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October 2005

Women’s game deserves support

31 Oct 2005(Mon)

October 29, 2005 – FIFA, quite rightly, is ecstatic about the IOC decision to increase the number of teams in the Olympic women’s football tournament from 10 to 12.

This is rightful recognition of the value of the women’s game, and its growing appeal on all continents. Last year, for example, provided Japan with two memorable sporting moments, as emotional and dramatic as many accomplishments in the men’s game.

First, the crushing defeat of North Korea at Kokuritsu to qualify for Athens.

Then, in Athens itself, the heroic 1-0 defeat of the talented Sweden team.

Well, to be precise, it was nowhere near Athens, as it was held in one of the Olympic Games’ satellite cities in the north of the country.

Despite all the gold medals Japan won in Athens (16), this one game will remain a highlight, as Japan scored a goal, could have had a couple more (just ask Homare Sawa…she was so unlucky not to net one, maybe two goals) and then played with a spirit and determination that brought tears of emotion from JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi at the final whistle.

No matter what happened after that, Japan’s women had done the nation proud, and created enough interest back home to breathe new life into the L.League.

Although the women’s game has many critics among the men, I have supported it for many years. Lacking the physical power and the pace of men, it is played at a slower tempo, with more emphasis on skill, touch and movement. Up until now, it is also played in a fair spirit, with little evidence of diving, feigning injury and time-wasting. Against Sweden, for example, Japan could have resorted to all sorts of tricks late in the game, but they kept playing an open style with a smile on their faces, which was such a refreshing change in the modern game.

Ten teams was not a good number, and 12 is far from perfect, as in Beijing we will probably be having three groups of four, and from there it must come down to eight teams for the quarter-finals. This means the top two from each group qualifying, plus the best two third-placed teams.

For me this is a highly unsatisfactory formula. Eight teams works well, and so does 16, but 10 and 12 falls in between.

But FIFA must work with what they’ve got, and that means 12 teams in Beijing.

The women’s game deserves this increase, and deserves support around the world.


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Unlucky Tsune must think of 2006

27 Oct 2005(Thu)

October 25, 2005 −Tsuneyasu Miyamoto is not the luckiest of players.

At the 2002 World Cup, Miyamoto became famous for his Batman-style mask to protect a broken nose.

Now, with Gamba in the running for a league and cup double −and, who knows, maybe a treble with the Emperor's Cup thrown in as well −Miyamoto is set to miss around a month's action with a right knee injury.

Miyamoto collected the injury toward the end of Saturday's 2-1 loss at home to the rejuvenated Oita Trinita, which was a double blow for Gamba in the space of a few minutes.

He looks certain to miss the Nabisco Cup final against JEF United on November 5 −but you never know with injuries these days −and that will be a huge disappointment for such a loyal club servant.

But Miyamoto knows he must not rush back, not necessarily for the Nabisco Cup final but for the rest of the season.

The reason for this is simple...hat the 2006 World Cup must be uppermost in Miyamoto's priorities.

If he comes back too early, when the ligament injury is not fully healed, and he makes it worse, then he has a much bigger problem on his hands.

If a few weeks on the sidelines becomes a few months, he would miss the start of the build-up to Japan's World Cup campaign, and he knows as well as anyone that Zico will stay loyal to a player who comes in and does a good job.

These next couple of weeks are critical for Miyamoto's World Cup campaign, as he must be patient and not let his Gamba heart rule his national team head.

Of course the Nabisco Cup final will not be the same without him, but, if there are no setbacks, he should be up and running in time for the end of the league season.

If he ends the J1 season as a league champion and with his right knee strong again, then maybe he might be feeling lucky after all.


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Could a Chinese star be good for business in Japan?

24 Oct 2005(Mon)

October 21, 2005 -- Like me, you must get fed up of reading sentences such as the following:

"Also, if they sign a Japanese player he would be good for business, and may attract Japanese sponsors to the club."

Know what I mean?

So how about this for a change:

"If a Japanese club were to sign this player, he would be good for business, as there would be a lot of interest in his exploits back in his home country."

The country in question is China, and the player is...?

Well, I am sorry, I cannot reveal his name at the moment, because he is still playing in China and it would put him in a difficult position with his current employers.

But he's a good player, with lots of international experience, and he wants to play in Japan. I know this because I am trying to help the player's agent arrange a move to the J.League.

I haven't even asked for 10 per cent commission yet, because we are only talking about talks, rather than about a transfer, but I hope the deal goes through.

First, because he's a good, hard player, as I said before, and the Chinese domestic league is a shambles. He deserves better.

Second, I would like to see J.League clubs broaden their horizions on the foreign player front, and try and make more imaginative signings.

I often feel the club front offices are brainwashed by Brazilians, and that experienced agents find naive Japanese clubs easy pickings in terms of selling a player, the quality of which can be third-rate, and the salaries and fees first-rate, on occasions.

While there have been plenty of top-notch Koreans in the J.League, China has not been well represented, although several Chinese have played in Europe, such as Sun Jihai (Manchester City), Li Tie (Everton) and Fan Zhiyi (Crystal Palace among others).

Of course an agent would say such and such a player would be good for business, but in this case it seems very reasonable.

A Japanese club signing a high-profile Chinese player could expect benefits in terms of fan support at home and, possibly, corporate support from Chinese businesses in Japan. On the other hand, the parent company of the Japanese club (for example Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota) could use this player to expand their market in China.

It's a win-win situation, provided the player is good enough to fill one of the three places for foreigners, and I can safely say he is.

Maybe you will hear more of this in the near future, as it's an interesting venture.

And if it comes off, only then will I ask for my 10 percent!

Or maybe 20.


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JFA take tough stance over friendly

20 Oct 2005(Thu)

October 19, 2005 ・It's nice to see the JFA getting tough by replacing Ivory Coast with Togo for the Tokyo friendly on November 16.

Ivory Coast should have been coming, but said they would not have a full team, notably Didier Drogba, so Japan invited Togo instead.

I'm sure Chelsea will be delighted by that, as the last thing they need is for one of their millionaires to be travelling to Japan and back in the middle of the season, risking injury in a friendly international.

On the other hand, the Ivory Coast Football Association will be missing out on a big pay day, as the JFA, I'm sure, would have been paying them a hefty fee.

I am sure that the JFA have learned their lesson from the Nigeria fiasco a couple of years back.

The match, won 3-0 by Japan, was a joke, a complete waste of time for all concerned except Takahara, who improved his goals per game ratio for the national team significantly.

If I remember correctly ・and forgive me readers, I am approaching another birthday! ・Nigeria did not even have enough players to fill the five substitute slots. I think they had only four players on the bench, including a reserve keeper, which was a real slap in the face for Japan.

The only memorable thing about the evening was the traditional Nigerian headgear worn by the man who sang the national anthem, and I half-expected him to remove it, put on the No. 16 shirt and sit on the bench.

This time, however, the JFA have cracked down, and told Ivory Coast to forget it ・and full credit to them for doing so.

Togo will be interesting opposition. Like Ivory Coast they have qualified for the World Cup for the first time in an African revolution which has seen the likes of Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria all fall by the wayside.

Togo have also promised to send their best team, but would anyone really notice if they didn't? The point is they will take it seriously, and will be grateful for the experience, the exposure and, of course, the cash.

Hopefully there will be no more friendly farces at the National Stadium.


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Osaka pushing hard on two fronts

17 Oct 2005(Mon)

October 14, 2005 -- Watch out this weekend for Osaka.


No, Cerezo actually.

Take a quick look at the first division table and then at this weekend's fixtures, and the scene could be very different come Sunday afternoon.

Just in case you'd forgotten what was happening in J1 due to yet another break -- and anyone could be forgiven for this -- Gamba are top with 51 points from 26 games. Antlers are second with 48 and Cerezo third on 43.

There are still eight games to play, worth, of course, 24 points, so there is plenty of time for things to change.

Like this weekend maybe.

Gamba are away to Vissel Kobe on Saturday night, and on paper this looks a certain three points for Gamba.

But the match is a Kansai derby, and Vissel are playing for pride and for points as they try to climb off the foot of the table, five points behind Verdy. Of course it would be a big surprise if the bottom club beats the top club, but they say that the form book goes out the window in a local derby, even when 31 points separate the two teams.

On Sunday, Antlers are playing Jubilo at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa. This is not a local derby, but it's Japan's equivalent of "El Classico" between two teams steeped in tradition (well, by J.League standards).

Jubilo could win this one, as they are not exactly out of the title race yet themselves, in fourth place with 42 points.

As for Cerezo, they are at home Saturday to struggling Omiya Ardija, whose fine start to the season is now keeping them out of the two automatic relegation places...but only just.

Just think, Vissel shock Gamba in the Kansai derby...Jubilo beat Antlers in the "J.Classico"...and Cerezo, almost unnoticed, beat Ardija at home in Nagai Stadium.

Then the top positions would be Gamba (51), Antlers (48) and Cerezo (46)...only five points separating the top three with seven games remaining.

There's no pressure on Cerezo. They've been enjoying themselves climbing the table, as Gamba, Antlers, Reds and Marinos have been feeling the heat, and they should be relaxed going into the Omiya game.

So why shouldn't they continue to play in this style, leaving Gamba and Antlers to knock each other to a standstill like two boxers in the ring.


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Uzbeks were clearly hurt by FIFA's decision

13 Oct 2005(Thu)

Wednesday, October 12 -- The Uzbekistan-Bahrain match made painful viewing on Saturday night.

Especially when Bahrain took the lead early in the first half.

Although Uzbekistan equalised shortly after, you couldn't help feeling sorry for the home team.

As one TV commentator put it, surely a fairer decision by FIFA would have been to restart the match from the 39th minute, when Uzbekistan were awarded a penalty.

They were 1-0 up at the time, and a successful penalty would have made it 2-0.

In the original game, of course, Uzbekistan scored from the penalty spot, but the Japanese referee, Yoshida, quite rightly disallowed the goal because an Uzbek player had run into the box before the kick had been taken.

But instead of making Uzbekistan take the kick again, he awarded Bahrain an indirect free kick, which was completely the wrong decision -- and it still amazes me that Yoshida was not helped out by one of his assistants, or the fourth official.

When the dust had settled on Saturday's replayed first leg, the teams were level at 1-1 going into the second leg on Wednesday at Manama, Bahrain.

Bahrain will start the second leg as favourites, but the Uzbeks have the most experienced player on the field in Kasimov, and an in-form striker in Shatskikh.

I remember visiting Hiroshima for the 1994 Asian Games and the left-footed midfield general Kasimov was in the Uzbek team that won the gold medal, beating China 4-2 in the final at Big Arch.

Other players who remain in the memory were the goalkeeper Sheikin, the central defender Tikhonov, the left wing-back Lebedev, the attacking midfielder Abduraimov and the potent forward Shkvyrin.

Eleven years on, Uzbekistan are still not out of World Cup contention, but if they fall in Bahrain they will have every right to feel hard done by.

After the first leg, they appealed for a 3-0 victory, but that was way too ambitious and was ruled out by FIFA.

And who knows what would have happened if the game had started from the 39th minute? Maybe Uzbekistan would have missed the penalty, the whole flow of the game would have changed, and Bahrain may have won the first leg 4-1. Alternatively, Bahrain may have collapsed and Uzbekistan would have won 5-0.

This is the great thing about football. You just never know what will happen, apart from the fact that controversy is lurking around every corner.


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Time to vote for Asian Player of the Year

10 Oct 2005(Mon)

Friday, October 7, 2005 -- Who would be your Asian Player of the Year for 2005?

I'm asking this because it's awards time again. Like Christmas, it seems to start earlier every year.

Hidetoshi Nakata? No, because he's only been playing well for about half a year.

Shunsuke Nakamura? He caught the eye in the Confederations Cup, and the Celtic fans seem to like him. But, sorry Shunsuke fans, no again.

Lee Young Pyo, formerly of PSV, now at Tottenham, and building on his success from the 2002 World Cup? He's an exciting player down the left flank, but Asian Player of the Year for 2005? I don't think so.

I mention these three because they are on the list of 10 candidates released by the Asian Football Confederation on Friday. The list comprises three players from Saudi Arabia (why?), two each from Iran, Japan and South Korea, and one from Uzbekistan.

The voting panel consists of AFC executive committee members, the head coaches of the 45 national teams affiliated to the AFC, and the AFC's commercial partner, World Sport Group.

Each voter must pick three players. First place is worth five points, second place three and third place one point, and the player from the 10 on the shortlist with the most votes will be crowned Asian Player of the Year on November 30.

So who's my choice?

Well, I feel it should be someone who has excelled outside their own league, not just at their club or even in the Asian Champions League.

Somebody who has made a name for himself, put his country, and Asia, on the map.

Someone, like Nakata earlier in his career, who has proved he can step up to a higher level, and make a new audience sit up and take notice of Asian football.

Someone, in fact, like Park Ji Sung.

A World Cup semi-finalist in 2002, a UEFA Champions League semi-finalist with PSV in 2005, and now playing well at Manchester United.

Made in Japan, at Kyoto Purple Sanga, Park would be the perfect choice for Asian Player of the Year 2005.

I hope he wins it, because he deserves to. ends

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Kazu still makes the news

6 Oct 2005(Thu)

October 5, 2005 -- You just can't keep the King out of the news, can you?

From Kobe to Yokohama to Sydney, all in the space of a few weeks, Kazuyoshi Miura's star quality is still shining brightly.

Earlier this week, the short-term transfer of Kazu from Yokohama FC to Sydney FC was agreed, meaning the Japanese sporting icon will be able to play in FIFA's revamped Club World Championship in Japan in December.

It's a fantastic bit of public relations by the Australian club, who can now look forward to some passionate Japanese backing during the event.

Australia, of course, have been given permission by FIFA to switch from the Oceania confederation to Asia, and Sydney officials hope that this move will help build a bridge between the two countries and continents.

They also know that Kazu will give his best, and will be professional in every aspect of the job. On the training pitch, with sponsors, with media, with his teammates and with the fans.

He may have lost some zip and some sparkle, but he hasn't lost his hunger or his ambition, and he will repay Sydney's investment many times over in terms of publicity and fan support.

Organisers, too, will be rubbing their hands together, as Sydney FC will give the neutral supporters in Japan some local interest.

Both Yokohama F Marinos and Jubilo Iwata failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League, and the Emerson-powered Al Sadd have been eliminated now, too (I will refrain from giving my thoughts on this subject, as I don't want to upset Urawa Reds fans any more).

But now, with Kazu at Sydney, plus Sao Paulo and Liverpool as the "big two" from South America and Europe, there should be healthy ticket sales -- a factor FIFA (and Dentsu) must have been worried about after the early departures of Marinos and Jubilo.

As for Kazu, he will be moving to a wonderful city, albeit for only a couple of months.

Football (or soccer as the Aussies call it, as they have their own brand of football, Australian Rules Football) is not as high-profile as rugby league, rugby union, cricket or Aussie Rules, but they are trying to promote the new A-League just like Japan did with the J.League in 1993.

It will also give Kazu the chance to improve his English conversation, and this could assist him immensely in his career when he finally hangs up those much-travelled boots.


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Striking problem for Zico

3 Oct 2005(Mon)

September 30, 2005 -- Zico is going to have a very big selection headache before the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Just look at the names in the squad for the two-match tour of eastern Europe, and then see who's missing because of the all-star game or other reasons.

Apart from the three goalkeepers picking themselves, and several of the defenders, the competition for midfield and forward places is expanding all the time.

His four strikers for Latvia and Ukraine are Suzuki, Yanagisawa, Takahara and Okubo, but that still leaves Oguro, Tamada, Tanaka, Maki and even Kubo at home in Japan.

Midfield is clearly Japan's strength, so I can't imagine Zico picking any more than four forwards in his squad of 23 for Germany, which must include three keepers.

At the moment, my choices would be Suzuki, Yanagisawa, Okubo and Oguro.

I think this gives Zico stability and unpredictability in equal measures. I could see Suzuki (or Yanagisawa) leading the line, with Okubo in support, and Oguro on the bench, waiting to come on when defenders are tiring and finding the spaces other forwards can't see.

So where does this leave Takahara?

I know the World Cup is in Germany and Takahara is playing there, for Hamburg, but Zico will show no sentiment in this matter when the time comes.

I don't think Takahara has played well for Japan on a consistent basis for quite some time. In fact he was awful in the 2-1 defeat to Iran in Tehran, playing without confidence and unable to control the ball.

Zico knows he can trust Suzuki, Yanagisawa and Oguro, and clearly likes Tamada, no matter what kind of form the left-footed forward is in for Reysol.

Zico would like to trust Okubo, too, but obviously feels he is far from the finished product, despite his exuberant talent, while Tatsuya and Maki always seemed to be temporary call-ups.

As for Kubo? Maybe Zico has written him off already, as his long-term fitness is a huge concern.

Takahara has everything to prove to Zico on this two-match tour.


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