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May 2005

Zico goes on the defensive after Kirin Cup setbacks

30 May 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (May 28): As a player, Zico made his name as an attacking genius.

But on Friday night he showed he could defend a bit, too.

It's just a pity that his players couldn't defend properly during the match against the UAE, conceding the only goal of the game after being carved up in clinical fashion.

Zico was defending his team in general, and one player in particular, during the post-match news conference.

He even called for the media to show support for the team and encourage the players at this delicate time -- a tactic which smacks of desperation, and one which would have been ridiculed in a country with a deeper football culture. Brazil, for example.

One player was singled out for criticism in a question from the media.

Any guesses?

A defender, maybe, such as Tsuboi, for allowing his forward to get behind him and score the goal?

Kawaguchi for being a little slow to get down to the weak shot, and for not quite covering the angle, so the ball could roll into the far corner?

No, it was Takayuki Suzuki, who, throughout his career, has provoked a wide spectrum of opinion on his qualities, or lack of them.

So I must take this opportunity to re-enforce my view of Suzuki.

At the moment, he is the best player to lead the forward line, and is a key member of the team due to his ability to shield the ball and drag defenders across the pitch, thereby creating space for his teammates to exploit.

Even though Suzuki was not in top form on Friday, Japan will need him against the big and robust Bahrain defenders.

I just wish he had Yoshito Okubo in support, but Zico resisted the temptation to recall the firebrand striker. I think this is a mistake by the coach, as, for reasons given in an earlier column, Okubo is different. He's a hungry, aggressive, lively goal scorer, but Zico appears to have abandoned him.

But I will not jump on the bandwagon to criticise Suzuki, because he has proved his value to the team time and again.

No one was criticising the new hero, Oguro, who missed an easy chance to equalise on Friday night, when putting a header wide to a cross from the right. But that miss won't worry Oguro, who will be back hunting for goals as soon as possible.

One thing everybody will agree on, and that's how crucial, and how difficult, Japan's match will be in Bahrain.


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Okubo stakes his claim for World Cup call

26 May 2005(Thu)

May 24--With perfect timing, Yoshito Okubo gave Zico a reminder of his striking talent.

The former Cerezo Osaka star has not had the easiest of times in Spain with Mallorca, but he inspired them to a valuable victory over the weekend.

A 3-0 win at Deportivo La Coruna, where Okubo netted Mallorca's third goal, was a great effort from the islanders.

It followed Japan's 1-0 defeat at home to Peru in the Kirin Cup, and surely gave Zico food for thought for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

A fully-fit, fully-focused Okubo, to me, is still the best striker in Japan. He is hungry and aggressive, and it's only a matter of time before the goals start to flow at the highest level.

Wouldn't it be a treat to see him playing alongside a solid target man, such as Takayuki Suzuki, in the World Cup qualifiers against Bahrain and North Korea?

He could turn out to be Japan's match-winner, their ace in the pack, and score the goals to book Japan a ticket to Germany 2006.

Will Zico give him that chance?

I sincerely hope so, because Zico has championed Okubo's cause for a long while now.

Tamada is not scoring for club or for country, and Oguro does not look quite ready to jump from J.League to national team starter. For the time being, Oguro looks more effective off the bench.

As for Takahara, I thought he had two awful games in Tehran and at home to Bahrain, so his place is by no means certain.

An Okubo-Suzuki "combo" would be pretty dangerous, as Suzuki leads the forward line well and drags defenders all over the place.

Okubo could thrive in this space, bursting into the box and letting fly with either foot. Okubo is not afraid to miss, and this is an important part of his character.

Great timing from Okubo at the weekend, and hopefully the JFA are booking the plane ticket from Spain to the UAE, where Japan will train ahead of the Bahrain match on June 3.

The return of Okubo could be an unexpected bonus for Japan.


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Mboma... Cameroon's 'Gentleman Giant'

23 May 2005(Mon)

(May 20): It had to come, sooner rather than later.

The announcement of the retirement of Patrick Mboma was inevitable, given his long fight against a variety of niggling injuries.

In fact, there's probably a few J.League fans who didn't even know he was still in Japan, with Vissel Kobe.

Even so, Patrick will be missed.

If ever a player befitted the nickname of "The Gentle Giant", that man was Patrick Mboma. Perhaps "Gentleman Giant" might be more appropriate, as anyone who met him could not fail to warm to his engaging personality.

The big and fearless Cameroonian set the J.League alight in his first season with Gamba Osaka, scoring a succession of magnificent goals that had the TV commentators drooling.

He was crashing them into the net from all angles, with such power you felt that if the goalkeeper got in the way, he would travel into the back of the net still clutching the ball. Or maybe he would end up through the net!

These goals came to the attention of the European clubs, even though Mboma had been in France for several seasons without making the grade.

During the 1998 World Cup in France, I attended the Cameroon-Austria match on a chilly night at Toulouse, and all the talk after the game was of Mboma leaving Gamba for Cagliari in Italy.

At the top of his game, Mboma had to test himself at the highest level, so left Japan midway through the 1998 season.

When he returned to Japan, to join Tokyo Verdy, I must admit I was a bit surprised.

He had struggled in Italy, lately with a poor Parma team, and also in England with Sunderland, and was playing in Libya when Verdy stepped in.

Mboma did a solid rather than spectacular job, taking over from Edmundo as an experienced leader for the others to follow, but again injuries interrupted his availability.

Vissel, despite being stung by the expensive mistake of signing Ilhan Mansiz, still chose to give Mboma one last chance.

It didn't work.

Nevertheless, Mboma will always be held in great affection by the Japanese fans. He will always be in debt to Japan, too, because the J.League launched his career.

I remember being in the Cameroon team hotel at Niigata, during the 2001 Confederations Cup.

The players, like a big, happy family, were sitting around in the lobby, when Mboma's mobile phone rang.

Out of respect, the other players fell silent, and Mboma adopted a child's voice in answering, "Moshi! Moshi!"

His teammates were practically rolling around on the floor in hysterics.

Mboma gave a lot to Japanese football, and Japan gave a lot to him too.

The era of Cameroon's "Gentleman Giant" is finally over, but will never be forgotten.


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Ono's corner routine brightens up a dull afternoon

19 May 2005(Thu)

Call it the Ono Corner Kick.

No, not Shinji.


Anyone who was at Kumagaya Athletic Stadium on Saturday--and there weren't many of us--couldn't fail to notice a rather radical Sanfrecce Hiroshima corner routine during the second half against Omiya Ardija.

As the Sanfrecce player prepared to take a corner on the left side, only one teammate was in the Omiya penalty area.

Were Sanfrecce protecting an away point with the score at 0-0?

No they weren't, as another five or six players were lined up some 10 metres outside the box, and when the corner came over they charged forward in a group.

It was like two sides going into battle, and clashing in the middle ground.

Nothing came of the kick, but Sanfrecce would win the game in second-half stoppage time with a well-struck shot on the run by substitute Shunsuke Maeda.

But back to that corner.

After the game, Sanfrecce's manager, Takeshi Ono, explained that it was the second time his team had used such a tactic this season. The first one had been against Yokohama F Marinos, for the same reasons.

"It is my original move," he said, with a smile.

"Omiya have some very tall and strong players, 1.87 or 1.88 metres, so I wanted to separate my players from their markers. I didn't want any contact before the kick."

Mmm, interesting.

It was certainly amusing to see the Omiya defenders, all looking around for someone to mark but with hardly anyone in sight.

Anyway, it provided a little bit of warmth on a dull afternoon. It was cold and windy and overcast, and the floodlights were needed, despite it being a 3pm kick-off in the middle of May.

The pitch was not in good condition, either, which is unusual for the J.League.

Long before the kick-off, a team of groundstaff was needed to pick up small pebbles from the grass. It looked like North Korea had just played there.

When the game kicked off, the surface was sandy in some areas but hard in others, making for an awkward bounce of the ball.

"It was very bad," said Ono. "The pitch condition is fair to both teams but not to the spectators.

"If the pitch was better, both teams could play more exciting, technical and tactical football."

There's talk that Omiya Stadium might not be used after this season because of its small capacity, but Kumagaya is surely more at risk.


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Reysol suffer again, this time off the pitch

16 May 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (May 14): Things just go from bad to worse for Kashiwa Reysol.

What's wrong with this club?

They have lots of money, lots of good players and some of the most passionate fans in the country.

Against Nagoya Grampus Eight recently, though, a few of them were too passionate, and attacked the visiting fans after the game, which Reysol had lost 2-0.

A line was drawn under this sad episode by the J.League on Friday, when Reysol received a record fine of 10 million yen.

Reysol had feared that the J.League might deduct some points, but the league decided against this for a good reason: they haven't got any.

Okay, so that's not strictly true, and I apologise if my joke upsets the Yellow Monkeys. After all, you are suffering enough as it is.

Actually, 10 million yen is not a lot for a club with so much wealth.

It's about the same as Ricardinho's medical bill every season, and easily affordable, but there is no doubt the incident has brought shame to the club as a whole.

Reysol officials probably prevented a heavier punishment from the J.League by suspending indefinitely 11 fans, reducing the salaries of the club president and security chief for three months, and deciding to send security guards with Reysol fans to away games to keep order.

Oh, and they also put up a bigger gate at Hitachi Stadium, so big that even a monkey can't climb over it.

As for Grampus, they escaped punishment, but were warned severely.

A warning for what?

For defending themselves after being attacked by Reysol fans?

Even though some Grampus fans had been taunting and provoking the home supporters, this is hardly a crime, but clearly the J.League wants to clamp down on this kind of behaviour before it spreads.

On the pitch, Reysol have 10 points from 11 games and are 17th, ahead of only the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Sorry, I mean Vissel Kobe.

Reysol just can't score any goals. Only nine, and none as yet from Keiji Tamada.

What's Ueslei doing at the moment?

He has a reputation for being selfish, not playing for the team, lazy on the pitch...but he scores goals. Lots of them.

Ueslei for Reysol. That makes sense, as he would score the goals to turn a 0-0 draw into a 1-0 victory.

Keep your heads up Reysol fans!

Things can only get better.

Can't they?


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Kansai prepares for Osaka Derby Day

12 May 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (May 11): As the J.League continues to develop, more and more importance is being placed on "Derby Day."

A good example of this is the Osaka derby on Saturday, when Cerezo host Gamba at Nagai Stadium.

It is promising to be an interesting match, because both teams are in good shape at the moment.

Cerezo are playing with a great deal of spirit and organisation, and have a dangerous attacking triangle of Morishima, Furuhashi and Nishizawa. They have a very well balanced team, playing a 3-4-3 formation, or maybe a 3-4-2-1, with Nishizawa as the focal point of the attack.

As for Gamba, as usual they have so many good players in all departments.

With Oguro in excellent form, as a creator and scorer, Gamba, too, have a potent attack, with the two exciting Brazilians Fernandinho and Araujo in support.

Now that Miyamoto has been restored to the centre of the three-man back line, the team is more robust and compact in midfield, with Sidiclei alongside Endo in the "engine room."

Sidiclei is a very consistent and effective performer, and knows the Japanese game well. He keeps things simple, and keeps the team ticking over, like a good "volante" should do. Nothing flash. No risks. Just playing the percentages.

Both clubs have been working hard to promote the Osaka Derby, and Weekly Soccer Magazine ran a handsome colour feature on the game in this week's edition.

In England, the local derby is one of the first matches fans look for when the new fixture list is produced for the coming season.

My hometown is Halifax (between Manchester and Leeds), and Halifax Town now play in the Conference, England's fifth division and one step down from the Football League.

I was brought up on derby after derby, as Bradford City and Huddersfield Town were both just four or five miles away.

In the week leading up to the derby match, school friends would become friendly enemies as the tension mounted.

On Derby Day itself, your friends may be going supporting the other team, but there was no way you could stand together.

If the enemy scored, the pain was too much to take. Seeing the ball in the back of your own net, seeing your players deflated, seeing (and having to listen to!) the opposition fans celebrating...it was not a pleasant experience.

But if your team won, especially away from home, life was wonderful, no matter where you were in the league table at the time.

You had won the local derby, and this gave you great power over your friends back at school, who suddenly became very humble and quiet.

The results of the derby match affected your life and your town.

This is what the J.League is trying to create, and it will take time to build up this tradition.

Hopefully there will be a big crowd at Nagai, and a fierce but friendly rivalry between the fans.

As for the result?

I have to be safe here, and say 2-2...at half-time!

I've no idea what will happen in the second half.

After all, it's Derby Day.


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Kirin Cup gives Zico the chance to experiment, but will he take it?

9 May 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (May 7): Zico announces his Kirin Cup squad on Monday, and I am trying to get excited about it.

But everywhere I turn there is apathy and a general acceptance that, no, there will be no surprises, no sense of adventure. Just the same old faces.

This attitude is understandable, as Zico's squads have become totally predictable, even when he's had a chance to experiment.

The only talking point has been which players from Europe have been released, which of them are fit and which of them will start. Even that's become boring.

For Japan's Kirin Cup games against Peru and the UAE, I can't understand why Zico wants to bring back any players from Europe at all.

Why not give them a break at the end of the long European season, even if they have been sitting on the bench, and tell them: "Meet me in the UAE at the end of the month and join the practice for the World Cup qualifier against Bahrain on June 3."

That would make more sense to me, and give Zico the chance to have a look at some new faces while the pressure is off during the Kirin Cup.

So who's out there knocking on Zico's door?

Not a lot, actually, but still two or three worth calling up just to see how they go.

Alex needs a new deputy on the left flank, and Murai might be the man, although he left the field very early in Jubilo's home game with Gamba on May 4.

If not Murai then maybe Verdy's Soma. Zico saw him play against Yokohama F Marinos the other night, when he was up against Hayuma Tanaka, who is another candidate for the national squad, on the right flank as Kaji's deputy.

While Soma has potential, I think he looks raw and is still one year away from the national squad. Sanfrecce's Hattori, although 27, is very able and consistent, and would be an interesting selection.

I have long championed the FC Tokyo trio of Moniwa, Konno and Ishikawa, but the team has been losing, six in a row as we speak. If Zico didn't pick them last year when they were on fire, why should he do now when their form has dipped? Of the three, I would still take a look at Konno.

Up front, I really like the explosive Bando at Vissel, although his confidence may have been dented by his team's terrible start to the season. But he's different to the other strikers, and offers some dynamism off the bench.

As I said, there aren't too many players lighting up the J.League at the moment, but I hope Zico uses this opportunity at least to have a look at some squad candidates.

We will see on Monday...but don't hold your breath.


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There's an English atmosphere at Omiya's homely home ground

5 May 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (May 4): The 2002 World Cup has left Japan with a number of magnificent constructions dotted around the country.

But I must admit I prefer the smaller, more compact stadiums for the purpose of watching football.

This is why the promotion of Omiya Ardija to J1 has given neutral spectators even more variety in their choice of matches in the saturated Kanto area.

I have visited Omiya Stadium twice in recent weeks for J.League matches, and on each occasion the atmosphere was excellent.

Especially against Verdy, when the visiting fans provided a dark green backdrop behind the goal, in contrast to the bright orange on the other three sides of the ground.

There's no running track, no cover for the fans, and the distance between the pitch and the spectators is very narrow.

With only 5,000 fans inside, like against Oita, there is still a good "vibe", in contrast to double that amount which would be lost in the vastness of Saitama Stadium 2002, where Omiya also play home matches.

Omiya Stadium reminds me of being back in England at a non-league ground, in other words, a club outside of the four-division professional league.

This used to happen in the English FA Cup, especially in the first round when a team from the lower divisions of the Football League was drawn to play away at a club from a regional league.

This provided part of the "romance" of the FA Cup, as the regional league team of part-time players frequently pulled off a surprise by beating their professional visitors.

Butchers, schoolteachers, bakers, delivery men....they would all make the news if they scored the winning goal to knock a Football League team out of the FA Cup.

A different town to visit...a different stadium with its matchday souvenir programme to store with the rest in the attic back home...maybe a pitch with a slope...and the wives of the players baking and selling the hot meat pies to eat at half-time.

This was all part of the day out, and these memories flood back with a visit to a homely ground such as Omiya.

I hope Omiya Stadium continues to be on the J.League list, despite the small capacity, as it is a true football ground where the fans are close to the action.


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FIFA has gone too far with "behind closed doors" ruling

2 May 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (April 30): The Japanese--officials, players and fans alike--will be delighted with the news from Zurich that the World Cup qualifier against North Korea will be moved from Pyongyang and played at a neutral venue on June 8.

This was a brave move by FIFA, and also the correct one, as the behaviour of the North Korean fans and players was appalling in the recent game against Iran.

The new venue has not been announced yet, but it could be Kuala Lumpur, as suggested by JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi, or Singapore. These are the two favourites, but nothing has been decided.

This is surely a great relief for Japan, as it removes all the administration and logisitcal hassles of visiting Pyongyang.

But why did FIFA order the game to be played without spectators?

I think this is going too far, and imposing further financial penalties on the North Korean FA, who were also fined 20,000 Swiss Francs by FIFA.

Just think if the match takes place in Singapore.

Thousands of Japanese already living in south-east Asia would flock to that game, and so would thousands more from east Asia, including Hong Kong, and also, naturally, from Japan.

The Singaporeans love their football, too, and, like all football fans around the world, still have a soft spot for North Korea after their World Cup heroics in 1966.

There could be as many as 20,000 Japanese there, plus another 10,000 locals, to make a wonderful atmosphere at this neutral venue.

It would be like a home game for Japan, and maybe this is what FIFA is trying to guard against.

The decision to move the match from Pyongyang may already be viewed as pro-Japan and anti-North Korean at these delicate political times, and to create a second "home" match for Japan might be seen as going too far in favour of one side: the blue one.

Personally, though, I feel it would be much better to play the match at a neutral venue with spectators, and give the considerable amount of gate money to the North Korean FA.

The North Koreans have three days from Friday's announcement to appeal, and seven days to state their case in detail.

I hope they do appeal the "no spectators" decision, that Japan, if asked, supports them, and that FIFA allows spectators to watch the game, hopefully in Singapore.

But you can't have everything!


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