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December 2002

Hopes for the new year

30 Dec 2002(Mon)

Having looked back on 2002, it's now time to turn our attentions to 2003.

So here is my personal wish list for the new year. I have three wishes.

First, I hope that soccer continues to grow in Japan in 2003, and that the fans continue to support it.

Since the J.League kicked off in 1993, there have been a couple of crisis moments in terms of support from the public and from the corporate world.

The most serious of these was when the Yokohama Flugels merged with the Marinos at the end of the 1998 season, after one of the Flugels' two main sponsors withdrew.

Attendances were dropping dramatically at this time, too, but in the past couple of seasons they have bounced back.

Hopefully now, the J.League can look forward to stability, and fans will support the game because it has become part of society rather than because it is a trendy thing to do.

One J.League bubble has already burst, but the fan base is now more solid. Even with the World Cup long gone, I feel sure people will continue to watch J.League.

I also wish that Japanese players will continue to go abroad and improve themselves in the European leagues.

Naohiro Takahara is the latest Japanese export, and his move to Hamburg puts top-class Japanese players in three of Europe's four big leagues: Germany,England and Italy.

Even though J.League stars are leaving home, there seems to be many exciting young prospects coming through, so this should keep the fans interested.

My third wish is for the J.League itself to fall into line with the rest of the soccer world and switch to a one-stage league system for 2004.

Abolishing extra time and the golden goal for 2003 is a massive step forward as games will now end at 90 minutes with a draw and a point for each team.

This is how it works around the world, with extra time and golden goals deciding kncokout cup games rather than league games.

The J.League has admitted that extra time and golden goals are not part of the mainstream soccer world; well, neither is a two-stage system and playoffs.

It is unfair and inconsistent, and hopefully Jubilo's success in both stages in 2002 will encourage the J.League to think again at the end of next season.

So these are my three big wishes for the J.League in 2003: fans supporting the game for what it is; top players continuing to go abroad, and an end to the two-stage system.

I hope my three wishes come true.

And that yours do, too.

Happy new Year!


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Asia still revels in World Cup spotlight

26 Dec 2002(Thu)

As the year end approaches, it's always good fun taking part in surveys about events of the past 12 months.

I've just contributed to a sports poll being conducted by the broadcaster CNN and Sports Illustrated magazine, and am delighted to report that Japan is at the top!

There were two categories: Sports Story of the Year for 2002, and Athlete of the Year.

The organizers offered a few suggestions, and I had no hesitation in voting for "The Success of the first World Cup in Asia" as the sports story of the year.

I really feel the work done by Japan and South Korea both on and off the field has led to a new perception of Asian football. The players, the leagues,the fans and the administrators are now shown much more respect after successfully co-hosting an event of the magnitude of the World Cup.

Most of the world, with the notable exceptions of the United States and Japan, regard the World Cup as much more important than the Olympic Games.

Perhaps this will change in Japan, too, in the coming years.

While the Olympics is hosted by one city, with a few other minor venues for certain sports, the World Cup takes over a whole country, in this case two countries.

After I voted in the poll, the latest result came through, and the Asian World Cup had claimed over 50 per cent of the votes registered!

This shows the impact it made around the world, and FIFA can feel proud of Japan and Korea.

The second category was Athlete of the Year, and I have to admit I did not vote for Ronaldo in this section, even though he was on the shortlist.

The fact that Ronaldo came good at the right time, during the month of the World Cup, carried him to every soccer award possible, including the FIFA World Player of the Year, France Football's European Player of the Year and World Soccer's World Player of the Year.

In this category, though, I voted for the American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who won his fourth consecutive Tour de France in 2002.

This is surely the toughest sports event in the world. To win it once is an incredible feat. To be a multiple champion like Armstong makes him a living legend.

And to have done this after recovering from cancer is simply out of this world.

Ronaldo himself is on his way to becoming a living legend, but it must be stated that the opposition throughout the World Cup was not great.

It will not be remembered as a great World Cup on the pitch, but off it is a different story.

It's the best story of the year!

Merry Christmas to all readers.


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Asia should be delighted with World Cup slots

22 Dec 2002(Sun)

Although the Asian Football Confederation was hoping for five automatic places at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, officials must still be delighted with what they were awarded by FIFA in Madrid this week.

Asia will have four and a half places in the 32-team lineup, meaning four direct places and the possibility of a fifth team after a playoff with a nation from CONCACAF, the region representing North and Central America and the Caribbean.

This is exactly the same number of slots Asia had for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, although two of the four direct places went to the cohosts.

Saudi Arabia and China grabbed the other two qualifying places, but Iran lost to the Republic of Ireland in a two-leg playoff, denying Asia the chance of a fifth place on their "home" territory.

Personally, I think Asia should feel very satisfied with the outcome of the Madrid meeting, especially as South America lost a playoff spot and will have only four teams in Germany.

Admittedly, four from 10 in the South American confederation is a high ratio,but the South American qualification competition is packed with quality, apart from Venezuela.

Asia, on the other hand, has an abysmal record at the World Cup.

Before Korea-Japan 2002, Asia had played 44 matches in the World Cup finals tournament and won only four: North Korea against Italy in 1966; Saudi Arabia against Morocco and Belgium in 1994; and Iran against the United States in 1998.

South Korea won through to the semifinals in June, beating Poland, Portugal,Italy and Spain (on penalties) along the way, while Japan reached the second round before losing to Turkey.

But look at the performances of the other two Asian teams!

Saudi Arabia, in their third consecutive World Cup, were embarrassed 8-0 by Germany, while China, on their debut, were out of their depth and failed to mount a challenge in a group which also included Brazil, Costa Rica and Turkey. (The group looks much stronger now than it did before the tournament kicked off!)

The fact that Asia could now have five teams in the next World Cup seems a very generous decision by FIFA, especially as South America will have only four.

Japan, who will be looking to play in their third straight World Cup after qualifying for the first time in 1998, should not have too many problems finishing in the top four in Asia.

Even if they finish fifth, they should be capable of beating the fourth-ranked team from CONCACAF, whose strongest nations are traditionally Mexico and the United States.

The AFC target of five direct places was always a dream, but Asia has clearly proved to be a winner on FIFA's political table if not on the World Cup pitch.


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Takahara completes apprenticeship

19 Dec 2002(Thu)

When Naohiro Takahara first joined Masashi Nakayama in the Jubilo Iwata forward line, it was a case of "The Sorcerer and the Apprentice."

This was the title of an old folk story, and was about a wizard who taught all his magic tricks to a young and enthusiastic student.

Watching Nakayama and Takahara always reminded me of this story.

Nakayama was the wise old wizard who knew everything.

Takahara was the eager beginner, working alongside him and hoping that the magic would rub off on to him.

So, when the 23-year-old Takahara was named J.League MVP for the 2002 season,the education was over.

Nakayama had done his job, and so too had Takahara in learning so well from the master.

Takahara could not have had a better teacher than the player they call "Gon."

On the pitch, Gon is a goal machine. He is a penalty box predator who knows by instinct exactly where to be and when to be there. He also can sense where the goal is, and has a remarkable habit of hitting the target, again by nature.

Even with these gifts, though, a player must still work hard for the team, and Gon can never be accused of being a selfish player, despite his fantastic goals record.

Off the pitch, Nakayama's attitude is exemplary. He loves his football, and this also shines through in Takahara. Both players train hard and are constantly trying to improve their own individual performances.

Takahara fully deserved his award as MVP, not simply for scoring 26 goals in 27 games but also for leading the team from the front alongside the 1998 MVP Nakayama.

Taka now seems set to move to Germany to join Hamburger SV (the SV stands for Sport Verein, meaning Hamburg Sports Club), where he will have to start learning all over again.

He will have to adapt to the physically powerful German game, and deal with clever and mobile defenders who will not be afraid to chop him down if he looks capable of escaping their tight and rugged marking.

It will be a great experience for Taka to play in one of Europe's four major leagues--Germany is ranked alongside Italy, Spain and England--and he is now ready to make his mark.

Wherever he plays in his career, Taka knows he will never have a better professor than the soccer sorcerer Nakayama.

The student has completed his apprenticeship.


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Edmundo deserves his place among Verdy legends

15 Dec 2002(Sun)

Although Edmundo wore the famous Verdy green for just over one season, he deserves a place in the club's Hall of Fame.

It was with great sadness that I learned he would not be returning to Verdy next season, as the club sponsor Nippon Television could not come up with the extra payment, believed to be 200 million yen, to keep Edmundo.

Edmundo arrived in Japan in October 2001 with a reputation as a hot-head and a trouble-maker who preferred to do the samba at the Rio Carnival than train with his teammates.

It was a massive gamble by Verdy, but it paid off when Edmundo inspired them to safety in the final five games of the 2001 season.

The following year, Nippon TV agreed to pay an extra 200 million yen on top of their usual budget so Verdy could keep Edmundo for the whole year.

Once again Edmundo displayed natural leadership qualities, not only scoring 16 goals but giving the team direction, purpose and coordination.

The Brazilian manager, Lori Sandri, had a trusty lieutenant on the pitch in Edmundo, and gradually the whole team grew in confidence.

Verdy will miss him desperately next season, and it's no surprise that Yokohama F Marinos is one of the clubs showing an interest in signing Edmundo, thanks to the financial backing of Nissan.

After a promising season, Verdy look to be in trouble already for next year.

The rejuvenated left-back Naoki Soma is returning to Kashima Antlers, hence Kashima's release of Augusto, and Verdy are trying to hang on to the young right-back Hayuma Tanaka, who is only on loan from the Marinos. If the two clubs cannot agree a transfer fee, then Verdy may be allowed to extend the loan period for another year.

But there will be a gaping hole in the team without Edmundo.

He has been one of the best foreign players in the history of the J.League, and deserves to be among the Verdy legends such as King Kazu, Luiz Carlos Pereira, Ruy Ramos, Tsuyoshi Kitazawa and Nobuhiro Takeda (my Verdy legends also include Naoto Sakurai, as he think he is a wonderful player to watch!).

It was a very moving story to hear of the death of Edmundo's brother in Brazil, shot to death in a car.

All the Verdy players joined in a prayer for Edmundo's brother before the last league game, and an emotional Edmundo then scored twice against Vegalta Sendai and set up the other for Hideki Nagai.

What a finish to his league career with Verdy, but still there's the Emperor's Cup.


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Nakamura has a lot of catching up to do

12 Dec 2002(Thu)

The gulf in class between Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura was there for all to see as Parma beat Reggina 2-0 in Italy's Serie A on Sunday.

Japan's national coach Zico, who was among the crowd of 14,000 at Stadio Tardini, hit the nail on the head.

He told Parma's official web site: "He (Nakata) is more mature than Nakamura. He has played in Italy for a longer period and this was useful for him to grow and become a star."

Even though Nakata is only one year older than Nakamura, 25 to 24, it was a man against a boy at Parma's home stadium.

Although Nakata did not excel as an individual, he played a very mature, confident and responsible game.

Last season, in an attempt to justify his $26 million price tag from Roma, he seemed to be trying too hard. He was always looking for the defense-splitting pass, or looking to do something special when he had the ball.

After all, he was the expensive new recruit, the No. 10, the playmaker, so the pressure was on Nakata to prove his value.

This season, however, Nakata has found a new home on the right side of Parma's three-man attack, with the Brazilian Adriano in the middle and Romanian Adrian Mutu on the left.

Adriano and Mutu have scored 13 league goals between them this season, but Nakata is playing exceptionally well too, but playing well for the team, not as an individual.

What impressed the most on Sunday was his excellent control, his calmness in possession and his new-found ability to let the ball do the work, meaning the easy pass, the easy option, is often more effective than the spectacular.

Now he looks like a leader in Serie A, as he does for the national team, and that is proof of how far he has developed since his debut for Perugia in September 1998.

Nakamura, however, is still raw in terms of Italy. He shows flashes of brilliance, both with his passing and dribbling, but lacks the consistency Nakata now has.

This will come in time, though, as Nakamura is an intelligent player who wants to learn. He faces a tough season with a poor team, as Reggina have won only seven points from 13 games and look certain to make a swift return to the Serie B.

But Nakamura is doing well enough to suggest that he could stay in Serie A even if Reggina are relegated, as he will always be dangerous when the game stops because of his left-footed corners, free kicks and penalties.

And the game in Italy stops frequently due to constant fouling, so Nakamura should be able to add to his five goals already this season.

On Sunday, though, despite some nice moves and touches, Nakamura was a long way behind Nakata in terms of consistency and teamwork.

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Park shows refreshing approach

8 Dec 2002(Sun)

Shortly after the dust had settled on the World Cup, Kyoto Purple Sanga's German manager Gert Engels praised the attitude of his South Korean forward Park Ji Sung.

Yes, there had been interest from Europe in Park, said Engels.

But no, Park was not going around telling everyone he wanted to leave Japan and play overseas.

Engels found this a refreshing attitude by his young Korean.

Now, Park has the chance to team up with South Korea's World Cup coach, Guus Hiddink, at PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch first division.

But he is taking his time to make up his mind, and Engels still hopes Park will stay in Kyoto and sign the lucrative two-year deal on offer from the club.

"He likes it here," said Engels this week.

"This is his first professional club and his name is now associated with Kyoto Purple Sanga. He speaks good Japanese and is close friends with several of the players. At this moment he does not know what he is going to do, so therefore I can be a little bit optimistic that he might stay."

At 21, Park has a long career ahead of him, and Engels feels it is important that the youngster has a rest and does not jump too quickly into Europe.

"He hasn't had a holiday for two years because of World Cup preparations and club commitments, so if he stays in Japan he can have a long break before next season in March. He could then go overseas in summer because I am sure there will be other offers for him.

"But if he goes to PSV in January he will be straight back into training and then play in the second half of the season."

Engels says Kyoto has produced an attractive offer for Park, so money will not be a factor in the player's decision.

"He won't go because PSV have offered him a little bit more, and he won't stay if they have offered him a little bit less. I know he will make his decision on what's best for his soccer career."

Whether Park goes or stays, his attitude is an example to others.

Life in Japan is good, the J.League is good, he's a key member of his team, and he's near his home in Korea.

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.


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Jubilo six dominate all-star eleven

5 Dec 2002(Thu)

At the end of the league season, it's always fun to choose your best eleven.

Have you picked yours yet?

Well, here is mine, and naturally Jubilo Iwata provide several members after dominating both stages of the league championship.

I have picked six Jubilo players, which is a fair reflection of the team's strength.

Jubilo have played a 3-5-2 formation, and my first Jubilo player would be Hideto Suzuki on the right side of defense.

Although Suzuki still loses his self-control and self-discipline on occasions, he is quick and aggressive. Not much gets past him down Jubilo's right flank.

My other two defenders in a 3-5-2 system would be FC Tokyo's Brazilian central defender Jean, plus Naoki Matsuda of the Yokohama F Marinos. Jean has been outstanding for Tokyo and is one of the most under-rated foreign players in Japan, while Matsuda's leadership and stylish defending helped his team finish second to Jubilo in the overall standings.

Jubilo excel in all areas, of course, and their midfield five is very fluid and powerful.

Takashi Fukunishi and Toshihiro Hattori have been consistent and reliable in the midfield "engine" room, providing a solid base from which to build the attacks through the middle or down the wings.

These two deserve a place at the expense of other players with good credentials in this department, such as Koji Nakata of Kashima Antlers and Yasuhito Endo of Gamba Osaka.

On the right wing I would have Kyoto's Park Ji Sung. He is a dynamic and tenacious player, and will surely do a good job for PSV Eindhoven. On the left I would have Jubilo's Toshiya Fujita, an intelligent, creative and versatile player, fully deserving of his MVP award last year.

The playmaker role would go to Verdy's Brazilian Edmundo, who has held together the team, given it direction and purpose, and scored some good goals, too. He has been a great signing for Verdy and the J.League, and must be challenging for this year's J.League MVP award, which will be announced Dec. 16.

This leaves the strikers.

Several players have strong claims, such as Gamba's giant Brazilian Magrao, Urawa's lightning fast Emerson, and Nagoya's consistent Ueslei.

But I would look no further than the two Jubilo men, Naohiro Takahara and Masashi Nakayama.

They have scored 42 league goals between them, with a league-high 26 in 27 games for Taka, and work so well together.

Oh yes, the goalkeeper!

Again, several candidates, but Hitoshi Sogahata stands out for his consistency in high-pressure games for Kashima.

So here's my J.League Best XI for 2002, in a 3-5-2 formation: Sogahata; Hideto Suzuki, Jean, Matsuda; Park Ji Sung, Fukunishi, Hattori, Fujita, Edmundo; Takahara, Nakayama.


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Relegation keeps season alive

1 Dec 2002(Sun)

As a foreigner living in Japan, there is no escaping the fact that North Americans and the rest of the world have a different idea of sports.

To most North Americans, baseball, American football, basketball and, to a lesser degree, ice hockey are regarded as the four major sports.

Of these four, only basketball can truly claim to be anywhere near as popular as normal football, or soccer as it is known in the States to distinguish it from their own version of the game. (The word "soccer" is, in fact, an English word, and was used to differentiate between rugby football and association football, soccer's full and correct name, when the two sports were developing in the mid-1800s).

I am sorry. I digress from the main theme of the article.

And that is, that many Americans think soccer scores very highly over baseball in one specific area: relegation.

Compare the J.League and Japanese baseball, for example.

The J.League championship has already been decided, but there is still huge interest in the final round of league games on Saturday because three teams can still be relegated.

Consadole Sapporo, of course, were relegated several weeks ago, but Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Vissel Kobe or Kashiwa Reysol could join them in J2 next season.

So while Jubilo's players and fans can celebrate and relax away to Nagoya Grampus Eight, Sanfrecce, Vissel and Reysol will be fighting for their lives on the very last day of the season. The possibility for drama and tension at the three games involving these teams is immense, as the whole picture could change with the very last kick of the ball in the very last league game of the season.

Now see what happens in Japanese baseball.

Yomiuri Giants had won the Central League weeks before the end of the season, and likewise the Seibu Lions in the Pacific League.

With only six teams in each league, the others were just left to play out the long and dreary season.

There is only the pennant race, and once a team has been eliminated from that the season is virtually over.

There is no threat of relegation at the bottom end of the table, so the season just goes on and on, with players and fans alike looking forward to getting it over with and starting again the following year.

Yes, several Americans I know think relegation is a great idea to keep the season interesting for as long as possible.

After all, for some teams, especially those which gain promotion the previous season, staying in the top division is an achievement in itself.

Next season, Oita Trinita and Cerezo Osaka will not be talking about winning the J.League. They will be talking about consolidation, meaning that their job is simply to stay in the first division and not be relegated.

If that can be achieved, then they can start thinking about building on this foundation in future seasons.

Since relegation was introduced into the J.League in 1999, there is much more to play for during the season.

If an American agrees that something is right about soccer, then that speaks for itself!


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