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December 2007

Umesaki is a good start for Reds

31 Dec 2007(Mon)

December 29, 2007: The signing of spark-plug Tsukasa Umesaki by Urawa Reds from Oita Trinita had been on the cards for several weeks, and it became official on Wednesday.

Still only 20, Umesaki certainly stands out with his quick and clever playing style. He can also play in a number of attacking positions, increasing the options for the coach in the same way Yuki Abe did at the back and in central midfield after his move from JEF United a year ago.

Although Reds have a policy of not revealing the transfer fee they paid, the figure I read for Umesaki was around 200 million yen. This is a decent price for Oita, who should be able to bolster their squad in all departments for next season and stay out of relegation trouble.

So expect a good deal of transfer activity at Oita in the coming weeks, and also at Urawa, who are surely far from finished in the market.

At a recent Emperor's Cup match between Gamba and Trinita at Chiba I was chatting with a prominent Japanese agent who said Reds had money to burn this winter following their success in the Asian Champions League and huge crowds in the J.League. He believed their top three targets were Umesaki, Konno of FC Tokyo and Kashiwagi of Sanfrecce, as Reds were preparing for the departure of Hasebe and possibly Suzuki to Europe either during the January transfer window or next summer.

Other names linked with Reds are Komano from Sanfrecce and Edmilson from Albirex to replace Washington, so clearly there is a lot more business pending at Saitama.

Umesaki is a good start, though, and can add some zip and creative flair to the Reds attack. He has a similar build to Okubo, and makes things happen as he roams across the pitch, behind the forward line, looking for an opening. The injury to J.League MVP Robson Ponte gives Umesaki a chance to win a place in the starting line-up for next season, but he accepts it will be a challenge to make his mark at such a big club.

And don't rule him out of the Olympic squad yet, either, as I feel Sorimachi's team will continue to evolve in the run-up to Beijing.


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Sanfrecce keep going, despite relegation

27 Dec 2007(Thu)

December 25, 2007: One of the biggest surprises of the 2007 J.League season was the relegation of Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Looking through their list of players, they had enough youth and experience to stay up, but lost in the play-off to Kyoto Sanga.

So full credit, then, to the Three Arrows for finding a second wind and winning their way through to the Emperor’s Cup semi-finals.

Whatever happens from here, at least they have regained some of their pride and given their supporters something to cheer after the bitter disappointment of relegation.

I must admit I did not expect Sanfrecce to be involved in the relegation dogfight, let alone go down to J2, due to the amount of quality players throughout the squad.

A team backbone of Stoyanov at libero, Toda and Aoyama in the centre of midfield, and Ueslei and Sato up front, was fleshed out with Kashiwagi behind the front two and Komano and Hattori on the flanks. Add to this the experience and craft of the Morisaki twins, national youth team captain Makino at the back and Shimoda in goal, and it is hard to work out where Sanfrecce went wrong.

Overall, they were probably one good defender short of being a mid-table team – and their relegation is further evidence of the rise of the J.League.

Two other examples of this in recent months was the success of the under-22s in qualifying for Beijing, and the almighty struggle Reds had in trying to close out the league championship.

Sorimachi’s Japan lacked the individual stars of yesteryear, but played well as a team toughened up by regular J.League football. The JEF United duo of Mizumoto and Mizuno spring to mind immediately.

As for Reds, they looked home and dry at one stage, but failed to win any of their last five matches: drawing three on the trot before losing the last two, at home to Antlers and away to Yokohama FC. Again this proved the depth in the top flight, with Grampus, Frontale and S-Pulse all taking a point off Urawa on the home stretch.

Sanfrecce have paid a big price, too, but can still end the campaign with a trophy.


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Official memories of the unofficial Flamengo-Liverpool match

24 Dec 2007(Mon)

December 21, 2007: Official or not, nobody can take away the achievement of Zico and the brilliant Flamengo team that crushed Liverpool 3-0 in the 1981 Toyota Cup. Not even FIFA.

However, that is what the world governing body is trying to do by refusing to officially recognise all previous winners of the forerunners to their own FIFA Club World Cup.

Zico is not happy about the decision, saying that “people sitting in an office” are taking away the history of the game from the players, fans and media; although I am sure Liverpool will be happy to find out that the match never took place officially as far as FIFA is concerned.

I remember very clearly watching the match at home in England. Although Zico did not score, he was named Man of the Match as Flamengo inflicted a rare, heavy beating on a powerful Liverpool team.

I even remember a surly post-match interview with the Liverpool and England central defender, Phil Thompson, who refused to give any credit to the Brazilians. Liverpool had not been outplayed at all, he insisted.

It also stirred an interest in Japan, as I remember the incessant drone of the supporters’ horns, the winter sunshine of Tokyo and the big crowd packing the National Stadium. It was a great and exotic spectacle from so far away.

However, during the recent Club World Cup in Japan, FIFA said they would recognise only the four events organised by themselves, and that the other editions, played over two legs and then just as one game for the Toyota Cup, were not official competitions.

So be it, but the memories cannot be removed, and Flamengo will surely still count the 1981 Toyota Cup among their official achievements, with or without FIFA backing.

The match also gave a taste of things to come at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where Zico was among the legendary four golden men in Brazil’s midfield, with Falcao, Socrates and Toninho Cerezo.

I have to say a great midfield, but not a great team, as they could not defend when they really needed to against Italy (losing 3-2 to a Rossi hat trick) and had a bungling centre forward in Serginho. I once interviewed Toninho Cerezo about this during his time at Kashima, and he shook his head and conceded Brazil 1982 could not be considered a great team. After all, they did not even reach the semi-finals.

Zico, though, should not be too concerned about the FIFA ruling, because anyone who values tradition and history knows only too well the impact and significance of that Flamengo-Liverpool match in 1981.


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Oswaldo still in dream land

20 Dec 2007(Thu)

December 19, 2007: At times on Monday night at the J.League Awards, it was hard to remember that Kashima Antlers had actually won the championship this season.

Five Reds players in the Best XI; three from Nabisco Cup winners Gamba; Robson Ponte the Player of the Year; a special award to Reds for winning the AFC Champions League and finishing third in the FIFA Club World Cup...

But then all you had to do was look at the face of Oswaldo Oliveira and his beam told its own story: Antlers were the champions and he was still in a state of shock.

It was over two weeks since Antlers had beaten S-Pulse 3-0 and Reds had lost 1-0 away to Yokohama FC to enable Kashima to leapfrog Urawa and claim a fifth league title and 10th major trophy overall.

Despite this incredible achievement, including a run of nine straight wins to end the season, I was surprised to hear that Oswaldo was not signed up for next season.

"In the next two weeks it should be sorted out," he said.

Antlers fans will be keeping their fingers crossed that there are no late hitches, as Oswaldo did a fine job in his first season without the playing resources or the money available to previous championship-winning Antlers managers. Every player he brought in did his job, and the coach moulded a strong team spirit after a shaky start.

Regarding the subject of the Best XI, Oswaldo thought Kashima may have had two or three more players in there, notably Sogahata, the goalkeeper, and Uchida, the young right back, but was not overly concerned.

My choice for MVP, a player who typifies the heart and soul of the championship-winning team, had been Iwamasa, and he was the only Antlers player in the Best XI. When I asked Oswaldo for his choice of MVP he said Juninho, the Frontale striker, but thought he had not been picked because he had won the top scorer award with 22 goals.

And the Antlers player Oswaldo could not speak highly enough of in terms of natural talent and potential? Well, it was Nozawa, scorer of that beautiful, and critical, goal at Saitama Stadium which beat Reds in the penultimate round of games.

An Antlers league and cup double, of course, is still very much on the cards, as they play Honda FC in the Emperor's Cup quarter-finals on Saturday. Before looking ahead to next season, Oswaldo's Antlers are not quite finished in this one yet.


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Reds fans out of order in booing legend Maldini

17 Dec 2007(Mon)

December 15, 2007: Attention, Reds fans! A couple of things to discuss.

Yes, you have made a big impact in the Asian Champions League and in the FIFA Club World Cup, supporting your team in large numbers around the continent.

You have even managed to bring some atmosphere to the Club World Cup/Toyota Cup, which usually resembles a training match when the calls of the players can be heard over a silent, theatre-like audience.

But booing a legend like Paolo Maldini!

What's that all about?

Really, Maldini is a role model in his attitude, loyalty and professionalism; a gentleman and a brilliant footballer.

So when a player of his stature comes on for the last 10 minutes against your own team, he should be treated with the respect his career has earned. Maldini is class. Booing him, just because it is expected, is not -- and Reds fans should try to differentiate between the two.

Booing Tsuchiya because of his foul on Tatsuya Tanaka, or booing the former Olympic coach Yamamoto when he went to Saitama Stadium with Jubilo, is one thing; and Reds fans will feel their actions on these specific occasions were justified. As a football fan, I do not have a problem with that. It is part of the game, and the targets must learn to live with it.

But Maldini?

Wouldn't it have been wonderful for the game if Maldini had been greeted by thunderous applause around the ground, rather than just from the many Japanese fans of Milan at Yokohama. Even the Inter fans don't boo Maldini.

Maybe Reds fans can learn some humility from FC Tokyo fans over at Ajinomoto Stadium. I remember once being very impressed with the Tokyo fans when Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi returned as goalkeeper for Jubilo Iwata.

On a smaller scale, Yoshi is a legend, too, a gentleman, a great ambassador for the game, and the Tokyo "ultras" behind the goal gave him a standing ovation as he ran towards them.

Having been brought up in the hooligan years in England, I half-expected the cheers and the applause to turn to catcalls and "V-signs" when the keeper acknowledged the reception...but no, the Tokyo fans showed their class.

Booing Maldini? Come on Reds fans, you can do better than that.


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Terada shines for Gamba

13 Dec 2007(Thu)

December 12, 2007: The hardy souls who made it to Fukuda Denshi Arena on Saturday were treated to an entertaining game and another eye-catching individual performance from a player who is rapidly becoming a major force in a major team.

The match was Gamba Osaka against Oita Trinita in the Emperor's Cup fifth round, and the player was Gamba's Shinichi Terada.

I have written about Terada before this season, and expect to do much more in the future.

He is still only 22, a lively and intelligent attacking midfield player, and a product of the club's admirable youth set-up.

Not only did he score two fine goals in Gamba's 3-1 win, the first with his left foot and the second with his right, he produced a 90-minute display of confidence and creativity with his well-timed runs from midfield.

His first goal was a left-foot snap shot from the edge of the box, taking everyone by surprise with its venom and accuracy, and his second was a right-foot curler into the far corner -- the kind of goal Shinji Ono scores in his sleep. It was clear what Terada was going to do when he received the ball in such an inviting position, as he made room for himself and opened up the angle to caress the ball inside the far post. A match reporter would describe it as "an exquisite finish" or "a sumptuous finish", both words doing justice to this "Ono-esque" piece of skill.

The disappointing crowd of 3,285 was hardly surprising, and highlighted once again the dwindling interest in the Emperor's Cup.

Gamba Osaka v Oita Trinita at Soga, Chiba Prefecture, anyone? Makes no sense in this day and age: Not to the two teams at the end of a long season, the fans of the two teams, or even to the Chiba public, who would prefer to watch their own team, JEF United, thank you very much.

Clearly the JFA must make drastic changes in the timing and the format of the competition, which is now in its 87th edition and struggling to retain the glamour and serve the noble principles of a bygone era.

But more of that subject later...


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Pim gets the nod over Troussier for Aussie job

10 Dec 2007(Mon)

December 8, 2007: It must have been a tough call for the Australian Football Federation in their choice for a new national coach.

The two final candidates were well known to Japanese fans: Philippe Troussier and Pim Verbeek.

In the end, Verbeek got the job, his target to take Australia into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Troussier, meanwhile, must wait to try and rebuild his career, because not a lot has gone right for him since he left Japan in 2002 after a successful and entertaining four years.

I must admit a few years ago I contacted the Scottish Football Association when Troussier was said to be on a shortlist of two, the other being Berti Vogts. Of course the SFA would not admit it was down to Troussier or Vogts, but I said that Troussier would do a great job in rebuilding the Scottish national team -- identifying talented young players and fitting them into a system from age group football through to the senior national team; just like he had done in Japan. And he would be pretty funny along the way...

But back to Pim. He is truly one of the game's nice guys, as anyone who has had dealings with him in recent years will testify.

He led Omiya in J2 in 1999 and Kyoto in J1 in 2003, and worked with Hiddink in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup and with Advocaat for the 2006 World Cup.

He popped over to Japan on a regular basis during his time in Korea to check on the Koreans playing here, and it was always refreshing to catch up with him for a coffee and a chat.

He knows the game inside out in this part of the world, and his knowledge of the Japanese and Koreans in particular will come in handy on the long road to South Africa (a minimum of 14 qualifying matches for Japan, a maximum of 18 if they finish third in the final round and must face two play-offs).

Although most of Australia's top players are in the English Premier League -- very convenient from Holland -- Pim says he will be based in Australia and assemble a squad of A-League players. This makes total sense, of course, because it is easy to follow the form and the condition of the players in Europe, but not so in Australia.

He will be going there at an exciting time, too, with the game enjoying a high profile; and the fact that he will be able to communicate in English after so many years in Japan and Korea must also be a huge barrier removed.

I am sure everyone in Japan wishes Pim the best -- once Japan have qualified, of course!


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Now who for J.League MVP?

6 Dec 2007(Thu)

December 5, 2007: The shock defeat of Urawa Reds and incredible championship success of Kashima Antlers threw everything into confusion regarding the J.League MVP for 2007.

Even though there are some outstanding individual players around the league, I believe the MVP should always come from the championship-winning team.

Had Reds hung on, then Robson Ponte would have been a strong contender, as would Keita Suzuki and Yuki Abe. Who knows, come the official awards night on December 17, one of these players may well win it.

But my choice would come from Kashima, and again I have narrowed it down to three candidates.

The first would be Marquinhos, a J.League journeyman who has had a fantastic season in his own right and in his work for the team by leading a frequently young and inexperienced forward line. He has quick feet to take him past defenders and has scored some spectacular goals.

The second candidate would be Mitsuo Ogasawara. Yes, I know he played only half a season after returning to the club from Italy, but would Antlers have won the championship without him? Would they have matured and developed so much as a team and won nine straight games without the contribution and the influence of Ogasawara?

The answer to both questions would surely be "no", but this does not mean I would choose Ogasawara as MVP for the season.

Which brings us round to the third candidate, and the player who would get my vote. It is Daiki Iwamasa.

The big centre half is my type of player -- a tough competitor who leads by example and plays with all his heart. In other words he is a natural successor to Antlers legend Akita -- who has announced his retirement at Kyoto this season but whose spirit lives on at Kashima in the form of Iwamasa.

There is no bigger compliment to Iwamasa than that, and I think he has typified the fighting qualities of Antlers this season and their determination to keep going in difficult times.

Both Nakazawa and Tulio have won the award in recent seasons, proving that defenders are rightly recognised, too. Iwamasa would be my choice this time.


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Okada – a safe and logical choice by JFA

3 Dec 2007(Mon)

November 30, 2007: Safe and logical are two buzzwords in the coaching philosophy of the ever pragmatic Takeshi Okada.

And that was my reaction to the news that Okada – barring any late snag – will succeed Ivica Osim as coach of the national team. It is a very safe and logical appointment by the JFA.

Okada, of course, has been there, done that and got the World Cup T-shirt, from France 1998. He has had a long break from top-level coaching so should be refreshed and ready for battle when Japan start their campaign in February to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

In 1997, Okada was assistant coach to Shu Kamo – and was promoted when Kamo was fired during a two-game swing in Central Asia. He revived the team, recorded a crucial win in Korea, and then steered Japan past Iran in the play-off on that unforgettable night in Johor Bahru.

This time he is also taking on a job that was half-finished, but in much more traumatic circumstances than before after the stroke that felled Osim.

Osim was well on his way to rebuilding the team and creating a new style of play when tragedy struck, and Okada’s job will be to maintain that creative momentum while adding his own touches in terms of team structure and personnel.

And Okada, of course, knows everything there is to know about the J.League players and those overseas from his days of plotting campaigns with Yokohama F. Marinos.

Yes, he is a logical and safe choice, and there was absolutely no need for the JFA to look outside of Japan when there were a couple of other candidates who would also have been sound appointments: Nishino and Osieck, the latter supported by his Japanese-speaking assistant coach Engels, thereby doing away with the need for an interpreter on the training pitch and in the meeting room.

Under the tragic circumstances, though, Okada fits the bill at a time when the JFA was thrown into shock like the rest of the football world.


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