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April 2004

Pride for Japan's "Girls in Blue"

29 Apr 2004(Thu)

The National Stadium has witnessed some dramatic and emotional nights over the years.

Put Saturday, April 24, 2004, right up there with them.

The Japanese women's 3-0 victory over North Korea in the semi-finals of the Asian qualifying tournament for Athens was nothing short of sensational.

The North Koreans entered the match as the red-hot favourites, but Japan's "Girls in Blue" tore them to pieces.

I don't think the Koreans knew what had hit them. It was like a blue whirlwind, which swept away everything in its path.

They just couldn't cope with the spirit, the determination and the skill of the home team, and the fans played a big part, too.

North Korea has taken over from China's "Steel Roses" as Asia's top women's team, but Japan refused to be intimidated by their reputation.

Two defensive mistakes put Japan in control before half-time.

The first one was a fluffed header, which Arakawa seized on and scored in style.

The second was an own goal, giving Japan that bit of luck all teams need from time to time.

With a two-goal cushion at the break and the fans going crazy, there was no way Japan were going to let North Korea back into this one.

They defended heroically, and scored a third with a close-range effort from Otani following a well-worked corner kick move.

What impressed me then, as I have pointed out before in the women's game, is that Japan just kept on playing.

No time-wasting, no feigning injury, no trying to con the referee, no cynical fouling....and for this reason they were a credit to the game of football in general.

It's no wonder that FIFA president Sepp Blatter is always singing the praises of women's football.

They can teach the men a lot about sportsmanship and fair play.

It was a magnificent achievement by Japan's "Girls in Blue," with the tears and emotion of TV commentator and former star striker Nami Otake completing a memorable night.


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Zico's future still in doubt, despite talk of 2006

26 Apr 2004(Mon)

It was very interesting to read Zico's comments out of Hungary this week. "I will continue as coach until 2006, and then I will call it a day," Zico is reported to have said to a local newspaper.

Oh really?

Following up on this, the Japanese media asked Zico about his future.

The Brazilian replied that he had no interest in coaching a J.League team, or the Brazilian national team.

Reading this, anyone would think that Japan under Zico is a growing force, and that his services as a coach would be in great demand if he left his post with the JFA.

The truth is very different, though.

Zico has taken Japan backwards, not forwards, due to his lack of coaching credentials. He has turned them from a well-organised, highly-motivated and well-drilled machine to a confused jumble of all-stars lacking direction and tactics.

I doubt if any J.League club would be interested in hiring him as their manager.

Zico was talking in the build-up to Sunday's friendly with Hungary, the result of which, I am sure, will have no influence on his future.

Neither will the game against the Czech Republic next week, or against Iceland and England in Manchester.

Japan could easily draw or maybe even beat one or two of these teams, as they are low-key preparation matches in which many substitutions will be made.

Japan's next serious match is against India at home in a World Cup qualifier on June 9, and surely they will win that one, too.

So Zico is safe through to the Asian Cup, which Japan will defend in China from July 17 to August 7.

This, I firmly believe, is when Zico's long-term fate will be decided.

If Japan don't get out of their group--and it will not be easy against Oman, Thailand and Iran--I am certain the JFA will take firm action and end the relationship.

Even if Japan finish in the top two in the group, will the JFA be satisfied with a quarter-final finish?

No, I think Zico is being very presumptious talking about the 2006 World Cup.

He faces a difficult test in China this summer, and must start showing Japan's Asian rivals a bit more respect.


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Takagi catches the eye in front of Zico's gk coach

22 Apr 2004(Thu)

There was only one candidate for the Man of the Match award after the Verdy-Sanfrecce game at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday.

It was goalkeeper Yoshinari Takagi, who produced a faultless display between the posts to earn his team a 0-0 draw.

Takagi was not too happy to receive the award. He would have preferred one of the outfield players to have been named Man of the Match for inspiring Verdy to a much-needed victory, but, on the day, Verdy had to defend for long periods.

Takagi, therefore, was the only logical choice, as he made a string of acrobatic and agile saves to keep out Sanfrecce in the second half.

Although Takagi was quite angry when he returned to the dressing rooms, maybe there was some consolation in the fact that Zico's goalkeeper coach, Cantarele, and Zico's brother and assistant, Edu, were sitting in the Press seats watching the game.

With so many matches coming up for the Olympic team, who will need a goalkeeper as one of their three overage players in Athens, and for the national team in the next few months, Takagi's heroics cannot fail to have impressed Cantarele.

Hopefully Cantarele will have put the name of Takagi on the list, alongside Narazaki, Doi, Sogahata and Tsuzuki.

Takagi has a strong physique for a keeper. He is 1.85 meters tall and weighs a sturdy 86 kgs. He is 24 years old, 25 next month, which is still young for a keeper, and has now made 53 league appearances for Verdy.

Someone who has admired Takagi from day one at Verdy is their former captain, Tsuyoshi Kitazawa.

Before the start of the 2003 season, I asked Ki-chan to select his all-time Best Eleven from the J.League, going back 10 seasons to the kick-off in 1993.

He was allowed to pick three foreign players in the team.

His initial choice for goalkeeper took me by surprise: he said Takagi!

After thinking about it for a while, though, and considering Takagi's brief time in the league compared to many other keepers, Ki-chan decided on Kawaguchi.

From that point on, I have studied Takagi closely, and can see why Ki-chan was so impressed.

The Verdy fans know it, too, as they sang "Yoshinari" after the final whistle against Sanfrecce.

Like Takagi, I am sure the home fans were wishing an outfield player had been the hero of the day.


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Jubilo: the best and the worst

18 Apr 2004(Sun)

It is not hard to respect Jubilo Iwata.

But it is hard to like them.

At Kashiwa on Wednesday night, we saw the best and the worst of Jubilo.

In the first half they played some vibrant, attacking football, scoring two goals early on and looking as if they could win by maybe five or six goals.

In the second half it was a different story.

The second half was full of spoiling, gamesmanship and time-wasting, even after Dudu had been sent off after 58 minutes to reduce Reysol to 10 men.

I just don't know why Jubilo resort to these unpleasant tactics, because they are good enough to win matches in style rather than winning ugly.

I suppose they call it "professionalism"-Dunga style!

Their first goal was wonderful.

Fujita played the ball out to Nishi on the right wing, then continued his run toward the near post.

But Nishi did not need him. Instead he crossed deep to the far post, where Gral headed the ball back into the danger zone.

The old war horse Nakayama was so close to the goal he could smell the paint on the posts, and he launched himself at the ball to score with a diving header.

The goal highlighted the team work, the understanding, the ruthless precision of Jubilo Iwata.

When Fukunishi headed home an easy second, it looked like Jubilo could score any time they wanted.

This team, however, is not the youngest. Maybe they get tired, and this is why the tactics change. They save their energy for battles to come.

Whatever the reason, I really don't like watching the other side of Jubilo Iwata.

Players feigning injury, asking the referee to show an opponent the yellow card, delaying the taking of their own goal kick, free kick or corner....the Jubilo players know every trick in the book, and try to control the game instead of the referee.

For neutrals, therefore, it is hard to like Jubilo, even if we may admire them for what they have achieved.


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Tsuchiya makes his mark

15 Apr 2004(Thu)

Zico attended the Reds-Vissel game at Komaba Stadium on Saturday, probably to check on his national team defenders.

Three of Zico's back four, of course, play for Reds: Nobuhisa Yamada, Keisuke Tsuboi and Alessandro Santos.

Of the players on view during the afternoon, clearly the best defender was....Yukio Tsuchiya of Vissel Kobe.

This was the second time I had seen Vissel play this season, following their 0-0 draw at Niigata.

On both occasions, Tsuchiya was the outstanding individual of either side.

His match Saturday got off to a bad start, when he was harshly adjudged to have fouled Tatsuya Tanaka. Santos scored from the penalty spot, and Vissel were chasing the game after only two minutes.

From that point on, though, Tsuchiya played like a man possessed.

A couple of tackles on Tanaka were among the best I've seen in the J.League, perfectly timed, hard and fair.

He is also commanding in the air and is an inspirational leader.

He scored Vissel's equaliser himself, from close range at a left-wing corner kick, but would then have been disappointed with Reds' winner from Hasebe, as this followed another corner, this time from the right. It was a sweet finish by Hasebe, though, sweeping the ball high into the net on the half-volley.

Defeat for Vissel was cruel on Tsuchiya himself, who, at 29 years old, is surely at the peak of his playing power.

I wonder if Zico calls him into his squad for the two-match tour to eastern Europe at the end of this month.

After the game I spoke to Vissel manager Ivan Hasek.

"I hope he stays here," said Hasek, when I suggested Zico should pick him.

"He is a very good player, a very important man for my team.

"He is strong and quick, very strong in one-on-one situations, has a good mentality and scores goals. He is a great player."

Hasek does not like to single out individuals, but he could not help but praise his vice-captain Tsuchiya.

I hope Zico has a look at him.


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Osim wins many admirers

12 Apr 2004(Mon)

It was no surprise to see the name of Ivica Osim being linked with the Japan national coach's job this week.

On Tuesday, a Japanese sports newspaper reported that the JEF United Ichihara manager was at the top of a JFA list of candidates to replace Zico should the national team continue to under-perform.

Personally, I doubt that the JFA has looked that far ahead.

After all, the record books show that Japan have a 100 percent record in two World Cup qualifying matches so far, even though the team's performance has not been good.

As a colleague pointed out recently, football is not ice skating. There are no points for artistic impression. There are only points for winning, and Japan have won both.

But back to Osim.

I hear he was very angry about the article, describing it as "unbelievable."

The club also said there had been no contact with the JFA, and they had no information about the link.

Still, Osim would be a popular choice, should Zico decide he had had enough, or should the JFA decide they had had enough of him.

Experienced, pragmatic, and working with his players like a grandfather with his grandsons--strict, but enjoying their development and ready to praise at the right time--Osim has made a big impact on the J.League.

He has quickly understood the strengths of the Japanese players, such as speed, fitness, technique and team work.

JEF are very well organised, and have demolished their last three opponents in league and Nabisco Cup with a game based on passing and mobility.

I saw them against S-Pulse in the Nabisco Cup, and the Shimizu players were overwhelmed. They were unable to touch the ball for long periods, as Osim's slick machine ran rings around them.

I thought after that game that Zico could learn a lot by watching JEF United. He could learn about organisation, team discipline and attacking rhythm, and about the job of each player within the team.

He could see how the team moved as one unit, and when one player left his position, another would cover him.

Osim has his admirers in the JFA. Of course he does, as anyone who studies coaching cannot help but be impressed with what they see from JEF United.

But I still think it is too early to talk about Japan's next head coach.

The Asian Cup in China in July-August will decide Zico's future.

And maybe Osim's, too.


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Mboma gives fatherly advice to Morimoto

8 Apr 2004(Thu)

It's no wonder that 15-year-old striker Takayuki Morimoto is being called the "Japanese Ronaldo" after bursting on to the J.League scene this season with Tokyo Verdy 1969.

With his shaven head, tall frame and quick-step running style, he looks a lot like a younger, slimmer Ronaldo.

He plays a bit like him, too, although by now Ronaldo would have scored five or six goals in three appearances for Verdy.

I saw Morimoto play for the first time in the flesh, so to speak, against FC Tokyo at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday.

Like most people, I liked what I saw.

He is strong and fast, like Ronaldo. He can beat his defender easily with his quick feet, like Ronaldo. And he knows where the goal is, like Ronaldo.

Unlike Ronaldo, though, Morimoto's shots have been saved. This is, of course, not a criticism of Morimoto, because he looks extremely promising for a teenager. It is just to highlight why Ronaldo is known as "The Phenomenom," because he is truly an amazing talent.

After Saturday's game I had a chat with Morimoto's rather more experienced strike partner, the 33-year-old father-of-five Patrick Mboma.

Patrick was already 17 years old when Morimoto was born, but still a long way from the respected figure he is today in African and world football.

"Like everybody I think he is a good player, but he also has a little pressure on him because everybody is talking about him," Mboma said.

"I advise him to be careful about this situation.

"When you start to play and play good, everybody says that you are the best, the most beautiful, and so on. So he has to keep his concentration and he has to focus on the game and on his training and try to learn every day."

Although Morimoto was substituted after 70 minutes and Verdy lost 3-2, the teenager was still the center of attention after the game.

Mboma, a former African Player of the Year, could not fail to spot the commotion in the lobby of Ajinomoto Stadium.

"I advise him not to read the newspapers, because it is always difficult," said Mboma.

"When you play good and they talk positive it's okay, but when that is not the case you start to have doubts in your mind.

"It is important for him to forget that and just focus on what he has to do on the pitch."

Mboma was making his first appearance of the season Saturday after a knee operation, and at the end of a week in which his wife had given birth to their fifth child, a daughter called Kaena.

"It's Hebrew and means rebel...because there is not enough rebellion in Japan," explained Mboma, with a laugh.


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Fujita is a fine example for Japan

5 Apr 2004(Mon)

While Jubilo Iwata have their critics as well as their admirers, at least one player seems to be a favourite of everybody.

That's Toshiya Fujita, who came to Japan's rescue in Singapore on Wednesday night.

With Japan toiling in the tropical conditions, Zico sent on Fujita for Shunsuke Nakamura in the 67th minute.

The score was an embarrassing 1-1 at the time, the home side having equalised in the 63rd minute.

Fujita gave Japan new life.

He should have scored in the 70th minute, but shot wide with his left foot at the far post after good work on the right wing from another substitute, Takayuki Suzuki.

It was looking desperate for Japan, as a draw would have been a humiliating result and poor reward for the fans who had created a fantastic atmosphere in the sultry, steaming night.

But then Toshiya struck, on 82 minutes, blasting a loose ball high into the net after the goalkeeper had dropped Nakata's left-wing corner.

What happened next impressed me as much as his desire to score the goal.

He ran to the touchline, punching the air as the Japanese fans celebrated. Then he jumped into the arms of one of the substitutes.

Now this was more like it!

Here, in the form of 32-year-old veteran Fujita, was some passion and some pride. The goal meant a lot to him and more to his team, and he actually behaved like it did.

After the game I asked Zico about Fujita's attitude, but he was very blase with his answer.

"This is what I expect from the other players as well, even if you are outside the pitch. You have the chance to go in and show what you can do," said Zico.

Nakata's assessment was more telling.

He said, in English, that other players could learn a lot from Fujita's experience.

"I do not see real enthusiasm in our team. It is always like we are playing a friendly match, not a real match. I do not understand. It's a mental thing," said Nakata.

This is the kind of answer Zico should have given. Criticise the players. Warn the Euro stars that their place in the team is under threat.

Just as the coach should have been shouting at his players during the match when lazy or casual play allowed Singapore to believe they might actually beat Japan.

No wonder Jubilo fans worship Toshiya Fujita.


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Samurai, showers and soap in Singapore

1 Apr 2004(Thu)

There are two major newspapers in Singapore.

In the morning it's The Straits Times, a very conservative publication, and in the evening it's The New Paper, which prefers sex and scandals.

Oh yes, and soccer.

On Monday, there were 18 pages of sport in the tabloid-size New Paper.

Eleven of them were about the English Premier League, including eight pages of reports, analysis, photographs and diagrams of the Arsenal-Manchester United match at Highbury.

That's right...eight on just one game!

There were three more on the Premier League, including a whole page on Bolton Wanderers' lucky, undeserved 1-0 victory over Newcastle United (oooohhh, it was painful writing that as a Newcastle fan. Personally, I thought this story was worth one sentence, not one page!).

There were five more pages on football (one each on Italy, Scotland and Singapore, and two on David Beckham/Spain).

So 16 of the 18 sports pages were on football. The other two were on horse racing.

The only reference to Wednesday's Singapore-Japan World Cup qualifier was a full-page advertisement by the host broadcaster, describing it as "The Lions versus The Samurai."

I asked a Singaporean journalist if the Lions could pounce on the Samurai and cause an upset.

"No chance-lah," he said (Singaporeans always end a sentence with "lah"). "With two slashes of the blade, the Samurai will win-lah."

On Monday morning I visited the match venue of Jalan Besar Stadium, which holds only 6,000 fans.

Due to a clash of dates, the 55,000-capacity National Stadium is not available, and this has led to a brisk sale of tickets on the internet.

There are seats down the two sides of the pitch only, with a wall behind both goals.

One of the walls separates the sandy pitch from the Jalan Besar swimming complex, so any wild shots on Wednesday night could be dangerous for the locals enjoying their evening swim.

Immediately behind the wall is the swimming pool shower complex, and goalkeepers in local league games have been known to have been affected by the strong smell of soap.

Who knows, maybe even the bubbles from the shower float over the wall and pop on the goalkeeper's nose?

Japan should win by three or four goals, but if Narazaki lets in a long shot because his eyes are full of soap suds, don't be surprised.

After all, this is the World Cup, and anything can happen.

Even to a Samurai.


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