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February 2005

Oguro sparks Blue-mania!

28 Feb 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (February 26): There were some interesting facts and figures flying around the Japanese football scene this week.

Did you see how many applications there had been for tickets for Japan's next home World Cup qualifier?

Amazingly, the JFA had received over 810,000 ticket applications for the March 30 match against Bahrain at the 63,700-capacity Saitama Stadium 2002.

(I say next home match, but it's not their next qualifier, of course, because they take on Iran in Tehran on March 25).

That figure of 810,000 is more than double the previous record of 350,000 applications for the North Korea game at the same venue on February 9.

I have no idea how many applications the major football powers receive for their home World Cup qualifiers, but I cannot imagine it will be anywhere near those figures.

In fact, judging from TV highlights from around Europe and South America, most of them don't even look sold out, never mind have a waiting list of a few hundred thousand!

Looking back on the North Korea game, it's no wonder there is such a massive demand for the Bahrain qualifier.

According to a source from the marketing giant Dentsu, the average TV audience rating for Japan-North Korea was a whopping 47 per cent.

But when it came to the last few minutes, when both teams were pushing for victory with the score at 1-1, that figure climbed to over 57 per cent!

Japan, of course, bagged the winner in injury time through Oguro, and there's no calculating the amount of fervour released in those few seconds.

With the new J.League season just about to kick-off, these are encouraging statistics for all concerned with the game in this country.

But it's worth pointing out that national team fans do not necessarily support a J.League team on a regular basis.

That's a shame, as it seems they prefer the glamour and the glitz of "Blue Heaven" rather than the bread-and-butter diet of league football.

Just think, if all those 810,000 applicants for Japan-Bahrain attended one of the 15 J.League games every week (nine in J1, six in J2 now there are 30 teams), the average crowd would be 54,000!

How the J.League would dream about that...


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Referees need help from the players to run a fair game

24 Feb 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (February 23): Would you like to be a referee?

Me? No thank you!

I tried it once, in the park behind my house in England one summer's evening.

It was a preseason friendly between two pub teams from the Sunday morning league. I knew both sets of players well, but was a neutral spectator at this match because I played for a different team a few miles down the road.

Well, I was planning to be a spectator, but the referee did not turn up. This is where the fun began.

"Come on. You can be the ref. It's only a friendly," was the plea from the two captains, as they handed me the whistle.

Looking back, some 25 years on, I should have said something like: "I'm sorry I can't. I have to leave at half-time and help my mother with the washing up, take the dog to the vet and then drive my grandmother to church."

Or take my grandmother to the vet...anything. But foolishly I agreed....

I quickly learned that friends off the pitch became enemies on it.

Virtually every decision was questioned, on occasions extremely aggressively.

I can't remember the score because it wasn't important. All I remember was blowing the final whistle early because I couldn't wait to get it over with.

Then, back in the pub an hour or so later, everybody was smiling and friendly again, as if nothing had happened.

From my brief experience (about 87 minutes!), I know that refs have an extremely difficult job. An impossible one, in fact.

At JFA House on Tuesday afternoon, long-time Japan ref and now chief instructor, Leslie Mottram, gave a very interesting and entertaining presentation, highlighting just some of the problems they face.

I particularly liked the section on "simulation."

This is FIFA jargon for diving, but the big Scotsman went further.

"Let's call it cheating," he said, "because that's what players are doing."

Of course he is right.

It's not simulation, it's cheating, and it is a modern-day plague around the football world.

Players who dive and don't win a free kick or a penalty complain to the referee. Defenders who are penalised when they have not touched the forward who dives also complain to the ref, with justification.

The answer is simple.

Just don't do it. Play honestly and fairly, and honour the FIFA Fair Play code.

That will make a referee's job easier, but I am sure it is not going to happen in the near future.


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Fan-tastic response from Japan supporters

21 Feb 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (February 19): Hey, what's going on here?

I thought England supporters loved travelling to away games, but you Japanese must be...well, crazy!

And here's why.

On Thursday afternoon I called the travel agency H.I.S. (sports event section) to try and book a place on the trip to Tehran for Japan's World Cup qualifier against Iran on March 25th.

You know the one...the "three-day, no-night" tour, because there is no hotel, just a seat on the plane.

Well, all the H.I.S. seats were fully booked, and there was a long waiting list.

"But your leaflet says the closing date for applications is not until March 10," I pleaded. "Surely I am in good time to book a seat."

The agent explained that H.I.S. was just one of four travel companies operating the trip. All four had around 80 seats, making 320 places in all.

Very kindly he gave me the telephone numbers of the other three.

I called one of them, Nishitetsu, who also arrange special packages for the Japanese media.

Once again, though, all their places were booked, and there were many on the waiting list.

"Do you think it's worth me calling the other two agencies?" I asked, putting on my saddest voice, hoping for a lucky break.

"I'm sorry. I think the situation will be the same," she replied, very sympathetically.

Oh well, at least I can save some money, and watch the Iran-Japan match from the comfort of my own living room, or maybe in a bar. And then I can go to the Nabisco Cup the next day.

I must admit, though, I was really looking forward to it.

The cost, 129,000 yen, is not bad at all.

It leaves Haneda Airport at 1.30 in the morning of March 25th (basically Thursday night), and arrives in Tehran at 9 o'clock in the morning of Friday, March 25th (all times are local).

Then there's a spot of sightseeing before going to the Azadi Stadium for the 6.05 pm kick-off.

I have never been to Iran, and wanted to witness the atmosphere inside the 100,000-plus capacity stadium for what will be a key game in Group B.

But, it seems, so did many Japanese fans, despite the tiring trip, which heads back to Japan at 2 in the morning, after the match, and arrives home at 9.30 in the evening Saturday.

I envy those of you with a booking, and wish I'd been more prepared. After all, I have lived in Japan for eight years now, and should have known better!

With so many fans on the wait list, can't the agents charter a second plane?



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Danilo adds new dimension to FC Tokyo

17 Feb 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (February 16): Even though we were standing behind a fence, and the match consisted of three periods of 45 minutes each, it was great to be back!

After the drama and tension of Japan's World Cup qualifier against North Korea, it was a more relaxed atmosphere at Kodaira on Sunday afternoon.

The occasion was a practice match between FC Tokyo and Ventforet Kofu, and several hundred fans turned up, along with a considerable number of media.

Last season seemed a long time ago, so it was interesting to watch a few players who had slipped from the memory due to the high profile of the national team.

These included Konno, a real gem, in midfield, the lively Ishikawa on the right wing, and the tidy, under-rated Kanazawa at left back.

Kaji, of course, was also in the starting lineup, despite his exertions for the national team. Kaji must be one of the fittest players in the J.League, with a great engine. In fact, when his football career is over, I could imagine him taking up the marathon, as he must run close to a marathon distance during 90 minutes on the pitch!

An interesting addition to the FC Tokyo squad is Brazilian Danilo, who has replaced the injury-prone Kelly.

Aged 23, Danilo looks like he's spent most of his life on the beach. He has the appearance of an Australian surfboarder rather than a footballer, with flowing locks, a deep sun tan, a few ear-rings and an impressive tattoo which covers the lower half of his right leg.

On closer inspection, the tattoo is of himself, with the letters D-A-N-I-L-O down the side, suggesting this guy is not short of self-confidence!

On the pitch he is a very different player to Kelly.

Whereas Kelly was an out-and-out attacker, and a very clever and dangerous one when fit, Danilo plays much deeper.

He likes to take the ball off his defenders and then play a sweeping pass out to the wing, to Ishikawa on the right or Toda on the left, or look for his compatriot, Lucas, through the middle.

Danilo is a very busy player, and uses his stocky frame well to shield the ball and keep opponents at a safe distance.

During his time as national coach, Troussier often complained that this was a weak point of Japanese players. If the Frenchman could see Danilo in action, using his body to protect the ball, I'm sure he would be impressed, and advise Japanese players to study this aspect of the game.

Coach Hara has an abundance of central midfield players, such as Konno, Baba, Asari, Miura (Fumitake) and Miyazawa, so his biggest task is to integrate the individual skills of Danilo into the team, and define his role clearly.

Anyway, it was nice to be back among the J.League scene, and I'm sure several hundred fans felt the same.


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Oguro....Japan's Invisible Man

14 Feb 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (February 11): Masashi Oguro emerged as the most unlikely of heroes for Japan against North Korea on Wednesday night.

A relative newcomer to Zico's squad, Oguro was winning only his second cap when the coach sent him on with just 11 minutes remaining and the score locked at 1-1.

A few minutes later and he was the saviour, as he turned and fired home Japan's winner in injury time.

Twelve months ago it was Kubo against Oman; this time it was Oguro, the modest and unassuming striker from Gamba Osaka.

Oguro became the Invisible Man in the North Korean penalty box, pouncing from close range as he has done so often for his club.

The ball's loose, Oguro's there, the net bulges and suddenly it's a goal! Did anybody see who scored it?

Off the pitch, too, Oguro seemed invisible during the training camp, not just to me but to most members of the mass media.

This statement is not meant, I hope, to offend Oguro.

It's just that he was ignored for much of the time by the media in the "mixed zone"--the area through which the players must walk from dressing room to team bus, past all the hungry media.

The players can stop and talk if someone asks them, or they can just keep going.

Certain players are mobbed, SMAP-like, but others just wander through, Oguro-like.

To me, Oguro is very similar to Naoki Soma, in both appearance and mannerisms.

Just watch the way Oguro runs with his bandy legs. It could be Soma, couldn't it?

In the mixed zone, Oguro seemed to have a couple of media friends with whom he spoke on a frequent basis.

But it was very much chit-chat. The pens were not scribbling frantically, the pages weren't flying over in the notebook, and the spotlights of the TV crews were not shining on him.

He looked, and seems to be, a very down-to-earth guy. His manager at Gamba, Nishino, has trumpeted Oguro's cause for a couple of years now, and there's no doubt Gamba have another "star" name now for next season.

Maybe his short-lived days as the Invisible Man, on and off the pitch, are over after his priceless goal on Wednesday.



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Japan's players display focus, not fear

10 Feb 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (February 9): Several years ago, in September 1997 to be precise, I remember attending a Japan training session at Tokyo National Stadium.

They were preparing for a World Cup qualifier at home to their great rivals, South Korea.

The match was so important that Gerry Harrison, executive producer of the brilliant television show "Futbal Mondial" (World Football), had come over from London to feature the game.

The Japanese players were laughing and joking and fooling around like schoolboys before the practice session began, a fact I pointed out to Gerry.

He was not impressed.

"Do you think it's sincere?" he said to me.

"No!" I replied, instantly and somewhat cynically.

"Neither do I," added Gerry. "They are trying to look relaxed but I think they're terrified!"

I have never forgotten that conversation, and Gerry's smart observation.

I have never forgotten the game, either, because Japan lost 2-1, despite taking the lead with a wonderful goal from Motohiro Yamaguchi.

Do you remember it, when he scooped the ball over the keeper and it dropped under the crossbar into the net?

Kokuritsu went wild, but fell silent shortly after when Korea equalised and then scored a late winner. It was the beginning of the end for head coach Shu Kamo.

I apologise for this piece of history, but I am in World Cup mood ahead of Wednesday's match against North Korea.

I attended the training session at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday night, and again there was some laughing and joking among the Japanese players.

I looked around for Gerry Harrison from London, but he wasn't there.

The difference this time, I am sure Gerry would have noticed, was that the Japanese players were relaxed and confident and focused.

It was not a show to mask the self-doubt and concern about the big match ahead. It was a true reflection of the spirit running through the squad.

Zico was extremely business-like in his official news conference, during which he confirmed that Shunsuke and Takahara would be on the bench.

This is a smart move by Zico. He is showing faith in the local players who have not let him down, but is not allowing the two European players to feel they are out of the picture.

Both Shunsuke and Takahara could still play a big part in the match, off the bench, just like Kubo did this time last year against Oman!

Japan's players are focused all right, with no self-doubt or fear, but they may have to be patient to break down a determined, fit and tough-tackling North Korean team.

I think they can do it, and win 2-0, maybe even with a late Shunsuke free kick to seal the victory!


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Zico's big step forward

7 Feb 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (February 5): Zico, it seems, has finally learned his lesson.

And this can mean only good news for the national team ahead of Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against North Korea at Saitama.

His 24-strong squad, which was announced on Thursday, includes only two players based overseas.

These are Shunsuke Nakamura and Naohiro Takahara, although, according to the list, Koji Nakata is playing for Marseille, but has not yet started his career there.

After two satisfactory friendly games against Kazakhstan and Syria, Zico has decided to stay loyal with his J.League players. They will relish the responsibility.

So this means no place in the squad for players whose condition is not 100 per cent, physically and mentally, and who would have faced a long journey home.

The most notable absentee is Junichi Inamoto, who was expected to be recalled from Cardiff City, as Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Atsushi Yanagisawa and Yoshito Okubo were always an outside bet to win a place.

This is a major change in policy by Zico, and a big step forward regarding team harmony and chemistry.

This time last year, Japan were looking ahead to playing Oman at home in their first World Cup qualifying match after beating Malaysia and Iraq in a couple of tune-up games.

But the Oman game was poor. Nakamura was not fit and missed a penalty and an easy chance in the second half, and the team was a shambles.

Only Kubo's injury-time goal, after the ball had pinged about on the edge of the Oman penalty area like a game of pachinko, saved Japan.

But now, what Zico is admitting, is that the J.League players are perfectly capable of representing Japan, provided they are fit and focused.

This squad is both of those, and there will be minimum disruption to the team pattern with only Nakamura and Takahara coming back.

Of the two, I would say Nakamura is the most likely to start. He is a Zico favourite, and his left foot can unlock any defence, especially from a free kick.

This is a vital quality to have in the modern game, as so many matches at the highest level can be decided by a set-piece movement.


I'm not sure whether he should start. I believe Tamada deserves to keep his place alongside Suzuki, and Takahara would be a useful substitute if needed to run at a tiring North Korean defence.

Playing in a balanced 3-5-2 formation and with the team settled a week before the big match, Zico can now concentrate on next Wednesday without worrying too much about when his European players will return, how fit they will be and how much worthwhile training they can do together.

This approach, especially for the home games, is sure to produce rewards.


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Ogasawara-Tamada keep Zico thinking

3 Feb 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (February 1): Japan's game against Kazakhstan was too one-sided to be of great value, other than giving the players a good run-out.

But there was one special moment for me, 15 minutes into the second half.

It was when Ogasawara played the ball through to Tamada, who smashed in a left-foot shot on the run for his second goal of the night to complete the 4-0 scoreline.

(Is it really true? Did he score his first with his right foot? The replays confirmed he did!)

These two players work really well together.

Ogasawara is a class act, and has been for several years.

He has great vision and skill, two good feet, and is a tough tackler and competitor. Philippe Troussier was a big fan of Ogasawara's, right from his days in the youth team, and it's not hard to see why.

In fact I'm quite surprised that Troussier did not try to sign Ogasawara as well as Koji for Marseille in a double transfer deal.

As for Tamada, well....he has impressed me from day one.

He has a lovely left foot, a lovely first touch, and uses his pace to make excellent runs into space behind the defence.

With Ogasawara's rapier passing, no wonder these two are a major threat.

But I wonder if either of them will be playing against North Korea next week?

Zico is certain to pick Shunsuke in the playmaker's role in a 3-5-2 formation, so Ogasawara's chances of starting must be slim.

Up front, Suzuki is Zico's first-choice forward, and rightly so as he does a great job for the team. He is the attacking spearhead and gives the team shape, holds up the ball well for his team-mates and is looking sharp in front of goal.

But if Zico brings back Okubo and Takahara from Europe, I could see a Suzuki-Takahara partnership for the World Cup qualifier, with Shunsuke supplying the ammunition from midfield.

As I said last week, it's a series of tough calls for Zico.

The Brazilian coach clearly feels the players overseas are the best, as they wouldn't be there in the first place, and he certainly has a point.

But the claims of Ogasawara and Tamada--fit, in fine early-season form and with a good understanding--to be in the starting line-up on February 9 are also very strong.

Otherwise, why the warm-up matches?


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