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May 2003

Let's all cheer the end of extra time

29 May 2003(Thu)

The J.League first division has closed down now for six weeks because of the national team's commitments.

After 10 rounds of matches in the first stage, Jubilo Iwata lead the way with 21 points, followed by JEF United (20), Kashima Antlers (19), Nagoya Grampus Eight (18) and then Yokohama F Marinos and Kashiwa Reysol, both on 17 points.

This means that only four points separate the top six teams, and an exciting finish is in store when play resumes July 5.

Attendances are up, too.

A total of 1,352,973 fans have watched the first 10 rounds at an average of 16,912, much higher than the 2002 average of 16,368.

J.League chairman Masaru Suzuki says one reason for the increase is the number of exciting matches. Another is because of the abolishment of extra time and the golden goal.

I think Suzuki-san is right on this point concerning extra time.

It was a big step forward for the J.League to scrap extra time, and end league games at 90 minutes like they do all around the world.

I am sure fans and players appreciate that, as well as coaches and television schedule planners.

Coaches know that a game lasts 90 minutes, and can use their three substitutes with tactics in mind. Before, with extra time looming, it was a question of holding back substitutes in case someone got injured. At that time, the J.League allowed teams to use three subs in 90 minutes and a fourth in extra time, which was totally against the world trend.

I think the new system is fairer, too.

I always felt sorry for a team that played well for 90 minutes, and was beaten deep into extra time by a lucky goal. They got nothing for their efforts, while the other team got two points.

Just look at Nagoya Grampus.

They have won four and drawn six of their games to remain the only unbeaten team.

If they had won those six drawn games in extra time, they would have had 24 points now (12 for four wins in 90 minutes, and 12 for six two-point wins in extra time). This means they would have been top of the table, but would not deserve to be for winning only four games in regulation.

If they had lost those six drawn games in extra time, they would have had only 12 points and be nowhere near the top. This would have been unfair, too, because their consistency deserved a higher place.

Fourth position is about right for Grampus.

Play in extra time was often scrappy as the players were tired, especially in the summer months. Winning goals tended to come from mistakes, not skillful play, and brought an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Now all the J.League needs to do is scrap the two-stage system and replace it with a single stage like in Europe.

But that's another story for another day!


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Grampus victory shows the wonder of football

25 May 2003(Sun)

"It was something from God, maybe! Only in soccer is this possible."

These were the words last Sunday of Nagoya Grampus Eight's Slovenian manager, Zdenko Verdenik.

He was talking about the last-minute winning goal scored by his Austrian World Cup forward Ivica Vastic to beat Vegalta Sendai 2-1 at Toyota Stadium.

The match was billed as Vastic's final home game for Grampus.

His farewell match, before being released by the club, against Verdenik's wishes, should have been at Iwata Stadium against Jubilo on Saturday night, May 24.

That was the plan.

But when Vastic was shown the yellow card against Sendai after 76 minutes, it meant he would be suspended for the Jubilo match because it was his third caution of the season.

With 14 minutes to go, Vastic suddenly realised this would be his last match in the Grampus red.

The score was still 1-1 when the game entered the third and final minute of injury time.

In a hectic finish, Grampus were awarded a free kick some 30 meters from the Sendai goal. Ueslei touched the ball to Vastic, and he drifted to his right across the face of goal to create a sharper angle for the shot. Then he let fly with his right foot.

The ball ended up in the corner of the net, and Sendai had only enough time to kick off again before the final whistle blew.

What an incredible finish!

I know a journalist is supposed to remain impartial in the press seats, and try not to show too much emotion one way or another.

But on this occasion, when the net bulged and the crowd roared, I have to admit I threw both arms into the air in celebration.

Not to celebrate a win for Nagoya, but to celebrate the wonder of football.

As Verdenik said, the situation looked impossible.

But Vastic did the unexpected, and his short career in Nagoya was over with an unforgettable moment.

This is the magic of football all around the world. Last Sunday, it just happened to take place at Toyota Stadium.


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Reysol show signs of revival

22 May 2003(Thu)

A visit to Kashiwa Reysol's Hitachi Stadium is always interesting.

Not just to watch the actions of the so-called Yellow Monkeys behind the goal, but also because the atmosphere in general is excellent.

The stadium is small, compact and the fans are close to the pitch.

It reminds me of visiting a lower division club in England, or a club from outside the professional league.

You don't need a big crowd to create a good atmosphere, but last Saturday we got one (over 12,000) for the visit of Yokohama F Marinos.

With the Yellow Monkeys at one end, and a mass of Marinos blue at the other, it was a clear sign that the J.League is serving its purposes by providing hometown teams for the people to follow.

It was an excellent match, too, with Reysol winning 3-1.

Reysol almost went down to J2 last season, but there are strong signs now of a revival. They have 16 points from nine games, just four off the pace being set by Jubilo Iwata.

The bright and energetic performance of Keiji Tamada earned him the Man of the Match award against Yokohama. He scored Reysol's third goal, a crucial strike after Marinos had fought back to 2-1 down, and played a big part in the first two, for Jussie and rookie Tatsuya Yazawa.

Slowly but surely, Reysol manager Marco Aurelio is overhauling a tired and slumping team, which fell into steep decline after coming close to winning the second-stage title in 2000.

On top of this, the Japanese players feel they are benefiting by the absence of Edilson, who returned to the club for a second spell after helping Brazil win the World Cup last summer.

Watching Reysol in that period, it seemed as though Ricardinho and Edilson were playing amongst themselves, ignoring all the Japanese players in attack.

With Edilson gone, Ricardinho is now the focal point of the team, and he is forced to pass the ball to all his teammates rather than looking for Edilson at every occasion.

The Reysol revival is far from finished yet, though.

On Saturday they played like the away team for much of the game, defending, counter-attacking and time-wasting throughout the second half.

This shows Marco Aurelio is not fully confident in his players, yet, but they are heading in the right direction.

Reysol have wasted sacks full of Hitachi money in expensive overseas signings in recent years.

But with eight Japanese players in the team compared to three foreigners, the emphasis must always be on developing homegrown players.


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J2 can be the beginning, not the end

19 May 2003(Mon)

It is clear that being relegated to J2 is not the end of the world.

Even though the fixture list for the J2 season does not include games against the glamour teams such as Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata, a spell in the second division can rejuvenate a club.

Just look at Kyoto Purple Sanga, who won the Emperor's Cup last season.

And Cerezo Osaka, who came up from J2 last season behind Oita Trinita and can now beat any team in J1.

Now it is the turn of Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

After 12 rounds of matches, Sanfrecce lead J2 with 31 points, nine clear of second-placed Albirex Niigata.

I went to watch Sanfrecce play Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki Stadium on Wednesday night, but I am afraid I brought them bad luck as they lost 1-0. This was their first defeat of the season after 10 wins and one draw.

Their manager is the bright and respected Takeshi Ono, who was Takeshi Okada's assistant coach at the France World Cup and has all the right qualifications through the JFA coaching programme.

After the defeat he was not complaining, saying Frontale deserved to win. The most important thing, he stressed, was how Sanfrecce reacted to the defeat in their next match. They must rebound with a win, he said, and insisted the confidence would not be damaged.

Running the club now, as general manager, is Toyoharu Takata, who is also a director of the JFA.

Takata played a big part in the success of the wonderful J.Village training complex in Fukushima, and is now making a success of Sanfrecce again.

"We have made a good start to the season, but there is still a long way to go," said Takata.

"Our first target is to get out of J2 this season, and in four years we want to be challenging at the top of J1."

Sanfrecce's cause has been helped, not hindered, by the SARS virus, which has put back the final round of Olympic qualifying games until next March.

This means players such as the Morisaki twins and Yuichi Komano will be available throughout the season.

Veteran Brazilian midfielder Cesar Sampaio, 35, says there is a good balance of young and experienced players.

Sampaio was an excellent signing by Sanfrecce, as the 1998 World Cup player can guide the team in attack and defense.

Even though clubs would prefer to stay in J1, a drop into J2 gives them a chance to regroup, win matches, build confidence and team spirit and attract more fans and attention from the local media.

In short, it can mean a new beginning, not the end.


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Okubo represents Japan's future

15 May 2003(Thu)

Zico's list of 30 players for the East Asian Football Championship made pleasant reading at the JFA headquarters in Shibuya on Tuesday afternoon.

Among the 30 names were three members of Japan's Olympic squad: Daisuke Matsui, Naohiro Ishikawa and Yoshito Okubo.

The squad will be cut to 20 before the tournament starts on May 28, but Zico said that one of the three would be included.

This immediately started the guessing game.

Which one of the three talented youngsters will be selected to join Japan's elite?

Ishikawa is a bright and quick right winger who has become a firm favourite of the FC Tokyo fans, although he is still only on loan from Yokohama F Marinos. But with Zico expecting the attacking width to come from his full-backs, not from his midfielders, Ishikawa's chances seem slim.

This leaves it a straight fight between Matsui and Okubo.

Personally, I hope Okubo gets the vote.

I have followed his career with interest since his days with Kunimi High School, and he has already put a serious injury and relegation to J2 behind him to become a force, at just 20 years old, in J1 with Cerezo Osaka.

I remember covering a Nabisco Cup game between Gamba and Cerezo at Banpaku Stadium early this season.

Okubo's pace and aggressive running caused quite a few problems for Gamba defender Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, although the Cerezo youngster was substituted before the end.

After the game, outside the changing rooms, Okubo was in tears during a conversation with manager Nishimura. It reminded me of Paul Gascoigne's uncontrollable blubbering after England's 1990 World Cup semi-final defeat by Germany!

Nishimura said Okubo was just frustrated because he couldn't show his best form, as he wanted to do his best in every game.

I love this attitude. And I love to watch Okubo on the field. When he misses a chance he is angry and tries to kick something: the turf or a water bottle by the goal or something. When he scores he is elated.

He plays with passion and emotion, and this stands out noticeably in Japan where players can often be too reserved and look as if they don't care whether they win or lose.

There is a naughty side to Okubo's game, though, as his elbows can come into play during aerial duals, and he is not afraid to foul when he feels like things are not going his own way.

It is a big step forward for Zico to pick Okubo in the 30, and I hope he makes it into the 20. My feelings on Matsui have already been recorded. A lovely, gifted player, but lacking discipline in his play.

But with Zico preferring individual flair and flashy play, maybe Matsui will be the chosen one.


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Cafu deal leaves bitter tatse

12 May 2003(Mon)

Did Cafu ever intend to join the Yokohama F Marinos?

Or did his agent simply use the Japanese club as a bargaining tool?

The chances of the veteran Brazilian moving to Japan in July now seem remote, after events in Italy in recent weeks.

Cafu, who has played in the last three World Cup finals for his country, was supposed to arrive in Yokohama in early July once his contract with AS Roma expired on June 30.

Marinos announced the deal, and a two and a half year contract worth around $4 million to the player (and his agent), back in January.

A few weeks later there were rumours from Italy that Cafu had, in fact, not made up his mind about what he was doing next.

I asked Takeshi Okada about this following a Nabisco Cup group game against FC Tokyo at Komazawa in March, and he said he had also heard the rumours from his own front office that Cafu might not be coming.

Okada was under the impression that Cafu had signed a pre-contract agreement, declaring his intent to sign a full contract, but added that he had not seen the documents.

Then there were reports from Italy that Cafu was negotiating with AC Milan, and that he may even stay with Roma for another year or two.

After all, he is a free agent after June 30, and can command a massive signing bonus because there would be no transfer fee involved for the buying club.

Three weeks ago I received a call from a contact who said that Cafu's agent had already contacted Yokohama and told the club his client would not be moving to Japan. Apparently, the agent said Cafu was concerned about catching SARS, so did not want to travel to Asia.

The Marinos are still hoping Cafu will join the club, insisting he has signed and returned by fax a legally binding contract.

But players, and their agents, have been known to sign more than one pre-contract agreement. This means they can keep their options open right until the end.

Agents are becoming more and more powerful in the game, some would say almost untouchable, and the laws tend to favour the rights of the individual rather than the club following the Bosman Ruling which changed the transfer scene dramatically.

I hope that the intentions of Cafu and his agent were genuine when they negotiated with the J.League club.

Did the Marinos announce the deal too early?

Or did Cafu's agent strike a preliminary deal and then use this figure when other clubs came in?

Either way, it serves as a lesson for other Japanese clubs to follow.


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MATSUI :talented, but needs more discipline

8 May 2003(Thu)

I have always been a big fan of Daisuke Matsui.

I remember him breaking into the Kyoto purple sanga team long begore they went down to the second dibision two seasons ago.

It was not difficult to notice his natural talent, his skill on the ball and his bright and clever mind.

When he was in possession of the ball, his body movement reminded me of one of my all-time favourite England players: Peter Beardsley, of Newcastle United and Liverpool.

But these days I am becoming worried about Matsui, and beginning to wonder if he will ever fulfill his true potential.

I noticed it during the Asian games in Pusan, South Korea, last autumn, and again playing for the olympic team against Myanmar in the recent qualifying series for the Athens games.

Of course he still has the skill and the trickery, but I feel he lacks discipline in his game.

There are times to do the simple thing, such as control the ball, keep possession and play the easy pass to a teammate.

And there are times for showboating, for example if you are leading 3-0 with the clock ticking down and you want to give the fans something to cheer about.

I feel Matsui, for all his natural skill and talent, is showing off too much instead of getting his head down, concentrating and playing team football.

A few days with Philippe Troussier would have been a good medicine for Matsui, as the frenchman would never have allowed him to get away with some of the ill-disciplined play we see too often for club and country.

When the going gets tough, much tougher, in the later stages of olympic qualifying, a casual piece of play in a dangerous part of the field may prove crucial for Japan's chances.

So it is vital to stamp out this kind of play before it really matters.

As I said before, I really admire Matsui's skills, but against more ruthless opponents from more experienced, cynical countries, his desire to be flamboyant could get him into trouble by way of injury.

It is a sad reflection of the game, but I am afraid an opposing coach who has done his homework on the Japan national team may single out Matsui for special attention in the early stages of the game: And that means to foul him and reduce his effectiveness.

Myanmar fouled him a few times, including one incident which produced a red card.Visions of Shinji Ono being scythed down by a Philippines player at national stadium in July 1999 came back to me, as it was an injury from which he could not fully recover in time for the Sydney olympics over a year later.

I think Gert Engels and Masakuni Yamamoto should take a hard stance in the case of Matsui. Not just for the good of their team, but also for the player's long term future.


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Suzuki news is blow for Japan

4 May 2003(Sun)

It came as no surprise that Genk were not interested in keeping Takayuki Suzuki when his one-year loan deal comes to an end soon.

The reason is obvious: that Suzuki has not been able to contribute anything extra to Genk's play.

Although the Belgian League contains some established and respected European clubs such as Anderlecht and Bruges, it is not among the continent's major leagues.

Spain, Italy, England and Germany are regarded as the top four, with the likes of France, Portugal and Holland in the next group.

So the fact that Suzuki has not been able to hold down a place in a team from the mediocre Belgian league does not bode well for his future if he wants to stay in Europe.

His future, presumably, is back at Kashima Antlers, from whom he joined Genk on loan.

So was it a mistake for Suzuki to leave Japan and spend a season on the bench?

No, not at all.

There is no doubt he will have learned a lot, as the pace of the game in Belgium is fast and the football is physical.

I saw Genk play last year, a few months before the World Cup, and had the chance to interview Wesley Sonck after the game.

I found the style of football, and the atmosphere in the stadiums, like a "Little England." It was noisy and passionate and the players never gave up running and trying to score again, no matter what the state of the game was.

From this cultural point of view, I am sure Suzuki will have benefited and broadened his view of the game, and it might be a shock to return to Japan, where the game is still new on a professional level.

Suzuki's goal against Belgium in the World Cup surely contributed significantly to his move. I am sure the Belgians were impressed with his physical style and his presence in the forward line.

It is true that Suzuki did have a good World Cup, and Philippe Troussier must still be regretting not picking him and Yanagisawa for the Turkey match, preferring instead the unusual combination of Alex and Nishizawa.

The fact that Suzuki has not been able to make his mark in Belgium shows just how much progress Japanese players still need to make.


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Choi: Hotter than a bowl of pepper kimchi

1 May 2003(Thu)

Although it is much too early to start talking about end-of-season awards, one player is already well on his way to getting the recognition his play deserves.

With eight goals in six games, and two successive hat tricks, Choi Yong Soo is the hottest striker in the J.League right now.

This is the 29-year-old Korean's third season with JEF United Ichihara, and probably his last, according to Korean journalists who say he wants to finish his career in his home country.

Long before Choi came to Japan I admired his qualities in the Korean Olympic team and then the national team.

He is big, strong, single-minded in terms of scoring goals, and a team player through and through. In short, the ideal target man and leader of the line.

Even when his teammates may be struggling, just watch Choi as he fights for every ball and has only one thing on his mind: to find the net.

He is immensely popular, too, with the JEF supporters, who have really taken him to their hearts.

This is no surprise, as Choi gives excellent value for money, especially when compared to other imports.

He is on a lucrative contract, but shows he respects this by giving it his all in every game.

In the air he never gives the defenders a moment's rest, as he looks to head for goal or provide a confident and accurate knock-down to a teammate in the box.

On the ground he is always busy, moving from one side to another in search of the ball and dragging defenders out of position to create space for his colleagues.

I was very disappointed that Choi was not selected in the J.League Best XI at the end of his first goal-filled season, in 2001, or last year, alongside MVP Naohiro Takahara.

Coming into this campaign, the former Anyang LG Cheetahs striker had scored 37 goals in 49 appearances over two seasons.

That impressive goals to games ratio has got even better now, as his eight in six games in 2003 give him a career tally of 45 goals in 55 outings.

They have also helped JEF recover from that uncharacteristic 3-0 defeat at home to Vissel Kobe to move on to 13 points, just two behind the leaders, Kashima Antlers, who have 15 from six games after their late victory away to Gamba Osaka on Tuesday.

If it's true what the Korean reporters say, and that Choi is playing his final season in Japan, he is determined to leave his mark in the best possible way.


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