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February 2004

Doubts persist over FIFA plans

26 Feb 2004(Thu)

The Yokohama F Marinos have made a solid start in their bid to win the Asian Football Confederation's Champions League.

After beating Binh Dinh 3-0 in Vietnam two weeks ago, Takeshi Okada's young team thrashed Persik Kediri of Indonesia 4-0 in their second Group G match at Mitsuzawa Stadium on Tuesday night.

The Marinos team was unrecognisable from the one that won the J.League championship last year, as most of the senior players are in Shanghai for the A3 Nissan Cup.

Before the two sets of players walked out on to the pitch, I hung around in the lobby to witness at close-quarters the mood and motivation of the players.

At first I thought the Marinos players were the ball boys, waiting to march out carrying the FIFA fair play flag.

But no, it was the team, and the Indonesian visitors must have thought they had turned up for the wrong competition and were playing in a youth tournament.

It was a cold night, but over 3,500 fans came to watch, with many of them forming an orderly line some two hours before kick-off.

The discipline and patience of the Japanese fans always impresses me, because in England everyone's in the pub until 10 minutes before kick-off and then it's a mad dash to the stadium. The most important thing then is to find the toilet, and dispose of the beer before kick-off and hope you can hang on until halftime before a second visit was necessary.

The only trouble with this tactic is that, in a stadium filled with 20,000 fans, 19,000 of them have the same idea, so it frequently called for desperate measures which we shall not discuss but leave to your imagination.

Back to more pleasant topics, and the leafy confines of Mitsuzawa.

Oka-chan is hoping to win the AFC Champions League so that the Marinos can represent Asia in the Club World Championship, which FIFA is planning to stage in Japan in December 2005.

But word from the AFC in Kuala Lumpur is that it has not been decided if the 2004 or 2005 AFC Champions League winner will carry the Asian flag against the top clubs from Europe, South America, Africa, CONCACAF and Oceania.

This means that the host country might not have a club in the intended six-team lineup, which would reduce the interest considerably.

In the meantime, Marinos and Jubilo Iwata will just try and win this year's AFC Champions League, and hope it leads to games against Real Madrid or Manchester United.


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Okada's wise tip for Zico

23 Feb 2004(Mon)

The morning after Japan's depressing performance against Oman, I took the train to Higashi Totsuka and then a taxi to the Yokohama F Marinos training ground.

My mission, apart from finding out a few details about the forthcoming A3 Nissan Cup in Shanghai, was to talk to Oka-chan about the previous night's game.

Personally, I thought it was a shambles.

The players looked like they didn't have a clue what they were supposed to be doing. Passes were going astray, confidence was ebbing out of them with every mistake-riddled minute that ticked by, and, worst of all, Oman were beginning to think they might actually win.

Anyway, of course Oka-chan could not be too critical, but his opinion was of great value as, after all, he is the only coach to have steered Japan through the minefield of a World Cup qualifying campaign.

Oka-chan's main point was this.

Zico has two choices. Either he picks the players from J.League clubs who are fit and raring to go, or he picks the players he has brought all the way back from Europe, even though several of them have spent much of the season on the bench or on the treatment table.

Clearly Zico prefers the latter, hence the inclusion of Shunsuke, Ina and "Atsushi-Goal."

Was Ina playing? I never saw him.

Why did Shunsuke play for 90 minutes when he had only just come back for Reggina after a long injury lay-off?

Yanagi? Well, that was okay, because he had scored against Tunisia, Romania and Iraq in recent appearances for the national team.

Okada said the introduction of Ogasawara had given the team better organisation, and that Kubo was in fine physical condition.

Kubo it was, of course, who saved the day, and maybe even Zico's job, with his cool, injury-time goal.

Oka-chan's opinion should be taken on board by Zico, who, as I have said from the very beginning of his reign, is merely selecting an all-star team in the hope that they will tune in to each other's wavelength.

It's not working, and maybe the JFA should keep Okada in mind if they need him to rescue another sinking Japanese ship!


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Okubo's treatment is puzzling

19 Feb 2004(Thu)

Yoshito Okubo must be wondering what's gone wrong.

Last Thursday, after making a brief substitute appearance for Zico's Japan against Iraq, he was left out of the Brazilian trainer's squad for Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Oman.

Four days later, on Monday, he was surprisingly omitted from Masakuni Yamamoto's under-23 squad to contest the first phase of the final Olympic qualifying round in the UAE from March 1-5.

At the end of last year, Yoshito was the Talk of the Town.

Suddenly, no one wants to know.

At Monday's Olympic team press conference, Yamamoto said he was considering bringing Okubo into the squad for the second phase of games in Japan from March 14-18. He said Okubo needed a rest, and that he was satisfied with the form of his four strikers in the squad.

Still, I am puzzled by Okubo's treatment.

He was kept out of the two Olympic team friendlies against Iran and Russia because he was with Zico's squad, even though he was suspended for the game against Malaysia at Kashima.

Then, with Yanagisawa coming back from Italy straight into the team to face Iraq, Okubo was on the bench.

All the time I thought Okubo--and Moniwa and Ishikawa for that matter--would have been better off with the Olympic squad, working with Tanaka and the new boy Hirayama, and on his team play with the attacking midfielders, be it Yamase, Matsui or Maeda.

It's true that Okubo faces a busy year, but he might not do if Japan don't qualify for Athens.

This is why I am surprised he has been left out for the UAE trip.

In short, Okubo is a match-winner. Explosive and single-minded in his mission for goals.

Even with Hirayama in the squad, I still think the Tanaka-Okubo combination would be dynamite. Their pace, aggressive running and endless energy would give defenders a torrid time.

Now we will have to wait until the Japan series of games to see this.

Hopefully the pressure on Okubo to produce again will not be too great.

Or, indeed, that it will not be too late.


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Tulio: Japan's Rigobert Song

16 Feb 2004(Mon)

So, in the end, Zico selected only one Olympic team player for his national squad: FC Tokyo defender Teruyuki Moniwa.

After watching the four matches in February involving the Olympic and national teams, I would have been very tempted to pick at least one more member of the under-23 squad.

No, not Yoshito Okubo or Naohiro Ishikawa, who were also training with Zico rather than Masakuni Yamamoto.

But Marcus Tulio Tanaka, the Brazilian-turned-Japanese who had two eventful games against Iran U-23 and Russia.

Tulio really impressed me with his energy and his commitment.

He is far from the finished product, as Yamamoto pointed out after the 1-1 draw with Russia, but he has much to offer on the pitch.

My early conclusion was that Tulio is a Brazilian/Japanese version of Rigobert Song, Cameroon's all-action, never-say-die captain.

He is raw, occasionally wild, but gives everything to the cause and plays with his heart. What you see is what you get, and there are no half-measures with Tulio. If he gives only 100 percent for his team, then that's a bad day for him!

A newcomer to the squad after gaining Japanese citizenship last year, Tulio was quick to make himself heard, and this can only be good for Japan as communication, or the lack of it, remains a huge obstacle in the Japanese game.

Takamatsu's goal against Russia owed everything to Tulio, who broke from inside his own half, bulldozed through the heart of the Russian defense and headed toward goal like a runaway truck. That's the sort of initiative Philippe Troussier loved in a player.

I also liked Tulio's honest comments after the game. "I was happy a goal resulted from that play, but I really wanted to score it myself," he said.

In his two games, Japan had conceded a goal each time, so how could he be satisfied?

"We've only played well if it's zero at our end," he said.

I would think Moniwa and Tulio are certain starters in the Olympic team's back three, so Yamamoto must find just one more from several candidates. I would go for Tokunaga on the right, Tulio in the middle and Moniwa on the left. That's a tough and rugged defense that would never surrender a goal without an almighty fight.

Tulio was such a breath of fresh air to the team that I am sure he would have made a big contribution to Zico's squad, too, though not as a first-team player for some time yet.


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The Ilhan Show opens in Tokyo

12 Feb 2004(Thu)

The room was filled with excitement and anticipation as the star of the show prepared to enter the arena.

The lights dimmed, the drums rumbled, and "Prince" was led out by the vanguard of his entourage.

No, not the pop music idol.

This was Ilhan Mansiz, nicknamed "The Prince" by his Japanese army of fans after his exploits for Turkey in the 2002 World Cup.

And it was Tuesday afternoon, at a top Tokyo hotel, when Prince Ilhan introduced himself to the mass media...all 200 of them.

He surprised many with his short hair, as opposed to the flowing locks of 2002, and he sparkled in front of the cameras in his white suit and yellow shirt over a white T-shirt.

"I want to have a bright future, so this is why I chose this suit," he said.

And the hair?

"I know that most of my fans remember me with long hair, but I am at peace with this style."

And for David Beckham?

"I know he has a lot of fans in Japan. He is a great player and I respect him. I won't be trying to win over his fans, because I have my own."

Every smile and gesture was greeted with a high-pitched roar of whirling cameras, and 19 TV crews devoured the drama.

Vissel Kobe, now with the Rakuten billions behind them, are hoping to boost their average home attendance from just under 11,000 to 20,000 this season. Prince Ilhan is the flagship of this bold new world, and is being paid handsomely for his services. So is his Turkish club Besiktas.

At times, especially when he was smiling, Ilhan reminded me of a young Richard Gere in movies such as "An Officer and a Gentleman."

Have Vissel signed a football player or a movie star?

They hope it's both, of course, and good luck to them. Kansai football needs a boost, and Vissel now have Prince Ilhan to stir up some interest.

But don't expect wondrous things from the striker.

He is 28, and remained in Turkey after his World Cup heroics. He didn't transfer to a big European club, or even to Chelsea.

At the World Cup he played in all seven games for Turkey, the first six as a substitute and the full 90 minutes only in the playoff for third place against Korea.

He scored three goals, the winner against Senegal in the quarterfinals and two against Korea in the "dead" match.

He is not a great player, but he is great for Vissel Kobe.

Catch the Ilhan Show at a stadium near you this season.


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Verdy are right to be concerned over Mboma

9 Feb 2004(Mon)

No wonder that Tokyo Verdy 1969 manager Ossie Ardiles is "worried" about his star striker, Patrick Mboma.

Mboma was planning to have an operation at the end of last season to clear up a minor knee problem.

It would have meant him missing the African Cup of Nations but being ready for the start of the new J.League season in March.

But when the Cameroon president insisted Mboma be included in the Indomitable Lions' squad, the player delayed the surgery and went to Tunisia.

Cameroon are now in the quarterfinals, where they will meet Nigeria, after Mboma scored four times in Group C action, including a hat-trick against Zimbabwe.

Ardiles, therefore, has mixed emotions.

On the one hand he is happy Mboma is happy, scoring goals for his country.

On the other, Ardiles does not want a minor problem becoming a major one.

"He is going to have the operation straight away after Cameroon are eliminated, but to be perfectly honest I am a little bit worried," Ardiles said this week at Verdy's Yomiuri Land headquarters.

"It's touch and go if he can start the season, and he is crucial for us."

The African Cup final is February 14, and Mboma said he would need "five or six weeks" to be match fit after the operation.

So if the Lions go all the way to the final, there is little chance Mboma will be ready for the March 13 J.League kickoff.

Verdy officials were hoping that Mboma would have the operation immediately after the Emperor's Cup, and rule himself out of the African Cup.

But the draw of playing for his country proved too great.

Having stayed in the same Niigata hotel as the Cameroon squad at the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup, I could see there is really a special bond between the players. They are like one big family, which made the tragic death of Marc-Vivien Foe last year in France even harder to deal with.

By the way, I hear former Verdy midfielder Ramon might be joining JEF United Ichihara. Manager Ivica Osim says he needs an experienced player who can hold the ball in midfield and conduct the attack.

JEF have also been linked with former Verdy and Marinos striker Marquinhos, as a replacement for Choi Yong Soo, now on loan at Kyoto.

All should be revealed within a week or so.


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Zico: Just full of surprises

5 Feb 2004(Thu)

It was very interesting, not to mention very cold, watching Japan's training session Tuesday afternoon/evening at Kashima Stadium.

I had fully expected Zico to stick with 3-5-2 after Japan played well at the East Asian Football Championship in December with this system.

But no, the head coach went back to a four-man defense.

Not only this, his formation became 4-1-3-2, with only one defensive midfielder, Endo, playing in front of the four defenders: Yamada (the Reds Yamada, not the Verdy version), Tsuboi, Miyamoto and Santos.

In front of Endo there were three attacking midfielders constantly changing positions and roaming across the pitch. These were Fujita, Ogasawara and Motoyama.

The two strikers were Kubo and Kurobe, as Okubo is suspended for Saturday's match against Malaysia after being sent off against Korea in the last East Asian championship match.

Zico's formation took many people by surprise, and seemed to indicate he was laying the foundations for when the European players return for the World Cup qualifier against Oman at Saitama on February 18.

He has two matches to prepare for the Oman game: against Malaysia and then Iraq on Thursday, February 12.

So clearly it looks like he is abandoning the 3-5-2 system which I feel suits Japan's players best and which gives the team better balance.

Against Malaysia and Iraq, Japan should be able to win without much trouble. The Malaysians, especially, will be uncomfortable in the icy temperatures on the Ibaraki coast on a February night, a world removed from the heat and humidity of their tropical country.

But I am worried about when Japan face stronger opposition with strong ambition. Yamada and Santos are better going forward than backward, and is one defensive midfielder enough?

Three players seemed to have the freedom to move around. Is this too many?

Zico, of course, still has three days to look at his options, but I didn't like the first one.


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Basking in the Reysol rays

2 Feb 2004(Mon)

Round about this time every year, the J.League clubs have a special day set aside for the media.

These are very enjoyable occasions, as the atmosphere is always relaxed, friendly and positive.

Clubs give the opportunity for the media to talk to their new players, talk to the manager and to the leading executives about the hopes for the new season.

On Wednesday I made the short Joban Line journey from Ueno to Kashiwa for the Reysol media afternoon, and this was an extremely beneficial experience.

It took place at Hitachi Stadium, one of my favourite grounds in Japan as it reminds me so much of an English stadium in the lower divisions.

There is no running track, so the fans are close to the pitch. The home fans are at one end, and the away fans at the other, and it takes only around 8,000 to create a really good atmosphere.

On Wednesday, of course, the stadium was deserted.

It was bathed in bright winter sunshine, giving it a gleam and a sparkle as if ready to welcome the new season, a fresh start.

I sat in one of the pitch-side dug-outs for a few minutes before the press conference began, absorbing the warm rays of the sun.

I love the "atmosphere" of an empty stadium, as it easy to close your eyes and to imagine the noise of the crowd as play moves from one end to the other.

A corner kick for Reysol is accompanied by the frenzied cry of "Goal! Goal! Kashiwa Goal!", while an opposing player who comes too close to the Kashiwa Ultras, known as the Yellow Monkeys, is greeted with a barrage of insults.

It's always amusing at Hitachi Stadium watching the security people make sure the Monkeys don't burst through the safety net and jump on to the pitch, but I am sure they only behave like that because the net is there!

By the way, 2004 on the Lunar New Year calendar is the Year of the Monkey, so maybe this is a good omen for the Kashiwa faithful.

The club has invested heavily again this season, and I am particularly looking forward to seeing the young Brazilian midfielder Dudu.

Reading this month's World Soccer magazine from London, the 20-year-old from Vitoria has already been compared to the legendary, languid Socrates, a former teammate of Zico's.

Even though Dudu will not arrive in Kashiwa for another week or so, he was still a major talking point of the Reysol media day.

Maybe 2004 will also be the Year of the Dudu.


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