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March 2006

Stubbs presents the case for the defence

30 Mar 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, March 28, 2006: Think of a typical old-fashioned centre half and someone like Alan Stubbs comes to mind.

The veteran Everton defender is all heart and no nonsense, and has been in the news recently for some interesting comments about foreign players in the Premier League.

In short, Stubbs feels foreign imports are responsible for the alarming rise in gamesmanship -- and thinks the authorities should act quickly to stamp it out.

He's talking about the kind of things we see every week in the J.League: players diving to try and win free kicks or penalty kicks, players feigning injury to delay the game (just check out the closing stages of the Jubilo-Frontale match on Saturday), and players appealing to the referee to take out his yellow card and caution an opponent.

"It is a foreign thing that has crept into our game lately," Stubbs said, after the Merseyside derby against Liverpool.

"The foreign players have brought a lot of good things to the Premiership but a lot of the other side as well."

Personally, I am glad that an experienced and honest professional such as Stubbs should make a stand, because he will remember the good old days when none of this nonsense happened -- and it wasn't that long ago, either.

And while Stubbs has a point about the foreign players, English players dive, too. Lee Bowyer (at my favourite club, Newcastle United) and Shaun Wright-Phillips at Chelsea are just two of many examples, and I remember being embarrassed by Ashley Cole clearly diving for England against Argentina at Sapporo in the 2002 World Cup.

So this is not new; it's just that it's getting worse.

Stubbs says the players themselves must take steps to stop it, for example asking the opposing player why he is rolling around on the ground when he's not hurt.

I also like to see defenders giving forwards a piece of their mind when they have dived to try and win a penalty. This happened to Shunsuke Nakamura playing for Celtic the other day, I think against Hibernian, when two burly defenders frightened the life out of Shunsuke after he had dived on the edge of the box.

I think more Japanese players should start doing this when they know an opponent is cheating. Harangue the conman! Embarrass him! Make sure everyone in the ground knows he's trying to con the referee!

And referees should be strong and keep the game moving, rather than stopping the play and rushing half the length of the pitch to attend to a player who is feigning injury.

Stubbs feels that a player who waves an imaginary card at the referee to encourage him to book an opponent should be shown the yellow card himself for unsportsmanlike behaviour -- and I totally agree with this.

Just think what an enjoyable job refereeing would be if players were honest.

Sadly, that's just too much to ask these days, even in England.

ends

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Avispa fans should remain in good spirits

27 Mar 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, March 24, 2006: Although Avispa Fukuoka have failed to win any of their four games back in the top flight (maybe it's five by the time you read this), they looked hungry and lively in a recent 2-2 draw at Chiba.

JEF, in fact, could count themselves fortunate to be level 1-1 at half-time, and even more lucky to finish with a point from a 2-2 draw.

Avispa, bravely and confidently, decided to take JEF on at their own game, and at their own stadium of Fukuda Denshi Arena, or "Fukuare" for short.

This meant lots of running and lots of passing and a high tempo for the whole 90 minutes. On the day, JEF looked uncharacteristically disorganised and lethargic, lacking rhythm and motivation, while Avispa were fresh, fast and fearless.

In fact, when the action stopped for half-time and the stadium music began, one of the songs was the catchy pop tune with the chorus, "I said 'hey! What's going on?"

This is exactly how I was feeling: Hey! What's going on with JEF United? They were being played off the park!

Even the half-time Chiba Cheerleaders, lined up in an adventurous 5-4-0 formation, were moving more smoothly than the Chiba team -- and they were carrying flags.

But let's give Avispa credit, and if they continue to play like this they should be able to stay alive in J1 this season.

"Are you happy with a point away from home against one of the J.League's top teams?" I asked Avispa's manager, Hiroshi Matsuda, after the game, already knowing the answer.

"Not at all," he replied, "because we were leading twice."

Matsuda put his team's late lapses in either half down to naivety.

"We have very young players without experience and that is the main reason, I think," he added.
"It's a matter of concentration in extra time."

It has to be said that Avispa received tremendous support, with some fans leaving Fukuoka by bus at 9pm the previous evening and arriving at the ground at 2pm, two hours before kick-off.

The manager's words, then, should provide comfort for the Avispa faithful. "We have been building the team for three years, and I have confidence in the organisation, tactics and 4-4-2, offensively and defensively," he said.

"I have a good feeling in the J.League that we can do it, and fight with this organisation and tactics. Unfortunately, the individual quality is not so high like Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka. That is why we could not win the last three games."

Matsuda was referring to the three draws to open the season, but since then they have slipped up 1-0 at home to Grampus.

Even though Avispa, on this bright showing at Chiba, looked good enough to stay up, they need a win quickly to make sure confidence does not drain.

By the time you read this, maybe they'll already have it.

ends

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Gallo is still learning about his Tokyo players

23 Mar 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, March 22, 2006: Just when a coach thinks he's got it exactly right, it can all go horribly wrong!

This was the case at Todoroki Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, when Kawasaki Frontale and FC Tokyo played out an extremely entertaining 2-2 draw.

A draw was a fair result, but FC Tokyo had looked certain to win after coming back in the second half thanks to some smart changes from their first-year coach, Alexandre Gallo.

Frontale were leading 1-0 at half-time, so Gallo decided action was needed.

He put Inoha, his impressive young midfielder, on the dangerous Juninho in a man-marking job, and left just Moniwa and Jean at the back.

Then he pushed his two full-backs, Tokunaga on the right and Suzuki on the left, further forward, and asked them to attack, which they did in some style.

Konno, one of my favourite players who, sadly and, in my opinion, inexplicably, is nowhere near Japan's World Cup squad for Germany, dropped a bit deeper to shield his defence.

Jean equalised with a flying header, and the ex-Jubilo raider Kawaguchi put Tokyo in front 2-1 with a lovely finish after sterling work on the right flank by Tokunaga (what a good player this guy is!)

Absolutely full marks to Gallo at this point for his tactical changes, and FC Tokyo, playing toward a jumping mass of their fans behind the goal in the second half, looked on course for three welcome points.

But Gallo, I'm afraid, then got it all wrong. He replaced the tiring midfielder Miyazawa with the defender Masushima, and moved Inoha back into central midfield. There was only five minutes or so left at this point, and clearly Gallo thought Masushima could look after Juninho for the rest of the contest.

This was where FC Tokyo came unstuck. Inoha had done a fine marking job on Juninho, easing the pressure on Moniwa and Jean, but it's not easy for a late substitute to pick up the pace of the game, especially when we're talking about the pace of Juninho! The speedy Brazilian saw his chance, and linked twice with Nakamura to enable the midfielder to equalise with another excellent goal.

Looking back, I'm sure Gallo would have done things differently, perhaps asking Masushima just to sit in midfield, alongside Konno, and leave Inoha on Juninho.

All in all, then, a very tactical battle, and Juninho showed his quality by taking advantage of the tiny bit of space afforded to him late in the game.

At 38, Gallo is still young for a head coach, and is still learning about his players.

I am sure he will have learned from his experience at Todoroki, where he looked to have got it so right until that late switch.

ends

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Kyoto's Purple Nightmare

20 Mar 2006(Mon)

March 17, 2006: It's only two games into the new J.League season, but things already don't look too good for Kyoto Purple Sanga.

Two games, two heavy defeats, and a crowd of under 8,000 for their first home match of the campaign.

Of course there is plenty of time for things to improve, but it's just the kind of start any team coming up from J2 must fear and avoid.

Even before the season kicked off, Purple Sanga's squad looked a bit thin and inexperienced.

They had made only two significant signings during the winter, striker Hayashi from JEF United and defender Kodama from Gamba, as manager Koichi Hashiratani kept faith with the players who had won the J2 championship in 2005.

Playing away to Yokohama F Marinos on the opening weekend of the season is not the easiest of returns, and Takeshi Okada's team won comfortably 4-1, aided by some poor goalkeeping.

Next up was Kawasaki Frontale at home. These two were meeting in J2 not so long ago, but they were in a different league at Nishikyogoku as Frontale ran riot and won 7-2!

That's 13 goals for Frontale in two matches, but for Kyoto it was 11 conceded and a goal difference of minus 8. Needless to say, this kind of form is certain to guarantee you last place in the J1 table, and that's exactly where Kyoto stand -- in 18th position and already looking up at the rest of the division.

I haven't attended either of Kyoto's two games to date, but have seen the highlights on the sports news programmes.

The defending has been calamitous, especially at home to Frontale, when the Kawasaki forwards took it in turn to race through, almost unchallenged, and have their own scoring contest.

You couldn't help but feel sorry for the Kyoto fans, who have seen it all before.

Yet there were only 7,921 supporters for the Frontale game, and it would be unreasonable to expect all the Kyoto fans among them to return immediately.

After playing Jubilo away on Saturday, Kyoto will entertain Sanfrecce Hiroshima in an evening kick-off on Tuesday, a national holiday.

Sanfrecce have made steady progress under Takeshi Ono, and will provide another stern test -- and a guideline -- for Purple Sanga as they attempt to cement a place in the top flight.

Kyoto will need to adjust quickly and gain some confidence, as they can't afford to fall too far behind too early in a long season.

ends

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Reds-Jubilo -- what Saturdays were invented for!

16 Mar 2006(Thu)

March 14, 2006: There are times in Japan when you really appreciate how much football has become part of the sporting and social fabric.

Saturday was one of them.

It was Reds against Jubilo at Saitama Stadium 2002: a rising force of Japanese football against a fading force, and it was an occasion too good to miss.

The sun was shining, spring was in the air, and a spring was in the step of the Urawa masses as they headed for the ground.

On the trains it was chaos, but an enjoyable kind of chaos. There was red everywhere, and a feeling of excitement all around among the generations of fans crammed into the carriages and packed on the staircases of the stations.

The journey from Omiya Station to Urawa Misono is never straight-forward, with two changes necessary, but on this day it was much longer due to the slow pace of the fans.

So when you emerged into the open air at Urawa Misono, and the silver outline of the stadium was beckoning in the distance, like a gleaming space ship waiting to take off, you could finally walk at a brisk pace. Past the kiosks selling a wide range of replica shirts, and the stalls offering a wide range of pre-match snacks.

Being English, the donner kebab stands made me feel right at home, but the queues were too big and the service too slow to entice me to join them and risk delaying the journey even more.

Arriving at the stadium, the plaza was packed with families having a picnic in the sunshine. Mitsubishi had taken the opportunity to display a new model, and the park and grassy banks on the far side were full of kids playing football.

Yes, this was the true world of football -- and not a hint of any crowd trouble, despite the rivalry between the two teams. (Japanese readers may wonder why I have pointed out this fact, but don't forget I grew up in England in the Seventies, when the threat of violence hung over every game, from the moment you walked out of the train station or bus station to the moment you got off at your stop on the way home again! Police sirens, dogs barking, shouting in the distance, people running and causing others to panic...were they running toward trouble or away from it? You never knew.)

So still, after all these years, the atmosphere in Japan is alien to me, and special. Positive, refreshing, friendly.

As I walked round the stadium toward the Media Accreditation desk, the Jubilo fans in the "away" corner started chanting "Yoshikatsu" as, presumably, Kawaguchi and his fellow keepers emerged for their pre-match routine. The Reds fans whistled and jeered in reply...great stuff!

As kick-off approached, the stadium was a magnificent spectacle, bathed in sunshine, covered in red except for a sky blue line of Jubilo faithful, and over 56,000 fans to see the game.

This is what Saturday afternoons are all about.

ends

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Champions League, Asia-style

13 Mar 2006(Mon)

March 10, 2006: Well done to the Verdy fans for their unwavering support during the Asian Champions League match against Ulsan the other night.

It was an impressive performance, not just to keep singing with defeat inevitable but to actually to stay awake for the entire 90 minutes!

Wasn't it a poor spectacle?

This is supposed to be Asia's equivalent of the UEFA Champions League, but it's light years away, isn't it?

Funnily enough, I awoke very early, by accident, on the morning of the Verdy-Ulsan match.

It can't have been excitement or tension about the upcoming "thriller" at Kokuritsu that woke me long before the alarm clock was due to go off. It must have been something else...

Instinctively, I turned on TV...and was rewarded immediately by seeing Ronaldinho's fantastic goal against Chelsea.

The colour, the spectacle, the atmosphere...will Asia's Champions League ever come close to matching that?

Let's face it, these matches are pretty grim viewing, and I often wonder why I've bothered making the journey to the game when I could be at home doing something useful, such as washing the dishes.

I suppose it's the prospect of seeing a team play from another country that "entices" me there, if that's the right word to use.

But what often happens in these games, in Japan at least, is that the home team is way too strong or that the visiting team employs every trick in the book of gamesmanship to try and stop the Japanese team from playing.

Either way, the result is often a farce, with low quality football from a visiting team or a match almost impossible to watch due to the blatant cheating and time-wasting of the opposition.

On Wednesday, for example, the Koreans fell to the ground at every opportunity, and their fall was often accompanied by a pathetic "scream" of pain. I'd like to have seen some TV replays of the alleged fouls, because there looked to be minimum contact on a few occasions, if any contact at all.

And when a visiting team goes ahead, of course, the theatrics and play-acting gets even worse.

It's bad in this part of the world, but even worse in west Asia. The favourite trick over there is for the goalkeeper to pretend he is injured, and stay down after every corner, free kick or challenge. With the goalkeeper rolling around and his teammates putting pressure on the referee and the opposition to stop the game, the charade continues through to the final whistle.

I remember Palestine doing this against Japan at the Asian Games in Pusan, Korea, in 2002, as they tried to keep the scoreline at 0-0 as long as possible. Only when Japan eventually took the lead in the second half did Palestine even attempt to play football, as they now had to actually score a goal to equalise...something they had clearly never worked on in training!

Verdy 0, Ulsan 2, in front of 4,436 fans, which is not a bad attendance when compared to the levels of support in Korea.

Anyone heading to Ulsan for the second leg on May 3, apart from Ramos and the boys?

I think I'll stay in and do the dishes!

ends

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A game of two halves at Saitama

9 Mar 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, March 7, 2006: In English, we often talk about "a game of two halves."

Every game, of course, has two halves of 45 minutes, and some, in knockout competitions, have another two halves of 15 minutes if they are still level after 90.

The specific reference here, then, to "a game of two halves" is about one half being entirely different to the other, which can happen frequently in football.

It did at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Sunday afternoon, when Omiya Ardija hosted JEF United.

JEF were brilliant in the first half, and at times I thought I was watching Holland in 1974. Saito was Krol, defending in his own penalty box one minute and then attacking at the other end of the field the next; Abe was Neeskens, driving the team forward; and Maki was Rep, but without the mop of blond hair.

Who was Cruyff, you ask?

Well, I'm sorry, but there can only ever be one Cruyff. (What was all that FIFA nonsense recently about the greatest player of all time, Pele or Maradona? Surely it was Cruyff, followed by Alan Shearer...hey, I'm a Newcastle United fan, of course!)

Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating about JEF, because the 1974 Dutch team would have buried Omiya by half-time...and might still be able to do so today (sorry Ardija fans...just a small joke!)

Saito put JEF in front with a lovely shot, curled into the far corner, but poor defending at a corner immediately allowed Tomita to equalise with a back-post header.

Maki then gave JEF the lead for a second time...and the match was still only 15 minutes old.

JEF were running the show, playing bright, inventive, mobile football in the classic Osim way. Forget Reds, Marinos, Antlers, Gamba and Jubilo...there was only going to be one team at the top of the table this season!

But that was the first half -- and this was a game of two halves, remember.

On the hour mark, Sakamoto equalised for Omiya with an own goal (not quite as spectacular as the Hasebe-Tsuboi combo for Gamba in the Xerox Xuper Cup, but still worth watching several times on the big screen), and the JEF collapse had begun.

Yuto Sato was shown the red card for two minor fouls in quick succession -- shame on the Omiya players in question for pretending they were hurt -- and Daigo Kobayashi, pouncing like a young Kazu, promptly headed Omiya into the lead for the first time, 3-2.

They say it never rains, it pours, and Sakamoto's own goal, Yuto's red card and Daigo's header was quickly followed by Haas walking off rubbing his hamstring.

"His left hamstring, wasn't it?" I asked Osim after the game.

"Does it matter?" he replied, with a smile, having made a perfectly good point.

To round off a miserable afternoon for JEF, Toninho headed home Omiya's fourth, and the men in orange (Ardija 2006, not Holland 1974) were in Total Control. So much for Total Football!

To win J1, JEF needed a full-strength team in virtually every game, but already Yuto was suspended and Haas injured.

Maybe they could take Tsuchiya on loan from Omiya. After all, he had only a game of one half...

ends

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J2, J1 treat on opening weekend

6 Mar 2006(Mon)

March 3, 2006: This weekend is a special one for the J.League.

Not just because it's the start of the new season, but because J2 is playing on Saturday and J1 on Sunday.

Apart from Gamba and Reds, of course, who clash in Suita City on Saturday afternoon.

This is just like the good old days, when J1 played on Saturday and J2 on Sunday, and it was easy for fans to take in two games over the weekend.

I enjoyed those times, when you had the pick of the Kanto games on Saturday and could then keep an eye on the second division the following day.

Personally, I'd like to see the J.League go back to that format.

They could still hold a couple of J1 games on a Sunday, especially one in the Kanto region due to the large number of clubs, but the second day of the weekend would be primarily for J2.

I think this would give J2 more exposure in the media and also produce bigger crowds, because neutral fans around Japan would, I am sure, always attend a J1 game over J2 if they had the choice.

If there were six J2 games on offer, alongside only a couple of J1 games, every Sunday then the chances of fans heading for the second division would be much greater.

So where's it to be for the Kanto fans this weekend?

Gamba and Reds is out of the question for financial reasons -- I will accept all donations to FC Japan in aid of a poor freelance football writer! -- so Saturday is down to two choices: Ehime or Tosu.

No, I'm joking, because those are near Okinawa, aren't they? Or Taipei?

It's either Reysol or Verdy.

The Yellow Monkeys are always worth watching behind the goal at Kashiwa (and occasionally so is the Reysol team), and their opponents on Saturday, Shonan Bellmare, play in one of the nicest strips in the J.League...that very attractive royal blue and lime green (maybe Miki Ando can try wearing a Bellmare strip the next time she skates...apart from the boots and shin pads, of course).

As for Verdy, well...it's going to be a circus isn't it at Kokuritsu, where the once mighty Greens take on Vortis.

Verdy look to be world-beaters again, with Ramos, Hashiratani, Tsunami and Kikuchi -- and that's just on the bench!

They have clearly splashed out a lot of money on the coaching staff, but have they got any players left after most of last season's bunch, including several Kobayashis, moved to Saitama Prefecture.

Well, readers, enjoy the weekend wherever you go...and don't forget those donations (no coins please, only notes above 5,000 yen)!

ends

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New Grampus boss looks for Tamada boost

2 Mar 2006(Thu)

February 28, 2006: For a club that kicked off the J.League in 1993 with one of England's most famous players (Gary Lineker), and was later under the command of one of the modern game's great coaches (Arsene Wenger), Nagoya Grampus Eight have become the forgotten team of J1.

Despite the generous backing of Toyota, Grampus have been left behind by clubs with much smaller financial resources, playing squads and fan bases.

All in all, then, Grampus finished 2005 in a pretty sorry state, in a humiliating 14th position and with Nelsinho, the Brazilian coach hired to take them to the top, long since gone.

Enter Sef Vergoossen, a Dutchman charged with pointing Grampus in the right direction.

I had a good chat with the man with the rather extravagant moustache during the J.League's annual "meet the managers" function in Tokyo last Friday.

Not surprisingly, Vergoossen was in upbeat mood ahead of the new season, and said his players were very motivated. Too motivated, in fact, and this had resulted in some preseason injuries.

The old war horse Yutaka Akita, the evergreen Toshiya Fujita and the new Slovakian import, Marek Spilar, from Club Brugge in Belgium, were among the casualties, but Vergoossen said he had total faith in his medical staff. Clearly he knows them well already.

The subject quickly turned to "Tamada Keiji, Tamada Keiji, Tamada Keiji woh-oh-oh!" (sorry about that readers; I thought I was at Hitachi Stadium for a moment!). Tamada, of course, joined Grampus from relegated Reysol for around 300 million yen -- well, that's the transfer fee I was told by someone close to the deal.

I liked Tamada a lot two or three years ago, but my opinion has changed. In my eyes, and maybe in Zico's too, he has to prove himself again at Nagoya, when he's fully fit, of course.

I want to see a hungry and energetic Tamada, running into the channels, taking on defenders and scoring goals with that lovely left foot. His slump in form and confidence seemed to be reflected in the whole Reysol team, but Tamada -- and Kashiwa -- can now start again in rather different places.

"We have to be careful with him," Vergoossen said of Tamada. "He can be important, and I have to give him the time to come back to his normal level.

"I heard that last season was not his best, but before he was a very good striker with high quality and soon he will be good again."

Grampus are an important club to the J.League, one of the 10 founder members. The J.League needs a strong Grampus, so hopefully Vergoossen, with a fresh approach and optimism, can turn them around.

And the Grampus fans can always look forward to singing the made-in-Kashiwa "Tamada Keiji" anthem...surely one of the best in the J.League!

ends

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