

The player to be dismissed was Sendai's Yusuke Mori. He was booked needlessly in the 55th minute for dissent, and then received his second yellow card, for a trip on Marinos' speedy forward Daisuke Sakata, six minutes before the end.

By this time, though, Marinos were already leading 2-0 thanks to second-half strikes from Daisuke Oku and Brazilian defender Naza.

Oku, playing in the central playmaker's role behind the two strikers because of injury to Reggina-bound Shunsuke Nakamura, broke the deadlock on 58 minutes from close range, before Naza scored with a thundering free kick from 30 meters through the defensive wall and into the bottom corner.

But Vegalta played some lovely football, too, and never gave up in their efforts to get back into the game.

The match was very well refereed by Kazuhiko Matsumura, who allowed play to flow as much as possible and made players get up when they pretended to be hurt.

There was one amusing incident in the 15th minute after Vegalta's Brazilian striker Marcos had been fouled by Yoshiharu Ueno.

Marinos captain Naoki Matsuda tried to pull Marcos to his feet, but the Brazilian pretended he was badly injured and was shown the yellow card by Matsumura. To prove his point, Marcos then got up and limped 30 meters to the touchline so he could receive treatment as play continued.

Excellent work from the referee, as this kind of strict behavior will prevent players from stopping the game and ruining the spectacle for the fans.


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J.League says England and Ireland set example

16 Jul 2002(Tue)

One of the J.League's themes this season is Fair Play.

And to show a good example to the players, league officials have put together a World Cup video showing...which teams?

The champions Brazil? No.

The runners-up Germany? No.

How about the winners of the FIFA Fair Play award, Belgium?

Wrong again.

No, the two teams the J.League has highlighted on the video are England and the Republic of Ireland.

League officials felt that these two countries played the game in the right spirit and with the right attitude, and want their own coaches and players to copy this example.

After all, how could they feature Brazil after the terrible gamesmanship of one of their leading players, Rivaldo!

The J.League has sent the video to all clubs and asked everyone associated with the league, from club presidents down to office staff, coaches and players, to "Play Fair."

This is a very important factor for the J.League, which is still in its infancy after kicking off in 1993.

Although there is a lot of diving and players feigning injury in the J.League, the trend can be stopped quickly so that fans watch an honest, fair spectacle.

So full marks to the J.League for highlighting these two teams, whose players all came from the English Premier League.

The Premier League has a huge worldwide following, much greater than Italy or Spain, and that's because the matches are hard and fair and fast.

Referees allow play to flow as much as possible, unlike in Serie A, where the fouls come thick and fast and players prefer to go down for a free kick rather than continue with the game.

So when the J.League gets running again, let's hope players concentrate on playing the game and don't pick up any Rivaldo tricks.

While Rivaldo is a great player, he does not set the right example to the millions of kids who watched the World Cup around the world.


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Good move for Ina

15 Jul 2002(Mon)

The World Cup proved to be the perfect stage for Japan's Junichi Inamoto.

And now he has got the perfect move, to English Premier League club Fulham.

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, clearly felt Inamoto was not good enough to play for the Gunners, and released him after one season.

The player, having moved from the J.League, was reluctant to leave London, so a transfer to Fulham from Gamba Osaka keeps everyone happy.

Fulham have plenty of money, as their owner, Mr Al Fayed of Egypt, also owns the exclusive London store Harrods.

But they are still only a small club when compared to their London neighbours Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea.

Inamoto will have much more opportunity to play in the first team, especially in the Premier League, after he was used only in the third-tier League Cup last season, as well as a couple of appearances as a late substitute in the UEFA Champions League.

Competition for places will still be strong, but that's good for Inamoto because it makes him play under pressure week in week out.

But it will be nowhere near as strong as at Arsenal, where Wenger has built one of the most powerful squads in Europe.

So Inamoto, and his many Japanese fans, must not feel downhearted because he failed to make the grade at Highbury.

During the World Cup, Inamoto displayed his fighting qualities, and played like a young man with a point to prove after his time on the training pitch and the bench at Arsenal.

He scored two excellent goals, against Belgium and against Russia, and showed his confidence and his skill levels were still very high.

The former Gamba Osaka midfielder is still only young, 22, and has plenty of time to make his mark at the highest level, in club football in Europe.

He also has the physical presence and power to be a success in the Premier League, but he will need time to adapt to the quick pace of the game when he is playing regularly.

This lack of match fitness was evident when he returned to Japan to prepare for the World Cup, and a good preseason with his new teammates will help him settle in and maybe even win a place in the starting lineup for the new season.

Inamoto will have learned a lot from his frustrating time with the Gunners, and he must not be shy or hesitant about trying to dominate a game with Fulham, who are managed by the former French midfielder Jean Tigana.


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Zico: Celebrity or coach?

15 Jul 2002(Mon)

I must admit I was a bit surprised to learn that Zico would be the new national coach of Japan.

I thought the Japan Football Association would have chosen an experienced European coach to succeed Philippe Troussier, someone who could take Japan to the next level.

My choice, shortly after Troussier announced on New Year's Day that he would be leaving Japan after the World Cup, was Guus Hiddink.

This was when Hiddink was still struggling with South Korea, but he then proved what an outstanding coach he is by guiding them to the World Cup semifinals.

By then, of course, it was much too late to hire Hiddink, but it would be interesting to know if the Dutchman was ever approached by the JFA.

The appointment of Zico was made presumably by one man: Saburo Kawabuchi, who looks set to succeed Shun-ichiro Okano as president of the Japan Football Association.

It looks like a Kawabuchi decision through and through: a celebrity who is popular with the fans and with the media, and who knows Japanese football inside out.

The last factor is an advantage, but does fame and popularity make a good coach?

The answer is, we just don't know yet.

After all, Zico's experience of coaching is very limited.

Although he has been technical director of Kashima Antlers for several seasons after retiring as a player in 1994, he had only 12 matches in charge of the team on a temporary basis.

In the second stage of 1999 he won eight of his 11 matches, and lost his only game at the start of 2000 before Toninho Cerezo took over.

A brilliant player in his day alongside a number of other Brazilian World Cup legends, has Zico got the tactical knowledge and the communication skills to lift Japan's players to a new level after Troussier laid such solid foundations?

I think the appointment of Zico is a huge gamble by the JFA, as the players were adapting well to the European style.

Maybe I am being too pessimistic, but I would have preferred an experienced European coach.

We will have to wait and see.


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Kahn would be perfect, but not Rivaldo

3 Jul 2002(Wed)

Four Brazilians are on the shortlist of 10 for the Golden Ball award, presented to the best player of the 2002 World Cup.

But when I vote Sunday I will select a German.

For me, the outstanding player has been Germany's goalkeeper and captain, Oliver Kahn.

So far he has let in only one goal in six matches, and has been the biggest single influence on Germany's run to the final.

I have seen five of Germany's six games live, watching the 8-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia on the TV after traveling back from Seoul to Narita.

In every game, Kahn has prevented at least one, often two or three, certain goals with his courage, agility and anticipation.

He has no fault, apart from the fact he seems to punch the ball too much rather than catch it.

But this may be down to the new match ball, the Fevernova from Adidas.

Earlier in the tournament, Ireland's goalkeeper Shay Given said holding the Fevernova was liking trying to catch a bar of soap, so he, too, had been forced to punch the ball clear more than normal.

Just to recap, the other nine nominees by the FIFA technical study group are: Michael Ballack (Germany), Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho (all Brazil), El Hadji Diouf (Senegal), Fernando Hierro (Spain), Hong Myung Bo (Korea) and Hasan Sas (Turkey).

I hope Kahn wins, but probably a Brazilian will.

If it's Ronaldo or Ronaldinho I wouldn't mind, especially as Ronaldinho was so unlucky to be sent off in the quarterfinal against England.

But if Rivaldo is voted best player, I think the decision is ridiculous.

FIFA came into this World Cup saying the referees would clamp down in two major areas: shirt-pulling and players feigning injury in order to get an opponent into trouble.

What Rivaldo did in Brazil's first game, against Turkey, was a disgrace to the game, and he continued to time-waste on a couple of occasions against England by pretending he was injured.

Against Turkey, he feigned injury by pretending he had been hit in the face by the ball, and the Turkish player was sent off. The ball had hit him on the thigh.

This is exactly the kind of behavior FIFA is trying to eradicate, as it has a bad influence on youngsters around the world.

If kids see Rivaldo behaving like this, and then being named FIFA Player of the World Cup, what kind of example does this set?


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Ronaldo provides the happiest ending

2 Jul 2002(Tue)

The 2002 World Cup could not have had a happier ending.

Ronaldo and Brazil are on top of the world again after the 25-year-old super striker scored twice in the second half to kill off Germany's courageous challenge.

It was a fairy tale end to a remarkable World Cup, as Ronaldo finally banished the nightmare of 1998 and the subsequent years when his career was in peril due to a series of serious knee injuries.

Four years ago, in the final against France, Ronaldo was a shadow of his former self after suffering a convulsive fit on the morning of the match.

Things went from bad to worse due to the injury problems, but he justified the faith shown in him by coach Luiz Felipe Scolari by finishing the tournament with eight goals, the highest number a player has scored since Gerd Muller got 10 for West Germany in Mexico in 1970.

Ronaldo now has 12 career World Cup goals, the same as the legendary Pele, and takes his place in football folklore.

So it was a grand finish to the first World Cup in Asia and the first to be co-hosted.

The other memories of the May 31-June 30 tournament will be of South Korea reaching the semifinals, turning a whole country red in the process, Japan bowing out tamely to Turkey in the second round after turning a whole country blue, and the favorites such as France and Argentina going home after the first round.

So has co-hosting been a success?

From a logistical and social point of view, I would say yes, because there have been many examples of Korea and Japan, who have such a bitter past, coming closer together.

One of these was the sight of Japanese youngsters wearing blue celebrating with the red-shirted Koreans after Korea's victory over Spain in the quarterfinals.

All the songs were about Korea, and then suddenly the Korean fans began chanting: "Nippon! Nippon!"

From a football and economic aspect, I feel 20 stadiums in 20 cities is way too many.

Personally, I preferred the old World Cup days when the groups were based in one or two cities.

This meant less travel, and a chance for the teams and fans in that area to form a common bond.

Surely eight stadiums, maximum 10, is enough for the World Cup, giving each one at least six matches in the course of a month. This makes more economic sense.

When Japan announced they would have 10 host cities, Korea naturally did the same, but how many of these, especially in Korea, will be used much in the future?

Most of the stadiums staged only three matches, and the World Cup was over for places like Kashima in just over a week following six years of planning.

This is much too extravagant, leaving local officials wondering if it was worth all the expense and the trouble.

FIFA's president, Sepp Blatter, always said there would be expenses for two World Cups and income only for one.

And it felt like two World Cups were taking place. When you were in Japan, the action in Korea was hard to follow, and vice versa.

When I was in Korea for the second round onwards, for example, it was very difficult not to think about the Korea-Germany semifinal as the World Cup final.

Brazil-Turkey in Japan? No one seemed to be paying too much attention.

There is no denying, however, that Korea and Japan served Asia proudly after FIFA decided to award co-hosting in 1996.

Don't forget, after all, that neither of them bid for co-hosting in the first place.


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