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August 2005

Referee Noda keeps the game flowing

29 Aug 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (August 27): A few weeks ago I wrote an article critical of a referee.

Some readers agreed, and others didn't, while one wrote to me in English to say my article was completely out of character.

Yes it was, and I explained that I was always reluctant to criticise referees because they have such a hard job in the modern game.

So, today, allow me to try and redress the balance, by praising a referee who had an excellent game in a recent J.League match.

It was Urawa against Kobe at Komaba Stadium, and the ref was the 30-year-old Yuki Noda.

He gave a textbook performance on how to keep the game moving, how to distinguish between a hard tackle and a foul, and how to read the minds of the players when they were thinking about time-wasting.

In the first half, Alex went past a couple of Vissel players in midfield but lost the ball. Instead of retreating to help his defence, Alex went down looking for a free kick, and feigning injury.

There was no foul, and I doubt Alex was hurt, although he was substituted at halftime, and Noda played on, despite the calls of the Urawa fans. Alex was angry with the ref when the game finally stopped, but the ref was completely right.

It's a man's game (or used to be); there is physical contact, and the game can't just stop when one player thinks it should.

A few minutes later, Vissel midfielder Saeki man-handled Ponte on the right wing. Noda saw the foul, but waited for a Reds advantage; when there was no advantage, he blew for the free kick.

Again, this is excellent refereeing, and neither side could complain.

Late in the second half, with Vissel defending a 2-1 lead, Saeki went down and you could clearly see he was considering staying down to waste time. Noda saw it, too, and raced over to tell him to get up, and that the game would not be stopping.

Well, I presume that's what he said, because Saeki got up without any trouble.

Noda looked fitter and faster than most of the players, and kept up with the play to make sure he was always in the right place at the right time.

Everyone happy now!


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Osim points Abe towards Germany 2006

25 Aug 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (August 24, 2005): Yuki Abe produced one of the best midfield performances I have seen this season at Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Sunday night.

The JEF United captain was everywhere.

One minute he's putting in a crunching tackle on Satsukawa, the next he's breaking forward to join his attack.

With the excellent Stoyanov at the back, Abe holding down the midfield and Hanyu as elusive and bright as ever, JEF controlled the game for long periods and should have won more convincingly than the 2-1 scoreline.

After the game I waited for the "Osim Show" to see what JEF's always interesting, always amusing head coach would say.

In the past he's always tried to play down his own players and their chances, preferring to keep his feet on the ground and to err on the side of caution and realism.

So when I said Abe had played a fine match, I was expecting Osim to shoot me down!

But no, he smiled and commented: "I am always happy with Abe."

And then he even said that Abe could go to Germany next year with the national team, if he does more.

More what, I asked?

"More everything. More running, more tackling, more shooting."

Osim said Abe's defensive game was already good enough, especially his tackling, his physical strength, his reading of the play and his heading, but he needed to improve his attacking game.

"He needs to become a more dangerous player," said Osim.

"He times his runs well from midfield, he can shoot from 20, 25 metres with either foot...but he needs to do more. For the next three months he needs to give 10 percent more in everything."

Osim acknowledged that the competition for places in defensive midfield is strong, with the likes of Ono, Inamoto, Koji Nakata, Fukunishi, Endo and Konno, but he feels Abe has a chance if he steps it up around the pitch.

With encouraging words like these from his experienced coach, Abe knows exactly what he has to do in the coming weeks.

And if Osim says he has a chance, he has.


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Kaji fills role left by Narahashi

22 Aug 2005(Mon)

Tokyo, August 20, 2005: One of the big success stories of Zico's reign is undoubtedly Akira Kaji.

The FC Tokyo defender has made the right back/right wing-back position his own, whether Zico plays 4-4-2 or 3-5-2.

If you start picking Japan's team, there is debate and discussion about most positions.

But not Kaji's.

In 4-4-2, maybe Hayuma Tanaka would be a solid right back; in 3-5-2 maybe Naohiro Ishikawa would be a good selection on the right wing.

But the dynamic, consistent form of Kaji has left all challengers behind, and it was fitting that Kaji should score his first goal for Japan in their last qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup, the 2-1 victory over Iran.

It was a straight-forward goal from Kaji, a cool, side-footed finish, but, of course, he had to be in the right place to score it.

A great run from Tamada down the left, followed by a perfect cross -- low, curling away from the keeper -- which tempted the keeper, defender and Oguro to reach it. They all missed it, and there was Kaji, on the far post, to guide it home.

Yes, he deserved that goal, as he has repaid the faith shown in him by Zico and enabled the coach to sleep soundly over that demanding position in the team. With Alex on the left, improving all the time as a defender if losing some of his attacking sparkle, the two wing-back positions are decided a year ahead of the World Cup.

Kaji, 25, looks to have finally filled the gap left by Akira Narahashi.

I was a big admirer of Narahashi's, and so was Takeshi Okada. The Narahashi-Soma combination served Antlers and the national team well, especially at the France World Cup.

But Okada's successor, Troussier, thought Narahashi a bit wild and undisciplined, leaving his position to attack without thinking of the consequences.

In the end, Troussier compromised and picked the reliable, solid Myojin to bolster the right side, with Ichikawa in reserve, ahead of Hato, who was unlucky to miss out on the 2002 World Cup squad.

But now, Kaji has emerged, and become a Zico stalwart.

He deserved his goal against Iran, but scoring goals is not his main job.


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Zico's third-string players deserved another chance

18 Aug 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (August 17): Once again Zico is showing a remarkable amount of faith and loyalty in his "shadow" squad.

For tonight's World Cup qualifier against Iran at Yokohama, he is going back to the team that lost 1-0 to North Korea in the East Asian Football Championship in South Korea.

He looks set to sideline his "third-choice" team, despite improved results against China and then South Korea.

Personally, I think Zico is wrong again.

Or maybe he is giving certain players one last chance to impress in the national team shirt before he starts to think about mixing the European players with the J.Leaguers for the final months of preparation.

I'd like to have seen at least Moniwa, Konno and Murai still in there and being given a chance to press their claims for a regular place.

As I've said before, there aren't many arguments about Zico's first-choice team when all the senior players are available, but I think there is plenty of room for these East Asian Championship players to fill out the squad, and put more pressure on the established players.

It's like Zico has already decided his first team, and his reserves, and it's a "closed shop" from now until next summer, no matter how well the new players perform when given a chance.

For the East Asian Championship, Zico had no choice but to call up some new faces, as the senior players were with their clubs in Europe, but it looks like he's going backwards by overlooking them against Iran.

If Zico did not want to recall his European players for this game -- which is quite understandable -- then why not go the whole way and test the East Asian Championship players in such a hard match.

Japan must try and win this one, as it's a World Cup qualifier, and there won't be many more pressure games in the months to come.

Iran will be fast and physical, and it would have been a good test for the likes of Moniwa, Konno and Murai. If they didn't perform, then Zico would be right to doubt them, but he is very slow, reluctant almost, to put his trust in players from outside his "family."


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Nakata looks England-bound...at last

15 Aug 2005(Mon)

August 12, 2005 -- Hopefully, by the time you read this, Hidetoshi Nakata will be with Bolton Wanderers.

It's about time, too, that he has moved to England.

He has messed about for too long in Italy, since his career started to go off the rails during his time with Parma.

Parma's coach was Prandelli, who then took over at Fiorentina, so Nakat's departure has been expected.

I have been saying for at least two years that Nakata should move to England, and I don't think his agents have worked hard enough to get him there.

He is a fluent English speaker, and his game is perfectly suited for the English style: he is strong, robust, tackles hard, is fearless in the challenge, he goes past players, he passes well and he scores goals.

Though he has not scored anywhere near enough in relation to his ability.

I think he will do well at Bolton, a northern club near my hometown, but on the other side of the Pennine Hills.

It could be a big culture shock for him, moving from Italy in general and the beautiful city of Florence in particualr, but it's about time Nakata got back to business.

At Bolton he will get playing time, and the matches and football environment will be so fresh and exciting after playing in front of half-full stadiums around Italy for too long (but not Fiorentina).

It's just what Nakata needs, and I think he can be successful in the Premier League and show his quality against the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and the rest.

Of course he would have preferred to move to a London club, and Chelsea looked a good bet a couple of years ago before they signed Mutu from Parma.

But he still has time, and he can project Japanese football in a positive image.

I still have faith in Nakata's talent and motivation, if others continue to question it.

He is still the best Japanese player, by some considerable distance.


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Gazza and Sheryl...a tale from 1992

11 Aug 2005(Thu)

AUGUST 9 -- It's strange, and quite sad, how Paul Gascoigne still makes the news.

The other day I was reading a short article with a headline "Gazza says he never loved his wife."

No prizes for guessing the content of this!

In the article he claimed he only married Sheryl so he could continue seeing their two children.

None of this surprises me, as I met Sheryl in Rome in 1992, and was not impressed.

I had been reporting on the Olympic Games in Barcelona for my newspaper in Hong Kong, and my return journey enabled me to stop off at any major European city on my way back from Spain.

I looked at the airline's list and chose Rome, because Gascoigne had just signed for Lazio.

I had known him quite well in England, when reporting on Newcastle United, and have more stories than I have room for here in two months of articles!

But anyway, he was a brilliant tennis player, too, and a keen fisherman, and I can claim to have eaten a salmon for dinner caught by Gazza when he took me fishing one day in deepest Northumberland. But that's another story.

So there I was, outside Lazio's training ground one sunny morning, waiting for Gazza to arrive.

He was still recovering from his terrible knee injury, suffered a year before playing for Spurs in the FA Cup final against Forest, and had his own fitness schedule, separate from the other players.

A couple of hours later he drove up in a red BMW, maybe a Mercedes (it was 13 years ago!), and looked surprised to see me.

"What yee deein' 'ere?" he asked, in his strong North-east accent (for English, read, "What are you doing here, kind sir?").

"I've come to see you, why do you think I'm here?" I replied.

"Where are you staying toneet (tonight)?"

I told him I had booked a hotel down town, very near the Coliseum.

"It's a pity," he repiled. "Me mates all went home last night and I'm on me own in me big villa, but....."

I waited for the let-down.

"But I'm just going to the aiport to pick up Sheryl. I don't think she'd like it."

Gazza, usually so carefree and funny, was a different person.

Before he left, he took me into the training ground, and I watched the likes of Doll, Riedle and Winter, and Beppe Signori, at close quarters.

When he came back, Sheryl was in the passenger seat.

Paul tried to introduce me as a friendly reporter from his Newcastle United days -- not a tabloid gossip columnist-- but Sheryl did not want to know. She turned away, very snobbily, and Paul looked embarrassed.

I felt sorry for him at the time and thought..."Paul, what have you let yourself in for here, mate?"

Blonde hair, super-model outfit, hard, looking every step of the way that her goal in life was to become a footballer's wife, and now she had hit the jackpot.

Well, if Paul says he never loved her, I am sure she never loved him, either.

I thought that then, and I think it now.

She knew what she was doing all right.


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Zico should retain fresh faces for Iran test

8 Aug 2005(Mon)

AUGUST 6, 2005 -- Whatever the final outcome of the East Asian Championship in Korea, Zico will surely have learned many lessons from Japan's performances, win, draw or lose.

First, isn't it refreshing to see so many new faces in the blue of Japan.

This is a long overdue process by Zico, who has stuck with the same bunch of players when clearly the squad has needed revamping.

Players such as Tatsuya Tanaka, Konno and Murai have at least injected some dash into Japan's play.

Whether they have sufficient time to adapt to the national team environment is another matter, and you are left wondering where these players would be if they had been picked a year ago.

Zico, however, has his own reasons to stay loyal to the back-up squad, who are now, finally, under pressure to keep their places.

He has created "Zico's Family", as one Japanese football watcher put it to me -- and he wasn't talking about Zico's brother!

These players have taken Zico through the World Cup qualifying campaign and won the Asian Cup, and if there is no one better, in his opinion, then why change things?

After all, why should Zico think about the future?

The only thing that matters to him is the present, and if Japan keep winning then why should he care about building a team for when he's gone?

He will be judged by what happens in Germany next summer, and for that job he wants experienced players.

The big question, though, is this: is Zico's judgement right?

A great player does not make a great coach, as some people are born to teach and not necessarily perform at a high level.

Hopefully, though, Zico wil continue with some of the new faces, especially in the "dead rubber" against Iran.

"Dead rubber", by the way, is a tennis term, used in the Davis Cup between national teams to describe a game that has no meaning.

Japan and Iran have both qualified for Germany, but Zico can still use this chance to reward some of the East Asian Championship recruits, notably Konno, Murai, Moniwa and Tatsuya.


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Hirayama should have turned professional earlier

4 Aug 2005(Thu)

AUGUST 2 2005:One player in Japan has baffled me for a while now...and he still does.

That player is Sota Hirayama who has become a media darling in Japan without achieving much if anything in the real world of football.

As readers may know I have never understood the hype surrounding Hirayama.

Okay he is tall for his age very tall for a Japanese player of his age and this enabled him to dominate the air waves at schoolboy level.

He scored a lovely goal a back-post header on his Olympic team debut but of course he looked very raw and in my opinion at times uncoordinated.

In all honesty I did not think he was ready to lead the Olympic team and I still think it was a mistake for Yamamoto-kantoku to put so much faith in him. Takayuki Suzuki in the absence of Takahara would have done a much better job.

But that is in the past and not the point of this article.

I read the other day that Hirayama is going to spend some time with Feyenoord.That is an interesting move and a surprising one as I thought he was concentrating on Tsukuba University and not planning to play professional football until graduating.

I could never understand Hirayama's decision to go to Tsukuba instead of joining a J.League club after leaving Kunimi. Leaving university at 22 and turning professional is six years too late.

It is a wasted six years during which a young player could have learned so much about the game. At 22 it is very difficult to step up and a player has only six or seven years left in him to reach the top as 26-28 is regarded as the peak.

Maybe Hirayama is regretting it too and that is why he is going to train with Feyenoord.

If Feyenoord took him on it could be the perfect situation for Hirayama playing for a big club in a small league and being cared for and nurtured by a coach who could pick him for certain games and develop him slowly.

Hirayama despite the adulation in Japan is far from the finished product but if he goes to learn his trade in Holland he still has a chance.Or if he went into the J.League.

If he stays in Japan and plays for Tsukuba it is a waste of time for himself and Japan will never know how good he is or could be.


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Clubs must stop these tours, not FIFA

1 Aug 2005(Mon)

July 30 -- FIFA's general secretary, Urs Linsi, has had some strong words about European clubs visiting Asia.

Basically, Linsi said the visits of Real Madrid, Manchester United etc. do nothing to benefit Asian football.

All they did was earn the rich European clubs even more money, when that money should be going into the local game here in Asia.

Do you agree?

Personally, I don't agree at all.

I think the visits by European clubs help promote the game on a worldwide scale, and bring the fans closer to the stars of the world game.

A few weeks ago I went to Saitama Stadium for the visits of Hamburg and Barcelona.

The first game was a waste of time, as there was hardly anyone there.

Hamburg, without Takahara, playing in Saitama? Why should anyone be interested in that?

Hamburg playing at Shizuoka Ecopa, with Takahara in the team against his old club Jubilo Iwata...now that would have made more sense.

Barcelona at Saitama was much better.

There was a friendly festival atmosphere on the trains leading to Urawa Misono. Thousands of fans wore Barcelona shirts, and thousands wore the red of Urawa.

Even without the likes of Ronaldinho and Eto'o, Barca fielded a strong team, and the match was reasonable entertainment for the supporters.

I say "reasonable" because I do not like these games anyway.

Football is not about fun and entertainment. It is about passion, tension, where the result is important.

If sponsors have the money to bring teams over, and the fans want to watch, then why criticise it?

Linsi would be far better off criticising the unprofessional behaviour of clubs and leagues around Asia.

There has been so much corruption in recent years, especially in China, why should sponsors throw their money down the drain on local leagues?

The J.League is easily the most efficient, most attractive league in Asia, and has no problems attracting fans, sponsors and TV money.

Fans can vote with their feet and stop attending games like Real Madrid against Verdy or Jubilo.

But if they keep turning up to watch, why should FIFA criticise the concept?

It is up to the clubs and the fans to stop it, not FIFA.


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