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March 2003

The making of Hidetoshi Nakata

30 Mar 2003(Sun)

The change in Hidetoshi Nakata on and off the pitch is a remarkable transformation for all those who have followed his career closely.

Take events at Kashima's World Cup Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, for example.

During the training session, he was in control of his teammates, giving out more instructions than Zico. He spoke to his teammates on an individual basis or in small groups, and looked like the perfect captain.

As Zico said, he cannot be on the pitch himself, so he needs someone who understands his tactics and who has the communication skills and experience to pass them on.

After training, the media gathered around the players' exit hoping to catch the players before they jumped on the team bus and headed back to the hotel.

Nakata was one of the last out, maybe hoping he would go unnoticed as the Japanese media chased after Ono, Nakamura, Inamoto and the rest.

But, recognizing a couple of foreign journalists working in Tokyo, he stopped.

"Can we ask you some questions, Hide?" we said.

"OK, but only a few," he said, in confident, fluent English.

Throughout the question and answer session (I am sure you have seen the content of this in the Japanese media during the week), he was relaxed and always quick to show his sense of humor.

"Are you going to be captain against Uruguay?"

"I don't know. Maybe." came the reply, when he knew all along he would be.

"Does Zico expect you to lead the other players because of your experience?"

"I don't know. Please talk to him."

While continuing to be a little evasive and elusive, but in a jokey manner, this approach was nothing compared to how he used to be when he played for Bellmare Hiratsuka, and in his early years in Italy, starting with Perugia in 1998.

At times then he came across as a loner, distant to his fans and appearing to lack true passion and feeling--but never ability and courage--for the game when he was on the pitch.

I once remember him scoring a wonderful free kick against Hong Kong. Whereas David Beckham would have run off, arms outstretched, to receive the applause of his fans, Nakata looked embarrassed and just turned and trotted back to his own half.

I asked him why he did not celebrate extravagantly like other players.

"It was just a moment in time, nothing special," he said, and later added that he just happened to be good at football. It could have been something else.

"Who knows? I may have been a pianist, but it was soccer," he said.

Even Ossie Ardiles, former manager of S-Pulse and F Marinos, once said Nakata looked like he didn't care enough about the game, although he would have made him captain of the national team two or three years ago.

Nakata does care, clearly, and he is well respected in Italy by teammates and rivals alike as a person and a player.

It's just that soccer will not be his whole life all his life. One day he will move on.

For the moment it is, and his experiences in Italy have turned him into a mature, responsible leader.

The change is astonishing.

ends

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Zico still has everything to prove

27 Mar 2003(Thu)

Japan's third match under head coach Zico is just around the corner, and the Brazilian still has everything to prove.

Even though World Cup legend Pele thinks Zico's experience with Brazil's national team and knowledge of the game should make him a success in the role, I still have my doubts.

Lack of preparation, lack of strategy and lack of tactical discipline characterized Japan's two earlier games under Zico, a 1-1 draw with Jamaica and 2-0 defeat by Argentina.

In the buildup to Friday's friendly against Uruguay at Tokyo's National Stadium, Zico is now talking about the possibility of changing his formation from 4-4-2 to the 3-5-2 favored by his two immediate predecessors, Philippe Troussier and Takeshi Okada.

In a recent Tokyo press conference, Zico said if the players did not feel comfortable with four defenders, he may switch to three.

Clearly Zico is taking his time to lay down his policy, despite the fact the major reason for his appointment by JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi was because he knew the Japanese game and the players so well after so many years with Kashima Antlers.

Japan's strengths are in midfield, and their defenders are mobile and versatile rather than physically robust, so a 3-5-2 system makes more sense to me.

If Zico wants to play his golden quartet in midfield--Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura, Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto--it is easier to do this with a five-man midfield. These four would be supplemented by Koji Nakata, whose defensive qualities would give the team much more balance.

Nakamura could be on the left, Nakata on the right, where he is playing so well for Parma, with Ono occupying the central role behind the two strikers, who look certain to be Takahara and Suzuki, with Kurobe coming off the bench for his first cap.

Inamoto and Koji Nakata would provide the defensive stability in the center of midfield, with both of them able to join the attack at the right time.

At the back, if Zico plays three defenders it could be Morioka on the right, Miyamoto in the middle and Akita (or Hattori) on the left.

If he plays four back it could look like: Narahashi, Akita, Miyamoto (or Morioka) and Hattori. I would still prefer to have seen Soma brought back at left back, as anyone who watched the A3 Mazda Champions Cup would have seen Soma is in much better condition than Hattori. Soma, too, offers more going forward.

All in all, a 3-5-2 formation suits Japan much more, as there just aren't the orthodox full backs to play 4-4-2.

But I think Zico will persist with 4-4-2 for the time being.

Whatever formation he plays against Uruguay, he needs a good performance and preferably a first victory.

We need to know in which direction Zico's Japan is heading.

Forwards or backwards.

ends

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JFA right to call off tour

23 Mar 2003(Sun)

The decision of the Japan Football Association to cancel the national team's two-match tour of the United States was predictable and expected.

It was also right.

Some people, especially North Americans in Japan, have been critical of the JFA, saying they panicked and that there would have been no danger.

But who knows what may have happened, and what may still happen around the world following the U.S.-led attack on Iraq without approval from the United Nations?

The main fears, of course, are for repercussions from Islamic extremists who view the attack as the start of a "jihad" -- a holy war between Christians and Muslims.

And if these terrorists can achieve what they did on Sept. 11, 2001, they can do anything, anywhere.

So I think it is right and proper that the JFA puts the safety of the players first and foremost.

As much as everyone wanted the matches to take place, there is simply no need at this moment to take an unnecessary risk in flying to a country at war, and flying from city to city on the west coast when the threat of terrorism, however small, exists.

It is a sad situation that the world has come to this, but it is hardly the fault of the JFA, and there is no point criticizing the JFA for being too cautious.

It is a much better policy to stay at home, hold a training camp as Zico wants to do, and hopefully play a friendly international on March 29, possibly against Uruguay.

Zico's original squad of 23 included seven players based in Europe, but whether these players will travel to Japan remains in doubt.

Shunsuke Nakamura's Italian club Reggina did not want him to go to the United States, and it's unlikely they will want him to travel back to Japan just for a training camp.

Hamburg SV felt the same about Naohiro Takahara, as they simly did not want him flying about the world at such a delicate situation.

I heard the news that the tour was off before the Jubilo Iwata-Yokohama F Marinos J1 opener at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa on Friday afternoon.

No one was surprised by the JFA decision, and not many seemed surprised that Jubilo were 2-0 down inside 10 minutes and lost 4-2 to Takeshi Okada's revamped team.

Jubilo's preseason build-up has not been smooth, and several of their experienced players looked tired and slow.

This could be due to over-training, rather than under-training, as new manager Masaaki Yanagishita is working his players hard.

But Yanagishita has an impossible task this season, after Jubilo won both stages last year under Masakazu Suzuki.

There is only one direction Jubilo can go, and that's down, not up.

Yanagishita must decide whether to overhaul the team and bring in fresh faces, or persist with the ageing heroes from 2002.

A fascinating season is in store for the J.League.

ends

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Under-22 squad reflects changes in Japan's sporting culture

20 Mar 2003(Thu)

It was very interesting to read through Japan's under-22 squad for the April 1 friendly against Costa Rica at Toyota Stadium in Aichi prefecture.

Of the 23 players named by head coach Masakuni Yamamoto, 22 of them belonged to J.League clubs.

Only one, midfielder Yuhei Tokunaga, was a student, from Waseda University.

I think this statistic shows the reason why Japanese football is improving so much at the highest level.

A few years ago, an under-22 team representing Japan would have been drawn almost entirely from university teams.

Just look at some of the top players in the J.League, or players who have retired recently.

Masami Ihara, Japan's 1998 World Cup captain, was at Tsukuba University, as was Jubilo Iwata goal machine Masashi Nakayama.

Jubilo's other experienced players such as Toshihiro Hattori (Tokai University), Hiroshi Nanami (Juntendo University) and Toshiya Fujita (Tsukuba University) all entered the professional ranks at a late stage.

Around the world it is very rare for a player to attend university and then be signed by a professional club.

In England, for example, a player can sign "schoolboy forms" with a professional club at the age of 14, and then join as apprentice professionals at the age of 16. When they are 17 they become professional players.

People go to university in England to benefit their career, but these careers do not include professional football. Clubs would not be interested in signing someone from university because they would feel he is five years behind a player who joined a club at 16 in terms of professional training and tactical knowledge.

High school-university-football club was the normal career path in Japan, so it is easy to see why Japan did not qualify for the World Cup until 1998.

Their players were behind other countries because they lacked this professional environment. In this aspect, the J.League has provided the perfect base for a player to join from high school and progress up the ladder.

There are still exceptions, as we discovered when Zico announced his squad to travel to the United States.

Teruaki Kurobe thoroughly deserves his chance for the part he has played in the rise of Kyoto Purple Sanga from J2 to Emperor's Cup winners.

Kurobe, too, was a late starter, having attended Fukuoka University. He joined Kyoto in 2000 and made his professional debut shortly after his 22nd birthday.

This is extremely late in professional football, but three years later Kurobe is in the national squad.

In the pre-J.League days, players did not have this professional set-up, which is why so many of the senior players have university backgrounds. Another one that springs to mind is Naoki Soma, who went to Waseda.

Now it's the turn of Tokunaga.

But there will not be many more in the future.

ends

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No doubt about it, Pele's a perfect diplomat

16 Mar 2003(Sun)

Don't be jealous now when I tell you this next piece of information.

But it was very pleasant talking to Pele about Japanese football in Tokyo the other night!

The only problem with Pele is that he is such a good ambassador for the game, such a diplomat as he represents MasterCard around the world, that his answers are often predictable.

In fact I could have written Pele's answers before I had asked him the questions!

OK, I will tell the truth.

Pele was not actually in Tokyo. He was in Berlin, Germany, at a sponsor press conference during which MasterCard revealed they had spent $200 million in the past few years promoting their involvement in the global game.

I was at the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya, on the 16th Floor to be precise in the office of the local MasterCard operation. I spoke to Pele via telephone, as media from around Asia had a few precious moments with the World Cup legend.

I asked Pele what he thought about Zico's appointment as national coach, considering Zico's lack of experience as a coach at club or national team level.

Pele said he had "no doubt" Zico would be a success.

"He worked as a supervisor for the Brazilian national team at the France World Cup, and also has his own team in the Brazilian second division," said Pele.

"He has talent, experience and knows the game."

But then Pele added significantly: "But it's normal that a coach needs a little bit of luck. I wish him very good luck in Japan."

Pele begins most answers with "no doubt."

He is so eager to please that even if you asked him if Singapore could win the next World Cup he would begin his reply: "No doubt. But first they must have a strong league and give their players experience outside their own country."

Here is another question to Pele from a colleague in Tokyo.

"Is it realistic for Japan to talk about reaching the quaterfinals of the 2006 World Cup?"

Pele said: "No doubt. Japan did well last year and has a good team. But playing outside your own country in Europe is a little more complicated. And don't forget they will not have the support of their own fans."

This to me suggested Pele did not think Japan could reach the last eight in 2006.

Personally, I don't think anyone in Japan should be talking about the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals. First I think they should be talking about qualifying, as this is not going to be a foregone conclusion with South Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iran also in the battle.

But was it an interesting experience chatting to Pele?

No doubt!

ends

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Gamba not great on first impressions, but still good enough

13 Mar 2003(Thu)

They say that first impressions are often the best.

If this is so, then Gamba Osaka need to sharpen up if they are to realise their potential and win the J.League championship this season.

I went to Banpaku Stadium on Saturday afternoon to watch the Gamba-Cerezo Nabisco Cup derby match, as it gave me a good opportunity to see two Kansai teams in action before the start of the league season.

I have tipped Gamba to win the championship this year, and will continue to do so, even though they looked a little slow up front.

But two important points emerged from the game.

First, they won, 1-0, without playing well, thanks to a late goal from substitute Matsunami. He must be a wonderful player to have on the bench, as he always tries his best when he gets the chance and is always dangerous.

Second, Gamba did not condede a goal, against a potent Cerezo attack led by new captain Akinori Nishizawa, supported by the precocious Yoshito Okubo, with the veteran Hiroaki Morishima behind and the awkward-to-mark Marcelo Baron coming off the bench.

Gamba's three-man defense stood firm, with the impressive Yamaguchi on the right, Miyamoto in the middle and the under-rated Kiba, the captain, on the left.

Gamba manager Akira Nishino feels his two new South American players, Francisco Arce of Paraguay on the right flank and the Brazilian Galeano in central midfield alongside Endo, will be a big improvement on last year's duo: Marcelinho Carioca and Fabinho.

Arce, who has a very similar running style to the Marinos-bound Cafu, will torment defenses with his free kicks, corners and crosses this year, and the big center forward Magrao should profit immensely from this service. Araiba will also provide quality crosses from the left, so Gamba will be able to attack with width on both sides.

Asian Games hero Satoshi Nakayama impressed for Gamba when he came on, working hard down the left wing, but Gamba missed the spark of Yoshihara.

Yoshihara, once described by Philippe Troussier as the Romario of Japan for his penalty-box prowess, is a dynamic, aggressive player, who is a real handful for opposition defenses.

When he is in top condition he will help Gamba's cause a lot.

As for Cerezo, a 0-0 draw would have been an encouraging result, but Matsunami's late, scrambled goal spoiled everything.

I was very impressed with the Cerezo midfielder Kudo, who has a good touch on the ball and always takes the easy passing option when he has possession.

So often players attempt an ambitious or adventurous pass, which may come off once in 10 attempts, but Kudo prefers the shorter, simpler pass. I am sure his manager, Nishimura, prefers the easy option, too.

Late in the game, Kudo dropped back to right-back, and he was beaten by Futugawa before the Gamba playmaker crossed into the middle for Matsunami's goal.

It was a cruel ending for Kudo and Cerezo, but this is the difference between J1 and J2, and they know they must concentrate and contest every ball ferociously for the whole game.

Gamba are good enough to win the championship, but need a fully-fit Yoshihara in the forward line.

ends

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J.League must step in and punish ungrateful players

9 Mar 2003(Sun)

A few weeks ago I called Steve Perryman at home in England to chat about Kazuyuki Toda joining Tottenham.

The conversation began on a positive note, but ended on a depressing one.

This was nothing to do with Toda, his former player at Shimizu S-Pulse.

It was about Kashiwa Reysol's Brazilian striker Edilson. To put it bluntly, Perryman said Edilson was the worst professional footballer he had ever worked with.

Perryman said his attitude was bad, that he did not show the kind of responsibility expected of such an experienced player, and for a player who was being paid handsomely, and that he pretended to be injured to get out of matches.

Perryman, who had been sacked by Reysol a few weeks before, could not understand how Reysol tolerated Edilson, as he knew the player was taking advantage of his situation as a World Cup-winning Brazilian.

A few weeks on, Perryman has been proved right again.

The Reysol players reported for training on Jan. 28, but Edilson has not been seen since the end of last season.

According to a club source, Edilson has produced more excuses than goals in the past few weeks.

First he said he could not return due to business matters. Then it was because he needed to visit the dentist (don't they have a dentist in Chiba prefecture?). Then it was for private, family reasons.

The latest news is that Edilson is due back in Japan on Saturday, the day Reysol begin their Nabisco Cup group against Vegalta Sendai.

This is appalling behavior from Edilson, who has the same manager as Emerson, who was also late back for Urawa Reds, apparently due to visa problems because he needed a new passport (didn't he realize this several months ago?).

I hope the clubs are firm with these players and punish them, as they are earning fabulous salaries in Japan and living a luxurious lifestyle.

Just like Will last season, when he kicked Marinos teammate Daisuke Oku after being sent off and was promptly sacked, they should appreciate the life Japan is giving to them.

I also hope the J.League steps in, and punishes the players, especially Edilson, as they are bringing the game into disrepute.

Japanese football is young and fresh, and thousands of children around Japan are switching on to this wonderful world of soccer.

This is another reason why clubs should be careful who they sign, and how they treat them, as young fans and even young Japanese players will look up to the foreign "stars" as an example.

The older Japanese players will probably just shrug their shoulders, because they have seen it all before: Another foreign mercenary taking gullible Japanese football for a ride.

Edilson signed a two and a half-year contract with Reysol last summer, meaning he still has two years to run on that lucrative deal.

So what will happen next?

Will Edilson receive a nice fat pay-off to leave the club, so they can sign someone, another Brazilian probably, who really wants to play for them (or says he does)?

It is hard to feel much sympathy for Reysol, too, after what Perryman described about last season.

But the long-suffering Reysol fans deserve better, and I hope they remove the puzzling "Gorgeous Edilson" banner this season.

ends

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Fujita proves his value yet again

6 Mar 2003(Thu)

After losing all three games without scoring a goal in the recent A3 Mazda Champions Cup, some people had already written off Jubilo Iwata for the new season.

They included the Yugoslav head coach of China's Dalian Shide, Milorad Kosanovic.

After his team had beaten Jubilo 1-0 in the last round of Mazda matches, Kosanovic said Dalian's time was coming up and Jubilo's was going down. He also said Kashima Antlers were the favorites to win the league title this year.

One person who did not doubt Jubilo's ability, however, was Gert Engels, Kyoto Purple Sanga's German manager.

Before the Xerox Super Cup game last Saturday, Engels said it would be "dangerous" to play Jubilo after they had lost three straight games.

And he was proved right.

After a poor first half, which ended 0-0, Jubilo finally found their form and ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.

Although Brazilian striker Rodrigo Gral, who looks a lot like Francesco Totti in appearance, received a lot of attention after the game for scoring two goals, the Jubilo player who galvanized the team was the reliable Toshiya Fujita.

In the first half, Kyoto's offside trap had worked well, catching out the Jubilo forwards on regular occasions.

It needed something special to break through, and Fujita was the man who made it happen.

The J.League MVP in 2001 was overshadowed last season by the 26 goals of Naohiro Takahara, but this did not mean Fujita's form went down.

He is as vital to the team as any player, because he has a quick footballing brain and never stops thinking and running.

It was Fujita's deep runs from midfield which caused confusion in the Kyoto defense, and he also showed composure and exquisite skill in a tight area in the penalty box before stroking home the game's first goal.

He created the second one, too, after a well-timed run and shot, which was parried into the path of the Braziian. He could also claim an assist for the third goal, as his accurate corner from the right was back-headed by Takashi Fukunishi for Gral to score with an easy diving header.

On the day, Fujita was fantastic, showing the kind of form and leadership qualities which earned him the MVP award two seasons ago.

Jubilo looked liberated after the first goal, but they still have a lot to do to be the power they were last season.

Strikers thrive on confidence, and Gral needed those two goals to lift his spirits and those of his teammates.

We will have to wait and see if Gral becomes a permanent fixture in the team alongside Nakayama.

But we don't have to wait to realise that the lively, clever Fujita will be a key man again for Jubilo this season.

ends

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Fujimoto is top of the pops

2 Mar 2003(Sun)

There are no prizes for guessing who is the star of the show in the J.League's new pop song, to be released March 19.

And there are no prizes for guessing who is on the cover of the March edition of "Grun," the magazine for supporters of Nagoya Grampus Eight.

It's Chikara Fujimoto, of course.

Fujimoto's winter transfer from relegated Sanfrecce Hiroshima to Grampus was one of the major talking points of the off-season in Japan.

Because "Cheeky Chikara" is as bright and clever on the pitch as he is off it.

The pop song is entitled "We can fly," and the "boy band"-style video features Fujimoto along with several other J.League stars, including Koji Nakata, Eisuke Nakanishi, Hiroaki Morishima, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto and Masashi Nakayama.

Out of all of them, including even "Gon," Fujimoto looks the most natural in front of the TV camera, relaxed and confident and very expressive, just like he was when he was the chief guest on the Saturday night "Super Soccer" TV show.

I also remember arriving in Paris with the Japan national team for a couple of friendly matches, against Senegal and Nigeria, and Fujimoto was the main attraction for the waiting French and foreign media.

But that is only because they thought he was Hidetoshi Nakata!

The two do look alike, it's true, and Fujimoto just loved the limelight! He was not bothered at all that it was a case of mistaken identity.

Nagoya's Slovenian manager, Zdenko Verdenik, likes what he sees of Fujimoto.

"He has no problem to be included in our team," said the former JEF United Ichihara manager.

"He is a very good player. He has good ability, and understands very well how to play behind the two top. I think he is very important for us."

In the past, critics have pointed out that Fujimoto can play too much for himself and not for the team.

Again, Verdenik is aware of this.

"I have spoken to him about it, because I have seen that sometimes he wants to do too much alone.

"Now he is prepared to change and try to do more for the team."

Grampus fans will be hoping that Fujimoto is as big a hit on the field as he is in the video.

ends

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