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September 2002

Suzuki highlights squad strengths

30 Sep 2002(Mon)

Japan may not have the glamour players of four years ago in Thailand, but the under-21 team competing in the Asian Games in Busan is a tight, well-knit unit.

This is according to Urawa Reds' promising young midfielder Keita Suzuki, who will be competing for a place in Japan's engine room when they kick off their campaign against Palestine on Saturday.

"It's true we don't have any star players," admits Suzuki.

"But we are strong as a team. We move well and think together, so this gives us a good advantage."

Japan will compete in Group D against Palestine, Bahrain on Tuesday and Uzbekistan next Saturday.

Only the winner of the six groups will qualify automatically for the quarterfinals, where they will be joined by the best two second-placed teams.

For the first time, the Asian Football Confederation is making the Asian Games football tournament an under-23 competition with room for three over-age players, just like in the Olympics.

But Japan will be at a disadvantage because their team will be strictly under-21. Head coach Masakuni Yamamoto is grooming the team to challenge for a place in the 2004 Athens Olympics, so this 14th edition of the Asian Games marks the starting point of Zico's new-look Japan.

Japan should have no problems beating Palestine, a late replacement for Jordan, at Yangsan on Saturday afternoon, but Bahrain will be much tougher when they clash at Ulsan on Tuesday evening.

Japan's third group match, against the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan at Masan next Saturday, will also be hard, as Uzbekistan won the gold medal at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, beating China 4-2 in the final at Big Arch.

Yamamoto has plenty of experienced J.League players in his squad, especially in midfield.

Suzuki is progressing well under Hans Ooft at Urawa, while Yuki Abe has been a regular for JEF United Ichihara for several seasons after playing first as a 16-year-old in the J.League.

Kazuyuki Morisaki is a mature, composed midfielder for Sanfrecce Hiroshima, while Naohiro Ishikawa has had an outstanding season on the right side of midfield for FC Tokyo after moving from Yokohama F Marinos. Ishikawa is joined in the squad by FC Tokyo teammate Teruyuki Moniwa.

Two more bright prospects are Tokyo Verdy's young right-back Hayuma Tanaka, and Cerezo Osaka's dazzling forward Yoshito Okubo.

Okubo was outstanding for Kunimi High School in Nagasaki, and has been in great goalscoring form this season, albeit in J2.

Although the team hasn't been given much chance in this tournament, there is a lot of quality in most departments without, as Suzuki admits, stars such as Shinji Ono, who played in the Bangkok Asian Games four years ago.

A team without stars?

That would be music to the ears of the former national coach, Philippe Troussier!


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Reysol boss looks up, not down

26 Sep 2002(Thu)

The J.League's two-stage system has many faults and inconsistencies.

Kashiwa Reysol find themselves in the middle of one such unusual situation after five rounds of the second stage.

Because Reysol, among other teams, are fighting for the championship and to avoid relegation at the same time!

It's bizarre, isn't it?

But this is a product of the two-stage system, which I feel should be scrapped as soon as possible because it does not belong in mainstream soccer, just like extra time for league matches.

After Reysol had beaten Kashima Antlers 1-0 at Kashiwanoha Stadium on Saturday, their Brazilian manager Marco Aurelio said he was not even thinking about relegation.

He was looking up, not down, and said he wanted to see his team challenging for the second-stage title.

And this was after Reysol had just ended a run of 12 league matches without a win dating back to April 20!

But his comments are not as strange as they may sound, due to the two-stage system.

In the first stage, Reysol finished 14th with only 11 points from a possible 45, five more than bottom-placed Consadole Sapporo and one more than Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who finished 15th.

In the second stage, Reysol have now got six points from three draws and a win against Kashima.

This leaves them six points behind Jubilo Iwata, and with 10 games remaining and 30 points to play for, of course Reysol have a mathematical chance of winning the second stage.

Marco Aurelio said it would need only one victory for his team's fortunes to change, and now he's got it.

But survival must surely be the name of the game for Kashiwa in the coming weeks, as other teams near the bottom, such as Sanfrecce and Vissel Kobe, have also picked up points recently.

Certainly, the new manager is beginning a much-needed overhaul of the team.

On Saturday, he gave a second league appearance to 19-year-old libero Mitsuru Nagata and a fourth to 19-year-old forward Yuji Unozawa.

Of the two, Unozawa made the bigger impact, strong in the air and running positively to form a dangerous partnership with the Brazilian World Cup-winner Edilson.

It was a confident run and a well-timed pass from Unozawa that set up the winning goal, scored by Ricardinho, in the 53rd minute.

Nagata, on the other hand, looked nervous, and wasted possession on a couple of occasions with a careless pass in a dangerous position. He was also lucky not to be punished by Atsushi Yanagisawa when he failed to cut out a long ball over the top of the defense in the second half. On a treacherous surface, Yanagisawa shot over the crossbar.

Reysol's victory over Kashima will put their long-suffering supporters in better heart for the rest of the season, but the reality is that Reysol have more chance of going down than of winning the second stage.

They have too many good players for this to happen, though, and everyone at Kashiwa will settle for mid-table mediocrity after such a disappointing season.


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Ahn's arrival is huge boost for J.League

23 Sep 2002(Mon)

Shimizu S-Pulse have pulled off a major coup by signing the South Korean World Cup star Ahn Jung Hwan.
The 26-year-old forward arrived in Japan last Tuesday and was presented to the media at a press conference in a top Tokyo hotel on Wednesday morning.
Then he headed for Shimizu, where he was introduced to the fans during the Shizuoka derby against Jubilo Iwata on Wednesday evening.
S-Pulse lost the game 2-0, and clearly need an injection of pace and energy in the forward line.
Ahn will give them that, and much more besides.
Not surprisingly, with his handsome features and flowing locks, Ahn has a huge army of female admirers in Japan, and S-Pulse matches are surely going to attract large crowds.
This is not only good for S-Pulse, but also for the league in general as they look to maintain the momentum from the World Cup.
Ahn is fast, positive and also very good in the air, as he proved with headed goals against the United States and then, dramatically, against Italy at the World Cup, when he climbed above the great Paolo Maldini to head home the golden goal in the second round.
And it's not too late for him to change S-Pulse's season, which is going nowhere after a mediocre first stage and slow start to the second stage.
After all, S-Pulse have built a reputation as a cup team rather than a league championship team, in much the same way as, for example, Tottenham Hotspur in England.
This means that on the day they are capable of beating anyone, but they can't produce the consistency necessary to win a championship over a season.
So Ahn and S-Pulse can still win a trophy treble.
They are away to Kashima Antlers in the Nabisco Cup semifinals on October 2; then they play their first match in the new AFC Champions League on October 9; and, of course, there's the JFA's Emperor's Cup at the end of the year.
Ahn signed a one-year deal, but just how long he stays in Japan is anyone's guess.
The story behind the scenes goes that S-Pulse gave him a one-year contract so that they will be able to command a transfer fee for him if they sell him to a European club when the transfer window opens again in January.
If they had signed him for only four months, until the end of the year, then he would have been a free agent, and S-Pulse would have had to have let him go without being able to collect any money on their investment.
Ahn says he is thinking only of S-Pulse.
So the fans should think likewise, and enjoy this exciting talent while we can.


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Tanaka could be Zico's surprise

19 Sep 2002(Thu)

Japan's new national coach Zico has hinted that there may be a surprise or two in his squad to face Jamaica in Tokyo on Oct. 16.

Zico's good friend, Tokyo Verdy manager Lori Sandri, thinks he knows who one of the surprises could be.

His own young right-back Hayuma Tanaka.

The Nagano-born Tanaka joined Verdy earlier this season on loan from the Yokohama F Marinos.

Sandri had seen him play for the Marinos in a pre-World Cup friendly against Nigeria, and Verdy moved quickly to sign him.

Since then, Tanaka has established himself in Verdy's rejuvenated team and has been selected for Japan's under-21s to play in the upcoming Asian Games in Busan, South Korea.

"Yes, I think there'll be someone from Verdy in Zico's squad," said Sandri, before identifying Tanaka, midfielder Takuya Yamada and goalkeeper Yoshinari Takagi as possibilities.

But Tanaka has the best chance, according to Sandri.

"He's done a very good job for us so far. In fact I think he's the best right-back in Japan at the moment.

"He wants to stay with us, and I think Verdy can find some money to sign him permanently. He's still young so should not be too expensive."

Tanaka, who turned 20 only in July, learned his trade with the Yokohama Flugels youth team and then stayed with the club when they merged with the Marinos.

He made his J.League debut in March 2001, and has played a total of 27 games, including 11 this season.

Although he was sent off in Sunday's thrilling game against Kashima Antlers for bringing down Atsushi Yanagisawa, Sandri does not blame him for the incident.

"I don't know where he (referee Toru Kamikawa) found the red card for Tanaka, because I thought Yanagisawa made some theater, some simulation. Tanaka was going for the ball," said Sandri after the game.

Tanaka showed his disgust with the decision by taking off his shirt and kicking over a bottle of water as he headed for the dressing room.

This kind of experience, however bitter at the time, will help Tanaka's future, and maybe Zico will name him in his first squad on Oct. 7.

He is intending to switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2, and the new system would require orthodox fullbacks who can overlap, as opposed to more attack-minded wing-backs.

This can only help Tanaka's bid for a place against Jamaica.

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Mixed feelings over Emerson for Japan

16 Sep 2002(Mon)

It was with mixed feelings that I read a report this week that Urawa Reds' Brazilian star Emerson is interested in playing for Japan's national team.

Emerson, of course, is an exciting talent.

He has got blistering pace, scores goals regularly and also does his fair share of defensive work, such as tackling back and putting pressure on the opposing defenders when they have possession.

At this moment, there is no doubt Emerson could easily play for Japan.

What I am worried about, however, is that Japan might become a back door to international football for Brazilian players who are not good enough to play for their own country.

If it happens too frequently, then Japan's national team could lose its identity, and players could be deliberately "imported" from Brazil, or from other countries, with a view to playing for Japan in the future.

This is a very dangerous practice, and I hope it never happens.

So far, three Brazilians have played for Japan: Ruy Ramos, Wagner Lopes in the 1998 World Cup and Alessandro Santos in the 2002 World Cup.

Emerson now says it would be a pleasure to play for Japan "in any kind of competition at any kind of level."

He adds: "I love Japan and I love the Japanese. They treat me very well and I appreciate what they have given me.

"I always play with spirit, and it would be the same in the national team."

Emerson would still have to wait a few years to represent Japan, but the 2006 World Cup in Germany might not be out of the question if he decided to apply for citizenship, with the full backing of the Japanese Football Association.

The 21-year-old, Rio de Janeiro-born striker joined Consadole Sapporo from Sao Paulo in 2000 and scored 31 goals in 34 J2 games in his first season.

Consadole won promotion to J1, but could not afford to keep Emerson, so he stayed in J2 and transferred to Kawasaki Frontale. A further 19 goals in only 18 games led to a mid-season transfer to Urawa, and he has notched 18 goals in 26 J1 appearances for the Reds.

He has scored 11 times in the league this season and helped Urawa reach the Nabisco Cup semifinals.

Personally, I don't see it happening: Emerson playing for Japan, for one big reason.

I think he's good enough to play for Brazil, and I am sure he will move to a European club in Spain, Italy or Germany within a couple of years.

So Emerson may be at the 2006 World Cup after all, but in the canary yellow of Brazil rather than the blue of Japan.

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Zelic happy to be back in Japan

12 Sep 2002(Thu)

Australian international Ned Zelic has not had the best of luck during his time in Japan.

He began the season on the books of Kyoto Purple Sanga, but played only one game for the team before he had to return home to Germany for family reasons.

Neither Zelic nor Kyoto's German manager, Gert Engels, would go into details, but it was clearly a serious matter.

His J.League debut, away to JEF United Ichihara, had been eagerly awaited, as the libero or central midfielder had earned a reputation as an elegant, stylish footballer during his years in Europe.

Purple Sanga, in fact, had signed him from TSV 1860 Munich.

So it was with some surprise that Zelic returned to Japan last month to join Urawa Reds at the expense of Brazilian midfielder Harison, who was released.

But he wasn't so lucky again, as he tore a calf muscle during training and he now faces up to six weeks on the sidelines before he can make his debut in the red shirt of Urawa.

Reds' Dutch manager, Hans Ooft, has been looking for a leader all season.

He tried to sign the veteran French defender or midfielder Gilles Grimandi after the player was given a free transfer by Arsenal at the end of last season, but he turned Reds down after visiting Urawa's facilities.

Zelic, however, will be a far better signing once he's fit.

When discussing the move with Ooft during a meeting in Stuttgart, Germany, Zelic was told he would be playing in the center of defense.

So this means the long-term future of Reds' former Japan national team captain, Masami Ihara, must be in doubt.

For the time being, though, Urawa must continue without the quality of the tall and extremely talented Zelic.

And they are not doing too badly at the moment.

They have won their first two matches in the second stage, both in extra time, to collect four points and move away from the relegation zone, and also beat Kashiwa Reysol 1-0 to win a place in the Nabisco Cup semifinals next month.

When Ooft took over for the start of this season, he described Urawa as at the same stage of development as Jubilo Iwata when he went there in 1994.

But he feels they are making steady progress, and has a couple of Japan under-21 internationals on his books in the central midfielder Keita Suzuki and the speedy striker Tatsuya Tanaka.

Zelic watched Sunday's 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai from high in the stands of Saitama Stadium 2002, and liked what he saw.

"The atmosphere was great, and the team has good potential," he said.

"I don't think they deserve to be where they are in the league table, and hopefully we can go much higher.

"It was unfortunate I had to leave so quickly last time, but I'm happy to be back. I think I can do well here."

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Soma playing for Verdy, national team recall

9 Sep 2002(Mon)

As soon as Zico took over as national coach, speculation began that he would play a 4-4-2 formation as opposed to 3-5-2, which was favored by his predecessor, Philippe Troussier.

If Zico needs a dependable, solid left-back to help make the transition as smooth as possible, he need look no further than Naoki Soma.

The 31-year-old Tokyo Verdy defender has won 59 caps for Japan but has spent the last three years in the international wilderness since playing against Iran at Yokohama in September 1999.

But the former Kashima Antlers player has not given up hope of adding to his tally, especially with Zico now installed as national coach.

"In all the time I've worked with Zico, I've never known him play anything other than 4-4-2," said Soma, one of the few orthodox full-backs in the J.League.

"This is going to keep me playing hard, as I still have the will to play for the national team."

Zico watched Verdy beat Kyoto Purple Sanga 5-0 in the opening round of second-stage matches last Saturday, when Soma was outstanding in Verdy's back four against Kyoto's South Korean World Cup star Park Ji Sung.

Zico and Soma then had a long chat in the home team dressing room after the game, but Soma declined to reveal the contents of their discussion.

"That's for Zico to say," said Soma, diplomatically.

"But he has said in the past that the J.League is the priority.

"I have to play well for Verdy so that Verdy can climb the table. If the team is doing well, Zico will automatically notice you.

"And if we can produce some good results and get the fans cheering, then the individual performance improves."

This is a very practical approach by Soma, who was one of Japan's best players at the 1998 World Cup in France.

A year later, however, he became a casualty of Troussier's national team overhaul as the Frenchman preferred more attacking players such as Shinji Ono and Shunsuke Nakamura for the left side of his five-man midfield.

Soma suffered another setback in December 2000 when he damaged knee ligaments in an Emperor's Cup semifinal against Gamba Osaka.

During his injury absence, Antlers signed the Brazilian Augusto, who played so well that Soma could not get back into the team when he regained fitness toward the end of the campaign.

This resulted in Soma moving on loan to Verdy to secure first-team football, and he is helping the club move in the right direction.

"They struggled to stay in the first division last season, so there was a lot of work to do at the start of this season," he added.

"But now there is more unity, and we have a settled side. This has led to three wins in a row, so our confidence is improving."

If Verdy keep moving forward, don't be surprised if Zico turns to the trusty veteran Soma to give his new national team some early stability.

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World Cup star Yoo left in limbo

5 Sep 2002(Thu)

What a strange predicament Yoo Sang Chul finds himself in!

A few weeks ago he was a World Cup hero.

His driving play in midfield helped South Korea march into the semifinals, and he was named among the 16-strong All-Star squad by FIFA's technical panel.

But now he has no club, and faces a few months on the sidelines after his proposed transfer to Europe fell through.

He was a Kashiwa Reysol player during the World Cup, and the J.League club was very generous in allowing him to leave at the end of July and pursue his dream of playing in Europe.

At the time, no fewer than five clubs had shown a strong interest to sign him, including Germany's Bayer Leverkusen and Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, now managed by South Korea's World Cup coach Guus Hiddink.

Reysol handed the negotiating rights over to Yoo's Korean management company, but they failed to organize a deal before the European transfer window closed on Saturday, August 31.

So what happened to leave Yoo in this position?

Did his agents want too much money from the interested clubs? After all, the player is 30, 31 next month, and this was his last big chance to break into the Euro big time.

The bigger problem was probably that the economic downturn in European football has left clubs with little spare cash, and they are looking to reduce large playing staffs rather than adding to them.

Yoo was earning around 80 million yen a season in Japan, and no doubt his agents were not prepared to take a pay cut if he went to Europe, especially after their client played so well against the world's best.

With the Euro transfer window now closed until January, Yoo still has one option open to him: a return to Japan, but not with Reysol as they have already replaced him with Brazilian striker Edilson.

There are rumors, too, that his World Cup teammate Ahn Jung Hwan may also be coming to the J.League before moving on to the German Bundesliga in January.

But how many Japanese clubs still have the kind of money to sign Ahn, even for only four months?

There's no doubt he would prove to be a big draw (for football fans and female admirers alike), and his management company would have no problems signing up sponsors.

So while Ahn can look forward to an exciting few months in Japan, Yoo must be wondering where it's all gone wrong.

Or has Europe already dismissed the efforts of South Korea in the World Cup?

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Jubilo can make history

2 Sep 2002(Mon)

As the second stage of the J.League season gets under way, Jubilo Iwata have got what it takes to make history.

Since the league kicked off in 1993, no team has won both stages of the championship in the same year.

But Jubilo can end that sequence this season after winning the first stage by three points from the Yokohama F Marinos.

Under low-profile manager Masakazu Suzuki, Jubilo are well organized and well disciplined, and have plenty of strength in depth to cover for injuries or suspensions to key players.

In short, they are a team, not a group of talented individuals all trying to do their own thing.

So I believe Jubilo can go on and win the second stage, too, meaning there would be no two-leg playoff at the end of the season to determine the overall champion.

But there will be plenty of challengers in the second stage.

The most prominent should be Kashima Antlers, who have won the league championship four times, including the past two.

Their strategy has been apparent in each of the last two seasons under Brazilian manager Toninho Cerezo: use the first stage as a warm-up for the second stage, and hit peak form at the end of the season when the first-stage winners are mentally and physically exhausted.

Antlers, too, are a well-drilled side, with more influential overseas players than Jubilo but not quite the same experience among the Japanese players.

Another team worth watching is Nagoya Grampus Eight.

They finished third in the first stage after winning their last six matches. Manager Zdenko Verdenik, of Slovenia, made two shrewd signings midway through the season, bringing in the vastly experienced duo of Andrej Panadic and Ivica Vastic from Sturm Graz in Austria.

Croatian Panadic helped tighten up the defense, while Croatia-born Austrian striker Vastic formed a productive partnership with Brazilian Ueslei.

Vastic, who was a member of Austria's World Cup squad in France 98, scored five times in eight appearances, and helped Ueslei muster 13, joint highest in the league along with Naohiro Takahara and Magrao.

Yokohama F Marinos finished runners-up to Jubilo in the first stage thanks to a defense that conceded a league-low 11 goals, but I don't think they have the firepower to challenge in the second stage, especially after losing Shunsuke Nakamura.

Gamba Osaka faded in the closing weeks of the first stage, losing a crucial game at Iwata when a victory would have given them a great chance of success.

If Gamba can regroup, they can still be a force in the next three months, especially as Jubilo, Antlers and F Marinos must all visit Banpaku in the second stage.

Overall, though, I think Jubilo will be the strongest, and will be rewarded for their consistency over the season with the league championship.

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