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November 2003

JEF fans should be full of pride

27 Nov 2003(Thu)

It was happy and sad at the same time to be at Ichihara Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

Sad because JEF United's chances of winning the second stage virtually disappeared after being held to a 1-1 draw by Oita Trinita.

Happy because of the reception the players got from their loyal fans after the final whistle. The players had given it their all, but on the day and over the year they just weren't good enough.

With just one game to play, JEF still have a mathematical chance of winning the stage, but it would be close to a miracle for the results of the other matches to fall in their favour.

So basically we are down to just three teams: Jubilo Iwata, who play at Yokohama F Marinos on Saturday, and Kashima Antlers, who are at Saitama against Urawa Reds in a Nabisco Cup final re-run. I think a draw would be good enough for Jubilo.

Three points on Sunday would have put JEF in the melting pot, too, but sadly it wasn't to be.

They fell behind in the first half, eventually equalised with a poacher's goal from Choi Yong Soo and then went in search of the winner.

Their problem, I thought, was that they pushed and panicked too early.

When "Our Korean Eagle" made it 1-1, there was still 28 minutes to play, but JEF played like the match was in injury time, and left themselves exposed at the back to Oita counter-attacks.

One thing I admire about JEF is that they keep their shape as a team. I know this is the kind of phrase and jargon that coaches and technical directors like to use, but it is vitally important.

This is essential in a five-man midfield, with Abe and the excellent Sato controlling the play, Sakamoto and Murai on the wings and Hanyu playing behind the two strikers.

I like Abe a lot, but his passing was not accurate Sunday in the heat of the battle.

Even Choi was affected by the pressure. He snatched at a couple of chances he would have buried earlier in the season, and in the first half, surprisingly, declined to shoot for goal himself, instead looking to pick out a teammate.

Manager Ivica Osim said he feared this result would happen, and that JEF was the kind of team not to win this important match.

This has been a familiar pattern at home this season, in the first and second stages.

But for a team with a small but hardy following (especially in those cold and windy conditions), JEF have done a brave job for the underdogs this season.

Their fans should be proud of them, not disappointed.

ends

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The Gon Factor

23 Nov 2003(Sun)

Something was stirring on the Jubilo Iwata bench, and the thousands of visiting fans at Ajinomoto Stadium were quick to respond.

It was the biggest cheer of the match so far, as Masashi Nakayama prepared to enter the arena like a modern-day gladiator.

Jubilo trailed Tokyo Verdy 1-0 when Nakayama ran on to replace Ryoichi Maeda in the 81st minute.

Seconds later it was 1-1 when Rodrigo Gral headed a beautiful equaliser from Aleksandar Zivkovic's right-wing corner. Surely all the Verdy defenders must have been watching Gon, and forgetting about the Brazilian.

Six minutes later it was 2-1 to Jubilo, when a low cross from Yasumasa Nishino was deflected into his own goal by the very unlucky Atsu Miura.

It was cruel on Verdy, but Jubilo deserved their win as they had created many clearcut openings.

After the game, the talk was all about one man: Nakayama.

It was his first appearance in the J.League since May, and his presence had turned a 1-0 defeat into a vital 2-1 victory within minutes.

With two matches to go, it seems that everything is falling into place for Jubilo at just the right time.

I thought they were very fortunate to be awarded a late penalty to beat Sendai 1-0 recently, and then Miura's own goal gave them another timely win.

After the match I spoke to Zivkovic, who has taken over from Toshiya Fujita on the left side of midfield and is enjoying his run in the team.

"After the game it occured to me that we had scored both goals after Nakayama came in, so maybe that means something," said Zivkovic, who still talks to his good friend Arno Van Zwam once a week on his mobile. (Arno is now playing for NAC Breda in the Dutch league, by the way).

"He is very important for the team and always gives a positive energy for us. It is good for him also, because he has been training very hard.

"For almost three months he went out on the pitch and did physical training and then did gym work in the cluhouse. He deserved that today, and maybe we won for him."

It really was a remarkable turnaround by Jubilo, and there could be no denying the inspirational part Gon played in that victory.

Even though he has been absent for a long time this season, Gon has not gone just yet.

ends

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Perfect timing for Mboma

20 Nov 2003(Thu)

One minute Patrick Mboma thought his international career was over, the next he was back in business.

This was the unusual scenario after Sunday's J.League game between Tokyo Verdy 1969 and Jubilo Iwata.

Myself and a colleague from another English language newspaper in Tokyo went to talk to Mboma after the game, to get his comments about the match and also about Wednesday's friendly between Japan and Cameroon at Oita.

At that time, Mboma was not in the squad, having been overlooked by Cameroon's German coach, Winnie Schaefer.

Patrick, naturally, was very upset and disappointed, as the Cameroon players are like a family and have an extra special bond after the death of teammate Marc-Vivien Foe at the Confederations Cup in June.

I asked Patrick if he thought his international career was over.

"Probably," he said.

Then Patrick's mobile telephone rang.

It was Schaefer, inviting him to join up with the squad at Oita. Earlier in the conversation, he had said he would not travel to Oita to watch the match. He would stay at home and watch it on TV because it would be too painful to be there but not be a part of the group.

"I want to change my comments!" said Patrick, after finishing his conversation with Schaefer.

"My international career is not finished!" he said, relieved and proud.

Patrick had been with the Cameroon players the previous week at a benefit match for the family of Foe in Lyon, and he thought that might be the final time he would play with them.

It was clear that the players wanted Mboma to be with them in Oita. He said they had spoken to the coach about it, and Schaefer had decided to call him up.

A bit of player power in evidence here, then.

Mboma feels he still has something to offer Cameroon with his experience and also with his play, and his presence will add some spice to Wednesday's occasion.

The Japanese defenders might not agree, though.

ends

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Zico made a good point about volleyball

17 Nov 2003(Mon)

Have you been following the women's volleyball World Cup on Fuji TV recently?

Yes, so have I, and it makes for gripping viewing I believe.

When the tournament started two weeks ago I was able to attend two matches at Yoyogi Gymansium, and was particularly impressed with Japan's victory over South Korea.

What always stands out for me is the behaviour of the Japanese players on the court.

There seems to be a great team spirit, but, more than that, all the players are constantly encouraging one another, shouting advice, listening to instructions.

At one point, the head coach came to the side of the court and his captain could not hear him due to the noise, even though they were standing next to each other.

OK, so I am supposed to be writing about football!

Well, the point of this is that Zico compared the two sports at a press conference Monday to announce his squad for the game against Cameroon at Oita on Wednesday.

One reporter raised the subject of lack of communication in the Japan football team, and Zico said basically that his players could learn from the volleyball. Zico himself had attended the Cuba-Brazil match at Sendai and had been impressed with the level of communication.

I totally agree with Zico on this point (maybe this is the first time I have agreed with him!)

Two days later, on Wednesday, I went to National Stadium for the Japan-Australia under-20 international. Japan lost 1-0 to a penalty kick early in the second half, but could have gone behind much earlier.

On several occasions in the first half, there was clearly no communication between goalkeeper Kawashima and his defenders when a long ball was played over the top.

Both the keeper and a defender went for the same ball, creating confusion, and a sharper team would have capitalized on this weakness.

Back in my playing days in England, only on a Sunday morning in a local pub league, there was more communication than in the Japan under-20 team.

In a situation like that, my goalkeeper would have been heard on the other side of the park, maybe the other side of the town, as he raced off his line, shouted "Keeeeepeeeer" to make sure everyone got out of the way, and then he would either pick it up or clear it.

It was basic football, with communication at the heart of it. I feel the Japanese players must be more outgoing, more passionate and more emotional on the field, and tell each other what's going on.

Just like in the women's volleyball.

ends

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Emerson out, Bismarck still in

13 Nov 2003(Thu)

There were two very different schools of thought in evidence by two managers in the J.League at the weekend.

I am referring to Hans Ooft at Urawa Reds and Hiroshi Soejima at Vissel Kobe, and they involved players who were in danger of being suspended before their latest games.

First Urawa.

Their Brazilian ace Emerson went into Saturday's home game against Verdy with two yellow cards against his name. This meant if he picked up another yellow card against Verdy, he would face a two-match suspension as it would be his second ban of the second stage.

In true Emerson style, he scored Reds' first two goals on the way to a 5-1 victory, but, with his team leading 2-0 just before halftime, he dived in the Verdy box to try and win a penalty.

The result? A yellow card for Emerson, his sixth of the second stage, meaning he will miss two of Urawa's last three games when they really need him most.

After the game I asked Ooft if he had considered substituting Emerson when Urawa led 2-0, to prevent him from being shown a yellow card.

Ooft said my thinking was too negative. "At 2-0 the game was not safe, and Verdy scored early in the second half to give us a problem at 2-1," said the Dutchman.

"I don't like to gamble. It makes no sense."

From Komaba Stadium on Saturday we move to Ajinomoto Stadium on Sunday, for FC Tokyo against Vissel Kobe.

The player in question is Bismarck, the former Verdy and Antlers star signed to try and save Vissel from relegation.

Bismarck also went into the match on two yellow cards, and with Vissel trailing 4-0, Soejima took him off after 69 minutes.

The decision was purely because Soejima did not want Bismarck to be booked late in the game with the match already lost, and therefore earn a one-match suspension.

This was an interesting, pragmatic move by Soejima, who could count himself very unlucky to be on the wrong end of a 4-1 beating.

I am not taking anything away from FC Tokyo, who play bright, attacking football, but I thought the home team's best player was goalkeeper Yoichi Doi!

He made some fantastic saves, especially in the first half, when FC Tokyo would simply go to the other end and score a goal.

An early Doi save from a Sidiclei thunderbolt was matched by a deft palm over the bar from a Bismarck free kick.

If I had been Ooft against Verdy, I would have taken off Emerson at 2-0 to save him from himself, whereas Bismarck will be back this weekend as a key player for Vissel Kobe.

ends

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Mboma proves sound investment for Verdy

10 Nov 2003(Mon)

Hands up all those J.League fans who thought that Tokyo Verdy 1969 were taking a big risk in signing Patrick Mboma.

Yes, my hand is up, too.

I have to admit I was a bit surprised when I heard that Mboma was returning to Japan at the start of this season.

After all, he hadn't played much in recent seasons, for Parma and then briefly for Sunderland, and I wondered if, at 32 years of age, he could still do a job for Verdy over the entire campaign.

But Verdy and Mboma have proved the doubters, including me, wrong.

As we enter the 12th round of second stage matches this weekend, Verdy lead the table with 20 points from 11 games, and Mboma is the club's leading scorer with 13 goals in 19 appearances. This puts him in sixth place on the scorers chart, only four behind Jubilo's Rodrigo Gral, who has netted 17 in significantly more games, 25.

Although the Cameroon star will not match his 1997 total of 25 in 28 games for Gamba Osaka, Mboma can still feel satisfied with his output.

But Verdy, of course, didn't sign him just for his goals.

They needed an experienced and inspirational leader to replace Edmundo, who did such a great job in the Verdy green.

Watching the Verdy training at Yomiuri Land on Friday morning, it's easy to see why Mboma is so important to the Verdy cause.

He lives and breathes football, and this must be infectious to his teammates who have not grown up in the same football culture.

Even in a practice match on a pitch one quarter the size of a normal field, Mboma's joy at scoring a goal was there for all to see.

After the magical sight and sound of ball hitting net, Mboma would either run away, right arm in the air, as if he'd scored in the World Cup, or pretend to punch the ground in delight.

Both forms of celebration were amusing to watch, as it reveals the sheer enjoyment of playing football and of scoring goals.

I didn't think Mboma had the match fitness to endure the whole season, and while it's true he has missed a few games, he has proved to be an excellent signing not just for the club but also for the J.League in general.

On Sunday, Patrick will represent the club at an Edo Period celebration at Tachikawa from noon to 1pm, and in the evening he will fly to France to take part in a benefit match for the family of his late teammate, Marc-Vivien Foe, at Lyon on Tuesday.

ends

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Tanaka steals the show

6 Nov 2003(Thu)

A few weeks before his 21st birthday, Urawa Reds striker Tatsuya Tanaka has come of age in the J.League.

Tanaka, who will be 21 on November 27, cleaned up in the individual awards before and after Urawa's stirring 4-0 victory over Kashima Antlers in the Nabisco Cup final on Monday.

The day before the final, Tanaka was named as the competition's New Hero for his form in the earlier rounds.

After the final, Tanaka was announced as the MVP, and there could be little argument over this selection.

Alongside the explosive Brazilian Emerson, Tanaka has formed a fast and dynamic strikeforce for Urawa. They ripped apart Shimizu S-Pulse in the second leg of the semifinal, and did the same to Kashima on Monday.

For the first goal, a great leap and header from Koji Yamase that surprised Yutaka Akita and Hitoshi Sogahata in the Kashima goal, Tanaka sent over a dangerous cross from the right wing his left foot.

The second goal, scored by Emerson, was a sublime finish after a beautiful pass from Hirakawa.

This goal, early in the second half, virtually settled the match, because I just couldn't see Antlers coming back from 2-0 down.

Tanaka made sure of the Reds victory, though, by scoring a magnificent third goal. Collecting the ball on the left, he raced around two defenders before striking a glorious right-foot shot past Sogahata from the edge of the box.

This goal captured all Tanaka's qualities: pace, control, confidence and an instinct for goal. It can't be long before Zico has a look at him for the national team, although the national coach said earlier in the year he didn't really want to mix the Olympic team and national team.

We'll have to see about this, because Tanaka is in superb form and I'm sure would love to be let loose against Cameroon and then in the four-nation East Asian Championship early next month.

Monday was a great day for Reds, spoiled somewhat by manager Hans Ooft's announcement he would be leaving after hearing from a third party that the club president did not want to keep him next season.

Tanaka is just one of the players who has progressed in leaps and bounds this season, and the evidence was there for all to see on Monday.

ends

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Reds can do it this time

3 Nov 2003(Mon)

As the tension and excitement mounts ahead of Monday's Nabisco Cup final, I have a strong feeling that Urawa Reds will beat Kashima Antlers at Tokyo's National Stadium.

The same two sides met in last year's final, which Antlers won 1-0 with a deflected shot from Mitsuo Ogasawara.

Urawa could have no complaints last year, as clearly they lacked the big-match experience compared to Kashima.

But this season is different, and I would even go as far as saying that Urawa are the favourites.

This may sound strange, as they have still not won any of the three major domestic trophies since the J.League kicked off in 1993.

I have been very impressed with Urawa in the Nabisco Cup this time.

Especially their 2-0 win away to FC Tokyo in the quarter-final second leg, and then their exhilarating 6-1 victory over Shimizu S-Pulse in the semi-final second leg to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the away game.

Urawa, under the Dutch coaching duo of Hans Ooft and Wim Jansen, were on fire at Komaba, and destroyed a very dispirited S-Pulse team.

Brazilian hot shot Emerson scored a quickfire hat trick early in the second half after strike partner Tatsuya Tanaka had softened up Shimizu with two first-half goals.

There was an urgency and a belief about Reds that night, and I cannot see any reason why they will freeze in the final.

Antlers, too, showed their character in the semifinals by winning at Jubilo Iwata, but the dangerous Masashi Motoyama will be missing after recent surgery, and Hirase and Fernando are both suspended.

Toninho Cerezo's squad is stretched to the limit, and it should be a fascinating battle between Kashima's experienced defense and the Reds' young forwards.

The 55,000 or so tickets sold out in just 15 minutes, 15 minutes quicker than last season, and they have been trading for 80,000 yen on the internet.

This will be a cheap price for any success-starved Reds fans, and I believe they will not be disappointed on Monday afternoon.

I think Urawa will win 2-1.

ends

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