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January 2005

First step in a marathon year

31 Jan 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (January 29): It's the start of another marathon football year, and Japan's opening opponents at International Stadium Yokohama on Saturday night are Kazakhstan.

The big, rugged and experienced Kazakhs may cause a few problems for Zico's men, as they could be hard to break down.

But while a victory would be welcome to boost confidence, Zico will be looking for a smooth performance as much as a big scoreline.

For Japan, there's no need to rush things, as this is going to be a busy year.

There is no point in players over-extending themselves in their first game of the season and picking up an injury in the winter cold. This could produce problems further down the road, for example against North Korea in the Group B opener on February 9.

As Zico explained Friday night after the official training session, he will try and use as many players as possible during the 90 minutes to give them match fitness.

Miyamoto, of course, is out already with a right hamstring injury, but he said he may be okay for the Syria friendly at Saitama next Wednesday.

In the meantime, Matsuda takes over in the centre of defence, and Matsuda's Marinos team-mate, Nakazawa, will be captain on his home ground.

This is a fitting reward for Nakazawa. It is no secret that he is one of my favourite players, and is a fantastic ambassador for Japanese football.

I asked "Kaiser Tsune" about the appointment of Nakazawa as captain, and he replied: "I agree with it.

"His personality is very good and he's a strong man. It's a good choice."

With Koji Nakata in Marseille to complete the formalities of his transfer from Kashima, Endo has come into the centre of midfield alongside Fukunishi.

The team has been functioning smoothly in training, and Zico will be looking for more of the same in the match against Kazakhstan.

I hope the fans are patient, and not demanding a barrage of goals against opposition who will certainly know what they are doing. No team from the old Soviet Union shoud be under-estimated.

This match is just one step toward the big one, against North Korea.

ends

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Zico facing tough selection decisions

27 Jan 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (January 26): Watching Japan's training match at Mitsuzawa Athletics Stadium on Tuesday afternoon makes you realise the problems Zico faces with team selection.

All the players were from the J.League, naturally, as the European leagues are in full swing.

And without the big stars, Zico fielded a compact and well-organised team, playing, of course, in a 3-5-2 formation.

Yoshi was in goal, and a very vocal Yoshi as he constantly encouraged and cajoled his defenders, and the back three was Tanaka, Matsuda and Nakazawa.

Matsuda filled in for Captain Tsune, who was resting a slight hamstring tweak in cold weather, and played a no-risks game by kicking the ball down field as far as possible at the slightest threat of danger.

The midfield had shape and balance, with Kaji on the right, Alex on the left, and Fukunishi and Koji Nakata in the middle. Koji was particularly impressive, and was the centre of attention with the media after the session due to his likely transfer to Marseille.

With such a stable four across the middle, Ogasawara had the freedom to roam across the pitch and to link up with the two forwards, Tamada and Takayuki.

The scoreline didn't matter against the team of high school boys, the most important thing was for the team to function as a unit ahead of this weekend's match with Kazakhstan.

The tough decisions for Zico come when his Euro stars return for the World Cup qualifier against North Korea on February 9 at Saitama.

Who's fully fit, mentally and physically?

Who's semi fit?

Who's playing regularly and who's on the bench?

Who's in form and who's going through a bad patch?

Does Zico stick with the 3-5-2 formation the players clearly prefer, or does he change to 4-4-2 and pack his midfield with the big names?

What Zico has surely learned from the first round of qualifiers is that it's better to field the players he knows are fit and in form rather than simply put out an all-star selection and hope for the best.

He has a few more days to make up his mind, but not long before the really serious stuff begins.

ends

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Jubilo set sights big for 2005

24 Jan 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (January 22): There's been plenty of activity in the transfer market during the winter, especially down Iwata way.

Earlier this week, Jubilo confirmed the signings of JEF United Ichihara pair Takayuki Chano and Shinji Murai.

Chano will add experience and versatility to the Jubilo back line, while Murai will give them some zip down the left wing.

Jubilo have lacked balance on the left side since Zivkovic moved on, and Murai can do this job and provide an exciting wing combination with Nishi on the right.

Waiting in the middle for all these inviting crosses will be the fearsome Korean predator Choi Yong Soo, who had signed for Jubilo earlier after a year on loan with Kyoto in J2 from JEF United.

Murai and Choi know each other's game well, of course, from their seasons together at Ichihara, and the big Korean must be rubbing his hands together at the service available to him from both wings.

Losing Chano and Murai is a big blow for JEF, and the remaining "Goi Galacticos" will have to continue to raise their level to stay near the top of the table.

Jubilo must be a major contender for the title, especially after bringing Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi home from Europe.

A team with a backbone of Kawaguchi, Tanaka, Fukunishi and Choi will be a formidable opponent for every rival in J1, and coach Yamamoto has plenty of youth and experience at his disposal to build on this.

The arrival of target man Choi may result in a more direct approach from the coach ("Route One" we say in England), but it's still tough to prevent Choi from winning a lot of balls in the air, even when defenders know what to expect.

With some speed and craft supporting Choi through the middle, Jubilo should be capable of scoring plenty of goals this year.

Yamamoto knew he needed new blood and fresh legs in his squad, and the arrival of Chano and particularly Murai has certainly provided that.

ends

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Marinos manager Okada is in sparkling form

20 Jan 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (January 19): There was some good news for Yokohama F Marinos fans at the beginning of the week.

And that was that manager Takeshi Okada is in fine early-season form.

I don't know about his players, but Okada simply oozed self-confidence at the club function to announce the team's goals for 2005 on Monday.

He was happy, positive and in control, so it's no wonder he can motivate his players to perform at their maximum at the right time.

This year will be another marathon season for Japan's champions, with the A3 Championship in Korea and the Xerox Super Cup coming before the league season starts.

Then there's the AFC Champions League and the Nabisco Cup, and possibly the FIFA Club World Championship in Japan in December.

No wonder the club's motto is "Go the distance." It sounds more like a boxing phrase, and Japan's heavyweight contenders such as Urawa, Kashima and Nagoya will all be trying to knock out the champions.

Okada thinks his team will need 71 points from 34 games to win the single-stage season. In typical style, he has analysed the opponents and divided them into A, B and C categories.

He has also checked data from other leagues, and calculated that 70 per cent of the total points available is what it takes to finish on top. With these two factors in mind, he has come up with the figure of 71.

There was a glaring absence on the new list of players, with the No. 10 spot still vacant.

Italian reports have suggested this could be for Alessandro Del Piero, but Okada laughed off the link.

It's more likely to be for Koji Yamase, who could be set for a shock move from Urawa Reds. The release of Yoo Sang Chul and Yukihiko Sato has freed up a lot of money, and Okada admitted that Yamase was a target.

But he still needs a striker, and that's likely to be a foreigner with only Dutra and Ahn Jung Hwan on the books.

"Do you know any goalscorers who are available? Maybe Henry?," Okada said, with a smile.

Whoever arrives before the start of the season, one thing is for sure: they will immediately find a manager who knows his stuff and, in between the jokes and bonhommie, is deadly serious about his work.

ends

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Troussier repays Koji's loyalty

17 Jan 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (January 15): It was inevitable that Philippe Troussier would come looking for a Japanese player sooner or later for his new club in France, Olympique Marseille.

That player, as we now know, is Koji Nakata.

Nakata, of course, was one of Troussier's most important players in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup.

Despite playing all his career in midfield, Troussier saw something special in Koji and decided to put him on the left side of his three-man defence.

This happened first with the youth team, and only because Troussier's first choice in that position, Kaneko, collected a serious knee injury during a training camp at Burkina Faso.

Troussier picked out Nakata as Kaneko's replacement, and Koji did not let down the unforgiving French coach.

It was not easy for the Japanese players to adapt to Troussier's brusque and confrontational style of management, but Koji not only survived but flourished.

He was promoted from the under-20 team that won a silver medal at the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship in Nigeria to the Olympic team for the Sydney Games and finally to the full national team.

If anything, Nakata--Koji, not Hidetoshi--was the new face of Japanese football, as Troussier rebuilt the team following the disappointment of France 98.

Troussier has not forgotten Nakata, and the Kashima Antlers star is now training with the Frenchman at Marseille.

Good luck to Koji, as he is a serious and model professional.

He has not had the best of luck with injuries recently, and, in my opinion, I think Zico did not use him as much as he should have done earlier in his reign when the midfield was packed with Japanese Galacticos but was in chaos.

Nakata is a general when he plays in midfield, controlling the flow and the pace of the game, and is a reliable, alert defender in the back three.

Troussier would not have taken Nakata to France if he did not think the player was of the required standard, and this should give Koji the confidence to make the difficult switch from J.League Comfort Zone to the intensity of Europe.

ends

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Okubo is an instant hit

13 Jan 2005(Thu)

January 11--What a perfect start to 2005!

It's going to be a busy year for Japanese football, and Yoshito Okubo grabbed the headlines with a goal for Real Mallorca against Deportivo La Coruna at the weekend.

Good old Yoshito!

I really hope he keeps it up, and that Mallorca can stay in the top flight to keep their annual matches with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

At the moment I am in Hong Kong-but leave on Wednesday to return to Tokyo--and the South China Morning Post has run a massive picture of Okubo in action against Deportivo.

Despite the treatment of Japan's national team in China at last year's Asian Cup, Japanese players are very popular in this part of the world.

I have seen young Chinese boys wearing Japanese national team shirts of Matsuda and Inamoto, which goes to prove how football can bring together people from different backgrounds.

Maybe soon they will be wearing Okubo shirts.

I am delighted for the player, as he will be desperate to succeed in Europe where others have failed, especially in Spain.

I have spoken to several foreign members of the Japanese football community over the years, and all of them have said Okubo would be successful abroad.

Marcelo Baron, his former teammate at Cerezo Osaka, said he had never seen a Japanese player so single-minded, a player who was not afraid to go it alone when so many others looked for group/team support.

Last season, Albert Pobor, when he was manager of Cerezo, actually said he thought Okubo had more natural talent than Hidetoshi Nakata.

Time will tell whether Okubo is a success, but he has made a great start.

If he plays well and scores more goals but Mallorca are relegated, he could move on to another top-flight team, so there is plenty to keep him motivated in another relegation battle.

I remember Samuel Eto'o playing for modest Mallorca on loan from Real Madrid, and then joining Barcelona.

Eto'o, of course, is one of the most exciting forwards in world football, and gives young Yoshito an example to follow.

ends

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Atsu joins the Vissel renaissance

10 Jan 2005(Mon)

January 7--Another season, another club for Atsuhiro Miura.

I read with interest that Atsu will be leaving Tokyo Verdy 1969 and joining Vissel Kobe for the 2005 campaign.

Surprised?

No, not really, as it was clear that Atsu was no longer a first-choice player for Verdy under manager Ardiles.

With Vissel looking to sign popular as well as experienced players, then the flying wing-back represents good business.

Although he has played on the left side most of his career, he is a naturally right-footed player, like the former Antlers and national team star Naoki Soma. There is no reason why he could not play on the right, as he once did for the national team under Troussier.

Atsu is dangerous going forward, has a powerful shot and also a long throw-in, which can be as effective as a corner kick.

A couple of seasons ago I had a long chat with Gert Engels when he was manager of Kyoto Purple Sanga.

One of the subjects was Japanese players abroad, and Engels said the one player he thought would have been a guaranteed success overseas was Atsuhiro Miura.

Engels, of course, knew Atsu very well from their time together at Yokohama Flugels, and it's clear when the pair meet now there is a mutual respect and friendship between the two.

But Atsu, of course, never got the chance to play in Europe. Engels felt his physique and his ability would have been just as effective at a higher level.

With World Cup qualifying dominating the 2005 calendar, Atsu needs regular first-team football to retain his place in the national squad, as deputy to Alex on the left flank.

For both parties, then--Verdy and the player--Miura's move to Vissel makes sense.

It saves Verdy a presumably bigger than average salary, and gives Atsu the chance to keep his form and fitness in the hoped-for Vissel renaissance.

ends

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Well done Verdy!

6 Jan 2005(Thu)

January 4--The loyal and faithful Verdy fans have finally got their reward.

Thanks to Verdy's victory over Jubilo Iwata in the Emperor's Cup final on Saturday, the long-suffering supporters of the once mighty Greens can hold their heads high.

It's not easy being a Verdy fan.

A few years ago they were everywhere, as Tokyo's National Stadium was packed with fans of Verdy Kawasaki, whose players received pop-star adulation.

But, after a couple of J.League championships in 1993 and 1994, the wheels began to fall off, billions of yen was spent in a desperate attempt to revive the glory days, and the club went into decline.

The fans disappeared as Marinos, Antlers and Jubilo took over the championship.

It's easy to support a winning team, of course, because this happens all over the world.

But it's not so easy supporting a losing one.

Verdy have struggled in mid-table or below for several seasons, and the days of the big transfers are over.

So Ossie Ardiles has done a magnificent job to claim the Emperor's Cup.

The fans deserver credit, too, for sticking with the team, and hopefully more will support them in the J.League next season.

ends

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Great expectations for 2005

4 Jan 2005(Tue)

January 2--Get set for another year of World Cup fever in 2005!

Yes, I know the next World Cup in Germany is not until 2006, but in Japan the excitement and tension begins next month.

With North Korea first up in a group also consisting of Bahrain and Iran, Japan should be able to clinch one of the two automatic qualifying places quite comfortably.

I think they will have far too much experience and guile for the North Koreans and Bahrainis, although the Iranians will give Zico's men two hard games.

Still, I am very confident Japan will qualify for a third consecutive World Cup, after making their debut in France in 1998 and, of course, co-hosting the 2002 edition with South Korea.

World Cup qualifying games are more than simply football matches in Japan, they are an occasion, an event.

I will never forget the atmosphere of the games in 1997, first under Shu Kamo and later under Takeshi Okada as Japan rode a roller-coaster all the way to France, via that magical night in Johor Bahru against, remember, Iran!

In between the World Cup qualifying matches this summer there's the FIFA Confederations Cup, where the Japanese players and supporters should get a taste of what's to come the following year.

Personally, I think the 2006 World Cup will be one of the best ever, with magnificent stadiums, massive crowds and great organisation, and Japan can play an influential part in this representing Asia.

On the domestic front, the J.League will increase to 30 teams, 20 more than in the first season of 1993, with the first division expanded to 18.

Gone is the two-stage system, and the league will now operate like mainstream leagues around the world.

No play-offs, no 15-game sprints with little margin for error, but a steady, 34-game campaign when the most consistent team will be rewarded with the championship.

This system has operated only once-in 1996-when Kashima Antlers won their first league championship. It would be a good time for Antlers to bounce back in 2005 and challenge Marinos and Reds at the top.

Football in Japan is growing roots around the country, and the fans like the game for what it is now, without the need for gimmicks such as golden goals and penalty shootouts in league matches.

The J.League should have every confidence that their new league format will work, and the crowds will continue to climb in such a busy, newsy year.

ends

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Cardiff move makes sense for Ina

2 Jan 2005(Sun)

December 28--At long last, Junichi Inamoto is getting some attention, and some action, in England.

All because of his move to Wales!

As you all know, Ina has joined Cardiff City on a month's loan from West Bromwich Albion.

Although this is a step down from Premier League to Coca-Cola Championship (formerly the first division and long before that the second division), it is still a good move for Ina.

At least he will get some playing time, and the tempo of the game will not be quite as fast.

So these factors will help him build up his match fitness after his painful injury against England in Manchester last summer.

Looking at the plight of West Brom, Ina would appear to be better off where he is, as new 'Baggies' manager Bryan Robson struggles to turn around the fortunes of a club he represented with such distinction as a swashbuckling midfielder.

I was a huge fan of Robson the player, and thought he was an ideal England captain. He was brave, never gave up and at times was simply irresistible in his pursuit of goals as he drove forward from midfield.

But as a manager?

I am not the only one who is far from sure, and his recent decision to sign the Argentine journeyman Almeyda is a puzzling one.

I watched Almeyda a lot when I was following the progress of Hidetoshi Nakata at Parma, and thought Almeyda rarely looked ready to fight. He looked to be going through the motions, taking his massive pay check and then moving on to another club.

Robson expects him to bring some organisation and experience to his midfield, but Almeyda will have to show far more commitment than he did at Parma if he is going to make an impact. The fans will quickly let him know if he is trying as hard as he can!

In the meantime, Ina can concentrate on his own form and fitness with Cardiff City, away from the Premiership madness.

Zico will be hoping he regains full fitness in time for next year's World Cup qualifiers, as it looks like the Brazilian will be without Shinji Ono for the first Group B game, at home to North Korea on February 9.

ends

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