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September 2005

Is football about winning or about entertainment?

29 Sep 2005(Thu)

September 28 -- Most of the time, Arsene Wenger talks nothing but sense.

But his idea to change the points system to encourage teams to score more goals is way off the mark.

Arsene's plan is to give a team a bonus point if they win by three clear goals, for example 3-0 or 5-2.

This would encourage teams to keep attacking, even if they were leading 2-0, and provide more "entertainment" for the fans.

Do you like that idea?

I must admit I don't, and it seems a remarkably naive suggestion from the French professor.

It also leads to the question, is football about winning or about entertainment?

I remember, many years ago in the north-east of England, Sunderland were playing dull and no-risk football to try and grind out results to stay in the first division.

After one particularly dour affair, a member of the press asked the Sunderland manager, Alan Durban, if he thought his team should be providing more entertainment for the fans.

"If you want entertainment you should go to the circus," replied the manager. "I have to win football matches and keep my team in the first division."

That's a good point by Durban.

Fans support winners, and I don't think many Brazilians were disappointed after they beat Italy on penalties in the 1994 World Cup final, following a 0-0 draw.

With Dunga and Mauro Silva in the middle, this was not a particularly creative or entertaining Brazilian team, but they had a brilliant striker in Romario and the right man to feed him in Bebeto.

The Brazilians have always been associated with entertaining, attacking, instinctive football, but on this occasion they knew they had to be more pragmatic, more organised, more European, to end a World Cup trophy drought stretching back to the glory days of 1970.

The problem at the moment, for Arsenal and the rest of the Premier League, is that Chelsea are winning all the time...but only just. They have an astute coach in Jose Mourinho, who knows when to attack and when to shut up shop.

For the majority of coaches, I'm sure the perfect result is a 1-0 win. Tight defence, scoring the crucial goal, and then closing out the match. At times it might not be pretty, but the winning team's fans will not complain.

And football is about winning, not about entertaining, although it would be nice to do both, like Brazil...in 1970.


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Robson Ponte: the master craftsman

26 Sep 2005(Mon)

September 23, 2005 -- It's a familiar sight, isn't it?

The Urawa Reds No. 10, scoring goals and helping to win matches.

No, I'm not talking about Emerson, of course. He's long gone.

I'm referring to his replacement, Robson Ponte.

I must make it clear that he is Emerson's replacement by number only, not by position, as Ponte was signed to fill the gap left by Yamase's move to Yokohama F Marinos.

In fact, on the Sunday a few weeks ago when I went to Reds' Ohara training ground to find out where Emerson was, Ponte was already there and about to join from Bayer Leverkusen.

No, Tomi Maric is Emerson's direct replacement as a striker, but Ponte has softened the blow of losing their goal-scoring hero "Eme" to the riches of the Gulf.

Emerson and Ponte could not be more different, could they?

Whereas Emerson used his explosive pace and power to break down defences by smashing through the front window, Ponte is much more subtle and crafty. Ponte is more like a skilled locksmith, patiently picking the lock and entering through the back door.

In his six league games so far, Ponte has scored four goals, which is an excellent return for a midfield player, and one of the reasons why Reds cannot be written off in the title race.

Although Gamba (47 points) and Antlers (46) occupy the top two places after 24 games, Reds are not far behind in third place with 40. Urawa, of course, will be hoping for a Gamba-Antlers draw at Suita City on Saturday night, and aiming for three points themselves at home to Yokohama F Marinos. Although Marinos are out of the title race in a distant 10th with 32 points, they will make life as hard as possible for Urawa with so much pride at stake in front of a big crowd at Saitama.

With 10 league games to go, there are still 30 points available, so every team will keep fighting at the top and at the bottom.


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Monaco, Wenger, Nagoya and...Deschamps?

22 Sep 2005(Thu)

September 21 -- A few years ago, in 1994 to be precise, I was on an assignment in the United Arab Emirates.

I was walking to my seat in the Press Box at Abu Dhabi when I saw a familiar face in the stands.

At first I couldn't put a name to the face, so asked a colleague from the Asian Football Confederation who the distinguished European gentleman was in the stands.

When he said the name, instantly I recalled a recent article and photograph in World Soccer magazine.

It was Arsene Wenger.

He had just parted company with Monaco after seven years, and was in the UAE to conduct a coaching course on behalf of FIFA.

The next stop on his journey was Japan. He asked me about the J.League and said he knew the Sanfrecce coach, Baxter. But he never told me he was going for a meeting with Nagoya Grampus Eight! The rest is history.

The reason why I recall this secene is two-fold.

First, Grampus need a new manager after Nelsinho was fired on Sunday.

Second, Monaco's latest coach, Didier Deschamps, resigned on Monday.

Any connection there?

Maybe. Maybe not.

You never know in football. I am sure Deschamps will receive many offers from Europe, but, like Wenger before him, perhaps he would like a change of scenery.

During a speech at the 1998 World Cup in France, Wenger spoke of how the J.League had refreshed him. He said he was disillusioned with France, because it was the time when the Marseille match-fixing scandal was rife, and his stint in Japan had given him hope and optimism. Arsenal reaped the benefits, and still are doing.

Wenger: Monaco to Nagoya to Highbury.

Deschamps: Monaco to Nagoya? Is there a chance?

Nagoya have the money to hire Deschamps, that's for sure. Also, they are desperate, and I mean desperate with a capital "D", for a coach who can turn things around. Apart from two Emperor's Cups, Nagoya have not won any J.League honour, meaning stage championship or Nabisco Cup, although Wenger took them close.

Perhaps I am putting two and two together here and coming up with 10!

But it's worth a thought, as I am sure Wenger would recommend Deschamps to move to Japan to recharge his batteries, if that's what he needs.


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Reysol try again in bid for mid-table safety

19 Sep 2005(Mon)

September 16 -- Has Ruy Ramos still got the magic?

Not in his spindly legs and quick and clever feet, but in his football brain out on the training field.

Kashiwa Reysol need something from somewhere, because no matter what they try the result seems to be the same: struggling along at the wrong end of the table, and annoying their loyal and passionate supporters with a series of below-par performances.

Ramos joined the "Yellow Submarine" -- that seems an appropriate title for Reysol, as they play in yellow and are always near the bottom -- this week as assistant coach to Hiroshi Hayano.

And the Hitachi club will be hoping the presence of the shaggy-haired former national team midfielder will inspire the players to achieve more, in training and on the pitch.

During the past two or three years I have often said that Reysol have too many good players to be in trouble, and the same still applies.

But nothing ever seems to work. A change of manager, a change of foreign players, some experienced Japanese players coming in...and Reysol continue to struggle.

Maybe it's a question of confidence and motivation rather than a lack of technique and ability, and maybe this is why Ramos could prove to be so valuable to the team.

His very presence on the touchline could lift the spirits of the players, and perhaps even help them to relax and enjoy their football rather than playing with so much fear and self-doubt.

At times Reysol look like they have turned the corner, and are heading up the table. Just like FC Tokyo.

But then they lose badly again, and they are back at square one.

On Saturday, Ramos and Reysol have the perfect chance to make a fresh start, when championship-chasing Gamba Osaka come to town.

After 23 games, Gamba have 47 points, which is a whopping 23 more than Reysol.

Gamba are in pole position and hoping to pull clear of the chasing pack, while Reysol are 15th, just two points clear of the automatic relegation zone.

It's an interesting move by Reysol to appoint the popular Ramos, but Hayano will surely be feeling the pressure even more with such a famous assistant.


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No Araujo -- please, no more 'all-star' soccer!

15 Sep 2005(Thu)

September 14: See what I mean!

They call it an all-star game?

So where's the player leading Gamba Osaka's charge toward a first J.League title?

Araujo, with 24 goals in 23 games, was nowhere to be seen when the J.League announced the two teams for the JOMO All-Star match at Oita on October 9.

Due to the rule that does not allow more than three players from one club, the silky Brazilian striker with the lovely left foot was overlooked, behind national team trio Miyamoto, Endo and Oguro.

Araujo's exclusion is further proof, if any were needed, that the all-star game should be scrapped after this season.

I have said before this year that I think the match has served its purpose and is now way past its "sell-by" date. It is an alien concept in the football world and means just one more match in an already crowded calendar, and an occasion I am sure the players selected would rather miss, if they were honest.

This year, too, it is sandwiched between two national team games in eastern Europe, meaning Zico cannot have all his best players in Latvia on October 8.

I really think the authorities should look long and hard at this event -- or, perhaps, "non-event" would be more appropriate -- and lay it to rest. Yes, it was good at the beginning to stir fan interest and involvement in the new professional league, but the league is now well established in Japan's sports culture and the fans are involved simply by being fans of their clubs. Let's just leave it at that.

The match is always well supported by sponsors and superbly presented by the J.League, so surely JOMO could be involved in another deal.

How about the JOMO J.League Championship, just like the Barclays English Premier League?

Or the JOMO Player of the Season?

Or even the JOMO J.League Awards Night?

Anything but the JOMO All-Star Soccer, as the absence of Araujo -- a candidate for the MVP award at the end of the season -- diminishes the event even more.


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Gamba trio set fine example

12 Sep 2005(Mon)

September 9 -- It's not hard to see why Gamba Osaka are doing so well in J1 this season.

Just look at the list of leading goalscorers.

At the top is Araujo with 21 goals, six more than Verdy's Brazilian ace Washington.

In third place is the J.League's top Japanese striker, Masashi Oguro, with 14, and way down the list comes the third member of this striking triumvirate, Fernandinho, with five.

What really catches the eye, though, is the fact that all three players have played in all 22 league games. Not started all and not finished all, but they have been available for all.

The fact that they stay fit and stay out of trouble is crucial to Gamba's cause, as injuries and yellow cards are inevitable these days with so many matches.

Without wanting to open old wounds, just think how many more games Urawa Reds would have won had Emerson been available all the time, instead of missing matches through suspension.

It's vital for foreign professionals in Japan to bring with them a professional attitude, and nobody epitomises this quality more than Gamba's third Brazilian player, Sidiclei.

I remember watching him play years ago at Tochigi Green Stadium -- and missing a penalty for Montedio Yamagata against Nagoya Grampus Eight in the Emperor's Cup.

In fact it was 1998, because Philippe Troussier was also watching the game, in particular the form of Grampus striker Kenji Fukuda as the coach assembled his squad for Olympic qualifying.

I apologise to Sidiclei for bringing that incident up, but it does illustrate how long he's been around and, through hard work and a professional approach, has climbed the ladder until he's now at the very top with Gamba.

Can Sidiclei and company stay there?

Personally, I think they can. I was very impressed with Gamba from an early stage of the season, when I saw them at Saitama Stadium against Urawa, and the players now realise that a first league championship is within their grasp.

It's still very tight, of course, and won't be decided for a few weeks yet, but the Araujo-Oguro-Fernandinho combo has shown already how important it is to stay on the field and do what you are paid to do.


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Zico gives Koji the chance to become a regular

8 Sep 2005(Thu)

September 7 -- One of the biggest bonuses of Zico's reign has been his identification and development of Akira Kaji.

One of the biggests minuses has been his under-use of Koji Nakata.

But maybe this is going to change from now on, as Zico named Nakata in his starting line-up for the friendly with Honduras on Wednesday night.

Needing two defensive midfielders in either of his formations -- 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 -- Zico has frequently overlooked Nakata, despite this being his natural position.

Under Troussier, of course, Koji was a lock, but on the left side of a three-man defence, not in midfield.

So it's good to see Zico putting Nakata in the midfield engine room, alongside another European-based player and 2002 World Cup hero, Junichi Inamoto.

This pairing should give the team balance and poise, with Inamoto allowed to push forward as Nakata holds the fort in front of the defence.

Nakata reads the game so well, and maintains the tempo and the rhythm of the team.

He is very experienced for his age, and his time at Marseille can only make him a stronger character.

Many times I interviewed managers ahead of or after games with Kashima Antlers, and on every occasion the name that cropped up was that of Koji Nakata.

They would praise the qualities listed above, and point out that it was Nakata who conducted the Kashima orchestra.

With the national team, though, there is strong competition for places in this department, and maybe Nakata might not have been selected had Ono been available.

Personally, my first choice midfielders in the engine room would be Ono and Koji, with Inamoto and Fukunishi in reserve, and these four appear to have the edge in terms of World Cup selection.

But that's a long time away, and players cannot afford to be thinking about Germany right now. To use a football cliche, they have to take one match at a time, and show their quality and, above all, their consistency at every opportunity.

Koji has his chance. I'm sure he's going to take it, and Japan's national team will be better off for it.


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Miyamoto, Ishikawa make the right decision

5 Sep 2005(Mon)

September 2 – It is encouraging to read that two Japanese players have rejected a move to Italian club Treviso in recent days.

On Saturday, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto turned them down, and decided to stay with Gamba Osaka.

Three days later, Naohiro Ishikawa did the same, and will remain with FC Tokyo.

Miyamoto has been interested in moving to Europe for three or four years now, but he did not feel the timing was right on this one.

He said he did not have much time to make up his mind, but, after thinking of his family and his immediate future, he decided to stay in Osaka.

I think Miyamoto has made the right choice.

The World Cup is not far away; he is Japan’s captain; he can be at the heart of all the preparations.

Why exchange all this certainty for a list of uncertainties?

The last thing he needs is to be a squad player with a struggling team in Serie A. He may not play regularly; he may lose confidence; he may become frustrated, and this could carry over into his personal life with his young family.

On top of that, of course, Gamba Osaka are in the running for the league championship and Nabisco Cup, and why not the Emperor’s Cup, too!

Tsune said he wants to win the league championship with his friends at Gamba – and wouldn’t that be a boost for Kansai football in general?

Tsune says he will wait for the next time, which may well be after the World Cup in Germany next summer. Like Ogasawara before him, the World Cup will be a shop window for all players to show their quality and their value, and the fact that Tsune is a fluent English speaker will undoubtedly help his cause.

As for Ishikawa?

Well, I would have understood it more if he had moved to Treviso. FC Tokyo are marking time at the moment (not going forwards, but going backwards slightly), and Ishikawa has only an outside chance of making it into Japan’s World Cup squad.

Personally, I would like to see him in the squad, as he offers genuine pace and danger.

But while there is a chance to catch Zico’s eye, Ishikawa should keep playing and keep hoping. If he’d gone to Treviso, he may have disappeared off the radar altogether.

Japan is not a bad place to be, and the grass is not always greener in Europe.


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Atsu relishes the challenge at Kobe

1 Sep 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (August 28): Seven points from three games, including a draw at Urawa Reds.

Sounds like championship form, doesn't it?

But no, it's Vissel Kobe form, down at the other end of the table.

Since the resumption of J1 on August 20, Vissel have beaten Nagoya Grampus Eight at home, drawn at Urawa and then beaten Oita Trinita at home.

Although they are still bottom of the table with 19 points, they have closed the gap right up on Oita, and several other struggling clubs are coming into view.

The catalyst of the revival has been the new captain, Atsuhiro Miura.

Did anyone see his free kick at Komaba the other night?

It was a fantastic effort, from maybe 35 metres out, that was hit with power and curve. It was a David Beckham special with the right foot, and Atsu then went and scored another one, not quite as spectacular, in the win against Trinita on Saturday.

Clearly Atsu is revelling in the role of captain and attacking midfielder, rather than out on the wing.

A right-footed left back, Atsu had lost his way at Verdy, and lost his place to Takahito Soma, who has missed Verdy's last couple of games due to sickness.

Atsu needed a fresh challenge, and Kobe has given him just that.

He is leading a team that has changed remarkably in composition from the start of the season, both on and off the field, and he has several new teammates around him, such as Kaneko and Muller at the back, Endo (Akihiro) in midfield and Ulich up front.

These transfer moves seemed like a last throw of the dice by Hiroshi Mikitani to keep the club in J1 during a season in which two managers, Matsunaga and Emerson Leao, have both been fired in double-quick time.

When I asked Vissel's third manager of the year, Pavel Rehak, if this concerned him, he gave a good reply.

"I hope I'm the last manager," he said.

Regarding a points target for the season, he said he had not drawn one up, as the form of the other teams was too unpredictable. Instead, Vissel would just concentrate on one match at a time, and try and catch the team immediately above them.

This plan is working a treat, and Atsu is proving to be an inspiration in the middle of the park.

Whether or not this new position will affect his World Cup chances as back-up to Alex is open to debate, as Zico has shown loyalty to his players.

This will be the last thing on his mind, though, as Vissel pay his wages and he has a job to do...to keep them in J1.

So far, things are looking up -- and Rehak remains the club's third manager of the year.


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