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July 2003

Marinos can sail to first-stage title

31 Jul 2003(Thu)

With only one round of matches to play in the J.League's first stage, Yokohama F Marinos are the clear favorites to win the title and book a place in the end-of-season playoff.

This time last week, six teams were still in the running with two matches to play: JEF United, F Marinos, Jubilo Iwata, Nagoya Grampus Eight, Kashima Antlers and FC Tokyo.

Although the chances of Grampus, Antlers and Tokyo were very slim, as they needed to win both their games and hope all five rivals would lose their last two matches, they could not be ruled out, as football is so unpredictable.

For example, who would have thought Cerezo Osaka would lose at home to Kawasaki Frontale on the last day of the first stage in 2000, handing the title to F Marinos?

Last Saturday I traveled to Nihondaira to watch JEF United, who could have clinched the first stage if they had beaten S-Pulse and both F Marinos and Jubilo had lost.

Just in case this unlikely sequence of results happened, J.League officials had taken the first-stage trophy to the stadium ready to present to the JEF players. Rumour has it they put the trophy back in its box after 15 minutes, by which time S-Pulse were 2-0 ahead.

Instead of playing like the hungry young lions of recent weeks, the JEF players were more like startled rabbits, caught in the spotlight of the pressure-packed championship race.

F Marinos and Jubilo, away to Gamba Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol respectively, handled the pressure much better. Both won to overtake JEF United, who dropped from first to third place.

I watched the Gamba-F Marinos game on J Sky Sports on Monday evening, and was very impressed with the two goals of Tatsuhiko Kubo.

His first was a soaring header at the back post, his second a flying left-foot volley which almost burst the net.

Those two Kubo goals gave F Marinos 26 goals for the season in 14 games, well behind Jubilo (33) and JEF United (32). But Takeshi Okada's men have let in only 16, the third lowest in J1 behind FC Tokyo (10) and Grampus (14).

It is true that Marinos' strength is in defense, with a back four of Yoo Sang Chul (replacing the injured Hato), Nakazawa, the blond Matsuda and the Brazilian Dutra.

When Hato returns, Yoo is expected to push into central midfield, which will make the team even stronger for the second stage.

With Kubo and Marquinhos linking well up front, and with plenty of width in the team in Yukihiko Sato on the right and Oku, supported by Dutra, on the left, F Marinos could follow Jubilo last season and win both stages.

I cannot see F Marinos slipping up Saturday at home to Vissel Kobe, who must still be in a daze after losing 8-0 at home to Oita Trinita last Saturday.

But it has been an interesting race.


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Japan's Olympic team must learn to dominate opponents

27 Jul 2003(Sun)

Although Japan's Olympic team was outplayed by South Korea in the 1-1 draw at Tokyo National Stadium on Wednesday night, I am still confident Masakuni Yamamoto's young men will qualify for Athens.

This is because Yamamoto has built a solid structure, and this will be very important next March when the final Asian qualifying round takes place.

Sitting high up in the stands at National Stadium, I must admit I thought it was the Korean basketball team that walked out for the kickoff.

They were much taller than their Japanese rivals, suggesting that Japan's defense could come under an aerial bombardment.

But the Koreans quickly showed that they could play skillful, attacking football on the ground, too.

The visitors had enough chances to win the match in the second half, so it was all credit to Japan's fighting spirit for hanging on for a draw.

Yamamoto's players are learning all the time, and I am sure Takeshi Aoki will be wiser for the experience of Wednesday.

It was Aoki's lazy pass that went straight to Choi Tae Uk that led to Korea's opening goal, but the Korean forward still had a lot to do after receiving the ball just inside the Japanese half. His right-foot shot was a sizzler, which fizzed through the air and into the net, but goalkeeper Kawashima will feel he should have parried it.

I don't know what Aoki was trying to do, as there didn't seem to be any Japanese player in the space to which he played the ball.

His error brought back memories of Kakuda's against Costa Rica, when the Kyoto defender passed the ball across the face of his own goal and straight into trouble.

However, I am still a firm believer in Aoki, who is an extremely talented player with lovely skills and a strong physical presence. I could see him developing into a top-class international midfielder in two or three years' time.

Japan's Olympic team has good shape, thanks to the midfield four of Ishikawa, Abe, Suzuki and Nemoto, and Yamamoto has plenty of attacking options with Okubo, Maeda, Matsui and Nakayama, the "Gamba Gon" who scored the bulk of Japan's goals at the Asian Games in Busan, Korea, last October.

Japan will be one of 12 teams challenging for three places from Asia at the Athens Olympics. The 12 teams will be drawn into three groups of four, and the winner of each group will progress to Greece.

So Japan will be up against some talented young players from around the continent next March, and by that time Yamamoto's players must have learned to cut out the careless individual mistakes. Even at this level of international football, these errors prove extremely costly.

To sum up, I think Yamamoto has a well-drilled team of experienced J.League players, but they cannot take it for granted that other teams will crumble against them.

They have to dominate their opponents more, as they often look like the away team when they are playing at home.

I still feel Japan can be in Athens next summer, but it is going to be close.


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Rodrigo's mask: Fun or fury?

24 Jul 2003(Thu)

Once again Jubilo Iwata's home ground staged a J.League classic.

Last season it was the 5-4 victory over Gamba Osaka toward the end of the first stage. This was a match decided in sudden-death extra time with an own goal by Gamba defender Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, even though the J.League Yearbook 2003 gives the credit to Norihiro Nishi.

I am sure Miyamoto will feel somewhat relieved by this, but clearly it was an own goal as he turned in Nishi's low drive.

On Sunday, Jubilo's compact stadium was bursting at the seams for the top-of-the-table clash with JEF United Ichihara.

The match finished 2-2, but either side could have won it in the closing minutes.

I thought it was a wonderful spectacle, and a great advertisement for the J.League.

I watched the match again on Sky Sports on Tuesday night, and any businessman who happened to tune in and who was thinking about investing in a Japanese sport would surely have been on the telephone the next day to the J.League marketing and sponsorship people.

Yes, it was that good: Fast, colourful, exciting.

Last week I wrote about the rise of Rodrigo Gral, and he lived up to his billing by scoring a true poacher's goal against United.

But what happened next caused me some concern.

At first I thought he was just going to reveal his white T-shirt under his blue Jubilo shirt with the slogan "100 per cent Jubilo."

But no, he continued to fumble around in his garments before producing a blue mask, which he put on and celebrated in front of the JEF United supporters behind the goal.

If this had happened in a country where the fans are not so well-behaved, there could have been a riot.

I could have imagined Rodrigo being pelted with missiles, such as plastic bottles and coins, by the away fans, and some of them even trying to jump over the fence to get to him.

There would have been complaints from opposing players about bad sportsmanship and disrespect, and from the local police about inciting fans, and Rodrigo could have been brought before the football authorities and faced disciplinary action.

Celebrating a goal is one thing, but did Rodrigo go too far with his behaviour in front of the visiting supporters?

I asked JEF's manager, Ivica Osim, about this after the game, but he was not concerned.

It was interesting to note, though, that two JEF players, Chano and Sandro, were shown the yellow card for fouls shortly after Rodrigo's opening goal.

Were the players frustrated and angry?

If so, then maybe Rodrigo's mask had done its job.

Personally, I feel his behaviour was over the top.

But it could not detract from a great game.


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"New hero" Rodrigo replaces "old hero" Naohiro

21 Jul 2003(Mon)

Jubilo Iwata fans have found a new hero to replace Naohiro!

Rodrigo Gral is the striker who has stepped up to the plate to score the goals this season in the absence of Naohiro Takahara, last season's J.League MVP who is now playing for Hamburg in Germany.

Before Sunday's top-of-the-table game at home to JEF United Ichihara, Gral had scored 11 times in 12 games, including four out of four from the penalty spot.

This put him at the top of the J.League scoring chart, alongside JEF's Korean forward Choi Yong Soo.

So Sunday's match featuring first-place JEF (26 points) and second-place Jubilo (24) could really be described as a shootout between the league's two hottest strikers, especially with only two games to go in the first stage after this weekend.

Whereas Choi batters defenses into submission with his height, strength and and power (and occasionally his elbows), Gral is more of a goal poacher.

Before this season he had scored only once in the league, on his debut against Sapporo on March 17, 2002, but has really flourished now he has been given an extended run in the starting lineup.

Jubilo's Dutch goalkeeper, Arno Van Zwam, has watched Gral emerge from the bench to a starring role.

"He is a striker who is in the right place at the right time, and has scored many cheap goals," says Van Zwam. Here, the word "cheap" means "easy," as his goals have come from very close to the opposition goal after a flowing Jubilo buildup. "Cheap" is not meant to lessen the achievement.

"He is very sharp in front of goal and waits for his chances." So does this make the 26-year-old Brazilian similar to the veteran Masashi Nakayama?

"Nakayama is working more for the team and going to every corner. Gral seizes the moment."

One day in the office in Tokyo, a female colleague said she thought she had seen Francesco Totti playing for Jubilo Iwata in the J.League highlights on television.

I explained that, indeed, Gral looked similar in appearance to Totti, with the headband holding back the flowing blond locks, but that not even the money of Yamaha could persuade the Italian master to leave Serie A for the J.League!

Gral has also become famous for his goal celebration. A particularly cheeky one is when he removes one of his boots, presses the studs and holds it to his ear as if he is on his mobile phone.

This proves beyond doubt that, after an unconving start, Gral has settled into Japanese lifestyle.


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Troussier: "Qatar is not a punishment"

17 Jul 2003(Thu)

After a year out of the game, Philippe Troussier is finally back in management.

At the start of this week he signed a two-year contract with Qatar, and he won't have much time to look at his players.

His first big test is just around the corner, when Qatar will try and qualify for the 2004 Asian Cup in China.

Troussier knows all about this competition, Asia's equivalent of the European Championship played every four years, because he won it as Japan's head coach in Lebanon in October 2000.

But Qatar are in a tough qualifying group B, as they will have to get past the powerful Kuwait, along with the more modest Singapore and Palestine, to reach the finals in China next summer. The qualifying matches will be played between September and November, so Troussier must quickly find his best team.

I spoke to Troussier on a couple of occasions during the recent Confederations Cup in France.

While I have no doubts he will throw himself into his work in Qatar, and push the players to new levels of intensity, Troussier was very disappointed not to have landed a good job in Europe.

He was on the shortlist for the national coaching jobs of France, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and he could have had the China job last year. The Chinese wanted him to do what he had done for Japan, identify and coach a young and dynamic group of players, but he felt the work was too similar as his Japan role.

He wanted to be among the elite, especially in the English Premier League, where Arsene Wenger and to a lesser extent Gerard Houllier have been successful.

"I expected a proposal from England, but I think the market is completely closed. No clubs are changing their manager," he said, quite wistfully. His big hope was Tottenham Hotspur, but they have kept Glenn Hoddle.

He would also have liked a club in France, Spain or Italy, and said he had turned down proposals from Egypt, Libya and Iraq.

But he has settled for Qatar, whose domestic football is in the spotlight at the moment due to a number of high-profile signings reminiscent of the J.League a decade ago.

"Qatar is not a punishment," he said, in classic Troussier style.

"Carlos Queiroz was head coach of the United Arab Emirates four years ago and now he is coach of Real Madrid."

And if Qatar meet Japan in the Asian Cup next year or in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup?

"I am a professional, and I will want my team to beat Japan. There will be no gifts from me," he said.

"But it will be strange, because I know the big power of Japan and the Japanese players know my coaching. I consider all my (Japanese) players like my sons. I can not forget what we did together for four years.

"Now it is time for another human adventure."

Although he still has his critics in Japan, I wish Troussier nothing but good luck in the Arabian Gulf.


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Gimmicks are not the way forward for Japan

14 Jul 2003(Mon)

I was shocked and concerned by events at Tokyo's National Stadium last Saturday. 

The occasion was the league match between Shimizu S-Pulse and Yokohama F Marinos, which the latter won 1-0.

Technically it was an S-Pulse home game, and sponsor JAL worked hard to attract a very good crowd of over 30,000. This was a fine effort by JAL, and the stadium resembled a Holland game with most of the fans wearing orange.

What I did not like, though, was the gimmicks on offer.

For example, when a substitution was made, music blared out from the sound system and the change was introduced like some heavyweight boxing championship.

Honestly, I thought this was awful. Surely just a simple, low-key announcement for the benefit of the fans was all that was needed.

The S-Pulse supporters are known for their attractive melodies and for their variety of songs, but I think the club over-stepped the bounds of taste and decorum on another issue, too.

This was when S-Pulse won a corner kick. The big screen would flash up the giant words "Goal, Goal," presumably in an attempt to whip up atmosphere.

Surely this was unnecessary, and a distraction for players when they should be concentrating on the game.

Everyone knows it's a corner kick, and this automatically prompts hopes and expectations among the fans whose team is attacking.

I can understand why some clubs are keen to adopt this American-style razzamatazz sports presentation, but football does not need this.

I would appeal to the J.League to keep a tight check on this, as it does the game in general no favours at all.

While we are on the subject, I will never forget my first visit to Kyoto Purple Sanga back in 1996.

I nearly fell off my seat when the announcer, in a thick American drawl, offered the following words of wisdom: "Kiiiick, aaawwwwfff."

This is American for the English words: "Kick off."

The announcement happened at the start of the game and the start of the second half, just in case fans new to the game did not realise the match had actually started, and the players had been only warming up on their previous appearance on the pitch.

So come on, J.League.

Crack down on the nonsense.

It is degrading to true football fans...and there are many, many thousands of those now in Japan.


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10 Jul 2003(Thu)

Yokohama F Marinos fans have got a new name for the Brazilian defender Cafu.

They now call him Caf-Who?

OK, this is an English joke, a play upon words, and I hope it translates into Japanese.

The meaning is clear: that Cafu's decision not to join the F Marinos has brought one of the finest allround players in Asia back to the J.League.

I am talking, of course, about Yoo Sang Chul. To me he is the Bryan Robson of Korea, and that is high praise when compared to the former Manchester United and England legend.

Yoo can play anyway, probably even in goal, and he started his second spell at Yokohama playing right-back against Shimizu S-Pulse at Tokyo's National Stadium on Saturday night.

One minute he was sending over a wonderful deep cross from near the right wing corner flag into the S-Pulse box; the next he was taking the ball off Tuto's toe end deep in the Marinos penalty box.

Yoo was wearing the No. 2 jersey, the one the club had been saving for Cafu.

But Brazil's World Cup-winning captain pulled out of his deal, and Yokohama replaced him with Yoo.

After Saturday's game, Marinos manager Takeshi Okada was delighted with his new recruit.

"I was quite surprised because he had only been training with us for four days," said Oka-chan-san.

"I did not know he could play on the outside (of defense), but he was perfect! I am very satisfied."

So does this mean Okada has forgotten all about Cafu, hence the Caf-Who?

"I wanted Cafu for his professional leadership, but Yoo Sang Chul is a more functional player. He can play in many positions."

"He knows Japanese soccer and some of the Marinos players, so he is a very good addition to the squad."

Okada said Yoo would continue to play at right-back in place of the injured Yasuhiro Hato, but his position in the team could change depending on which players were injured.

"When everyone is available we are a not so bad team," said Okada, in an understatement.

"But if we have just one injured player, the performance of the team goes down."

In this respect, Yoo is the perfect signing, as he can play in any of the 10 outfield positions.

He is a dynamic player, possibly the best Asian player still playing in Asia, and it's a mystery why he did not find a club in Europe after Kashiwa Reysol allowed him to leave last year.

Probably the reason is that the bottom fell out of the European transfer market, and clubs did not have the money to sign a World Cup semifinalist or pay him what his ability and experience deserved.

Europe's loss is the J.League's gain.

More specifically, it's the Marinos' gain.

Who is Cafu?


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Yanagisawa must relax and take his chances

6 Jul 2003(Sun)

Popular striker Atsushi Yanagisawa will become the latest Japanese export next week when he leaves Kashima Antlers to join Sampdoria on loan for one season.

I am sure that all Japanese fans, even those from Jubilo Iwata, will wish him all the best in his mission.

I do, that's for sure, because Yanagisawa has been one of my favorite players for the past several seasons.

I have defended him on numerous occasions when colleagues have talked about his so-called lack of goals.

Granted, Yanagisawa does miss some wide open chances, but so does every striker. Even Pele did not score every time.

The important thing is how you react to the next chance.

Overall, Yanagisawa's strike rate for a forward is satisfactory.

In 177 league appearances before Saturday's farewell game against Jubilo at Kashima, "Atsushi-Goal" had scored 70 times.

That's one goal every 2.5 games, when the accepted figure for a striker is one in three.

So Yanagisawa is ahead of the game in this statistic.

But this record was compiled in the J.League, where defenders are innocent, even generous, compared to those in Italy.

If Yanagisawa is to be deemed a success in Italy, there is only one thing he needs to do, and that is to score goals regularly.

But it's not easy against some of the more street-wise and clever defenders in the world.

Sampdoria have just won promotion back into Serie A, and their target next season will be survival, just like Reggina's last season.

Hopefully Yanagisawa will get a long run in the team, a chance to establish himself, and if so, a goal target of between eight and 10 in his first year would not be asking too much.

There are many qualities to Yanagisawa's game which suggest he could do well in Italy.

He runs well off the ball, dragging defenders out of position, and he has great acceleration.

He can also finish with both feet and with his head, and is fearless in the penalty box.

Above all, when the chances come in Italy, Yanagisawa must relax and not be in too much of a hurry to score.

The sign of a great striker, for example Gabriel Batistuta, is that when the goal presents itself, he relaxes rather than panics.

So just keep cool, Yanagi, and the Sampdoria fans may soon be singing the "Atsushi-Goal" song, too.


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Praise follows Japan, but not victories

3 Jul 2003(Thu)

I must admit I feel a little confused about Japan's overall performance at the Confederations Cup, now I am back in Tokyo after two weeks in France.

Even after Japan went home early following their 1-0 defeat by Colombia, I heard nothing but positive comments from neutral observers.

"Japan deserved to be in the semifinals," was one comment.

"Japan were so unlucky," was another.

"Japan were one of the best teams here," said someone else.

At his major news conference in Paris on Saturday, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said we had seen "wonderful" football , and that he had been particularly impressed with Turkey and Japan for their ability and "innovative" contribution.

The following day I attended the final at the Stade de France. All the media had to vote for their Player of the Tournament, and a colleague from England voted for Shunsuke Nakamura.

"Even though he played only one and a half games?" I asked.

"Yes, but his free kick against France was out of this world," came the reply.

Yes, granted, it was a marvellous free kick from Shunsuke, struck with power and accuracy and which flew past Fabien Barthez. In all honesty, I had expected Yasuhito Endo to take the free kick, because the angle seemed more suited to a right-footed player, as opposed to the left foot of Nakamura.

Perhaps this free kick characterized Japan's football under Zico, because it was all about individual quality.

Going back to the voting, I chose Thierry Henry as my Player of the Tournament, followed by Turkey's Selcuk Sahin, who wore the No. 20 jersey and played in defensive midfield. I thought he showed great maturity and composure for a 22-year-old, and has a long international career ahead of him.

In third place I chose Hidetoshi Nakata. Some people may think I am being biased, but Nakata remains the driving force of the Japan team.

On an individual basis, which the MVP award is all about, I thought Nakata was all class and quality.

The sad thing is, Japan as a whole cannot come close to matching the individual talent of its captain, Nakata, no matter how hard he tries to inspire and lead his less experienced teammates.

Now I am back in Japan and have seen the reaction at home to the Confederations Cup results, which has been much more realistic and pragmatic than the observations in France, I feel that Zico still has everything to prove as national coach.

Home games against Nigeria in August, Senegal in September and Cameroon in November could hold the key to Zico's future.

France was a failure, not a success.


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