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April 2008

Hokuto -- the "suppon" that won't let go

28 Apr 2008(Mon)

April 25, 2008: The last thing Yasuharu Sorimachi needs is another good wide player forcing his way into the reckoning for the Olympic squad.

But that's exactly what he's got in Hokuto Nakamura, whose career is back on track after one and half years of injury problems.

Sorimachi had a good look at the 22-year-old Fukuoka flyer in the Olympic trials on Wednesday, when Hokuto (everyone calls him by his given name) played in the second of two full-scale practice matches, against Omiya at NACK5.

It wasn't quite the Hokuto of old -- the dynamic, marauding right back from Avispa's last J1 campaign in 2006 -- but he still has three months to sharpen up before Beijing.

I asked Sorimachi specifically about Hokuto, who was one of my favourite young players in the J.League before he suffered that serious knee ligament injury in October 2006.

"He's not 100 per cent," Sorimachi replied. "He can do more, but his performance was not so bad."

Then there was a pause, before he added: "We have many good side players..."

At this stage, Hokuto is fourth in line for a place on the right flank, if Sorimachi plays 3-5-2, behind Uchida, Mizuno and now Nagatomo.

If the coach plays a back four, he would be third choice, behind Uchida and Nagatomo, and this is not nearly enough to win a spot in the 18-man squad, including two keepers.

It is a tall order for Hokuto, who played only three league games in 2007, but all he can do is keep going, build up his match fitness and hope for the best.

It was certainly good to see him back in action on Wednesday, at right back in a four-man defence, and Omiya's experienced left flank of Hato and Fujimoto gave him a good work-out.

As well as being a robust overlapping full back, he is also known as a strong man-marker. This has produced the nickname "Suppon" -- the Japanese snapping turtle that bites and won't let go.

In English football jargon we'd probably call him a terrier -- a tough little dog snapping at your heels and refusing to leave you alone.

Turtle or terrier, one thing's for sure: Hokuto will not let go of his Olympic hopes after forcing his way back into the picture when all seemed lost.


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No wonder Kyoto were purple with rage

24 Apr 2008(Thu)

April 23, 2008: Some games make you despair for the future of football.

Take, for example, the Albirex Niigata-Kyoto Sanga match at the Big Swan on Saturday.

Basically, I thought the match was a disgrace, a terrible advertisement for not only the J.League but for the current state of the modern game. It was the kind of footballing fare that makes you want the J.League to gather together the captains/coaches of all clubs and ask them to simply play honestly, cut out the gamesmanship and try to give the football public in Japan a decent, attractive product to watch.

Naive, I know, but this was desperate stuff.

As you all know by now, Kyoto had three players sent off, followed by their manager, Hisashi Kato. In keeping with the club's main colour, "Kato-Q" went purple with rage at the series of dismissals and decided to redesign the technical area with some rather nifty footwork.

And no wonder he was angry, after seeing Sidiclei, Ataliba and Masushima all sent to the dressing room early.

So was it a dirty game? The card count suggests it was, but this was not the case at all.

It was more down to the high level of simulation and feigning injury -- and inexperienced refereeing -- that led to Kyoto finishing the game with only eight men and no manager on the bench.

Sidiclei, the captain, was sent off for two yellow cards in the first half, fouls on Alessandro and then Yano; Ataliba was shown a straight red for an off-the-ball incident with Yano that the TV cameras failed to pick up; and Masushima was sent off for two yellows. The first was for dissent after being penalised for a foul on Yano, and the second was for another aerial challenge on...yes, you've guessed it, Yano.

I have seen Kyoto play three times this season, and Masushima has impressed me on each occasion with his power in the air, the timing of his jump.

And he is not exactly built like John Terry, is he? More like a member of SMAP -- and it would be interesting to know exactly what Kyoto veteran Morioka said to Yano as he lay on the floor during the card chaos.

Albirex won their first league game of the season, but surely no one can take any satisfaction from a shambles like this.


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Young leader Nagatomo impresses FC Tokyo, Okada

21 Apr 2008(Mon)

April 18, 2008: Takeshi Okada has never been afraid to give youth a chance.

Remember Shinji Ono and Daisuke Ichikawa in early 1998, although the latter would be one of three players cut from the final 22 for France.

Among Okada's squad for the April 21-23 training camp is another very interesting youngster, 21-year-old full back Yuto Nagatomo of FC Tokyo.

According to club sources, Nagatomo has already established himself as a leader on and off the pitch, despite this being his debut season out of Meiji University.

At a fan festival in Shinjuku in February, for example, Nagatomo taught fellow newcomer Emerson how to bow and say the right words of greeting to the supporters.

And even on Saturday, after FC Tokyo had won a rip-roaring derby against Verdy, Nagatomo hung around long after the final whistle to show goal-scorer Hanyu how to perform the rousing victory ritual in front of the Tokyo fans at the away end.

Not that Nagatomo had scored himself, though; just that his presence in the Verdy box, in injury time, to meet Konno's header into the danger zone had resulted in an own goal by Verdy sub Shibasaki.

Like Komano of Jubilo Iwata, Nagatomo is a tough defender and difficult to shake off, as Verdy's Hulk discovered during the Tokyo derby.

Although he plays at left back for Tokyo -- the right back slot being occupied, of course, by Tokunaga -- Nagatomo can also play on the right flank. Indeed, right wing back was his position in the recent under-23 friendly against Angola, from where he supplied the cross for Toyoda to score Japan's goal in a 1-1 draw.

With a call to Okada's squad, the chances of Nagatomo making Japan's 18 for the Beijing Olympics have increased significantly.

Even though Olympic team coach Sorimachi has some experienced wide players in Uchida and Mizuno on the right, Yasuda and Honda on the left, Nagatomo's versatility makes him a good bet for the 18.

More rewards may come further down the road, but an appearance in the Beijing Olympics would be the perfect start so early in his professional career.


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The "F" word at Saitama

17 Apr 2008(Thu)

April 15, 2008: Amusing or offensive? Part of the game or over the top?

What is your take on "The Saitama Incident"?

I am talking, of course, about the ribald message from the Antlers fans to their Reds rivals before the big match at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Sunday.

It was meant to say "F**k You Reds", in three rows of large letters, but it never quite came together as the letters were passed up one by one over the crowd and assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The best they could manage was "F**k" on the top line (the two missing letters were correct -- congratulations), a sad and solitary "Y" on the middle line and a rather jumbled "R EOU" on the last line, with "D" and "S" floating near by.

This pre-match entertainment was actually more absorbing than the first half, as we watched the letters move up and down, across and back. In fact it was so entertaining I think the Antlers fans should construct a message before every game -- and offer a prize to the first person who gets it right.

When it finally became obvious what the message was intended to say, it told us two things: That the bitter rivalry between these two clubs had just taken an irrevocable turn for the worse; and that there is a serious shortage of English teachers in Ibaraki Prefecture, perhaps because everyone studies Portuguese so they can talk like Z**o.

Undeterred, the Antlers fans had another go at half time, abandoning the three-line message to settle for a more brutal "F**k Reds".

A colleague suggested wittily that they should have held up only the word "F**k" at the final whistle, having lost 2-0, but after Nagai's second goal the Antlers fans were in no mood for humour.

The reaction from media people close by was mixed.

One said it was "great" because it highlighted the fierce rivalry between the clubs, with Urawa the Manchester United and Kashima the Liverpool of Japan.

Another pointed out that the Japanese did not fully appreciate the impact or the severity of the "F" word, and that it was intended to provoke fun, not hostility.

After the game, Reds manager Gert Engels said he was happy he had not seen the message. "It is offensive. It has nothing to do with the franchise, with the team. It is not classy," he said.

On this point I have to agree with Engels.

I thought it was offensive, provocative, too much. I am all for intense rivalries between teams and fans as a Japanese football culture develops, but you wonder what the next step could be after The Saitama Incident. Hopefully it will just involve banners.

I think, therefore, that Kashima should offer a sincere apology. They should bow deeply to the Reds fans, say they are extremely sorry for offending the Asian Champions League winners and give them all free posters of Z**o. Or Nozawa.

And what would be Reds' reply?

I reckon it might just start with an "F"...


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Chelsea end hopes of 'Zico Derby'

14 Apr 2008(Mon)

April 12, 2008: The so-called "Zico Derby" in Japan is off, but there is still a lot very much on in the Champions Leagues of Asia and Europe.

The Zico Derby?

That was going to be Fenerbahce against Kashima Antlers in the FIFA Club World Cup in December, had the Turks won the UEFA Champions League and Antlers the AFC Champions League.

The chances were always remote, of course, and so it proved when Chelsea recovered from their first-leg defeat to eliminate Zico's team at the quarter-final stage on Wednesday night.

But it was an intriguing possibility all the same, and now Japanese fans will have to settle for one of Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United or Barcelona coming here in December. Not a bad trade at all.

As for Kashima, they are still in the thick of the battle to win the AFC Champions League, as are Gamba Osaka -- and, remember, Urawa Reds, who have not even played yet but are already in the last eight.

I will never understand how the Asian Football Confederation thinks, but giving the defending champions a bye into the quarter-finals seems crazy to me, missing out on all the publicity and marketing opportunities. But that's another story.

With both Antlers and Gamba leading their groups at the halfway stage, there is a good chance Japan could provide three of the eight teams in the quarter-finals -- and then three in the last four, as clubs from the same country cannot be drawn together in the quarter-finals.

The Antlers-Beijing Guoan match on Wednesday was not a pretty sight. Cold, windy, only 6,487 fans trying to motivate the players...it was a struggle for the home team, and therefore a great three points from a 1-0 victory.

They always say it is the sign of a good team when you can win without playing well, and Antlers did that. Sogahata was my man of the match, not just for his penalty save from the left-footed Tiago, but for his concentration right to the end.

Sogahata's save, with his feet, from left winger Martinez at the death could be crucial, as the group winner will be decided by the head-to-head record of the top two teams if they finish equal on points after six matches.

Let's hope the J.League in Asia can follow the English Premier League in Europe, and provide three of the semi-finalists in the Champions League. The J.League was always stronger than its record in Asia suggested, until last season, and now they can prove it beyond doubt.


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Kyoto's 'Katonaccio' stifles Frontale

10 Apr 2008(Thu)

April 8, 2008: For students of the art of defending, Kyoto Sanga FC put on a master class at Todoroki Stadium on Saturday.

Led by the 35-year-old Sidiclei, who had an outstanding game in the Sanga back three, Kyoto rejected everything Kawasaki could throw at them. Frontale huffed and puffed but could not blow the house down, and trudged off disconsolate from a 1-0 defeat.

It was Kyoto's first away win of the season on their return to J1, and much credit must go to manager Hisashi Kato.

His defence was so well-drilled, and his counter-attack so deadly, that a Japanese version of the old Italian "catenaccio" system came to mind. Let's call it Katonaccio.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Kyoto or of Kato in any way, as the catenaccio (meaning 'door bolt' in Italian) perfected by Argentine coach Helenio Herrera with Inter in the 1960s was the epitome of everything negative about the game.

Far from it; it is just to compliment the way they defended as a team against a dangerous opponent possessing pace (Juninho) and power (Chong) up front, width (Mori and Yamagishi), height (Terada) and midfield craft (Nakamura and Ohashi).

The Kyoto defenders stayed on their feet and watched the ball in the tackle; they did not dive in recklessly and take themselves out of the game. They also stayed goal side of the forward, providing a wall to block shots and crosses. It was absorbing to watch, and had a sting in the tail at the other end.

Sidiclei's work against Juninho was a lesson for all defenders, while Masushima on the right and Teshima on the left matched the veteran's discipline and concentration. When Teshima had to leave the field early in the second half, Morioka came off the bench and turned the clock back with a commanding performance in the centre, as Sidiclei moved to the left.

In the centre of midfield, Ataliba stayed deep but Yuto Sato was like a jack-in-a-box, jumping out to surprise the Frontale man in possession before returning to his lair.

And, in true "Katonaccio" style, Kyoto broke and grabbed a winner through Yanagisawa midway through the second half to complete the perfect "catenaccio" victory -- 1-0!


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Stojkovic savours Omiya's English experience

7 Apr 2008(Mon)

April 4, 2008: Dragan Stojkovic certainly enjoyed himself on his first visit to Omiya Ardija on Wednesday night.

He was happy with his Grampus team, who fought back from 1-0 down at half time to win 2-1, and he was happy to be involved in a match at the new-look NACK5 Stadium.

"It's fantastic," he said. "It is a stadium made for football. There is a great atmosphere, and the pitch is so good you could play snooker on it, no problem."

The renovations to the stadium, which already enjoyed a picturesque setting on the edge of Omiya Koen, have given the club one of the best grounds in the J.League. The fans are close to the pitch, and the steep tiers behind the goals have increased the noise volume all round.

"It is English style," added the Grampus boss.

"It is very good for the coach and also for the players because we are really close and we can give instructions easily. Everything was good."

Stojkovic was always interesting and amusing to watch as a player, with his extravagant skills on the ball and his gestures off the ball.

As a manager he is very calm, but still treated the fans to a classic burst of passion during the first half, punching the ball into the ground for his left back, Shohei Abe, to take a throw-in.

What was all that about, I asked him.

He laughed: "I said to him to throw the ball down the line as far as possible, because sometimes they throw it into the middle and they can lose it easily and allow the other team to counter-attack. I was telling them to wake up because we were 1-0 down."

In a thoroughly entertaining match, which passed very quickly, Abe chose a good time to have an impressive game -- in front of national coach Takeshi Okada.

One moment Abe was clearing Leandro's header off the line, perfectly positioned on the far post to safeguard against such events, and the next he was breaking forward to help his attack.

One pass in particular stays in the memory, when he jabbed his left foot under the ball to produce back spin that even Tiger Woods would have been proud of.

Not the tallest of defenders at 1.71 metres, he also won some great defensive headers down the line in the second half, attacking the ball in the air in the same way Komiyama does for Marinos.

"Abe...he is a very interesting player," said Stojkovic, borrowing a favourite Troussier line.

"Even though he is not so tall he has a very good jump and very good timing, which is very important for defenders. He also has attacking blood and always tries to go up and overlap and make a cross."

Okada, I am sure, will have noted that.


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Finally a win -- and fair play, too.

3 Apr 2008(Thu)

April 1, 2008: After a shaky start to the new campaign, this team really needed to get their act together at the weekend.

And they did just that, not only winning for the first time this season but scoring three goals in the process. Their loyal supporters must now feel their season is finally under way and they can start moving up the table.

Yes, that was an impressive performance by...Tokushima Vortis (sorry, did you think I was talking about Urawa Reds?)

With no J1 games on Saturday, Shonan Bellmare-Tokushima Vortis had the makings of a good day out. Indeed it was, especially for the travelling fans in a crowd of 4,474 at Hiratsuka Stadium. There weren't many of them, but they stuck with their team when the going got tough and were able to celebrate a 3-2 victory.

Among their numerous banners was one that read "Share good times and bad times", and this was clearly one of the good, thanks in no small measure to the dynamic play of a certain Seydou Doumbia.

Having failed to make the grade with Kashiwa Reysol, the 20-year-old forward from the Ivory Coast is now the toast of Tokushima after his match-winning display against Bellmare, scoring once and setting up the other two for Jun Tamano and Yutaro Abe.

The best of the bunch was Abe's goal after 76 minutes, which proved to be the winner. As Bellmare pushed forward, Doumbia led a Vortis counter up the right flank. Using all his pace and power, Doumbia left the former S-Pulse stalwart Toshihide Saito in his tracks before sending over an inviting cross. Abe, who had only just managed to keep up with Doumbia's raid, hurled himself at the ball and hit the target with a flying header.

There was still some defending to do, though, before Vortis could celebrate three points, and I would like to take this opportunity to praise the Tokushima captain, Shogo Nishikawa, for a piece of fair play and sportsmanship.

The 90 minutes were almost up and Tokushima were hanging on to their 3-2 lead when a visiting defender went down after an aerial duel with Bellmare captain Jean Witte. At first it looked like the defender would stay down, pretend he was hurt, ask for the trainer to come on and waste some time, but Nishikawa signalled to his teammate to get up and get on with it.

I know it is not much, but nevertheless it was a refreshing sight in the current climate. My fair play award, therefore, goes to Shogo Nishikawa.


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