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January 2007

Hope springs eternal from new fixture list

29 Jan 2007(Mon)

January 27, 2007: What a wondrous, reassuring event each year -- the release of the new fixture list.

It is a sign that life will soon be returning to normal, with football dominating the weekends and every other day of the week for that matter.

There is hope and optimisim and promise at the start of the new season for all teams. The dead wood has been cleared out, new heroes have arrived, the new manager is just the man we need for success, the old manager will have learned from his experience...yes, everyone is starting from the same line, and this year is going to belong to us.

Well, for a couple of weeks at least.

The fixtures for 2007 were released on Thursday and all eyes immediately turned to the opening day. After that I always look for Boxing Day (old habits die hard), before remembering the J.League chooses to play through the hot and humid summer months and waste all this glorious football weather we have now -- crisp and sunny, and no baseball to compete with in the media. Anyway, that's another story.

March 3 is when the new campaign gets under way, and when the winter business behind the scenes is finally put to the test on the pitch.

The pick of the opening day fixtures is Frontale-Antlers at Todoroki. It will be an awkward test for the new-look Antlers, as they try to reassert themselves under new Brazilian management. Let's face it, Frontale away is about as tough as it gets, and no one looks forward to playing them, even at home.

FC Tokyo fans can expect a roller-coaster season with the attack-minded, Spanish-influenced Hiromi Hara back in charge, but much will depend on the fitness of new signing Paulo Wanchope, the much-travelled, injury-plagued striker from Costa Rica. The Gasmen entertain Sanfrecce and will be satisfied with nothing less than three points.

Yokohama F Marinos manager Hiroshi Hayano will be trying to exorcise the ghosts of Kofu at Nissan Stadium, as he was in charge of Reysol when Ventforet sent them tumbling down into J2 two seasons ago with Bare's six-goal salvo at Hitachidai, where even the rock Tsuchiya was powerless to prevent the rout.

Niigata's Orange Army face a long trek to Oita for the first game, whereas S-Pulse's Orange Army will welcome J1 returnees Vissel Kobe -- Yoshito and all -- to Nihondaira.

J1 champions Reds are at home to J2 champions Yokohama FC, whose big signings Kubo and Oku can expect a warm welcome from the generous Saitama masses, while Gamba's powerful attack will be hoping to plunder a few goals against a fragile-looking Omiya team, especially with Tsuchiya gone to Verdy.

On March 4 it's newly promoted Reysol at home to a rejuvenated Jubilo, and Nagoya at home to JEF. It could have been worse for JEF, though -- they could have been playing Grampus at home.


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Abe’s move from Chiba was inevitable

25 Jan 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, January 24, 2007: It was inevitable that Yuki Abe would leave JEF United sooner or later.

Their former manager, Ivica Osim, predicted as much during a pre-season chat three years ago – and is probably surprised it has happened later rather than sooner.

Osim said that JEF would always find it difficult to keep their best players whenever a bigger, richer and more ambitious club moved in, and that’s exactly what has happened with Abe’s transfer to Reds.

JEF will miss Abe immensely. He was a symbol of the club and a proud and inspiring captain. He could also play in a number of positions, but spent most of his time alongside Yuto Sato in central midfield. In fact the triumvirate of libero Stoyanov, with Abe and Sato in front, was the fulcrum of the team, although Abe’s future for Reds and for Japan now looks like being on the right side of a back three, alongside Tulio in the middle and Tsuboi on the left.

JEF fans must be wondering who will be next to leave, not this season but in the near future: Maki? Mizuno? Mizumoto? Hanyu?

The departure of the versatile Sakamoto to Niigata has a silver lining, though, in that Mizuno will now be a regular starter – and that is good news for club and country.

Mizuno, quick and clever, is effective on the right wing and also in a more central role, attacking from deep positions behind Maki.

Rumour has it that Yamagishi will succeed Abe as captain, but that would be a surprising choice for me. I thought Osim Junior would give the job to Stoyanov in the hope that the responsibility might calm him down. When the Bulgarian with the silky skills lets his feet, and not his mouth, do the talking, he is surely the best all-round player in the J.League, capable of forming a one-man defensive line and able to break forward and dribble past three or four at a time. When he is in the mood, the J.League is too easy for him – but he is no good to anyone sitting in the stands suspended.

Abe will have learned a lot from Stoyanov and from “The Professor”, Saito, about the art of defending, but, sadly for JEF fans, he will now be putting it to good use for Urawa.

Must admit I can’t wait for the JEF-Reds game at Fukuare next season. Last year’s was a cracker, when Maki and Nakajima swept JEF to a pulsating 2-0 victory, and this season’s will be even more special following the Abe transfer.


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All change at Yokohama

22 Jan 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, January 20, 2007: So who's got the better deal -- Yokohama FC with Tatsuhiko Kubo or Yokohama F Marinos with Takayuki Suzuki?

I'd have to say Marinos at this point, as I have always been a fan of Suzuki's, whereas the physical condition of Kubo is just so up in the air.

When he is fully fit over a sustained period of time, of course, Kubo is a special player in the J.League, with distinctive qualities. He is awkward for defenders to mark, all elbows and sinew, and unpredictable in his play. Is he going to shoot with that powerful left foot, or is he going to lay the ball off and get in the box to meet the cross with a soaring header, trampling defenders in his wake?

That remains the attraction of Kubo. At 30 years old he is still raw, difficult to mark and even more difficult to read for a defender.

But that's when he is fit, and clearly Yokohama FC will be hoping that a change of environment and the challenge of leading a newly promoted team in J1 will bring a change of luck -- and a few goals, too.

His replacement in the Marinos squad is the much-travelled Takayuki, who has returned to Japan from Red Star Belgrade.

Unlike Kubo in his prime, for example 2003 when he bagged 16 goals in 25 games, Suzuki has never been a prolific scorer.

His highest single-season tally, in fact, is only six from 26 games in 2001, before he began his European tour, but scoring goals has never been what his game is about.

Takayuki is the ultimate team player, a resilient leader of the line who takes the knocks and opens up space for his teammates. I once thought a Takayuki-Okubo partnership would work well in the national team, but both players disappeared off Zico's radar long before Germany and were never in the running for a place in the 23.

Suzuki is also 30 and past his prime, but he will give the Marinos attack a focal point and keep his markers busy. He is also the master of winning free kicks around the box, so no doubt Koji Yamase will be rubbing his hands together at the prospect of a shooting gallery.

Both Kubo and Suzuki will provide experience and leadership in their respective new clubs, and will be crucial figures if their teams are to have successful campaigns.

In the case of Marinos, success means getting back up there and challenging for the title; for Yokohama FC, their goals are more modest -- and Kubo will have to score a few of them to give them some momentum.


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Gamba take no risks with foreign players

18 Jan 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, January 17, 2006: You have to take your hat off to Gamba Osaka, even though they could not quite defend their league crown last season.

Looking at all the transfers flying around at the moment, it seems that Gamba have perfected their policy in the risky and expensive business of signing overseas players.

Quite simply, they let other clubs bring them to Japan, monitor their form and, if they think they are good enough, just offer them more money to move to Suita City!

Well, this may be over-simplifying their policy, but their three foreign players for 2007 are all established in Japan, and, to use some English soccer slang, can do the business.

The latest addition to the Gamba fold is the big and powerful forward Bare, who impressed for Kofu in J1 last season. Bare is not a risk at all. He is a good pro with a good attitude and plays hard for the team – I will never forget how overcome he was with emotion after scoring all six Kofu goals at Kashiwa in the promotion/relegation play-off in 2005. (Unless he was crying because he should have scored 10, but missed so many other chances!)

Bare will join Magno Alves and Sidiclei in the blue and black stripes of Gamba, replacing Fernandinho, who has joined S-Pulse to replace Marquinhos, who has joined Antlers!

Magno Alves was not a risk, either, when signed from Oita to replace the prolific Araujo, and neither was Sidiclei, who had been around for several seasons. In fact I remember watching him play for Yamagata at Tochigi Green Stadium in an Emperor’s Cup tie against Nagoya Grampus Eight – and, I am sure, missing a penalty (sincere apologies to Sidiclei if my memory escapes me!). It was 1998 and Philippe Troussier was there, too, watching Kenji Fukuda play for Grampus as he assembled his team for the Sydney Olympics.

Sidiclei, Magno Alves and Bare…this is sensible business by Gamba, who, of course, have the money and the prestige to attract good players who have made their mark in Japan with other, less fashionable teams (Oita, Kofu, Vissel, for example).

Gamba know exactly what they are getting on and off the field, while other clubs often have no idea as they search in the dark for instant superstars from Brazil.


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From Galacticos to Galaxy: Perfect move for Beckham, MLS

15 Jan 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, January 12, 2007: A few weeks ago I wrote that David Beckham might be on the move, and urged J.League clubs to make a serious attempt to sign him.

Well, Beckham is leaving Real Madrid all right, but nowhere did I read that an option for him was Japan. Oh well, never mind, it was worth a thought!

He is, of course, going to Los Angeles, swapping the Galacticos for the Galaxy and being paid a vast amount of money to help spread the gospel of association football in a country which is reluctant to embrace it.

Not surprisingly there has been bitter criticism of Beckham on the football websites I have read, saying he has “sold out” by going to the US and that his wife, Posh Spice, has made the decision to pursue her career in Hollywood. This type of comment was to be expected, as Beckham was Public Enemy No. 1 after his red card against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup and was still being lambasted by large sections of the British media in Germany last summer. I attended four of the five England games and was always surrounded by media men who wanted him to fail; they wanted his passes to go astray; they wanted his free kicks to fly wide; they wanted him to be substituted.

Yes, this is the mentality of the British media…build them up and then knock them down. In Japan you protect your national treasures, such as Nakata and Nakamura, Ichiro, Matsui and now D-Mat, but in England we just love to knock ‘em down to size and put them in their place. Sad, but true.

Personally, I think it is a great move by Beckham. He is taking on a massive challenge to popularize the sport in the US, and could have received big money elsewhere. It is not as though he needs it, right?

He is a decent man, and he loves football and plays with pride and passion. I read amidst all the recent hysteria that many Real Madrid fans actually wanted him to captain the team last year because of these qualities.

At 31 he still has a lot to offer the Galaxy and MLS in general, and, in my opinion, the cynics are wrong on this front. Why go to Italy and be bored in Serie A with Milan? Why go back to England and have the press on your back every day and just waiting to pounce on any mistake, on or off the field?

Beckham has done enough for his country, and is now doing more for the US and for football at large. Yes, the game has been good to him, but he has put a lot in and deserved it.

Good luck, Beckham. The US needs you!


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Consadole need Miura’s J2 experience

11 Jan 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, January 10, 2007: It will be a strange experience for Toshiya Miura next season when he swaps Omiya Ardija for Consadole Sapporo.

Omiya, of course, live in the vast, red shadow of big brother Urawa, and they go about their business as Saitama’s second club.

At Sapporo, however, Consadole are the pride of Hokkaido, and the focus of attention in the J.League.

Having taken Omiya up to J1 in 2004, and kept them in the top flight in 2005 and 2006, Consadole supporters will be expecting Miura to do the same for their team in 2007. After all, getting a team out of J2 is much different than running an established team in J1, and this is why Consadole have hired Miura.

Last season, Consadole finished sixth in the 13-team second division, 16 points from an automatic promotion place after 48 games. That is a lot of ground to make up for the Hokkaido team, and Miura will be setting his targets in detail, as usual.

Personally, I thought he did a fine job at Omiya, especially in his first season in J1, in 2005.

He always said the second season in the top flight would be more difficult than the first following promotion, and Omiya’s cause was not helped last year by the poor quality of the foreign players.

Although Omiya signed some talented Japanese players this time last year, notably Daigo Kobayashi and Yukio Tsuchiya, the team lacked muscle and physical presence. Also, the lack of a home stadium must not be under-estimated. This was a huge disadvantage for Omiya, and the new-look Omiya Koen will not be ready until October this year.

Omiya’s priority now, under new head coach Robert Verbeek, is to become more solid and stop making careless individual errors in dangerous areas, something the aging Toninho was guilty of on too many occasions.

Omiya will be hoping Verbeek can take Ardija the next step forward, while Consadole will be aiming to use Miura’s coaching craft and experience to take them back to where they belong, J1. After all, the Sapporo fans are among the best in the league for loyalty and passion, and J1 in 2008 will be better with the Hokkaido team in it.

I am already looking forward to Ardija vs Consadole at Omiya Koen on the opening day of the 2008 season -- in J1, not J2!


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Figo deal would be a waste of money

8 Jan 2007(Mon)

January 6, 2007: “What a waste of money!”

Anyone visiting a football ground in England will be familiar with this cry from the stands.

It is used by the fans after an expensive signing of the opposing team makes a terrible error, for example shooting wide from a good position.

On this occasion, though, I am using it in reference to the possible move of Luis Figo from Inter to Al Ittihad of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

I say possible because last week it looked like a done deal, but now Inter are denying Figo is going anywhere until his contract ends in June.

The deal reported would have seen Figo join Ittihad for six months, from January to June, and receive $8 million for his work. In the reports I read last week, and saw on TV, there was no mention of a transfer fee, which, of course, the Saudi club would have to pay as Figo was still under contract with Inter. He would not be a free agent until July.

Anyway, I still feel that $8 million to Figo for six months would be a waste of money. Presumably it would be tax-free, too, so the only party to have any long-term benefit would be Figo himself.

I wrote recently that the J.League needed a bit of star quality, and mentioned the likes of Beckham, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, but I was thinking more of a couple of seasons, and a more sensible salary.

For Figo? I think he would struggle in Japan. The game is too fast for him and I doubt Figo would have the motivation to start again and make an impression in a new country at the end of his career.

He looked exhausted most of the time at the World Cup in Germany, having come out of international retirement once already, and the long sweltering summer months of July and August would have taken their toll in Japan.

The deal with Ittihad may still come off, but Inter, having seen the amount of money available for Figo, will make sure they get a handsome transfer fee. And why not? They are entitled to it, and what’s another couple of million dollars for the Jeddah club.

You cannot blame Figo for taking such an offer, but I don’t think Ittihad would get anything near good value.

What a waste of money!


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Tennohai format needs overhaul

4 Jan 2007(Thu)

January 2, 2007: There was a happy ending to Guido Buchwald's three-year reign as Urawa Reds manager when his team completed the league and cup double on New Year’s Day.

It was an incredible finish, wasn't it, when Nagai poked home the winning goal from Ya-jin's low cross from the right in the 88th minute for the only goal of the game against Gamba. 

I thought Gamba had been on top for much of the second half, and looked the more likely to score. Indeed, Tsune missed a wonderful chance to write his own happy ending when he failed to connect with a near-post header from a Yamaguchi cross, and Reds keeper Tsuzuki pulled off some fine saves to deny his former club.

This is what cup finals are all about, and Reds were able to win it with a team that was far from full strength at the end of a long campaign. Personally, I thought both teams looked jaded, as if the Emperor's Cup was one tournament too many。Surely didn't the season end when Reds beat Gamba at Saitama Stadium to win the league championship a month ago? 

I have said before that Japanese football has outgrown the Emperor's Cup and the JFA competition should be restructured to give it more prestige. For a start I think the Emperor's Cup should be restricted to J1, J2 and

JFL teams only. No high schools. No universities. The 18 J1 teams could enter at the second round and be joined by 14 teams from J2 and the JFL who have won through the first round.

This would give 32 teams in the second round, 16 in the third and then the quarter-finals, semis and final.

If the Nabisco Cup could finish in the summer, the Emperor’s Cup could start around September and the rounds could be slotted in the J1 schedule. This would mean all teams would play with their strongest members, rather than foreign players going home and the season-long reserves taking over, which is the case now.

Also, no neutral venues except the semi-finals and final. Each new round could be drawn at JFA House on a Monday afternoon, with the first team out of the hat playing at home.

This would give the surviving JFL and J2 teams the chance to be drawn at home to a big club such as Urawa. An unseeded draw would be much more attractive than the current format, where tired teams and their patient fans have to trail huge distances to play at a neutral venue.

I still think the Emperor’s Cup has its place, but it needs drastic changes to bring it into the modern Japanese football era.


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