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August 2006

Timing is perfect for Ogasawara

31 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 29, 2006: So Mitsuo Ogasawara has finally swapped Japan for Italy.

The midfield playmaker has been the subject of transfer rumours for a couple of seasons now, and he left Japan on Monday for a one-year spell on loan with Messina.

Who can blame him for going -- and for getting out of Japan so quickly?

After all, there wasn't much left for him here, apart from staying with Kashima Antlers and hoping for a national team recall.

But after playing in the last two World Cups, and being overlooked so far by Osim, Ogasawara must feel his international career is over, so why shouldn't he move to Italy while he has the chance? Perhaps his last chance.

The timing, then, is perfect under these circumstances, and, without the pressure of trying to impress for his club so that he can stay in the national squad, Ogasawara might just thrive in this environment.

On the subject of the national squad, I think the policy of Osim will force many players to think more carefully about their future, and not just take the first offer that comes along from a European club.

Osim is clearly showing he has faith in the ability of the J.League players, and letting everyone know that it is not a disadvantage to be playing in Japan as opposed to playing in Europe.

Younger players will have to think carefully about this matter when, or if, offers come up, but Ogasawara was not in this category.

He has been there and done that with the national team, and has nothing to prove to anyone, and nothing to lose.

He can relax and enjoy himself in Italy, and think only of settling into a new lifestyle with his young family -- and not think about all the travel and hassle for Japan national team games.


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Okada will feel he did not complete his Marinos mission

28 Aug 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, August 26, 2006: One way or another, Takeshi Okada had to go, didn't he?

His Yokohama F Marinos team was getting worse and worse, and there was nothing to suggest things would improve either in the near future or next season.

In the end, Okada fell on his sword, and resigned shortly after Marinos' 2-1 defeat at home to Omiya on Wednesday.

I wasn't at that game at Mitsuzawa -- a resurgent FC Tokyo and Naohiro Ishikawa beckoned at Kokuritsu -- but saw the highlights on TV later in the evening; Matsuda equalising from the penalty spot late on, only for Yoshihara to snatch the winner in a scramble at the other end.

The TV camera showed Okada leaving the dug-out, his body language indicating that there was no way forward from here. It was no surprise at all, therefore, to learn the next day that he had resigned his position.

Okada will feel he did not complete the job for Marinos. Despite winning the championship in his first two seasons in charge, 2003 and 2004, success at the continental level deserted him, and Marinos failed to challenge for the AFC Champions League title.

Frequently this season I have wondered what the future held for Okada. After all, he's coached the national team at a World Cup and won the championship twice with Marinos -- and there's only way to go after that: down.

I could see him taking a break from the game and doing some media work before looking for his next job. I am sure he will be in big demand from clubs of all standing, from small teams in J2 trying to move up, to bigger clubs in J1 trying to fulfil their potential.

Okada is very much his own man, though, and will wait to see what attracts him. He may fancy another period in the "wilderness", to get away from the mass media spotlight, like he did in Sapporo, and take a lowly J2 team.

That would be my bet, for the start of the 2007 season.

The offers will come in, but he will not be in a hurry to take a new challenge.


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Tulio stands out as leading candidate for captaincy

24 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 23, 2006: Shortly after taking over the national team, Ivica Osim was asked who his captain would be.

Osim replied that a captain would emerge naturally from his new group of players, and in the meantime the experienced and respected Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi would wear the captain's armband.

Well, after two games, I know who my long-term captain would be.

Without a doubt, it would be...Tulio!

Okay, he's only played two games for Japan, but so what? He's a natural leader, loves the blue (and the red) and would run through a brick wall to stop a goal being scored.

His position, also, makes him the perfect captain, just like Miyamoto and Ihara before him and like John Terry now for England. I always thought Terry, rather than Gerrard, was the favourite to replace King David as captain of the 2010 World Cup-winners in South Africa, and Tulio reminds me of Terry -- apart from (maybe) his salary.

Osim has other options. He could stick with Yoshi, or promote his captain at JEF, Yuki Abe, or even give the job to another Red, such as Tsuboi or Keita.

But I think Tulio has more presence than anyone else in the squad, and is surely guaranteed a place in Osim's starting line-up, which is an important factor.

I also think the captaincy would be good for Tulio. He would relish the responsibility and would lead by example, making sure that everyone gave maximum effort and that heads never dropped if things were not going well.

Yes, Tulio would be the man for me to succeed Miyamoto, and I would like to see it happen in time for the two away games with Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Also, Tulio will be only 29 when the 2010 World Cup comes around, and will be at his peak for a central defender.


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Mature Matsui will get his chance

21 Aug 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, August 19, 2006: The Japan-based players, quite rightly, are the focus of attention at the moment as new head coach Ivica Osim begins the massive job of rebuilding the national team from the ruins of Germany.

But the players in Europe will not be forgotten by Osim, as some of them will have a part to play as the team development continues.

Who and when is another matter, and those questions will be answered in the near future.

The only name I keep hearing, though, is that of Daisuke Matsui.

I saw some highlights of a Le Mans game on TV last Sunday night and Matsui looked in great form. He was fast, confident and dangerous, dribbling past two or three players on a couple of occasions and very much looking the part of the creative midfield player. In fact he reminded me of one of my favourite England and Newcastle United players, Peter Beardsley, who once formed a dynamic strikeforce for the Magpies alongside Kevin Keegan and Chris Waddle, and also supplied many of Gary Lineker's goals for England.

Beardsley was a quick and clever player, with lovely balance and control, and tough for a little guy...similar to Keegan, in fact, but with more natural talent than KK.

Matsui, of course, was overlooked by Zico for the World Cup, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. I thought his omission was something of a surprise at the time, but the inclusion of Maki provided the main news.

Osim, I am sure, has not abandoned all the players based in Europe -- only most of them -- and Matsui must be top of his list. His game has matured since his J.League days, and he plays with more discipline and responsibility. In short, he plays for the team and not for himself, and has learned some valuable lessons in France.

Japan's next tests are away to Saudi Arabia and Yemen in early September, and they will provide stern examinations of the new-look Japan. Personally, I would like to see Osim continue with the J.League players, and let the team build its own identity and character. After those two away games he will know what is lacking -- in fact he probably knows already -- and can then address the situation with the Euro players.

It's only a matter of time before Matsui is recalled.


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JEF players deserve recognition

17 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 15, 2006: No one can say they were surprised that Ivica Osim picked four JEF United players for his squad to face Yemen.

And no one can say the players did not deserve it, either.

Two of them, Maki and Abe, were certain to be selected once the A3 Champions Cup was out of the way. Maki, of course, played at the 2006 World Cup -- but not enough in my opinion. He should have been sent on after 60 minutes against Australia when it was clear Takahara and Yanagisawa were exhausted and when the game could still have been won...by Japan I mean.

Abe did everything asked of him by Osim in the months leading up to the World Cup, and Osim was bitterly disappointed when his young leader was not selected.

So those two, Maki and Abe, were quite predictable; the other two JEF selections, Hanyu and Yuto Sato, not so.

But Hanyu and Yuto epitomise the JEF "ekiden" style and the JEF spirit. They run until they drop and just never give up, often surprising opponents with their tenacity and aggression.

When the opposition has possession deep in their own half, just watch Hanyu and Yuto put the pressure on them. They take it in turns to dash from midfield, and spring on their adversary like a jack-in-a-box, or like a Venus Flytrap in those nature documentaries. Watch, pounce and retreat -- all in the blink of an eye.

One coach who will be particularly pleased about Hanyu's selection is former Aston Villa and Celtic manager Jo Venglos. When "Doctor Jo" was manager at JEF, he raved about Hanyu, only wishing he had been able to coach him from 16 years old instead of 22 out of Tsukuba University.

Yuto, too, is a terrific little player who, like his twin brother Hisato, knows where the goal is.

I don't know what Osim's team will be against Yemen, but a top three of Maki, supported by Tatsuya and Hanyu, could be very tasty indeed. There would be so much movement and pace that Yemen's defenders would not know what day it was, or whether they were in Niigata, Nigeria or Naples.

Expect, therefore, the visitors to slow the game down as much as possible. This is how they will try and deny Japan, so it could be a frustrating night for the home team, needing patience as well as pace.


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Tulio, Hasebe, Tatsuya: Japan's Rising Reds

14 Aug 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, August 12, 2006: One of the banners at the National Stadium on Wednesday said it all: "Rising Reds."

Although it's still very early in the Osim era, I thought three Urawa players showed enough to suggest they can play a major role in the new-look Japan.

At the back, Tulio brought an intensity and aggression to the team. Not only is he strong in the air, he reads the game well, and makes many timely interceptions and clearances.

In front of Tulio, in Osim's three-man midfield, Hasebe produced moments of sheer class. Without wanting to build him up too much, Hasebe at times reminds me of a young Roberto Baggio.

He has the touch, the skill and the grace of Baggio, and also has the power and the presence. During last year's Emperor's Cup campaign, I saw Hasebe score an individual goal which was a mini-replica of Baggio's solo slalom against the Czechs at the 1990 World Cup.

Hasebe does not simply pass the ball; he does not merely kick it. He strokes it and caresses it, and a couple of his passes, up the right wing in the first half, were beautiful examples of this technique. Hasebe, still only 22, can get better and better.

And then there was Tatsuya Tanaka. He deserved a goal for his tireless efforts, as I thought he made some excellent runs from a deep position behind the Trinidad and Tobago back line.

There is always debate and discussion about formations, but I thought Japan played 4-3-3, or, to break it down further, 4-1-2-2-1, with Keita Suzuki the lone "volante" and Ganaha the lone striker, supported by Yamase and Tatsuya. Some people may say Tatsuya was right up front alongside Ganaha, but I thought he was slightly withdrawn, enabling him to make those impressive, well-timed runs, and also to receive the ball deep and run at defenders.

As for the other Reds, Tsuboi looked more commanding and authoritative than in previous national team games, and Alex had more freedom to attack with Komano behind him. Keita, as usual, played a mature, disciplined game in rear midfield, but he needed help, especially in the second half, and that will surely come from Abe.

"Rising Reds" indeed. And surely "Rising Japan" also.


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A3 has its place, but not in mid-season

10 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 9, 2006: The JEF United-Gamba Osaka game at the A3 Championship in Tokyo on Tuesday night really felt like a cup final.

It was fast and furious, with incidents and controversy at both ends.

In the end, of course, Gamba won 2-0, but the trophy and first prize of US$400,000 did not go to either of them. It went to Ulsan Hyundai, for whom Lee Chun Soo had been outstanding in a strong team effort.

The A3 leaves me with mixed feelings. Is it worth playing, or is it just another tournament that brings in money but clutters up the fixture list and disrupts the J.League season?

Overall, I think it deserves to stay in the calendar, but it should not be played mid-season. A pre-season tournament, for example in early March, for all three countries makes much more sense, and would give the teams a chance to finetune their line-ups for their coming domestic campaigns.

The timing of the 2006 edition has been poor, not only resulting in another frustrating break in the first division when it was just warming up again but also depriving new national coach Osim of players from two strong teams.

The Gamba-JEF game saw the Osaka club inflict another defeat on the Chiba team, shortly after they had won a recent J1 clash at Fukuda Denshi Arena.

Endo was the hero and then the villain for Gamba, first scoring with a great free kick, low into the corner, but then paying an expensive and embarrassing price for an arrogant approach to taking a penalty. (Was it really a free kick, just outside the JEF box, when Magno Alves went flying through the air? To me he was moving across the box, had pushed the ball too far to his left and simply took off into the night sky. Replays may prove me wrong, but I didn't think it was a free kick.)

Shortly after, when Abe was late on a sprightly Myojin, the ref awarded a penalty. Endo was way too casual with his kick, walking up to the ball, and then playing a back pass to Tateishi, who saved easily.

Possibly feeling he had to make amends to JEF, the Korean ref then awarded United a penalty when Sakamoto gave a fine impression of Kosuke Kitajima leaping off his podium into the Olympic pool. Like Kitajima at Athens, that deserved a gold medal, too, possibly two! I was not the only member of the media laughing in the press seats when the ref pointed to the penalty spot, but Abe hit a home run out of the ground and into Jingu Stadium.

The match could easily have been 2-0 to Gamba, and then it could have been 1-1, but it was still 1-0 to Gamba after the two penalty misses. What a great game football is!

It was left to Bando to settle the issue with a fantastic goal, a diving header which flew in off the underside of the bar.

Bando had also scored at "Fukuare" in the recent league game, and that was a fine finish, too, into the bottom corner with his right foot.

When Osim looks through the JEF, Gamba and Antlers teams ahead of next week's game against Yemen, Bando might not be too far away.


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Osim changes mood of national squad

7 Aug 2006(Mon)

August 5, 2006 -- Well, there are only 13 of them, but it's an exciting start for "Uncle" Osim's Japan.

Five players with no caps, some outstanding young talent returning, and six of the 13 from Urawa...I wonder if Japan are going to start playing in red, rather than blue, and then we can have the Red Samurai and Red Fever!

This is the fresh start Japan needed after the poor showing in Germany, and Osim has wasted no time in his rebuilding process. He has been in Japan long enough to know a good player when he sees one, and to know one who best represents the strong characteristics of the Japanese player.

Personally, I am delighted to see Tulio in the squad. Raw and rough, Tulio will bring an intensity and commitment to the back line, and possibly also to the forward line when he charges forward. I still find it hard to believe that Zico never gave him a chance, knowing last December the physical threat posed by Australia and Croatia.

Tulio would have loved those aerial scraps against the Aussies. You could have imagined him, couldn't you, standing on the edge of his own box, inviting the Aussie defenders to launch a few more long balls into the middle and then challenging them with a cry of "Is that the best you got?"

Delighted, too, to see Konno back in there after Zico looked at him all too briefly. Zico's under-use and under-development of Konno bordered on the criminal, one of the worst mistakes he made in his bungling reign.

It has been obvious for several seasons that Konno has bags of potential, but Zico was allowed to discard him and waste two years of the young player's international career.

Daigo Kobayashi has been in sparkling form for Omiya but knows he must increase his running under Osim, and his selection puts a big question mark against the future of Shunsuke Nakamura.

Hayuma Tanaka has lots of experience on the right side, either in a four-man defence or five-man midfield, and will put Kaji under pressure for that position, but I still feel Osim rates Kaji highly and is the No. 1 choice. A few years ago, when Hayuma was at Verdy, the coach at the time, Lori Sandri, said the player would eventually become Japan's right back, and his prediction is coming true.

Hasebe, of course, oozes class, while Ganaha is rewarded for leading the Frontale front line and the team to the top of the table. With Maki on A3 duty, Osim needed some height and Ganaha gives him that, and will probably give him some goals, too.

All in all, then, a bright and imaginative start by Osim, who clearly felt he needed to change the mood of the team after Germany as the squad had gone stale under Zico.


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Frontale stay out in front

3 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 2, 2006 -- Yes, I think it is safe to say that Kawasaki Frontale is a genuine candidate to win the J.League championship.

Although they have played well all season, I have been a bit reluctant to count Frontale among the title contenders.

This is for one reason only: the fact that they have not been in this lofty position before, and therefore do not have the experience to handle the pressure. They have big players, but no big-name players, if you see what I mean!

But now, 16 games into the 34-match season, Frontale are still at the top with 34 points, holding a one-point lead over Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka, and a three-point advantage over Kashima Antlers in fourth place.

I feel we are down to a four-horse race for the championship, because none of the acknowledged "big teams" below this pack, such as Yokohama F Marinos and Jubilo Iwata, appear capable of improving their form dramatically over the second half of the season.

The rise of Frontale is good for the game in Japan, as the more teams equipped to challenge for the title, the better.

It seems unlikely that Frontale will self-destruct and collapse, either, as they are clearly made of tough components and have a strong team spirit, a solid team structure and with flair on top.

Their results since J1 resumed after the World Cup have been impressive, apart from the 2-0 reverse at home to Urawa Reds. I have visited Todoroki many times and did not think it was possible to get 23,000 fans in that stadium -- but this occasion proved otherwise, thanks to the Reds masses plus the attraction of such a visiting team to Todoroki for the home supporters.

That defeat was sandwiched between two impressive victories, 4-2 at Kashima and 3-2 at home to Gamba, and then a solid 1-1 draw at Oita.

Having seen Oita play recently at Komaba, against Urawa, this was a good result for Frontale away from home, and underlined once again they have what it takes to last the pace.

But we will all have to wait until August 12 for the resumption of hostilities, as there is yet another frustrating break in the J1 calendar. It should be worth the wait, though, as it's Frontale against Marinos at Todoroki, guaranteeing another bumper crowd.


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