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June 2003

Wenger praises Nakata, but no room at Arsenal

30 Jun 2003(Mon)

Arsene Wenger cuts a striking figure.

Tall, slim, handsome and with the glow of success. Wenger is always a man in demand.

He proved to be a breath of fresh air in England when joining Arsenal from Nagoya Grampus Eight in 1996.

Intelligent, articulate, educated...exactly the opposite of the average English footballer and in stark contrast to his biggest rival, Alex Ferguson,the rough and tough Scotsman.

I was sitting high up in the stands at the Stade de France for the France-Turkey semifinal, but Wenger was clearly visible down by the pitch,talking to some TV people and then shaking hands with old acquaintances.

It was completely by chance that I came face to face with him after the game,as I was denied access to the area where the media can interview the players (somehow I had lost my ticket, among the maps of Paris, notebooks, team sheets, result sheets and other things in my bag).

My depression was lifted when I saw Wenger, virtually pinned against the wall by two Chinese journalists.

He spotted me and moved between the two Chinese reporters to shake my hand, and get out of the conversation, no doubt.

We did not have much time to chat, because he was tired of talking and being interviewed and his car was waiting, but he had some very interesting things to say about Hidetoshi Nakata and Japan.

Is it true Nakata is going to Arsenal?

"We have 10 midfielders. Where can I play Nakata? You have to be realistic," he said.

"There is no market. Every club has too many players."

I then asked him if he thought Nakata would be successful in the Premier League, and Wenger had no doubts.

"I think so, because he looks very tough compared to last season, and he has matured."

Wenger, who once told me that the job of a national coach was for etirement,commentated for Fuji TV on the Japan-France game at Saint-Etienne.

It was the only Japan match he watched in person, and said he was very impressed with how they played in a "remarkable" game.

If anything, Wenger said, Japan played too hard against France, and then paid the price in the Colombia game, losing 1-0 when they needed only to draw to go through.

I think Wenger must have been speaking to Philippe Troussier, as he said Japan should have conserved all their energy for the Colombia game after beating New Zealand 3-0. Troussier said Japan made a big mistake by playing the same team in the first two matches.

He also described Japan's football as "beach football"..enjoyable to play and watch but with no discipline and structure.

As ever, Troussier went on and on, but I can't, so see you next time!

ends

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Zico should have known better

26 Jun 2003(Thu)

When the names of the Japanese players were announced to the crowd before each Confederations Cup game, most of them were unknown to the local people.

But when the name of the coach was read out, the French fans gave Zico appreciative applause.

This is because of his stature as a player, of course, not as a coach, and in particular the 1986 World Cup classic between France and Brazil.

Clearly Zico is respected around the world for his ability as a player, and for the part he played in World Cup history.

It was very sad, therefore, to see him shouting and complaining to another World Cup great, Michel Platini, after France had beaten Japan 2-1 at Saint Etienne.

Zico was annoyed with FIFA's choice of referees: Coffi Codjia of Benin for the New Zealand game, and Mark Shield of Australia for the France match.

He said that, by appointing referees from so-called developing football countries, FIFA did not respect Japan's standing in the world game.

Zico made his feelings clear to Platini, then to the media after the match, then to the media again after training the following day.

But I feel Zico's rantings came across as sour grapes after a defeat, a bad excuse from a losing coach, and did Japanese football no favors.

Maybe Mr.Codjia was too weak, otherwise he would have shown a second yellow card to Alex for diving in the 32nd minute of the New Zealand game. Alex had already been booked for an early foul, and a second yellow for cheating would have brought about his dismissal.

Maybe then, with 10 men, Japan might not have beaten the poor New Zealand team.

Against France, at first I thought the referee was harsh to award France a penalty when Jean-Alain Boumsong fell to the floor as a right wing corner came across.

But TV replays showed emphatically that he was being hampered by Inamoto, who had both arms around the Frenchman as he tried to meet the corner kick.

The referee was right on the spot, and sadly for Japan his call was correct. Ina was shown the yellow card, ruling him out of the Colombia game because he had been booked in the New Zealand match, too.

It is sad to hear Zico complaining like this about the referees.

Everyone in the Japan camp has a lot to learn from this Confederations Cup failure.

ends

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Confed Cup should be every four years

23 Jun 2003(Mon)

It is clear that not many people want the Confederations Cup to take place.

Most of the teams here are under strength, with the exception of Japan and New Zealand, and even the organisers are struggling for inspiration.

Understandably, there is nothing of the passion and emotion of the World Cup,which I attended here in 1998 and thought was incredible.

The teams do not have a big travelling support, even though Turkey had some 12,000 fans to cheer them on fanatically against the United States here on Thursday night.

Turks are everywhere, of course, and absolutely love their football.

Cameroon, too, had a lot of support in the 1-0 victory over Brazil in Paris, but again there are many thousands of Cameroon people living here.

As for Japan, I have seen a few small groups wandering around or getting into France's Cafe Culture. This is a wonderful way to kill a few hours, sitting in the sun on the edge of the town square, drinking mineral water or coffee and eating the local bakery products, notably the flaky but filling morning croissants.

On Friday morning I went into the town centre of St Etienne to change Japanese yen to Euro, and noticed a concert stage set up, with a Japanese and French flag hanging in the windless summer air.

I cannot imagine many Japanese being around, though, when the match is on, as tickets will be easier to buy than in 1998.

On that occasion, thousands of Japanese fans were well and truly relieved of their money by the local French, who had bought match tickets but were only too happy to sell them on at a massive profit.

There is little tournament infrastructure this time, such as food and souvenir kiosks, publicity, special transport, hotel deals, and only the most essential services provided by FIFA.

The whole thing looks like it is being done as cheaply as possible, and as quickly as possible.

All of which makes you wonder why FIFA bother holding it.

I think the Confederations Cup should be held every four years, not two, in the year before the World Cup; just like Korea and Japan in 2001.

It is a perfect tournament to use as a dress rehearsal, not as a competition in its own right.

ends

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World Cup place boosts Oceania, says Blatter

18 Jun 2003(Wed)

Japan will start as red-hot favourites to beat New Zealand in the Confederations Cup opener at the Stade de France on Wednesday night.

But don't be surprised if the Oceania champions give Japan a hard game.

This was the view of FIFA president Sepp Blatter when he gave a news conference in Paris on Tuesday afternoon.

Blatter is convinced that all the Oceania teams are going to be stronger for one main reason: automatic qualification for the 2006 World Cup.

In the past, the Oceania confederation had to hold a playoff with another confederation, sometimes South America, sometimes Asia and sometimes even Europe, for a place in the World Cup.

But, starting in 2006, Oceania will be guaranteed one of the 32 spots, without the need for a playoff.

"I believe this will give a great incentive for all the Oceania nations to lift the level of football," Blatter said.

"Oceania got no more than it deserved: an automatic qualifying place.

"In every other FIFA tournament except the World Cup, Oceania provided teams for the final competition, so it is logical they have a place in the World Cup now."

Blatter feels that New Zealand will be keen to build a strong team to challenge the regional powerhouse Australia, and that the Confederations Cup is just the start of this.

So watch out Japan!

I saw the New Zealand under-22s lose 4-0 to Japan at Kobe Wing Stadium recently, and thought their football was quite primitive.

They looked clumsy and uncomfortable on the ball, in stark contrast to the quick and technical Japanese players.

But they will hold one big advantage over Japan on Wednesday night, as Junichi Inamoto pointed out after training on Monday.

"They are all very tall," he said.

"I am the tallest in the Japanese team at 1.81 meters, but the average height of the New Zealand team is 1.85.

"I watched them play Scotland (1-1) on video and thought, 'Oh my God!' They could be dangerous at corner kicks and free kicks, so we must be very careful."

Inamoto is right.

The Kiwis are in the mood to make a good impression, and there is no better time to do it than in the first match of the competition.

I still think Japan, despite their inexperience in so many areas of the new-look team, have too many good individual players to lose to New Zealand.

Even though there is still a lack of rhythm and pattern in Japan's training sessions, I will be very surprised if they lose to the All Whites.

I think Japan will win, but it will be close, maybe 1-0.

ends

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Ina would welcome Hide in England

15 Jun 2003(Sun)

If anyone doubts that Hidetoshi Nakata would be a success in the English Premier League, then just listen to Junichi Inamoto.

Ina, of course, has spent the last two European seasons in England, first with Arsenal and then with Fulham, where he will stay next season on loan from Gamba Osaka.

With reports circulating that Nakata is about to sign for Chelsea, or Arsenal or Manchester United, I took the opportunity to ask Ina about the situation at a recent training camp in Osaka.

The interview was conducted totally in English (apart from some bad Japanese from the interviewer!)

"Would Hide be a success in the Premier League, Ina-chan-san?"

"Yes, definitely," replied Ina.

"Why do you think he would be a success?"

"Because he is a very good player, and he has had good results in the Italian league," said Ina.

"Would he be okay in the fast and physical Premier League?"

"No problem, because his style is like the Premiership," said Ina.

"Would you like him to move to England?"

"Of course, because the Premiership is a fantastic league with good fans. I hope he is successful in the Premiership," concluded Ina.

After five years in Italy, Nakata looks ready to leave for new pastures.

I have to agree with Ina, that Nakata would have no problems adapting to the rough and tumble Premier League.

Nakata is fast, tough, fearless and can play in a variety of positions.

In the absence of Shinji Ono through injury, Nakata looks to be from another planet compared to the rest of the national team.

He is a mature and responsible leader, and is a fitness fanatic. Even when the starting members were excused training the day after the Argentina game in Osaka, Nakata still turned up to jog around the pitch several times and do his stretching exercises.

Although Chelsea is the favorite to sign him, I would not rule out a move to....yes, Manchester United.

Just think about it. United sell Beckham to Real Madrid or Barcelona for 30 million pounds, then buy Hide from Parma for 10 million pounds.

United get not only an excellent squad player, for the right wing, for central midfield or behind Van Nistelrooy, but also a player whose brand name can generate millions of dollars around the Far East, where United are massive in places such as Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

In terms of football and business, Nakata would be perfect for United.

ends

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One year is a lifetime for Japan

12 Jun 2003(Thu)

There is a saying in football that one week is a long time.

If that is true, then one year seems like an eternity.

This is what was going through my mind as I walked from Nagai Stadium to Nagai Station on Sunday night.

Japan had just been crushed 4-1 by Argentina, and during the game had shown nothing of the spirit, the professionalism and the dynamism on display one year earlier in the World Cup.

It was at this same Nagai Stadium, remember, that Japan beat Tunisia 2-0 to finish on top of their group and progress to the second round for the first time in history.

On that day, goals from Morishima and Hidetoshi Nakata had sparked nationwide celebrations.

Now, though, it was a different story, as the fans went home quietly. The thing that surprised me most was that the fans did not seem particularly disappointed.

It was almost as if they had been expecting this kind of beating from a team led by the likes of Cambiasso, Aimar and Saviola.

It has to be remembered, though, that this was virtually an Argentine reserve team, with defenders Samuel and Ayala, playmaker Veron, left winger Sorin and forwards Crespo and Claudio Lopez among those missing.

Yet still Japan could dominate Argentina for only 15 minutes or so at the start of the second half, during which the never-say-die Akita headed Japan back into the game at 2-1 down after those two wonderful first-half goals from Saviola and Zanetti.

Zanetti's goal was incredible, and highlighted the gulf in class between the two teams.

First they crowded out Hidetoshi Nakata on Japan's left wing, won possession and broke quickly. Zanetti then blew past, or through, Inamoto as if he were not there, and played a pass to the feet of Saviola.

Saviola's return pass was perfectly weighted, taking out Morioka and enabling Zanetti to run round him on the outside and crash an unstoppable shot past Narazaki and into the top corner.

Zico's response to the 4-1 beating was to change the whole team, except for Narazaki and Hidetoshi Nakata, for the game against Paraguay.

This is also a worrying factor, as it is Japan's final warmup game before the Confederations Cup.

If Japan play well against Paraguay, Zico will have even more selection questions to answer.

ends

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Ono, Okubo missing, for very different reasons

9 Jun 2003(Mon)

When Zico announced his Confederations Cup squad on Friday, one decision was expected and another was not.

Sadly, but understandably, Shinji Ono will not be playing for Japan in France.

This was expected, as he is clearly exhausted and has several injuries after two seasons of European football without a break.

After the Urawa Reds-Feyenoord friendly at Saitama Stadium 2002, Feyenoord coach Bert van Marwijk said Ono needed five or six weeks' rest, otherwise his whole career may be in jeopardy.

Common sense has prevailed on this issue, and Ono can now have a long summer holiday and then begin to focus on next season.

So while the Ono decision was expected, Zico's omission of Yoshito Okubo from the 23-strong squad was a big surprise and an even bigger disappointment.

Okubo certainly looks the part, and gave the forward line a dash of energy and vigour when he was introduced for his national team debut as a substitute against Korea last Saturday.

I think this was a wonderful chance for Zico to take Okubo, and maybe even Naohiro Ishikawa, to France and let them be part of a big international tournament.

Japan's squad needs some new faces, but Zico prefers to stay with the players who are not producing their best form in the hope that they will start to come together as a team.

It was interesting watching Japan's practice at Cerezo Osaka's training ground on Friday afternoon, after the Confederations Cup squad had been announced.

Nakayama, Suzuki and Nagai, who will all go to France, were eclipsed by the dynamic Okubo in a training match. Okubo's speed and aggressive running made him stand out, and Zico has clearly taken a liking to him.

Which makes it all the more surprising why Zico did not take him along.

Takahara and Shunsuke were both missing from the training, and will team up with the national squad on Monday.

Japan have missed Takahara badly, and need him fit and firing if they are to get out of their group in France. Wouldn't a Takahara-Okubo partnership have taken defenders by surprise?

ends

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Japan going backwards under Zico

5 Jun 2003(Thu)

The Japan-Korea game did not make for pleasant viewing, did it?

I thought Korea were well worth their victory, and the 1-0 scoreline flattered Japan.

Japan could not have complained if the score had been 2-0 to Korea, or even 3-0.

It might have been, in fact, if the referee had awarded Korea a blatant penalty midway through the second half when Morioka clearly pulled the shirt of Yoo Sang Chul as he looked about to score.

On Monday I attended a World Cup symposium at a hotel in Shinagawa, and a familar face was there: Peter Velappan, general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation.

He had been in Seoul, at another World Cup anniversary function, over the weekend, and had watched the Japan-Korea game on television.

Velappan, who was FIFA's coordinator for the 2002 World Cup, said he was "quite surprised with the lack of organization and commitment, in the second half in particular, from the Japanese team."

He said the next two games, against Argentina and Paraguay, were "very critical" for Japan.

"The team must begin to show order, shape and some form of strategy, which was lacking," said Velappan.

Everyone who has followed Zico's Japan closely will not be surprised by Velappan's observations, as few people can see any strategy or organization.

What was more worrying, however, was Japan's lack of commitment and spirit.

This was evident after the final whistle, as well as during the game.

It's like they were looking for help, for advice, for leadership, and nothing was forthcoming.

As the attention turns to the Kirin Cup, all eyes will be on Hidetoshi Nakata and Naohiro Takahara.

These two in particular will be viewed as the saviours of the team, and maybe of Zico.

But by relying so much on individual players, Zico's Japan has become exactly what Troussier's Nippon worked so hard to avoid.

Velappan did not want to compare the two coaches, but he said Japan should start picking some young and untested players from the J.League.

He said Japan could afford to experiment for another year, until qualification for the 2006 World Cup begins, so that, two years before the World Cup, there would be at least 30 players in the squad.

This all seems like good advice for Japan, who have gone backwards, not forwards, in Zico's five-game reign.

ends

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Akita, Choi vital to Japan, Korea

2 Jun 2003(Mon)

There is always a lot of tension and testosterone around in the buildup to a match between the great historical rivals Korea and Japan.

It's a game neither side can afford to lose, as the winner will be able to walk tall and produce national pride for the whole nation.

The loser must retreat and lick his wounds, and wait for the next time to seek revenge.

In the context of this fierce and often bitter rivalry, there was a touching moment at Tokyo's National Stadium on Friday afternoon.

Japan had just finished their training session, and were heading for the team bus, via the area known as the "mixed zone" where they stop and talk to reporters.

The Koreans had just arrived, and were walking solemnly to their dressing room, ready to follow Japan on to the pitch.

Suddenly, Yutaka Akita saw a familiar face, and called out, "Yong Soo!"

Choi Yong Soo, Korea's imposing center forward who plays for JEF United Ichihara, seemed startled by the greeting, but broke ranks with his teammates to approach Akita.

The pair shook hands, smiled and wished each other all the best for Saturday's showdown.

It's rare to see Choi smile at any time in Japan, on or off the pitch. During the game he remains firmly focused on the task in hand: to score a goal.

This is why he is being paid so well by the J.League club, and he responds by hitting the net on a regular basis. This season alone he has scored nine times to lead the J.League scoring chart.

Choi and Akita know each other's game well, and their own private contest within the match can go a long way to deciding the result.

It is the classic confrontation between fearless defender and fearsome attacker, and both players will stretch every muscle and sinew in their powerful frames to get the edge over his rival.

Choi loves nothing more than scoring a goal against Japan, and would probably trade in his nine J.League goals this season to get the winner on Saturday night.

Akita loves nothing more than a bruising battle against a forward as mean and aggressive and himself, as it brings out the best qualities in the veteran Antlers defender.

When the floodlights are on and the whistle blows, and the stadium is swamped in blue, the pleasantries between the two teams will be put firmly to one side.

But Akita's gesture on Friday afternoon was a great advertisement for the game itself, and for the spirit and character of the player.

ends

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