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December 2005

J.League passes single-stage test with flying colours in 2005

29 Dec 2005(Thu)

December 27, 2005 – Japanese football officials can look back proudly on a very successful 2005 on and off the pitch.

On the domestic front, the single-stage J.League season was a massive triumph, and has pointed the way forward.

On the international stage, Japan qualified with ease for the 2006 World Cup finals, and can be guaranteed a huge following in Germany next June and at home.

Overall, then, the game is in a very healthy state in Japan, with J.League crowds remaining stable in J1 and continuing to grow in J2. As for the national team, they could play virtually anyone at home (such as Chad or Macao) and still attract a full house, such is the pride in the blue shirt which has now become a national symbol around the world.

This time last year, as J1 planned for a single-stage season, there was a certain amount of pessimism around. Would the fans like to watch a marathon instead of two sprints? Would they continue to follow their team if they were out of the running for the championship?

These concerns were understandable, because the single-stage season in 1996 had not been a success from an attendance point of view, and was scrapped after one year.

But 2005 proved that the J.League fan has grown with the game, and was ready for an orthodox championship, with no gimmicks such as penalty shoot-outs, extra time, golden goals, and a two-leg play-off.

In a sense, then, the J.League was rewarded for its courage in making the move when five teams could have won the title on the last day of the season…after 33 games! This was a remarkable scenario, and I was fortunate to be at Todoroki on that “Super Saturday” to see Gamba win the crown in emotional and dramatic circumstances.

I was also one of the few people allowed into the stadium in Bangkok to see Japan beat North Korea and clinch a place in Germany. What a moment it was when Oguro scored the second late on, and raced around, Ya-jin-style, to celebrate!

Regarding the J.League awards, there is no disputing the right of Araujo in being named MVP. His 33 goa ls in 33 appearances papered over the cracks in a shaky defence, and Gamba must start again next season with Araujo in Brazil and Oguro in France.

The J.League 2006 will have a hard act to follow after the J.League 2005, but with the World Cup attracting even more attention and creating more heroes, I believe the domestic game will continue to evolve as a major factor in the Japanese sports scene.


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Verdy go back to the future

26 Dec 2005(Mon)

December 24, 2005 -- The Christmas and New Year holidays are always an enjoyable time for movie fanatics, as the big screens at the cinema and the small screens at home entertain us with past and present offerings.

With this is mind, Verdy’s favour ite movie must be “Back to the Future” following the appointment of Ruy Ramos as the new head coach.

The move was not unexpected, and had been talked about after he became Hayano’s assistant at Reysol midway through the season.

I must admit I thought Ramos could have helped save Reysol from relegation, due to his inspirational and motivational qualities, as well as his knowledge of the game and his experience.

But he couldn’t, and now he has taken up the challenge of rebuilding Verdy into a J.League force once again.

It will not be easy for Ramos the coach. For a start he won’t have the goals of Washington, who is set to sign for Urawa, and pre sumably he won’t have the biggest of budgets to work with.

There will inevitably be lots of new faces at Yomiuri Land next season, and Ramos, a star of the past as a player for Verdy Kawasaki, must bring them together to from a unit.

With 13 teams in J2 next season, and four rounds of games, this gives each team 48 league matches, so Ramos will have time to rebuild Verdy.

Who knows, he might even need more than one season to bring Verdy back into the top flight, and I am sure the Verdy management will not expect him to work miracles overnight.

His team must have the right balance of steel and flair, and, if anyth ing, his experience as a beach football coach is a disadvantage, not an advantage, as they are two completely different games.

Ramos has been given a wonderful opportunity to make his name as a coach in Japan, and Verdy need his experience and influence more than ever.


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Brazil’s year-end celebrations are not happy viewing for England

22 Dec 2005(Thu)

December 21: For an Englishman, it’s not been a good end to 2005. I turned the TV on thi s morning and everywhere on the sports news it was about Brazil.

First, Ronaldinho retained his FIFA World Player of the Year award.

Next, Sao Paulo arrived home to show off the Toyota Cup after beating Liverpool in the FIFA Club World Championship final on Sunday.

In addition, Sao Paulo goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni was made a “Freeman” of the city as a reward for his MVP services to the club – and this honour coming from the city mayor who is a fierce supporter of Sao Paulo’s rival, Palmeiras!

Oh, and just to round it off, we saw a few shots of Ronaldinho playing his part in Barcelona’s latest victory to keep his team on top of the table going into the winter break in Spain.

So not a good day so far for an Englishman, as 2006 looms, bringing with it the World Cup in June.

There can be no complaints about Ronaldinho winning the award again, though, as clearly he is well ahead of Lampard and even Eto’o. He is, without doubt, the most exciting player on the planet at the moment, and how Manchester United must wish they had tried that little bit harder to sign him a few years ago.

As for Sao Paulo. Well, many people are saying they were lucky to beat Liverpool 1-0 at Yokohama. Liverpool had 17 corners to 0; Liverpool had three goals disallowed. Lugano should have been sent off for a crude tackle on Gerrard.

Goals win matches, not corners; the officials looked to be spot on by disallowing Liverpool’s goals, although the third was very close; and Lugano, yes, may have been shown the red card on another day, but I think many would have been surprised if he’d been sent off for that foul on Gerrard as he surged down the right wing.

No, Sao Paulo defended well. They have two good full-backs and a good keeper who commanded his box.

I think Benitez got it wrong with his selection, was too cautious and paid the price. Morientes should have scored in the first minute with that header to Gerrard’s right-wing cross, but his miss was hardly Sao Paulo’s fault. Brazilians can defend and attack; it’s as simple as that.

There is no doubt Brazil go into 2006 with a massive psychological advantage over their World Cup rivals, even though I feel England still have a good chance to win in Germany.


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Ono to Reds seems strange move for both parties

19 Dec 2005(Mon)

December 16, 2005 – Shinji Ono, of course, is a fine player, but quite why Urawa Reds are ready to bring him “home” to Japan is a bit of a mystery.

And quite why Ono would want to leave Europe is rather puzzling, too.

Ono’s position at the moment seems quite clear. It’s all a matter of wait and see, to see if he recovers from his latest injury and if he will be fit to play at the World Cup in June.

I don’t mean fit as in physically fit, but match fit, as Japan will need to be strong mentally and physically against the robust and combative Australians and Croatians in the first two games if they are to still have a chance of qualifying when they play Brazil in the last game.

Reds will surely feel that they are trying to help Ono on the road to recovery, and this is a noble move. And if Shinji does recover full fitness, then naturally they will have signed one of the best footballers Japan has ever produced.

For Ono, though , it would surely be a step back if he returned to Urawa.

I always thought Feyenoord would be a stepping stone for him to move to a bigger club in a bigger European league, such as Spain or England.

This would surely have been the case, too, if he had steered clear of injury, and not been sidelined on such a regular basis.

The fact that Feyenoord say they would be prepared to sell him tells its own story; that they feel this latest injury is one too many, and he may never actually reach his full potential in Europe.

All of which is a great shame for the player, the club and for Japanese football, as a fully-fit Ono is a joy to watch.

I think Ono would be making a mistake to return to Reds at the moment. He still has time to get fit, and to continue his career in Europe, although perhaps not in Rotterdam.


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More reasons to visit Kofu City in 2006

15 Dec 2005(Thu)

December 11, 2005: It was a shame either Reysol or Ventforet would not be playing in J1 next season.

I say this mainly because of the fans, as the atmosphere at both play-off games was, well, "fan-tastic."

At Kose Sports Park, where Reysol, remember, actually took the lead with a fine header from Reinaldo, the away fans showed their loyalty by stripping down to their jeans (I must point out it was only the male fans who took their shirts off, although the Press Seats were a long way away and I could not see clearly, especially when the floodlights went out).

Anyway, this was a remarkable show of spirit from the Reysol faithful, as it was a pretty chilly night in Yamanashi Prefecture. The home fans knew better, and bunched together very tightly on the "Curva Kofu".

The Kofu fans went crazy at the end, following their 2-1 victory, even though it was only "half-time" in the play-off.

The scenes, and the atmosphere, reminded me very much of the old days in the English FA Cup first round, when a non-league club would beat a team from the lower divisions of the professional league.

There'd be butchers and bakers and maybe even candlestick-makers playing for the non-league team (meaning, in this case, non-Football League, as it was before the Premiership when all four divisions belonged to the same professional national league), and they would pull off a giant-killing act over their well-paid, well-groomed rivals.

For the second leg, now in the winter sunshine of Chiba Prefecture, the Kofu fans were out in force, packed behind the goal and looking like FC Tokyo supporters in their blue and red.

The big centre forward, Bare, formerly of Omiya Ardija, had given the slow Reysol defence a lot of problems in the first leg, but this time he was out of control.

He scored an incredible six times, and could have had 10, as he romped through the Reysol defence. Some of them were great finishers, too, notably the first, with a delicate chip past Minami after showing good close control, and the third into the roof of the net in full stride. I really did not think it was a penalty for the second goal, though, but that is not Bare's problem.

I love that Reysol banner "No Reysol No Life" followed by the words "Without Reysol Where We Go?"

Without wanting to sound like an English teacher, I think someone has missed the word "do" from that sentence. "Without Reysol Where Do We Go?" would be better, but that's the last thing on the minds of Reysol fans and Hitachi money men at the moment.

They go, as we all know, to J2, while Kofu come up to J1.

As well as the castle ruins and Takeda Shrine, there will be another good reason to visit Kofu City in 2006.


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It's FC Tokyo after all for Tokunaga

12 Dec 2005(Mon)

December 9, 2005: I was quite surprised to read the other day that Tokunaga had signed for FC Tokyo after all.

I must admit I thought the chances were slim, after all the talk about him going to Valencia or even to Kashima Antlers.

When I spoke to him after a Japan match at the East Asian Games in Macau recently he gave the impression that FC Tokyo was not an option. In fact it was Tokunaga himself who mentioned Kashima, which made sense to me as he would be a fine replacement for the combative Narahashi.

As for Valencia, some people seemed to think he would be signing permanently, and others that he would be going for two weeks of training in December, and then returning to Japan.

But, in the end, he did the logical thing and signed for FC Tokyo, where he played so well, of course, while he was still at Waseda University.

Tokunaga is an extremely talented and verstaile player, and will serve Tokyo well in a number of positions.

However, his decision to sign for "The Gasmen" has put a question mark against the future of their current right back, Kaji.

Rumour has it, and has had it for several weeks, that he might be going to Gamba, to toughen up their right flank.

This would also make sense, as Gamba clearly need to strengthen their defence after conceding so many goals in J1 this season.

Talking about goals and Gamba, this brings us round to Oguro, who, it seems, appears keen to move to Grenoble in the French second division.

I am sure Oguro will be offered good terms by Grenoble, and it is a wonderful opportunity to move to Europe, but the timing seems awkward.

There's only six months to the World Cup in Germany, and Oguro, I am convinced, has one of the 23 places in Zico's squad nailed down. If he stays in Japan he will be available for all the national team's preparations, and will be playing for Gamba and keeping in good match condition.

If he goes to France, he may not settle to the lifestyle -- the language is very difficult -- and may not be guaranteed a place in the starting line-up -- and Grenoble will not be too keen on releasing him for friendlies. He may disappear off Zico's radar, like Okubo.

Gamba have offered him a multi-year contract, and I feel Oguro should sign it, play at the World Cup, score a few goals (hopefully against Brazil), earn a big-money move to a bigger club than Grenoble, secure a hefty transfer fee for Gamba Osaka...and then everyone is happy!


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Gamba's strikers win matches -- and championships

8 Dec 2005(Thu)

December 6, 2005 -- If you are looking to buy a friend the perfect Christmas gift, try "A Miscellany of Football."

It is a small book, published by Past Times of Oxford, England, and is packed with "quips, tips and quotes for the football fan."

One of the quotes is from John Gregory, the former Aston Villa and Derby County manager, who once said: "Strikers win matches, defenders win championships."

But this does not apply to Gamba Osaka!

For Gamba it is exactly the opposite. They conceded 58 goals in their 34 league games, but fortunately scored 82 to keep the wins coming.

So, in Gamba's case, strikers won matches and also won the championship.

This is why I feel Araujo will be named J.League MVP at the awards night on December 20. His record of 33 goals in 33 games speaks for itself, and his two at Todoroki on Saturday were a joy to behold.

The first, after playing a neat one-two with Fernandinho, was struck beautifully with his left foot, curling inside the far post to give the keeper no chance. The second was a true poacher's goal, timing his run perfectly to be in the right place at the right time to score from close range.

If I'm looking for a Man of the Match or a season's MVP, I try to avoid the player who scores the crucial goal, or goals, as that's too easy a choice. I prefer to look for someone who has made a more solid, all-round contribution, maybe not as glamorous but just as important.

You may find this a strange criteria, but, there again, my favourite Real Madrid player is not Beckham, Zidane, Raul or Robinho but...Helguera! He's my kind of player, tough and does a great job every game (Javier Zanetti of Argentina is another).

But in the case of the J.League 2005, I cannot think of anyone who deserves the accolade more than Araujo, and it is a great pity he will not be at Gamba next season.

Whoever made the decision to sign him from S-Pulse deserves massive credit, as it's unlikely Gamba would have won the championship without him.

At the other end, it was not difficult to see why Gamba have conceded so many. Just look at Frontale's first goal, headed home by Terada. The Gamba defence had already given him one free header at a corner, and he sent it high over the bar. But almost straight away they gave him another, and he buried this one.

Despite the defensive blunders, Gamba are worthy champions because the league table does not lie after 34 games.

And Araujo, I feel, may have more trophies to come, for leading scorer and, quite possibly, for MVP.


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Verdy must face up to the facts, and to life in J2

5 Dec 2005(Mon)

December 3, 2005 -- There is no reason why Verdy's last home game in J1 on Saturday should be depressing.

After all, they have been struggling for weeks, and relegation was confirmed at Kashiwa last Saturday.

So, rather than everyone being morbid and tearful -- meaning players, officials and fans -- it would be an appropriate time to start rebuilding spirit and confidence, and look forward to the challenges ahead, rather than looking back on what went wrong.

Next year, of course, Verdy will be in J2 for the first time, and, ironically, also in the revamped Asian Champions League for the first time.

But they cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves, or think they are too good to be in J2 just because of their former glories.

The league table does not lie after 34 games, and Verdy deserve to be exactly where they are. They have to face up to it and get on with it, so I hope I don't see any tears from players this afternoon. I want to see fists clenched, fighting talk and optimism.

The Asian Champions League will toughen them up, especially when they play the Korean champions, and this can only benefit them in the J2 season.

Personally, I am amazed at Verdy's decline.

At the start of the season I tipped them as a "dark horse" for the championship, meaning not a logical favourite, such as Marinos, Antlers, Reds and Jubilo, but a team capable of pulling it off if everything came together.

My faith in the Greens was based on the Emperor's Cup success of the previous season, plus the signing of Washington and Toda.

Washington was wanted by several clubs in Europe and Japan, but Verdy won the race and they can have no complaints about Washington's attitude or goals return.

Toda, I thought, would provide the steel and the experience Verdy needed, especially in midfield, where they have always been a bit lightweight: Nice, technical players, such as Yoshiyuki Kobayashi and Daigo Kobayashi, but needing a Keane, a Vieira or Souness-style battler. I thought Toda was just that man, but he fell out of favour very quickly with Ardiles, and looks like he'll be leaving Verdy after a frustrating season.

All is not lost for Verdy, though, as they should have one of the best strikeforces in J2 next season, if Hiramoto and Morimoto both stay at the club.

But the most important thing will be to rediscover the pride and the passion that once made Verdy mighty.

That cannot be coached. The players must do this for themselves next season, to ensure a swift return to the top flight.


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All the pressure switches to Cerezo

1 Dec 2005(Thu)

November 30, 20005: So where's it to be on Saturday?

As usual, there are several attractive options for J.Watchers.

But this Saturday, the last Saturday of the season, is rather different.

In fact it's an incredible situation, as five of the teams can still win the championship.

There have been some close finishes in the recent past, such as the second stage in 2003, when Kubo settled it for Marinos right at the death at home to Jubilo, but nothing like this after 33 games.

This time, of course, Cerezo are in the driving seat. They are one point clear of Gamba in second place and have a home match, against FC Tokyo at Nagai Stadium.

It will not be easy to win against FC Tokyo, especially with all the pressure on the home team, and the expectations of, hopefully, a rare full house at Nagai.

Cerezo have been in this position before, five years ago in the first stage, when they needed to beat Kawasaki Frontale at home in the last game. A win in extra time, worth two points (aren't you happy that old system has been scrapped?), would have been enough, but they lost, and Marinos celebrated an unlikely first-stage title at Kokuritsu.

So will Cerezo be able to handle the pressure this time? It's difficult to know, because they have been under no pressure all season. For a while it was a two-horse race between Gamba and Antlers, but Cerezo have come up on the rails, almost unnoticed, and can now see the finishing line.

The championship is there for Cerezo to lose, as their destiny is in their own hands.

If they slip up and draw, or lose, can Gamba muster enough motivation and determination to beat Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki?

Again, who knows the answer to this, as Gamba must be full of self-doubt rather than self-confidence, after the blows they have taken in recent games.

And there's still Reds, Antlers and JEF, all together on 56 points, two behind Cerezo.

Reds are at the Big Swan against Albirex Niigata; Antlers are at home to Reysol, who have had another miserable season and must scrap again for J1 survival in the playoffs; and JEF are at home to Nagoya.

After 33 games, it is highly unusual to be in this situation, and the J.League planners could not have asked for a more dramatic conclusion to the first single-stage season since 1996.

And they deserve it for taking the plunge and doing away with the two-stage system, which, hopefully, will never appear again.

One problem though. How many championship trophies or replicas do the J.League have? They will need five on Saturday in five different cities, ready to present to the top team!


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