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August 2003

Ardiles likes what he sees in Kobayashi

28 Aug 2003(Thu)

Ossie Ardiles knows a good midfield player when he sees one.

And he thinks he has seen a very good one at Tokyo Verdy 1969 in Yoshiyuki Kobayashi.

"I was very surprised how good he is," said Ardiles, a World Cup-winning midfielder with Argentina in 1978.

"He is very close to being in the national team. We have some others, too, but I think Yoshi will probably be the first."

Ardiles has turned around the fortunes of the once glamorous and mighty Verdy since his appointment as manager in June.

The Greens, who won the first two J.League championships in 1993 and 1994, have moved out of the relegation zone and are regarded more as second-stage title contenders than J2 candidates.

Kobayashi encapsulates that dramatic improvement.

"When I arrived here he wasn't playing. He wasn't even on the bench, and I think he'd have gone anywhere," said Ardiles.

"The previous manager criticized him and didn't want to play him, so Yoshi thought 'I'm out of here.'

"From what I have seen so far, I think he'll be fighting for a national team place very soon."

When asked to outline Kobayashi's qualites, Ardiles said: "He's a good passer of the ball...intelligent...he's always in a good position...good in the air...has a good shot. Overall he's a very good player."

Kobayashi, 25, joined Verdy from Komazawa University in 1999, and his appearance Sunday against Kashima Antlers was his 92nd in the first division.

His goal tally of only three is clearly an area in which he can improve, and he may have to rapidly if Cameroon World Cup striker Patrick Mboma is ruled out for a significant amount of time after straining his right abductor muscle Sunday.

As Ardiles points out, Kobayashi is an elegant, ball-playing midfielder with natural gifts.

He had a spell in Spain earlier in his career, and has also been unlucky with injury.

But if Zico decides to leave the likes of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura, Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto in Europe for certain international matches this year, there may be time for the national coach to take a look at Kobayashi.


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JFA should complain to FIFA

25 Aug 2003(Mon)

The Japan Football Association was quite right to complain to the Nigerian FA about the quality of the Super Eagles team for the friendly in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Perhaps the JFA should go even further and complain to FIFA, the world governing body, which sanctions these kind of matches.

The FIFA motto is "For the good of the game," but this kind of exercise does nothing at all for the good of the game.

Presumably the JFA paid Nigeria a handsome appearance fee to come to Japan, but they expected them to bring a decent team.

Instead they got an inexperienced, disorganized rabble, and it was clear from the opening seconds that Nigeria did not have the stomach for the fight.

Although Zico was able to celebrate his first home victory in seven attempts, I thought the game was meaningless.

I am not taking anything away from Zico, because Japan can only beat the opposition that is put in front of them.

The problem facing the JFA now is the two home games against more African opposition, Senegal at Niigata next month and Cameroon at Oita in November.

Like Nigeria, the best players of these two countries all play in the top European leagues.

But will they be willing to travel halfway around the world and back again, for a friendly when they could be having a relaxing week training at their clubs, clearing up any minor injuries, and preparing for the next league game?

Zico needed his best players back because he was under pressure, and he needed a victory against Nigeria after the disappointment of the Confederations Cup.

Although Wednesday's game did nothing to answer the question--is Zico taking the national team forward or backward?--presumably the result has bought him some breathing space.

I felt the fans were cheated by Wednesday's game, as the quality of the opposition was so poor. Nigeria couldn't even find enough players to fill the bench, and the Korean referee took pity on them by declining to send off their goalkeeper for a blatant handball outside his area to deny Yanagisawa.

Let's hope these next two friendlies offer better viewing.


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It's now or never for Zico's Japan

21 Aug 2003(Thu)

We are now over one year into the Zico reign and still waiting for Japan's first win at home under the Brazilian coach.

But Wednesday's game against Nigeria at Tokyo National Stadium offers Japan a wonderful chance, probably the best chance they will get, to end that bleak run.

Nigeria's team is known as the Super Eagles, but there has been nothing super about their preparations for this match.

None of their star names are here, such as Kanu of Arsenal, Yobo of Everton and the mercurial Okocha of Bolton Wanderers, and only 12 players had arrived in time for training at the National Stadium on Tuesday night.

According to organisers, three more players flew in to Tokyo on Tuesday evening, and they were expecting four more to arrive on the morning of the match.

This is hardly the best preparation!

Compare this to Japan.

Zico has brought back all his leading players except for the unlucky Shinji Ono, so Japan will have plenty of experienced World Cup players to try and win their first home game in seven attempts.

Japan have drawn with Jamaica, Uruguay and Paraguay at home under Zico, and lost to Argentina (twice) and South Korea.

Earlier this week I spoke to Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, whose error allowed Colombia to beat Japan 1-0 in that decisive group game in Saint-Etienne in the Confederations Cup in June.

"Tsune" said the supporters expected the team to win at home, and he wanted a victory "for my family and for Zico."

The mood in the camp, according to Tsune, was geared for victory, he said.

"Even after the match against Colombia the atmosphere was good," he said.

"Maybe we felt we played a good game, and could have had a good result. We got good experience in France, but there were some bad moments when we made some mistakes, including my mistake," he said.

Despite their poor preparations, Nigeria can never be written off as they have a strong recent history on the international stage.

They are always capable of the unexpected, and their players are brought up in a true football culture. This is why so many of them move abroad, because they have the basic skills, tactical awareness and strong physique to make them a success in Europe.

But Japan should win this one, and I think they will.


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Jubilo still hungry for success

18 Aug 2003(Mon)

Yokohama F Marinos will find it difficult to "do a Jubilo" and win both stages of the league season.

But there is no doubt Takeshi Okada's team has a good chance.

I went to the Nabisco Cup quarterfinal first leg at Yokohama on Wednesday night between Marinos and Jubilo and was very impressed with the spirit, organization and determination of one side: Jubilo Iwata.

Marinos started slowly and did not create much in the first half, but picked up in the second half and had several clear chances to equalize. In the end, I thought a 1-0 win for Jubilo was a fair result.

They played with 10 men for 72 minutes after the early sending off of Aleksandar Zivkovic, scored a beautiful goal through Yasumasa Nishino and then defended well to keep out the home team.

This is why I think Yokohama will have a tough battle to win the second stage, as now they are the team everyone wants to beat.

Jubilo, who finished second in the first stage, still looked hungry for success on Wednesday night, but will miss Toshiya Fujita very much in the second stage.

Kashima Antlers announced their second-stage intentions, too, by thrashing Grampus 5-1 in the Nabisco Cup, and I also think Urawa Reds could challenge in the second stage.

This is not because of the addition of the experienced Russian international Yuri Nikiforov, but because Hans Ooft is building a team of good young Japanese players.

Players such as Tsuboi, Yamase, Hasebe, Hirakawa and Tanaka are giving the Reds squad much more energy and depth, and with Emerson always going to score goals, they could be in with a chance of the second stage.

JEF United, third in the first stage, will find it difficult to repeat that performance, even though Brazilian forward Sandro can contribute much more to the team than he did in the first stage. Clearly he was taking his time to settle into life in the J.League.

FC Tokyo, fourth in the first stage, concede few goals (11) but do not score enough (only 14) to be a genuine contender. Fifth-place Cerezo Osaka let in too many (29), but have lots of forward power (29 goals) to keep out of relegation trouble.

I will tip Jubilo to win the second stage, resulting in a Marinos-Jubilo championship playoff and an understrength Japan team for the East Asian Championship.


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Zico needs wins, not diplomacy

14 Aug 2003(Thu)

It's no wonder the European clubs cannot understand why Japan wants to bring back their players for the Aug. 20 friendly with Nigeria in Tokyo.

But it is no wonder, either, why Zico wants them back.

In short, Zico needs wins to buy some breathing room.

And if Japan struggle against Nigeria, then against Senegal next month and Cameroon in November, his reign as national coach may be over.

Zico's first year in charge has not been satisfactory.

He has tried to change the playing system from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2, even though there are hardly any orthodox fullbacks in the J.League, and he is encouraging the players to think for themselves when this quality is not generally associated with any form of Japanese society.

For these two main reasons, Zico's Japan has not been successful. Just two wins in 10 games, and none at home.

They should have qualified for the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, especially after beating New Zealand so easily in the first game, but then lost to an under-strength French team and finally, in the match that was always going to be the crucial one for Japan, to a Colombia side lacking the talent and sparkle of previous generations.

The pressure is on Zico.

This is why he wants his best players to come back, even though the European season is just getting underway and Japanese players are settling in with their new team, new coach or new playing system.

Because August 20 is a FIFA match day, the clubs have no choice but to release their players. Many other matches are taking place on this day, but they do not involve such lengthy journeys through so many time zones in such a short space of time.

The German season is already under way, and Takahara is in Hamburg's starting lineup. The English Premier League starts this weekend, with Inamoto keen to establish himself in his third season in England, second with Fulham, and Italy's Serie A kicks off at the end of the month, with Reggina (Nakamura) playing Sampdoria (Yanagisawa). Who knows if Nakata will still be at Parma in two weeks' time?

Zico has already said he plans to play Takahara and Okubo up front against Nigeria, and continue the momentum he felt Japan gained at the Confederations Cup.

So it is baffling why Zico wants to bring back Yanagisawa to sit on the bench, play maybe 45 minutes, when he could be training and settling down to life in Genoa.

The JFA say they regard these three games as preparation for the World Cup qualifiers starting next February. They have explained this to the clubs in order to keep the relations as smooth as possible.

But surely the reason is that Zico needs to win some games and show some signs he is taking the team forward, not backward.

With his strategy so heavily reliant on individual skill rather than team discipline, this is why he needs his best individual players to come back and hope they can click into gear.

At the moment, clearly his own future is more important than that of his players in Europe.


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Zico can experiment without European players

11 Aug 2003(Mon)

Here we go again!

After a few weeks' break since the end of the Confederations Cup, the spotlight will turn to the national team again next week.

On Monday, Zico will name his squad for the Aug. 20 friendly against Nigeria at Tokyo National Stadium.

I cannot imagine that he will call back all his players based in Europe, as they will be involved in preseason buildup or in early season matches.

At such a delicate stage of the season, it is vital for players to feel comfortable and focused with their clubs and make an impression on the head coach as soon as possible.

In this respect, Zico knows everything there is to know, so I am sure he will not push for the release of players such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto, Atsushi Yanagisawa, Shunsuke Nakamura and Naohiro Takahara.

That is quite an impressive list of players, isn't it?

If Zico decides just to pick J.League-based players, where does he start?

At the top, of course, meaning first-stage winners Yokohama F Marinos.

Marinos' goalkeeper coach, Dido Havenaar, rates Tatsuya Enomoto the second best keeper after Narazaki, so let's see if Enomoto can gain a place ahead of Sogahata or Doi. I think Zico will recall Sogahata, who was injured for the Confederations Cup.

In defense, Matsuda should be back. For me he is the best Japanese defender in the league, and his club partner Nakazawa may also get a recall.

In midfield, Yukihiko Sato is a candidate for the right side, and Zico will probably retain the experienced Oku. Tatsuhiko Kubo should return up front.

Jubilo finished in second place, but I am not sure how many players, other than Fukunishi, can strengthen the national team. I would like to see Maeda given a chance at this higher level.

JEF United were third, and Abe would not be out of place in central midfield. Why not have a look at Murai on the left wing, too?

FC Tokyo's defense was the meanest in J1, so Moniwa in the center and maybe Kanazawa at left back have a chance. FC Tokyo play with a back four, which is what Zico wants, and Kanazawa has fitted in well to the position. Ishikawa missed out on a place in the Confederations Cup, but should be called up.

Of the Japan-based players in the Confederations Cup squad, Narazaki, Ogasawara, Okubo, Santos, Nakata Koji, Miyamoto, Endo, Tsuboi, Yamada, Oku and Nagai should all survive, but there must be question marks against defenders Narahashi, Akita, Morioka and Hattori. These four did not play for one minute in the three games, as Zico went with Yamada, Tsuboi, Miyamoto and Santos as his defense.

If Zico sticks with a J.League team only, this could be his starting lineup against Nigeria.

Narazaki; Yamada, Miyamoto, Matsuda, Santos; Sato, Fukunishi, Nakata Koji, Ogasawara; Okubo, Kubo.


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Grampus too hasty with Verdenik firing

7 Aug 2003(Thu)

I was shocked, and not a little angry, when I heard that Nagoya Grampus Eight had fired manager Zdenko Verdenik after the last round of first-stage games Saturday.

This is because I thought he was doing a good, steady job at Nagoya, and that he was very aware of what needed to be done to make Grampus a J.League power.

With two games of the first stage remaining, Grampus still had a chance, admittedly a small one, of winning the title.

They were also the only unbeaten team in the top flight, with five wins and eight draws from those 13 games.

But defeats in their final two games, at home to Tokyo Verdy and away to Cerezo Osaka, resulted in a disappointing mid-table finish, and Verdenik was shown the door.

The last time I spoke to him was after the Grampus-Vegalta Sendai match at Toyota Stadium on May 18.

It was the "sayonara" match of Austrian international Ivica Vastic, and he scored a great goal in the closing seconds to end his Grampus career on a high note.

After the game, Verdenik said he had wanted to keep Vastic, but the decision to release the player had been taken high up in the Toyota corridors of power.

Verdenik explained that Vastic had settled into the team, the team was playing well, and that no replacement had been fixed up. So all the time spent integrating Vastic would be wasted, and he would have to start all over again with an unknown overseas player.

He also explained that he had cleared out several players who were not prepared to fight, and replaced them with youngsters who were hungry to succeed.

He felt that the first stage would be about laying the foundations for a push for the second-stage title.

This is how the season was taking shape, as Grampus had become a difficult team to beat with the influential Panadic, supported by Omori and Koga, providing a strong wall in front of Narazaki in goal.

If Grampus had turned just a couple of those draws into wins, they could have been right at the top in the last couple of weeks, challenging F Marinos, Jubilo and JEF United.

I feel the Grampus front office acted too quickly in firing Verdenik, who had done such a fine job at Ichihara before that.

To build a championship-winning team takes time as well as money, and Grampus were on the right road.

Last season I heard that Grampus were interested in hiring another former Slovenia national coach, Srecko Katanec, after the World Cup, but he went to Greece.

With the second stage kicking off Aug. 16, it looks like yet another "new start" for Grampus rather than a championship push.

Grampus fans deserve better.


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Very exciting, but is it fair?

4 Aug 2003(Mon)

There is no doubt that the first stage of the 2003 season has reached a gripping climax.

As we head into the 15th and final round of matches this weekend, three teams can still win the championship: Yokohama F Marinos, Jubilo Iwata and JEF United Ichihara.

A week ago, six teams were still in with a chance, with the above three being joined by Nagoya Grampus Eight, Kashima Antlers and FC Tokyo.

A tight race like this has resulted in some big crowds, which is great for the game in Japan.

But excitement is one thing; a fair championship is another.

I have never been a supporter of the two-stage system, followed by a two-leg playoff, because I feel the best and most consistent team is frequently not the champion at the end of the season. And a league championship should reward consistency.

Last Saturday I went to Nihondaira Stadium to watch Shimizu S-Pulse against JEF United. If JEF had won and both Marinos and Jubilo had lost on the same day, the Ichihara club would have been crowned champion of the first stage with one game to play.

I discussed this with a Japanese colleague before the game and we came up with the following scenario to use as evidence against the two-stage system.

Imagine JEF had won the first stage last weekend. They would have booked their place in the December playoff against the second-stage winner, and would be guaranteed to finish first or second in the league, with no threat of relegation.

So, in theory, JEF could lose their last first-stage game, then all 15 second-stage games, then the first leg of the playoff, before winning the second leg on Dec. 13 to win the championship.

This means JEF could lose 17 consecutive matches and still win the J.League championship as the best team in Japan!

Is this right?

Is this fair?

Could this happen anywhere else in the world?

I know this is an extreme case, and the above scenario would be very unlikely to happen.

But the point is that it could happen, and the J.League could end up with a champion team that had not won a game for four months (August to November), until the second leg of the playoff on Dec. 13.

So even though it is exciting at the moment, I still feel the two-stage system is fundamentally flawed.

The J.League took a big step forward in abolishing extra time, golden goals and a fourth substitute, as now we are getting matches that end in 90 minutes.

The next bold step would be to have a normal league championship.

The fans will still come, and there will still be lots of excitement.

Believe me!


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