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March 2005

Player-power rules behind the scenes

31 Mar 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (March 30): After Japan's training session at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Tuesday, captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto confirmed what many had suspected...

That the players are running the team now, and not national coach Zico.

This is a very significant development in the reign of Zico, whose policies have left many people, including the players, scratching their heads in recent weeks and months.

Effectively, it means player-power has won the day, as Zico has been forced to abandon his clumsy 4-4-2 formation in favour of the more fluid 3-5-2 the players prefer.

This change followed a crisis meeting between Miyamoto, senior player Hidetoshi Nakata and Zico on Sunday, two days after the 2-1 defeat in Tehran.

Miyamoto said Tuesday night that Zico had not been surprised by the "suggestion," as the Brazilian was planning to revert to 3-5-2 in any case.

When asked if Zico or the players were running the team, Miyamoto responded by clearly saying: "The players are in charge."

This can mean one of two things.

The first is that the players have lost faith in the coach and have taken matters into their own hands, and this could spark the beginning of the end for Zico.

The other possibility is that Zico will now stick with the 3-5-2 formation, and finally forget about trying to play his own system, which was clearly not working. For Zico, the future is clear, because the players have pointed the way ahead.

Whatever the outcome, this development must be viewed as positive for all concerned.

Feelings are finally out in the open, and Zico must now adapt to this situation if he wants to keep his job.

The players, and fans, have shown remarkable patience, and Zico has been saved due to the fact that the team has scrambled vital victories throughout the World Cup qualifying process.

It has been clear for several months that the 3-5-2 system suits Japan's players better than the 4-4-2.

Even after Japan's very first game under Zico, a 1-1 draw with Jamaica, I said I thought his ideas, while noble, were not practical in the modern game.

After Japan's poor showing at the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup in France, where they beat a J2-level New Zealand before losing to a third-string French team and then to Colombia in a match they only needed to draw to advance to the semi-finals, I "suggested" that Zico had to switch to 3-5-2.

Just because Hidetoshi Nakata is available again does not mean Zico has to change formations.

Zico cannot complain, as he has had ample time to find a solution.

His lack of coaching credentials has been exposed, and the players have finally stepped in to try and sort out the mess and give the team a new united front. I think the benefits will be seen against Bahrain.

Somebody had to do it, and that clearly wasn't going to be Zico.

ends

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'Dangan Tour' beckons for Iran-Japan qualifier

28 Mar 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (March 24): I am writing this "Saturday" article two days early, on Thursday morning in fact.

And there's a good reason.

This evening I am heading to Haneda Airport to join my first "Dangan Tour" with the Japanese fans.

Our destination, of course, is Tehran (well, I hope so).

Our flight does not leave Haneda until 3 o'clock Friday morning, five hours after our 10 pm meeting time, and we are not scheduled to arrive in Tehran until 9.40 Friday morning, Iran time.

Armed with our visas, travel bags and cameras, we should pass through Immigration smoothly before heading for a city centre hotel for a quick freshen up late morning.

Then it's lunch at the hotel, and the bus will leave for the stadium around 2.30 in the afternoon.

The kick-off is not until 6.05pm at the Azadi Stadium, but the Iranian fans like to arrive early...like three hours early!

So expect around 100,000 fans inside the stadium by mid-afternoon.

And expect the tension and excitement to mount in the hours, minutes and seconds leading to the kick-off.

As an English hooligan living in Japan, I am looking forward to observing the Japanese supporters from close quarters and also to standing/sitting with the fans, rather than in the Media Seats.

According to travel industry sources there are 800 Japanese fans visiting Tehran on the "Dangan Tour", with 450 in one plane and 350 in the other.

Interestingly, 20 per cent of them will be women, and they have been issued with a strict dress code for the Islamic Republic.

The two most important points are that the hair must be covered, and the clothes must be loose fitting to hide the shape of the figure.

Women don't usually enter the Azadi Stadium, although they can follow the game on TV, so I'm sure the Japanese fans will attract more than their fair share of publicity.

As for the game, well, of course it's going to be Japan's hardest in Group B.

Iran could only draw in Bahrain in their first game, as Japan were edging North Korea in Saitama, so the home team will be desperate for three points to get their qualifying campaign under way.

A draw for Japan would be a good result, and I think they can manage it.

My forecast is 0-0, which would suit Zico fine as Japan will not face Iran again until the sixth and final round of qualifying games on August 17, at home but no fixed venue at the moment.

If all goes to plan, Japan should have accumulated enough points by then to have already qualified for Germany, making the Iran match a celebration of sorts, just like the Singapore home game was last year but on a much lower scale.

After the match we head back directly to the airport, fly out of Tehran at 2am Saturday morning local time and arrive at Haneda around 9pm on Saturday night Japan time.

All being well, I should be at home in time for the Saturday night sports programmes, and catch all the highlights from the Azadi Stadium!

Enjoy the game!

ends

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Marques aims to play like Vieira

24 Mar 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (March 23): Defensive midfield is not an area where Japan coach Zico is short of players.

He has Ono, Inamoto and Koji Nakata from Europe, and his J.League pairing of Endo and Fukunishi.

But there's another player he might want to take a look at in the near future.

In the very near future, in fact, because if Japan don't claim this player, maybe the United States will.

The player in question is Omiya Ardija midfielder Jun Marques Davidson, who holds two passports and is still eligible to play for either country.

I saw Davidson, or Marques as his teammates call him, dominate the midfield on Saturday as Omiya beat Albirex Niigata 2-0 in the Nabisco Cup at Saitama Stadium.

Tall and powerful, his elastic legs broke up many Niigata attacks, and he strode forward purposefully from deep midfield with the ball at his feet, appearing to have all the time in the world to decide what to do next.

He also has a very good engine, and he came close to scoring a goal of his own late in the game after a long run into enemy territory.

Yes, I thought the 21-year-old Marques looked full of natural talent and quality, and the JFA would not be wasting their time by checking him out.

Jun Marques Davidson is a very interesting character.

His father is American, his mother Japanese, and they met when his mother went to the States to study to be a beautician.

He was born and raised in Tokyo, and played for Tokyo Gas Junior Youth before spending a year in England at TASIS: The American School in Surrey (Surrey being a posh county in the rich south).

After that he went to Pasadena, Calif., for three years, and came back to make his Omiya debut in 2003.

His favourite player is Arsenal's French midfielder Patrick Vieira, whom he studies on TV and tries to copy on the pitch.

"Vieira is the complete player, the perfect player," says Marques. "He is a good kind of role model for me." (Note the very American "kind of" phrase in there!)

Marques admits that he is very satisfied when his friends say he played like Vieira, and he certainly did so on Saturday.

The name Marques, by the way, was given to him by his father in tribute to his favourite basketball player: Marques Johnson, a star for UCLA before moving into the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers.

With many international matches coming up in the summer, apart from the World Cup qualifiers, Zico may need some fresh blood, and Jun Marques Davidson is well worth a look.

ends

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J.League clubs should take a look at U.S. market

21 Mar 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (March 19): Guus Hiddink is a well-known coach in this part of the world.

In most parts of the world, in fact.

So nobody should be surprised to see his club, PSV Eindhoven, in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League.

After steering South Korea to the World Cup semi-finals in 2002, Hiddink later took two Koreans, Lee Young Pyo and Park Ji Sung, back to Holland.

Park, of course, had been an outstanding success for Kyoto Purple Sanga, and he is finding his best form again this season for PSV.

Another very interesting member of the Eindhoven squad is American flyer DaMarcus Beasley.

I watched two United States games in Korea-Japan 2002, and was very impressed with the quality of their football and the maturity and ability of the individual players.

They played really well to beat Mexico 2-0 in the "CONCACAF derby" in the second round, and were unlucky to lose 1-0 to Germany in the quarter-finals.

As J.League clubs continue to throw money at third-rate Brazilians, or at players who are not fit and/or committed to the J.League cause, maybe the United States could become a new market to plunder.

I was chatting about this recently at the Marinos training ground with goalkeeper coach Dido.

The big Dutchman took his coaching badges in the United States, and was amazed at the skill level and football knowledge of the young players he came across.

He said he had suggested to his boss, Takeshi Okada, to go over and take a look at some of the American talent, and maybe Oka-chan will do that when he has a break in his hectic schedule.

I think the Americans would be a big success over here.

First, they would be determined to do well as they would be representing their country, and trying to win respect for the United States as a football (make that soccer)-playing nation. Their attitude would be first-class.

The players would be fit and well coached, and would relish playing at this level. They would also offer a physical challenge to the Japanese players.

On the financial side, I am sure they would be much cheaper than many of the Brazilians, and would provide more value for money.

With the strong links between Japan and the United States, it's a surprise that J.League clubs have not switched their attentions to the Major League Soccer market.

Well, there is always hope that some of them might show some imagination in the transfer market.

ends

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Kenta's small contribution points the way ahead for sportsmanship

17 Mar 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (March 16): It was like stepping back in time at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Behind the scenes, old Verdy favourites Ramos and Kitazawa were there, and the extrovert Paraguayan keeper, Chilavert, was watching the action from an executive lounge high in the sky.

Chilavert, now retired, of course, would have been happy to see both keepers keep a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw.

But maybe he would have been disappointed with their attacking contribution, as neither keeper moved up to take a free kick at the other end.

Zico's assistant and brother Edu, plus his goalkeeper coach Cantarele, were also there, and I thought that Verdy's brightly coloured keeper Takagi impressed again.

With Kawaguchi out injured, Zico needed a third keeper for the national squad, behind Narazaki and Doi (or should the order be Doi and Narazaki?).

Maybe Takagi would get the call on Monday.

Silly me. Of course he picked Sogahata of Kashima Antlers, but surely Takagi's chance cannot be far away.

With his pink top, black shorts and pink socks, plus white gloves and boots, he looks more like a jockey in his racing silks...albeit quite a large jockey. What else can he do to catch Zico's eye?

The defences were on top in general, particularly S-Pulse's four-man back line.

Shimizu's new manager, Kenta Hasegawa, has plenty of experience in defence, with Ichikawa on the right, Saito and Morioka in the middle and Yamanishi, from Jubilo Iwata, on the left.

Saito and Morioka kept the dangerous Washington under control, but it wasn't easy.

"He's very tall and strong," said Ryuzo, whose post-match outfit suggested he was on his way to a rap concert--to sing, not to watch.

"He uses his body to protect the ball. It's difficult to put in a challenge when he turns because you can't get near the ball."

Fortunately for S-Pulse, Washington's shooting was off target, and when he had a clear header near the end he directed it straight into the arms of Nishibe.

S-Pulse, in fact, had the better chances, notably when Cho headed wide in the first half.

One small point worth noting from the second half.

As Verdy pushed for a goal, the ball went out of play in front of the S-Pulse bench.

The person who gathered the ball hesitated rather than throwing it directly to the Verdy player waiting to take the throw-in. When he did decide to release it he only threw it halfway.

Kenta, standing near the touchline, finished off the job by throwing the ball to the Verdy player, before turning to his bench and suggesting this is what the other person should have done in the first place, instead of messing about and delaying the play.

An honest and hard-working centre forward in his playing days, Kenta displayed the kind of sportsmanship the game needs the world over.

As I said at the beginning, it was like stepping back in time, because this kind of sportsmanship used to be normal practice. Now it's so rare you notice it.

ends

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Marinos lacking firepower early in the season

14 Mar 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (March 12): Thanks to Japan's excellent train system, and the growing football culture here, I was able to watch three Champions League matches from two continents on Wednesday night.

The first was at Mitsuzawa Stadium, between Yokohama F Marinos and Shandong Luneng Taishan, in Group F of the AFC Champions League.

After the obligatory post-match hanging around, which all the media must do, followed by a brisk walk down Mitsuzawa Hill into town, we arrived at the English pub near Yokohama Station in time for the second half of the Milan-Manchester United game on the big screen.

Then it was time for the last train to Omiya, arriving home for the start of the Chelsea-Barcelona classic on Fuji TV.

Yes, it was an enjoyable evening...apart from the first match, of course.

Takeshi Okada is desperate to do well in the AFC Champions League this season. After winning the J.League championship in 2003 and 2004, he feels the club should step up to a higher level and challenge for the continental crown.

But their quest for the title began in depressing style with a 1-0 defeat to a Chinese team who strangled the life out of the game.

Okada needed a goal to settle his team, but Kubo, Ahn and Sakata were all injured, and the new Brazilian Adhemar was on the bench, far from fully fit.

Oshima looks like a good player, but he will need time to adjust to the faster pace after moving from Yamagata in J2, while Shimizu is quick and dangerous but not a prolific scorer.

Still, Marinos had enough chances to get something out of the game, and they now face two away games in a row.

I couldn't help feeling sympathy towards Okada and his team, and the Marinos fans, at the appalling gamesmanship displayed by the Chinese in the second half.

Players going down with cramp to hold up the game, members of the bench throwing an extra ball on to the pitch to produce further delays, and the goalkeeper deliberately kicking the ball away and asking for another from the ball boy...

It really was a poor show, and it was amusing to see one Marinos fan hurl abuse at the Shandong squad after the final whistle from just behind their bench.

He must have been suffering from a cold or a bug, because he removed his mask to shout at the Chinese players and Serbian coaching staff.

Good for him! They deserved it.

Later, Okada looked a very concerned man as he left the press conference room.

His hopes of a place in the FIFA Club World Championship in Japan in December look a long way away at the moment.

ends

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Zico needs Hidetoshi Nakata in Tehran

10 Mar 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (March 9): Zico will announce his squad for the Iran and Bahrain World Cup qualifiers on Monday, and the big question is: Will Nakata return?

Hidetoshi, I mean, not Koji, who, admittedly, has been getting more headlines than his more famous namesake lately.

Although Japan have done well without the Fiorentina midfielder in recent months, winning the Asian Cup in China and all their World Cup qualifiers, I think the time is right to bring back the former Bellmare Hiratsuka ace.

Against North Korea at Saitama last month, Japan clearly lacked leadership in the middle of the park and someone with big-match experience to hold the team together.

This is where Nakata comes in.

He has developed into a natural leader with his allround ability and Italian experience, and, in my opinion, is still the best Japanese player by a considerable distance.

He is also fearless, not just physically in the tackle but mentally, too, and this will be an important factor in Tehran, where Japan can expect to face 120,000 excitable Iranians as well as a talented team.

Although Nakata did not play for Firoentina at the weekend, spending all the match against Reggina on the bench, this should not be a problem.

This is because the squad leaves Japan on March 17 for Frankfurt, where they will train until March 22. On that day they transfer to Tehran, and then train for two more days before the showdown on Friday, March 25.

This gives Zico plenty of time to work with the players, and find a system to integrate the "Europeans."

Japan will need Nakata in Tehran, where Zico's team could be very different from the one that struggled against North Korea.

I would like to see Zico stick with his 3-5-2 formation, and play Nakata in the central playmaker's role, behind the two strikers, but I fear he may change to 4-4-2 and try and play all his "Galacticos" in midfield.

Regarding the captaincy, I think Miyamoto should be retained, as he is an intelligent, influential leader.

Also, Nakata has enough responsibility as playmaker without the additional burden of captaincy/coach.

ends

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Michels changed the football world

7 Mar 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (March 5): Usually I write about Japanese football, because this is where I live and this is the football I follow.

But today's column will be more universal, after reading an article on Friday that both shocked and upset me.

It was the report of the death of Rinus Michels, the inventor of "Total Football" which took the World Cup by storm in 1974.

I was only 14 years old at the time, but that summer, watching the Dutch in West Germany via my television, changed my life.

The British are not known for embracing trends from overseas, and we (England) still thought we were the best in the world at that time, having won the World Cup in 1966.

That was only eight years ago, and a lucky Polish goalkeeper by the name of Tomaszewski--dubbed "a clown" by the legendary coach Brian Clough during his TV commentary--had prevented us from qualifying for West Germany.

That's right, England weren't even there, but we were still better than "Johnny Foreigner."

This was the dogma and propaganda produced by the biased English media.

Then along came Johan Cruyff and Company!

Wow, now this was football. Total football.

Michels, known as "the General," had a gifted generation of players at his disposal, and devised a system that required intelligence, fitness, unerring technique and communication.

Michels himself actually preferred to call it "Pressing Football," as it involved all the players pushing forward, changing positions, marking the man closest to them.

Not only did they bring the game to life with their running and vision, they also squeezed the life out of their opponents by denying them space and time.

All I remember about the 1974 World Cup is the green pitches just being covered in a blur of orange, as the genius Cruyff conducted his own symphony orchestra.

They produced beautiful football, scored beautiful goals and left rivals gasping for breath, not knowing where the next attack would come from.

Uruguay, whose violent approach was more than matched by these elegant but tough Dutchmen--yes, they could look after themselves in this department, too--Bulgaria, Argentina, East Germany and Brazil were swatted aside like flys, with only the resilient Swedes holding the Dutch to a 0-0 draw in a first round group match.

The world sat down to watch Holland tear apart the host nation, West Germany, in the final at Munich, and Michels's men were 1-0 ahead before the Germans had even touched the ball!

From the kick-off, the Dutch strung together a series of passes, before Cruyff surged into the box, to be fouled by Hoeness (not Vogts, which is the common, but wrong, version of events).

Neeskens hammered in the penalty, 1-0 to Holland, and surely it was just a matter of how many goals they would score.

In the end, they didn't score any more, as a casual, arrogant air descended on the team.

Breitner equalised from the penalty spot, and the great Muller--"Der Bomber"--scored the winner, still in the first half.

It was a traumatic day for me, as I had fallen under the orange spell.

Later, in 1988, when I was working as a football reporter in north-east England, I covered the European Championship, again in West Germany, and saw the Dutch, with Michels back in control, destory England in Dusseldorf with a Van Basten hat-trick, then beat West Germany 2-1 in the Hamburg semi-final with a late winner from the same player.

Revenge was very sweet!

In Munich, goals from Gullit and Van Basten--the latter being an acrobatic, unstoppable angled volley--beat the Soviet Union in the final.

Michels and the Dutch finally had what they deserved in 1974...a trophy.

So the death of Michels was a massive shock, and a sad day for football the world over.

Not only had he changed the game from a tactical point of view, he had opened up a whole new world for fans, coaches and players alike.

No-one will ever forget Rinus Michels, Total Football and the orange wizards who cast a spell on the 1974 World Cup.

ends

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Verdy could be a championship dark horse

3 Mar 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (March 1): Tokyo Verdy 1969 remind me of the public bus service in England, not just in 1969 but even this year.

You wait a long time in the cold and rain and nothing happens, then two come at once!

Verdy, a trophy-free zone for so long, followed up their Emperor's Cup title on New Year's Day by winning the Xerox Super Cup at International Stadium Yokohama on Saturday.

It wasn't a great match, despite the exciting finish, because both teams looked rusty, and Marinos had several important players missing.

This must be a worrying thought for Okada-kantoku, with the likes of Kubo, Ahn, Matsuda, Sakata, Adhemar and, don't forget, Yamase all sidelined before the season even starts.

But back to Verdy, who were missing a key player of their own in Yoneyama (it's only fair to point that fact out, too).

Even before Saturday's success I thought Verdy might be a dark horse for the title this season.

Ardiles has produced a characteristically neat and tidy team, and Verdy have spent well in the winter.

Washington was wanted by a few clubs in Europe and in Japan, but Verdy pushed the boat out to secure his signature.

He bagged 34 goals in 38 Brazilian championship games last season, and it was easy to see why on Saturday.

He is a big man, but Nakazawa could not catch him in the first half, and Kurihara almost disappeared into the turf like a corkscrew when Washington twisted and turned him on the edge of the box, just before the break.

In the second half, Washington resembled a human bulldozer as he battered his way through the Marinos defence to score twice.

Although Toda was at fault for Marinos' first goal, scored superbly by Ohashi, the former S-Pulse fighter is a fine Verdy signing.

A Troussier favourite but a Zico outcast, Toda will add steel to the Verdy back line or midfield, and will make his presence felt to opponents around the park.

I have always liked Hiramoto--he reminds of Yanagisawa (Atsushi, not Masayuki)--and 2005 could be his breakout year.

Another reason why Verdy could be a dark horse is because they will be able to keep their team together, while others lose players at regular intervals for national team duty.

I pointed this out to Ardiles, but he disagreed: "No, because we will have players in the national squad too this year."

For example?

"Soma. He is a wonderful player. I think he's the best left-back in Japan."

Better than Alex and Atsu? (Ardiles knows both players very well, of course).

"I am not comparing them," he said. "They are my friends also."

Should be an interesting season at Yomiuri Land!

ends

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