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December 2006

Akita, Kyoto get good deal

31 Dec 2006(Sun)

December 29, 2006: What a smart and sensible move by Kyoto Sanga to sign the veteran defender Yutaka Akita from Grampus.

Relegated this season, Kyoto have become a "yo-yo" team in the J.League, meaning they go up and down quite quickly.

If they had signed a player of Akita's quality and experience this time last year, maybe they would have survived in the top flight instead of leaking goals and always facing an uphill struggle.

Akita is my kind of player. A combative and rugged centre half, he is very much a British-style defender. He leads by example and makes sure the opposing centre forward knows he is in a game, a one-on-one duel for 90 minutes and a battle which will play a significant part in which team wins the war.

Akita to Kyoto, therefore, is a good deal for both parties. Kyoto get all his experience and commitment, while Akita gets another year as a player.

It could also lead him into coaching, as I am sure Akita's knowledge and ability will be a constant source of inspiration for his teammates.

J2, of course, is a long old slog, and the Kyoto management will have to be careful with Akita's aging limbs. With injury and suspension sure to take their toll at some point during the marathon campaign, it is unlikely Akita will be able to play all the games.

But, still, just having him around will be a boost to Kyoto. On the training pitch, on the bench, he will be of great value to Sanga next season.

Strong in the air when he attacks the first ball, he will need a quicker player around him to sweep up the second ball, but again this can only be a positive for Kyoto. It is a wonderful opportunity for a young defender to learn his trade alongside the master, whose professionalism on and off the pitch should have lasting effects on the team in general.

Akita has been a great servant to Japanese football, and his presence on the J2 circuit will be appreciated by those hardy fans of all teams.


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Frontale have the right stuff to make ACL impact

28 Dec 2006(Thu)

December 27, 2006: It’s only natural that Urawa Reds are getting all the attention at the moment.

Crowned league champions for the first time, still in the Emperor’s Cup, Guido Buchwald with his suitcases packed for Stuttgart, Tulio the J.League MVP…

But spare a thought for Kawasaki Frontale.

Runners-up to Reds after a swashbuckling campaign, Frontale will also represent Japan in next year’s AFC Champions League – and have a great chance to win their group and advance to the last eight.

While Reds were being drawn with Sydney FC, Shanghai Shenhua and Persik Kediri of Indonesia in Pool E, Frontale will play Bangkok University, Arema Malang (Indonesia) and Chunnam Dragons of South Korea in Pool F.

The format is tough, with only the group winner progressing to the quarter-finals, so there is little room for error.

Frontale, though, have enough quality to get through. They have a very distinctive style of play, unlike any other J1 team, and I hope they maintain this style in the Asian Champions League.

They have several big, strong players who form the backbone of the team, as well as pace up front and out wide, and craft in the middle through Kengo Nakamura. They are relentless and ruthless against physically weaker teams in Japan – just ask Omiya Ardija – and batter opponents into submission.

I hope they do this next season in the Champions League, especially against the Koreans, who may be intimidated by their all-action style. It would be great to see Frontale coming out firing on all cylinders at home and away against Chunnam, as surely first place in the group will be contested by these two teams.

The conditions and environment may not be too inspiring on their travels, but still Frontale should be able to brush past Bangkok University and Arema Malang.

One thing is for sure. Both Reds and Frontale will be giving it their best shot in the Asian Champions League next year, especially with the juicy carrot of a place in the FIFA Club World Cup waiting at the end of it.


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Timing perfect for Miyamoto

25 Dec 2006(Mon)

December 23, 2006: These are exciting times for the Japanese duo Tsuneyasu Miyamoto and Alessandro Dos Santos.

Both players have been linked to moves overseas for several seasons now, and they will finally get their wish when they team up at Salzburg in the Austrian first division.

Salzburg the club is now run by the energy drink giant Red Bull, and Salzburg the team by Giovanni Trapattoni and Lothar Matthaus. This means the club is awash with money, and why they will be able to pay the considerable salaries of Tsune and Alex.

For both players it is a wonderful opportunity to change their environment, play their football in a beautiful country and, as Philippe Troussier would say, to grow as human beings with this experience outside Japan.

It makes complete sense for Miyamoto, who has lost his place in the national team to Tulio and who has absolutely nothing to lose by leaving Gamba. He has deserved this break in his career and I am sure he will continue to be a fine ambassador for Japanese football.

With his business and economics studies behind him, his experience as a player, his language skills, I could imagine Miyamoto one day heading the multi-million dollar industry known as the Japan Football Association. Chief Executive, perhaps? National coach? The world is his oyster.

There was nothing left for him to achieve at Gamba, having won the league championship in 2005 and coming close this time. His move to Austria, therefore, is perfect timing.

As for Alex, his departure should serve as an incentive to all left-sided players in Japan.

National coach Ivica Osim has adopted a policy of using J.League players for matches so far, rather than disrupting the lifestyle and body clocks of the players in Europe. This policy may change in 2007, of course, as Osim builds towards the Asian Cup in July, and he may bring some players back and integrate them into the new-look team.

I doubt if Alex will be one of them, though, as Osim knows everything there is to know about him. It also makes sense to leave Alex in Austria for the next few months, let him settle, and try and find a new left-sided player for the national team.

Komano is already there, but Osim may take a longer look at Honda from Grampus, Ienaga from Gamba, or even Soma from Reds. Soma is the readymade replacement for Alex at Urawa, but he needs games to rediscover the form that caught the eye at Verdy two or three years ago.

For Japanese looking for a new travel destination, Salzburg will be well worth the trip in 2007.


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Time to celebrate on two fronts

21 Dec 2006(Thu)

December 19, 2006: It is about time a defender won a top individual award.

Too often these awards go to the forwards, to the flair players and goal scorers, and the valuable contributions of defenders go unrewarded.

Their job is not as glamorous as the role of the fantasistas, and they do not grab the headlines as much, but this does not mean they do not deserve equal recognition.

This is why I was delighted with the outcome of two awards this week: Fabio Cannavaro winning the FIFA World Player of the Year, and our own Tulio being named MVP of the J.League.

For me, both were natural and obvious choices.

In a World Cup dominated by defence, Cannavaro was simply outstanding for Italy. He is a player I have admired for several seasons, and one any manager in the world would want in his team. He is tough, inspirational, a natural leader, strong in the air and rugged on the ground.

Critics may say Cannavaro has not settled well at Real Madrid, but personally I don’t care too much about this. After all, 2006 was World Cup year, and whatever happened – or whatever did not happen – in Germany should dictate the whole year.

This is why Cannavaro was the logical choice, ahead of Zidane and Ronaldinho.

Is Cannavaro a better football player than Zidane or Ronaldinho? Of course he is not, but he is magnificent in his own position and was at his best when it really mattered.

And so to Tulio.

As I wrote in this column recently, he is the life and soul of any team in which he plays, and has been the symbol of Urawa Reds this season.

I will never forget an evening with Guido Buchwald at the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan shortly before the World Cup in Germany. Buchwald, the guest speaker, said Tulio was the best defender in Japan, but Zico had not spoken to the German coach about his Reds players for two years.

I still wonder what might have been if Tulio had been on the plane to Germany, battling against the Aussies and the Croatians.

That is ancient history now, though, and Tulio can look forward to a long career with the national team under Ivica Osim. I still think he should be appointed captain of Japan, and am a little surprised Osim has not done so already.

Overall, the awards to Cannavaro and to Tulio are good for the game.


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Barca -- winners on and off the pitch

18 Dec 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, December 15, 2006: Thank goodness for Barcelona. And thank goodness for Ronaldinho in particular.

Wasn’t that a wonderful evening’s entertainment at rainy Nissan Stadium in Yokohama on Thursday? When the match kicked off I was a bit worried because there was a distinct lack of atmosphere in the stadium, despite the fact over 62,000 people were inside.

Even at half-time it was still too quiet, the audience very polite and restrained as if they were attending a performance by a symphony orchestra in a concert hall.

When the final whistle blew, though, it was like being at a proper football match. The crowd had got into it, the Barca fans were full of pride and the neutrals full of admiration for a dazzling display.

At times in the second half it was like an exhibition match, rather than the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup, as Barca tormented their Mexican rivals with some bright, fast and controlled attacking football.

The first goal, however, was not football; it was art, a beautiful painting full of sweeping brush strokes and a riot of colour on a green canvas. Ronaldinho's back-heel, the intricate play of Iniesta, the precise finish of Gudjohnsen.

My favourite Barca player, Rafael Marquez, headed the second, and then produced an unusual celebration by sucking his thumb -- maybe to suggest his header was as easy as taking candy off a baby!

The third goal was what most people had come to see, as Ronaldinho collected a loose ball in a crowded penalty, showed composure and technique and made the finish look easy, curling it into the corner. It was a wonderful piece of individual skill, and provided a lesson for all players how to keep calm and keep focused when the goal is beckoning.

As for the fourth…well, what is there to say? A swift Barca counter, a lay-off from Ronaldinho after getting crowded out on the edge of the box, and a magnificent drive from Deco into the far corner. Again, textbook technique. I thought Deco had a fine game, staying on his feet and using all his ball skills and vision to keep the America defence on the back foot.

There was just time for Ronaldinho to hit the crossbar with that exquisite chip in injury time after another mazy dribble, and on that high note the match ended. By now the fans had lost their earlier inhibitions and were ready to show their appreciation.

Having been to several Toyota Cup matches over the years, it is not easy for teams to inject energy and passion into the crowd, but Barca achieved this in their own impressive style and set the stage for the final on Sunday.

Apart from the play and the goals, what stays in my mind most from Thursday’s visit to Yokohama was the noise of the crowd at the beginning and at the end of the match. Barca had won convincingly, on and off the pitch.


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Passion and emotion can be found after the final whistle

14 Dec 2006(Thu)

Saitama, Japan, December 12, 2006: The J.League has got many things right in its short history, but none more so than the promotion/relegation play-off.

Last season was sensational, with Ventforet Kofu sending Kashiwa Reysol down in extraordinary style. Kofu won both games, 2-1 at home and then 6-2 away thanks to Bare's six-goal salvo at Hitachi-dai -- and he could have had 10!

There were not quite as many goals this time, only two from both legs, but still the drama was intense as Vissel Kobe returned to the top flight at the expense of Avispa Fukuoka.

A choked-up Atsu Miura, close-up shots of tearful fans of both teams, and an emotional Kobe manager Hiroshi Matsuda, sacked by Avispa early in the season and now taking Vissel up. What a story line!

And then there was that late goalmouth scramble. It was like playing a pinball machine as the ball flew around in all directions, before finally being cleared from the Kobe goal. Had that gone in, then both teams would surely have stayed where they were, Avispa in J1 and Vissel in J2. That is the beauty of this game, that a decisive couple of seconds at the end of a nine-month campaign could have changed everything.

In the end, Vissel went up on the away goals rule, meaning that a goal scored away from home counts double if the scores are level. (I am sure most of you knew this, but just in case!)

Once Kondo had scored for Vissel in the second half, Avispa were always struggling because they would need two. They got one but could not find another, resulting in the scenes of joy and despair after the final whistle -- and full marks at this point to the TV broadcasters as they stayed with the theatre of football and captured all the drama as it unfolded. I don't know about you but I get quite angry when the final whistle is followed immediately by advertisements, replays or studio chit-chat. I love to see the players walk off the pitch -- or, in the case of Hidetoshi Nakata at Dortmund, lie on the pitch and stay there thinking. (Is it true he is still there, that Sunny Side Up take him his meals on a tray and the Bundesliga teams just play around him?)

As I was saying, I love to see the scenes after the final whistle. Players exchanging shirts, players exchanging insults, players applauding their fans, players running off to avoid the wrath of their fans...here is the passion and the emotion of football that FIFA President Sepp Blatter is always talking about -- and the game is over!

The J1/J2 play-off was a fantastic idea, and provides a sting in the tail at the end of a long season.

And congratulations to both teams for their fair play (well, reasonably, as Avispa wasted time in the first leg and Vissel in the second leg, notably Park Kang Jo with his disgraceful bootlace-tying farce for which he should surely have received the red card.)

Avispa will be missed in J1, as their fans are loyal and noisy, but Vissel and others have proved you can bounce straight back.


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Bare for Reds on J.League "Rumour Mill"

11 Dec 2006(Mon)

December 9, 2006: Who is staying? Who is going? Who is coming?

These are interesting times in Japanese football as teams release players, release coaches, and search for replacements who may make them stronger for next season...or who may not.

Antlers have been busy, with the departure of manager Paulo Autuori, veteran players Narahashi and Honda and Brazilians Fernando and Alex Mineiro.

FC Tokyo will be changing manager, and Jean is going, too. I must admit, two or three years ago, I thought Jean was possibly the best foreign player in Japan, a no-risk, combative centre half who provided a weekly 90-minute study session for would-be defenders.

At Omiya Ardija, veteran Brazilian Toninho has played his last J.League game for the club, and manager Toshiya Miura will be on his way after the Emperor's Cup, possibly to Consadole Sapporo. That is what I heard on the "Rumour Mill" the other day, along with the following:

# Brazilian striker Bare is leaving Ventforet Kofu and joining Urawa Reds, and

# Omiya will appoint Pim Verbeek's brother as head coach, replacing Miura.

As I say, these are only rumours, and they may not happen. In English journalism we call it "kite flying" -- meaning some kites stay in the air, while others fall to the ground.

Bare would be a great signing for Reds, and proves their intent ahead of the Asian Champions League next season. Make no mistake, Reds are going for it next year, and the whole of Japan should be behind them as they make a serious attempt to win Asia's equivalent of the UEFA Champions League.

With midweek matches, maybe even in Australia, remember, Reds need plenty of fire power, even though they have Washington, Ponte, Yamada, Tatsuya and Nagai, among others.
I saw Bare play recently for Kofu at Saitama Stadium 2002, where he had a fine game. He is quick for such a big man, and is always dangerous when he has the ball. He is direct and positive, and has the happy habit of being in the right place at the right time to put a loose ball into the net.

If Bare joins Reds it would ease the strain on Washington without weakening the team -- and, of course, they could play together, with Ponte behind, if attack is more important than defence in some games.

I am sure next year will be very exciting for Reds fans as they take their "brand" across Asia, and no doubt Mitsubishi will be planning promotional campaigns for away games in vast potential markets.

Bare for Reds (but Gamba are keen, too), and the brother of former Ardija coach Pim Verbeek as Omiya manager...just rumours for the moment, so we will have to wait and see which kites fly and which tumble to the ground!


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Football used to be so simple!

7 Dec 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, December 6, 2006: When it comes to the end of the season, certain facts cannot be disputed.

Such as: Urawa Reds are the best team in Japan. After 34 games, the table cannot lie. Washington and Magno Alves were the best scorers, with 26 goals each.

But when it comes to other rankings, I must say I do not pay too much attention.

Such as: assists, and a couple I read the other day in a football publication, "goast" ranking and "goalkeeper earned run average.”

Goasts and earned run averages? Is this football or baseball? More of those two later.

Regarding assists, I am sorry but I just don't rate this statistic because it relies on the scorer, not the player who gets the assist、so it is not a true reflection.

For example, a midfield player dribbles past five players, plays a wonderful pass to his striker, and the striker misses. No goal and therefore no assist.

On the other hand, a player makes a short pass across the field to a teammate, who lashes the ball into the top corner of the net from 30 metres. A great goal, and the player who passed the ball five metres to the scorer is credited with an assist.

This is why I think an assist ranking is unfair, as it depends on the goal scored, not on the creative talents of a player. I am not saying players who lead assist rankings are not talented; of course they are, but their ranking depends on the people who score the goals, not on themselves.

The "goast" ranking includes goals and assists, therefore “goast”, which is quite clever! I have seen this before in ice hockey, but never in football, and, like assists themselves, from a British perspective it is a very North American concept.

Out of interest, Juninho and Washington led the goast ranking with 31 points (20 goals and 11 assists for the Frontale man, and 26 goals plus five assists for the big Brazilian).

And so to goalkeeper earned run average. This is the number of goals conceded by a keeper, in relation to matches played. Interesting, but way too American for my liking!

Oh, football used to be so simple! Urawa Reds 3 Gamba Osaka 2. That is the only statistic I need to know.


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A tale of one city

4 Dec 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, December 2, 2006: On the one hand, it does not seem that long ago when the tearful and angry Yokohama Flugels players said farewell to the J.League.

It was at the end of 1998, down at Mitsuzawa Stadium, and followed the bursting of the financial bubble which had enabled the J.League to soar into the Japanese sports stratosphere.

But, on the other hand, it seems an age away. At that time, remember, the J.League was still in two stages, still with one division, clubs were paying ridiculous amounts of money for over-the-hill players (Paulo Futre at Flugels in 1998), or showing a complete lack of business sense by investing a fortune (US$10 million for the admittedly talented trio of Cesar Sampaio, Zinho and Evair to Flugels in 1995) when income from attendances was miniscule in comparison.

So the Flugels ceased to be, and the Yokohama Marinos became the Yokohama F Marinos in 1999.

From the ashes of the Flugels came Yokohama FC, and in 2001 they joined the J.League second division from the JFL.

In 2007, Yokohama FC will be in J1, playing local derby matches against Yokohama F Marinos, and, in my mind, this is an incredible success story.

The race for the J2 championship has been fast and furious, with Reysol and then Vissel Kobe seemingly in control, only for both clubs to stall and see Yokohama FC sweep past them and clinch the title. On this day, the last day of the 2006 season, Yokohama FC can bask in the glory, while Kobe and Kashiwa will be scrapping for the second automatic promotion place, and trying to avoid the two-leg play-off against Cerezo or Avispa next week.

The rise of Yokohama FC is not only a triumph for the club and the supporters who refused to go away on the demise of the Flugels; it is also a triumph for the J.League and for football in general.

It proves that, with good management on and off the field (Takuya Takagi deserves enormous credit, of course), and with a mixture of hungry players and seasoned, honest professionals, a club can reach its goal modestly.

Everyone at the club will tell you, though, that the work has just begun. The foundations have been laid but nothing more, and there will be many tough decisions to be made for next season and the future as Yokohama FC attempt to consolidate their position in the top flight and keep building for the long-term.

The collapse of the Flugels, when Sato Kogyo pulled out and ANA switched to Marinos, was a bitter lesson for the J.League. Yokohama FC have proved that those lessons have been learned, and the future of the league will be better for it.


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