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July 2006

Tatsuya's winner brings mixed feelings

31 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 29: Football can be uplifting and cruel at the very same moment.

This happened at Komaba on Wednesday night, when Urawa Reds beat Oita Trinita 1-0.

The precise moment was the 78th minute, when Tatsuya Tanaka scored the only goal of the game. It was a lovely, cool finish by Tatsuya, and suggested he is a long way back to full fitness after his terrible injury.

At the same time, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Oita. This was the cruel part.

I thought Oita had been the better team until that moment, and Urawa could not have complained if the match had finished in a draw.

The visitors kept the ball expertly, dictated the pace of the game and then broke quickly to catch the Reds defence unawares time after time. The Reds fans may have jeered this patient, possession football by Oita, but it was nice to watch and so was their passing in the last third of the field.

What was missing, of course, was the finish, as Oita created several clear chances to score. They couldn't, and Tatsuya could at the right time, and that is what decided the match.

Although the Reds fans were whistling their discontent at Oita's tactics, they should have been more concerned about their own team. A five-man midfield with Hasebe, Keita and Ono in the centre could not get the ball, although I do remember a wonderful pass from Hasebe in the first half that sent Tatsuya racing away, and a fierce shot that was tipped to safety by Nishikawa.

That was a rare moment of Reds fluency, though, as I thought Oita played a good match. It was a pity that, in the second half, as they scented a draw and a point, they resorted to some blatant time-wasting tactics to run down the clock.

I always think of a Steve Perryman comment when that happens: that it shows to the opposition you are not good enough to do the job honestly and fairly.

It all came to nothing when Tatsuya found some space and collected a short pass from Uchidate before clipping the ball into the corner. It was a quality finish from Tatsuya, who had shown a refreshing willingness to run at the opposition and to shoot when the goal was in sight. If Osim does call him up, I hope Tatsuya maintains that positive approach.


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Morimoto has nothing to lose

27 Jul 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, July 25, 2006: Good luck to young Morimoto!

What has the teenager got to lose by joining Catania on a one-year loan deal from Verdy?

I would think absolutely nothing, and feel the experience can only benefit him.

It's not like he is near the national team or anything, and a move overseas would rule him out of selection.

He is still very young and his career is at the beginning, so a move overseas is unlikely to prove a setback in any way.

It could even "make" him as a player, if he does well for Catania and attracts the interest of bigger clubs, but it will certainly not "break" him as his current status is Japanese second division, with only age-group football for Japan in the near future. And this is not a good enough reason to stay in Japan.

For all the media, and fans, planning trips to watch Morimoto, I envy them!

I visited Catania in the early 1990s, not to watch football but to cover the Hong Kong rugby team in the Sicily Sevens, which was a qualifying tournament for the World Sevens to be held in Scotland.

It is a lovely place, as most of Italy is, with so much sightseeing to do, and so many restaurants to fill in the gaps between sightseeing!

I am sure Morimoto will have a wonderful time there, not just from a football point of view but also from the view of a young man just setting out in the world.

As for his chances of success; well, very difficult to say.

Catania will surely struggle to stay in Serie A, like many clubs do who come up from Serie B, so he could be in for some long, hard Sunday afternoons.

But there is no doubt Morimoto has the raw materials to improve as a player. He is quick, physically strong, aggressive with the ball at his feet, and knows how to score goals.

Former Verdy manager Ossie Ardiles once told me that Sir Alex Ferguson was a big fan of Morimoto's after seeing him play in a youth tournament. Ardiles said Manchester United were monitoring his progress, but obviously nothing has come of that...yet.

A season in Catania, in Serie A, will attract more attention than had he stayed in J2 with Verdy, so there is no pressure on him at all.

He can relax off the pitch, train hard, play hard and enjoy Italy. All in all a good move for the talented young forward, and maybe for the long-term future of Japanese football.


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Winter season is worth considering

24 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 22, 2006: He's got a big job in front of him, hasn't he?

No, not Ivica Osim.

I'm talking about Kenji Onitake, the new chairman of the J.League.

For a while now I've been thinking the J.League needs a bit of a shake-up.

There are far too many breaks for my liking, and the league could do with some streamlining in certain areas, such as scrapping the all-star game.

I'd start with a radical change, namely from a summer season to a winter season. The hot and humid months of July and August are no time to be playing football, and I'd like to see a European-style season, kicking off in early September and finishing in May.

This would leave June and July free for national team commitments, such as the World Cup and Confederations Cup, without forcing another break on the league season.

I also feel it would benefit clubs by bringing them into line with the European transfer market, where contracts end June 30, and make it easier to negotiate transfers in and out of Japan.

Another advantage -- and I think this is a very important factor -- is the media exposure. At the moment, the J.League season and baseball season run hand in hand, but there is a void in the months from December to February, apart from the Emperor's Cup.

Just think, if the J.League ran from September to May, the profile in the media would be much higher, as it would have a monopoly in the winter months when baseball was closed down.

Right now the two compete for space, and there is no doubt baseball still dominates as a rule, apart from national team matters.

Also, if the J.League switched to a European season there would be less need for midweek matches. Wednesday night games are not big crowd-pullers, and reduce the average crowd considerably. With a September to May season, midweek dates could be reserved for Nabisco Cup and Emperor's Cup rounds.

I know there are disadvantages of a winter season, notably the harsh conditions in Sapporo, Yamagata and Niigata. But Sapporo has a dome, and surely the fixture list could be manipulated so that Yamagata and particularly Niigata play the majority of their home games in late summer/autumn and in the spring. This would mean only a couple of months would be out of bounds.

Yes, I know there would be problems with, and objections to, such a transition, but to me the advantages of a September-May season far outweigh the disadvantages. Overall I think it would be much smoother.

I don't know if the new J.League chairman is even thinking about this, but I feel it would be worth detailed discussion and research, as I am sure Japanese football would benefit as a whole in the long-term.


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Osim will reward hard work, dedication

20 Jul 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, July 19, 2006: Not surprisingly considering Japan's poor showing at the World Cup, there has not been a glut of transfer stories linking Japanese players with clubs in Europe.

And that, in the current situation, is not a bad thing.

One of the biggest problems Zico faced was that so many important players were in Europe, but several of them were spending more time on the bench than the pitch.

When they played for the national team, therefore, they were not match fit -- as training every day is much different to actually playing competitive football.

Zico always insisted that the Japanese players in Europe were better than the players in the J.League, otherwise they would not have been signed by a European club in the first place. While he may have a point to some extent, it did not excuse Zico from showing such blind loyalty to players from European clubs who were so lacking in form, rather than taking a wider look round the J.League and expanding his horizons.

According to comments I have read from JFA president Kawabuchi, Osim will not adopt the same approach as Zico. He will follow the line that Hiddink took with South Korea in 2002, that a player must be a first-choice selection for his club, no matter where that club was. (Ahn Jung Hwan, for example, was very close to not being selected for the 2002 squad, and would not have been had he stayed with Perugia rather than returning to Korea).

This policy from Osim can only be good news for the J.League and for the players. Unlike Zico, Osim will be able to identify the players who can make the step up from Asian level to a world level, and he will encourage young talent in the same way Troussier did.

It will also make players (and hopefully their agents) think more carefully before accepting the first offer from Europe that comes along.

Why should the national coach pick a player like Takahara, struggling to make an impact in the Bundesliga, over a player such as Maki, who is playing, scoring and confident? At the highest level, with very little to choose between the technique of individual players, confidence and form makes the world of difference.

I expect Osim's selections, therefore, to be fresh and adventurous, and this approach will inject the same qualities into the game in general here. Osim brings hope, a ray of light after the dark, depressing days of Zico.

A passport to Europe should not be a passport into the national team, and Osim will not sacrifice his principles to keep a so-called "fantasista" in the team just because female fans think he's handsome and because he's popular with the TV stations for giving melancholic, "little boy lost" interviews. His style will have to fit the Osim style, the Japanese style, and that means he's going to have to run, keep running and then run some more. There will be no room for players who are not prepared to give everything for the team, as Osim demands this work ethic and, indeed, receives it.

Europe is not the only answer for a Japanese player who wants to be successful at the highest level. Not any more.


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FIFA should embrace video tech, not fear it

17 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 15, 2006 -- The Zidane-Materazzi incident has been a terrible setback for the game, with its ugly provocation and violent reaction.

But, who knows, some good may actually come out of it in the end.

That is if FIFA decides to introduce video technology to assist the officials and right the many wrongs in the game. Personally, I think FIFA should have done this several years ago, and their reluctance to use video replays is holding back the development of the game.

Shortly after the Zidane dismissal, reports were circulating that video technology had been used to punish the crime. The referee had missed the incident, through no fault of his own as play was going the other way and he has only one pair of eyes, but it had been spotted on a pitch-side monitor replay by the fourth official, who sits in between the two team benches.

FIFA moved quickly to say this was not true, and insisted that the fourth official had seen the head-butt with his own eyes and had informed the referee via their communication system. The world governing body stressed that video technology had not been used at all.

But the big question remains: What is wrong with using a TV monitor and a few replays if it brings to the attention incidents such as these? Is it not good for the game, rather than bad?

Rather than welcoming such a change, FIFA president Sepp Blatter says video technology undermines the authority of the referee. Surely it helps the referee and his assistants, and enables them to make correct decisions.

Blatter says that referees are only human and everyone makes mistakes, but that is not a good enough excuse in the modern game with so much money at stake and so much technology available.

I often think back to the 1998 semi-final between France and Croatia when the French defender Blanc was sent off after Croatia's Bilic pretended he had been seriously hurt in an off-the-ball incident in the box. Blanc received a two-match ban, ruling him out of the World Cup final in his own country, and FIFA refused to change their decision, even though TV replays showed to millions of viewers around the world that Bilic had conned the referee. The cheat had won, and the honest player had lost.

Just think what could have happened in other circumstances. After the game, match officials could have reviewed the TV replays and, on seeing the scale of Bilic's theatrics, cancelled the two-match ban for Blanc.

Would anyone have argued about this? Could anyone in all honesty still have said Blanc deserved to miss the final?

I think FIFA should introduce video technology/replays immediately. There is no argument for saying it would hold up the flow of the game, because there is no flow any more, especially at the World Cup, where the next petty foul and whistle was only a few seconds away.


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Zidane should have won the "Golden Butt" award, not Golden Ball

13 Jul 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, July 11, 2006 -- A joke or what?

I'm talking, of course, about the Golden Ball Award for the Most Valuable Player of the World Cup going to Zinedine Zidane.

Maybe FIFA should rename the award the "Golden Butt" or even the "Golden Bald Head-butt Award."

I think the award does the game no favours whatsoever, and FIFA should have stepped in to change the result.

In fact I am sure many non-soccer fans, and many fans too, will be laughing at the award, because Zidane's act of violence shocked the world and made a mockery of the claim (not mine) that he is one of the best players in the history of the game.

With ability, genius even, and with the captaincy comes responsibility and discipline, and there are no excuses whatsoever for Zidane's hooligan behaviour, even if motor-mouth Materazzi did call him "the son of a terrorist whore".

Zidane should have been big enough to have walked away from the slur, but his temper got the better of him, just like it did at the 1998 World Cup when he was sent off for stamping on a Saudi Arabia player in France's second group game. That was vicious, too, and brought a two-match suspension, which could have proved costly for France long before they reached the final.

In the final, of course, he scored two fine headers against Brazil, and his violent act against the Saudis was swept under the carpet.

Now, though, there is no hiding, and no chance of redemption, as Zidane has hung up his boots and retired.

But let's get back to the award, in which the journalists vote for a 1-2-3 MVP, with five points for first place, three for second and one for third.

Personally, I would have voted for Cannavaro because I thought he was magnificent in the heart of the Italian defence, especially in the absence of the injured Nesta. Even if Zidane had not been sent off and even if France had won the final, I would still have voted for Cannavaro, provided that he didn't score three own goals, concede a penalty and get sent off for spitting or something equally repulsive.

I would not have voted for Zidane, and think many people did for "romantic" reasons. After all, what a great story! Zidane retires from international football in 2004, comes back a year later and, at 34, helps his team reach the final in his last game before retiring for good.

The problem is, most of the people vote before the final, because, with all the interviews and articles journalists must write after the final, the last thing they need is a FIFA "suit" pestering them to complete their voting forms (unlike Nabisco Cup games in Japan, for example, when we can vote at leisure for Konno or Inoha after each FC Tokyo game!)

I have read many interesting comments on websites around the world, and one argument is that a red card, for behaving like a drunk and bald mountain goat, should not be enough to affect your overall opinion of a player. Really?

Excuse me, but isn't getting sent off in the final, and missing the shoot-out as your colleagues toil and lose, quite an important part of the World Cup?

It reminds me a bit of Alex Santos a few seasons ago, when he was sent off for S-Pulse in the second leg of the championship play-off against Jubilo, who went on to win. The next day, Alex was named J.League MVP, which I also thought was wrong (and, more recently, Emerson, but we won't go into that! Emerson, by the way, will be 19 years old next week).

With the media being encouraged to vote early, although the ballot box did not close officially until midnight, this leaves the system open for mistakes and ridicule.

Next time, maybe FIFA should examine the results the morning after the final, and make the Golden Ball choice after a discussion with the Technical Study Group. In other words, the media vote would be a contribution to the award, not the whole of it.

Zidane is in disgrace, and I think the reputation of football as a whole has been tarnished by the award, when FIFA could have prevented it. Cannavaro was a worthy winner, but he won't mind...he has the World Cup for four years!


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Let's put an end to the nonsense

10 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 8, 2006 -- It has been very encouraging to read lots of articles lately about the amount of diving, feigning injury and gamesmanship at the World Cup, and that FIFA accepts there is a plague that needs wiping out.

I say "encouraging" because many times I feel the media do not write about this aspect of the game, and just accept it as a modern trend.

My thoughts on the subject have been well documented over the years, and I will never turn a blind eye to an injustice brought about by someone cheating, even if a member of the Japanese press once criticised me for standing up for "old-style football." I think he meant "honest" football.

I just can't help myself from commenting on the subject, and this led to a heated argument in the Media Seats during the England-Ecuador second-round game at Stuttgart.

From the opening whistle Ecuador were clearly playing for a goalless draw, extra time and penalties, when they could suddenly turn from negative spoilers to brave heroes.

So when yet another Ecuador player decided to stay down after an innocuous challenge and one of his team-mates kicked the ball out of play, I threw my pen down on the desk and said it was a joke. Actually I used a bad word before "joke", beginning with "F", and I apologise for not being able to keep my "passion and emotion" in check!

Sitting to my right were four or five Spanish-speaking journalists, who were clearly cheering for Ecuador. And I mean cheering!

They took offence to the fact that I thought the Ecuador players were play-acting, and repeated my "F" word several times between themselves, which was quite amusing.

"What about 'F...ing' Rio Ferdinand?" said the one next to me, who did not even have a note book or pen with him. "The 'F...ing' King of Fair Play!"

He then proceeded to demonstrate the use of his elbows and started punching thin air, a bit like Tim Cahill's boxing celebration at the corner flag against Japan (sorry to mention that readers, still painful isn't it?)

"It's a man's game," I replied, "not a girl's game."

So, as you can see, there are very differing views on the subject. Strangely enough, though, Ecuador stopped play-acting after "Prince David of Beckingham Palace" scored his wonderful free kick. From that point on, Ecuador actually tried to score, too, which was quite a novelty. Had the clowns sitting next to me noticed the link between their team falling behind and the subsequent lack of time-wasting? Probably not.

Anyway, thanks to Portugal in general and Cristiano Ronaldo in particular, all the dark elements of the game have been highlighted at this World Cup, and Franz Beckenbauer -- "Der Kaiser" of Fair Play -- says a panel of players, referees and coaches will discuss the problem at a meeting later this year.

It could be long gone by then, of course.

Yes, it is as easy as that, if the players really want it.


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Memories of Nakata's last match

6 Jul 2006(Thu)

July 5, 2006 -- Well, I thought there was something not quite right about Hidetoshi Nakata at the end of the Brazil game.

His last game at the World Cup, definitely. His last game for Japan, possibly.

But never his last game as a professional.

Once again, though, Nakata has written his own rules and done his own thing, which is typical of the man and of his lifestyle.

He's never been one to follow the crowd, or to stand still. He's kept moving and kept challenging himself.

Now, fresh challenges lie ahead, off the pitch, and, just like he did on it, he has the talent to be a success.

Of all my memories of Nakata, dating back to 1994 when I first saw him play, for Japan's under-19s at the Asian Youth Championship in Jakarta, the one that is with me at the moment came during the Brazil game.

It was towards the end of the match, when Brazil had the three points safely in the bag. Japan broke down the left wing and Nakata made a run to the far post, hoping the ball would reach him.

It didn't -- and Nakata flopped to the floor, exasperated. He must have known, at that crushing moment, that this had been his last chance to score a goal, to feel the ecstacy when the ball makes the net bulge, the linesman's flag stays down and the referee is pointing back to the centre circle.

After the chance was gone, he dragged himself to his feet and began to run back into his own half, as Brazil were breaking quickly again and another goal looked possible. I watched Nakata closely, and he was absolutely exhausted. His head was bobbing from side to side and he was surviving purely on his instincts, as every ounce of energy had been spent.

What happened after the final whistle, of course, has been well documented. Watching him from the Media Seats in Dortmund, I was quite concerned about his well-being, as I am sure a few other people were, too, including Miyamoto and Adriano, both of whom went over to check he was okay.

I felt sure at this time that he had played his last match for Japan, and this was his "thank you" to the fans, and when he announced his retirement this week, it seemed to be a logical conclusion to those events in Dortmund.

I think he knew that his career would be all downhill from here, and he has never given the impression that he would like to prolong his career just for the sake of it, moving from club to club, at a lower and lower level, for another pay packet until his mid-30s.

He has a much bigger agenda than that, and I am sure he must be feeling a sense of relief right now rather than facing another uncertain close-season in Europe, wondering where he will be playing.

At the moment, this is my lingering memory of Nakata, but others, happier ones, will come back in the future.


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Osim not yet signed, sealed and delivered

3 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 1, 2006 -- What's happening in the Osim Affair?

I thought the procedure would have been quite straightforward for the JFA.

First, the JFA technical committee draws up a list of candidates to succeed Zico after the World Cup.

Second, they approach the man at the top of the list, or, if he is employed by a club, they approach the club to ask for permission to speak to the candidate.

Third, they offer the job to the candidate, and discuss the length of the contract/salary etc. If there is no agreement, the JFA moves down the list...Osieck?

Fourth, if an agreement is reached, they then negotiate a settlement with the club, if necessary.

Fifth, the new head coach of the national team is presented to the media.

But no, the Osim Affair is still running, as June turns to July. Hopefully it will be concluded soon, for the good of Japanese football, and then Osim can start repairing the damage caused by the Brazilian, who should never have been appointed in the first place.

I must admit I was quite surprised when, on his return to Japan from Germany, JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi revealed that they were negotiating with Osim, and that the initial approach had been made before the World Cup.

Clearly this was a clever piece of "political spin" by the JFA president, trying to deflect attention away from Zico and Japan's failed campaign and putting Osim, a popular choice, in the focus.

The announcement appeared to take some people by surprise, including JEF United, who said they had not been approached by the JFA for permission to speak to Osim.

The last I saw about it was on the NHK evening news on Friday, when Osim was at Gifu and receiving a bouquet of flowers, rather embarrassingly.

Hopefully the three sides -- JFA, JEF and Osim -- can reach a deal soon, and an official announcement can be made, so we can put the Zico Episode behind us as quickly as possible and move forward.

I have been saying for a couple of years that Osim would be the ideal national coach, as it will need someone who knows the Japanese players now to start rebuilding the team.

And there is no need to think about the 2010 World Cup just yet, especially in the case of Osim.

Surely a one-year contract, though to the 2007 Asian Cup, or a maximum two-year deal would suffice, and then, if everyone is happy, an extension through to the 2010 World Cup could be discussed.

I also don't want to read any more comments from the JFA president about Osim being the ideal man to continue Zico's philosophy.

To me this is an insult to Osim, who is a respected and proven coach, as opposed to Zico, who had no experience at all and displayed his shortcomings time and again during those four long years.


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