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August 2002

Asian invasion of Europe finally under way

29 Aug 2002(Thu)

After a couple of false starts, the Asian invasion of European soccer is most definitely under way.

Tuesday, August 27, was a momentous day for Japanese soccer, but Chinese and Korean players, too, are making their mark around the continent.

Pride of place Tuesday went to Junichi Inamoto, who scored two fine goals for Japan in the World Cup.

The former Gamba Osaka midfielder netted a hat trick as Fulham beat Italy's Bologna 3-1 in the second leg of their UEFA Intertoto Cup final.

"Ina" had also scored in the 2-2 draw in the first leg, so Fulham won the final 5-3 on aggregate.

While the Intertoto Cup is only a qualifying tournament for the UEFA Cup, Inamoto's efforts will have increased his popularity with the Fulham fans after his miserable year with Arsenal last season.

They will also have proved a few cynics wrong, but, of course, there is a long way to go in the season, and Inamoto must still prove he can command a place in Fulham's Premier League team. This must remain his career goal for the time being.

Now we move a step higher to the Champions League qualifying round, where Shinji Ono scored Feyenoord's first goal in a 2-0 victory against Fenerbahce in Turkey. This gave the Rotterdam club a 3-0 win on aggregate and a place in the lucrative Champions League.

A game in Turkey is always a tough test of character, as the home fans are well known for their passion and also their hostility towards visiting teams.

So for Ono to further enhance his reputation in this environment was a great achievement.

Joining Feyenoord in the Champions League groups are Belgian champions Genk, who lost 4-2 away to Slavia Prague in the Czech Republic but advanced on the away goals rule after winning the first leg 2-0 in Belgium.

If the scores are level after two legs, which they were here, 4-4, then the goals scored by the away team count double, so Genk's two in Prague proved to be the difference.

Takayuki Suzuki can now look forward to Champions League football in his first season in Europe.

Elsewhere in Europe, China's Li Tie has proved to be an instant hit in Everton's midfield, and defender Sun Jihai has started impressively for Manchester City, also in the English Premier League.

South Korean World Cup star Seol Ki Hyeon is the four-goal leading scorer in Belgium with Anderlecht, but compatriot Ahn Jung Hwan's chances of joining Blackburn Rovers have been dashed as the British government refuses to issue him a work permit.

With the Italian season starting in the middle of September, and all eyes on Serie A veteran Hidetoshi Nakata at Parma and new recruit Shunsuke Nakamura at Reggina, these are exciting times for Japan in particular and Asia in general.

Let's hope this new generation of soccer pioneers can maintain their good form and open the gates for more Japanese, Koreans and Chinese to move into the mainstream.

No doubt the displays of Japan and South Korea in the World Cup have helped break down a few psychological barriers for Asian players overseas.


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Does Asia deserve five places at 2006 World Cup?

26 Aug 2002(Mon)

The new figurehead of Asian soccer, Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar, has been quick to make his stand on the World Cup.

He wants five automatic places for Asian nations in Germany 2006, with no playoffs.

Hammam, who took over as president of the Asian Football Confederation earlier this month, bases his argument on the results of the 2002 World Cup.

"We have shown to the world that we can compete at the top level," says Hammam.

He is right, of course, to some extent.

Both co-hosting countries, Japan and South Korea, maintained World Cup tradition by advancing beyond the first round.

But while Japan got knocked out in the second round, South Korea went all th e way to the semifinals, even though their highly controversial shootout victory over Spain in the quaterfinals still leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

While Japan and South Korea were making their mark, we must not forget how badly Asia's two other representatives fared.

Saudi Arabia, in their third consecutive World Cup, lost all three games, including that embarrassing 8-0 drubbing by Germany at Sapporo Dome.

China were not much better. It was their first appearance in the World Cup, and they looked to be out of their depth as they, too, lost all three games in what now looks like the toughest group, comprising of Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica.

Before the 2002 World Cup, only two Asian teams had progressed beyond the first round: North Korea, who reached the quarterfinals in 1966, and Saudi Arabia in 1994.

Asia's record, in fact, read just four wins in 44 World Cup matches before 2002, but that ratio has improved somewhat thanks to the efforts of the two co-hosts.

With only host country Germany gaining automatic qualification for 2006 and not World Cup holders Brazil, this means FIFA will have to share out 31 qualifying spots at their meeting in December.

President Sepp Blatter has virtually promised Oceania of one automatic place ,but will there be room for five from Asia, too?

Asia's argument is that over half the world's population lives in the continent, chiefly in China, India and Indonesia, and several FIFA marketing partners are from Asia, chiefly Japan.

But the World Cup is surely about productivity and results on the football pitch, not in the family bedroom.

Personally, I think Asia should feel satisfied to keep four qualifying spots .

They may get lucky and receive four and a half, meaning a playoff against a team from another confederation.

But it will be difficult to justify five, even given the new AFC president's close relationship with Blatter.

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Alex will have to change his ways to be a hit in England

22 Aug 2002(Thu)

A few years ago, when the great German striker Jurgen Klinsmann joined Tottenham Hotspur, he stunned the assembled media at his first news conference by asking: "Does anyone know if there is a diving school nearby?"

In England, Klinsmann had a reputation as a diver (on the football pitch, not in the swimming pool), and this kind of behaviour is not tolerated in the rough and tumble of the Premier League.

The German was aware of his reputation, so thought he would get the joke in first. It proved to be a smart move by the smart Klinsmann, and he became a very respected figure in England for his ability in scoring goals, not in diving in search of a free kick or penalty.

But Klinsmann also changed his game, as he knew he would not survive if he continued to throw himself to the ground.

I get the same feeling now about Alessandro Dos Santos, who has attracted the interest of Premier League club Charlton Athletic.

Alex is a fine player, not in the same class as Klinsmann, of course, but still a very skilful and dangerous forward.

But Alex, too, has a reputation for diving. While admiring his natural ability to beat defenders and send over teasing crosses with his left foot, I have never fully taken to him because of the way he feigns serious injury when tackled hard or when slightly fouled.

Every time Shimizu S-Pulse play Kashima Antlers, there is always a fascinating match within a match between Alex and Antlers' swashbuckling right-back Akira Narahashi.

The tough-tackling Narahashi loves nothing better than clattering into Alex before the wing wizard can fly by him. Narahashi's problem, however, is that sometimes Alex does not have the ball, and this leads to yellow cards for the Antlers man.

If he moves to England, Alex will owe Narahashi a debt, because every English defender tackles like the Antlers right-back.

To the English, of course, Alex is Brazilian, not Japanese, despite the fact he wore the famous blue and white of Nippon in the World Cup.

Put a Brazilian winger in front of an English defender on English soil and it spells: TROUBLE.

So Alex can expect a rough reception from opposing teams. He will need to be courageous, and if he throws himself to the ground, referees will not be as lenient in England as they are in the J.League.

They will wave play on, and Alex will have to get up on his own and continue.

If he goes down too often, the fans will give him terrible abuse, as they cannot tolerate cheating and unfair play in the Premier League. It's fast and honest and hard, which is why it's so popular around the world.

Alex will have to learn from Klinsmann, and adapt his style to the conditions.

There is no doubt Alex has the skills and the pace to make his mark, but he must toughen up quickly.

After a few months in England, Narahashi will seem about as ferocious as Hiroshi Nanami.

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Big Swan attracts big crowds

19 Aug 2002(Mon)

Niigata's Big Swan stadium is attracting huge crowds to the second division games of Albirex.

Last weekend, for example, a total of 42,211 fans went to watch Albirex play Cerezo Osaka in a top-of-the-table game, which was 10,000 more than attended Kashima Antlers' attractive home game against Yokohama F Marinos.

Albirex, who joined J2 in its inaugural year, 1999, play their home games at two venues: the World Cup stadium, known as the Big Swan, and the smaller Niigata City Athletic Stadium.

So far this season, Albirex are averaging 30,111 at the Big Swan, and 11,687 at the Athletic Stadium.

This makes their home average for the season an impressive 23, 025, which is more than 12 of the 16 first division teams are getting!

Only Urawa Reds (29,040), Yokohama F Marinos (27,192), Kashima Antlers (24,882) and FC Tokyo (24,307) are attracting bigger home gates than Albirex.

"Yes, the numbers are phenomenal," says Takehiko Sano, of the J.League's business planning department.

"Even J1 clubs have a hard time to bring in those kind of numbers. I think bringing in 20,000 is not easy."

Sano believes there are several reasons why Albirex are catching up with the established clubs such as Urawa and Kashima in terms of fan base.

"First, it's a big city like Sapporo, Sendai and Fukuoka, far away from Tokyo and where the people want to identify with their home town.

"Therefore, it's easy for people to call Albirex 'my club' or 'my team' because there is no baseball team in Niigata."

Sano also thinks the World Cup played its part in spreading the soccer gospel in the city of Niigata.

"The World Cup created a lot of interest, especially among the older people who had not really lived with football before.

"They had lived with baseball, skiing and skating, and football was not part of their lives. But the World Cup forced people to pay attention to football and helped a lot."

Sano and his colleagues in the business department are also very satisfied with the management structure at the club.

Since the Yokohama Flugels went bankrupt at the end of the 1998 season, the J.League has made sure that clubs do not live beyond their means from a financial point of view.

"The original club in Niigata was formed in 1955, and over the years they have built a solid management structure.

"They are in no hurry to reach the top. They entered the J.League late (in 1999) and have been able to learn lessons from clubs such as Kashima, Urawa and Shimizu.

"Some of these clubs had good experiences, others have had bad ones, and Albirex have taken the best parts into their own management. They have a very solid foundation in the community."

With crowds like these, it will not be only the Albirex fans who want to see their team in J1 next year.

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Taka's back in business

15 Aug 2002(Thu)

When looking back on Japan's World Cup campaign, it's easy to forget how the national team missed one vital player.

No, I'm not talking about Shunsuke Nakamura.

I'm referring to Naohiro Takahara, the Jubilo Iwata striker who missed the World Cup due to a blood clot on his lungs.

Now, thankfully, Taka is fine...and on fire!

He scored three times on Saturday in Jubilo's 4-0 home victory over Vegalta Sendai to take his total to 12 in 12 games this season.

In the buildup to the World Cup, Takahara had scored twice in five appearances before illness struck, meaning he has got 10 in seven games since play resumed: a tremendous strike rate.

If Taka, who is still only 23, had been fit for the World Cup, he would surely have been a first-choice striker alongside Atsushi Yanagisawa.

This was the favorite combination of former national coach Philippe Troussier at the Sydney Olympics, and he looked certain to continue with that into the World Cup.

Takahara has got everything a striker needs to be successful, including a top-class teacher on the pitch in the veteran World Cup forward Masashi Nakayama.

So far this season, as Jubilo challenge for the first-stage title, Nakayama has been left behind in the scoring chart by Takahara, with the 34-year-old "Gon" on five goals in 13 appearances.

But the mere presence of Nakayama in the penalty box creates space for his strike partner Takahara, and the youngster is reveling in the freedom that is opening up in front of him.

Takahara is tall and lean, at 1.81 meters and 75 kilograms, and makes excellent runs off the ball, just like Yanagisawa.

He is mobile and quick to get in the box, where he displays a sound first touch which enables him to convert a high percentage of his chances.

This is where he differs from Yanagisawa, who still needs to work on his first touch and who also lacks the composure under pressure that Takahara possesses in front of goal.

Takahara is confident, too, and enjoys to score goals.

Just look at his reaction after his three goals against Vegalta Sendai!

Yes, Japan missed Takahara badly at the World Cup. Troussier's squad was one striker short, and that man was Taka.

Now we'll have to wait until 2006 to see what he can do at the World Cup!

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Reysol need to start again

13 Aug 2002(Tue)

Will the sacking of manager Steve Perryman turn things around at Kashiwa Reysol?

Did the sacking last summer of his predecessor, Akira Nishino, make much difference?

The answer to both the above questions is: No.

For several seasons, Reysol had one of the best, most consistent teams in the J.League.

This culminated in the year 2000, when Reysol were clearly the strongest side in the first division but failed to win either of the two stages.

They finished fourth in the first stage and second in the second stage, behind Kashima Antlers. Reysol played Antlers in the final game of the second stage needing a victory to win the stage, but Antlers dug in for a dour 0-0 draw to stay ahead of them.

In the previous season, Reysol had won the J.League Nabisco Cup final, beating Antlers on penalties after an entertaining 2-2 draw.

Looking back on events, it's fair to say that this talented Reysol team peaked in the year 2000.

After that, it was downhill all the way, resulting in the sacking of the popular Nishino midway through last season and now of Perryman.

The Reysol management, however, clearly needs to look at the players on their books.

Are they still hungry?

Is there enough competition for places?

Have players become lazy because they know a first-team place is virtually guaranteed every week?

Nishino built a talented, attractive team, but the new manager will have to start again as Reysol attempt to get back among the J.League elite.

They are hoping to appoint a Brazilian manager, and his first task will be to steer Reysol clear of the relegation zone.

After 13 of the 15 matches in the first stage, Reysol have only 11 points and need a few more to prevent being dragged into a relegation battle during the second stage, which kicks off August 31.

Once he has achieved that target, he must then start to rebuild the team, bringing in fresh faces and putting pressure on the established players.

There is no doubt Reysol, backed by Hitachi, are one of the richest clubs in the league, so they should have no problem signing some good, young Japanese players to strengthen their squad.

But is the South Korean veteran Hwang Sun Hong giving the club value for money? Not at all, because he's injured so much. He's a top-quality player, but that's no good if he's rarely on the pitch.

Removing managers is easy.

Bigger problems remain for Kashiwa Reysol.

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Matsuda deserves a chance overseas

8 Aug 2002(Thu)

It's interesting to reflect on the Japanese players who have moved overseas, with varying degrees of success.

There's one goalkeeper in Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.

There are some midfield players such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Hiroshi Nanami, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto and now Shunsuke Nakamura.

And there have been some forwards, from Kazuyoshi Miura in 1994, to Shoji Jo, Akinori Nishizawa, Naohiro Takahara and now Takayuki Suzuki.

The one position in which Japan has not exported a player is a defender.

But I believe Japan now has a defender who is ready to leave the J.League and continue his career in Europe: Naoki Matsuda.

The 25-year-old Yokohama F Marinos captain has always been a talented player.

But he used to let himself down by a lapse in concentration or an occasional un-Japanese temper tantrum.

Under previous national coach Philippe Troussier, Matsuda made big progress, and he was Japan's most consistent defender in perhaps the final year of the Frenchman's reign.

After watching Matsuda play for the Marinos at Kyoto on Sunday, it's clear that the player has out-grown the J.League.

In other words, he's too good for this level, and needs to move to a higher standard to keep his game improving.

After all, 25 is still young for a central defender, and he has at least six or seven years left at the top of his profession.

Before the World Cup, there was a perception in the Western world that the Japanese were too small physically to be a top soccer power, especially the defenders.

But this is a myth when looking through Japan's national squad.

Matsuda is 1.83 meters tall and weighs 78 kilograms. He is quick and can read the game well, frequently venturing forward from his role as libero to arrive unmarked in the opponent's penalty area.

When playing for Japan, he shows the necessary determination and commitment against foreign opposition, which is a good sign if he wants to play overseas. He is not shy or hesitant on the international stage, which held back Nanami's chances of being a success in Italy.

The J.League is too easy for Matsuda, and I hope when European clubs come looking for bargain buys in Japan, they will consider defenders as well as attacking midfielders or strikers.

Matsuda would not let them down.

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Soccer: A winter or summer sport?

5 Aug 2002(Mon)

In planning a soccer season, whose interests should come first: those of the players or the supporters?

In Japan, it seems like the interests of the fans are the priority for the J.League.

Which is why, I suppose, the J.League season runs from March to November, right through the hot and humid summer months.

This weather, admittedly, is wonderful for watching sports. The evenings are warm, fans can drink ice cold beer at regular intervals, and the players provide the energetic entertainment in sweltering conditions.

But is this fair on the players?

I always thought soccer was a winter sport, not a summer sport like baseball, cricket, tennis and golf.

As a player, in a Sunday morning pub league in northern England, my favorite conditions were when the pitch was a bit heavy (muddy), and there was a cold snap in the air.

Sometimes it would be misty early in the morning, and others it would be raining or even snowing, but only at the beginning of the season (August, for preseason friendly matches) and at the end of it (May) would the sun shine brightly and the pitches were hard.

From the J.League's point of view, clearly they feel Japanese fans would prefer to watch their soccer in summer, but I'm sure the players would prefer to play in winter.

I feel there would be several advantages for changing the Japanese soccer season to the European time, kicking off in late August or early September, and finishing in May.

First, soccer would not clash with baseball throughout the summer months. While the fans may support one or the other game, maybe sometimes both, the two sports are competing for media attention, both on TV and in the newspapers.

If the J.League ran through the winter when baseball is on holiday, it would have a media monopoly and gain much more exposure.

Second, player contracts could end at the end of June, again in line with Europe. This would make it easier to organize transfers in and out of Japan, unlike now, where contracts end at the end of January.

Third, players would not have to endure high humidity and hot temperatures as they run around for 90 minutes, two hours if the game goes to extra time. With a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule, this is too demanding for the players, and could even be dangerous to their health.

A couple of clubs would have a problem with a winter season, though: Consadole Sapporo and Albirex Niigata.

Surely Consadole could play inside Sapporo Dome, and maybe Albirex could switch some home games across to Sendai, where the climate is not as harsh.

But I agree with Kazuyoshi Miura on this point, that the whole league cannot just wait for two teams when there is strong support for a switch to a European season.

It will not happen until at least 2006, because that's when the current TV deals end. But after that, Japan may have a winter sport to watch after all.

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Watada's best is not good enough

1 Aug 2002(Thu)

As the goals were flying in around Japan over the weekend, spare a thought for Mitsutoshi Watada.

The 26-year-old JEF United Ichihara striker was in disgrace, having missed two penalty kicks in his team's 2-2 draw at home to Jubilo Iwata.

It wasn't the fact that he missed the penalties which annoyed head coach Jozef Venglos; more that he had disobeyed team orders and taken a second penalty kick after missing one earlier in the game.

"There's a professional rule that you just can't break," explained Venglos after the game.

"And that is, if you miss a penalty you should not take another one in the same game, because your confidence is down."

Five penalties were awarded during the game, three for JEF and two for Jubilo.

Watada took JEF's first, which he was entitled to do, according to Venglos, but he blazed it wide of the target.

When JEF were awarded a second penalty early in the second half, Watada wanted to take that one, too, and had the ball in his hands.

But Venglos sent an order that Yuki Abe must take it. Watada reluctantly handed the ball to Abe, who promptly scored to make it 1-1.

A few minutes later, JEF were awarded a third penalty kick. From the bench, Venglos ordered that Abe take this one, too, as he had just scored and obviously held a psychological advantage over the Jubilo keeper, Arno Van Zwam.

But Watada was already picking up the ball, placing it on the penalty spot and walking back. He shot, and Van Zwam saved, diving to his left.

Venglos was furious, the fans were furious, and Watada was substituted shortly afterwards with whistles and jeers ringing in his ears.

Venglos, quite rightly, pointed out that Watada was only trying to do his best, but he should have put the team first and not set off in search of individual glory.

So while he was angry with Watada, the coach tried to give him constructive criticism.

After all, when a player misses a penalty, he often prefers not to take another one. Sometimes just in that game, sometimes in that season, sometimes for the rest of his career if he is really affected by the failure.

So, in a way, Watada cannot be faulted for his courage and determination because he was prepared to accept the responsibility after failing with a previous attempt.

There may come a time later in the season when JEF are awarded a penalty in a vital match, and it will take a brave player to walk forward and take it.

At least Venglos knows he will have one player ready to take on the challenge: Mitsutoshi Watada.

But whether he scores or fails, no one knows.

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