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January 2004

Don't forget about the women's team, too

29 Jan 2004(Thu)

In a busy year for Japanese football at all age-group levels, it's important not to forget about the women's team.

The Japan Football Association certainly didn't forget on Tuesday, staging a lavish draw ceremony for Asia's qualifying tournament for the Athens Olympics women's football tournament.

The general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation, Peter Velappan, conducted the draw, assisted by four young, futsal-loving beauties.

In all my years watching football, they were the best "golden quartet" I have ever seen, far more attractive than Zico's Nakata-Ono-Inamoto-Nakamura combination!

The outcome of the draw was that Japan will play Vietnam and Thailand in Group C, and should have few problems qualifying for the semifinals, where they can expect to meet North Korea.

The North Koreans have eclipsed China's "Steel Roses" as Asia's top women's team, and Japan will have to work hard in the Tokyo semifinal on April 24 to book one of two places for Asia in the Athens lineup.

All the speakers, led by JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi, spoke of the growing appeal of women's football.

And the praise was not without justification.

I have been an admirer of the women's game for many years, after attending the Asian championship in Kota Kinabalu in 1995.

There were many aspects of the game I liked, particularly the spirit in which it is played.

Unlike the men's professional game at the highest level, there was no diving, no cheating, no feigning injury and no trying to con the referee.

For me it was a very pure form of the game, innocent and free of the negative traits listed above.

Also, with the women lacking the natural power of the men, there was a lot of emphasis on skill, technique and movement.

But this did not mean there wasn't some powerful play, and guests who attended Tuesday's Olympic qualifing draw could not have failed to be impressed by the highlights of the 2003 Asian women's championship.

The qualifying tournament for Athens will be held between April 18-26.

Group A, featuring North Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and Group B, with China, Myanmar, South Korea and Guam, will both be held in Hiroshima on April 18, 20 and 22.

Group C will take place in Tokyo. Japan will play Vietnam on April 18 and Thailand on April 22, with Thailand and Vietnam clashing April 20.

The semifinals will be on April 24, with Japan meeting North Korea in Tokyo if everything goes to plan, with the third-place playoff and final both at Hiroshima on April 26.

I know it's a hectic, expensive year for Japanese football fans, but I would strongly recommend a trip to watch what will surely be an exciting women's tournament.

You might be surprised by the skill level and the tactical expertise of the top teams.


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Marinos start early for hectic year ahead

26 Jan 2004(Mon)

It's no wonder that the Yokohama F Marinos players returned to training on Wednesday, some seven weeks before the start of the new J.League season on March 13.

February and March will see the J.League champions playing in no fewer than five different competitions.

That's right: Five!

First up is the Asian Champions League Group G games in Vietnam and Indonesia.

Then it's off to Shanghai for the four-team A3 Nissan Cup, featuring the champion clubs from Japan, Korea and China, plus a second team from the host country.

Marinos will then play Emperor's Cup winners Jubilo Iwata in the Xerox Super Cup in Tokyo on March 6, a week before the new league season opens.

And on the last Saturday of March, the 27th, the Nabisco Cup kicks off.

"We've worked it out that we will play 62 games this season if we reach the final of all the different competitions," goalkeeper coach Dido Havenaar said this week at the club's Totsuka training ground.

"When you also look at the number of international matches, some players could be playing 80 games in the year!

"This is why we need four goalkeepers, and two complete teams."

Manager Takeshi Okada welcomed the players with the news that he wants 62 points this season, four more than last year, and 60 goals, which is also four more than last season's efforts.

To win the league championship again, says Okada, will need a goal difference of 30, compared to last year's 23 (56 goals for, 33 against).

Okada's two main targets are the J.League championship and the Asian Champions League, the continent's equivalent of the UEFA Champions League in Europe and the Copa Libertadores in South America.

A clash of dates involving the Champions League and A3 Nissan Cup in Shanghai has been averted, so Marinos can field the best players available in both competitions.

When there was a conflict of interest, Okada was right in giving priority to the Champions League ahead of the A3 Nissan Cup, as the Asia-wide competition provides a path to the Club World Championship, which FIFA is planning to resurrect in 2005.

If Marinos win the Champions League final this year and represent Asia in the FIFA event, they will be in the draw alongside the champion clubs of Europe and South America, as well as Africa, CONCACAF and Oceania.

Just think...Marinos against Real Madrid? Marinos against Boca Juniors?

The A3 Cup was a big success in Tokyo last year, but the pan-Asia events project the club, and the game in general, on a much wider scale.


Further to writing my article this morning(January 24), I have since discovered that the Asian Football Confederation has turned down a request to reschedule the Persik Kediri-Marinos Champions League match in Indonesia from Feb. 24 to Feb. 15. This means there is now a clash with A3.

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Big step forward for J.League

22 Jan 2004(Thu)

The year 2004 has started on a positive note for the J.League with the news that the two-stage system will be scrapped after this season.

This means the J.League will fall into line with the rest of the football world, and have a single-stage season in 2005.

Chairman Masaru Suzuki confirmed the change at a meeting of the executive board on Tuesday, and also said the first division would be increased from 16 to 18 teams in 2005.

Both moves are good for the game here, especially the decision to abolish the two-stage system.

I have never been a fan of this, even though there have been some exciting finishes in the past couple of years.

For me, a league championship should be decided on consistency over the length of the season.

It should not be decided in a playoff, or in a penalty shootout, which happened in 1999 when Jubilo Iwata beat Shimizu S-Pulse.

Extra time, golden goals and penalty shootouts should be restricted to cup competitions, where the knockout format demands a winner.

Slowly but surely, the J.League has come to recognise this.

First, the penalty shootout was scrapped. Then golden goals and extra time, and now the two stages.

So full credit to the J.League for changing their course, and I am sure the fans will continue to support the league without the playoff.

For the past two seasons a playoff has been unnecessary anyway, as first Jubilo Iwata and then Yokohama F Marinos won both stages, costing the league something in the region of 1.2 billion yen in terms of lost revenue through sponsorship, TV rights and gate money.

As for the decision to increase the number of teams by two, this means Japan's championship will be decided over 34 matches in 2005, as opposed to 30 (2 x 15) this time.

It also gives each team two more home games, 17 instead of 15, which should help bring in extra revenue.

With a few clubs interested in joining J2, an 18-team J1 and 12-team J2 is still possible for 2005.

The future looks even more exciting without a two-stage system.


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Japan will face tough test in China

19 Jan 2004(Mon)

Make no mistake. Japan cannot afford to play below their best in the Asian Cup in China this summer.

The draw for the 16-nation finals was made on January 15, and Zico's men will play Oman, Thailand and Iran in Group D, based in Chongqing.

The top two from each of the four four-team groups will advance to the quarterfinals.

Japan will open against Oman on July 20, then take on Thailand four days later and Iran on July 28.

By then, of course, Japan will already have played Oman in a 2006 World Cup qualifying match at Saitama on February 18. Japan should be too strong for Oman, who are impressive in the age-group competitions but lack experience at the highest level.

The Thais are quick and skilfull, and can give any Asian team a hard game on their day. At the 2002 Asian Games in Korea, Japan's Olympic team rose to the occasion and thrashed Thailand on their way to the final, where they lost to Iran.

Japan-Iran, of course, will always bring back memories of when the two teams met in an Asian playoff for a place at the 1998 World Cup in France.

The match took place at a neutral venue, Johor Bahru in Malaysia in November 1997, and Japan won 3-2 in sudden-death extra time with a late goal from Masayuki Okano.

For me that remains the most important goal in the history of Japanese football.

If Iran had won that playoff, and Japan had then lost to the Aussies in the inter-continental playoff, just where would Japanese football be now?

It is impossible to say, as the fallout from World Cup failure would have made a big impact on the hosting of the 2002 World Cup, and on the interest in the J.League.

Thanks to Ya-jin's golden goal, all that is history now.

But it does not mean Japan can afford to relax in this group in July.

Of course the Japanese players have the skill and the experience to finish in the top two, but their status as an Asian super power means they are there to be shot at by the minnows.

Japan can qualify from this group, but no one should expect any easy games any more.


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Grampus, Purple Sanga mean business in J1, J2

15 Jan 2004(Thu)

An interesting match in 2004 would be Kyoto Purple Sanga against Nagoya Grampus Eight.

What must surely be the best attack in J2 against one of the best defences in J1.

Of course it won't happen, unless they meet in the Emperor's Cup at the end of next season.

But the transfer activity of both clubs in the winter break suggests they are aiming high in 2004.

After signing the South Korean goal machine Choi Yong Soo from JEF United Ichihara, Purple Sanga have managed to hold on to both Kurobe and Matsui.

That's a pretty formidable attack in J2, with the aerial power of Choi and Kurobe and the silky skills of Matsui.

Their route back to J1 looks straightforward: by air, not on the ground.

And while opposing defences will be ready for this, it doesn't mean they will be able to stop it.

As for Grampus, they have followed up the signing of the veteran Akita from Kashima with the young Purple Sanga defender Kakuda.

Despite being released by Kashima after 11 years' sterling service in Ibaraki, the Akita deal is one of the best pieces of business during the winter.

His presence alone will inspire the rest of the team, and his never-say-die attitude will sort out the men from the boys in Nagoya's well-paid but under-achieving squad.

This is what Nagoya have needed for a long time, a rough, tough Japanese leader who is not prepared to settle for second best.

Purple Sanga, too, have shown they are prepared to spend big to get back into J1 at the first time of asking.

But it makes you wonder why they didn't do this a year ago after winning the Emperor's Cup.

At that time they made a huge, expensive mistake with the signing of an unfit Ko Jong Soo.

Manager Gert Engels was against the Ko deal, complaining that the only new signing was a DVD player to help in match preparation!


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Kawaguchi still determined in Europe

12 Jan 2004(Mon)

You cannot fault Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi for effort and determination.

Next week he will leave Japan and return to Europe, with the goal of becoming first-choice keeper at his Danish club, FC Nordsjaelland.

Yoshi knows that unless he is playing regularly for his club, he cannot expect to play a part in Japan's qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

So he will be working as hard as ever toward this target.

There's no doubt Yoshi has had his problems since leaving Yokohama F Marinos for Portsmouth in England in October 2001.

But he remains optimistic, upbeat, and a thoroughly pleasant young man.

It was nice to catch up with him after Masami Ihara's testimonial match in Tokyo on Jan. 4.

His English now is virtually fluent, which is just as well as he is finding Danish very hard to pick up.

"I am learning to speak and to write, but the listening is very difficult," he said (in English, not Danish!).

"Fortunately, everyone in Denmark speaks perfect English, and they are very kind. It's just so cold!"

So cold, in fact, that the Danish league runs from spring to early winter, closing down from December to March.

"When I get back to Denmark we have two months to prepare for the new season," he said.

"There will be many training matches and friendlies, so I hope I can be in the team when the season starts."

Yoshi explained that he played only four times for the first team after joining Nordsjaelland from Portsmouth in September 2003.

Then an ankle injury ruled him out for over a month, during which he missed seven or eight games.

"The doctor said it was only five percent necessary to have an operation, and 95 percent not necessary. I went with the 95 percent, and now the ankle is fine after a rest."

This lack of first-team football has been evident on the two occasions Zico has picked him for Japan, as he made a blunder against Uruguay and Romania.

Yoshi could surely return to the comfort zone of the J.League, but he wants to stick it out in Europe and be a success.

He is only 28, which is young for a keeper, and still has the desire to improve.

For such a likeable person, it is impossible not to wish him all the very best in his quest.


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Japan stages a super soccer show for Ihara

8 Jan 2004(Thu)

The world discovered in 2002 that Japan can stage a super soccer show, namely the FIFA World Cup.

Those of us who live here knew that anyway, because national team games, J.League exhibitions and other one-off matches such as the Toyota Cup are always a spectacular occasion.

At Tokyo's National Stadium on Sunday, Japanese football came together to honour one of its most distinguished and deserving servants: Masami Ihara.

More than 40 players, including past and present national team stars, as well as the legendary Korean duo of Yoo Sang Chul and Hong Myung Bo, took part in a testimonial match for Japan's 1998 World Cup captain.

Although Ihara retired a year ago, more than 31,000 fans went along to show their appreciation.

The game provided some old masters, such as Kimura (Kazushi, not Bunji!) and Ruy Ramos, the chance to turn back the clock and strut their stuff on the National Stadium stage once again.

We were also treated to a glimpse of what might have been in the troubled form of Maezono, who had the talent but lost his way.

It was after the final whistle, though, when the emotions ran high.

The music was designed to produce tears, but none from Ihara, who remained as professional as ever.

He symbolically removed his silver boots and captain's armband (sorry to be cynical here folks, but this looked suspiciously like a Nike publicity stunt), said his farewell speech on the podium, received some flowers from Gon, and performed two laps of honour.

The first was on foot, the second in the back of what looked like a pitch maintenance vehicle, but it was hard to see because of all the balloons. Maybe it was a Mercedes.

The handshakes and respect from his fellow players was genuine, as Ihara, with 123 caps and 297 J.League appearances, is one of the all-time greats for Japan.

"He was one of the first real professionals," said Hans Ooft. "I don't mean by getting a salary, but with his whole attitude and behaviour.

"When you look back 10 years from now you will say he made a huge contribution.

"As a captain he had great personality. Not a great speaker, but his presence was enough to inspire people. That is quality."

So was the afternoon itself.


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Gral ends breakout season on a high note

5 Jan 2004(Mon)

It was fitting that Rodrigo Gral should score the goal to win the Emperor's Cup for Jubilo Iwata at Tokyo's National Stadium on New Year's Day.

For the recently-completed season was a huge personal triumph for the Brazilian forward.

In 2002, Gral hardly got a chance to play because of the Nakayama-Takahara partnership which fired Jubilo to the two-stage slam.

In fact his record coming into the 2003 season was just one league goal in nine appearances.

But in 2003 he scored 21 times in J1, including eight from eight from the penalty spot, five times in the Nabisco Cup and six times in the Tennohai, including the winner against Cerezo Osaka.

That's a grand total of 32 for the three domestic competitions, which is a fine effort.

During 2003 I had a couple of long chats with Jubilo's Dutch keeper, Arno Van Zwam, about Gral's qualities.

Arno said that Gral, basically, was a penalty box poacher who did all his work close to the goal.

His goals were not spectacular, said Arno, but Gral had the natural instinct to be in the right place at the right time and put a loose ball into the net.

This is no doubt true, but maybe Gral's game developed a bit after Arno left the club and returned to Holland.

Against S-Pulse in the Tennohai semifinals he scored once, thanks to great work by Maeda, and played a part in Jubilo's other three goals.

His pass to release Nishi, who then crossed for Naruoka to head home, was a wonderful piece of play.

In the final he gave a lesson in finishing to all Japanese strikers. Collecting an accurate first-time pass from Maeda, Gral showed his control and composure in a tight situation to beat Yanagimoto in the penalty box and then slide the ball past the keeper into the corner.

It was a beautiful finish, worthy of winning a scrappy match in which Cerezo lost their shape in the second half and Jubilo took over.

So Jubilo and Gral emerged as winners, and Takahara is now just a distant memory.


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