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April 2006

Wenger wrong in North London derby debate

27 Apr 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, April 26, 2006 -- Congratulations to Arsene Wenger for steering Arsenal into the UEFA Champions League final.

Wenger, of course, is still remembered with affection in Japan, especially in Nagoya, and is, quite rightly, a JFA target for the job of national coach.

Wenger has told me on a couple of occasions that he would like the job -- but not yet. He says it's a part-time job, more suitable for semi-retirement, and he is not ready to leave club football just yet.

And who can blame him, with Arsenal about to appear in their first Champions League final and set to move into a magnificent new stadium just a goalkeeper's kick away from the historic -- but small -- Highbury. He's also been linked with the Real Madrid job, and, according to one of his close friends working in Japan (all right -- it's Stuart Baxter!), could even go at the end of this season.

So Japan will have to wait a while longer for Wenger's expertise. Maybe the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is a more realistic target for the JFA.

While admiring Wenger, I am afraid I cannot take his side in a controversial incident that happened during the North London derby against Spurs at Highbury on Saturday afternoon, shown live on Saturday evening in Japan.

Very briefly, two Arsenal players collided while challenging a Spurs player. It must be pointed out that the two players, Eboue and Gilberto, bumped into each other and stayed on the turf, but clearly were not injured seriously, like in a clash of heads.

Spurs played on and scored. Wenger was furious, thinking Spurs should have kicked the ball out of play to allow his players to be treated.

Personally, I think Spurs had every right to play on, and Wenger was wrong to criticise his opposite number, Martin Jol.

It's not as if there had been a heavy collision between two rival players, and one of them had been injured. That's totally different.

But anyway I feel there is too much these days of teams kicking the ball out of play to allow a player, who may or may not be injured, to receive treatment.

You see it a lot...a team is leading, a player drops to the turf to waste time, his goalkeeper or team-mate stops the game by kicking the ball out of play, the medical staff come on and, lo and behold, he's not hurt at all. It's just another form of time-wasting and gamesmanship that has crept into the modern game.

It's the referee's job to stop the game, not the players' job, and I think refs in Japan should be much tougher. They should keep the game flowing and tell the "injured" player to get up, or show a yellow card to a player who deliberately kicks the ball out of play to stop the match without the ref's permission.

Even then, I think some teams are way too generous in kicking the ball back to the opposition on the restart, as they are losing and their opponents who have delayed the game are all now back in formation.

Who'd be a ref these days?


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An eventful night at Mitsuzawa

24 Apr 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, April 21, 2006 -- A free kick from midfield general Yamaguchi to Jo; a Kazu cross, a Jo header and a goal...

This article may sound like a sentence from "All Our Yesterdays", particularly in the build-up to the 1998 World Cup, but in fact it all took place at Mitsuzawa Stadium on Tuesday night.

It was Yokohama FC against Vissel Kobe in J2, and the stadium was so packed that fans were hanging from the balconies of the apartments overlooking the ground.

(Actually, this is an exaggeration, as the attendance was 3,286 -- and there are always people watching from their balconies at Mitsuzawa...but I am trying to build an atmosphere here, folks!)

As we all know, Yokohama won 2-1 with two Jo headers, the first from a pinpoint Kazu cross from the left, after the one-time king had beaten the offside trap, and the second in controversial circumstances when everyone else had stopped playing, believing there had been an infringement. It was all a bit messy and extremely unsatisfactory, and matters got worse for Kobe when goalkeeper Ogi moved up for a corner in the closing seconds, and then ran into his opposite number, Sugeno, after the YFC keeper had collected the ball.

It was comical and amusing more than violent or malicious, but Sugeno decided to take the law into his own hands and chased after Ogi to the edge of his penalty area. A Yokohama player then pushed Ogi (I couldn't see who it was because I was laughing so much), and then several other players got involved, too, before Ogi was shown the red card. What you might call a case of: "Ogi, Ogi, Ogi, off, off, off!"

It was more like a scene from "The Keystone Cops" or even "Benny Hill" when everyone is chasing everyone else, but the Vissel camp were not laughing on the final whistle.

All in all, though, excellent value for money for the home fans, as they had also seen former Flugels star Atsu Miura back on his old home ground as Vissel captain, as well as charismatic Kobe manager Stuart Baxter with his new assistant, Rafa Benitez...I'm sorry, I mean Pedro, but just check him out next time. From the stand, Pedro is the double of Liverpool's Spanish manager!

I had a nice chat with Takuya Takagi before the game, and he was very calm and pragmatic about his new job and about Yokohama FC's recent upturn in fortunes.

He told me to watch out for midfielder Uchida. He was wearing the No. 10 so I presumed he must be a "fantasista", but Takagi-kantoku shook his head and said Uchida ran much more between the two penalty boxes and was always looking to score.

"More like Lampard, then?" I asked.

"Little Lampard!" came the reply (Uchida is 1.66 metres and weighs only 58 kgs).

There's lots going on in J2 these days, and it's well worth taking in a game when the J1 schedule permits.


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Tsune's socks and Shunsuke's shin pads would be a well-deserved treat for fans

20 Apr 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, April 18, 2006 -- Nagoya Grampus Eight head coach Sef Vergoossen was among the spectators at the Frontale-Ardija game at Todoroki on Sunday afternoon.

He was there to study Frontale ahead of Nagoya's home game against them on Saturday, and, judging from a quick chat I had with him, seemed to pick up a lot of useful information.

He also made some very interesting comments about Japanese football in general, or, rather, about Japanese players.

What he said made sense to me, and I must admit I've seen it frequently in the past. It's just that a newcomer to Japanese football notices these things immediately, as Europe is still fresh in his mind.

This is what he was on about:

Basically, he feels that the players do not give enough of their time to the supporters. He's not talking about holding social functions in the evenings or anything like that, just dealing with the kind of situation that arises after training and after matches all the time.

"I think there's a big difference between the players and the fans," he said, adding that it was the responsibility of the players to close this gap.

He gave a few examples.

After training, players could spare a few minutes before jumping into their luxury SUVs to sign autographs and have their photos taken with fans who have hung around for a couple of hours in all sorts of weather.

And after games, he said the fans may be only 10 metres away from the team bus, but often players ignored them.

He even recalled the case of a Japanese player in Europe, whose name I shall not reveal, who just walked past a small group of Japanese supporters who had gone to watch him train with his club.

"It looks a little bit arrogant," said Vergoossen.

I have seen this with the national team, especially away from home. There may be a couple of thousand "daihyo" die-hards (hey, that phrase has marketing potential...I think I'll register it as a trademark!) who have paid a lot of money and travelled a long way to cheer on the Boys in Blue, only to be ignored after the final whistle.

I've often wondered why the players haven't gone over to them, waved and maybe even thrown them a souvenir or two.

A sock from Tsune, a shin pad from Shunsuke, one of Hide's gloves...I'm sure the JFA would be able to replace them at little extra cost!

Vergoossen, of course, is not referring to all players, as there will be some exceptions. He is just generalising from his first impressions, and I must say he has made a good point.

Although the players bow ritually to their fans after J.League games, win, lose or draw, I feel there could be more recognition and emotion on behalf of the players.

"You have to respect your supporters," said Vergoossen, "because without them there would be no professional football."

So come on players...next time show the fans you really care and throw them a sock or a glove -- and then they'll keep coming back to try and get the other one to complete the pair!


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Batistuta, Suker and Urawa sensation 'Yama-gol'

17 Apr 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, April 14, 2006 -- If Japan's leading forwards are looking for a master finisher to copy his style, the answer may be closer to home than they think.

Yes, the master finisher is playing in Japan.

And, yes again, he is Japanese!

You may be surprised by this observation, especially when the player I am referring to has played for Japan's national team on a number of occasions under Zico.

Still puzzled?

Well, it's none other than Nobuhisa Yamada, the versatile Urawa Reds veteran who displayed his sublime finishing skills yet again in the Nabisco Cup against Avispa Fukuoka at Komaba on Wednesday night.

After robbing a dithering Hirajima, Avispa's right-sided midfielder, Yamada cruised down the inside-left channel before clipping the ball delightfully over goalkeeper Kamiyama.

Talk about cool!

Yamada was so cool he should be renamed the "Ice Man" -- and he left the keeper frozen solid.

It wasn't the first time in recent months I've noticed a stunning finish from Yamada, as he's found the net before with some delicate touches, caressing the ball into the corner rather than blasting it.

Yamada's goals bring to mind a conversation I had with UEFA technical expert Andy Roxburgh, the former head coach of Scotland, during the 1998 World Cup in France. (It was at the same seminar in Paris when a certain Philippe Troussier was giving an amusing speech about African football, shortly before he became Japan's new head coach.)

Japan had already been eliminated, losing 1-0 to Argentina and Croatia and 2-1 to Jamaica, and Roxburgh said there had been little difference between the two teams -- apart from the fact that Argentina had Batistuta and Croatia had Suker (actually, that's a pretty big difference).

"Watch the leading strikers in the world," Roxburgh said. "See how they relax when they have the chance to score a goal.

"Now watch the Japanese forwards. They are in too much of a hurry. A chance comes, they panic and the chance is gone."

Well, it was something like that, but the conversation was eight years ago now.

Had Roxburgh been at Komaba on Wednesday night, and seen Yamada's beautiful goal, I'm sure he would have thought: "Wow, the Japanese strikers have improved a lot since 1998!"

Only that, as we all know, Yamada is hardly a striker, even though he played up front on Wednesday alongside Kurobe.

A right back in 4-4-2, a right wing-back in 3-5-2, a "top-shita" even...Yamada has played in all these positions, but it was the first time I'd seen him so far forward.

On this particular night, Yamada made scoring a goal in a one-on-one with the keeper as easy as Batistuta or Suker used to do...and you can't get better than that.

They used to call Batistuta "Bati-gol", so let's hear it for Reds' latest scoring sensation..."Yama-gol"!


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Marinos fail to fire at Komaba

13 Apr 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, April 11, 2006 -- Whatever has happened to the Yokohama F Marinos?

I have seen them twice in the past few days, and, despite the undoubted quality throughout the team and on the bench, they have looked anything but potential champions.

The most recent occasion was Saturday at Saitama Urawa Komaba Stadium.

Their opponents were Omiya Ardija, and it was quite strange watching a J.League game at Komaba without the involvement of Urawa Reds.

Where was assistant coach Gert Engels having his pre-match cigarette in the lobby? Where was the White Horse to carry Guido home? Where was Ya-jin running down the right wing?

Marinos must have thought it unusual, too, as they lacked motivation and urgency, and cannot complain at all about losing the game 2-1.

Takeshi Okada was in a grim mood after the defeat, so much so that I didn't even try to speak to him in English, in which he is very competent. I just let him walk by, and remained at a safe distance!

But who can blame him?

His well-paid stars had been humbled by modest Omiya, and the large "away" following had every right to jeer their players after the game.

Looking through the Marinos team, there should be no excuses for such a limp performance.

Matsuda, Kurihara and Nakazawa form a formidable back three, and Kurihara, at 22, must have a chance of being called up into the Japan squad post-Germany World Cup. He is impressive in the air, and can learn a lot from the two "old hands" either side of him.

The Marinos midfield has good balance, with Tanaka on the right, Dutra on the left, and Ueno and Magrao in the middle, allowing Yoshida to link up with his two strikers, Kubo and Marques.

Yoshida, however, is rather lightweight, and made little impact on the game, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the two forwards.

Although Kubo scored with a trademark header, after some poor defending by Omiya, he was rarely in the game and looked far from 100 per cent fit. It must be a real worry for Zico, as clearly the Brazilian head coach has Kubo earmarked for a key role in Germany.

Marques is a clever player, but still looked slightly traumatised by the man-marking of Inoha the previous week in a 1-1 draw with FC Tokyo at Nissan Stadium. It was as if Marques could sense Inoha on his shoulder (even though he was not in the same prefecture at the time), and the Brazilian could not relax into his game.

The lively Sakata and the predator Oshima, who always looks dangerous in the box, failed to spark a late revival in a generally flat and lethargic display from Okada's team.

Perhaps Nakazawa and Kubo are saving themselves for the national team cause. If they are, Marinos fans will be hoping their team has not fallen too many points behind Reds when the action resumes after the World Cup.


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All quiet on the coaching front in Japan, but not in England

10 Apr 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, April 7, 2006: What have Japan and England got in common at the moment?

Well, with Zico and Sven-Goran Eriksson stepping down after the World Cup, both countries are looking for a new head coach.

And while the English papers are full of stories, almost on a daily basis, about the Swede's successor, it's pretty quiet over here in Japan.

So here's a bit of gossip I've picked up in recent weeks from a variety of sources, all of them on the inside of the game rather than the outside.

The latest I heard is that JFA President Saburo Kawabuchi is leaning towards appointing a Japanese head coach, and that his favourite is Akira Nishino.

The Atlanta Olympic team coach has a strong case, with Gamba winning the championship last season. Also, if the JFA wants a coach to look after the Olympic team and the national team, then it makes sense to appoint someone who knows the quality of the players available at various age levels.

In fact, with the Asian Cup in 2007 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a Japanese head coach, appointed on a two-year contract after the World Cup, looks like a logical move. In addition to this, if a leading coach from overseas is not available to come to Japan in 2006 (Wenger, for example), then why waste money on someone who knows nothing about Japan and who would be starting from zero?

Anyway, this was the latest I heard, that Nishino seemed to be favoured by Kawabuchi.

Regarding overseas coaches, the former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier is known to be admired by the technical people inside the JFA, but it's highly unlikely he would leave Lyon so soon.

Another name was that of former Antlers manager Toninho Cerezo, who left Kashima with a very high reputation at the end of last season, but who has since taken a job in Brazil. That's not a problem, though, as managers change clubs on a regular basis in Brazil, but compensation to the Brazilian club from the JFA would be an issue.

Many people seem to think that Sorimachi, the former Albirex manager, will take over the Olympic team's preparations. If this is true, it would mean that Japan would need a head coach for the senior team, maybe even on a one-year contract through to the 2007 Asian Cup. Who could that be? Osim, maybe? Or Nishino? Or Okada?

By all accounts, the JFA technical committee is compiling a list of candidates to present to Kawabuchi by the end of this month.

Maybe then the intense speculation will begin in the media, like it is already in England.


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Is there time for Maki to make it?

6 Apr 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, April 4, 2006: The closer the World Cup comes, the more I think the chances of Seiichiro Maki going to Germany improve.

And I don't mean as a fan on a "dangan" tour.

I mean as a member of the "daihyo", one of the 23 chosen by Zico before the rather early FIFA deadline of May 15.

Let's look at the facts.

First, Maki is physically fit, 100 per cent fit, meaning he is not carrying a slight injury from week to week.

Second, Maki is match fit, meaning he is sharp and alert on the pitch.

Third, he is playing 90 minutes every week.

Fourth, he is scoring goals...three in six J.League games this season.

Under normal circumstances, the above list of attributes does not add up to anything special.

But these are not normal circumstances for Japan's forwards, and how many of Maki's rivals can place a "tick" in all of the above boxes.

Yanagisawa is injured; Kubo is rusty and looks like he could break down at any time; Takahara is on the bench at Hamburg; Takayuki has disappeared into the mists of Belgrade; Yoshito is off Zico's radar in Mallorca; Tamada is struggling to rediscover the form of yesteryear, and Oguro is playing Sunday morning pub football in France.

Have I forgotten anyone?

Oh yes, Hisato Sato. That was a fine goal against Ecuador from an equally impressive cross from Alex, who, after a couple of quiet years, is finally beginning to sparkle again.

Sato is the only player who, like Maki, his strike partner for Japan's "C" team, can tick all the relevant boxes.

I saw Maki play for JEF on Sunday at Todoroki against Frontale.

It was a fast and physical match, with tackles flying in all afternoon, and extremely well refereed by Tsutomu Anazawa. The ref knew the difference between a blatant dive, namely from Juninho, and a genuine trip, and between a fair shoulder charge (Ito on Maki) and a push, and he let the game flow as much as possible.

Frontale don't play with a "back three" as much as a "basketball three", as Minowa, Terada and Ito are all well above 1.80 metres -- or the same as Hanyu standing on Yuto's shoulders.

But Maki battered away all afternoon, and ran his socks off for the team to help earn a 2-2 draw.

After the game I spoke to JEF manager Osim, who said every team needed a player like Maki, including Nippon Daihyo.

Osim said Maki would be most effective coming off the bench for the national team, say at half-time or with 30 minutes to go, and running relentlessly at a tiring defence.

"Three years, no problems. It's a miracle!" said Osim, referring to Maki's fitness level.

"Very courageous...tackling...not big technique but a very, very big heart."

This is how Osim summed up Maki.

For the first time, and for the reasons listed above, I am starting to think that Maki has a chance.

But what does Zico think?


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Germans, sausages and Kajiyama

3 Apr 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, March 31, 2006: Foreigners are quite rare at J.League matches, apart from on the pitch and in the dug-out.

Sometimes there's a few agents around, checking on their players, and occasionally there's a scout from a European club.

At Todoroki Stadium the other day I met Ulrich Mohr, chief scout of VfL Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga.

He said he wasn't in Japan to watch any specific player, just to view the scene in general and meet with the likes of Guido Buchwald and Ivica Osim.

Mohr was also at Komaba on Wednesday for the Nabisco Cup group game between Reds and FC Tokyo, and I chatted with him again after the match.

He said he was impressed with the speed, the aggression, the forward movement of the teams and the technique of the Japanese players, and was interested in signing a young player who could be taught the European way.

He asked me who I liked, so I said Tokunaga, Konno and Inoha of FC Tokyo, but he said he preferred the more creative, attacking play of Kajiyama.

Had I still been working in English newspapers I would have gone to my labtop immediately and pounded out the following story: "German giants VfL Wolfsburg are ready to pounce for FC Tokyo's brilliant young schemer, Yohei Kajiyama.

"Top scout Ulrich Mohr checked out the 20-year-old midfield whizz-kid in Wednesday's match at Urawa Reds, and his club is preparing to make a one million-pound bid.

"FC Tokyo would be reluctant to lose such a talented player, but Kajiyama is already having German lessons and eating sausages and saurkraut three times a day to prepare for life in the Bundesliga."

This is how some of the English football writers would have reacted to such a harmless, post-match chit-chat, and, who knows, the story may come true. After all, the German scout mentioned Kajiyama (actually he said the No. 23), not me!

What was clear, though, was that there seems little chance of a Japanese defender being transferred to Europe, due to their lack of height, which is a crucial factor in the big, tough, physical world of the Bundesliga, where 1.90-metre eastern Europeans lurk in every penalty box.

"I liked the No. 2 for Reds (Tsuboi)," said Mohr, referring to an earlier match.

"He is quick and aggressive and has good technique, but is 10 centimetres too small. In Germany you want high players (he meant 'tall', but it was close) in the defence. Midfielders and strikers are better, and young players so they can be coached," said Mohr.

Japan is not without tall defenders -- for example Nakazawa and Matsuda at Marinos, or the entire back line of Frontale, who resemble a basketball team when they walk out on the pitch -- but clearly the more creative players stand a better chance of impressing the Euro scouts.

Kajiyama is 20, a midfielder, 1.80 metres and 75 kgs...just a minute, I have thought of an article!

"Bayern Munich are preparing to replace Manchester United-bound Michael Ballack with FC Tokyo's 10 million-pound rated midfield schemer Yohei etc. etc......"


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