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July 2004

Japanese players facing test of character

29 Jul 2004(Thu)

You cannot fail to have heard the jeering from the Chinese fans against the Japanese players at the Asian Cup in Chongqing.

Against Thailand on Saturday night it was particularly vociferous, almost drowning out the sound of the national anthem before the game.

Whenever Thailand attacked, which wasn't often, the crowd went wild.

When Japan had possession, the crowd booed, willing a mistake.

All in all, though, this is good experience for the Japanese players, if not a particularly pleasant one.

The J.League is played in a very friendly environment, and the players rarely face any hostilty from the spectators, so this will help build character.

This is not the first time I have seen the Chinese fans behaving badly.

Shortly after I left England to work in Hong Kong in 1989, Verdy (then known as Yomiuri) went to Hong Kong to play the South China Athletic Association in an Asian Club Championship match.

The national stadium, which held only 28,000 before it was redeveloped, was packed, and the fans showed no mercy on the Japanese players, hurling abuse, as well as plastic bottles and other debris, at the bench.

I have also seen Chinese turn on Chinese, when I went to report on South China again, this time against Dalian in Liaoning province.

Although South China lost 1-0 on the night, they won through over the two legs.

The Dalian supporters were not happy with their rich, spoilt, southern cousins with the dyed brown hair and pop-star looks.

First they set fire to the stadium, with small fires burning rubbish all over the place after the final whistle, and then they pelted the minibuses taking the Hong Kong players back to the hotel.

In Hong Kong, the press were allowed to travel with the team, and I kept my head down as the missiles hit the windows. There were lines of police, but they did nothing to stop it.

The boss of the South China team had promised to take the players, and me, as his English guest, to a casino to celebrate the victory.

After returning to our seaside hotel, though, we were advised to stay in, as it would not be safe to be seen in town, with angry Dalian fans still roaming around.

So, when people refer to football hooliganism as "the English disease," I always call it "the Chinese disease."

The Japanese players are discovering this now.

ends

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Nakata moves sideways, not forwards

26 Jul 2004(Mon)

When the 2003-04 season ended in Europe, I really thought it was time Hidetoshi Nakata got out of Italy and moved to pastures new.

So when I heard he had signed for Fiorentina, I must admit to being very disappointed.

Although it is a new club for Nakata, and an interesting story surrounding Fiorentina's demise and rebirth, it means another season mired in Serie A mediocrity.

Yet more games in half-empty stadiums on a Sunday afternoon.

By all accounts, Nakata wanted to move to England, and specifically to London.

After six seasons in Italy--one and a half at Perugia, the same at Roma, two and a half at Parma and half a season at Bologna--he was ready for a change.

For some reason I imagined him joining Crystal Palace, newly promoted and needing a bit of star quality and top-flight experience.

Nakata would have given them this, as I feel his game is ideally suited to the demands of the English Premier League.

He has the physical strength and can play at a fast pace. He has the stamina and the vision. He can score goals, though not as many as he should be doing, and he can create them for his teammates.

He can also speak fluent English, so that would have helped him settle in.

So why didn't a move to England materialise?

Perhaps because English clubs can't make up their minds on Japanese players. After three years in England, one with Arsenal and two with Fulham, we still don't know whether Inamoto is a "hit" or a "miss".

Then there's the price.

Nakata would not have been too expensive regarding the transfer fee, but his salary is high and this may have put off potential buyers.

So, at 27 years old, Nakata has signed a three-year contract with Fiorentina, meaning he could stay in Italy until he retires.

I cannot see Nakata playing on much beyond that, as he has other interests outside the game and is smart enough to have prepared for his long-term future.

He's the kind of person who could walk away from the game tomorrow and not miss it.

Maybe now we will never see him in England, which is a great pity as I think he could have been a big success on the glamorous, colourful stage of the Premier League.

ends

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Nakazawa looks ripe for Euro move

22 Jul 2004(Thu)

It can't be long before the next Japanese player moves to Europe.

So far, all the exports have been midfielders or forwards.

Maybe the next one will be a defender, and it could well be Yuji Nakazawa.

The more I see Nakazawa, the more I feel he would be at home with a European club, and there has already been interest from Germany.

The first job of a defender, of course, is to defend.

Nakazawa does this well, in the air and on the ground. He has the perfect physique for a defender, tall but not ungainly.

He always looks very relaxed and comfortable on the ball, and uses his body well when defending. This is an aspect of play Philippe Troussier always encouraged from his players, to make their physical presence felt in every challenge.

Nakazawa has also looked very impressive going forward from his position on the left side of Zico's three-man defense.

He knows when to attack and when to stay back, and you never see him out of position and scrambling to get back as an opponent breaks down the right wing.

In the build-up to the 2002 World Cup, Troussier would often comment that Japanese defenders were just as tall and heavy as defenders from other countries, so it was a myth to describe the Japanese as being too small or too fragile to play in Europe.

Crucially, Nakazawa also has the outgoing personality to accompany his play. Marinos manager Takeshi Okada picked Nakazawa as his MVP last season, and said he had emerged as a natural leader during the team's two-stage slam.

If he continues his good form at the Asian Cup in China, Nakazawa may have the chance to move on, and make his mark as the first Japanese defender in Europe.

ends

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JFA waited too long for Takahara

19 Jul 2004(Mon)

It is no surprise that the unlucky Naohiro Takahara will not be going to Athens.

What is a surprise to me, though, is that the JFA waited so long in the build-up to the squad announcement Friday.

As a result, Japan will take only two over-age players in their 18-man party: Sogahata in goal and Shinji Ono in midfield.

I can't understand why the JFA dithered so long over Takahara.

Clearly the young man has a serious health problem, and I thought it would have been best for all concerned to rule him out of contention as soon as he was struck down by his second bout of deep vein thrombosis.

This was at the end of May, and I always thought it would be risky asking him to play in Athens, where it will be a very dry heat and difficult to catch your breath.

Had Takahara been fit, he would have been the perfect choice for Yamamoto-kantoku, because the team clearly lacked an attacking spearhead during the qualifying campaign.

Although Takamatsu did well when called on, I regard him as a player to come off the bench. The same can be said for Hirayama.

If Takahara had been fit, Yamamoto's three other forwards would probably have been Tanaka, Okubo and Takamatsu, with Hirayama missing out.

Now, Yamamoto is going to have to start with Takamatsu/Tanaka or Takamatsu/Okubo, with Hirayama ready to come on for a late aerial bombardment.

To be honest, I'm not sure if this attack is going to be strong enough.

When Takahara was struck down with his illness, I thought Yamamoto would have identified another forward. In this column before I have mentioned Takayuki Suzuki. I think he would have done a good job in this team as an experienced target man, although I would have hoped the JFA would tell him to show some Olympic spirit and stop diving in Athens.

As for the formation, I would be tempted to play 3-4-3, with no midfield playmaker but a forward line of Tanaka, Takamatsu and Okubo.

There is a lot of quality in defence and midfield, but I still think the team needed a new centre forward.

I think the JFA waited too long on Takahara, and should have been making alternative arrangements several weeks ago.

ends

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Japan rise to the challenge in Kirin Cup

15 Jul 2004(Thu)

Japan will be heading for China on Thursday with their confidence sky-high after winning the Kirin Cup at International Stadium Yokohama on Tuesday evening.

But it's not so much the winning of the three-nation tournament that impressed me, but more the way they beat Serbia and Montenegro 1-0.

Watching Japan's opponents, it was hard not to refer to them as Yugoslavia, especially with Dragan Stojkovic around as federation president.

The Yugoslavs were referred to as the Brazil of Europe due to the high level of their technical skills.

They were also very tall, very strong and, at times, very rough in their play.

This combination made them, and still makes them, formidable opposition, and teams need courage to come out on top.

Japan showed this Tuesday night.

They stood up to the physical test well, and did not allow Serbia and Montenegro too close to their own goal. As a result, much of Kawaguchi's work was to save long-distance shots.

I have to admit, though, I don't like the antics of Takayuki Suzuki.

I've always thought Suzuki was a diver--as well as a useful target man--and he annoyed the defenders by making the most of the slightest of contact when he had his back to goal.

Sometimes it was a free kick, sometimes it wasn't, but I still feel he is asking for trouble with this kind of behaviour.

A strict referee can show him the yellow card--this could be crucial in China during the Asian Cup--or a defender could hurt Suzuki seriously if he loses his temper due to the forward's style of play.

Maybe this was Suzuki's tactic against Serbia, as Japan's opponents are well known for losing their cool. This is why Stojkovic received so many yellow and red cards during his J.League days. Great skill, but a flawed temperament.

Toward the end of the game, Serbia's libero, Petkovic, fouled Yanagisawa from behind up Japan's left wing. Full credit to Yanagisawa for playing on, before Petkovic was shown the yellow card.

Congratulations, then, to Japan for passing such a difficult test.

Let's hope they maintain this concentration and determination against Asian rivals, and do not show their opponents in China a lack of respect.

ends

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Reserves give Japan three reasons to cheer

12 Jul 2004(Mon)

Every cloud has a silver lining.

This was the case for Japan in their Kirin Cup match against Slovakia at Hiroshima Big Arch on Friday night.

Zico's initial squad lacked several experienced players, such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Inamoto, Ono and Takahara.

Then, when Tatsuhiko Kubo pulled out injured, it looked like Japan might struggle for goals.

Against Slovakia, they proved this to be wrong, scoring three times, two of them from forwards. So things are never as bad as they seem to be.

Japan's first goal was a trademark strike from midfielder Fukunishi, who is an expert at set-pieces. Everyone in the J.League knows that Fukunishi must be marked closely at corners and free kicks, because he is deadly with his head at near-post situations.

Slovakia cannot have done their homework, as Fukunishi was left unmarked to head home Shunsuke's corner. It was a very easy goal for Fukunishi, and will have given him even more confidence as he fills in for the unavailable Inamoto and Ono in the midfield engine room.

Nakamura was also behind Japan's second goal, opening up the Slovakia defense with a delicate pass into the path of Suzuki, who finished in style with his right foot.

Again, Suzuki got his chance because Kubo was injured, and gave Zico his reward.

Japan's third goal really brought a smile to the face of Zico, as it was scored by his former Antlers player Yanagisawa.

Although it was something of a comedy, there was no denying the tenacity and the determination of Yanagisawa.

Pressure in midfield from Atsu Miura prompted a wayward back-pass from Slovakia, and the goalkeeper then committed a schoolboy error by trying to dribble round Yanagisawa.

The Messina man stuck to his task, though, watched the ball and came away with it, before stroking it into the empty net.

Yanagi has scored some excellent goals for Japan. This was not one of them, but it is in the record book like the others and was just what he needed after a frustrating season with Sampdoria.

Goals from Fukunishi, Suzuki and Yanagisawa...that was the silver lining for Japan, as Zico's squad grows in confidence and the coach learns more about his players as he goes along.

Maybe the "key" men are not as important as we think.

ends

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Is the All-Star game the next to go?

8 Jul 2004(Thu)

There was a very "American" feel to the J.League when it kicked off in 1993.

Golden goals, penalty shoot-outs, no drawn matches....and, of course, an All-Star game.

Over the years, the J.League has dropped most of the gimmicks, and the game in general here is all the better for these changes.

Next season, for example, we will have an 18-team first division and a one-stage championship rather than the two-stage version.

With the normal points system already in place, three for a win and one for a draw, the 2005 J.League season will look just like any other in the mainstream football world.

So congratulations to the J.League for adapting the format to cater for the growing number of true football fans in Japan.

I wonder what the next thing to go will be?

Personally, and this may surprise many fans, I would scrap the annual All-Star game.

I find this a very alien concept in the football world, with little meaning or significance.

I watched Saturday's game from Niigata on television, and thought it was dull, despite the 3-3 draw.

I'm sure the players would have preferred a weekend off at the end of the first stage, and I'm sure the national coaches would have preferred the players to rest, too.

Several Olympians were in action, including the MVP Ishikawa. I wonder what Yamamoto-kantoku would have been thinking when Ishikawa, Tanaka, Tulio, Konno etc. were involved in physical contact. I'm sure he must have been grimacing, as an injury to a key player at this time in such a meaningless match would have been annoying to say the least.

Same with the national team players.

After the Antlers-Jubilo game recently at Kashima, I chatted with Toshiya Fujita and he said he was only 70 percent fit. With the Kirin Cup and Asian Cup around the corner, I was surprised to see Toshiya playing at the Big Swan.

There again, the guy has a big heart, and probably did not want to let down his fans. Even at Kashima, after Jubilo had lost in injury time, he still found time to sign autographs for Antlers fans outside the stadium.

Although the J.League, as usual, staged a spectacular event, and attracted high-profile sponsors and a big crowd, I can't help thinking that the All-Star game is one game too many in a crowded season.

ends

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Kubo's Kirin Cup selection is baffling

5 Jul 2004(Mon)

It's a difficult job being a national coach, for many reasons.

One of them is that you have to build a trusting relationship with the clubs who supply their highly-paid players to the national squad.

Take the case this week of Tatsuhiko Kubo.

Clearly the guy is injured, yet Zico still picks him for the Kirin Cup.

I just can't understand why he did so, after the Yokohama F Marinos asked the JFA to leave him out and rest his troublesome right knee.

Marinos officials were surprised and unhappy when they were informed, Thursday morning, of Kubo's selection.

Even though Zico has said he will not pick Kubo in his starting eleven in the Kirin Cup if he is not fit, I still think he should have left him alone for a couple of weeks.

Ever since Japan's 7-0 World Cup qualifying victory over India on June 9, Marinos manager Takeshi Okada has been saying that Kubo needed at least two weeks' rest, possibly three, at the end of the first stage of the championship.

Okada even said the club would not allow Kubo to play in the Asian Cup in China if he was not 100 percent fit.

Surely the right thing to do by Zico was just to grant Marinos' wishes and give Kubo a short break.

After all, the Kirin Cup is only two friendly matches, against Slovakia (ranked 61st in the world, alongside Thailand) on July 9 and Serbia-Montenegro (44th, but still very dangerous) on July 13.

There are four more forwards in the squad, including the 2002 World Cup tandem of Suzuki and Yanagisawa, as well as the delightfully skilfull and elegant left-footer, Keiji Tamada. Another lively player is Masashi Motoyama, so Zico still has plenty of interesting choices and combinations.

The word from the Marinos is that Kubo will withdraw from the squad anyway. The players are due to meet up Sunday evening in Hiroshima and start training Monday morning.

Presumably, Kubo will have to attend and provide medical support that he is not fit enough to play, but to me the more logical thing would have been to let him stay in his hometown in Fukuoka with his wife, who is expecting their second child around July 7.

Zico knows he can rely on Kubo to produce the goods, as the former Sanfrecce forward has been scoring some crucial goals for his country in recent games.

I don't see how his selection benefits anyone: Zico, Kubo or the Marinos.

ends

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Sayonara Sampaio, a great servant of the J.League

1 Jul 2004(Thu)

The Sanfrecce Hiroshima fans were going crazy, waving Brazilian flags and singing "Sampaio, Sampaio."

And this was only in the car park, long after the match at Jubilo Iwata had finished on Saturday afternoon.

The man himself, Cesar Sampaio, waved humbly to the fans one last time, climbed into the waiting taxi and was driven off into the sunset.

The J.League had lost one of its best servants.

Sampaio, now 36, had just played his 156th J1 game, and his last.

Age had caught up with the midfield master, and he no longer had the pace or the stamina to keep up with the high-speed J.League.

"The first half was okay," Sampaio said after the game.

"But in the second half I was running and running but I could not touch the ball."

That was a typically honest admission from an honest man and football player.

Throughout his career in Japan, first with Yokohama Flugels, then Kashiwa Reysol and finally Sanfrecce, I have found Sampaio a true gentleman to deal with.

I first met him in Thailand in 1995, when Flugels were playing the Thai Farmers Bank in an Asian Football Confederation event.

He had just arrived at the club, along with 1994 World Cup-winning midfielder Zinho, plus the tall centre forward Evair. Flugels had paid some US$ 10 million to sign the trio....no wonder the club went bust a few years later!

Sampaio was the classic defensive midfield player. He conserved his energy, used his brain, broke up opposition attacks with a well-timed tackle, and then launched a counter-attack with a short, clever pass.

There was nothing fancy or spectacular about his game. He just did the basics, and did them very well. He made the game look easy.

The Sanfrecce fans thanked him for last season's efforts in winning promotion. They had a huge banner at Yamaha Stadium reading "Obrigado" (Portuguese for thank you) and several waved the green and canary yellow Brazilian flags. After the game, Sampaio was overcome with emotion at the generosity of the Sanfrecce fans.

Sanfrecce manager Takeshi Ono says Japanese youngsters can learn from Sampaio on and off the pitch, during a game, during training and from his disciplined lifestyle. He was the perfect professional, according to Ono.

"His contribution is beyond description," he said.

Sampaio has been a great success in Japan, not only for his teams but also for his Brazilian nation.

Obrigado!

ends

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