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August 2004

Football can copy hockey rule

30 Aug 2004(Mon)

How can anyone resist the lure of a Japan versus South Korea match at the Olympic Games?

Even though it started at 8.30 in the morning, and needed a train ride, a tram ride and a long walk to get to the stadium.

And even though it was women's hockey.

I had to go, for a number of reasons.

First, I like the rivalry of Japan-Korea. It reminds me of England-Scotland back home.

Second, I like hockey. It reminds me of football in many aspects: Eleven players on the team, and formations such as 4-4-2 and 3-5-2.

There are defenders, liberos, midfielders, wingers, strikers, playmakers, goal-poachers...you name it. Everything in football exists in hockey, except for the obvious fact they carry sticks, just in case you hadn't noticed.

Third, the journey to the stadium was delightful, even though I was half asleep. It followed the coastline out of Athens, past the beaches and the sparkling sea.

On a morning when the sun was burning into your skin, even at 8.30, Japan trailed 3-0 very quickly.

Captain Miura (Keiko, not Kazu) pulled one back for Japan just before half-time, but there were no further goals in the second period, and Japan lost 3-1.

While I think there are too many stoppages in field hockey, one rule I really like concerns substitutions.

I have pointed out this before, during the 2002 Asian Games in Pusan, Korea, but I feel strongly that FIFA should copy it to cut down on time-wasting and gamesmanship in football.

Here's the example.

Korea wanted to make a substitution in the second half.

The No. 6 was going to enter the field, so she stood on the touchline (sideline) holding up the number of the player she was going to replace. It was the No. 8.

They had to choose the right moment to exchange the players. The No. 8 ran to the side, took the small placard with her number on it off the player waiting to come on, the No. 6, and the substitution was complete. The game never stopped.

Imagine this was football.

A team leading 3-1 in the second half wants to make a change. The substitute comes off the bench to the touchline, the fourth official holds up the number of the player to come off, who is usually on the far side of the pitch, and then everything stops as the player walks off as slowly as possible.

Toward the end of a tight game, the closing stages are often ruined by constant substitutions to break up the flow.

If football adopted the hockey rule, this form of gamesmanship would be cut out, although I am sure players would then pretend they were injured and stay down so the game would have to stop.

The Olympics give you a chance to watch many sports, and the more you see the more you realize how little fair play and sportsmanship there is in modern football.

ends

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Le Mans would be a solid stepping stone for "Purple Matsui"

26 Aug 2004(Thu)

It looks like Daisuke Matsui might be the next Japanese player to head overseas.

From what I read on the Internet here in Athens, French second division club Le Mans is keen to sign the Kyoto Purple Sanga playmaker.

Several months ago I chatted with Matsui's agent, Tanabe-san, at the Yokohama F Marinos training ground.

He told me that Matsui could be leaving Japan after the Olympics, and France was one of the possible destinations.

After all, Matsui is still remembered with affection in France after his eye-catching displays for Japan in the Toulon Under-21 tournament a couple of years ago.

I remember another player making his mark at that event and going on to have an exciting international career. His name was Paul Gascoigne.

There is no doubt Matsui is a skillful, elegant player.

I have always admired his balance and touch since first seeing him play for Kyoto Purple Sanga a few seasons ago.

Just before the Olympics I had a long chat with the former Purple Sanga manager, Gert Engels, who is now assistant coach to Guido Buchwald at Urawa.

Engels said he would have had no hesitation in picking Matsui for the Olympic Games, as he was a valuable player in tournament conditions.

Engels pointed out Matsui's stamina and fitness, as well as his natural ability, and this made him an important squad member for a tight schedule. (I must point out that Engels was not picking Matsui over his own Yamase; he was just giving his view on a player he knows well).

Going back to the Tanabe chat, he said it was vital that a Japanese player does not make too big a jump from J.League to Europe, where the game is much more physical and played at a quicker mental pace.

Le Mans, therefore, would be a good starting point for Matsui, and he would have the chance to play every week, which is the most important thing.

One solid season at Le Mans and then who knows?

Marseille? Paris Saint-Germain? Lyon? Monaco?

French clubs are a feeding ground for the bigger, more glamorous European leagues, namely Spain, England and Italy, but Matsui would have to be patient.

It would not happen overnight.

Le Mans would be a stepping stone to a career in Europe, not the end, as it would give Matsui the chance to adapt and develop as a player and a person.

There is no doubt he has the talent and the confidence, but he would need to be consistent and choose his moments carefully when to be flashy and when to play the percentages.

It will be interesting to see if the move comes off.

Then Japan would have three Matsuis overseas: Big Matsui, Little Matsui and Purple Matsui.

ends

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Americans show respect for Japan

23 Aug 2004(Mon)

Well, Brave Japan's run at the Olympic Games is over.

Looking at the cold facts, it wasn't much of a run actually, because they won only one game and lost two. (I'm talking about the women's team here, of course!)

But there is no doubt they have put Japan on the map in women's football with that sensational 1-0 victory over Sweden and battling display against the mighty Americans at Thessaloniki on Friday night.

Although they lost 2-1 to a very experienced United States team, Japan received much praise from the Americans, even before the game.

I could not go to Thessaloniki, as it is 500 kilometers north of Athens, but I was provided with a set of comments from American players and head coach April Heinrichs about the quarter-final.

Forward Abby Wambach, who scored the winning goal on Friday night, knew the result would no longer be a foregone conclusion. Their last three meetings had ended in a draw, the latest being a 1-1 result in Louisville, Kentucky, June 6.

"Japan might be the most underrated team in the tournament. We are going to have to bring our 'A' game," said Wambach.

"This is an awfully tough game for a top seed coming into the quarterfinals.

"They (Japan) are very tactical, very technical and very athletic. They shut us down in a lot of ways in that game and I feel we may have been lucky to pull off a tie. Knowing that, we just have to be prepared and come out ready to play."

The two teams have highly contrasting records in the Olympic Games.

The United States, ranked second in the world behind Germany in the latest FIFA rankings, won the first Olympic women's tournament on home turf in 1996, and took the silver medal in Sydney four years ago, losing the final to Norway.

Japan, ranked 13th by FIFA, lost all three games in Atlanta and failed to qualify for the 2000 Games.

Since then, though, the improvement under head coach Eiji Ueda has been dramatic, culminating in a 3-0 demoliton of the talented North Korean team in Tokyo in April to secure a berth for Athens.

The rise in quality had not gone unnoticed by United States head coach Heinrichs.

"Japan has proven itself a worthy opponent in every respect. The last couple times we have played them it has been close games," she said.

"They are athletic, technical, efficient, tactically gifted and playing with a lot of confidence."

So, the dream of a medal has died for another four years, but I am sure the women's game in Japan will enjoy a post-Olympic boost.

It deserves to, too.

ends

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Football seems a distant memory in Athens

19 Aug 2004(Thu)

This time last week, football was the focus of the Olympic Games.

That's probably because it was the only sport in town--in several towns, in fact--as it kicked off two days before the opening ceremony on August 13.

But now?

The game seems a million miles away, not just 300 kilometers up the road in Volos, as more traditional Olympic sports grab the headlines, such as swimming and doping.

The Olympic schedule permitted me to attend both the Japan-Sweden women's game last Wednesday at Volos, and the men's game against Paraguay at Thessaloniki the following day.

Now they seem like ancient history, which is quite appropriate in this ancient capital of civilization.

Since then, the women went down 1-0 to Nigeria and the men lost 3-2 to Italy.

I didn't see any of the women's game on television--I was at the judo, watching Yawara-chan and Nomura win gold--but the main thing is that they qualified for the quarterfinals.

As for the men, the Italy match clashed with Kosuke Kitajima's gold medal in the men's 100-meter breaststroke, and when I returned to the office everyone was watching the football on TV. Japan were losing 3-1, and the match looked flat until Takamatsu scored his diving header and there was a brief fracas as the Italian goalkeeper kept hold of the ball to prevent a quick restart.

Olympic spirit? Fair play? Hey, this is football, the men's game at least, so why should they change their bad habits just for the Olympics?

I have spoken to a few Japanese journalists who attended the Italy game, and there was general surprise that Yamamoto-kantoku had started with a four-man defense, three volantes and three forwards.

And still there was no place for Ishikawa on the right wing or for the dynamic, dangerous Tanaka up front.

Since the euphoria of the Olympic qualifying tournament, there is no doubt the team has gone backwards, and the coach must be wondering where it all went wrong.

There has been little shape to the team, little motivation and even less confidence. In short, they were unrecognizable from the team that plays at home in front of 50,000 blue-shirted fans.

Now there is only pride to play for against Ghana at Volos on Wednesday night, and Yamamoto must lift his team, if nothing else for the fans who have paid so much money and traveled so far to watch this big anti-climax.

But I won't be there. Kitajima can complete his breaststroke double on the same evening, so football must take a back seat.

Well, just once every four years.

ends

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Contrasting nights in Volos, Thessaloniki

16 Aug 2004(Mon)

Phew! It's hot out here!

It is now Friday afternoon, and the excitement is growing ahead of the opening ceremony.

For Japan, however, the Olympics have already started, and there were vastly contrasting moods at Volos on Wednesday and at Thessaloniki last night (was it only yesterday?)

First, Volos.

Did you watch the "Girls in Blue" (well, white and gray actually, as they wore the 'away' strip) beat Sweden 1-0?

It was a fantastic night, very proud if you're Japanese (or even English living in Japan).

They played with a lot of discipline, heart and skill to beat a very talented Swedish team, who, to me, all looked like members of the pop group Abba, although I am sure Abba at their peak was before most football fans in Japan were born!

Sweden's No. 10, the forward Hanna Ljungberg, is a very interesting player. Perugia once tried to sign her to play in Serie A, and, with her blue shirt and fantasista number, I was often reminded of Francesco Totti.

The biggest difference between the two players was that Hanna did not go round spitting on opponents, but Totti has much nicer hair.

Japan played so well that Hanna was substituted in the second half.

For Japan, I really admire Kobayashi on the left side of midfield. Her pass to release the inspirational Sawa in the first half was a real gem, struck with the outside of her right foot to slice open the Swedish defense.

Sawa could not finish, though, and I was worried at halftime that Japan might pay for their missed chances.

My fears proved groundless, and head coach Ueda, as well as the few hundred Japanese fans, lifted the players' concentration as they began to tire.

It was a great result for Japan, and JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi hugged the players after the game (what a lucky guy! I guess this is one of the perks of being president).

Kawabuchi-san also received a warm handshake from his beaming wife, which was a nice moment.

The next day I took the bus up to Thessaloniki, but what an anticlimax.

Nasu suffered from stage fright, and two schoolboy errors gave a tough and fast Paraguay two goals in the first half, enabling them to turn around 3-1 up.

Takamatsu justified his place in the starting lineup by winning two penalties, both of them converted by Ono, but honestly I thought the referee was very generous to award both spot-kicks.

At halftime, several of us, bewildered by the display, discussed the changes Yamamoto-kantoku might make. I thought it would be a good move to bring on the Otani-Arakawa combo up front, and maybe even Kobayashi on the left wing.

The coach changed only Nasu, sending on Matsui and moving a few players around to get a better balance.

The men's chances?

For me, Ishikawa must play on the right wing. He's so good he could almost get in the women's team. I'd have Tokunaga at right defense, alongside Tulio and Moniwa, and I'd also find room to play both Okubo and Tanaka, who are so dangerous.

It was a miserable night in Thessaloniki, after so many vibrant ones in Japan with the under-23s.

The Olympics will always be full of surprises, good and bad.

ends

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Nakazawa overlooked again for MVP award

12 Aug 2004(Thu)

I suppose it was inevitable that Shunsuke Nakamura would be named Asian Cup MVP.

After all, these awards almost always go to attacking players, don't they?

But, once again, I don't agree with it.

I feel Yuji Nakazawa should have been the MVP for a series of match-saving performances at the back and a couple of match-winning performances at the other end of the field.

But, just like in the J.League awards last season, Nakazawa was overlooked.

On that occasion, Reds striker Emerson was named MVP, and while I have no argument about his ability, I do question his attitude both on and off the pitch.

Nakazawa, on the other hand, is a marvellous advertisement for Japanese football.

He has had to work hard for his success, and only recently has he established himself in the national team.

He is a mood-maker and a leader, an inspirational figure both on the pitch and in the dressing room.

I wrote recently in this column that I fully expected Nakazawa to be the first Japanese defender to move overseas, and his displays in China can only have helped his cause. If, that is, he wants to play in Europe.

Defenders are valuable players, too, not just playmakers and forwards who score goals.

Of course Shunsuke is incredible, world-class in fact, with his left foot at dead-ball situations.

Who can ever forget his free kick past Barthez in the French goal at the 2003 Confederations Cup?

Steve Perryman, the former S-Pulse and Reysol manager, once said he thought that Nakamura could open a tin of beans with his left foot, and that statement highlights his amazing skill.

But in open play I still feel Shunsuke is lightweight, disappears for long spells and loses possession too much.

Shunsuke played a big part in Japan's success, especially early in the tournament, and I am not trying to take anything away from him, but I feel Nakazawa was the more consistent, more reliable, more dynamic player.

The people who matter never seem to agree with me, though!

ends

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Saturday afternoon treat in store

9 Aug 2004(Mon)

The Olympic Games?

Who cares? Not me for one.

Well, not at the moment anyway, even though I have been in Athens for a couple of days now.

The only thing on my mind is the Asian Cup final on Saturday night between Japan and China at the Workers' Stadium in Beijing.

More to the point, how I am going to watch it here in Greece.

The group games, and then the two knockout matches against Jordan and Bahrain, have been gripping viewing in Japan.

But how, or where, to watch the final, which kicks off here at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, as Greece is five hours behind China and six behind Japan.

A few minutes ago I received some encouraging news, that the final will be shown live on the EuroSport channel.

Better still, the commentary will be in Italian!

Isn't that wonderful: China against Japan from Beijing in Athens and in Italian, kicking off at 3 o'clock Saturday afternoon, when all games in England used to kick off before television took over the fixture list.

News of EuroSport's screening came from an unlikely source...from a Chinese journalist!

I am writing this article from the Asahi Shimbun's plush office on the seventh floor of the Main Press Centre. In between the boxes of noodles, packs of paper for the printers and tangle of computer cables, I can see the Olympic Stadium out of the window, gleaming in the brilliant Mediteranean sunshine.

Next to our office is the People's Daily from China, and next to them the large team from Xinhua, China's official news agency!

I called in at both offices to ask about Saturday's final, but neither group would comment on the behaviour of the Chinese fans.

However, Xu Liqun, from the People's Daily, said she didn't think Beijing would be the same as Chongqing or Jinan.

"Beijing is the capital of China, and it's only a game no matter win or lose," she said.

I hope she's right, but I remember the Chinese fans rioting in Beijing in 1985 after Hong Kong had beaten China 2-1 in a qualifying match for the 1986 World Cup.

Whatever happens in the match, it should be interesting here on the seventh floor on Saturday afternoon.

I still remember watching the Japan-United States Olympic quarter-final on TV in Sydney four years ago, because I couldn't get a flight back from Adelaide the next day in time to report on the women's marathon.

I was annoyed when Hidetoshi Nakata (anyone remember him?) hit the post in the penalty shootout, and I heard Japanese media from other organisations cheering.

Is, or was, Nakata disliked that much by some people?

Or was it simply old baseball fans just happy that the football team had been eliminated?

There'll be none of that Saturday, when the nation unites behind the boys in blue.

Enjoy the game!

I will...if my Chinese source is correct and it's on EuroSport.

ends

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Don't wait for the circus to come to town to support football in Japan

5 Aug 2004(Thu)

So, the Real Madrid circus has come and gone for another year.

Did you manage to see one of their performances?

I use the word "performance" as opposed to "match" because this is what it feels like to me.

It's an occasion, a family outing, where the spectators wait to be entertained and marvel at the skills on display.

There's no tension like at a proper match, and the score is quickly forgotten because it is meaningless.

Real began by beating JEF United Ichihara, but not before Marquinhos had stunned the "galacticos" with a Roberto Carlos-style thunderbolt, but struck with his right foot.

Raul's goal was wonderful, chipping Kushino from the edge of the box after he had stumbled. Maybe this is why the JEF defence left him alone, thinking he could not be a danger when he was on the floor.

But Raul showed his elegant skills again, and proved that, no matter how many "galacticos" Real Madrid buy, they will never find anyone better than the local boy.

From Tokyo National Stadium the sparkling white circus moved to Ajinomoto Stadium, where Verdy were waiting to play host.

In came Zidane and Ronaldo, and the goals flowed.

Zidane's was surely the best of Real's seven goals on tour.

Isn't he an amazing player! He's so tall and strong, like a rugby player, but has the balance of a ballerina and the touch of a footballing god.

The pirouette he performed to unlock the Verdy defence looked better with each replay on the big screens, and goalkeeper Takagi must have felt like a bull facing a matador and waiting to be put out of his misery.

The match ended painfully for Zidane, though, when he was fouled heavily from behind by Hayashi.

Zidane was clearly angry by the challenge, hitting out at the Verdy midfielder, and was then in distress on the touchline as the team doctor ran around from the bench. A sad end for Zidane and his army of fans.

The last few days, though, highlighted just how much football is growing in Japan.

Reds-Inter, JEF United-Real Madrid, Japan's women against Canada, Japan under-23 against Venezuela, Verdy-Real Madrid, Antlers-Barcelona...the list goes on.

On Sunday night I caught my local train out of Gotanda. There were Antlers fans here, Barcelona fans there and Real Madrid fans everywhere. It was a great sight.

Now I hope these European football fans will support the Japanese players in the J.League, and not just wait for the circus to come to town next summer.

ends

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Forwards find their scoring touch

2 Aug 2004(Mon)

Now that's more like it!

After five games without a win and three games without a goal, Japan's Olympic team burst into life at Tokyo's National Stadium on Friday night and crushed Venezuela 4-0.

Japan really needed a good performance and a few goals to boost confidence ahead of their Olympic opener against Paraguay on Aug. 12.

That's exactly what they produced, and the fact that all four goals were scored by forwards was even more good news for head coach Masakuni Yamamoto, whose "Young Blues" tore the South Americans apart in an exhilarating second-half display.

After being unable to secure the services of Naohiro Takahara to lead his forward line in Athens, Yamamoto, I believe, has taken a big gamble in entrusting the job to either Sota Hirayama or Daiki Takamatsu.

At least one of these would not have been in the squad had Takahara been available, so Yamamoto will be hoping they can repay his faith in them when they get to Athens.

Hirayama was unlucky not to score in the first half when his low shot struck the inside of the post and bounced out, but a few minutes later he should have buried a straightforward header at the back post, but directed it at the keeper.

When, in the 59th minute, he soared at the back post again to head powerfully into the net, the relief was almost visible. After all, it was his first goal for the Olympic team since a similar effort against Iran on his debut at Saitama on Feb. 8.

Okubo's goal was a cracker, controlling Matsui's clever pass with his right foot and then lashing it in with his left without breaking stride, and Tanaka gave Japan another dimension when introduced during the second half. He set up Takamatsu's diving header, and then scored the fourth himself with a crisp strike.

Just as importantly, Japan kept a clean sheet at the back against a robust and lively Venezuela national team.

The fans were, well, fan-tastic, and gave Japan a rousing send-off.

With Ono due to join up with them at the training camp in Germany next week, Yamamoto must be feeling much better than he did a week ago.

But it's important not to get carried away by Friday night's victory, as Paraguay, Italy and Ghana will be very tough and experienced opposition.

Japan will need to play at the same pace and intensity, and continue to take their chances, to get out of the group.

ends

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