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June 2006

Tulio may have helped Japan´s cause

29 Jun 2006(Thu)

Stuttgart, June 26, 2006 – It is very interesting reading the comments of Zico from his final press conference as Japan´s head coach in distant Tokyo.

He is pointing out that Japan suffered at the World Cup because they did not have enough tall players to match the Australians in particular, and also the Croatians.

While this is true, it must be noted that Zico was aware of this since last December, when the draw was made in Leipzig. He knew then that Japan would be in a tough, physical group, and when the USA ran Japan ragged in a San Francisco friendly early in the year, the alarm bells should have been ringing even louder.

But Zico did nothing to bolster his defence, instead staying loyal to the players who had been around for some time.

I have said before in this column that, on his day, Naoki Matsuda is the best Japanese player in the J.League, although he let down Zico and himself by walking out on the squad before a World Cup qualifier in 2005. Under those circumstances, I can understand Zico not picking him again.

This could not be said of Urawa Reds defender Tulio. He has the height and the muscle to be of use to Japan in the future, although he is still a little rough around the egdes.

With all those friendlies in 2006, I thought it was well worth Zico taking a look at Tulio, but he never got the call.

Reds manager Guido Buchwald has said consistently this season that Tulio has been his best defender, and the best header of a ball in Japan, even though Tsuboi is in the national squad ahead of him.

At a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan at the end of May, Buchwald was the guest speaker, and told the audience that the only time Zico had talked business with him was two years ago.

He was asked why Zico had not given Tulio a chance, and replied: ´´I don´t know, but I have heard it is because Zico thinks Tulio speaks too much on the pitch.´´

That´s strange, isn´t it, as the lack of communication among Japanese players is always being highlighted as a fault by Zico!

So I disagree that Japan does not possess players of sufficient height. This reminds me of a response by Philippe Troussier to a question from a Japanese reporter about the size of the Japanese defenders.

´´Does Mexico have players as tall as Matsuda in defence?´´ he said. ´´Mexico are always in the World Cup. This is not a problem for Japan.´´

Of course it is too late now to talk about what Zico should have done, but his reluctance to introduce new players and freshen up the squad played a part in Japan´s downfall.


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Hide and Gazza

26 Jun 2006(Mon)

Hannover, June 23, 2006 – Who would ever think Hide would “do a Gazza”?

Japan´s Ice Man, Hidetoshi Nakata, who rarely shows his emotions or feelings in public, went down in World Cup history alongside England´s Paul Gascoigne, and no doubt many other less famous players, who shed tears of anguish on their team´s exit.

Gascoigne did it in the 1990 semi-final against Germany in Italy. After being booked for a foul on Thomas Berthold, a yellow card meant he would miss the final, should England get there. Gazza´s tears started and would not stop.

The image of his team-mate, Gary Lineker, indicating to the bench Gazza was in distress will forever remain in my mind. As it happened, England lost the penalty shoot-out to Germany, and this prompted a second wave of Gazza tears.

The show of emotion, however, endeared him to the nation, and his life was never the same again.

And so to Hide, a player who has been accused of not caring enough, of being a businessman rather than a footballer, as he moves around Italy and then to England.

But Nakata´s act of despair, desolation even, after the final whistle against Brazil dispelled this theory for ever.

It was a poignant moment, seeing Nakata lay there on his back in the centre circle, long after his team-mates had walked over to thank the fans and then disappear into the changing rooms.

I must be honest and admit I feared for Nakata´s health, as he looked physically and emotionally drained.

Midway through the second half, with Brazil in control and Hide pushed more forward after the introduction of Koji Nakata, I recall seeing him struggling back to defend. Japan had attacked, lost the ball, and Nakata now tried to race back to help out the defence.

He reminded me of a “toy nodding dog” you see in the back of cars, as his strength was draining away and he was running on empty.

This match, this World Cup, meant so much to him, and the frustration of the early elimination, together with the fact that Japan could do nothing to stop Brazil running away with the game, proved too much.

Nakata does care, and always has done. It is just that he is different, something many Japanese cannot accept.

For all those cynics and doubters, he has served his country well, and deserves credit in the same way Gascoigne did when he returned to England a folk hero and a legend in 1990.


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Kaji can still be around in 2010

22 Jun 2006(Thu)

Bonn, June 19, 2006 -- Looking through Japan´s squad here at the World Cup, there are not many outfield players you could say with confidence will still be around for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

(That is provided Japan qualify, however, as Australia will be a formidable foe for the established Asian powers next time around).

But one of these is most certainly Akira Kaji, Japan´s Cafu for his work up and down the right flank.

Against Croatia at Nuremberg, Kaji was among Japan´s top performers.

As well as having to deal with the attacking threat of the athletic Babic down Croatia´s left, Kaji also found time to get forward and provide some dangerous moments at the other end.

The former FC Tokyo and current Gamba Osaka man is equally at home at right back in a four-man defence, or on the right side of a five-man midfield, and this has made him indispensible to Zico for the past couple of years.

The fact that Tokunaga (FC Tokyo) and Nakamura (Avispa Fukuoka) are both talented young right backs will keep Kaji under pressure for his place, and that is a good thing, while Komano, his able deputy against Australia, might be advised to switch to the left flank to try and take Alex´s place.

It was interesting watching Kaji against Croatia. In Zico´s 4-4-2 formation, the Brazilian coach looks to his two full backs, Kaji and Alex, to provide the width, in the same way Narahashi and Soma used to do for Kashima.

It is not the job of the wide midfield players to break down the flanks, get to the line and cross into the box, it is the job of Kaji and Alex, and the team must be well organised to put these two in the right position at the right time. When Japan can hold the ball long enough, and not give it away carelessly with an ambitious pass or a poor piece of control, they can frequently bring these two into play, and catch the covering defence out of position.

I feel the national team needs a major overhaul after the World Cup, but Kaji will remain one constant.

Japan´s MVP against Croatia, however, was undoubtedly Kawaguchi, although Hidetoshi Nakata received the official award from FIFA.

There is no doubt Japan´s heads were down after the Australia debacle, but Kawaguchi changed the mood with his excellent save, low to his left, from Srna´s well-struck penalty. No arguments about the penalty award, either, as Tsune had allowed Prso to get behind him, and paid the price for his hasty challenge.

Yoshi proved again he is a big-game player, and deserves another hero´s reception on his return.


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Please end the Rooney Saga

19 Jun 2006(Mon)

Bonn, June 16, 2006 -- England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was speaking for a lot of people when he welcomed the end of the “Wayne Rooney Saga” after his team’s 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago.

The sports pages of the English newspapers have been dominated by Rooney´s metatarsal since he injured his right foot playing for Manchester United against Chelsea seven weeks ago.

But at Nuremberg on Thursday, Rooney came off the bench and played for 33 minutes – his first appearance at the World Cup.

“It is a great relief the saga is over,” Eriksson said in his post-match press conference.

“It has been talked about every day, and really all of us in the camp are fed up with it…and now it’s over.”

Well, Eriksson thought it was over.

Next question.

“Can you talk us through the last 24 hours?” asked one reporter, wanting the details of the doctors and the examinations. For a moment I thought I was watching “E.R.” or “Chicago Hope” as the medical talk dominated the football.

Next question.

“Will Rooney be fit to start against Sweden?”

Eriksson managed to keep his temper in check, and said he would have to wait for a day or two to check on Rooney´s condition after his runout against T-T.

Question to Peter Crouch.

“How did Rooney´s entrance lift the team?”

Crouch was most definitely fed up, too.

“Not only Wayne, but also Lennon and Downing lifted the team. We needed fresh legs in the attack,” said Crouch.

So, as you can see, the Rooney Saga is not quite over yet, despite Eriksson´s profound hopes.

Rooney´s name gives the headline-writers lots of opportunity to create corny headlines, such as “Wish Roo were here!” (when Rooney did not play against Paraguay), or “We are thROO!”, meaning England are through to the next round with six points from two games, or “Wayne to go!” (instead of the American rallying cry, “way to go”).

Not for a long time can one player have dominated the sports news – and this goes to show how special Rooney is.

But sitting through an England press conference these days is painful, as you know what is coming next. A question about Wayne Rooney.

So here is my own contribution to the Rooney Saga.

“This is all Wayne over the top!”

“Write about the SocceROOS instead!”

“Fergie thinks Sven is a ROOnatic for bringing Wayne back so quickly!”

I apologise readers, and promise this is tROOly the end of the Saga -- or you may start becoming unROOly!


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Maki left on sidelines during Aussie onslaught

15 Jun 2006(Thu)

Bonn, June 13, 2006 – Many of the media covering England here at the World Cup have been critical of Sven-Goran Eriksson for not giving Theo Walcott a run against Paraguay.

Why bring a young but untried talent such as Walcott and then leave him on the bench when the team lacks attacking spark?

That was the school of thought after England´s cautious approach, and I was thinking similar things after Japan´s defeat by the Socceroos.

Having picked Maki as his one surprise, I thought the latter stages of the Australia game were perfect for him to make his debut in the World Cup.

But no, Zico made a puzzling choice by sending on Ono at a time when Japan needed some defensive grit and fresh legs rather than a third playmaker alongside Nakata and Nakamura.

I thought the situation called for Maki. Zico could have sent him on and told him to run after anything that moved, preferably in a gold and green shirt.

Japan were defending deeper and deeper as the second half wore on, and Maki could have defended from the front, harassing the Aussie defenders and midfielders when in possession and putting them under pressure. Who knows, Maki might have been an attacking threat, too, as his height and fresh legs would have caused problems for the tiring Australian defenders.

Instead, though, the Australian substitutes just formed an orderly queue on the edge of the Japan box, and waited for the next high ball to come along.

It was only a matter of time before the Socceroos broke through, and no one could say they were surprised when Cahill equalised following a moment of misjudgement by Kawaguchi.

What a shame for poor old Yoshi, who was in line for an MVP performance due to a string of spectacular saves in the first and second half.

His error came on a Neill throw from the left. The keeper came but didn´t quite make it, and Cahill was on hand to fire home the loose ball.

This was just the beginning of the end, as Japan quickly crumbled. I hope it´s not too late for Maki to have a meaningful run against Croatia. Or what was the point of bringing him?


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Bonn celebrates German victory

12 Jun 2006(Mon)

Bonn, June 9, 2006 -- Can you hear it, outside the Internet cafe where I am working?

It´s crazy!

It´s mad!

It´s the perfect start to the 2006 World Cup!

Cars are whizzing by, sounding their horns and flying the German flag out of the window.

Families are walking home in the late evening sunshine after watching the Germany-Costa Rica game on TV in a restaurant or street cafe, the children with their faces painted red, yellow and black.

Groups of young men and women are walking down the street, waving giant flags and stopping the traffic.

Not everyone is happy, though, because the police sirens are sounding out loud, as the police cars chase the speeding revellers down the street.

The celebration route takes the drivers over the Kennedy Bridge, at the end of which stands the Bonn Hilton, home of the Japanese national team. Now, for sure, the Japanese players will feel they are at the 2006 World Cup!

Today, Friday, I visited the England training session at Frankfurt, rather than attending the Japan session, as I wanted to feel the positive vibes surrounding the England team for the first time. I was not disappointed.

Heading back from Frankfurt to Bonn, a group of Germans from the Black Forest invited me to join them at the bar of the train, and have a few glasses of refreshing German beer after a hot day at the stadium.

2-1 to Germany very early on, 3-1 to Germany, 4-2 to Germany….the passengers on the train from Frankfurt to Bonn, via Mainz, were kept in touch with the match, and everyone was in high spirits at the end.

So, on arriving at Bonn, suitably refreshed, it was then that the hysteria in this conservative town really hit me.

No other sport can unite a nation like football. I read once, recently in fact, that only war could prompt a similar, impassioned spirit as football, especially when the host team is performing to expectations at the World Cup.

Yes, the perfect start to what is surely going to be a magical World Cup…and with England and Japan still waiting to start.


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Japan's friendlies are over -- thank goodness!

8 Jun 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, June 6, 2006 -- Well, at last it's over.

Japan's build-up to the 2006 World Cup officially ended Sunday with a 1-0 victory over Malta.

But, like so many of the friendly games played in the four years under Zico, it was pretty much a waste of time.

What did Zico learn?

Probably nothing.

What did the hollow victory do for the morale and confidence of the team?


Apart from Tamada, whose early goal gave Japan the win, it's unlikely anyone gained much.

Even the defence, who kept a clean sheet, know the opposition was of a low quality.

With so many changes during the game, it became meaningless again, as Japan struggled to beat a team they were clearly dominating. It was just a bunch of individuals going through the motions, because they all know who's in and who's out when it really matters.

No, I'm relieved all the build-up games are over, and so, I suspect, is Zico.

He'll just want the Australia game to arrive as soon as possible, so they can finally play the real thing.

No more tests, no more mass substitutions, no more excuses -- just two teams playing for the massive prize of three points in their Group F opener.

Among the subs on Sunday were Ono, Inamoto, Ogasawara and Maki. I was surprised Zico did not start Maki, in the absence of Takahara and Yanagisawa, because I feel Oguro is tailor-made for the bench.

The former Gamba forward is lethal coming into the game as a second-half substitute. As much as I admire his poaching prowess, I just don't think he has the all-round game to make an impact in the starting eleven at this high level.

Let Maki run the defenders into the ground for 60 or 70 minutes, and then bring on Oguro to finish them off...

Tamada took his chance, but I tend to think he would be more suited playing on the left side of midfield when Zico deploys a 4-4-2 formation, provided he has a solid left-back behind him.

Which brings us round to Koji Nakata. I have said before and will repeat that he is wasted on the left side of defence. Koji has the experience and the football brain to be playing in the centre of midfield.

I'd love to see him alongside the other Nakata -- Hidetoshi -- in the middle of the park, in a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 formation, because he is a natural defender who can also break forward and score goals.

As I said, all these friendlies seem to cause more problems than they solve, and I am just glad they are over.

Bring on the Aussies!

It's now or never for Japan.


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FIFA must end shirt-pulling nonsense

5 Jun 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, June 2, 2006 -- At every World Cup, FIFA, belatedly, attempts to clamp down on one particularly negative trend in the modern game.

In the past it's been tackling from behind (but Germany's Schweinsteiger proved this dangerous challenge is still alive and kicking, as poor old Kaji found out rather painfully) and also simulation -- FIFA speak for diving (but another German, the substitute Odonkor, showed this blatant form of cheating is still rife, too, and got a yellow card for his troubles).

So what would you like to see referees target specifically in Germany over the next few weeks?

For me there's only one answer: shirt-pulling.

How many photographs do you see in newspapers and magazines these days where one player has hold of his opponent's shirt?

Take the example of "Atsushi-Goal" against Germany the other day. His marker, Borowski, ripped Yanagi's shirt right down the middle, revealing the Antlers striker's "six-pack" torso (imagine six cans of beer, or grapefruit chu-hai for that matter, on their side, and you can guess the shape "six-pack" refers to).

The more I think about it, in fact, the more this incident might have been planned by the two players....Borowski deliberately tears Yanagisawa's shirt, the TV camera focuses on the Japanese poster boy's chiselled chest, owners of fitness clubs and gyms back in Japan see this on TV and rush to sign him up for a new advertising campaign -- and the German gets his cut of Yanagisawa's massive ensorsement fee!

Okay, so that's a bit far fetched, but don't rule out someone approaching Yanagi with an offer.

Shirt-pulling, though, is deadly serious.

Unlike an "honest" foul, shirt-pulling is deliberate and pre-meditated. Just like diving, shirt-pulling is becoming an art in itself.

How can a player grab his opponent's shirt without making it look too obvious in front of the referee? It's happening all the time, and is resulting in players throwing themselves to the ground to bring the foul to the attention of the referee.

The shirt pull might be very sly and clever, so does the offended player play on and pretend nothing has happened, meaning the dishonest rival has got away with it? Or does the offended player simply stop in his tracks or just fall down, showing his rearranged shirt to the ref and hoping for a yellow card for the offender as well as a free kick for himself?

I hope FIFA really gets strict on this tactic at the World Cup. A clear and deliberate shirt-pull should be punished with an immediate yellow card, and a second offence should receive the red.

Only when the officials show they are serious about this shirt-pulling plague will it be wiped out.


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Nakata should have headed for goal, not for Oguro

1 Jun 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 31, 2006 -- On Monday evening, Guido Buchwald was the guest speaker at a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters' Association of Japan in Tokyo.

As a World Cup winner and an ambassador for his hometown Stuttgart, the Reds boss was the ideal choice to give the foreign sports media an insight into last-minute preparations, plus the hopes and expectations of the German people.

But, naturally, as a football man, he also had some interesting things to say on the game itself, in Japan, Brazil and Europe.

One of his observations of the Japanese player was the lack of killer instinct in front of goal. Buchwald, of course, is not the first person to say this, and neither will he be the last.

There is a feeling that the Japanese want to score the perfect goal. They want to pass and pass and eventually walk the ball into the net, something Arsenal fans may feel their team try to do too much instead of just finishing.

Guido's words were still fresh in my mind as I watched Germany against Japan in the early hours of Wednesday morning. It was especially relevant near the end, when Japan had a wonderful chance to score a third goal but squandered it.

A beautiful cross from the right by Shunsuke, who had spotted an astute run to the far post by Hidetoshi Nakata. When the ball came over, I was certain Nakata was going to launch himself at it, like he did against Tunisia in the 2002 World Cup and, more recently, against Bosnia.

But, instead, Nakata tried to direct the ball across goal and into the path of Oguro.

Surely Nakata should have gone for goal himself. The angle was a bit tight, admittedly, but he was so close to the goal that he would have had a good chance of beating Lehmann at his near post, or enough time to aim for the far corner.

I couldn't believe it when he tried to pick out Oguro, who was eventually crowded out and the chance disappeared. The television camera focused on Oguro, but it was Nakata's missed chance, not Oguro's.

A goal for Nakata would have been a just reward for another impressive game, in which his midfield inter-play with Shunsuke enabled Japan to keep creating chances. Yanagisawa, too, was very much involved in the approach play, fully justifying Zico's faith in him as he recovered from injury.

But it was Takahara who scored the two goals, both of them beauties, although the German defenders, notably Ballack, should never have allowed him to wriggle free inside the box for the second one.

Nakata could have won it for Japan right at the death -- but wanted one pass too many.

There is still time to learn, though, and hopefully he will be more single-minded if a similar opportunity comes along against Australia on June 12.


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