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October 2003

Be patient, JEF fans

30 Oct 2003(Thu)

JEF United manager Ivica Osim must be delighted with how the second-stage table looks after 11 of the 15 games.

JEF are in fourth place, but only one point off the pace, and not many people are talking about them as potential second-stage champions.

First-stage champs Yokohama F Marinos and Nabisco Cup finalists Urawa Reds are regarded as the two favourites, more so than even table-topping Tokyo Verdy.

This is exactly what Osim wants.

I had a long, long chat with him at Nihondaira Stadium after JEF had been crushed by Shimizu S-Pulse in the 14th round of the first stage.

Looking ahead to the second stage, he said he didn't want to see his team at the top of the table too early because he felt they could not handle the pressure.

"I hope we can be fourth or fifth and stay close to the top," he said.

"Then we can sprint for the title in the last couple of games."

After last weekend's matches, when none of the leading teams won, JEF are in the perfect position to strike late.

Verdy and Marinos have 20 points, Reds and JEF have 19, and then there is a bit of daylight back to FC Tokyo in fifth place on 17.

But just look at JEF's remaining matches.

After the break for the Nabisco Cup, JEF resume on November 8 against lowly Kyoto Purple Sanga at Nishikyogoku.

A week later they are at home to another team nearer the bottom of the table than the top: Cerezo Osaka.

Then, in the penultimate round of games, JEF are at home to Oita Trinita. Osim will be desperately disappointed if JEF lose one of those three games, and he has every right to feel that they should take all nine points.

The last game of the season could be a title decider, as JEF are away to Tokyo Verdy at Ajinomoto Stadium, on November 29.

Kyoto, Cerezo, Oita and Verdy...the fixture list has been kind to JEF United.

I gather that Choi Yong Soo's late equaliser against Jubilo on Saturday produced tears in the stands from emotional Ichihara supporters.

Maybe there will be a few more tears to come.

But of joy or despair?

We will soon find out.


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FIFA takes big step forward

27 Oct 2003(Mon)

It was a German journalist who once said that Sepp Blatter had 50 new ideas a day...and that 51 of them were bad!

While this is being unkind to the FIFA president, I do welcome the news that FIFA will not now hold its election for president just before the World Cup.

I have attended the last two elections for FIFA president: in Paris in 1998 and in Seoul in 2002.

I could not believe that FIFA held such an important vote in the days before kick off.

At that time, everyone should have been thinking about football and about footballers, but instead the newspapers were full of football politics and behind-the-scenes deals.

In France, Mr. Blatter beat Lennart Johansson for the vacant post after the retirement of Joao Havelange.

In Seoul, Blatter easily held off the challenge of Issa Hayatou to win a second term of office.

Originally, that term of office should have ended in 2006, just before the World Cup in Germany.

But FIFA decided recently that Blatter's term of office would be extended to 2007.

This is not a bad idea at all.

It means everyone will be thinking about football in the build-up to the 2006 World Cup, and politics and presidents will be put where they belong: in the background.

It will also mean that the FIFA president will have several months after the 2006 World Cup to tie up all the loose ends, close the books and sign all the business and financial documents before the election takes place.

Rumour has it that Franz Beckenbauer will run for president in 2007, after overseeing the running of the 2006 World Cup, which will be spectacular I am sure.

Maybe Korea's Chung Mong Joon may also push for president, as he is a very ambitious man from a very ambitious family.

Whatever, it's an excellent move by FIFA to move the year of the election.


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Japan get lucky in Olympic draw

23 Oct 2003(Thu)

I know many people are worried about Japan's chances of qualifying for the Athens Olympics football tournament.

But now the draw has been made, those fears must have turned into optimism.

Japan, clearly, has got a kind draw, and will start as the favourite to take the sole qualifying place from Group B.

Just to recap.

Group A comprises South Korea, China, Malaysia and Iran. Group B is Japan, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. Group C is Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or North Korea, and Oman.

The winner of each group qualifies for Athens.

South Korea, Japan and Kuwait were the top three seeds, so would head one of the three groups, but the good news for Japan was that they avoided China and Saudi Arabia.

Although I have always been optimistic about Japan's chances, despite the fact the team lacks the personality and the individual quality of the 2000 selection, I was concerned about them meeting China.

I saw Japan play China at the Asian Games in Pusan, Korea, a year ago, and was very impressed with the Chinese.

Japan won the game, in the quarterfinals, 1-0 with an excellent goal from the "Gamba Gon," Nakayama, but I thought China played very well and looked very dangerous.

So I was happy to see China drawn in Group A, where they will have a tremendous battle with both South Korea and Iran.

Peter Velappan, general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation, has described Group A as the Group of Death. This is true, so Group B must be the Group of Life, with Japan having a wonderful opportunity to qualify for the Olympics for the third successive time after Atlanta and Sydney.

Japan, of course, will still face some tough games, especially against the United Arab Emirates, whose teams are always well prepared and well organised because of the amount of money the federation can pay to attract a top coach.

But the fitness, team work and experience of the Japanese players, thanks to the high standards in the J.League, should be enough to see them through.


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Reds have fans in J.League, too

20 Oct 2003(Mon)

There is no doubt that Yokohama F Marinos are strong enough to win both stages of the J.League this season, just like Jubilo Iwata did last year.

If Takeshi Okada's team can complete a two-stage sweep, the East Asian Football Federation and Zico would all be happy, because this would mean all J.League players would be available for the East Asian nations championship from December 4-10.

If a different team wins the second stage, then the players of Marinos and the second-stage champions would not be available for the East Asian championship, as the two-leg playoff will be held on December 6 and 13.

The J.League, naturally, wants a two-leg playoff, as it will bring lots of cash and exposure to the league.

Chairman Suzuki said last year that the league lost 700 million yen in projected revenue last season because Jubilo did the double. That's a lot of money, even for you rich Japanese!

The league cannot appear to favour any club, of course, but the perfect scenario for them would be this: Urawa Reds to win the second stage, and face Marinos in the playoff.

A full house of 70,000 at International Stadium Yokohama...another full house of 63,000 at Saitama Stadium 2002...the colour and the spectacle would look magnificent on television, and give local football a very high profile at the end of a year dominated largely by baseball: the rise of the Hanshin Tigers and Matsui at the Yankees.

Looking ahead to the East Asian championship, Zico will probably not have any of his leading players from Europe, as the dates are not on FIFA's international calendar, so the clubs would not have to release them.

Without these players, plus the players of Marinos and Reds if they win the second stage, then Zico will have to spread his net wider and call up some new faces.

I think this will be a good test for Zico, too, as he would have to give them a more solid game plan.

Instead of picking the best individual players and leaving captain Nakata to give the orders on the pitch, Zico would have to employ firm tactics and strategy with the players available for tough matches against China and Korea, and an easy one against a weak Hong Kong.

Reds winning the second stage, Zico having a look at some fresh faces...sounds perfect to me.


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When will the king's reign end?

16 Oct 2003(Thu)

For J.League fans in the capital, all roads will lead to Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday for the FC Tokyo-Urawa Reds match.

It should be an exciting game, and a great occasion, as the fans of both teams will provide a noisy, colourful spectacle.

In their last home game, FC Tokyo thrashed Kashima Antlers 5-1, and the last time Urawa Reds played, in the Nabisco Cup semifinal second leg, they put six past Shimizu S-Pulse at Komaba.

It's hard to imagine Saturday's game being a 0-0 draw!

Before the FC Tokyo-Antlers match, an FC Tokyo fan asked me to go to Kashiwa on the last day of the second stage, as there would be special FC Tokyo celebrations to mark the final league game of the King of Tokyo, Amaral.

The friendly supporter said Amaral would retire after that game after such distinguished service to the club.

Against Antlers, Amaral had a fine match, scoring once with a back-post header and playing a part in several more goals.

After the game I asked him about his retirement, and this is what he said:

"I think I can continue playing for two more years after this season because my motivation is still strong," said Amaral, who will be 37 years old on Thursday.

"Of course I would like to do that with FC Tokyo if possible, because I like the team and I feel I can help the younger players with my experience.

"But I would also be interested in playing in J2. It gave me great satisfaction to help FC Tokyo get promoted to J1, and I would like the same challenge with another club if it's not possible to stay with FC Tokyo.

"I usually score 15 or 16 goals a season, and this time I have only two in the league. But I feel I am still contributing a lot to the team and creating goals for other players. I am happy with my form because the team is strong."

Amaral will be trying to improve that scoring record against Urawa in what should be a cracking match, as FC Tokyo manager Hiromi Hara faces his old team in another interesting twist.


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Kaji shines on national team debut

13 Oct 2003(Mon)

Is your body clock back on time after waking up at 4.25am on Thursday morning to watch Japan against Tunisia?

I am sure all the FC Tokyo fans will have suffered no after-effects from this very early start to the day due to the performances of Akira Kaji and Teruyuki Moniwa.

Both players were making their debut for the national team, and both can be proud of their performance.

Especially Kaji, who showed a very professional, confident and business-like attitude.

He is a very athletic right-back, and came close to scoring a goal late in the second half.

Even though Japan were leading 1-0, Kaji was not content to stay back and defend.

He ran up the right wing, and was sent clear with a neat pass from Takayuki Suzuki.

Kaji then did everything right by sidestepping the advancing goalkeeper and shooting for goal, but his effort was intercepted by the large, burly frame of Tunisia's captain and central defender, Khaled Badra.

Kaji's play, but probably more so his decision to support the attack and take some responsibility, earned the admiration of captain Hidetoshi Nakata.

Moniwa, too, looked at ease alongside Nakazawa in the heart of the defense, and it was Moniwa's pass down the middle which led to Japan's goal, scored beautifully by Yanagisawa.

So what does Zico do now for the Romania game on Saturday night?

Does he keep his makeshift defense of Kaji-Nakazawa-Moniwa-Miura, or recall Yamada, Tsuboi and Santos?

After all, Yamada-Tsuboi-Miyamoto-Santos only became a unit for the Paraguay friendly before the Confederations Cup, after Zico made many changes following the Argentina embarrassment.

But they did not allow a goal against Paraguay, so Zico made them his first-choice defense in France.

Will he do the same with the four who played against Tunisia?

We will find out Saturday evening, when the television broadcaster is hoping for a 20 percent viewer rating. It was only 2.1 for the Tunisia game.


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Is this the end of an Antlers era?

9 Oct 2003(Thu)

As I watched FC Tokyo thrash Kashima Antlers 5-1 at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday, I wondered if I was witnessing the end of an era.

The end of an Antlers era which has yielded four league championships since 1996, three Nabisco Cups and two Emperor's Cups.

This was not the Antlers of old, although of course it does not help when a team has two players sent off: Narahashi in the first half for bringing down Toda just outside the box, and Ogasawara in the second half for his second yellow card.

Ogasawara had been booked for a foul on Ishikawa in the first half, and was shown the yellow again after a tussle with Moniwa. I must admit I thought both FC Tokyo players made the most of the situation, especially Moniwa, and the second yellow was harsh on Ogasawara.

But all this should not hide the fact that Antlers crumbled in all areas of the pitch.

Even when FC Tokyo were leading 2-0 in the first half, the home fans were greeting each pass with a taunting cry of "Ole!" as they teased the Antlers players like a matador with an old, exhausted bull. Just like in the bull ring, the result was never in doubt, and FC Tokyo put the victim to the sword with three more goals.

According to an Antlers spokesperson, it was Kashima's heaviest league defeat since 1995, when Bellmare Hiratsuka beat them 7-0.

Kashima's defense is ageing, and the young replacements such as Haneda and Kaneko always seem to be injured.

Before the game I spoke with club president Hiroshi Ushijima, and he said the unlucky Koji Nakata might not play again until the second stage of next season after his knee operation.

Antlers miss Koji's guile and craft in midfield, although I have great hopes for Aoki, who could be one of the best players Japan has ever produced.

Up front, Yanagisawa and Suzuki are on loan to clubs in Europe, Hasegawa has retired, Euller was injured, and this left Hirase and rookie Fukai, with teenager Nakashima coming off the bench.

Antlers are clearly struggling for goals, and I think a second-stage challenge is beyond them this season.

Their fans have been fed a constant diet of trophies, but will have to be patient for the time being.

A final word for the FC Tokyo club. Saturday's "Brazil Day" was a lively, colourful spectacle, drawing almost 30,000 to the stadium. The home team rose to the occasion, and the goal announcements, in Portuguese, must have really shaken Antlers manager Toninho Cerezo.

There is a lot of work ahead to turn Antlers into the Mean Machine of recent years.


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Kaji in the spotlight on Brazil Day

5 Oct 2003(Sun)

It's Brazil Day at FC Tokyo's home game against Kashima Antlers on Saturday, but all eyes will be on a young Japanese player about to win his first cap for the national team.

After the exotic samba dancers have greeted fans and staged a mini-Rio Carnival parade at Ajinomoto Stadium, FC Tokyo right back Akira Kaji will be trying to show why Zico has picked him against Tunisia in Tunis on Oct. 8.

The selection of the Hyogo-born 23-year-old defender was a surprise to many, especially as he lost his place in the FC Tokyo lineup to Waseda University student Yuhei Tokunaga earlier this season. But the club's managing director, Yutaka Murabayashi, never had any doubts about Kaji's ability.

"Before the season started, in January and February, I was always saying that Kaji would be a candidate for the national team this year," said Murabayashi.

"So it's not a big surprise for me. I talked with him on Tuesday after his selection, but he's always cool so it's difficult to know how he was feeling.

"But his friends in the team say he is really excited about it." Murabayashi added that Kaji showed great resolve to fight his way back into the team after Olympic squad member Tokunaga had replaced him.

"Tokunaga was playing well so Kaji found himself on the bench.

"But he didn't complain or anything. He made a big effort in training and had a positive attitude off the pitch. Everyone at the club was very impressed with him during this time, and I'm sure the experience has made him a stronger character," said Murabayashi.

The club holds a Brazil Day once a season at home, and Murabayashi is expecting a crowd of around 35,000 for the visit of championship-chasing Kashima.

Fans will be able to drink Brazilian beer and eat Brazilian food, and the ambassdor of Brazil will be a special guest.

FC Tokyo will also present flowers to the Brazilian players of both teams, as well as to Antlers manager Toninho Cerezo, before the kickoff.

But there the generosity ends.

"We can still win the second stage," said Murabayashi.

"We are only five points off the top with seven games to go, so the first thing is to win our four home games, starting against Kashima.

"This will be our fifth Brazil Day and we've won on the previous four occasions."


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Nice to see Atsu back

2 Oct 2003(Thu)

Before the start of this season I spent an afternoon at the Kyoto Purple Sanga training ground.

The purpose of my visit was to interview German coach Gert Engels, who has experienced many ups and downs during his time in the J.League, first with Yokohama Flugels, then JEF United and with Kyoto.

We spoke about Japanese players in Europe, and Gert singled out one player for a special mention.

"Of all the players I've worked with in Japan, the one I thought most would be a big success in Europe was Atsuhiro Miura," said Gert.

"He had everything...technique, physical strength, good at free kicks and corners, crossing the ball...I was convinced he would have had no problems in Europe because his playing style suited European football."

Atsu, of course, never made it to Europe, but he did make it into the national team.

He has won 16 caps for Japan, scoring one goal, and, after a lengthy absence, received a deserved call-up this week for Japan's two-match mini-tour of north Africa and eastern Europe.

With Alessandro Santos unavailable for the first game against Tunisia on October 8 because of the Nabisco Cup semifinal second leg, Zico needed a new left-back.

Hence his decision to have a look at Atsu, who is now 29, the oldest of the eight defenders chosen.

He seems to have been plagued by injuries and fitness problems in recent years, and came close to disappearing off the radar altogether at Tokyo Verdy.

But he has played a major part in the Verdy renaissance under Ossie Ardiles, and Zico feels he is ready to step up on to the international stage.

Apart from the qualities listed by Engels above, I also think Miura's long throw-ins are another weapon for Japan, as they are as good as a corner kick in penetrating the opposition penalty area.

Like Naoki Soma, injured at the moment, Miura is a right-footed left-back who can beat his marker on the outside and cross, or on the inside and shoot.

Zico has shown that if a player plays well, he keeps his place, working on the basis that "a player is only as good as his last game."

So if Atsu does the business against Tunisia, who I expect to be big, heavy and slow, maybe he will keep his place for the Romania game in Bucharest three days later.


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