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November 2005

Thanks for the memories, George Best

28 Nov 2005(Mon)

November 26, 2005: It’s a beautiful autumn day here in Tokyo. The sun is shining and it’s a crisp, cool morning.

But it’s also an extremely sad morning, because, a few hours ago, George Best died at the age of 59.

Alcoholism was the only opponent he could not beat, and it led to his inevitable early demise.

BBC World has been paying tribute to him non-stop, and rightly so, but asking a question that, for me at this time, is irrelevant and unfair.

Will George be remembered for his football or for his extravagant lifestyle?

Of course it must be the first, as he would not have been able to live his celebrity lifestyle if it hadn’t been for the football.

Many Japanese readers will be too young to remember Best, and there will be some who have never heard of him as the global game was late arriving here in Japan.

Georgie was a footballer and an entertainer. He was fast, had the balance of a ballerina, and was brave. When he had the ball at his feet defenders were terrified, as he could humiliate opponents at will.

Sometimes it was like watching a bullfight. George holding the cape and the sword, the bull hoping for a quick death after being worked to exhaustion.

I remember watching George Best play once, for Manchester United at my hometown club, Halifax Town.

It was in a pre-season competition long since scrapped called the Watney Cup, which featured the highest scoring team in each of the four divisions from the previous season.

So the great Manchester United came to the humble home of Halifax Town, the Shay, in the early Seventies. It was raining, and I remember an argument breaking out because a woman standing in front of us had put her umbrella up, blocking the view of some men behind her.

In those days, men did not carry umbrellas. They were too tough for that. They wore flat caps to keep out the rain, with a peak to protect their cigarettes from getting wet as they smoked the whole match.

And we were all standing up, of course, because, in those days, seats were only for the wealthy. True fans stood on the terrace, in the wind, rain and snow, stamping their feet to keep warm and watching the last five minutes from in front of the gates, so you could beat the rush to the car park or the bus station.

Anyway, amazingly, George Best came to the Shay…and he missed a penalty! If I remember correctly, and it’s over 30 years ago, he hit it too softly and the Halifax keeper made an easy save.

His team-mate, another wing wizard called Willie Morgan, would score from the spot, but Halifax won 2-1. What an upset!

Everyone in Britain followed the life of George Best, the “fifth Beatle”, after he stopped playing, but there was nothing anyone could do to help him, although many tried.

Yes, it’s a sad Saturday, and I urge you to watch all the sports news programmes and buy a video if possible, because he really was an extraordinary talent.


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Relegation is not the end of the world for Vissel

24 Nov 2005(Thu)

I once remember Manchester United being relegated from the English top flight in the 1970s, but they came back stronger and just grew and grew.

The ironic thing for Vissel, though, is that they have been relegated in the second season of funding by Hiroshi Mikitani.

With all that investment you'd have expected Vissel to be stronger with the "Rakuten Golden Eagle" behind them.

But it's been the opposite. The signing of Ilhan Mansiz was a great publicity vehicle, but the player was not fit and it turned out to be an expensive disaster as he returned home, no doubt extremely wealthy from his brief Japanese sojourn.

Patrick Mboma was not fit, either, and this also seemed a strange signing. Vissel were clearly going for "name"value, or star quality, and it backfired on them twice in that first season.

Much better was the signing of Atsu Miura, who succeeded Kazu Miura as captain midway through this season, but his leadership could not save the team after a brief honeymoon period.

To be fair to Vissel they made some useful mid-season signings, such as Endo from Marinos and Kaneko from Antlers, plus the Czech players brought in by Rehak, the team's third coach of the season.

The fact that Vissel failed to stay up speaks volumes for the growing quality of the J.League. There is much more strength in depth these days, and teams need to keep winning, like Oita, to pull clear of the relegation zone and then stay clear.

It's no good winning two or three and then going into another slump, as the teams below can also hit a patch of good form and take over.

As I said, these will be depressing days at Kobe, especially for Mikitani as he is genuinely trying to build a team the city will be proud of.

His words, following relegation on Sunday, were reassuring, as he said Vissel would be back after one season in J2, and that his continued aim was to make a top-class team.

Vissel will have 44 matches next season, so can afford to be patient on the coaching front, and it gives them a chance to rebuild.

Let's hope Mikitani, despite his problematic start, will stick with football and stick with Vissel Kobe, and that the fans do, too.


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Reds fans should not be surprised by Alpay's violence

21 Nov 2005(Mon)

November 19, 2005 -- Well, who can Alpay Ozalan blame this time?

The referee?

The Swiss team?

Takayuki Suzuki?

I don't know if you saw the highlights -- or, rather, the lowlights -- of the World Cup qualifier between Turkey and Switzerland in midweek, but they were pretty shocking scenes at the end.

As the players ran for the tunnel, following Turkey's 4-2 victory on the night but Switzerland's overall victory on the away goals rule to qualify for Germany, missiles were flying from the stands above.

This is inevitable in Istanbul, one of the most volatile stadiums in the world, and in a city where two Leeds United fans were stabbed to death a few years ago.

A Swiss player ran past a Turkish trainer and kicked him on the back of his left leg, and then a Turkish player tried to exact revenge.

Guess who it was, Reds fans?

Yes, it was Alpay, who could be seen kicking a Swiss player from behind, but not the same one who had kicked the Turkish trainer.

Then a wrestling match began -- in fact I'm sure I saw Kyoko Hamaguchi in there, and her father "Animal" -- as the players filled the tunnel.

They were disgraceful scenes, but totally predictable from Alpay.

After all, this was the guy who was run out of the English Premier League after his verbal attack on David Beckham in Istanbul, who walked out on his club in Korea and who was fired by Urawa for his appalling disciplinary record.

The weather now in Japan, sunny and crisp, is similar to what it was on the opening day of the season at Saitama Stadium, where Alpay was sent off for his assault on Takayuki Suzuki.

It was easy for Reds staff and fans to point the finger at Takayuki, but everyone knows the Antlers player's tricks and tactics to win a free kick.

The fact that Alpay took the bait and got himself sent off for grabbing Takayuki round the chin was nobody's fault but Alpay's. At his age and with his experience he should have known better, but clearly he still doesn't, and now he can expect a ban from FIFA.

The problem with Alpay is that he is such a gentleman off the pitch, friendly and polite, as anyone who came across him during his time in Japan will tell you.

It's just that a red mist descends over him when he goes on the pitch. Urawa suffered from this, and will feel vindicated with their decision to fire him after this latest episode.


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Kobayashi catches the eye for Cerezo

17 Nov 2005(Thu)

November 16, 2005: One of the most competitive races in the J.League this year will be to find the winner of the Manager of the Season award.

There are several candidates, alongside the manager of the championship-winning team.

One of them must surely be Shinji Kobayashi at Cerezo Osaka.

He has worked wonders with the team, and they are still in with a chance of winning the league crown with four games to play.

I saw Cerezo win 1-0 against Verdy at Ajista on Saturday afternoon, and, while their performance was nothing special, they turned this into three points, which is the mark of a good team.

Verdy, of course, should have scored at least once, maybe more. Manager Vadao pointed out after the game that they had created eight to 10 chances, but had not converted any. It would have helped if they had taken more shots, but, as so often happens with a team struggling for confidence, players did not trust themselves and tried to pass the ball, and the responsibility, to a team-mate.

Hiramoto looked sharp and hungry after coming on, but blazed wide, as did the lively Tamano after creating a wonderful chance for himself.

But all this is not Cerezo Osaka's fault. They did not have too many chances before Furuhashi scored the only goal of the game, in the 89th minute, with a well-struck free kick into the bottom corner of the net, beating Takagi at his near post.

That was enough to give Cerezo the three points, and there was no need for Bruno Quadros to feign injury near the end and almost cost his team an equaliser. There was nothing wrong with him when he went down in his own penalty area in injury time, and I applaud referee Okutani for not allowing him to return to the pitch immediately.

In fact it would have been nice to see Verdy equalise, and punish the cheating Cerezo player as he stood on the touchline waiting to come on when he should have been helping his team-mates defend the lead.

Cerezo now have 53 points, still four behind Gamba, and they won their last three points without several top players, such as Fabinho and Ze Carlos, Kudo and Nishizawa.

In the centre of midfield, Nunobe and Shimomura are real grafters, Maeda is improving all the time at the back, and Furuhashi is an intelligent and mobile forward.

Kobayashi has done a fine job, but the competition for the manager award is too close to call.


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Can Nishino survive the pressure? JFA will be watching

14 Nov 2005(Mon)

November 12, 2005 -- These are testing times for Gamba Osaka and, in particular, for manager Akira Nishino.

Three weeks ago, Gamba were looking good for at least one trophy, possibly two and, who knows, even three.

They were five points clear of Kashima Antlers at the top of the table after 27 games, were in the Nabisco Cuip final against JEF United and still had the Emperor's Cup to come.

But two successive defeats in the league, at home to Oita and away to FC Tokyo, allowed Kashima to close the gap to one point, and now only five points separate the top five teams.

It was this nervy scenario which accompanied Gamba into last week's Nabisco Cup final, which they lost on penalties to JEF United after a 0-0 draw.

So now, all hope of a title treble has gone, although I am sure Gamba and Nishino would settle for a first league championship, and a first J.League title for Kansai.

They are still in control of their own destiny, but the likes of Kashima in particular and also Urawa Reds have proved they can win a championship, or half a championship in the case of Reds last season.

This experience could be vital in the title run-in, as all the pressure is on Gamba to hold on to their lead.

Antlers, on the other hand, have a manager in Toninho Cerezo who has won everything in Japan, including the treble in his first season here, in 2000.

This will be Toninho's last season with the club, and the announcement that he will be leaving must have united the club. Everyone, especially the players and the fans, will be wanting to give him the perfect send-off after such loyal and distinguished service.

This unity, experience and quiet determination will be a vital source of inspiration to the club over the closing weeks, whereas Gamba will be under pressure to stay at the top after looking the best team for so long.

Nishino won the Nabisco Cup with Reysol a few years ago and came very close to winning the second-stage championship, too, only to be denied on the last day of the season by Antlers in a 0-0 draw at Kokuritsu.

With the national team job up for grabs when Zico moves on after the World Cup, a championship for Gamba would put Nishino in the frame to succeed the Brazilian, should the JFA opt for a Japanese coach.

Although Nishino will not be thinking about this -- he has far too many things on his mind at the moment -- it could prove to be an important factor for the JFA powers in a few weeks/months time.

If Gamba can hold on and Nishino can survive the pressure, the former Olympic team manager would be a strong candidate to succeed Zico next summer.


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Osim sows the seeds for FIFA World Premier League

10 Nov 2005(Thu)

November 8, 2005 -- JEF United's manager, Ivica Osim, had some interesting (as always) things to say after his team's victory over Gamba Osaka in the Nabisco Cup final.

He questioned the value of winning the Nabisco Cup, as success gave the club nothing except prizemoney.

He was comparing the Nabisco Cup with a cup competition in Europe, where victory in the domestic cup final guaranteed the winners a place in the UEFA Cup the following season.

The UEFA Cup, of course, is Europe's second-tier club competition, and a big step down from the more lucrative and glamorous UEFA Champions League.

But, still, the prospect of European football is a big incentive to do well in the domestic cup competitions.

In his comments to the Kyodo News agency after the Nabisco Cup final, Osim suggested the winners of the Nabisco Cup should be allowed to play in the UEFA Cup next season.

It seems like he was joking, of course, because how can a Japanese club play in Europe?

Impossible, right?

Well, Kazakhstan switched from Asia to Europe not too long back, and Australia will switch from Oceania to Asia.

If Europe was looking for more money -- and everyone is in football these days -- would it be possible for them to invite a Japanese club to play in the UEFA Champions League, or the UEFA Cup. Think of the TV rights, the marketing and the ticket sales...

The travel and the schedule would be very difficult, of course, and Asia's governing body would probably not allow it.

But, who knows in the future, the UEFA Champions League could eventually produce a FIFA World Premier League. Perhaps 12 teams in total, with matches scheduled between domestic league and European cup fixtures and replacing dates in the FIFA calendar reserved for friendly internationals, which are becoming more and more troublesome.

Yes, I know the concept sounds far-fetched and impractical, but the football world is getting smaller, and new ideas are needed to satisfy the worldwide demand.

The FIFA World Premier League...mmm, sounds pretty good to me.

As does JEF United against Barcelona at Ichihara Rinkai Stadium on a wet and windy Wednesday night in November.

How many times would Ronaldinho get past his marker, the excellent and unheralded Saito, in a competitive match like that!

Maybe Osim is on to something after all.


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Nabisco Cup takes over as Japan’s showpiece

7 Nov 2005(Mon)

November 5, 2005 – It’s Saturday, cup final day.

In England, that means the FA Cup, the showpiece match which brings the curtain down on the season, and is played in May, before the summer break.

In Japan, though, cup final day now refers to the League Cup, as the standing of the Nabisco-sponsored event has grown in importance every year at the expense of Japan’s FA Cup, known, of course, as the Emperor’s Cup.

The Emperor’s Cup has kicked off early this season as far as the big clubs are concerned, as usually it does not start in earnest until the league season has finished.

I have never liked that system, because I don’t think some clubs take it seriously. They just want to get the season over with, and have a longer holiday.

The fans, too, didn’t seem that interested, as matches were poorly attended until the final on New Year’s Day. Now this is a grand occasion. It’s usually crisp and sunny, absolutely perfect football weather, and the teams have come so far they feel they may as well end the long year with a trophy for their patient fans.

The Emperor’s Cup, of course, used to be the showpiece event of the season in the old days, as it lifted domestic football on to a higher plane.

But times have changed, the J.League is an outstanding success, and a football culture is growing all around the country.

Neither the Nabisco Cup nor the Emperor’s Cup is perfect, but for me, as an outsider looking in, the former is a more prestigious title to win.

And whoever wins Saturday’s Nabisco Cup final at National Stadium will be good for the game.

Gamba against JEF, a perennial under-achiever against a perennial over-achiever.

Kansai desperate for a title, JEF offering proof of sensible management with a small fan base, and an excellent coach and many talented home-grown players.

Only football can win on Saturday.


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Inoha impresses in Macau

3 Nov 2005(Thu)

MACAU: November 2, 2005 – It was a strange feeling watching Japan against Chinese Taipei on Saturday afternoon here in Macau at the East Asian Games. (Chinese Taipei, of course, means Taiwan, but, for political reasons, they are referred to as the former by sports bodies so as not to upset the motherland China).

Anyway, when I entered the main stand of the sports field at Macau University of Science and Technology, there was the usual loyal band of supporters in blue, one banging a drum and the other leading the singing.

To my surprise, though, they were from Chinese Taipei, waving blue scarves adorned with the word “Taiwan” and with a slogan on the back of their blue T-shirts reading “Soul? Just.”

Like many slogans I read in Japan, I’m not quite sure what it meant, but this culture clash is always amusing.

Japan played very well and won 6-1, scoring four times in the second half.

But the Taiwanese players were not strong, especially at the back, and the big centre forward, Komatsu, took advantage of this to score twice. At 1.87 metres, he looks like the new Hirayama, and plays for Kwansei Gakuin University.

Hyodo, Japan’s captain at the World Youth Championship in the Netherlands but not here (Tokunaga is the leader of this team), scored a goal with a fine long-range drive, and he even has his own personal fan club.

After the game I managed to track down a few Japanese, who were attracting the attention of the players by waving plastic branches of cherry blossom over the fence. One of the banners read “Hyodo – Pride of WMW.” The initials stand for Waseda, Maroon and White, which was quite clever, and, to be frank, I was amazed to see such loyal support for a 20-year-old student.

Regarding the team, I really liked the central midfielder Inoha, from Miyazaki and a student at Hannan University.

He reminded me of Kumagai when I first saw him play for Japan’s youth team in Indonesia in 1994, alongside the likes of Hidetoshi Nakata and under the captaincy of Suguru Ito. Positioned just in front of the defence, he was like a midfield sweeper, collecting the loose balls, and doing the simple things right, like tackling and passing.

I know this sounds basic stuff, but it takes a lot of discipline and maturity to play the right pass all the time, the safe pass to a teammate, rather than looking for the glorious through-ball on every occasion.

Tonight (Wednesday), Japan will play Korea at the main Macau Stadium, but are in the semi-finals already.

Japan against Korea in Macau. Followed by dinner and red wine in a Portuguese restaurant, and then maybe a visit to a swish new casino so I can win lots of money and buy Vissel Kobe.

Yes, it’s tough being a football writer – but someone has to do it!


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