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November 2006

Recent history suggests a last-day sensation cannot be ruled out

30 Nov 2006(Thu)

November 29, 2006: Surely no; surely it can’t happen again, can it?

Reds against Gamba at Saitama Stadium 2002 in a match that has been sold out for weeks.

Reds three points clear with one game remaining.

Gamba needing to win by three goals or more to overtake them.

No, it cannot happen. The championship is already decided, and Saturday will be one big red, black and white party, apart from the section reserved for visiting fans.

Well, this is the logical scenario for Saturday.

But, as we have seen in recent seasons, the J.League is not logical and therefore a result such as Reds 0 Gamba 3 simply cannot be ruled out.

Just imagine it. Gamba leading 2-0 with four minutes of injury time to play. Then Magno Alves goes down in the box and the referee awards a penalty. He scores – and Gamba retain their league crown in another incredible finish.

Or he misses – and Reds win the championship for the first time in Buchwald’s last league match in charge.

After watching Marinos beat Jubilo with that Kubo header in injury time in 2003 to clinch the second stage and the perfect championship, and then seeing Gamba win at Todoroki on the last day of the 2005 season, I am not ruling anything out on Saturday.

The unthinkable can happen in football, especially in Japan, and recent history proves this.

In all probability it won’t, and the match may well finish 0-0 or 1-1 to give Reds the title in a bit of an anti-climax. An anti-climax, that is, for the neutral fans, but not for the Reds fans, of course, because the title is won over a season, not on one day.

This is why whoever wins the championship these days is the best team in the league, unlike in the days of the two-stage system when the most consistent team may not even have appeared in the two-leg final, and the eventual champions may have finished several points behind the runner-up in the overall standings.

Thankfully those days are over.

But the days of shocks and incredible finishes are not, and never will be over in football.

My tip for Saturday?

A draw, 1-1, Reds to score first (Washington, 35 minutes) and Gamba to equalize late in the second half (Magno Alves, 80 minutes) to ensure a nervy finish.

Reds to win the league.

But there again….


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Reds trio in the running for J.League MVP

27 Nov 2006(Mon)

November 25, 2006: The end-of-year awards season is upon us, so let's think of the J.League MVP.

Chatting with a few media colleagues the other afternoon at Saitama Stadium 2002, three names cropped up, all of them Reds.

A popular choice was Washington, but he would not be mine.

Of course Washington is a valuable player. Anyone who scores the amount of goals he does must be valuable. He proved this with Verdy before moving to Urawa, and looks set to win the "Golden Boot" award as the leading scorer in J1. There is no argument about that, because the statistics are there for all to see and do not lie.

The next name that came up was that of Nobuhisa Yamada -- or should I call him Nobuhisa Del Piero after his wonderful goal against Kofu, who I thought were extremely hard done by with the two penalty decisions and a red card which left them with no hope of getting anything from the game.

I have written earlier this season about Yamada's ability to score goals. Unlike some players who snatch at chances and panic when they see the goal, Yamada remains remarkably cool and relaxed. This quality enables him to score goals like he did against Kofu, cutting in from the left wing, beating three players and curling a lovely shot inside the far post. I saw Paul Gascoigne score many goals like that for Newcastle United and for Tottenham, so there can be no finer compliment to Nobuhisa Del Piero.

During the title run-in Yamada has been in inspirational form, and it is no wonder that Tatsuya and Shinji were on the bench against Kofu when Yamada is linking so well with Ponte and Washinton, supported by Hasebe and Keita from central midfield and the two wing-backs, Hirakawa and Alex.

Also, Yamada's cross early in the second half with his left foot was perfect for Washington to loop a header over the Kofu keeper and open the scoring.

And then, of course, we have Tulio. He is the heart and soul of any team he plays for, committed to the cause and never giving anything less than maximum effort. He regards any goal conceded by Reds as a personal insult and simply hates to see the other team celebrating. But his head does not go down and his response is to try and score at the other end.

All things considered, then, Tulio would get my vote as J.League MVP, with Keita in second place. Too many of these awards are given to players who grab the headlines and the glory for scoring goals, but other less glamorous roles are equally important, if not more so, and deserve recognition. I remember Emerson winning it the other year when Marinos had swept both stages and Nakazawa was clearly the MVP, or Kubo or Oku.

All will be revealed at the awards night on December 18.


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Shun-soo-ki does it again!

23 Nov 2006(Thu)

November 22, 2006: Well, what else can be said about Shunsuke Nakamura?

The former Marinos magician did it again for Celtic on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning Japan time) in their UEFA Champions League group match against Manchester United in Glasgow.

His free kick at Old Trafford a few weeks ago was pretty good, but this one was a beauty, one of the best I have seen him score but still nowhere near as good as the one he struck past Barthez in the Confederations Cup in France.

The one in France was on his “wrong” side, meaning to the left of the goal, whereas his latest gem against Manchester United was from the right side of the goal – a much better angle for a left-footer.

Some 25 metres from goal, Shunsuke struck a perfect free kick over the wall – well over the wall – and brought it down under the crossbar into the top corner, giving the keeper absolutely no chance.

The goal suited the occasion, coming in the 81st minute of the second edition of the so-called “Battle of Britain” between two mega clubs with a massive worldwide fan base.

The English commentary provided some interesting lessons for Japanese viewers in “working football English” – and here’s a few phrases I picked up during the early morning transmission (it was about 6.25 am Japan time when Shunsuke scored).

“Absolute perfection” was one comment from analyst David Pleat, who described it as a “wonderful goal” and a “tremendous piece of skill.”

Whereas Pleat was the “colour” man in the commentary team, there to provide expert analysis and fill in the gaps between play, the match commentator described it as a “breathtaking goal” and a “moment of magic.”

A few minutes later, when Shunsuke was substituted as Celtic defended their 1-0 lead, the commentator spoke of the “standing ovation for a stunning goal.”

Wonderful, breathtaking, stunning…as I said earlier, there is not many more words left in the English language to describe a Shunsuke free kick.

I thought Celtic’s victory was justice because United (Manchester United, I mean, not Newcastle, Leeds, JEF or any of the other Uniteds who are disregarded by arrogant ManU fans) should not have been awarded a penalty in the earlier game at Old Trafford when keeper Boruc was adjudged to have fouled Giggs.

This time, Boruc got his revenge when he saved a late penalty from Saha, who never looked like he was going to score, did he? I don’t know what it is, but I always feel a left-footed penalty-taker is going to miss. Maybe Saha should ask for lessons from Tulio!

Of course Boruc was well off his line as he dived to his right to keep out Saha’s kick, but how many times do referees/linesmen have the courage to call this offence, even though it should be perfectly clear?

All in all, then, another great night for Nakamura in Glasgow. I wrote recently that he had made a good decision to stay with Celtic, rather than trying to play in Spain and maybe ending up on the bench again.

The big question is…when will the TV commentators learn how to pronounce Shunsuke (Shun-ski) instead of Shun-soo-ki, with the emphasis on the “soo” in the middle?

No wonder the players and fans just call him Naka!


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Happy and relieved over Osim’s Japan

20 Nov 2006(Mon)

Saturday, November 18, 2006: A year that began with high hopes for the World Cup ended this week with high hopes for the future, following Japan’s 3-1 defeat of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday night.

I have to say I was delighted – and relieved, too – at Japan’s victory, because it pointed the way ahead for Osim’s new-look team.

Delighted because I feel Osim has picked some fine young players in his short time in charge. They are talented, intelligent players who will listen to the coach and who will learn from him – and quickly.

Take the second goal against the Saudis, for example.

It was a wonderful piece of play from Konno, who crossed exquisitely from the right with his left foot for Ganaha to hit the target with an expertly-weighted header. Ganaha has always scored goals and made Japan’s third look easy when it wasn’t, thanks to another clinical finish after Komano’s run down the left.

Delighted also for Tulio. He’s a fine leader and an inspirational player, and it was his goal that put Japan on the winning trail. I can’t understand why they let him take the penalty, though, because that is really not his scene.

Tulio likes to score goals by battering his way through defences, competing for the ball and lashing it into the net through a crowd of desperate defenders like an old-fashioned mud-caked hero from a comic book. Penalties? Naaah…those are for softies!

Also, what was the Australian referee doing awarding a penalty to Saudi Arabia? That was a joke decision in my opinion, after seeing it on TV replays. Didn’t the Saudi player just fall down? Maybe the Aussies, having been cheated at the World Cup by Grosso’s theatrical tumble at the end of their second-round game with Italy, are getting their own back on the world game and following the lead of the World Cup ref: if a forward falls down, give a penalty against the innocent defender!

All in all, though, I am happy about the result, and, as I said before, relieved.

In my opinion there are too many people around who did not realize the size of the job Osim took on. The team needed rebuilding after the World Cup debacle; a new mood had to be created, a new method and a new direction.

I feel Osim has already done this, and the future is very exciting as he will now look at the players in Europe who may be able to add something to the squad. Osim, of course, knows he must not affect the chemistry of the squad, as this is crucial for a successful team, but the faith he has shown in the J.League players will be repaid on the pitch with effort and energy and pride in the blue shirt.

Unlike many, I was not confident about the 2006 World Cup this time last year. But now I am full of optimism again for the national team.


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Japan-Saudi Arabia game is still important

16 Nov 2006(Thu)

Osaka, Japan, November 15, 2006: Although both Japan and Saudi Arabia have already qualified for next year's Asian Cup finals, I still think their match at Sapporo on Wednesday night is significant.

By the time you read this, the match will have finished, and the result will have brought an end to the first stage of Osim's rebuilding process.

This is why I think the match is important.

If Japan play well and win against strong Asian opposition, then Osim is on the right course. Many of these players will be retained for next year and the long-term future.

But if they do not play well and the performance is a mess, then Osim will have to rethink his strategy and selection policy for next year. Maybe he will bring back some more experienced players, and concentrate more on the present than the future.

And then, of course, there are the players in Europe. I am sure some of them -- Nakamura and Matsui, for example -- must be in his mind for next year's Asian Cup, so this is why it would be a good idea for Japan to play a friendly or two in Europe next spring.

By doing that, it would provide good experience for his J.League players, while at the same time give Osim the chance to integrate the European players without disturbing their careers or body clocks too much.

So, while one view point is that the match against Saudi Arabia is meaningless, I do not agree at all. I think it is a crucial test at the end of Osim's first phase of rebuilding.

I must admit I like the selection of Jubilo's Maeda. He always plays with intensity and pace, and is always very imaginative and direct with his running. He seems the kind of player who, when a scoring chance comes along, does not hesitate or have any self-doubt. In other words, he does not think too much, which can often be a problem for forwards; he just gets on with it.

By now you will know the result of the Japan-Saudi game, but I feel Japan can play well and bring a successful conclusion to the first stage of post-2006 World Cup development.


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Takahara must keep his place in starting line-up

13 Nov 2006(Mon)

Nagoya, Japan, November 11, 2006: Aaah yes, Naohiro Takahara.

I was wondering what had happened to him, and then he pops up with a couple of goals for Eintracht Frankfurt.

No doubt this will prompt a round of "Osim should pick Takahara" chit-chat among fans and maybe even in the media, but I am not convinced at the moment.

It will take more than a couple of goals (and three in all so far this season) for me to join the Takahara Fan Club; or, should I say, renew my membership of the Takahara Fan Club.

Because once I was a big fan of Takahara's when he was banging in the goals for Jubilo Iwata, the Olympic team and the national team, until that serious illness ruled him out of the 2002 World Cup.

At the 2006 World Cup I thought he was a major disappointment, and wondered if he would ever play for Japan again after that. I still have my doubts.

A few weeks before the World Cup I had a long interview with Zico for a Croatian newspaper, and Japan's Brazilian coach picked out three players he thought would shine on the world stage. He named Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke and...yes, Takahara.

I always thought that was a bit optimistic, as Takahara, in all his time out of Japan, in Argentina and then Germany, had never done anything over a sustained period to suggest he would trouble world-class defences.

The move from Hamburg to Frankfurt, though, has freshened him up, and given his stagnating career the drive it needed.

So the big question is...will Osim be taking note and still have Takahara in his plans for next year, once he has completed his survey of the J.League talent?

Well, of course he will be monitoring Takahara, as anyone who can score regularly in the Bundesliga must be a good player. But he's got to keep his place in the team for Osim to be tempted to call him back -- and that means over a period of months, not weeks.

I have said before and will repeat here that Osim's decision to leave the European players alone this year and let them settle at their clubs is absolutely the right one -- and Takahara himself says he is relieved not to have to travel back for games against the likes of India and Yemen.

This is commonsense from Osim, as there is plenty of time for him to inject some Euro quality into the squad in time for next year's Asian Cup defence.

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Memories of fiery Fergie at Saint James's Park

9 Nov 2006(Thu)

Nagoya, Japan, November 8, 2006: Sir Alex Ferguson deserves all the plaudits he is receiving at the moment.

In the modern game, and in the pre-Premier League days, it is an incredbile achievement to be in charge for 20 years. At such a massive club, too, who are expected to be challenging for the trophy in every competition they enter in every season.

I remember once, back in my days as the Newcastle United reporter for a morning newspaper in the north-east of England, being on the end of a fiery Fergie reaction at Saint James's Park one sunny afternoon.

Newcastle had just beaten Manchester United 2-1, and the incident that everyone was talking about was a terrible tackle by Manchester United's Norman Whiteside on Newcastle's John Anderson.

Whiteside was a big, strong forward from Northern Ireland, well known for his combative style; Anderson was a quick and tough right back or central defender who played for the Republic of Ireland.

It was a shocking foul by Whiteside, which left Anderson in agony on the touchline. Anderson was from the old school, before players feigned injury, and would never have stayed down if he had not been hurt. Whiteside had been in the news a lot at that time for his disciplinary problems, and for his fouling.

Anyway, after the game Fergie came into the lobby of Saint James's Park where the media was waiting nervously.

He stopped in front of a group of us, and one older reporter, clearly quivering in his shoes because Fergie was angry at losing, asked him about the over-enthusiastic nature of Manchester United's tackles. Fergie dismissed the question, and the reporter was silent. Obviously he had wanted to ask Fergie specifically about Whiteside's terrible foul on Anderson, but could not pluck up the courage.

I was standing right next to Fergie. I was young and innocent and naive, so simply said to Fergie: "I think he means what did you think of Whiteside's tackle on Anderson?"

At which point everyone ran for cover to avoid Fergie's fury.

Fergie turned to me and scolded: "Why are you always asking about Whiteside these days? You are jumping on the band wagon and making life very difficult for him. He commits one foul in the match and that's all you talk about. What about all the other fouls? Whiteside is a marked man now by the referees because of you lot."

Well, it was something like that, because it was in 1987, maybe 1988, so I cannot remember the exact details -- and my tape recorder melted at the time under Fergie's blast of hot air.

Fergie's outburst, of course, made all the headlines the next day. "Whiteside victimised!" "Lay off Big Norm!"...things like this.

The media all thanked me for pushing Fergie to get the response, and patted me on the shoulder sympathetically, as if I had just missed a penalty in a cup final shoot-out.

But I didn't think I had pushed him at all. I had just asked him a specific question about a specific challenge, and he had gone ballistic.

Oh yes...life is much more serene in the J.League!

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Why so much negativity around JEF?

6 Nov 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, November 4, 2006: Congratulations to JEF United Ichihara Chiba Japan Asia for winning the Nabisco Cup again.

I must admit I didn’t fancy their chances after watching them lose horribly at home to Omiya Ardija recently.

But they saw off Kashima Antlers with late goals from Mizuno and captain Abe, who proved once again that he is one of the best headers of a ball in the J.League.

Chatting with a Japanese football writer on the morning of the cup final, I was surprised to learn that JEF have caused something of a split among the media. In other words, some newspapers dislike the Osim dynasty and want both Japan and JEF to fail, while others are being patient, if not exactly supportive of the post-Zico regime.

This is all very strange to me, as JEF come across as a rather harmless club who haven’t done anything wrong to anyone. I can understand people (mainly who wear red shirts or black T-shirts and live in Urawa) disliking Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata because they have been successful in the past – just like many fans in England hate Manchester United and Liverpool – but JEF United?

It is no secret that I admire JEF – among others – for several reasons. It is a friendly, homely club. They have lived beyond their financial means in terms of league position. They have been well managed from the top; the fans are not jumping on the bandwagon of glory, because there hasn’t really been any, and they have built a production line of talented Japanese players.

Maybe Osim Senior has picked too many of his former players for the national team for some people’s liking, but I am sure this is only a stop-gap measure until other players emerge in a couple of problem positions.

He knows the JEF players and can trust them, and the players know what the head coach wants, too, so it is a relatively safe move for the time being.

However, players such as Maki, Abe and Mizumoto, and possibly Hanyu, will be around the national squad as long as Osim is, as they have the Japanese characteristics he cherishes. And if Osim really was biased towards JEF, then he would have picked their most under-rated player – Daisuke Saito, who is nicknamed “The Professor”. (By whom, you may ask? Well, by me, actually, because Saito really knows the art of defending, and is the ideal teacher for Mizumoto).

So, enough of this nonsense criticizing JEF United! They have been a huge success story for the J.League since the early bubble burst around 1997.

Osim Senior may be rude to the Japanese press on occasions, just like Troussier was, and many media may miss the mild-mannered Zico’s all-star, fantasista policy.

But don’t blame JEF United for this.


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Blatter should speak out more against the conmen

2 Nov 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, November 1, 2006: Have you been following the latest Sepp Blatter controversy recently?

It makes for very interesting reading, as usual.

First, Blatter was reported to have apologized to Australia for their World Cup exit at the hands of Italy. For me this was one of the worst and most depressing moments of a World Cup blighted by diving and cheating.

It was when Italy’s left back, Fabio Grosso, tumbled theatrically following a challenge by Australia defender Lucas Neill. In my opinion it was never a penalty, as Grosso clearly had only one thing on his mind and executed his task with cynical professionalism.

Sadly, referees are much too quick to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player, and it happened here in a very unfair way to bring a cruel end to Australia’s challenge. No wonder the sports-mad Aussies, brought up on rough-tough games such as Aussie Rules football, rugby and cricket, thought they had been cheated in a sport they are still trying to embrace.

Anyway, Blatter later back-tracked on his comments, saying he had no intention to criticize Italy, but just to offer his sympathy to Australia.


What good is that?

Blatter, as head of FIFA, is the man who has allowed diving and gamesmanship to reach the current level. He could crack down on it by introducing video replays to punish the conmen, but he prefers to let the poor old referees suffer on their own in an environment in which the FIFA Fair Play slogan simply does not exist any more.

The 2006 World Cup was a big turn-off in my opinion, with incidents like the Grosso-Neill penalty the main reason.

Blatter should speak out more in an effort to cure the ailments, and not be afraid of telling the truth and presenting the situation as it is. On a smaller scale, much smaller, there was a controversial incident at Komaba last Saturday in the Omiya-FC Tokyo match.

Leading 1-0 in the second half, an FC Tokyo player fell to the floor in his own half when there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. A team-mate kicked the ball out of play to stop the match and allow the player to receive treatment he did not need, but the “injured” player got to his feet on his own.

So it was Omiya’s throw-in, and the Tokyo fans whistled as the Ardija players refused to pass the ball back to them. Omiya coach Toshiya Miura urged his players to keep the ball and attack, as they were trailing 1-0 and Tokyo had blatantly stopped the game for no reason.

Tokyo fans – I admire you and your team…but you were completely wrong on this occasion. Omiya had absolutely no obligation whatsoever to return the ball to your team at the throw-in. Omiya were quite right to play on, and the referee allowed them to do so.

I have said before it is the job of the ref to stop the game, not the team-mate of an “injured” player so they can waste time when they are winning. There is too much of this tactic in the modern game.


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