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May 2007

Koji gives Osim even more options

31 May 2007(Thu)

May 29, 2007: And then there were three...

After selecting Shunsuke Nakamura and Naohiro Takahara for the Peru game, Japan coach Ivica Osim has expanded his band of European exiles to three by calling up Koji Nakata for the Kirin Cup.

Many observers, myself included, will be glad to see Koji back in the fold, as his qualities are many.

First, he is versatile, and can play a number of positions in defence and midfield.

Second, he has a good footballing brain, allied with keen concentration, and Osim needs thinkers as well as movers in his team.

Third, he has a lot of experience at this level, having featured in two World Cup squads.

Fourth, he has stuck with it in Europe after a tumultuous time in France, and has found his home in Basel. This shows a strong character and ambition, when it would have been easy to return to the J.League.

All in all, then, Nakata still has a lot to offer the national team, and Osim will be able to capitalise on his versatility, even during a game if necessary.

Koji is listed as a defender in Osim's squad, along with one of my favourite players at the moment, Mizumoto.

Despite JEF United's wretched season, Mizumoto has emerged as a bright prospect for the future. Injuries to Stoyanov and Djordjevic have thrust Mizumoto into the spotlight, and he has emerged as a natural leader.

I wrote recently that Mizumoto played with an attitude, and it was good to see him standing up for himself and giving Juninho as good as he got in some verbal exchanges during the recent Frontale-JEF game. This Kirin Cup experience can only help his career, like those of his fellow Olympic team members.

There is a wealth of talent in this Kirin Cup collection, and the toughest job for Osim will be finding the right combinations and deciding who to leave out, rather than who to play.

The return of Koji Nakata gives him even more options, especially with Abe and Konno in there, too.


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Sydney FC coach salutes Reds fans

28 May 2007(Mon)

May 24, 2007: The head coach of Sydney FC, Branko Culina, was spot on with his assessment of Urawa Reds after their 0-0 draw in the AFC Champions League on Wednesday night.

Culina was in awe of the spectacle he had just witnessed at Saitama Stadium 2002, as 44,793 fans produced an incredible atmosphere to match the occasion. (I estimated that 44,700 of them were wearing a red shirt, and 93 were Aussies).

"Urawa is a wonderful, wonderful club," said Culina. "You've just to look at the facilities they have."

Regarding the fans, the Sydney FC coach added: "The supporters are absolutely brilliant. This is not only one of the best crowds in Asia, but one of the best in the world. I congratulate them. To come so close against one of the giants of Asian football...we are very proud and pleased."

High praise indeed – and, of course, he is right.

I have said before that Reds, should they go on and win the Champions League and qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup in December, would be a marvellous advertisement for Japanese football.

Their story needs telling to the world, as I am sure many football fans around the globe are unaware that a team in Japan receives such fervent support, and an average home attendance that many clubs in the so-called big leagues of Europe could only dream about.

The J.League is in a very healthy state at the moment, but there is no doubt Reds are one step ahead in terms of both fan base and the quality of the team. Other clubs, notably Albirex, also attract big home crowds on a regular basis, and other teams are at consistently the same level as Reds, particularly Gamba, but none can match the overall standing of Urawa.

Almost 45,000 fans on a Wednesday night against Sydney FC out in the sticks is a fine effort, and the club's decision to kick off at 7.30pm rather than the customary 7pm is another factor which has led to such good attendances for the three home games.

To close, there were some nice touches at the end of the Reds-Sydney match, when the home fans applauded the Aussies generously – and some of the Sydney players threw their sweaty shirts to the small away contingent in the corner.

Well worth the trip for all concerned, then.


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Japan could stage the perfect World Cup in 2010

24 May 2007(Thu)

May 23, 2007: Weren't those words of Sepp Blatter music to the ears of Japanese football fans?

The fact that Japan was high on the list -- if not at the top, as that was clearly the United States -- of substitute hosts should South Africa be deemed unsuitable to stage the next World Cup in 2010.

Of course it is a remote chance that FIFA will remove the hosting rights from South Africa, as President Blatter has said there would be only a change if there was a natural catastrophe, rather than any political/financial pressure.

And the chances of Japan being selected as emergency host would be even smaller -- but at least Blatter mentioned Japan as a world player in the modern game when discussing the topic in a recent interview with the BBC.

Blatter, of course, is absolutely right, as Japan could stage the next World Cup at very short notice -- on its own, not with Korea.

The 10 stadiums used in 2002 for half a World Cup are still there -- well, I hear that Miyagi is still there, but no one seems to know for sure.

Add to these the likes of Ajinomoto Stadium, home of FC Tokyo, plus Toyota Stadium, the sometime home of Nagoya Grampus Eight, and even the Big Arch at Hiroshima, and Japan has more than enough top-quality stadiums to host a 32-team, eight-group World Cup tomorrow, so to speak.

The hotels are here, the transportation system is excellent, and the fans would embrace the full World Cup, as they did half the World Cup in 2002. So would the sponsors.

Crowd trouble would be non-existent, as the local fans would welcome all-comers, and the Japanese police would show restraint and not behave like their Italian counterparts in Rome by attacking fans from overseas.

I think it would be wonderful for the World Cup to return to Japan, and a wonderful success for FIFA and the world.

Blatter has some big decisions to make in the near future, not only with South Africa but also with Brazil for 2014. By all reports, Brazil is light years away from being able to stage a World Cup in modern, safe stadiums, so the United States, Australia, Japan and England among others can all regard themselves as on stand-by.

The 2010 and 2014 World Cups are far from decided at the moment.


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J.League sets good example with Ganaha

21 May 2007(Mon)

May 18, 2007: The Kazuki Ganaha Case has been a good lesson for all, especially for club doctors who should know better.

And, I must say, it has been extremely well handled by all parties.

First by Frontale themselves, on learning that Ganaha had received medication via an intravenous injection -- treatment banned by both FIFA and the J.League, even though no illegal substance was involved.

And second by the J.League, who issued a six-match ban on the player, backdated four games.

That punishment, along with a fine of 10 million yen for the club, suited the "crime", and served as a reminder to all clubs about the regulations.

Some hard-line anti-doping lobbyists may think Frontale/Ganaha escaped lightly, but sports authorities can frequently over-react when faced with such an emotional, complex issue, and end up handing out punishments that are too severe due to inflexible guidelines. So well done to the J.League for getting this one spot on.

The suspension came to end following Frontale's 3-1 win at Kofu on May 13, and, at the time of writing, Ganaha is pencilled in for an instant recall at Oita on Saturday.

In Ganaha's absence, several players have taken up the responsibility of scoring goals, one of them being Yusuke Mori at Kofu last weekend. The right winger scored a lovely goal with the outside of his right foot, and, at the start of Golden Week, had provided a wonderful cross for Chong Tese to head home at the far post against JEF United.

The boy has talent, but also has a short fuse. To use some English slang, Mori could be described as "a bit of a nutter", or "nutcase" if you prefer -- they are both perfectly appropriate. JEF fans know this only too well from the controversial Nabisco Cup semi-final last season, and, during the recent game between the two sides at Todoroki, Mori puzzled me by staying down, pretending he was injured, as JEF pressed for an unlilkely winner near the end.

He would have been better off getting up and helping his team defend, but instead got himself a yellow card for dissent on jumping back to his feet and launching a tirade against the linesman.

There's never a dull moment these days at Todoroki.


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Kazu's cracker lifts Yokohama FC

17 May 2007(Thu)

May 15, 2007: You are never too old to learn – and never too young to learn from the old master, Kazuyoshi Miura.

That was a great goal he scored on Saturday, wasn't it, smashing the ball with his left foot on the run into the back of the Sanfrecce net. The perfect dipping volley.

What I liked about it was that Kazu just hit it! Too often in the J.League – and at the Emirates Stadium for that matter – you see players take one more touch than necessary, and the chance to strike is gone.

Worse still, they will control the ball and try and cross when the only thing on their mind, as a forward, should be to shoot.

That is why I loved Kazu's goal. Cynics may argue that he had no other choice but to shoot from that position as he no longer has the legs to keep running – and they may have a point as it was in the 42nd minute after all – but he knew what he wanted to do and executed this difficult skill in textbook fashion.

A shot like that can go horribly wrong, and the ball flies over the bar like a balloon, but on this occasion it rose and dropped at speed like a big dipper at the fairground. The result was another Kazu cracker -- his first league goal as a 40-year-old.

The lesson here for youngsters (such as Gon Nakayama, for example) is to feel confident in your own ability in front of goal. Don't be afraid to take a chance, especially when you are 1-0 up and there is only a couple of minutes to go to halftime.

There was nothing to lose and everything to gain at this stage of the match, and Kazu gambled and came up trumps with his spectacular dipping volley. (I have heard Japanese commentators call it a "loop shoot" – a "chip" or a "lob" in English, but that just does not do it justice).


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AFC – Another Football Calamity

14 May 2007(Mon)

May 11, 2007: What will the AFC think of next?

Their attitude towards the visit of Manchester United to Asia in general and Malaysia in particular is another low point for the AFC – standing, of course, for Asian Football Confederation; although, in this case, Another Football Calamity might be more appropriate.

They do not want Manchester United to come to Asia in July because they want everyone to focus on the Asian Cup, even though three of their destinations, Japan, South Korea and Macau-China, are not hosting the Asian Cup.

They think it is disrespectful to Asia, despite the fact United have millions of fans in this part of the world and have actually turned people on to the game of football.

I would like to think AFC have a strong point and deserve support, but then I turn up for the AFC Champions League game at Todoroki between Frontale and Arema Malang and see that the Indonesians have brought only 12 players – and the lone sub on the bench is a goalkeeper!

This is despite the fact clubs could register as many as 30 players in their provisional squad, and have 20 on the team sheet for any group game.

It was a farce to see this, and also to hear that a 13th player should have turned up at the airport back home but failed to arrive and was not answering his mobile phone. Perhaps he was watching Manchester United on TV.

So the AFC have enough of their own problems to tackle without turning on Manchester United, who cannot be blamed for being a massive global sporting success (note the lack of the word "brand" here, folks).

If they do not want United in Malaysia two days before the Asian Cup final in Jakarta on July 29, why should they allow Zinedine Zidane to visit Indonesia from July 6-8? Won't everyone be talking about his World Cup final headbutt and not the start of the Asian Cup on July 7?

And why should they allow Reading to play in Seoul, and Liverpool, Pompey and Fulham to play in Hong Kong, all in July?

Can't they try and ban them, too, as Asian fans will be distracted from the Asian Cup.

The AFC make me laugh, although it is too serious to laugh, really. After all, their annual awards have lost credibility, and the AFC Youth Player of the Year for 2006 went to China's Ma Xiaoxu, an 18-year-old Chinese girl who also won Female Player of the Year. Readers know I support the women's game, but this is just so PC (Politically Correct) it is absolutely PC (Plain Crazy).

What will happen this year? A futsal player being named Asian Player of the Year?

Do not bet against it.


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Football and fish and chips at Ajista

10 May 2007(Thu)

May 8, 2007: These are grim times for FC Tokyo fans, as the team stumbles from one calamity to the next.

Well, maybe a couple of beers and some fish and chips might cheer you up!

The countdown clock is ticking to Saturday, May 12, at 7pm to be precise, when Tokyo entertain JEF United at Ajinomoto Stadium.

With full credit to the people behind the scenes at FC Tokyo, they are making the occasion "UK Day" and hope to attract the many Brits who live in the Tokyo area to the game.

There will be a special discount price for Brits attending the match, and fans will be able to buy the traditional fare of fish and chips, washed down with an English pale ale. The British Embassy are also involved, so hopefully there will be a festival atmosphere before the game.

The UK Day theme is a natural progression for FC Tokyo, whose home matches try to capture the feel of a game in England in several aspects.

The first thing that comes to mind is the pre-match rendition of the Liverpool anthem "You'll never walk alone", plus the English stadium announcements by resident Brit Steve Spencer, who hails from Blackpool (to use the parlance of the typical player pen picture in the match day programme back home).

And Steve really loves his music, too, as all Brits do. "That's Entertainment" by The Jam and the Oasis classic "Don't Look Back in Anger" are part of the staple diet at Ajista, and the Brits who take advantage of this special offer on Saturday night might be feeling a little homesick listening to this as they devour their fish and chips (hopefully served in old newspapers, covered in salt and leaking with vinegar) and enjoy a pint or two (or three).

On the subject of football stadium food in England, I would like to relate a very funny story from a Wimbledon-Newcastle United match at Plough Lane, London, in the late 1980s.

About an hour before kick-off, myself and half a dozen other football writers from the north-east down there to cover Newcastle were milling around the centre circle, enjoying a juicy hamburger.

I was just about to take a large bite out of my mouth-watering snack when a hand reached over my shoulder and grabbed the burger. I turned round to see who it was, but was not quick enough to prevent a young and playful Paul Gascoigne from stuffing the whole burger into his mouth in one, chewing quickly and swallowing -- and this was an hour before kick-off!

This match would become famous, or, rather, infamous, for the physical abuse suffered by Gazza at the hands of Wimbledon hooligan Vinnie Jones -- but that is another, long, long story!

Enjoy your fish and chips at Ajista!


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Mizumoto emerges, Marinos' goal rush

7 May 2007(Mon)

May 5, 2007: When Yuki Abe left JEF United for Urawa Reds in the close season, Amar Osim would have been looking for a new leader to emerge.

He's found one already, and his name is Hiroki Mizumoto.

The 21-year-old Olympic team defender is having a fine season with the Chiba club, helping to fill the spiritual void left by Abe. Not only is he strong and quick, and good in the air and on the ground, he also has a bit of attitude. This is always good to see in a Japanese player, especially when confronted by an influential and dangerous foreign player.

Take the case recently of the Frontale-JEF game at Todoroki.

Mizumoto's job that afternoon was to man-mark Juninho, which is not easy due to the speed and the movement of the clever Brazilian. A couple of times the pair had words, and Mizumoto gave as good as he got in the verbal exchanges. He can clearly look after himself in the physical and mental sides of the game, and I am sure he will become a permanent fixture in the national squad in the near future.

In their next game, against Reds at Saitama Stadium, JEF were in big trouble when Saito was sent off early in the second half. They already trailed 1-0, but Mizumoto dragged them back into it with an equaliser which again displayed his fighting quality and character.

Successive 1-1 draws at Todoroki and Saitama are two good results for JEF, but now they must find some consistent home form to start moving up the table. It won't be easy, though, because a confident Reysol are next up for United, in the Chiba derby at Fukari on Sunday evening.

On the subject of confidence, you can't beat Yokohama F Marinos at the moment. Three straight wins, scoring 13 goals in the process and conceding only one, speaks for itself, and it was good to see over 33,000 at Nissan Stadium for the visit of Frontale.

I saw the first of those three wins, 5-0 against Oita, and there were just over 17,000 inside the vast stadium. What impressed me about the home team was how they defended from the front, with both Oshima and Sakata keeping the pressure on and forcing mistakes from their opponents. With the Yamase brothers on fire, things are starting to look up for the Marinos fans.


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Suganuma shows electrifying form

3 May 2007(Thu)

May 2, 2007: There was plenty to admire at Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

The electric storm that delayed the Reysol-Grampus game for 49 minutes was quite impressive, as a warm, sunny day gave way to thunder, lightning, torrential rain and gale-force winds.

Even Reysol's hardy band of Yellow Monkeys were sent scurrying from behind the goal, presumably to seek sanctuary in the tall trees, their natural habitat after all, just over the wall.

And some of those lightning flashes were mighty close; one of them, in fact, was closer to the goal than any Grampus forward would come during the match.

A chilly evening followed the thunderstorm, but the Reysol fans, especially in the back stand, created a marvellous atmosphere in one of the best stadiums in the league.

Reysol's first goal in their energetic 2-0 victory, scored by Tadanari Ri, was a soft one, but their second was a beauty, set up by Ri and finished in fine style by Minoru Suganuma.

It was Suganuma's fifth goal of the campaign and displayed all his confidence and composure. Ri intercepted a weak Nagoya clearance and headed the ball into the path of Suganuma, who had moved inside from the right wing and was bursting through the inside-right channel.

Without breaking stride, Suganuma took one touch to control the ball before firing it low past Kushino and into the bottom left corner from the edge of the box. Coming, as it did, five minutes before the break, the goal put Reysol in control and they were able to hold off Nagoya's late onslaught to claim all three points.

Suganuma is an interesting player, as Philippe Troussier would say. He graduated from the club's junior youth team through the youth team into the first team, and had spells with Vitoria of Brazil and Ehime FC of J2 along the way -- and he is still only 21.

While on loan with Ehime last season, Suganuma made 45 appearances in the league and scored 11 goals, and has clearly benefited from all those competitive games if his early-season form in J1 is anything to go by.

I always remember Gert Engels stressing how a season in J2 with Kyoto Purple Sanga, in 2001, had helped transform Park Ji Sung.

"You can train and train all week, but there is no substitute for playing competitive matches," Engels said of Park when they were together at Kyoto.

"In J2, teams are often playing Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, and you could see Park growing and improving throughout the year because he was having so many opportunities to play competitive football. He played 38 league games that season in J2 and it really helped his development."

While it may seem a frustrating step down at the time, dropping from J1 to J2 or moving from a big club to a smaller one (like Suganuma, as Reysol were also in J2 last season), it is a career move worth exploring for young players who feel they are not getting enough playing time where they are.


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