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January 2006

Hirayama shows big improvement in Holland

30 Jan 2006(Mon)

January 27, 2006: Ask 10 Japanese fans to name their favourite striker and, in all probability, you'd get 10 different answers.

Unlike in defence, with Nakazawa, or in midfield, with Hidetoshi Nakata, Nakamura and Ono, Japan does not have one outstanding forward who immediately springs to mind.

This is why World Cup places are wide open for the forwards, and why there is a movement growing for Sota Hirayama to be given a chance.

Hirayama, of course, is now in Holland and scoring goals for Heracles Almelo.

I must admit I have noticed a big improvement in the lanky striker since he moved to Europe, compared to the raw and awkward version from Japan's Olympic qualifying and Athens campaign.

He looks much more coordinated and much sharper than he used to, and is scoring goals in the air and on the ground.

Despite the ridiculous media hype that surrounded him during the Olympic qualifying campaign -- with TV stations guilty of focusing on him constantly, even when he was on the bench -- I always reserved judgement on his ability and his potential.

In all honesty I did not think he was ready for the Olympics, as he lacked the experience at such a high level against seasoned professionals.

He would often be penalised for handball or for offside, and would look clumsy at times, so his decision to go to Tsukuba University rather than turn professional with a J.League club appeared to me as the beginning of the end of Hirayama's brief career.

This is why I was pleased to learn he had signed with Heracles, and the benefits of this professional environment are there for all to see. Training every day under coaches and alongside players in the Dutch league is really improving his all-round game, and he looks to be a firm favoruite with team-mates and fans alike.

At the time of writing he has scored seven goals, and if he keeps on going there is a strong possibility that Zico might have a look at him soon, for example when Japan play Bosnia in Germany at the end of February. After all, he's not too far away and it wouldn't do anyone any harm just to have him involved in training, so Zico can check him at close quarters.

The only thing that would worry me about a Hirayama call-up would be the media spotlight shining brightly on him again. That would be hard to watch!


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So Emerson was cheating us all again...

26 Jan 2006(Thu)

January 25, 2006: True to form, Emerson was in the news again recently...for cheating.

Now this should not come as a surprise to football lovers in Japan, as he cheated on the pitch by diving extravagantly, rolling around as if seriously injured, and trying as hard as possible to get an opponent sent off.

Reds fans and coaches turned a blind eye to all this because he scored goals, but he even let them down by walking out on the club last season and moving to Qatar.

Now, the authorities have finally caught up with him, and arrested him at Rio de Janeiro International Airport as he attempted to return to the Middle East.

His passport gave his date of birth as September 6, 1981, the same as he used to register with the J.League when he joined Consadole Sapporo in February 2000.

Checking all the details, the authorities in Brazil discovered that his original birth certificate gave his date of birth as December 6, 1978. In other words, Emerson was three years older than he would have us all believe.

Does that surprise you?

No, it doesn't surprise me, either.

I was always suspicious of his alleged age, and couldn't stop laughing when an asterisk appeared against his name on the team sheet for Nabisco Cup matches. An asterisk meant a player was eligible to be voted Nabisco Cup newcomer, as he was under 23, but I never considered Emerson for this award -- and would not have done if he'd scored a double hat-trick in every match.

Emerson, in fact, is 27 years old, and was 21 when he joined Consadole for the start of the 2000 season.

The puzzle is: why was he busted this time, when he has gone in and out of Brazil on so many occasions? Did someone tip off immigration?

And why did he change his birth certificate? To stand more chance of playing for Brazil at age-group level? To give him more years at the top to earn the riches he is making in the Gulf?

His goals records in Japan still stand, of course, because it does not matter how old you are. Still, at least everyone now knows his true age.


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Nakata is the central piece in Japan's World Cup jigsaw puzzle

23 Jan 2006(Mon)

January 21, 2006: As the J.League players prepare to assemble for the first national team training camp of the year, at Miyazaki from January 29, the game to pick Japan's 23 for Germany is underway.

I call it a game, because it is for the likes of you and me. It's fun exchanging ideas and views, and debating which player should be in and which should be out.

But for the players, of course, it's deadly serious. Selection for the World Cup is a life-changing experience, and a player who has been included in a World Cup squad can enjoy that extra bit of recognition for the rest of his career and his life.

The first name on my list would be Hidetoshi Nakata, who made the news last weekend for being sent off against Blackburn Rovers. But, according to reports from England, this has actually increased Nakata's popularity among the Bolton fans.

It showed his commitment to the cause, and that he was prepared to "get stuck in" against his midfield rivals. So a red card is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it does not happen too often (like Alpay, for example).

The more I watch Nakata these days, the more I have come round to thinking that Zico needs him in the centre of midfield, in the "volante" position.

Nakata is naturally an attacking player, but as he has matured and developed I now see him as the fulcrum of the team.

Whether Zico picks a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 system, I would have Nakata in the centre of midfield, directing the traffic and organising the team.

His experience will be vital against the likes of Australia and Croatia, and he can influence the game more from that deeper position.

If he plays further forward, I fear he may be cut off from the rest of the team, which would then lack direction in the most important area of the field.

With the likes of Shunsuke, Ogasawara and Daisuke Matsui, Zico has plenty of other attacking options, but he does not have the same luxury in defensive midfield.

No one knows whether Shinji will be fit, or how match-fit Koji Nakata will be. The good news is that Inamoto is now getting more playing time for West Brom, so he should be sharp and ready for Germany.

There will be more time to discuss everyone's World Cup 23 in the near future, but for now I have pencilled in Hidetoshi Nakata in central midfield.

Mmmm, now for the other 22...


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Asian Cup qualifying causes problems

19 Jan 2006(Thu)

January 18, 2006 -- What's happening at the Asian Football Confederation these days?

First there was the farce over the Player of the Year award for 2005, when the AFC ruled out any player who could not attend the gala dinner and prize presentation in Kuala Lumpur.

This made Saudi Arabia's....well, I've forgotten his name already....Asian Player of the Year.

Now we have the problems over the qualifying competition for the 2007 Asian Cup.

Even before the draw was made, I thought it was very unfair that the four Asian teams who had qualified for the World Cup should have to play qualifying games for next year's Asian Cup before the finals in Germany. Surely the four teams -- Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and South Korea -- should have been given a clear first half of the year to organise their own World Cup build-up.

But when Japan were drawn to play Saudi away on March 1, the JFA gave their full backing to the match, saying it would be good preparation for the World Cup as they could bring all their European exiles to the Middle East for a competitive game.

Then Saudi, without Japan's backing, asked the AFC to postpone the Asian Cup qualifier until September 1. Instead the Saudis will play a friendly against Serbia and Montenegro.

The AFC agreed to the request, which leaves Japan without an opponent on March 1, and on the end of some shabby treatment by Asia's governing body.

However, "Captain" Kawabuchi has come to the rescue!

The JFA president has revealed that Japan are trying to organise a game against Bosnia in Germany at one of the World Cup stadiums on March 1.

This is a smart move for several reasons.

Bosnia, like Croatia, used to belong to the old Yugoslavia, and will have a similar style of play to Japan's second World Cup opponents in Germany.

By playing in Europe, Japan's exiles will have minimal disruption to their body clocks.

Third, it will give Japan another "feel" for Germany, following their Confederations Cup campaign last summer.

And finally, it should provide Japan with a win on European soil, which will boost confidence as the countdown continues.

So it looks like Japan might come out of this sorry episode in good shape.

But it was never a good idea by the AFC to give its four World Cup teams (not including newcomers Australia) an extra burden in this important period.


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Suzuki still has what it takes

16 Jan 2006(Mon)

January 14, 2006: Takayuki Suzuki is back in the European spotlight, with the news that he might be joining Red Star Belgrade.

While it may surprise some observers in Japan that his services are sought by such a famous European club -- albeit not at the same level as yesteryear -- it does show his qualities are still appreciated.

I have to admit to being a Takaykui fan, and I hope sincerely Zico picks him for the World Cup.

He is a great team player. He leads the line tirelessly, wears down defenders with his non-stop running, and creates space for his teammates. He also knows how to win a free kick, and, while I don't like this tactic, sadly it has become part and parcel of the modern game.

So many matches are decided by set-pieces these days, and with Takayuki to win the free kicks around the box and Shunsuke to take them, anything could happen in Germany, provided Japan can defend well.

Critics will point to his goals per game ratio -- 11 in 55 appearances for Japan, well down on the commonly accepted rate of one goal per three games for a striker -- but it is not his main job to score goals.

For me, a Suzuki goal is a bonus, and a couple of crucial ones spring to mind immediately.

The first was Japan's first goal at the 2002 World Cup, to make it 1-1 after Belgium had taken the lead, and the second was in Oman in 2004. It was the winner, the only goal of the game in fact, when he rose at the far post to thunder in a header from Shunsuke's left-wing cross. That was a vital goal by Suzuki, and virtually ensured Japan a safe passage to the second round of qualifying.

He did not set Belgium alight, that's true, but he has the physical attributes and the mentality to look after himself in Europe and make an impact across the forward line.

Will it affect his chances of World Cup selection if he leaves Japan just a few months before Germany?

Personally, I doubt it, as Zico knows everything there is to know about the Antlers man, and knows he can rely on him to give his all when he pulls on the blue shirt (and also the "away" ivory one).

No one can fault Suzuki for wanting to give it another go in Europe. He is now 29 years old, and this could be his last chance to test himself overseas at club level.


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High school game reveals changes for the worse

12 Jan 2006(Thu)

January 11, 2006: Overall, the high school final at the National Stadium on Monday was a very enjoyable occasion.

There was some bright, inventive, attacking football, and the atmosphere and emotion provided a colourful back drop.

But a few things worried me during the semi-finals and the final.

First, I saw a lot more diving than I used to see at this level. When I watched my first high school final in Japan, in 1998, it was very noticeable that the players did not deliberately try to win free kicks or penalties. They played honestly, and it was a refreshing sight.

Top referee Leslie Mottram agreed with me at the time, and said that players started to dive when they became professional because there was so much money at stake in the modern game.

Having watched the latter stages of this year's high school championship, there is now very little difference between these youngsters and the J.Leaguers in this matter.

Players would dribble with the ball, and be tackled firmly but fairly, and would then take off and twist and turn in the air after losing the ball. Thankfully, the referees were alert to this, and allowed play to continue while the player picked himself up.

I also felt that too many players preferred to stay down after a challenge, and wait for the cheers of their supporters when they staggered to their feet, rather than just getting up and getting on with the game.

I have said before that in England we regard it as a man's game -- and a man does not want to show pain, as it gives the opponents a psychological advantage. In other words, a defender will think a rival forward is soft if he keeps complaining and feigning a non-existent injury.

The defender will be more concerned if the forward takes a hard challenge and just ignores it.

I hope that, in the future, referees remain extra vigilant at the high school matches.

There is too much gamesmanship in the modern game, and it must be punished from a young age.

Coaches, too, have a duty to protect the spirit of the game, and should tell their players to stop trying to win free kicks. Surely they can see it from the bench, and there should be no shame in quietly, at the right time, telling off your own player.

Let's hope the youngsters concentrate on football and not theatrics in the future. They are very good at the first -- and improving quickly at the latter.


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Ogasawara could make the grade at West Ham

9 Jan 2006(Mon)

January 7, 2006 -- Whether he comes back to Japan or stays in England, Mitsuo Ogasawara will further have enhanced the reputation of Japanese players during his time at West Ham United.

The Antlers playmaker is on a week's trial with the east London club, and has quickly impressed manager Alan Pardew.

At the moment, Ogasawara's visit only looks temporary, but in football you never know.

The Kashima player wants to play in Europe, and West Ham have money to spend during the January transfer window.

But that does not mean they will buy Ogasawara, as English Premiership clubs can choose players from just about anywhere in the world due to the global appeal of the league.

And the big problem for Japanese players, of course, is that they are very well paid in Japan, and their agents will be wanting similiar deals overseas. Transfer fee to the Japanese club, signing-on fee, salary and other costs and this all adds up to an expensive package.

I think Ogasawara could survive in the Premier League, though. He is a clever player, and can look after himself. He's not quite as robust in the tackle as Hidetoshi Nakata, but he can handle the physical stuff and is not afraid to give it out himself when necessary.

So he has the ability, the mental strength and the physical qualities needed to play in England.

The English game will be a bit of a culture shock to him, though, and he won't have as much time on the ball as he gets in the J.League, or with the national team.

If he holds it too long he will be "crunched" by the opposition, and referees allow the game to flow much more in England, and don't allow players to roll around when they are not hurt and stop the game all the time.

Ogasawara would be a hit in England at the right club...and West Ham is a good level for him to adjust. I hope it comes off, because he is serious in his work and deserves a chance at a higher level.

After watching Ogasawara train this week, Hammers manager Pardew commented on the "energy" and the "attitude" of Japanese players.

Ogasawara has these in abundance, but I feel he would have to open up more on the pitch, talk and shout more and communicate with his teammates.

In other words, he's too quiet! So learning a few basic English terms quickly and having the confidence to express himself would be a priority if he were to fulfill his potential overseas.

This would be his biggest challenge. Not playing football.


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All roads lead to Germany in 2006

5 Jan 2006(Thu)

January 2, 2006: There is no doubting the main topic of conversation for football fans for the first half of the year, and probably the second half, too.

Of course it's the 2006 World Cup in Germany, which kicks off June 9 in Munich and ends July 9 in Berlin.

The big days for Japan are June 12, June 18 and June 22, when they play Australia, Croatia and Brazil respectively in Group F, chasing one of two qualifying places for the round of 16.

Between now and then, every performance of the candidates for the 23-man squad will be scrutinised and debated, as Zico prepares to make the tough decisions at the end of his four-year cycle.

There are still many question marks over the physical fitness and the match fitness of the Europe-based players, especially Shinji Ono, so Zico has no choice but to be patient and wait and see what happens over the next few months.

I can't imagine Zico getting too concerned over these problems. He must pick the players available at the time, and if the condition of some is not right he must leave them out, no matter how big a "star" they may be in the eyes of the media and the fans.

And it's not as though Zico does not have enough options in reserve, as he has tried many players in various areas of the pitch during his reign. He reckons that, as things stand now, he has filled 17 of the 20 outfield places, so that still leaves plenty to play for in the next few months for the players on the fringe of selection.

The big question is, though, can Japan win through this group into the second round?

I think Japan are in a very tough group, as Brazil and, in my opinion, Australia were the two teams to avoid from their respective pots at the draw. Although Japan avoided Holland from the pot of non-seeded European teams, Croatia were another hard draw, as they won seven and drew three of their 10 qualifying games and beat Sweden home and away. Bulgaria and Hungary were also in their pool.

Japan will have to win at least one game and draw another to stand a chance of progressing, and their whole campaign could depend on the very first match, against the Socceroos in Kaiserslautern. This puts both teams under immense pressure from the first whistle, as Brazil and Croatia are widely regarded as the two favourites to advance.

But if Japan play to their strengths -- speed, mobility, quick passing, organisation and discipline -- they may be able to wear down the bigger and more physical Aussies and Croats. I am not being negative, just realistic, when I say that Japan will do well to win one game.

This view is due entirely to the quality of the opposition -- the Hiddink-led Australia, in particular, must not be under-estimated -- rather than the talent available to Zico.

If Japan qualify for the second round, then Zico's reign can be regarded as a success, after all the earlier problems and confusion.

Before the World Cup, though, there's qualifying games for the 2007 Asian Cup, plus the start of the J.League at the beginning of March. It's going to be another long and fragmented J.League season, but, with their Emperor's Cup success behind them and goal machine Washington waiting to join, Urawa Reds have become an early favourite for the J1 title in 2006.

Welcome, too, to Ventforet Kofu in J1, and Ehime FC in J2. They will broaden the appeal of the J.League even more, as the game continues to grow strong roots and foundations around the country.


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