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June 2004

Kung-fu at Kawasaki: A strange night in J2

28 Jun 2004(Mon)

This time last year, Masaaki Yanagishita was in the thick of the championship race as manager of Jubilo Iwata.

On Wednesday he was on the bench at Todoroki Stadium, watching his Consadole Sapporo team being taken apart 6-0 by the high-flying Kawasaki Frontale.

I have always been impressed with the Sapporo fans, and there were around 400 of them there Wednesday in the distinctive red and black colours.

Even as the six goals went flying into their net, the Sapporo fans continued to cheer for their struggling team.

When the final whistle blew, the two sets of players walked over to their respective fans for the customary post-match bow, but nobody was quite ready for what happened next at the visiting end.

Several of the Sapporo fans were waving away their players, angry with their second-half capitulation.

Then a plastic water bottle was thrown from the stand.

The Sapporo players were not put off by the reaction of their fans, and walked right up to the fence separating the stand from the running track.

Suddenly, a fan jumped over the fence and aimed a kung-fu kick at one of the players, in true Eric Cantona-style.

Five or six other fans followed the leader over the fence, and security guards moved in to stop the scuffles. Yanagishita also went over to try to calm things down.

Many people were in a state of shock, none more so than the Sapporo players.

I wonder what will happen now?

Will Consadole face punishment for failing to control their own supporters? Perhaps being forced to play a home game behind closed doors?

Will the fans, if identified, be banned from watching their team for the rest of the season?

Will Frontale be in trouble for failing to provide adequate security for the away fans?

The report of the match commissioner, Kunio Namba, could be crucial in the J.League investigation.

Considering the important role Consadole has in representing Hokkaido in the J.League, I think a severe warning would be appropriate.

The club could always issue its own bans on the fans who took their protests a little too far.

But whatever happens, the message from the fans will have got through to the players, who are at the bottom of the table with only nine points.

Perhaps this incident could be a turning point for the team, and something positive could come out of it after all.


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First stage is far from over

24 Jun 2004(Thu)

With a two-point lead and a home game to come, Yokohama F Marinos must surely be the favourites to win the first stage.

That's the logical thought process going into Saturday's 15th and final round of games.

But last season's dramatic finish to the second stage proved once again that anything can happen in the football world.

Personally, I think the first stage is far from finished.

Marinos have 33 points and are at home to Kashima Antlers.

Jubilo have 31 and are at home to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

With all respect to Takeshi Ono and his "Three Arrows," which team would you prefer to face?

If Marinos win, they will be untouchable on 36 points.

If they draw to move on to 34 points, a Jubilo victory would also give them 34 points...and the first-stage title because of their better goal difference.

It should be a tense day, because both Marinos and Jubilo know they must win.

Last Saturday I went to Kashima, and there was an air of gloom and despair outside the Jubilo dressing room after their injury-time defeat.

In the evening, things got worse for Jubilo when Marinos won 2-1 at Kashiwanoha to take over pole position.

But now the Jubilo players have had a few days to refocus, I am sure they will be fully motivated to beat Sanfrecce on Saturday.

They discovered last weekend that Antlers will yield to nobody, even though they are not in the race themselves.

Antlers are a proud and determined club. They did not want to see Jubilo celebrating a victory at Kashima Stadium on Saturday, and they won't want to lose to Marinos and then have to witness title celebrations which are not theirs.

Marinos manager Takeshi Okada said this week: "It will not be an easy game because Antlers is a very good team with good motivation.

"But also our team has good motivation, good condition and good combination. Maybe we will play well."

They will have to play well, as there could still be one final twist to the tale.


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J.League clubs must learn from baseball

21 Jun 2004(Mon)

The current problems within Japanese baseball serve as a timely reminder for J.League clubs in the way they run their business.

Quite simply, clubs Just can't keep on spending billions of yen if they are not bringing it in. It's basic economic sense, but too often in professional sport around the world this concept is ignored.

On some occasions it can lead to ruin, for example the Yokohama Flugels.

Those were dark days for the J.League, and I am sure many people within "Old Japan" (meaning the baseball world) were predicting the beginning of the end for professional football.

But clubs tightened their belts, stopped paying ridiculous salaries to foreign players and tried to bring on more young players from within their own youth and Junior youth teams.

This is not to say that some clubs don't continue to live beyond their means...spending far more than they earn...but it's nowhere near the 4 billion yen losses chalked up every year by the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes.

J.League chairman Masaru Suzuki says "almost" all clubs now understand the importance of balancing the books.

Back in England, I grew up as a Halifax Town fan. This was my hometown, near Leeds in the north of England.

Halifax Town was formed in 1911, and is now in the Conference (England's fifth division after the Premiership, first, second and third divisions).

A home attendance of 2,000 was a good day, and crowds often fell below 1,000, even when my team was still in the Football League third division.

Not a lot of money was coming in, so not a lot went out. Once every two years or so they would find a good player, develop him and sell him to a bigger club, and this money would help to keep Halifax Town running for another two years.

The J.League occasionally has seminars with marketing people from top Premiership clubs. Sometimes I think it would be a good idea to invite someone from a small club such as Halifax Town, and they can inform J.League clubs of how to survive on a low income and low fan support.

The signs are good for the J.League, though, with four new teams applying to Join for next season. Two of them will be invited into J2, as J1 will expand from 16 to 18 teams in 2005.

But the baseball problems should serve as a warning to keep the books balanced.


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Yamamoto's plans are put on hold

17 Jun 2004(Thu)

A few weeks ago, Olympic team coach Masakuni Yamamoto was in an enviable position.

Japan's under-23s had just qualified for their third consecutive Olympics, and Yamamoto was given first choice of the three overage players he wanted for Athens.

After much thought and analysis, Yamamoto decided on Sogahata in goal, Ono in midfield and Takahara up front.

Up until now, only Sogahata has been given clearance to play.

The JFA is still waiting to hear from Feyenoord about the availability of Ono, and Takahara has been struck down again with the ailment which cost him his place in the 2002 World Cup.

It's understandable why Feyenoord are not keen to release Ono.

First, the Olympics is not a big priority in Europe. Second, Ono is one of the team's best players, and the 2004-05 Dutch season starts during the Olympics.

Ono may be appointed captain next season, and new manager Ruud Gullit wants him for the preseason build-up.

Takahara has still not been ruled out of the Olympics. He is back in Japan, and if the JFA medical team declares him fit, officials are confident his club, Hamburger SV, will allow him to play in Athens.

So Yamamoto must still wait, and wonder which players will be available, when he would have liked all this cleared up by now.

If Ono and Taka are not available, Yamamoto looks set to go with only one overage player: Sogahata.

Apparently, he has not asked the JFA and Zico for any other senior players, who will be on duty at the Asian Cup in China, starting July 17.

If this is the case, it's a bold move by Yamamoto, and the "Young Blues" must raise their game to repay the faith in the coach's decision.

Looking back on Japan's qualifying campaign, I thought the three weak areas were goalkeeper, left side of midfield and centre forward.

Was Yamamoto going to play Ono on the left, in defensive midfield alongside, presumably, Konno, or as attacking midfielder, behind the two strikers?

Perhaps we'll never know now.


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Kubo is no longer raw on the international stage

14 Jun 2004(Mon)

There's just no stopping Tatsuhiko Kubo at the moment.

Well, there is actually: an injury to his right knee.

The injury has come at a bad time for Kubo, just as he begins to estabish himself as Japan's most reliable striker.

He scored a wonderful goal against India on Wednesday night, meeting Alex's delicately-flighted pass with an exquisite left-foot volley from near the penalty spot.

Then his soaring back-post header gave Fukunishi the chance to make it 2-0, and Kubo was fouled to earn the free kick from which Nakamura curled home the third.

Zico took him off at half-time, though, to protect the knee.

Still, Kubo will not be in the Marinos starting lineup at Kobe on Saturday.

After Friday's training at Totsuka, near Yokohama, manager Okada said he may put Kubo on the bench, but would prefer not to use him at all.

The club doctor had told Okada that rest was Kubo's only cure, but the first stage had two weeks still to run. After that, the doctor said, Kubo would need two or three weeks' rest.

Kubo has really developed and matured under Okada.

I always remember him as a raw talent at Sanfrecce. He was wild and unpredictable, which made him difficult to mark.

Now he is beginning to look like the finished product, the complete centre forward who can score goals in the air and on the ground, and can create them for his teammates, too.

Troussier gave Kubo several chances, admittedly rarely for long, and waited for him to win his place in the 2002 World Cup squad. Kubo wasn't quite there, though, and Troussier selected Nishizawa instead.

The turning point for Kubo came with his two goals against China in the East Asian Championship last December, and since then he has gone to score against Oman (what a priceless goal that may turn out to be), Hungary, Czech Republic, Iceland (2) and now India.

That's eight goals for Japan in his last 11 games, which is an excellent strike rate against some strong opponents.

Zico will need Kubo to plunder the Asian defenses at the Asian Cup in China next month, so hopefully the right knee will be healed.


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Koji back in the swing of things

10 Jun 2004(Thu)

Zico has called up some interesting new faces during his time as national coach.

At the back, his selection of Tsuboi has been a good move.

On the right side of midfield, Kaji is a dynamic addition to the team.

Up front, the silky skills and elegant left foot of Tamada are a joy to watch.

Another smart move by Zico has been to recall one of my favourite Japanese players, Koji Nakata, despite his recent return from a long injury absence.

Wednesday's match against India has probably come a month too soon for Koji to be considered a starting member, so Inamoto's position goes to Fukunishi, who is so deadly in the air at the near post from corners and free kicks.

Nevertheless, it's good that Zico gets Koji involved again quickly, as he still has a long future ahead of him.

When Zico took over after the 2002 World Cup, I thought Koji was grossly under-used by the new coach as he attempted to field his so-called "golden quartet" in midfield.

Koji brings balance, shape and direction to the team, qualities which were lacking when Japan's "all-star" midfield resembled Shibuya station at 11 o'clock on a Friday night...people running everywhere from all directions.

I haven't seen an Antlers game since Koji returned to the lineup--sorry Kashima fans, I'm only watching the big teams like JEF United and Verdy these days--so I was quite surprised by his appearance in the flesh, so to speak.

He looked bigger and bulkier, results probably of swimming and weight training as he waited for his knee to recover.

My first feeling was that Troussier would have loved this new-look Nakata on the left side of defense, with a bit more power and more muscle.

I cannot confirm that Koji has gained weight, and maybe he hasn't, as he is listed at 74kg by the JFA, the same as in the J.League handbook at the start of the season.

But he certainly looks to have, and this is not a bad thing in the modern game.

Koji looked right at home playing for the reserve team against a schoolboy side in a practice match Monday, especially with Ogasawara and Motoyama alongside him in midfield, and Antlers Old Boys Yanagisawa and Suzuki ahead.

It won't be long before he's back in the first team, where his experience and quiet authority can only benefit Zico's squad.


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Zico reaping benefits of 3-5-2

7 Jun 2004(Mon)

Zico has been in charge of the national team for almost two years, and recent results in Europe are very encouraging.

I wonder why?

Personally, I think it's because he has been forced to abandon his "golden quartet" midfield and has opted to change his defensive strategy.

With a 3-5-2 formation, a system used by Takeshi Okada at France 98 and by Philippe Troussier from 1998 to 2002, the team has more balance, more organization and more confidence.

Under Zico's 4-4-2, he had defenders who could not defend, and a jumble in midfield which confused Japan's own players rather than the opposition.

Here's a few benefits of 3-5-2.

1) By playing three central defenders instead of two, Zico can actually pick Japan's best defender: Nakazawa. With 4-4-2, Zico preferred Tsuboi and Miyamoto.

2) Alex is no longer at left full-back, where his defensive deficiencies were highlighted and his natural attacking instincts were inhibited.

3) With a five-man midfield, the team has much better shape, with Kaji on the right, Alex on the left, Ono and Inamoto in the middle, and Nakamura as the playmaker. The injury to Inamoto is very cruel for the player, and came at a delicate stage of his career.

4) The two forwards, Kubo and Tamada, are match-fit, because they play every week in the J.League rather than sit on the bench in Europe. Zico has learned from this, too. Against England, eight starting members were from the J.League.

5) Only one player, Nakamura, has some freedom, within the structure of the team.

In other words, I think Zico's team is now almost the same as Troussier's, with three at the back, five across midfield and two up front.

Of course the defense is not a "flat three" relying heavily on offside and synchronisation. It is more like Okada's back three, with a libero (Miyamoto/Ihara) and two stoppers (Nakazawa/Akita and Tsuboi/Nakanishi). Personally, I prefer this style of back three, rather than the risky "flat three."

Overall, I am much more optimistic about the national team after the two European tours.

Provided, of course, that Zico has learned his lessons?

I still don't know, because it would not surprise me at all if he returned to 4-4-2 when Hidetoshi Nakata is available again.

I think that would be a massive mistake.


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Jean's Brazilian master class

3 Jun 2004(Thu)

No wonder FC Tokyo are producing so many good, young defenders.

All they have to do is watch and copy the Brazilian master alongside them, Jean Carlo Witte.

Coach Hara can teach them everything he knows on the training field, but when it comes down to the heat of battle, Jean is both a warrior and a leader.

Jean joined the club in February 2002, and I have never seen him have a bad game.

But because he is a robust defender rather than a creative midfielder or goal-scoring forward, he does not get the attention he deserves.

There is absolutely no doubt, though, that he is one of the best and most consistent overseas players in Japan.

On Saturday I made the trek out to Kashiwanoha Stadium, to watch the Reysol-Tokyo Nabisco Cup game.

Tokyo did not have Doi in goal or Kaji at right-back, or on the bench, because of national team commitments, but neither was missed against a weak Reysol attack without Tamada for the same reasons.

Tokyo still had Tokunaga at right-back, and Moniwa alongside Jean in the heart of the defense, with Kanazawa out on the left to give the team balance. I always remembered him as a midfield player for Jubilo, but he has adapted well to his defensive duties at Tokyo.

Maybe this is the Jean influence as well.

For me, the first job of a defender is to defend, not to attack (Alex Santos comes to mind here).

And, boy, can Jean defend!

He's strong in the air, scoring Tokyo's opener with a crisp, well-directed header to a Baba free kick, fearless in the tackle and always chooses the right option when in possession.

Sometimes he has the time and the space to play the ball out of defense, and on others a simple clearance is all that is required.

It might not look pretty, but he's a no-risk, no-frills kind of player.

Too often I see Japanese players attempt a back-heel pass or a nonchalant flick in a dangerous area with the score at 0-0, but Jean's play is about discipline and about playing the percentages.

He is not the quickest central defender, but he reads the game well and covers his ground. I noticed a couple of times on Saturday that a player might be able to get past him once, but not twice.

On Saturday, in the absence of Doi, Jean was captain...as well as player, coach, goal-scorer and professor!


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