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December 2003

The Year of the Yoshito?

31 Dec 2003(Wed)

They say that 2004 is the Year of the Monkey.

But in Japan could it be the Year of the Yoshito?

The dynamic young Cerezo Osaka striker was never out of the news in 2003.

Sometimes the news was good, such as gaining the most votes in the history of the J.League all-star game, scoring 16 goals in J1 and making his national team debut at the age of 20 against South Korea in May.

Other times it was bad: 14 yellow cards and two red cards in the league, plus his sending-off against Korea in the East Asian Football Championship for his second yellow card, diving in the penalty box. Zico defended Okubo after the game, but he had no right to. The referee was correct in his view.

Since then Okubo has gone on to shoot Cerezo into the Tennohai final on New Year's Day against Jubilo Iwata.

His two goals against Antlers in the semifinal were magnificent: first the diving header to an excellent right-wing cross from Sakemoto, then the powerful shot into the top corner from 30 meters. The club is hoping that Okubo has learned his lesson after the red card against Korea, and that he starts to behave with more responsibility.

He's still only 21, though, and is still growing up as a professional footballer and as a person. He has a fiery character on the pitch, and this is what makes him stand out from the crowd.

Hopefully he can retain this fire and energy but channel it in the right direction, and not commit needless fouls or argue futilely with the referee.

Japan will need a fit and focused Okubo in 2004, as he faces Olympic friendlies and Asian qualifying games for Athens, then possibly the Games themselves in Greece in August; national team friendlies and the first round of World Cup qualifying for Germany 2006, plus the Asian Cup in China in July; as well as a busy season with his club.

The last thing Okubo needs is a mountain of yellow and red cards.

2003 was a breakout year for Okubo, but 2004 can be even better.

Let's see how he starts the new year against Jubilo Iwata.

A fantastic goal?

A red card?

Maybe both.


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Clubs don't have to waste money overseas

29 Dec 2003(Mon)

It still surprises me how much money Japanese clubs throw away on foreign players, especially from Brazil, whom they seem to know little about.

Maybe it's because they think it's glamorous and exotic to bring in a new Brazilian, and they hope to hit the jackpot by finding a future national team star.

Other clubs are learning their lesson, though, and some of the transfers, or proposed transfers, I have heard about recently suggest common sense is prevailing.

First there is Amaral, released by FC Tokyo and now with Shonan Bellmare.

This is a smart move by Bellmare, as they know exactly what they are getting. Amaral might be old, 37, but he has demonstrated he is a true professional, gives everything for the team, keeps himself fit and inspires the younger players.

Signing a known quantity makes more such sense than in putting your trust in an agent with only money on his mind.

I also hear Gamba Osaka are trying to sign Sidiclei from Vissel Kobe. He's another J.League "veteran," and I have always been impressed with his attitude and play.

He may not be a "star," but he is a reliable, dedicated professional who can play at the back, in midfield and score goals.

Gamba have thrown billions of yen down the drain on foreign players, but with Sidiclei they know they would be getting value for money.

Another one looking for a club is Marcelo Baron.

He is not being retained by Cerezo Osaka, despite a reasonable haul of nine goals in his first season, and is attracting interest from J1 and J2 clubs.

Baron, too, has always done his job, first with Ventforet Kofu in the JFL, then JEF United and Shimizu S-Pulse.

He has always scored goals, and is a hard-working, conscientious player.

The club that signs him, just like with Amaral and Sidiclei, will be getting a good deal.

As I said before, clubs don't have to gamble consistently overseas, when they often end up losing money to agents and overpaid, over-rated Brazilians.


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Okada hits the nail on the head with Emperor's Cup observations

25 Dec 2003(Thu)

Yokohama F Marinos' hopes of winning the league and cup "double" have gone after Kashima Antlers beat them 4-1 in the Emperor's Cup quarterfinal on Tuesday.

Back in my home country England, the "double" of league championship and F.A. Cup is much coveted by the clubs.

But it's not the same here due to the awkward timing of the Emperor's Cup, which starts in earnest after the league has been decided and when players, and fans, need a break at the end of the year.

This is why Marinos manager Takeshi Okada admitted it was "good for us" to be eliminated from the Emperor's Cup as early as December 23.

"The Emperor's Cup is not so important for us because some players have no motivation and some foreign players want to go back home," Oka-chan said after the defeat by Antlers.

"This tournament is very difficult for professional teams, and also we need rest time for next season because we have the (Asian) Champions League on February 11, so it's good for us."

Okada has hit the nail on the head with these comments, and the Japan Football Association should take a long, hard look at what was once the showpiece event of the football season.

This is the 83rd edition of the Emperor's Cup, and I must admit I thoroughly enjoy watching the matches because they are usually played in perfect football conditions: bright winter sunshine, quite cold but far from freezing.

The final on New Year's Day is always a grand occasion, and attracts a big audience to the National Stadium.

But is it worth keeping all the professional teams hanging around for up to a month after the league season has finished?

It's a difficult situation for the JFA, but changes must be made in the near future.

Not that Okada was trying to take anything away from Kashima after their excellent victory.

The resilience and hunger of the Antlers players continues to set an example to the rest of the league, although I wish Motoyama and Fukai would stop pretending to be injured all the time.

The match ended with Yoo Sang Chul furious because Sogahata followed the bad example of those two and also stayed down.

Come on guys, just get up and get on with it!


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The X-Files have the answer to high crowds

22 Dec 2003(Mon)

The J.League attracted a record number of spectators to its competitions in 2003, almost 6.8 million.

This beats the previous best mark for a single season, 6.44 million, in 1995.

The reason is not a mystery, though.

Because the answer can be found in the X-Files.

Sorry, I mean the AlbireX Files!

Of all 28 J.League clubs, Albirex Niigata recorded the highest average home attendance in 2003, a staggering 30,339, as they won the second division championship.

This figure left behind the likes of Urawa Reds (28,855), Yokohama F Marinos (24,957) and FC Tokyo (24,932), who were the three best supported clubs in the top flight.

The average crowd in J1 was 17,351, the highest since 1994 (19,598) and the third best in the league's 11-year history after 1994 and the opening season's mark of 17,976 in 1993.

This is very encouraging news for the J.League, and a clear sign that the game is taking root around the country.

The J.League's target for J1 next season is an average of 20,000, which means an increase of around 2,600 fans per game in 2004.

With Albirex in the first division, this is a realistic goal, even though J1 has lost Vegalta Sendai, whose average home crowd in 2003 was 21,708.

Kazuki Sasaki, a director and the general secretary of the J.League, said this week that the 2001 Confederations Cup had been a turning point for the people of Niigata.

This had shown them the excitement of football, he said, and from this they went on to support their hometown team.

"They know Niigata is not at a world level, but they like to be part of one big group and show their support for their team," said Sasaki.

"Even when they lose, this makes their unity stronger. They have pride in Niigata, and they have a chance to show this by supporting Albirex."

It is difficult to see much J2 during the season, as the matches usually clash with J1.

But Niigata will be a popular destination for fans and media alike next season, to see the Big Swan turned into a sea of orange.

This season was record-breaking in terms of aggregate attendance for J1, J2, Nabisco Cup, all-star soccer and Xerox Super Cup, but with Albirex fans in J1 next year, I think an average of 20,000 is not out of reach.


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Emerson was not right for MVP

18 Dec 2003(Thu)

I have to admit I was very surprised, and even more disappointed, when I learned that Emerson would be named J.League MVP for 2003.

I thought the MVP had to come fromYokohama F Marinos, who had won both stages of the J.League, and in my opinion there were three candidates: Yuji Nakazawa, Daisuke Oku and Tatsuhiko Kubo.

My own choice was the defender Nakazawa, who, in the words of manager Takeshi Okada, had emerged as the mood-maker of the team on and off the pitch.

I thought a Marinos player deserved the award, but I don't think Emerson did.

But calm down Reds fans!

I am not saying for a minute that he is not a good player.

Of course he is, as his pace and his finishing power make him a proven match-winner. On pure natural ability, Emerson is probably the best player in the league.

I would go as far as to say he is too good for the J.League, and that he would be a success in a major league in Europe. Whether a European club would be willing to pay what Urawa pays him, though, is a different matter.

But with a high salary comes responsibility, to teammates, coaches, the club and to the fans. All the foreign players in Japan should feel this, as they are in a privileged position playing here.

This is where Emerson lets himself down.

Manager Hans Ooft told me toward the end of the season that Emerson had been fined a total of $60,000 during the year for turning up late at training.

But I am more concerned with Emerson's attitude on the pitch.

I don't like players who dive and roll around feigning serious injury to try and get opponents booked or even sent off.

I know Emerson gets fouled regularly because he is so dangerous and fast, but there are many occasions when he play-acts and tries to con the referee.

Take, for example, the home game against Verdy, who were top of J1 with just four games to go.

Reds were beating them comfortably 2-0 when, just before halftime, Emerson tried to win a penalty with a dive. He was shown the yellow card, resulting in a two-match suspension.

The two matches he missed were away to Shimizu and Nagoya. Reds needed their goal-scoring ace at this critical time of the season, but they lost both matches and were out of the title race.

I may be being too harsh on Emerson, but I believe he cost his team a chance of winning the second stage. As I said, as a well-paid foreign player he had a responsibility to the club and to the fans.

Is this an MVP?

As a player, yes, he is a match-winner, but I think fair play must come into the reckoning, too.

I think it was a bad choice by the J.League, as Emerson does not set the right example to Japanese players or to youngsters watching the game.


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Oka-chan tips Nakazawa for MVP

15 Dec 2003(Mon)

Yokohama F Marinos manager Takeshi Okada believes his central defender Yuji Nakazawa should be named J.League MVP at the official awards ceremony Monday.

Oka-chan, who guided Yokohama to a two-stage slam in his first season as manager, says Nakazawa emerged as the life and soul of the team during the campaign.

"I always knew he was a good defender in one-on-one situations, but I was surprised by his positioning and his covering," Okada said recently at the club's training ground in Higashi Totsuka.

"He has improved his decision-making on the pitch, and his mentality is very strong.

"He is always positive and never lets his head go down." Okada described the 25-year-old national team defender as a solid and reliable professional.

"He always makes the mood of the team, on the training pitch and during a game," said Okada, Japan's head coach at the 1998 World Cup in France.

The other player Okada named from his championship-winning team was Olympic squad member Daisuke Nasu, who has been a revelation in central midfield.

Nasu is one of three players nominated for the Rookie of the Year, and seems certain to get the vote ahead of forward Masaki Fukai (Kashima Antlers) and central defender Mitsuru Nagata (Kashiwa Reysol).

Yokohama's South Korean defender, Yoo Sang Chul, has a different opinion to his manager Okada in his choice for MVP.

Yoo thinks that Marinos captain Daisuke Oku should be given the honor. "His play has been very consistent throughout the season. But not only that, he has shown a strong mentality to lead the team," said Yoo, South Korea's captain at the East Asian Championship.

It is interesting to hear the opinions of the people in the know, and basically the choice comes down to Nakazawa, Oku or Tatsuhiko Kubo, who scored some crucial goals in the second stage to keep Marinos in the hunt.

But who is going to argue with Oka-chan?

After all, he got everything else right this season.


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Hanyu for Fujita would have made more sense

11 Dec 2003(Thu)

I am sure Zico is learning a lot about his J.League players during the East Asian Football Championship.

After all, he had no choice but to pick them and test them as the dates of the tournament fall outside the dates set aside for international matches by FIFA.

This meant he could not bring back his players from Europe, and I think that has been a good thing for Zico.

In the recent past, when Japan have played many friendlies at home, Zico has always tried to put out his strongest team.

Not only has this angered some of the clubs, especially Hamburg SV, but it's also given the players a hectic schedule.

Life is already tough enough for them in Europe just trying to get in the team and then holding on to their position, without the extra burden of being absent for a few days.

On top of this, Zico's policy has deprived the J.League players a taste of international football, which is played at a different rhythm and has different pressures to club football.

So, in this respect, it has been beneficial for Zico to pick the J.League players and watch them closely at this level. He needs a squad, not just a team, as injuries and suspensions will affect his selection in the World Cup qualifying campaign starting February.

As we prepare for the Japan-Korea showdown at International Stadium Yokohama on Wednesday night, Toshiya Fujita must be wondering if it was worth coming back all the way from Holland.

I really don't know why Zico selected him, because it looks like he might not even get the chance to play.

After Tuesday's training session, Zico said he planned to start the game with Ogasawara, who didn't train Tuesday because of a hamstring injury and other niggling ailments.

In his absence from training, Oku was playing with the first team, and Fujita was with the rest of the reserves.

Zico said Fujita may have to stay on the bench the whole game, or he may get a chance during the match.

Anyway, Zico said he liked Fujita's personality and spirit, so the player would be of value off the pitch if not on it.

If I had been Zico--and don't we all think we could be a good national coach!--I would have left all the players in Europe for this tournament, and concentrated only on the J.League.

My choice would have been JEF United's Hanyu. He would have been a good backup for Ogasawara and Oku, and the experience would have been good for him.

Hanyu has just finished his second full season as a professional out of university, and I think he is a very clever and, as Troussier would say, a very interesting player.

Maybe Fujita will play after all against Korea, but I still think it's a missed chance by Zico to expand his squad and look for fresh talent.


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Kubo takes his chances

8 Dec 2003(Mon)

It was inevitable that one Japanese striker would score his first goal for the national team at the East Asian Football Championship.

After all, of the four players designated as strikers on the official team list, none of them had scored once for Japan.

In the build-up to the game against China in Tokyo on Wednesday, this lack of goals from the forwards had been a major talking point at the training sessions.

But it took Japan only four minutes and 30 seconds to find the net, thanks to an early goal from Tatsuhiko Kubo.

The Yokohama F Marinos forward scored again 10 minutes from time, after earlier hitting the post. Entering the match with no goals in 14 previous appearances, albeit many of them as a late substitute, Kubo now has two in 15, and should get more against Hong Kong at Saitama on Sunday.

This situation reminded me of a joke in England about our poor public transport system, namely the bus service: that you wait at the bus stop for an hour, and then two come at once!

Although Kubo said the statistic had not been on his mind, I am sure those two goals will have lifted a psychological barrier in his play.

His first goal owed much to the tenacity and vision of Ogasawara. At first I was groaning when Ogasawara's poor free kick on the left went straight to a Chinese player, but the Antlers playmaker quickly regained possession and chipped the ball over the top into the path of Kubo.

In typical, fearless style, Kubo bulldozed his way through a defender and the goalkeeper before knocking the ball into the net with his right foot...another unusual occurence from this predominantly left-footed player.

His second goal was very coolly exectuted, as he broke away in the inside-right channel and finished in style with his left.

I think Japan will beat Hong Kong well, but the Korea game on Wednesday will be tough.

As for Kubo's strike partner, Yoshito Okubo, he is still waiting for that first goal. At the moment he looks to have caught the "Yanagisawa Syndrome"--doing everything right but then snatching at his chances.

The Chinese keeper made a great save from Okubo in a one-on-one situation in the first half, and in the second he hit the crossbar when he should have hit the net.

He will not have a better chance to open his goals account than against Hong Kong. I am sure he will score in this game, so relax Yoshito fans!

If only Yoshito would relax, too, in front of goal.


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Rivaldo not right for FC Tokyo...if the rumours are true

4 Dec 2003(Thu)

The December edition of the London-based World Soccer monthly magazine has a picture of Rivaldo on the front cover.

"Barcelona, Milan...Spurs? Where next for Brazil's wandering star?" says the headline.

As you can see, there is no mention of FC Tokyo.

I first heard rumours linking FC Tokyo with Rivaldo at the end of last week, but forgot about it very quickly.

Then I heard it again on Monday, and that got me thinking.

First, could it be true?

Second, how could they afford to pay him?

Third, do they need him?

As a journalist, of course I should have called the club and checked out the story. I didn't, because if they said it was completely untrue it would ruin this very interesting talking point.

First, I hope it is not true, and I am sure this is so.

FC Tokyo is one of the best-run clubs in the league. They rarely make a bad signing, and, from what I can gather, they have a very sensible pay structure.

My admiration for Jean Witte in defense and Kelly in the attacking midfield role is well documented, as I think they are two of the best and most consistent overseas players in Japan. I don't know the figures, but I assume they are excellent value for money.

The signing of Rivaldo might be a good publicity stunt, but the club would have to pay him a fortune. Would this unsettle the harmony of the squad?

Would the cost put too much pressure on the club's finances?

More to the point, would he get in the team?

FC Tokyo is built for speed, with Ishikawa on the right and Toda on the left.

Kelly brings everything together perfectly on the attacking front.

While FC Tokyo need a new center forward to replace Amaral, this is not the role for Rivaldo.

As a point of discussion, not fact, I could see only one place for Rivaldo in the FC Tokyo team, and that's replacing Miyazawa at left "volante."

Let's face it, Rivaldo hasn't played much recently, and would his fitness and stamina be high enough to keep up with Hiromi Hara's flying, aggressive young team.

I am sure the reports are just speculation.

In fact I hope so, as I think it would be a bad move for FC Tokyo to get involved in deals like this.

It is not the path J.League clubs should be going down. It only leads to ruin.


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Okada the dreamer

1 Dec 2003(Mon)

Throughout his coaching career, Takeshi Okada has always come across as a deep thinker and a very pragmatic manager.

So I was a little surprised to hear a story he told me when I called in at the Yokohama F Marinos training ground at Higashi Totsuka this week.

Looking ahead to Saturday's home game against Jubilo Iwata, Oka-chan said he had dreamed of this situation even before the fixture list for the 2003 season had been published.

"I dreamed that we would be playing Jubilo in the last game of the season, competing for the championship," he said.

"We beat Jubilo to become champions, and there were a lot of people at Yokohama."

When the fixture list came out, Jubilo and Marinos opened the first stage at Shizuoka Ecopa, and met again on the final day of the second stage at International Stadium Yokohama.

"The dream is coming true," said Oka-chan.

"It's a very good position to be in, and we are happy to play in this situation."

In his dream, Okada said Marinos had beaten Jubilo by either 2-1 or 3-2. The important thing was, he said, for it to be an entertaining game with lots of good football and a few goals.

Looking at the top of the table going into this 15th and final second-stage game, Jubilo (26 points) hold a two-point advantage over second-placed Kashima Antlers (24), and Marinos and JEF United are a further point back with 23.

Like most J.League observers this week, I have tried to calculate all eventualities regarding the Marinos-Jubilo and Reds-Antlers games.

The most likely scenario, for me anyway, is for Marinos and Jubilo to draw, and for Antlers not to win, which would be enough for Jubilo to win the title.

I know Antlers have vast experience in this situation, but I think Reds will beat them with Emerson back from suspension. He is just too hot to handle.

When Emerson does not play, Reds are not the same force, because opposing defenders can concentrate more on marking Tanaka and Nagai, and Yamase supporting them from midfield.

Oka-chan's dream did not include Antlers, and neither did his preparations for the Jubilo game.

"We can't think about if Antlers or winning or losing. We have to concentrate only on winning our match against Jubilo. There is no pressure on us, because all we can do is our best. After that, only God knows what will happen."

A Marinos victory at home to Jubilo, together with a draw or defeat for Kashima, would give Oka-chan's men the title on goal difference. This is perfectly possible, too.

It is not such a dream after all.


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