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November 2004

Korea United would be attractive for FIFA at 2006 World Cup

29 Nov 2004(Mon)

North Korea's head coach, Yun Jong Su, made some interesting comments after the completion of Group 5 World Cup qualifying in Dubai recently.

Basically, Yun said he would like to see a unified Korean team enter the 2006 World Cup in Germany if both North and South qualified.

The draw for the final round of qualifying takes place in Kuala Lumpur on December 9th, when Japan and the two Koreas will be among eight teams.

For the time being, as Yun pointed out, North and South Korea are two separate teams, and must qualify in their own right.

If they both do qualify for Germany, is a joint team possible?

I don't see why not, as FIFA president Sepp Blatter would view the idea as the perfect way for football to build bridges when everything else fails.

The bottom line is, Asia has been given 4.5 places in the 32-team field for Germany.

This means the winners and runners-up of the two four-team groups next year will qualify automatically for Germany.

The two third-placed teams will play off for the right to meet a representative from the CONCACAF region for the last spot in the World Cup. This is what FIFA means by half a place: half for Asia, half for CONCACAF.

How Asian officials fill their 4.5 places is up to them, I suppose, just so long as they provide a team to play against CONCACAF.

If the two Koreas are in the same group and finish first and second, and a unified team is accepted by AFC and FIFA, then the third-placed team in that group could also qualify automatically.

This would leave the last-placed team to meet the third-placed team from the other group in the playoff.

The biggest problem, of course, would be time.

The two Koreas, and administrators, would have to work very quickly to produce a unified team.

They could not delay and delay like they did over South Korea's offer to North Korea to stage some first-round matches at the 2002 World Cup.

On that occasion, the North did not respond, so the plan was dropped.

This unified Korean team for Germany, however, is an idea from the North--not yet official, just from the head coach--to which the South has reacted positively.

It is an interesting concept, and one which will have administrators scratching their heads for the next few months.

There is a lot of football to be played before then, though.

First, the two Koreas must qualify independently through the official system described above.

Only then does it become an issue, but I feel AFC and FIFA would try as hard as possible to make it work.


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Engels deserves credit, too

25 Nov 2004(Thu)

Guido Buchwald, Urawa Reds' White Knight, is, quite rightly, receiving much praise and attention following his team's second-stage success.

But it has not been a one-man show this season, as other people have played their part, too.

None more so than Buchwald's sidekick and fellow German, Gert Engels.

Let's not forget this was Buchwald's first job as a head coach, and his appointment of Engels as his right-hand man proved to be a master stroke.

After all, Engels has vast experience and knowledge of the J.League, having started on the coaching staff with Yokohama Flugels, then moving to JEF United Ichihara and Kyoto Purple Sanga. He won the Emperor's Cup with both Flugels and Sanga, and knows the Japanese mentality and playing strengths and weaknesses so well.

On top of that, of course, he speaks perfect football Japanese, and his ability to communicate with the players directly gives him an important advantage.

Between the new head coach Buchwald and the experienced Engels, Reds had firm and inspirational leadership.

I will never forget the scenes at Komaba Stadium in 1997, when Buchwald performed his lap of honour on the back of a white horse. This was on the completion of his playing career, and he had proved so popular that it was inevitable he would return one day in a higher role.

The man he replaced, however, must also take credit for Reds' success.

Hans Ooft, who led Urawa to the Nabisco Cup title in 2003, laid the foundations of this successful team with Wim Jansen as his trusty assistant.

They installed discipline and method into Reds' play, and the passion and loyalty of the supporters made the club an attraction for all talented young players around the country.

It must be remembered, too, that Reds' second-stage title success came without two key Japanese players in Tsuboi and Yamase.

This proves the strength in depth that exists in the squad, although defeat in the Nabisco Cup final to FC Tokyo and at home to Grampus in the league--two high-pressure matches--must make Yokohama F Marinos slight favourites to win the overall championship.

Reds will now be trying to finish the job, but the pragmatic and patient Takeshi Okada will have other ideas for the two playoff games.


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A wasted chance for Zico and Japan

22 Nov 2004(Mon)

On the positive side, Japan qualified for the final round of 2006 World Cup Asian qualifying with a perfect record.

They played six and won six, and conceded only one goal, in a 2-1 victory away to Singapore on March 31.

On the negative side, I can't understand why Zico did not broaden his selection horizons in the home game with Singapore on Wednesday night.

Although they won 1-0 with a goal from Tamada, I firmly believe the national coach missed a wonderful opportunity to take a look at some new players ahead of the six-match qualifying group next year.

His selection looked like a reward to the loyal squad members who usually sit on the bench when the European players are around.

But this was not the case with the defenders, as Matsuda and Atsu Miura both got a game.

Which leads to another point of debate.

Why did Zico revert to 4-4-2 when clearly the players prefer, and the team plays better, with a 3-5-2 formation?

A few weeks ago I put forward the following team: Narazaki; Moniwa, Miyamoto, Nakazawa; Ishikawa, Konno, Koji Nakata and Murai; Ogasawara, and Suzuki and Okubo.

I thought a lineup like this would maintain the continuity and keep a strong team backbone, while giving a chance to some in-form J.League players to gain some World Cup experience.

If Zico thought this meant too many changes, and would lose the trust of his back-up players such as Matsuda, Atsu, Fujita and Motoyama, then why not just call them into the squad and let them sample life with the national team, making any call-up next year less daunting?

The group was already over and there was no pressure on Zico whatsoever, so I can't understand his selection policy.

Although Okubo won another senior cap, he failed to find the target again.

But I don't know why Zico didn't start with him, instead of bringing him on as a substitute and putting him under pressure to score his first senior goal in the time he had available.

I would have taken Okubo aside a couple of days before the game, told him he was starting the match and to relax and play his normal game. Maybe then a goal would have come, and the stigma which follows Okubo around at this level would have been over.

As I said before, Zico's record in World Cup qualifying is perfect at 6-0, but stronger opposition is waiting around the corner.

We'll know Japan's next three opponents at the draw in Kuala Lumpur on December 9th.

All I can say about next year is that I hope Zico does not revert to 4-4-2 and try to play all his European exiles in the same midfield and forward line.

Surely he has learned his lessons from the first qualifying round, and must now make tough decisions all national coaches face.


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On the trail of North Korea

18 Nov 2004(Thu)

Mysterious...secretive....the hermit nation...

Yes, of course, I am talking about North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, to give them their official name.

Like Japan, North Korea are already through to the final Asian qualifying round for the 2006 World Cup.

While Japan were winning Group 3 in Muscat last month, North Korea were winning Group 5 in Pyongyang thanks to a 2-1 victory over Yemen and a crushing defeat for the United Arab Emirates in Thailand.

So there is a good chance that Japan and North Korea might be drawn together in one of the two four-team groups on December 9th.

This is one of the reasons I am in Dubai, checking out the North Koreans before and during their final group game, against UAE on Wednesday night.

They arrived in the UAE on Monday lunchtime after an 18-hour journey from Pyongyang via Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Bahrain. After checking in at the Hotel Holiday International in nearby Sharjah, they had an afternoon snooze and then went for a training session at the Al Sharjah Club.

I must admit I have found them extremely relaxed, friendly and open.

Their team leader is Kim Jong Sik, a former FIFA referee and therefore a good English speaker. He is supported by Ri Hak Mu, a secretary for the North Korean National Olympic Committee.

The coach is Yun Jong Su, a youthful-looking 42-year-old who is a former captain of the national team. As a player he represented his country for 10 years, and he was a member of the North Korea squad at the final qualifying round for the 1994 World Cup in Doha, Qatar, in October 1993. (Sorry to mention that, Japan fans, as the 2-2 draw with Iraq is still a painful memory, despite what has happened since).

I have attended both training sessions, and the Koreans look fit and fast, sturdy and athletic. Even in the heat of the Gulf they were training at high speed.

They have won a group consisting of UAE, Thailand and Yemen, so they deserve not to be written off.

This is why Wednesday night's game will be interesting, because not many people know too much about them.

The coach was very pleasant and chatty in an interview for the "Football Asia" magazine and website at his hotel on Tuesday morning. The only secret he kept was his formation for Wednesday's game, but he's not alone in that.

The official training session that evening was open to the media, so I sat in a chair next to the Korean bench by the touchline and just watched for myself.

They actually seemed surprised that a Westerner is interested in them, even though their team from the 1966 World Cup in England remains a legend.


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Reysol edging closer to safety

15 Nov 2004(Mon)

That was a big win, and a welcome three points, for Kashiwa Reysol in midweek, wasn't it?

They really needed to beat Albirex Niigata in their "away" game at National Stadium, and did so 3-1 to move five points clear of Cerezo Osaka in the scramble to avoid 16th place in J1.

With Cerezo on 19 points and Reysol on 24 with only three games remaining, it is going to be extremely difficult for the Osaka club to overhaul the Chiba team. It means Cerezo must win at least two of their remaining games, preferably all three, and two of them are away from home.

Talking about home grounds, I have built up an impression over the years as Hitachi Stadium being a "fortress" for Reysol.

It's a small, compact ground, and there's a really good atmosphere with the fans so close to the pitch.

It can also be intimidating for the away team, due to the presence of the excitable Yellow Monkeys throwing themselves into the pitch-side netting behind the goal.

But for all this, Reysol have won only one league match at Hitachi Stadium all season...and that was on the opening day, 2-1 against Oita Trinita.

That is surely the root of all Reysol's problems, as you must win your home games to build up any consistency.

Their most recent defeat was at home to Verdy, who won 2-0 with two very nicely taken goals from the young striker Morimoto.

The Verdy forward took them both with a great deal of maturity and composure, suggesting he could be a key figure in Japan's age-group teams for the next six years. Surely he will get the chance to play in Japan's next under-23 team when they try to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The day after that Verdy win at Kashiwa, Cerezo drew 2-2 at Iwata and were only three minutes away from victory.

What I couldn't understand about the Cerezo defence is how they left Fukunishi--one of the best headers of a ball in Japan--unmarked in the penalty box to head home Jubilo's late equaliser.

Fukunishi had already scored a header in the first half, but amazingly the Cerezo defence failed to pick him up at Nanami's corner from the left, and the national team midfielder does not miss from so close to goal.

Little mistakes like this prove costly over a season, and on that day at Iwata it cost Cerezo two points, as they went home with one instead of three.

Despite their awful home form, it looks like Reysol will escape this season.


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Okubo can take Spain by surprise

11 Nov 2004(Thu)

It was inevitable that Yoshito Okubo would join the list of Japanese players heading to Europe.

Now, it appears that Spain is his likely destination. To be more precise, the Spanish holiday island of Mallorca.

This would be a big step up the ladder for Cerezo Osaka's 22-year-old Fukuoka fireball, as the Spanish first division is probably the best in Europe, and the world.

So has young Yoshito got what it takes to succeed, if he joins Real Mallorca on a six-month loan deal?

I have asked this question several times in the recent past, to players and coaches alike in the J.League, and the answer has always been the same: "Yes, he has the talent to be a hit in Europe."

I hope the deal goes through, because it would be fascinating watching Okubo perform and grow on this grand Spanish stage.

What everyone likes about him is his single-mindedness.

He just loves scoring goals, and has the confidence and self-belief to take on defenders and shoot for goal.

Even if he misses, which every striker does, including Ronaldo, he does not let this affect him, and comes back for more.

Too often in Japan I see a player with a clear shot at goal, but instead of smashing the ball he will take one touch too many and be tackled by a defender, or he will try and cross or pass to a teammate instead of taking the responsibility himself.

Not Okubo.

He knows what he wants and he knows where the goal is, and he must maintain this ruthless, killer approach in Spain.

Don't be worried about people calling you greedy or selfish, Yoshito!

You're a striker, a predator, and your business is goals...as many as possible.

Of course there is another side to Okubo, the side that has got him into trouble on several occasions in the past.

That's his temper, his anger and frustration, the signs of a player still developing as a man, as much as a footballer.

What he has to do is channel the energy in the right direction, keep a lid on his boiling pan of emotions and stay focused on his job.

Perhaps being in Spain will help him to do this. First, because the referees and assistant referees won't understand his Japanese outbursts, and second because he won't be such a big fish in a small pool, like he is in the J.League.

His aggression and power might take a few defenders by surprise in Spain, so let's hope he can bag a few goals early on and establish himself in the team.

Under new head coach Hector Cuper, Mallorca are surely going to climb the table after a poor start.

If Okubo can help them do that, he can look forward to a permanent transfer in the summer.


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Zico's back pass is good news for JFA

8 Nov 2004(Mon)

Common sense has prevailed!

I am talking, of course, about Zico's decision not to select a few veteran players for Japan's "dead" World Cup qualifier against Singapore on November 17.

He announced his squad on Friday, and it did not contain the likes of Gon, Kazu and Akita--three players he was considering calling up to show his appreciation of their contribution to Japanese football.

While this was a noble gesture by Zico, it was the wrong time and the wrong place for such a move, and the Brazilian coach changed his mind due to the negative publicity it had generated.

Earlier in the week, Zico had said that criticism of the plan was showing disrespect to the players in question.

But I think Zico missed the point.

I have been against the plan from day one, since reading it at Kansai Airport on my way back from Oman, and my reasons were nothing to do with not respecting the veteran players.

Kazu is a model professional, whose work ethic and attitude should be a benchmark for others to follow.

Gon, too, has the enthusiasm which must be the envy of players half his age, and the spectacular goals record to go with it.

Akita has always been a big favourite: a rough, tough, English-style centre half, who was the rock on which Kashima Antlers' success was built.

So, no, I do not disrespect these players.

It's just that a World Cup qualifying match is not the time to hold a benefit game.

If Zico wants to reward them for their contribution, let the JFA organise a separate match just for this purpose.

How about a Japan Over 30s team against a South Korean Over-30s team in the Kirin Golden Oldies Super Challenge Cup? This would fill National Stadium, and be a fitting tribute to players such as Kazu, Gon and Akita.

Going back to Zico's squad for the Singapore match, I don't think he has gone far enough in looking at new players.

Only Okubo returns, and surely the time is right for "Young Yoshito" to notch his first senior goal.

I would like to have seen Zico pick more Olympic players, or choose from outside the group, because I think he needs to develop his squad next year in time for the 2006 World Cup.

I said before the likes of Moniwa, Konno and Ishikawa would gain great experience from this match, and there was room for a new face such as Murai on the left wing.

On the other hand, Zico cannot be accused of being disloyal to his squad members, and he plans to give a run to several players who have sat on the bench waiting patiently for their chance.

This makes much more sense than his original idea, and is a fair compromise after his decision to scrap his "Golden Oldies" plan.

The JFA can sleep more peacefully now, with their credibility in tact.


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Urawa are the red-hot favourites to win Nabisco Cup final

4 Nov 2004(Thu)

It's the final the J.League wanted.

It's the final the sponsor, Yamazaki Nabisco, wanted.

But is it the final FC Tokyo wanted?

Somehow I doubt it.

I know they say the form book goes out of the window for a cup final, but it is hard to ignore the recent results of the two teams heading into Wednesday's Nabisco Cup final at Kokuritsu.

Urawa Reds are on fire, seven points clear at the top of the second-stage table with only four matches remaining. Surely their first stage title is just around the corner.

FC Tokyo, on the other hand, are struggling for goals and for points, which makes them the heavy outsider for the Nabisco Cup showdown.

Still, FC Tokyo and their army of fans can look back on their most recent encounter for some inspiration.

They met in the league at Ajinomoto Stadium on September 23, when Tokyo played superbly and won 1-0.

On that night, the central defensive pairing of Moniwa and Jean were outstanding, keeping out a Reds attack that had scored 21 goals in winning their first five matches of the second stage.

Earlier in the season, Reds had beaten Tokyo 2-1 at Saitama, so there has been little to choose between the teams in the league.

That's in the head-to-head meetings, though.

Since FC Tokyo's victory over Urawa, the capital club's league form has been woeful. In fact they haven't won a league game since then, drawing three and losing two. Maybe they are saving themselves for the big day?

In the same period, Reds have won four times and drawn just once in the league, so there's no doubt which team will enter Wednesday's final with their confidence sky-high.

Urawa also have the experience of the past two seasons, when they have played Kashima Antlers in the Nabisco Cup final.

Antlers won in 2002, but Reds gained revenge last year on a day which will be best remembered for the shock announcement that Hans Ooft would leave at the end of the season.

His replacement, Guido Buchwald, has done a marvellous job so far, and his team is on course to win a treble of league championship, Nabisco Cup and Emperor's Cup.

I hope, for the sake of Tokyo's excellent fans and for the club in general, which is an example for others with substantially more financial resources to follow, that the Blues will match the Reds.

But it would be a big surprise if FC Tokyo could throw the form book out of the window on this occasion.

I tip Reds to win 2-0.


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Zico's bad idea for Singapore match

1 Nov 2004(Mon)

A German journalist once wrote that FIFA president Sepp Blatter had 50 new ideas every day...and 51 of them were bad.

This phrase came to mind when learning of the developments in Zico's plan to field a "Golden Oldies" team against Singapore in Japan's final Group 3 World Cup qualifier on November 17.

It appears that many of the 16 first division clubs are against the idea, and have made their feelings clear to the head of the JFA technical committee, Kozo Tashima.

Good for them!

I hope the feelings of the clubs will be taken into consideration, and the plan will be dropped before Zico announces his squad.

According to reports, Tashima will speak to Zico about it when the Brazilian returns from yet another holiday in his home country (I thought he'd be better off checking out the young talent in the J.League, with a view to strengthening his squad for next year.)

So all is not lost for the people within Japanese football campaigning for the future, not the past.

I have been against the plan from day one, as it throws up so many questions.

For example, what if Gon Nakayama scores three against Singapore? How can Zico drop him from the squad for the next game?

What if King Kazu nets four, like he did in 1997 against Uzbekistan in a 6-3 win at Kokuritsu? Again, how can Zico then leave him out?

I think the plan is ridiculous, and thankfully it seems that many J1 teams do also. The JFA should block it.

The match against Singapore represents a wonderful chance for Zico to give World Cup experience to some fresh faces.

Although the match is meaningless in terms of qualifying for the next round, as Japan are safely through, it is still a World Cup qualifier, and that means there is pressure and expectation.

What better opportunity will Zico have to test some new players? After all, he has complained regularly that he doesn't have enough time with his players before World Cup games, but on this occasion he prefers to turn it into a testimonial match.

There is no need to bring back the Euro Stars, so here is my Japan team to take on Singapore: Narazaki; Moniwa, Miyamoto (captain), Nakazawa; Ishikawa, Konno, Koji Nakata, Murai, Ogasawara; Suzuki, Okubo.


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