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April 2003

Cause for concern in Kansai

27 Apr 2003(Sun)

These are still early days in the 2003 J.League season, but officials must be more than a little concerned about events down in Kansai.

Or lack of events may be more appropriate.

J.League chairman Masaru Suzuki was hoping that this year would be a breakthrough season for the Kansai clubs, and that interest would be at an all-time high with four teams in the top flight: Gamba and promoted Cerezo, Emperor's Cup holder Purple Sanga, and Vissel Kobe.

But so far it's been a big disappointment, and the fans are already giving their verdict.

Just take a look at last Saturday's games.

Vissel Kobe attracted only 6,325 for their home game against Vegalta Sendai at the Kobe Wing World Cup Stadium.

This is a terrible turnout for Vissel, considering they had won handsomely 3-0 at Ichihara the previous weekend. If they had beaten Sendai, Vissel could have gone top of the table with nine points, at least until the next day when Yokohama F Marinos played Oita Trinita.

In the event, Vissel lost 2-1, a result which may have frightened even more people off.

It was even worse down in Suita City, where only 4,828 turned up at Banpaku to watch Gamba Osaka play JEF United Ichihara.

These are two attractive teams, and proved it by playing to a 3-3 draw.

Gamba fans do not want excitement, though. They want victories, points and trophies.

Gamba were my tip for the championship before the season kicked off, and I still feel they have enough quality players to mount a challenge at some point.

At the moment they have only five points, five off the pace being set by Marinos, but still with 11 games to play in the first stage.

Again Gamba let themselves down badly against Jubilo, drawing 1-1 at home when a 1-0 victory would have given them a huge psychological lift.

Then they lost 3-2 at Oita, giving Trinita their first victory in the top division.

With Cerezo Osaka capable of scoring goals but unpredictable, and Purple Sanga struggling to match last season's efforts, already it looks bleak for Kansai.

The region needs some inspiration from somewhere.

And hopefully, for the sake of the J.League, it will come quickly.


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Watch out for the All Whites!

24 Apr 2003(Thu)

Everyone in the sports world has heard of the All Blacks, New Zealand's famous national rugby union team.

But what about the All Whites?

Well, that's New Zealand's national soccer team, who will play against Japan in the opening match of the FIFA Confederations Cup at Paris Saint-Denis on June 18.

But if Japan's players and coach think it is going to be easy, they could be in for a shock, according to Urawa Reds' Australian defender Ned Zelic.

Australia and New Zealand are the two major powers in FIFA's Oceania confederation, so Zelic knows the All Whites well.

Zelic is convinced New Zealand will be able to give Japan a hard game.

In fact he thinks football in the Oceania region is going to get better and better thanks to FIFA's decision to award one automatic qualifying place to the confederation for the 2006 World Cup.

"I think now all the Pacific teams are really going to improve with this chance they have been given in the World Cup," said Zelic, who has played in Australia, Germany, England and France before moving to Japan last year, first to join Kyoto Purple Sanga.

"You will see teams like Fiji and even Papua New Guinea getting stronger.

"As for New Zealand, they have not been easy to play in the past. Although we have beaten them on a regular basis, they will really start improving.

"They know now there is a place available at the next World Cup, and this is a big motivation for the players."

It was good to see Zelic in action again last Saturday, when Urawa beat Kyoto 2-0 at Komaba thanks to two terrific goals from Emerson and Keita Suzuki.

I can claim to be one of the few people to have seen Zelic play his only game for Purple Sanga just over a year ago, in a defeat at JEF United Ichihara!

He left the club shortly after that one appearance for personal reasons, but returned later in the season to play for Urawa Reds.

But a series of injuries restricted him to just one league appearance for Urawa last season, and a torn hamstring during the club's winter camp in Australia resulted in him missing the start of this season, too.

He is a quality player, skilful and elegant, and can add a lot of stability, composure and experience to the Reds team.

Zelic is a big fan of teammate Yuichiro Nagai, and was delighted for him when he scored the winning goal on his national team debut against Korea.

"For me this guy is a national team player. He has all the skills in the world and can beat one or two men at will. A guy with this potential has to be playing for the national team," said the Aussie.


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Gon is just one of a kind, says Zico

20 Apr 2003(Sun)

The older Gon Nakayama gets, the more you wonder when he will hang up his boots.

But it will probably not be this year, or even next, as he is still hungry for goals and still has the enthusiasm of a rookie, often more, in fact.

He is now 35, and has just played his 51st game for his country.

It was his first start for three years, since a 1-0 defeat by Korea in Seoul, and Gon was the captain.

His appointment by Zico may have come as a surprise, because Yutaka Akita seemed a more logical choice due to his position in the team, and the fact that most of the action in the Korea-Japan match was expected to be at the other end of the pitch to Nakayama.

But Gon served his role well.

He was the victim of a heavy, but fair, challenge early on by the rugged central defender Cho, when Gon was sent tumbling over the touchline and came to land just in front of the Korean bench.

The Korean fans cheered in glee.

But he picked himself, and was quite dangerous on Japan's counter-attacks.

At the start of the second half he showed his courage by getting his head to a loose ball after some casual defending by Korea, and seeing the ball bounce just wide of the far post.

A few minutes later, though, he should have scored, but snatched at his chance and blazed his shot over the bar after great work on the right flank by Narahashi.

Zico praised Gon's experience and leadership qualities, describing him as a role model for the other players.

"When other players think the job is finished, he is always willing to do some more," Zico said when he was guest speaker at the Foreign Correspondents'Club of Japan on Friday.

"This is why he is still productive and still playing at his age."

Zico said any manager would like to have a player like Nakayama in his team, and he feels sure Japan will not have seen the last of him when he does decide to finish his playing career.

"Even if he stops playing football, he will be very useful to Japanese soccer," said Zico.

Although he did not mention this, I am sure Zico wished other younger players would show even half the desire and commitment displayed by Nakayama, and the confidence on and off the pitch.


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Veteran volunteer says World Cup brought Korea and Japan closer together

17 Apr 2003(Thu)

It's amazing who you can meet when you are lost.

I flew out of Narita International Airport on Monday morning and arrived at Seoul Incheon Airport just before 2 o'clock.

There was a limousine bus from the airport to the Seoul World Cup Stadium, and the cost was only 6,000 Won (600 yen) for an hour's journey!

Well, the information desk said the bus went direct to the stadium, but in fact it dropped you off with the gleaming silver stadium in sight. Rather like getting off the train at Shin-Yokohama station and seeing the International Stadium in the distance.

The weather was beautiful and sunny, but my computer and travel bag were heavy and uncomfortable to carry, and my new shoes were rubbing the skin from the back of my heels, so the trek to the stadium was not a pleasant one.

Then I had to find the sub ground, or practice ground, because this is where Japan would be training at 4 o'clock.

I looked at the map, and set off in the right direction.

I was expecting the practice ground to have its own grandstand, so I actually walked past the unmarked entrance to it and arrived, lost and flustered, in the reception area of the Seoul World Cup Stadium.

I clearly looked hot and bothered, so a very kindly-looking Korean gentleman approached me and asked in impeccable English: "May I help you?"

Oh yes you can!

He took me back the way I had come, and through the entrance to the practice ground, which stood beyond a vast, flat carpark area being used by skateboarders in the spring sunshine.

His name was Mr. Ho Pil, and he said he was 70 years old in Korean age, but born in 1934. He was a volunteer guide, showing football fans from overseas around the stadium. He said most of the visitors were from China and Hong Kong, so, with the SARS virus in mind, I put on a mask and sat a safe distance from him (this is a joke!)

"You should put a 'comma' after Ho," he said, as I wrote his name in my notebook. "Ho is my family name."

To please him, I wrote Ho, Pil.

I asked him about Wednesday's match, and he said Korea expected to win because of their fourth-place finish at the 2002 World Cup.

The 65,000-capacity stadium sold out in five hours, and there will be around 4,000 brave souls wearing Japanese blue on Wednesday night. The rest will be in Korean red.

"How will the Korean fans greet the Japanese team and supporters?" I asked, intrigued, because this intense rivalry reminds me of when England play Scotland in Glasgow. At that time, Glasgow is not a pleasant place to be for an Englishman.

"I think the feelings are changing," said Ho, Pil.

"The history between the two countries is bad, but we must change our minds and think of the future.

"We cannot only depend on the past. The World Cup has helped a lot, and the relationship is becoming more friendly."

It was nice to hear such comments.

Even though my heels were bleeding through my socks and I may have caught SARS in the line of duty.


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Has Kubo changed his spots?

13 Apr 2003(Sun)

There is a saying in English that "a leopard never changes his spots."

I don't know if there is a Japanese equivalent, but it means that a person can never change his natural characteristics.

On this occasion, however, I think Tatsuhiko Kubo is changing his spots!

This opinion is based on my observations from the opening weeks of the J.League.

When I think of Kubo I think of a tall and powerful center forward, fearless and aggressive and with only one thing on his mind: breaking the back of the net with a blistering left-foot shot or soaring header.

I am sure this is why Yokohama F Marinos signed him from Sanfrecce Hiroshima, to give their attack some bite and some punch.

But the Kubo I have seen this season looks different.

In situations where he used to shoot he now passes. When he used to climb high in the box, he would head for goal; now he heads the ball back across the goal.

After last Saturday's game against Vegalta Sendai at Yokohama, I chatted for a couple of minutes with Takeshi Okada as he raced from the press conference room to the changing room.

I asked him if he had asked Kubo to change his style, and become more of a team player than a swashbuckling individual.

Okada said he hadn't, but added that all 11 players had a collective responsibility to the team.

Then I asked Okada if he was surprised when Kubo, breaking down the left in the season opener against Jubilo Iwata, decided to pass the ball into the middle, where Yukihiko Sato scored. I was expecting Kubo to shoot for goal with his powerful left foot, and take the goalkeeper with the ball into the back of the net!

Okada said that yes, he too was surprised Kubo did not shoot. But of course Okada was delighted with the end result: a goal for Yokohama.

Last Saturday, a cross went into the Sendai box from the left wing. Kubo climbed high at the far post, but tried to find Marquinhos with his header, rather than have a go for goal himself.

If Kubo is deliberately changing his spots, I prefer the old version.

In many aspects, Kubo was like a box of chocolates: you never knew what you were going to get next.

He was a raw and unpredictable talent. At times it appeared that even he did not know what he was going to do next, and if Kubo didn't know, then how could a defender?

Maybe once Kubo finds the net this season he will have more confidence to go for goal himself.

I hope so, because he loses his special quality if he becomes just another team man.


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Yamase lifts Reds fans spirits

10 Apr 2003(Thu)

It is a sign of the troubled times at Urawa when the biggest cheer of the afternoon is reserved for a substitute getting off the bench.

But this was the case Sunday at Komaba Stadium when the Reds played host to Nagoya Grampus Eight.

The visitors had controlled most of the match, but the spirits of the home fans were raised when Koji Yamase went on as a sub for the last 17 minutes to replace attacking midfielder Makoto Hasebe.

This was Yamase's first appearance in the J.League since August 17, when he suffered a serious knee injury in the first half of Consadole Sapporo's final first-stage match of the 2002 season at home to Tokyo Verdy.

Despite this injury, Urawa still went ahead with the transfer in the winter, and Yamase seems to be well on course for a full recovery.

This is good news for Urawa and for Japan, as there is no doubt the 21-year-old Yamase is a bright and inventive playmaker. There is still room for him in Japan's Olympic team if he continues to make good progress.

With the Reds in chaos in terms of their overseas players, it is vital they have stability and emerging talent among their Japanese players.

In this aspect, things are looking up, despite the fact they have not won in the league since October 19.

At the back they have Keisuke Tsuboi, who was given a tough time Sunday by the dangerous Brazilian striker Ueslei but always stayed on his feet, the sign of a good defender; in midfield there's Yamase and the industrious Keita Suzuki; while up front, Yuichiro Nagai continues to impress many people, including the Grampus defender Panadic, and Tatsuya Tanaka has great pace and potential.

On the foreign player front, Edmundo walked out on the club toward the end of last month and is now back with Vasco Da Gama; Emerson is not fully fit but still expected to carry the forward line, and the unlucky Australian libero Ned Zelic is nursing a torn left hamstring suffered at the preseason training camp in Australia.

Zelic is hoping to do some work this week in training, and Reds fans will hope he recovers fully as he can be a big asset to the team.

At least Yamase gave the long-suffering Reds fans something to cheer about with his brief appearance Sunday.


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Japan short of strikers, again

6 Apr 2003(Sun)

On April 16, Japan will play their fourth match under Zico.

It is in Seoul against the 2002 World Cup semifinalist South Korea (can that be true? South Korea in the World Cup semifinals!), and Zico will choose his squad of players from the J.League.

In a busy year for the national team, Zico has said he will call on his overseas-based players only for the tour of America, which was cancelled, and then for the Confederations Cup in France in June.

So we have to presume that when he names his squad for the Korea match on Tuesday it is not going to include any of the seven players who returned to play against Uruguay.

This means Zico is going to be desperately short of fully fit, match-sharp strikers.

His original squad of 23 for the America tour included only four forwards: Takahara and Suzuki, who are based in Europe, and Gon Nakayama and Kurobe. Nakayama pulled out of the Uruguay game injured, but was back in the Jubilo squad for Saturday's game at Gamba Osaka.

Japan's best J.League-based forward is, in my opinion, Atsushi Yanagisawa.

He received ankle and knee injuries when he was the victim of a heavy foul when Antlers played Jubilo in the A3 Mazda Champions Cup at Tokyo National Stadium on February 19, and he has only just returned to the first-team squad this weekend.

So does Zico pick Nakayama and Yanagisawa when they are clearly not ready for international football?

If not, who does he go for?

Presumably he will stay with Kurobe, who has made rapid progress after joining Kyoto in 2000 from Fukuoka University. The blond-rinsed striker was not short of confidence when he came on against Uruguay, and Japan will need this positive approach, as well as courage and commitment, when they face Korea in their own back yard.

Top of my list of forwards for this game would be Tatsuhiko Kubo, now of Yokohama F Marinos.

He is strong, aggressive, fearless and powerful in the air. Like Takahara and Yanagisawa, he covers a lot of ground off the ball with his tirless running, creating space for other players and also setting up chances.

I still think Kubo was desperately unlucky not to be in Philippe Troussier's World Cup squad, as he possesses that element of surprise. He is still raw, despite his years of experience.

With Kubo you never know what is going to happen next. And if Kubo doesn't know what he's going to do, how can the defenders?

He is an explosive player, and would be my first choice against Korea. Kurobe, too, would stay involved, and I would pick Yanagisawa if he has no problems after Saturday's game at Reysol.

But Zico has not got many options, has he?

Perhaps a formation with only one central striker, such as 4-3-2-1, may be the answer, with Ogasawara and Alex behind Kubo, and a line of three "volante" in front of the back four.


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Troussier makes his mark

3 Apr 2003(Thu)

Zico was there. Saburo Kawabuchi was there. Masakuni Yamamoto was there and so were all his Olympic team players.

But there was only one person everyone wanted to talk to.

Philippe Troussier.

The Frenchman has returned to Japan for the first time since the 2002 World Cup, when he achieved his mission to guide the co-host nation into the second round.

On Tuesday he was at Toyota Stadium in Toyota City, Aichi prefecture, working for a TV company broadcasting the Japan-Costa Rica under-22 international.

Everyone was wondering if Troussier would be talking to the media after the game, and the Japan Football Association kindly organized a brief post-match conference with Zico, his predecessor as national coach, and JFA president Kawabuchi, who was one of the Frenchman's biggest critics during his stormy four-year reign.

Having arrived at the stadium a couple of hours before kick-off, I went searching the corridors in the hope of bumping into Troussier by chance.

I must admit I have missed him. I have missed his humour, his philosophy, his training sessions and his dedicated approach to the game.

Suddenly, a door in front of me opened and out walked Troussier, flanked by his interpreter and a representative of the TV station he was working for.

Troussier was quick to brandish his accreditation pass, which read "Official."

"Look!" he said. "Now I am a member of the media. Now I can ask questions instead of answering them."

I asked him how his knee was, following an operation at the end of last year.

To prove he was back to full fitness, Troussier performed a quick Irish-style jig, not quite as extravagant as Leonardo Di Caprio in "Titanic," but just as entertaining.

"I will see you after the game. I cannot talk now because I have to meet Captain," he said, with a wink, before being escorted from the scene by the TV staff member.

He was referring, of course, to Kawabuchi-san, who has changed his nickname from Chairman to Captain after taking over as the figurehead of Japanese football.

After the game, mischievously I asked Troussier if Kawabuchi had asked him to take over from Zico as national coach, following the Brazilian's unconvincing start.

Troussier thought for a moment and replied: "Yes...but of Japan's over-45 team."

On a more serious note, Troussier said the current crop of Olympic players could become as good as his own team at Sydney 2000 if they continued to work hard and learn.

"This is the start of their build-up to the qualifying campaign for Athens, and they have shown the right attitude. It was a positive result," he said, after Japan's 1-1 draw.

"I am sure they will improve the longer they are together."

I asked Troussier how he felt when the "Kimigayo" national anthem was played before kick-off.

"I feel a bit Japanese," he said.

"When Japan lose I cry at home in Paris. When they win I drink to celebrate. Football is all about drinking. You drink when you lose because you are sad, and drink more when you win."

Troussier's presence even seemed to lighten up the serious Zico, who described Yuki Abe's brilliant curling free kick as a "sugoi shooto."

Now that's quite a compliment from Brazil's free kick master.


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