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March 2004

Tamada impresses at training camp

28 Mar 2004(Sun)

One of the positive things to have come out of the infamous "Kashima Kabakura" incident is that Zico has been able to call up Kashiwa Reysol forward Keiji Tamada.

Without Kubo and Okubo, Zico had no option but to look elsewhere for another J.League striker to accompany Masashi Motoyama. His other three forwards all play in Europe: Yanagisawa, Suzuki and Takahara.

Tamada is a fine choice by Zico.

As Reysol fans quickly discovered, Tamada is a predominantly left-footed player. He has a lovely first touch, an abundance of natural ability, and is a well-balanced runner.

Quite simply, he looks like a quality player in everything he does.

I spoke to Tsuneyasu Miyamoto about Tamada at the Narita City training ground this week.

Tsune said that, prior to the training camp, he thought Tamada only had a left foot.

"When I play against him I must put pressure on his left foot, but I have found that his right foot is improving.

"I think he has very high potential."

Tsune said Tamada's qualities were that he could go for goal on his own, or he can use the other players around him.

"He is not an egoist," said Tsune.

"He has spirit, a good shot and a good cross."

At the moment, Tamada is in a squad of 23 players. That number must be reduced to 18 for the match in Singapore on Wednesday night, so will Tamada make the cut?

It's unlikely that Zico will bring back the three forwards from Europe and then not pick them, so it looks like Motoyama and Tamada might be competing for the fourth place for the forwards.

If Tamada is left out, I can't imagine him being too negative about it, as he knows he has made his mark already.

He is still only 23 (24 on April 11) and Japan's national team has a busy year with a couple of European tours coming up.

Tamada will get his chance sooner or later.


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Yamamoto deserves first choice for Olympics

25 Mar 2004(Thu)

Now that Japan have qualified for the Olympic Games, the Japan Football Association needs to conduct some hard talking over selection.

The Olympic football tournament starts on August 11, two days before the opening ceremony in Athens.

This is only four days after the final of the Asian Cup, which will be held in Beijing on August 7.

Japan will be defending the Asian Cup they won under Philippe Troussier in Lebanon four years ago, and of course the JFA must plan all the way through to the final.

Will Zico want Okubo, Ishikawa, Moniwa, Tulio, Tanaka or others in his national squad for China?

Which three overage players will Masakuni Yamamoto want to bolster his under-23 team for Athens?

These are the issues to be discussed between Zico, Yamamoto and JFA technical chief Kozo Tashima when the national team returns from Singapore.

Maybe this is the formula to keep everyone happy:

1) Yamamoto has the right to choose all players of Olympic qualifying age. After all, why does Zico need Okubo when he has Takahara, Yanagisawa, Suzuki, Kubo and Motoyama? Why does he need Moniwa when he has Nakazawa, Tsuboi and Miyamoto?

2) Zico has first choice of all players who do not qualify for the Olympics. This allows him to pick all the overseas players, and still leaves plenty of players in the J.League. He does not need to pick Olympic age players and just keep them on the bench.

3) Yamamoto can then select any player over the age of 23 who is not crucial for Zico. For example, Sogahata or Doi as goalkeeper, as Narazaki is first choice, and one of those two will be the back-up keeper in the Asian Cup.

This strategy may seem strange in most countries, where the national team takes clear priority over the Olympic team.

But in Japan the Olympics are special, and Olympic football enjoys a much higher profile here than in virtually every other country.

For the three recent qualifying games in Japan against Bahrain, Lebanon and UAE, some 160,000 fans flocked to Saitama and to the National Stadium.

No other country in the world would have attracted such a huge turnout for Olympic qualifying games.

Clearly players cannot take part in both the Asian Cup and the Olympic Games, as both coaches will be holding training camps and playing warmup games.

But Yamamoto deserves to be given the best available at under-23 level, including Okubo, Moniwa, Ishikawa and the rest.

And if you asked Okubo where he would rather play, in Chongqing, known as "The Furnace," for the Asian Cup, or in Athens, I'm sure he would pick the Olympics.


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Friday feelings, good and bad

22 Mar 2004(Mon)

Friday began and ended in very different moods.

On Friday morning I was full of life, a spring in my step on the way to the station, and singing "O-ku-bo Yo-shi-to, na na na na na" along the way.

This was, of course, the day after Japan's epic 3-0 win against the UAE to book a ticket to the Olympic Games.

It was a great night for Japanese football at Kokuritsu, a proud night, as Masakuni Yamamoto's young lions, after a long journey, smashed down the city gates and finally entered Athens.

Okubo, of course, was at the centre of it, scoring two goals on the night, three in all, and giving Japan a new dimension from the first leg in the UAE.

At first I thought Yamamoto was wrong not to take Yoshito to Abu Dhabi, especially after the 0-0 draw with Bahrain in Japan's first match.

But Japan's head coach proved to be as cunning and tactical as a master card player, holding his ace until just the right time, and then playing it perfectly to collect the jackpot.

But that was Thursday night, and Friday morning.

Friday afternoon was a totally different story.

Zico was even more sombre than usual at his news conference to announce the squad for the Singapore match on March 31.

The "Kabakura Seven" were all missing, including the aforementioned Yoshito, as well as Zico's saviour against Oman, Kubo. Even Ogasawara, a Zico favourite, was not spared punishment.

But the "Kabakura Seven" was, in fact, "Eight" as Nobuhisa Yamada was also punished, even though he spent only a few minutes in the bar before realising his mistake and heading for the hotel.

Zico is always very serious at his official news conferences, unlike Troussier, who loved the spotlight and provided non-stop amusement as well as his football philosophy.

This time it was understandable, as Zico felt let down by the players, and said he didn't know if he could trust them again.

Rumour has it that one of the reasons why the players broke the curfew was because they were disillusioned with Zico's selection policy, namely picking the Europe-based players no matter how well the J.Leaguers performed in their absence.

This may or may not be true, but clearly there are problems within Zico's squad.

All the doubts and uncertainty over the direction of the national team under Zico came flooding back, taking some of the shine off the Olympic team's heroics.

That's a great shame, as Yamamoto's Young Blues had put the smile back on the face of Japanese football.


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Bahrain's tactics are a disgrace to the game

18 Mar 2004(Thu)

Almost two years of hard work will be tested over 90 tense minutes on Thursday night when Japan play their final game in Group B of the Olympic qualifying campaign.

I must admit, after Japan left Abu Dhabi with seven points from three games, I thought it might be all over by now, and Japan would have enough points to make Thursday's finale against the UAE a "going away" party.

But as these latest results show, you can never predict or expect anything in football.

Japan's 1-0 defeat by Bahrain at Saitama Stadium on Sunday gave their rivals renewed hope, and Japan will have to set out to beat the UAE at National Stadium to stay on top.

Even then, a narrow victory might not be enough, if Bahrain beat Lebanon by a big margin at Nishigaoka. The matches kick off simultaneously so no team has an advantage of knowing their rivals' score.

On the other hand, Japan could draw and still go to Athens, or even lose and go through!

Anything can happen.

Japan are still in the driving seat, as they have a goal difference of plus six, compared to Bahrain's plus two. They both have 10 points from five matches, three more than the UAE, who are third with seven points and could still qualify if they beat Japan and Bahrain lose to Lebanon.

From a sporting and fair play point of view, I sincerely hope Japan qualify.

Bahrain's gamesmanship, with players feigning injury and staying down after the lightest of contact, has been a disgrace to the game, and to the "Olympic spirit," whatever that is supposed to mean these days.

Japanese fans were quick to catch on at Saitama, and full credit for jeering the Bahrain players.

I was also impressed with Japan's players for not giving Bahrain the ball back after the goalkeeper had been treated for a non-existent injury, after clearing the ball into touch near the end of Sunday's game.

This kind of behaviour is a terrible advert for the game, and for the millions of young fans watching on TV.

Steve Perryman, the former S-Pulse and Reysol manager, hated this tactic, and always said it proved one thing: that the players doing it, and their coach, obviously thought they were not good enough to win the game fairly.

I agree with Perryman 100 per cent, and I hope the referees do, too, on Thursday night.

It is going to be a tough game for Japan, and they are going to have to give maximum concentration and take their goalscoring chances.

Even though Japan beat the UAE 2-0 in Abu Dhabi, I cannot see Japan winning by more than one goal this time, if they can win at all.

For the sake of football I hope they do.


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J.League giants fear Reds

15 Mar 2004(Mon)

In the last few weeks I've asked several players and coaches who they think will challenge for the J.League championship this season.

All the answers included Yokohama F Marinos, Jubilo Iwata and Kashima Antlers.

This is no surprise.

But they all included one more team: Urawa Reds.

There is a feeling around the clubs that this could be the year when Urawa finally gets it right, and the fans get the trophy they deserve.

A lot of money has been spent during the winter, especially at Urawa with the signing of Alessandro Santos.

They also have Sakai to bolster the center of midfield, the impressive Tulio at the back, plus the new German coaching team of Guido Buchwald and Gert Engels.

Buchwald, of course, was a hero of the Reds fans from 1994 to 1997, and rode a white horse around Komaba after his final match.

His assistant, Engels, knows Japanese football better than any other foreign coach after his years of experience with Flugels, JEF United and Kyoto.

With Emerson up front, the national squad quartet of Tsuzuki, Yamada, Tsuboi and Santos, and the Olympic team quartet of Tulio, Suzuki, Yamase and Tanaka....surely this is strong enough to win the championship this season.

There is no doubt Buchwald is happy to be back in Japan, to take up his first position as head coach.

"I have a very good feeling because this is my second home," he said recently.

"I missed it sometimes when I was in Stuttgart.

"When Urawa offered me the job of head coach I was surprised, and also very happy. Now I am very excited and cannot wait for the start."

Saturday's Marinos-Reds match promises to be an early-season classic, and some 51,000 tickets had been sold by Friday lunchtime.

Buchwald describes the quality of the players as much better than in his playing days. This is not a criticism of his old teammates, just a comment about the rapid progress being made throughout Japanese football.

"In my opinion all the teams are getting better and stronger in the J.League. The level has come up," he said.

The problem facing Urawa, and several other teams, is can they overcome the absence of players on national team duty?

This will play a big part in a busy season.


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Aoki's omission highlights Japan's new strength

11 Mar 2004(Thu)

Japan's Olympic team coach Masakuni Yamamoto has made two changes to his group for the second phase of the final qualifying round in Japan next week.

Yuki Abe came in for Takeshi Aoki, and Yoshito Okubo replaced Daisuke Sakata in attack.

The fact that Abe and Okubo came in was hardly a surprise, because Yamamoto had suggested he would make changes when announcing his original squad for the trip to Abu Dhabi.

Okubo for Sakata was also predictable, as Tanaka, Takamatsu and Hirayama were not going to be left out after their efforts in the first three games.

But, for me, the guide to how much this team has improved since last year is the fact that there is no place for Aoki.

For a long time he was indispenable in this squad.

The Kashima Antlers midfielder played as libero for the under-23s, and this position enabled him to display the full range of his elegant, natural ball skills. Combined with his strong physique and power, Aoki could go on and become the complete player. He still has time on his side.

But, for the moment, Yamamoto does not need him.

Now he has Tulio, who has quickly become the heart and soul of the team. He has added character and passion, and has emerged as a natural leader.

When things aren't happening for Japan in attack, he tries to get things moving by roaring forward, but making sure Konno is covering the space he has left behind.

Yamamoto now has Abe, too, as the JEF United player has recovered from his foot injury which required surgery in December.

JEF manager Ivica Osim is considering playing Abe as libero this season in the J.League, but he has been named as a midfielder in Yamamoto's squad.

I can't see Yamamoto changing either of his two central midfielders, Suzuki and Konno, although I wish Konno would stop pulling the jersey of his opponent, which I saw him do needlessly on a couple of occasions in Abu Dhabi.

But Abe will get his chance during the second phase, either at the back or in central midfield.

Aoki won't, and that goes to show how much the long delay in the final qualifying round, caused by the SARS outbreak, has benefited Japan's Olympic team.


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Please, no more Hirayama!

8 Mar 2004(Mon)

Was it Japan's Olympic team playing in Abu Dhabi, or was it just Sota Hirayama?

I must admit I have been a bit confused this week, as I have watched Japan's three games against Bahrain, Lebanon and the UAE.

On the first night, I quickly noticed that the TV camera was always pointed at Hirayama when there was no action to follow. For example, before kick-off or when there was a break in the game for a foul or something.

I couldn't believe how the camera lingered on Japan's 18-year-old center forward.

The game ended 0-0, of course, and the next morning I was on the train for Yokohama. I noticed a man reading a sports newspaper with the massive headline "Hirayama, no goal."

I was beginning to feel angry.

Next to me was sitting an elderly woman, talking to her daughter or maybe daughter-in-law. The old lady was talking about Japan's 0-0 draw with Bahrain, and said "Hirayama-kun" had not scored a goal.

That's great, I thought, the older generation taking an interest in football, even if it's just Hirayama.

During the second match against Lebanon I came close to turning off my TV. The Hirayama complex was driving me crazy.

Tanaka had a brilliant game, scoring the first goal with a clever header, admittedly from Hirayama's knock-down, setting up the second for Captain Keita and then picking out Takamatsu to score the third with a crossfield pass from right to left. Ishikawa's fourth, with his left foot, was a screamer!

But again the TV people seemed more concerned with Hirayama sitting on the bench.

Last night, Friday, Hirayama again was taken off, and a fantastic second half, with goals from Takamatsu and Tanaka, earned Japan a memorable victory, and brought tears of emotion from coach Yamamoto. That was a moving moment.

There was no time on TV for a Hirayama interview. Only mere mortals were interviewed such as Tanaka, Takamatsu and Suzuki.

If Troussier was still in town, he would be furious over the Hirayama hype, and probably drop him for the Japan series of games.

No fault of Hirayama's, of course, but because the media treatment was unbalancing the atmosphere of the squad.

All this media worship of a young talent confused him in Japan, especially with Shinji Ono at the beginning of the Frenchman's reign.

Football is a team game, and Hirayama is one member of the team.

The treatment he receives is unfair on the young man himself and also on his teammates, who deserve more respect and recognition.


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Reysol looking hungry for new season

4 Mar 2004(Thu)

The Chiba Bank Cup has become one of the highest profile pre-season friendlies in Japan.

The 10th edition of this Chiba derby between Kashiwa Reysol and JEF United Ichihara was staged at Hitachi Stadium on Sunday afternoon, and the home side won convincingly 3-0. They now lead the series 8-2.

I was very impressed with Reysol. They looked sharp and hungry, and several young players are starting to establish themselves, suggesting the immediate future is brighter than the recent past.

These included Nagata and Kondo, both 20, at the back, and Otani, 19, in central midfield, alongside the veteran Shimotaira.

Off the bench came striker Yano and midfielder Yazawa, both 19, and defender Nakazawa, 21.

Reysol played with a vibrancy and a confidence I haven't seen for a few seasons, and made JEF look slow and confused.

The conditions were difficult, with a hard pitch and a swirling wind, but JEF had little to offer as an attacking force.

Without the Korean Eagle Choi Yong Soo, there was no focal point to the attack, no threat in the air, and it is going to take time for Marquinhos, a clever and skilfull player, to fit into the JEF system.

Reysol's new manager, Ikeya, was well prepared for the match.

He played Myojin on the right side of midfield, in front of the dependable, combative Watanabe (Takeshi), to stop the runs down the left flank of Murai, who is so important for JEF.

This tactic had the desired effect, and Murai looked lost for much of the game before coming off in the 79th minute. He gave the ball away too easily and couldn't find any room to work his magic down the wing. Still, this is early days, and his match fitness will improve in the next few weeks.

Reysol, on the other hand, looked ready to kick off the new season right away. Yamashita was a revelation up front, and his combination with Tamada--a left-footed striker who simply oozes class and natural talent--will keep defenders busy up and down the country this season.

The JEF fans were out in force on what was a colourful occasion: the yellow and black of Reysol's Yellow Monkeys at one end, and the brighter yellow, green and red of the away support at the other.

But only Reysol fans will have good memories of the 10th Chiba Bank Cup.


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Are the Athens hopefuls Japan's "lost generation"?

1 Mar 2004(Mon)

Japan's Olympic Games hopefuls feel they have a point to prove in the United Arab Emirates next week.

But not to their Group B rivals Bahrain, Lebanon and the UAE.

No, it's to the folks back home in Japan.

As FC Tokyo winger Naohiro Ishikawa acknowledges, the players are well aware that they are being dubbed Japan's "lost generation" because of what went before them and what may come after.

"I am very accustomed to being in the age group that is not the focus of attention," Ishikawa said in an interview at the club's Kodaira training ground.

"But in some respects this brings out our strength. We have tremendous confidence and believe we can get the results we need.

"Rather than worrying about what people say, we can turn it round to our advantage and prove ourselves."

These are typically positive and honest comments from Ishikawa, who is sure to play a leading role in Japan's challenge for a third consecutive Olympic appearance.

The problem for Masakuni Yamamoto's youngsters is that they have a hard act to follow.

Just look at some of the names that went to Sydney four years ago: Nakata (Hidetoshi and Koji), Inamoto, Nakamura, Takahara, Yanagisawa, Nakazawa, Matsuda, Miyamoto...apologies to those not mentioned due to lack of space!

Following the Olympic team around in February for their three buildup games, the two players getting the most attention were 18-year-old Kunimi High School striker Sota Hirayama and Brazilian-turned-Japanese defender Tulio Tanaka.

It is easy to see, therefore, why Yamamoto's team does not have the "star quality" of Troussier's Class of 2000.

But, as Troussier himself always pointed out, there is much more to a successful team than merely talented individual players.

This is where Yamamoto's squad looks strong: well organised, great spirit, motivation, tactical awareness, and plenty of depth in most positions.

And with this extra point to prove to the doubters, they can go all the way to Athens and show they also deserve respect and recognition in their own right.


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