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October 2004

Interpreter Suzuki was out of order in Oman

29 Oct 2004(Fri)

The Japan Football Association cannot complain about the one-match ban handed down by FIFA to Zico's interpreter, Kunihiro Suzuki.

I was sitting right behind the Japan bench at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat, and there is no doubt Suzuki was way over the top in his criticism of match officials.

For long periods it looked like Zico was trying to run the match, and tell Chinese referee Lu Jun what to do.

One example was the free kick, for a foul on Suzuki (Takayuki, not Kunihiro), that led to Japan's goal seven minutes into the second half.

As Suzuki rolled around, as he often does, even when not hurt at all, Zico was on the touchline holding up four fingers to the referee. He was indicating this was the fourth time Suzuki had been fouled, and the referee decided to show the Oman defender the yellow card.

Later in the second half, Nakamura was fouled, again near the Japanese dugout, and again Zico was at the pitch side. But his interpreter was even more vociferous, clearly taking matters into his own hands rather than translating Zico's comments.

Even if he translated them from Portuguese to Japanese, the referee would not have understood as he didn't speak either language.

Still, the referee got the point, and was furious when he approached the Japanese bench.

The interpreter was dismissed, and, not knowing the rules, tried to watch the rest of the game alongside the substitutes.

Of course this is not allowed, so he was forced to walk around half the pitch to the players' tunnel, and had a couple of plastic bottles hurled at him, as well as some Arabic vitriol, along the way.

After the game I suggested he could be suspended for the next match after his red card, and many people laughed, thinking I was joking.

But why should he escape punishment?

If a player is sent off, or a manager or player dismissed from the bench, why should an interpreter be treated differently?

After all, he is a part of the game, and part of the Japanese delegation on the bench. And he was out of order.

Japan will not miss Suzuki against Singapore on November 17, as any number of Japanese/Brazilians can help out.

Maybe Zico could install Alex as his interpreter...and play Murai on the left wing!

Or bring back Ramos as interpreter, along with Kazu, Gon and Akita!

ends

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Come on Zico: Give Murai a chance against Singapore

28 Oct 2004(Thu)

Shinji Murai showed good timing on Saturday.

Not just with his excellent opening goal for JEF United in their 2-0 victory at Nagoya, but also when it was scored.

Surely, as Zico looks ahead to Japan's "dead" World Cup qualifier against Singapore on November 17, the national coach is going to experiment.

Not with Kazu, Gon and Akita, as I am strongly against this idea.

But with players from the Olympic team (Moniwa, Konno, Ishikawa, Okubo?) or who are playing well in the J.League.

The Olympic team did not have an outstanding left-sided player, but there are two or three in the J.League besides Zico's usual choices of Alex and Atsu Miura.

This is why Murai scored his goal at such a good time, and quite rightly received some very positive reviews in the Sunday papers.

The 24-year-old winger gives the team such a nice balance on the left flank, as Sakamoto does on the right in JEF's tight 3-5-2 unit.

He has the skill and the pace to beat his man and either send over a teasing left-footed cross, or to go for goal himself.

I remember once, in his very early days at Ichihara, that he said how he admired Ryan Giggs--and that is the perfect role model to follow in that position.

(Off the pitch, too, Giggs is popular even with non-Man United fans. As a sidenote, most United players are detested by the opposition supporters, but never Giggs. He is always respected.)

After the game at Nagoya, JEF manager Osim said Murai could play like that more often, and could score more goals, too, as he has so much natural ability.

He certainly looked hungry to score, and beat his defender twice before striking the ball confidently past Narazaki with his trusty left foot and into the top corner of the net.

A couple of weeks earlier, Murai had looked impressive and mature playing for the Japan Selection against Hungary in the Olympic celebration match at National Stadium.

If Zico wants to have a look at a couple of new faces, Murai would not let him down on the left wing, and would also put some pressure on Alex to hold his place in the team.

Alex always looks like he's playing well within himself, saving himself for some special moment. But that moment never comes, and he's been a bit disappointing for Urawa this season. Also, with his corners and free kicks, he frequently fails to clear the first defender, and this is a very frustrating habit.

Go on Zico...give Murai a chance on the left wing against Singapore.

After all, the club deserves more recognition at this level after their consistent efforts in the league.

ends

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Kashiwa-Cerezo will be J.League's crunch match

21 Oct 2004(Thu)

There's no doubt where the "Match of the Day" will be in Japan on Saturday.

It has to be at Kashiwa in Chiba Prefecture, where Reysol take on Cerezo Osaka in a match which is crucial for the J1 survival of both teams.

Cerezo are at the bottom of the second-stage standings with only seven points, the same meagre tally as Oita and Jubilo, and Reysol are in 13th position with just eight points.

But the second-stage table alone does not tell the whole story, of course, because you need to look at the points combined from both stages to see who is in big trouble.

Overall, Cerezo are still 16th and last with 17 points, and Reysol are 15th with 20 points, four behind the team in 14th position, Oita.

So it looks like a two-horse race to avoid the bottom place, which would mean a playoff with J2's third-placed team for a spot in the expanded 18-team top flight next season.

The match kicks off at 3pm, and I'm sure there will be a big and noisy crowd at Kashiwa for this vital game.

If Reysol win they will open up a six-point lead over Cerezo, and surely that gap will be too big for Cerezo to close with only five matches remaining.

If Cerezo win they will pull level with Reysol on 20 points and give themselves hope of avoiding the playoff. It's not Cerezo's last chance, but it's pretty close to that.

With the stakes so high, both teams will be going for the win.

A draw would not be satisfactory for either side, especially the away team, so the fans can look forward to some attacking, maybe even desperate, football at the compact Hitachi Stadium.

Cerezo had a terrible result on Sunday, losing 2-1 at home to Vissel Kobe in the Kansai derby. Ryuji Bando opened the scoring for Vissel, pushing his claims for a national team call-up after an impressive display for the Japan Selection against Hungary Selection at National Stadium recently.

But Reysol, at home to Grampus, could not fully capitalise on Cerezo's home defeat.

Despite fighting back from 1-0 down at half-time with two quick goals in the second half from Myojin and Otani, Reysol then allowed a sloppy equaliser late on and Grampus stole a point. That was two big points lost for Reysol.

There are some attractive games this weekend, for example Antlers at home to Reds and Marinos at home to FC Tokyo, but the Reysol-Cerezo clash will be the most crucial for the immediate future of both teams.

Go and enjoy a true relegation dogfight!

ends

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Japan's maturity, professionalism shine through

18 Oct 2004(Mon)

The World Cup qualifier in Oman went pretty much as expected.

The home team attacked aggressively at the beginning, but after this brief flurry of activity Japan took control and dominated the game.

Then, seven minutes into the second half, Takayuki Suzuki headed home a beautiful cross from Shunsuke Nakamura to give Japan the lead.

This goal, I thought, killed the game as a contest, and Japan won easily in the end to clinch first place in Group 3.

Japan's record speaks for itself: Played five, won five, 15 goals for and only one against for a maximum 15 points.

Overall it was a very mature and concentrated performance by Japan, who looked in a different class to Oman for long periods of the game.

This is a tribute to the professionalism of the J.League, and also to the experience of the players based in Europe.

Didn't Ono look like a true general?

Once again, though, I thought Japan's man of the match was Nakazawa.

Just like in the Asian Cup, he was a tower of strength at the back.

Everything Oman sent into the penalty box came straight back out again off the head of Nakazawa.

His tackling, too, was impressive, as he reads the game so well.

I have said this before and will say it again, that Nakazawa has everything it takes to succeed in Europe, and I really hope he gets his chance at the end of this J.League season.

After the game, when all the fans had disappeared and the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex was deserted and silent, I chatted with a member of the Asian Football Confederation's marketing team.

"One of these players will be a candidate for Asian Player of the Year," he said. "Guess who?"

Instantly I repiled Nakazawa.

"Right! He was outstanding again. I really hope he gets nominated," said the marketing man.

So do I, as I often think defenders are overlooked for these awards at the expense of the more creative, eye-catching, but not necessarily consistent, attacking players.

All in all it was a highly satisfactory night for Japan, who passed a potentially tricky test of character with ease.

Now they are in the last eight of the Asian qualifiers for Germany 2006. With two teams advancing from each group, and with the third-placed team also having a chance to qualify, Japan should be able to book a World Cup ticket comfortably.

But they must display the same control and maturity they showed in Muscat, and treat all opponents with respect.

Prepare for some noisy nights in 2005!

ends

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Excitement mounts in Muscat

14 Oct 2004(Thu)

Everyone in Japan knows the importance of Wednesday's game against Oman here in sunny Muscat.

And just because this is a small country in terms of Gulf football, don't think the locals are not aware of the significance, too.

There are three English-language newspapers here, and the match is so important that football has knocked cricket from the main sports page.

There is a big Indian community living here, and this is reflected in the vast amounts of space given to cricket on a daily basis. Even more so now, as India are playing host to Australia.

"Zico's Japan ready for Oman match," says the headline of the Oman Daily Observer.

The article points out the meticulous preparation of the Japan team, notably a gadget to measure the temperature and humidity during Monday's training session at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex.

There was also a story about the Oman team being visited by the president of the government's sports ministry, and a photo of Japan training.

The Times of Oman dedicated half a page to the match, under the headline: "Excitement in the air as Japan clash looms."

The article points out the large number of Japanese roaming around town, and marvels at the fact there are around 140 media representatives here.

There is also the inevitable photo of Zico looking even more serious and grim than ever, accompanying a story which quotes him as saying Japan will play their normal game and not try to draw, which would be good enough to advance to the second round.

Japan trained hard at the match venue Monday night, working especially on corners. In what is expected to be a tight game, a set-piece, meaning a free kick or corner, could determine the outcome.

The stadium was a splendid sight, surrounded by barren mountains but with palm trees lining the roads nearby.

As Japan trained, the lone voice of a Muslim at prayer, amplified by a loud speaker, drifted across the air.

After Zico's news conference in front of the TV cameras, the main topic of debate was "nama beer."

This is not uncommon among journalists, as it usually means where are we going for a drink after filing our stories! But this time it was different.

From chatting to a few Japanese journalists, it appears that Zico was likening the expected atmosphere at Wednesday's match to the top of a glass of draft beer.

The Oman supporters will be wearing white, giving the stadium the effect of a glass of beer, but the white is only the froth, and therefore not important. The more meaningful matter is down below, meaning the beer itself and, in this case, what happens on the pitch.

Mmmmmm.....very interesting this, from Zico the Philosopher. Sounds more like Eric Cantona.

I think it's going to be a really tough test for Japan on Wednesday night but I stand by my earlier prediction of 0-0 (or maybe 1-1!) but I cannot see Japan losing.

Go and relax and have a "nama beer!"

ends

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Japan will have "away" advantage, according to Captain Miyamoto

11 Oct 2004(Mon)

If Oman think they have home advantage against Japan on Wednesday, they had better think again.

On paper, of course, Oman do have home advantage, as the game is being played in their beautiful capital Muscat.

But this doesn't mean Japan will be nervous and afraid to play attacking football because they are the visiting team.

According to Japan's captain, "Kaiser Tsune," Japan actually play better away from home.

This may sound like a strange statement, considering the fantastic support Japan attract for home games.

But Tsune feels that this puts pressure on the players, as the fans are expecting "beautiful" football, non-stop attacking and, of course, goals galore.

And it just can't happen every time.

Look at the home game against Oman on February 18 at Saitama.

Japan huffed and puffed with little momentum or rhythm, and were extremely fortunate to win 1-0 with a goal three minutes into injury time by Kubo.

The ball, remember, bounced around the edge of the Oman penalty area like a pachinko machine, and Kubo hit the jackpot.

Away from home, Tsune says, Japan can relax more, play more patient football and not feel like they have to launch an all-out assault as soon as they get the ball.

The evidence is clear when Japan play in Europe, and also at the Asian Cup in China.

This is why I feel Oman will be more nervous than Japan on Wednesday night.

After all, if Japan score first, I believe the game will be over, as Oman would then need two against a team which has beaten them 1-0 in Saitama and 1-0 in China this year. In other words, two games played and no goals scored against Japan.

I think it will be Oman who will be on the defensive in the first half, making sure that Japan don't score. Only maybe in the last 30 minutes will Oman go looking for the first goal.

This will be perfect for Japan.

They will be able to play calmly, keep the ball, attack at the right time and, through Takayuki, win a free kick on the edge of the Oman penalty area.

Shunsuke steps up with his magical left foot and it's 1-0 Japan!

Honestly I cannot see Japan losing in Muscat.

Captain Tsune is right. Japan do look more in control away from home, putting all the pressure on the home team Wednesday night.

Maybe my game scenario is not quite accurate, but I predict a 0-0 or maybe 1-1 scoreline, booking Japan safe passage into the next round.

ends

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Alpay praises loyalty of Japanese fans as attendances rise again

7 Oct 2004(Thu)

Ever since the J.League began in 1993 I've always taken a strong interest in the attendances.

After last weekend's matches, the signs are very encouraging for the league as a whole.

At the moment in J1, the average attendance for the second stage is 19,175.

The average for the 15 rounds in the first stage was 18,763.

This makes for a season's average of 18,969, which is considerably higher than the 2003 average of 17,351 for the 240 matches.

With Urawa Reds at the top of the table and Albirex Niigata improving, I am sure the huge fan bases of these two clubs alone can help the first division finish with an average attendance of over 19,000 for the season.

If that is the case, it would be the first time to pass the 19,000 mark since 1994, when the league recorded a high of 19,598 in its second season.

After 1994, the crowds went away and came back again, which is a very healthy sign for the game in Japan.

It means that the fans of the early bubble years, who didn't understand the game and just followed the fashion, have been replaced by a growing number of genuine football supporters.

Take away the big four leagues of Europe, meaning Spain, England, Italy and Germany, and probably also France, and these J.League attendances would hold up against most other European leagues, including Holland and Belgium.

In fact there must be several clubs in the allegedly glamorous Italian Serie A who are jealous of the support the teams receive in Japan.

After the JEF United-Urawa Reds match on Saturday I spoke with Turkish tough nut Alpay Ozalan.

Anyone who's been to a match involving the Turkish national team knows that their fans are crazy, so I asked Alpay how Tokyo compared with Istanbul.

Alpay had no hesitation in saying that the atmosphere in Japan was better.

He said that in Turkey people stop going to the games if one team is dominating the championship race, whereas in Japan the fans still keep coming and still keep singing.

He was very impressed with the JEF fans, who continued to cheer for their yellow-shirted heroes long after the match was lost.

"And look at our fans. It must be two hours from Saitama but there's over 20,000 of them here," he said.

The steady increase in attendances must be the envy of many leagues around the world.

As the Japanese baseball world reaches a turning point, the J.League is quitely getting on with business, step by step.

ends

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Tanaka is looking for his best form

4 Oct 2004(Mon)

The good news for Urawa Reds fans is that their team is still top of the table, and Tatsuya Tanaka will surely come good again soon.

I have watched Reds' last two games, away to FC Tokyo and at home to Gamba Osaka, and Tanaka has been very quiet by his normal standards.

He's hardly had a chance to score a goal, and there has been little evidence of the blistering pace that can destroy defenders.

After the 2-1 victory over Gamba at Komaba, I asked Guido Buchwald about Tanaka.

Guido admitted that Tanaka was a "little bit down," due to his experience at the Olympic Games in Athens.

"The Olympic Games was not good for him because he did not play," said the Reds manager.

"He was for three or four weeks only a tourist, and it was not a good time for his condition and mentality."

Buchwald, however, is not worried by Tanaka's dip in form, as I am sure the Reds fans are not too concerned.

"He is coming again step by step. It is not a problem. He is a very important player for us," said the affable German coach.

I am sure that Tanaka will come good again soon, not only by scoring a few goals but also his work off the ball.

With Emerson and Tanaka together, they can give defenders a torrid time with their speed and direct running, and it will take a very good team to keep this pair out.

FC Tokyo managed it the other week in a 1-0 victory, when Jean and Moniwa were outstanding in the heart of the Tokyo defence.

I think that Moniwa, and also Konno, will be picked for the national squad shortly.

Once the Oman game in Muscat is out of the way (I cannot see Japan losing this one, as they can secure a draw quite comfortably), Zico might be tempted to bring in some Olympic players for the final Group 3 game at home to Singapore on November 17.

I would like to see Moniwa, Konno, Ishikawa and certainly Okubo in the national squad sooner rather than later, but Zico does not seem to like calling up new players at the expense of older ones who have served him loyally, even if they are not in the team.

Tanaka, too, will surely get his chance, but first he needs to rediscover his pre-Olympic form.

When he does, defenders had better watch out!

ends

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