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December 2004

A solid season of growth for Japanese football

27 Dec 2004(Mon)

December 24--It’s been a very interesting year for baseball in Japan. That’s right, I said baseball.

Yes, I know this column is supposed to be about football, but just let me explain!

Baseball has dominated much of the sports news in recent months, but for all the wrong reasons.

Two clubs have merged due to enormous operating deficits, a new one has been allowed in, but only after much debate, and suddenly baseball realises that it must change drastically to keep its audience.

The J.League, meanwhile, has been quietly getting on with its own business.

Huge crowds for the two-leg championship play-off, a new name on the Nabisco Cup, the first division expanding to 18 teams and the J.League to 30 teams fro next season after starting with 10….

It was no coincidence that, a couple of months ago, a North American colleague admitted to me that ‘’the J.League is embarrassing Japanese baseball.’’

But you won’t find anyone in the J.League gloating about this, because they know they are still planting roots around the country and that there is a long way to go yet.

But 2004 was a very satisfactory year for the game in Japan, at club and international level.

FC Tokyo won the Nabisco Cup to give a trophy to their army of supporters, who brighten up every ground with their songs and their exuberance. Yokohama F Marinos won the first stage of the championship and then defeated second-stage champions Urawa Reds on penalties to retain the league title. Head coach Takeshi Okada was rightly voted Manager of the Year, as his experience and pragmatism was carried on to the field by his players.

Reds missed out on both trophies in Guido Buchwald’s first season as manager, but they have the spending power and the magnetism to attract better players in certain areas of the team for next season. The Nabisco Cup final, and the two championship games, did not have many goals, but from a purist’s point of view, this highlights the rise in quality, of coaching, technique and strategy, individually and collectively.

Neutrals would probably have preferred a 5-4 in 90 minutes, but too many goals in high-scoring games like this can be attributed to bad defending rather than clever attacking. It was also good to see a defender, Yuji Nakazawa, win the J.League MVP award, as I feel defenders are overlooked too often for these awards due to their lack of star quality and creative flair. Justice was done on this occasion, and Nakazawa was a worthy winner.

Nakazawa, of course, was outstanding for Japan at the Asian Cup in China, where Zico’s men defended the trophy won by Philippe Troussier’s team in Lebanon in 2000.

In addition to this, Japan won all six games in their World Cup qualifying group, conceding only one goal during the laboured 2-1 victory in Singapore, and a place in Germany is well within their grasp next year.

The biggest disappointment of the year (but not the biggest surprise) was Japan’s performance at the Olympics. Following the qualifying campaign in spring, things began to fall apart, and I am sure head coach Yamamoto would do things very differently if only he could turn the clock back.

All in all, though, it was a solid season of growth for football in Japan.

As I said at the start, baseball was dominating the sports pages for a while, as football took a back seat.

But, as they say, no news is good news.

And 2004 was a good year for the J.League.


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Interesting tests for Japan

23 Dec 2004(Thu)

DECEMBER 21--The Japan Football Association can never be accused of not planning for the future.

So it was no surprise to see they have quickly lined up two opponents for a couple of home friendlies in the build-up to World Cup qualifying.

Kazakhstan will take on Japan on January 29, followed by Syria on February 2--exactly one week before their opening Group B qualifier against North Korea.

Several years ago, in 1994 to be precise, when the Asian Games took place in Hiroshima, Kazakhstan would have given Japan a tough game.

But Japan have developed and matured so quickly in recent years that a win should be guaranteed, and this will boost confidence at the start of the year.

Japan can expect the Kazakhs to be big and physical, while probably lacking pace and strength in depth.

I remember speaking to a Kazakh official at the Asian Games in Hiroshima, and he said he was convinced Kazakhstan would have won the football gold medal if they had had enough money to enter a team.

In the end, Uzbekistan won the gold, beating China 4-2 at the Big Arch, and opening a new era for Asian football.

One thing is for sure: the Kazakh players will not be affected by the winter cold, as the outclassed Malaysians were at Kashima at the start of this year!

Then it's the turn of Syria to play Japan, and the Middle Eastern team should provide a measure for the matches to come against Iran and Bahrain.

Also in 1994 I attended the Asian Youth Under-19 Championship in Jakarta, where Japan lost in the final to Syria.

It has to be said that some of the Syrians looked very experienced for their age, and a second-place finish was a fine effort by Japan.

The Japan team at that time was captained by Suguru Ito, the No. 10 and playmaker, and a certain Hidetoshi Nakata was on the wing!

Another outstanding Japanese performer was Koji Kumagai, who played in defensive midfield but was voted best defender of the tournament.

What a shame that Kumagai's career has been so badly affected by injury.

Both warm-up games will provide a few pointers for Zico and the players, but nothing can ever match the tension of a World Cup qualifier.

No one knows this more than Zico himself.


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Video replays will help the game

20 Dec 2004(Mon)

December 17: At last, maybe, football will start using video technology at certain times to assist referees.

I hope this happens, and quickly, because I feel FIFA should have introduced this a long time ago.

The FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, always says video replays undermine the referee's authority, and that the official's decision should be final.

But surely he is missing the point. The technology should be there to help the ref, not hinder him.

I often think back to the World Cup semi-final at the Stade de France in 1998.

France beat Croatia 2-1, but the French defender Laurent Blanc was shown the red card for a non-existent foul on Slaven Bilic.

Everyone in the world could see that Bilic over-reacted in a disgraceful way, and the referee never even saw the incident because it was off the ball.

Yet Blanc, who had enjoyed a wonderful World Cup in the heart of the French defence, was suspended for the final.

I thought FIFA should have used the video on that occasion, like TV stations around the world had done, and cleared Blanc to play in the final, while handing out a lengthier ban to Bilic.

At the time, Bilic was playing for Everton in England, and even his own fans booed him when he returned to the club after the World Cup for his unsporting behaviour.

Now, the signs are good that video replays will be used to decide if it is a goal or not.

Not for offside, but to check whether the ball has crossed the line.

This is very simple to perform, and neither team can argue over the decision if it is clear on video replay.

In the past, teams have been cheated at important times due to a bad mistake by the referee or linesman. There is so much money in the game--billions of dollars--yet simple technology to improve standards is shunned.

With both UEFA and FIFA now agreeing to look into the matter, I think this is a big step forward and an encouraging sign for the future.

Handled in the right way, it should solve a lot of arguments and be fairer all round.


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Nakazawa gets his reward

16 Dec 2004(Thu)

December 14--A year too late, justice was done at the J.League awards night.

I was not alone in feeling that Yuji Nakazawa should have been voted J.League MVP in 2003.

After all, his team, Yokohama F Marinos, had won both stages of the J.League season.

Surely the top individual award must go to a Marinos player, but no, it went to Urawa Reds striker Emerson.

There was no mistake this time around, though, and Nakazawa won the award after helping Marinos defend their championship. They always say it is more difficult to defend a title than win it in the first place, as everyone is trying to shoot you down.

But Marinos stood firm, thanks in no small part to Nakazawa, who has emerged as a natural leader in a well-organised, disciplined and well-prepared team.

While Nakazawa was winning his first season MVP--a rare honour for a defender, who are often overlooked at the expense of the more flashy and creative players--Marinos manager Takeshi Okada defended his Coach of the Year title.

Guido Buchwald must have come a close second, after guiding his team to the final of the Nabisco Cup and to the Championship play-off, but the cold facts are that Reds did not win either.

The words of Okada, in the build-up to the two matches against Reds, turned out to be spot-on.

With injury problems for his strikers, Okada said it didn't matter that much at this stage of the season, as there were only two games to play, and Marinos would need only one or two goals.

This set the scene for the two games, and in the end Marinos needed only Kawai's first-leg header to take the title after a penalty shootout.

While some observers say the level of the J.League is in decline, I have to disagree.

I feel that the game in Japan has matured rapidly, and the tactics of the coaches and technique and understanding of the players reflects this.

I feel next season will be even better, with a single stage involving 18 teams.

Once again Marinos will be the team to be beat.

But for now they can bask in their success, especially Nakazawa, who thoroughly deserved his award.


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Yoshi's return is good news for the J.League

13 Dec 2004(Mon)

DECEMBER 11--It is a very smart move by Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to return to Japan and play for Jubilo Iwata.

And it is a very smart move for Jubilo to sign him.

"Yoshi" has tried his best for three years to make a go of it in Europe, but his best just wasn't quite enough, at Portsmouth in England and then with FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark.

So, in the end, he decided to come home in order to play regularly and keep his place in the national team for the remainder of the qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup.

I am sure Yoshi has endured some hard and lonely times in England and Denmark, and there must have been moments when he was wondering why he had left the comfort zone of the J.League, where he was successful with Yokohama F Marinos and very popular with fans of all teams.

But these experiences will have helped to build his character and made him a stronger person and surely a better keeper.

He has tried to expand his playing horizons by going to Europe, and we should admire him for the decision he made.

It has not worked out how he would have liked, but we shouldn't regard him as a failure because it takes courage and ambition to move on when life is already easy and rewarding.

Under new coach Masakuni Yamamoto, Jubilo will be starting a new era next season, and they know they have a goalkeeper and a dedicated professional they can rely on for several seasons to come. That must be a nice position to be in for Jubilo officials.

Of course Kawaguchi is not perfect. Which goalkeeper is?

He tends to make errors of judgement when coming out for high balls, notably in the 2001 Confederations Cup final against France at Yokohama, and more recently at Muscat in the World Cup qualifer against Oman. On the latter occasion, Tanaka was there to clear off the line and Japan breathed again.

But Yoshi will be a big attraction to the J.League next year, and many people will be happy to see him around the country.

As I said at the start, the time was right for Yoshi to come home, and Jubilo will be stronger for his experience.


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AFC Champions League is like a woman...unpredictable!

9 Dec 2004(Thu)

KUALA LUMPUR (December 7): The AFC Champions League still has a long, long way to go before it can be talked about in the same breath as the UEFA Champions League.

But Asian football officials are certainly trying.

At their impressive new headquarters on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the Asian Football Confederation conducted the draw for the 2005 AFC Champions League on Tuesday evening.

Japanese clubs have not performed well in the previous two editions of the ACL, which is Asia's top club competition.

Before, it was known as the Asian Club Championship, in the same way the UEFA Champions League was known as the European Champions Cup, or simply the European Cup.

Looking back on this year's event, AFC general secretary Peter Velappan told the gathering: "This is going to be the flagship of Asia.

"We had 88 matches played in this year's Champions League and about 600,000 in attendance, and millions on TV."

A total of 264 goals were scored, he added, including nine in the two-leg final itself.

Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma won the first leg 3-1 against Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad in the western port city of Jeddah, but the Saudis then won 5-0 in Korea to emerge victorious 6-3 on aggregate.

Velappan added: "We had this epic match which once again proves that football is totally like a woman...unpredictable!"

The AFC is trying hard to build up its major club competition, and I would urge all Japanese fans to attend games next season if possible.

I always find it interesting to watch players from other countries, check their levels of technique and fitness and also look at tactics and formation. It's amazing how many talented players you see out there but who will never get a break into big-time football because Asia is ranked behind South America and Africa as a supply line for Europe's rich leagues.

Jubilo Iwata will play Chinese champions Shenzhen Jianlibao, the as yet unknown Korean League champions, plus Hoang Anh of Vietnam in Group E. This is a tough group for the Emperor's Cup holders, meeting the champion teams of East Asian rivals China and Korea.

Japan's second representative, either Yokohama F Marinos or Urawa Reds, will be in Group F with BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand, plus the winners of the Chinese Cup and also of the Indonesian Cup.

This group is easily winnable for either Marinos or Reds, and with it a place in the quarter-finals.

Japan has won the last two Asian Cups, in 2000 in Lebanon and this year in China, but a team at the top of the AFC Champions League is long overdue.

Hopefully the Japanese clubs will really try and win it next year.


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Pragmatic Okada sets the tone for Suntory showdown

6 Dec 2004(Mon)

Yokohama F Marinos certainly have the man for a crisis.

An injury crisis, that is.

Ahead of the two-leg Suntory Championship against Urawa Reds, starting Sunday at International Stadium Yokohama, Okada has played down his team's injury problems.

Especially the absence of his first-choice strikeforce, Kubo and Ahn.

"It might have been a problem if we were at the start of the season, but we have only two games to go and need to score only one or two goals," Okada said this week.

This is typical Okada speak: pragmatic and logical.

Of course he is right. A 1-0 win at home and a 0-0 draw away at Saitama on December 11 would do nicely, thank you very much.

And who is to say Marinos are not capable of pulling off two such results. They achieved a 0-0 draw at Saitama in the league in mid-October in a match which looked likely to be a dress rehearsal for the Suntory Championship.

Even without a few key players, you can bet Marinos will be well-organised and very difficult to break down, even for Urawa's high-speed attack.

The two matches promise to be close, tactical encounters, with Reds expected to make all the running and Marinos relying on defence and careful counters.

At the start of the season, Okada tipped Reds to be among the threats for Marinos' league championship crown, and he has been proved right.

Okada pointed out that Reds had an advantage because they could field five "foreign" players to everyone else's three.

This was due to the winter signings of naturalised Brazilians Tulio and Alex, who are playing alongside the three imports Emerson, Nene and Alpay Ozalan.

Despite this, Reds have still shown themselves to be vulnerable on the big occasion, losing on penalties to FC Tokyo in the Nabisco Cup final and then being beaten at home by Grampus when a win would have wrapped up the second-stage title. They have to relax and play their natural game in the Suntory Championship.

Even with Marinos' injury problems, the Suntory Championship could easily go either way.


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Defenders miss out on Asian nomination

2 Dec 2004(Thu)

MVP awards serve their purpose by attracting lots of attention to individual players.

But do they serve the game as a whole?

Personally, I don't think so.

Just look at the three nominees for the Asian Football Confederation's MVP for 2004.

Bahrain's A'ala Hubail, Iran's Ali Karimi and Japan's very own Shunsuke Nakamura are all attacking players.

There is no recognition of defensive players, either in midfield or at the back, and this is why I think these awards are fundamentally flawed.

For example, I thought that Yuji Nakazawa was Japan's best player at the Asian Cup in China, and throughout the first round of World Cup qualifying.

Especially against Oman in Muscat, where Japan won 1-0 to clinch a place in the eight-team final round next year.

But the role Nakazawa plays is not a glamorous one, even though he has scored some crucial goals for club and country.

On the pitch and off the pitch, I think Nakazawa would have been the ideal Asian Player of the Year, as he has worked hard at his game and reached the top thanks to his own determination.

He is a very bubbly personality, and surely would do well in Europe. The last I heard, a German club had shown interest in him, and that is quite a compliment as the Germans traditionally are some of the best defenders in the world.

After Japan's match in Muscat, an AFC insider told me they were trying to get Nakazawa on the shortlist for Player of the Year, but their efforts have failed.

Shunsuke, of course, must be the favourite to win the award, as he was voted MVP of the Asian Cup.

The other two, Hubail and Karimi, both scored five goals during the tournament, and also helped their countries qualify for the final round of World Cup qualifying next year.

Japanese and Iranian players have dominated this award in the past, so the AFC may be tempted to give it to 22-year-old Hubail in recognition of Bahrain's rise in the rankings.

The award will be presented in Kuala Lumpur on December 8, the day before the draw for the final qualifying round.


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