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January 2009

Asian Cup games are a help, not hindrance

29 Jan 2009(Thu)

January 27, 2009: Although these Asian Cup qualifiers appear to be a nuisance so early in the year, they should prove to be good preparation for Japan's World Cup qualifier at home to Australia on February 11.

First of all they are keeping the players sharp and focussed in the close-season, not just in terms of physical fitness but in match fitness due to the competitive nature of the Asian Cup.

Secondly, manager Takeshi Okada can use these games to try different combinations and give his fringe players more international experience.

After the Yemen and Bahrain games, Japan still have to play Finland at home on February 4, but this is a friendly so expect multiple substitutions in the second half. Usually, after an hour or so, this type of match becomes meaningless as it loses all rhythm and teams lose their cohesion with so many changes in personnel.

In fact, with today's busy calendar at club and international level, I am all in favour of Arsene Wenger's idea to scrap friendlies altogether, as they serve little if any purpose while only causing problems for clubs and players.

Looking ahead to the Aussie game at Yokohama, Pim Verbeek has already stoked the fire by saying there is more pressure on Japan to win than there is on Australia. Not only are Japan two points behind Australia after three games, they are playing at home and the onus is on them to dominate the game and pick up maximum points, he reasons.

Verbeek, who knows Japanese football well, insists Australia will try to win -- but adds, quite calmly, that they don't have to win.

He also said he thought the Uzbekistan away game would be a bigger test than Japan away -- so he must be feeling confident coming to Japan after collecting all three points from a 1-0 victory at the Pakhtakor Stadium.

Personally, I don't feel Japan must win this Australia game.

It would be better if they did, of course, but a draw would be a decent result for both teams and keep them out in front.

Japan still have Bahrain and Qatar to play at home, having beaten them both away, so would remain on course for South Africa if they reached the halfway point of qualifying with eight points from four games, and still unbeaten.

As for Australia away in Japan's last game on June 17? Both teams will be through by then, so expect a party...


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Forget the World Cup, Japan

26 Jan 2009(Mon)

January 23, 2009: The more the JFA talks about the 2016 Olympic Games, the less chance they have of hosting the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.

I don’t see why the two are linked, and feel that a successful Japan bid for the Olympics would actually have a detrimental effect, rather than a positive one, on any bid for the World Cup.

In other words, the international sports community would be reluctant to give the 2018 or 2022 World Cup to Japan so soon after the country had hosted the 2016 Olympics. The rest of the sports world would not allow this to happen.

Regarding the issue of the main stadium, Japan could easily turn the vast Nissan Stadium in Yokohama into an 80,000-capacity arena by adding 10,000 seats where the running track is now. It would improve the venue no end, reducing the distance between pitch and fans and make for a better atmosphere.. The Yokohama F Marinos supporters have the hardest job in the J.League trying to create some “buzz” for home games, even when there are 20,000 in the ground – still less than one-third full.

There is absolutely no need for Tokyo to win the 2016 Olympics for Japan to boast a new stadium capable of meeting FIFA’s requirements for the main venue. And they have enough other stadiums already in place to hold the World Cup, so they would be better off trying to sell this point to the football community rather than keep talking about the Olympics and the new stadium that would bring.

Personally, I feel Japan should hold fire on submitting a bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup by FIFA’s February 2 deadline.

Surely the 2018 World Cup will go to Europe after a gap of 12 years, as demanded by TV and sponsors after South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014.

Japan might have a chance of winning the bid for the 2022 World Cup, but that would be only 20 years after the joint venture with South Korea in 2002 and there would be other strong candidates. Australia would be my choice for 2022, but the United States, China and even Qatar – with all their FIFA influence – would be in with a big shout.

No, I feel Japan should stay out of this one.

They have enough on their hands managing an increasingly cluttered calendar and developing the game at grassroots level without the added burden of an expensive World Cup bid. And a bid, I feel, that would be doomed from day one.


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Kaka -- and Manchester City memories

22 Jan 2009(Thu)

January 20, 2009: As much as I would like to see Manchester City challenging the elite of the English Premier League, I am not disappointed to see their mind-boggling bid for Kaka fall flat.

After sifting through the mass of reports, it was clear that Milan were willing to accept City's offer of 100 million pounds (or $147 million) and sell their Brazilian playmaker for a fortune in these uncertain financial times.

Where the deal broke down, though, was with the player himself. He had already said he wanted to "grow old" at Milan, and he proved to be as good as his word by turning down the chance to move. So good on him; a decision that earns him even more respect around the world.

Overall, then, it's a victory for football, and proof that money cannot buy anything.

It would have been strange to see Kaka in the sky blue of City; or, as one columnist put it, like Michael Schumacher driving a Minardi -- very unlikely success would have followed, despite the quality of the man at the controls.

As for City, I enjoyed watching them for a brief spell in their old stadium at Maine Road, when Malcolm Allison was manager in 1979-80. It was always amusing standing on the terraces in the famous Kippax, as the City fans were witty and brutally honest in their assessment of their own team and players.

Accompanying a season ticket-holder who was a friend at the time, we would park the car near the ground and immediately be confronted by a group of kids from the local housing estate.

"Can we look after your car, mister?" they would ask.

But it wasn't really a question, because you had no choice but to give them a handful of change.

This was their "fee" for "looking after" your car; basically protection money -- because if you did not give them anything they would smash up your car while you were inside Maine Road watching the match!

The City team under Allison was full of expensive signings, notably the midfielder Steve Daley from Wolves.

There was also one of my favourite European players of all time at City in those days, the brilliant Kazimierz Deyna; a Polish version of Johan Cruyff.

Tragically, Deyna died in a car crash in San Diego at the age of 41 in September 1989.

What I didn't know until just now, when looking up Deyna on Wikipedia, was that his nickname in his homeland was...Kaka.


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Mikitani finds his leader

19 Jan 2009(Mon)

Mikitani finds his leader

January 17, 2009: With so many agents and other interested parties around these days, it is rare for a major transfer to be completed without plenty of speculation and build-up.

So the news that Tsuneyasu Miyamoto was joining Vissel Kobe took most people by surprise.

It was not a surprise, however, that so many media turned up at the Grand Prince Hotel in Shinagawa on Friday to see the new grand prince of Kobe.

Tsune, as always, looked like he had stepped out of the pages of a fashion catalogue as he walked into the room, his grey suit brightened by crimson tie.

And despite the disappointment of his premature exit from Red Bull Salzburg, he still managed to project a positive vibe during the formalities of the press conference.

After all those years with Gamba, it wouldn't have surprised me at all if he had stumbled at one point and said "Gamba" instead of "Vissel"; but no, he was the consummate professional in talking of his new challenge to take Kobe into the ACL in 2010.

And that's exactly why Hiroshi Mikitani bought him. He wouldn't say for how much, or for how long the player's contract would run, other than it was a "multiple-year" deal, but the
Rakuten chairman and CEO was very forthcoming in other matters.

I asked him when it had all started, and he replied that he had been made aware in mid-December that Miyamoto might be available.

"I invited him to my house in Kobe on January 2 and had a lengthy discussion with him," Mikitani said.

"We liked his intelligence and his personality on top of his ability. He has played more than 70 times for the national team and, regardless of whether he is formally appointed captain, he will demonstrate his leadership qualities. He will be able to organise the team and bring a strong spirit to the club."

Tsune's profile will also help fill the void left by Yoshito Okubo in the glamour stakes as Vissel try to attract more fans to Home's Stadium.

"Obviously he is very different from Yoshito," Mikitani added. "He is more mature and is very popular among the female football fans, but first of all we like him as a player. That is the most important thing."

I also asked Mikitani what influence losing out on Yuji Nakazawa had on the signing of Miyamoto, and he admitted that had Nakazawa left Marinos for Kobe then the Miyamoto deal would not have happened.

"We are happier to get Miyamoto than the other player. Miyamoto is more of an organiser and is more intelligent, and as a captain he has experienced leadership. Nakazawa has stronger offensive capability, but Miyamoto will organise the defence."

At least Miyamoto will feel appreciated again after his Austrian experience, during which former coach Giovanni Trapattoni tried him at left back and current coach Co Adriaanse didn't try him at all.


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CWC was the icing on Ronaldo’s cake

15 Jan 2009(Thu)

January 13, 2009: Although we did not see the best of him in Japan last month, Cristiano Ronaldo had done enough long before then to make him the red-hot favourite to win the FIFA Player of the Year award for 2008.

As expected, the 23-year-old Manchester United winger duly collected the trophy on Monday to complete a hat trick of high-profile individual awards in recent weeks.

Like him or loathe him, there is no doubt that Ronaldo is a special talent. With his extravagant, high-speed skills, his tricky improvisation and his goal-scoring ability, he has established himself as an entertainer and a winner; a tough combination to achieve.

And while I am not a Manchester United fan, I cannot understand the critics who say that Ronaldo does not turn it on in the big games. I thought that every match Manchester United played was a big game, week in week out in the English Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup, and especially in the UEFA Champions League for a club with such a rich tradition in that tournament.

It is not quite so easy to defend the darker side of Ronaldo, though, and this was in evidence aplenty at the Club World Cup in Japan, mainly in the final. It’s not so much that he goes to ground so readily, as many players are guilty of that in modern-day football; it is more that he sits on the deck and complains that he should have been given a free kick when the referee has waved play on. It is like he feels he is entitled to a free kick every time someone touches him, and it’s that trait which I find irritating.

It must be a nightmare trying to referee a game in which he plays. On one hand the ref has an obligation to protect a player of such immense talent from the fouls and the spoiling tactics of the opposition, while on the other hand he must be strong and not be fooled by the theatrics and the supporting histrionics from the bench.

On the subject of modern-day football trends, by chance I caught a short “Where are they now?” feature on a TV football show the other day. The centre of attention was the former Chelsea defender Ron Harris, better known as “Chopper” for obvious reasons.

One phrase worried me, and it was when Chopper Harris said, “Back in my day, when football was a contact sport…”

Meaning that you could tackle -- and tackle hard. Today it is virtually a non-contact sport; when a touch is a foul and a foul is a yellow card.

Chelsea's Chopper Harris marking Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo? Now that would have been quite a battle!


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S-Pulse look to move forward

12 Jan 2009(Mon)

January 9, 2009: The Nabisco Cup final last season between Oita Trinita and Shimizu S-Pulse revealed a lot about both teams.

Trinita: well-organised, well-drilled, and three top-quality Brazilians to hold everything together.

S-Pulse: plenty of skill, capable of producing some exhilarating moments, but just lacking the experience for the big occasion, especially up front.

Result: Trinita 2, S-Pulse 0.

S-Pulse manager Kenta Hasegawa has gone a long way to correcting this deficiency with a couple of smart close-season transfer swoops for Frode Johnsen and Yuichiro Nagai.

The big Norwegian centre forward gave great service to Nagoya Grampus with his professionalism on and off the pitch, and produced goals on a consistent basis. S-Pulse know that Johnsen will provide value for money, and will bring a presence to the attack that has been lacking since the departure of South Korean World Cup striker Cho Jae Jin at the end of the 2007 season.

As for Nagai, he is a more mobile and versatile player than Johnsen. He has the pace and the athleticism to be effective on the right wing as well as up front, and his signing will give the manager several more options in his team selection.

Nagai has also proved he has the big-match temperament, notably with his displays for Reds when they won the AFC Champions League in 2007. Last season he did not see eye to eye with Gert Engels, feeling that he could have added some zip to Urawa’s plodding play, and now both Nagai and the German coach are out of the Saitama set-up.

I also thought Nagai scored one of the best goals of the season last year; his rapid counter-attack and cracking finish against FC Tokyo at Saitama Stadium 2002 – providing a rare moment of delirium for the Reds masses in 2008.

Johnsen and Nagai are very different players, and will increase the competition for places next season. Hasegawa could not have asked for anything more from Kazuki Hara last season, and the young striker’s efforts were acknowledged when he made the shortlist of three for the J.League Rookie of the Year award, but the manager appreciated that he needed more muscle and experience to keep S-Pulse in the top half of the table.

After all, Kenta knows a good forward when he sees one.


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Okubo's power of positive thinking

8 Jan 2009(Thu)

January 6, 2009: A new year, and a new start for Yoshito Okubo.
Having failed to make the grade in Spain with Real Mallorca, the 26-year-old striker has a second chance to be a hit in Europe with VfL Wolfsburg.

According to the official website of the German club, Okubo has signed a two and a half-year contract, taking him through to June 30, 2011.

That's a good deal for Okubo, as it gives Wolfsburg's new No. 8 time to find his feet and establish himself in the first-team squad.

The fact that Makoto Hasebe is already there, adjusting to life in Germany and in the Bundesliga, will be a huge benefit for Okubo and help him settle in.

Hasebe will also be able to fill him in on the coaching style of Felix Magath, the former Hamburg and West Germany midfielder who is well known for his tough training regimen. Okubo is going to have to knuckle down in training and really fight for his place in the team, and that can only be good for his career and take him to the next level.

Okubo, of course, could have taken the easy way out and stayed with Vissel Kobe -- the captain, the star, easy money, and always in the spotlight to keep his place in the national squad.

It was much easier to stay in Japan than to go to Germany, so Okubo deserves credit for taking up the challenge. As a striker, he must have confidence and self-belief in his DNA, so Okubo's attitude will be positive, despite his Mallorca experience.

He does have something to lose, however, by going to Germany, and that is his place in the national squad in the year before the next World Cup. If he can't win a place in the Wolfsburg starting line-up, the goals dry up and his match fitness and confidence decline, Takeshi Okada will be forced to consider other options.

But Okubo can't afford such negative thoughts as he embarks on the next stage of his career.

It is a wonderful chance for him to play in one of Europe's big four leagues, and also for him and his family to live in a beautiful country with a rich football tradition.

On the playing side he is going to find it very physical, and I hope he uses his wiry frame to take on defenders and shoot for goal, rather than falling over too quickly and looking for free kicks -- an unsavoury and unnecessary aspect of Okubo's game.


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Troussier proved right over Endo

3 Jan 2009(Sat)

January 3, 2009: Think of Japan's team at the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship in Nigeria and who comes to mind?

Takahara and Nagai up front...Motoyama flying down the left wing...Ono, Inamoto and Ogasawara in midfield...Koji Nakata on the left side of Philippe Troussier's fledgling "flat three" defence.

That was a talented squad, finishing runners-up to Spain and laying the foundations for Japan's World Cup challenge on home soil three years later.

Several of those players would go on to play in Europe, but others would take longer to develop and make their mark on the domestic game, such as the current Gamba trio of Kaji, Endo and Bando.

There is no doubt that Endo is now at his peak, and his influence on the national team is growing game by game. Who's to say that Endo, rather than Nakamura (32 on June 24, 2010), will not have taken over as Japan's most creative force at the next World Cup?

Two things about Endo's performance in the Emperor's Cup final on New Year's Day really stick in the memory.

In the last minute of normal time, as Reysol surged forward towards the mass of yellow shirts behind the goal, Endo tracked back to deny Franca with a superbly-timed sliding tackle. The effort and the challenge left him on the ground, injured and exhausted, as the whistle blew, but still Gamba's season was not over; 30 more minutes of extra time.

Twelve minutes into the first period, Endo had his coach, Akira Nishino, standing and applauding from the side of the pitch. Endo had just played a magnificent pass up the right flank, demonstrating his composure, vision and his technique as he caressed the ball on the half-volley up the line; a position from which Gamba won a free kick to calm things down and catch their breath.

Although Franca produced gasps and shrieks from the crowd with his full array of circus tricks, even when he gave the ball away, this one particular pass from Endo just dripped with quality and class.

Looking back on Japan's so-called golden generation in Nigeria in 1999, and who's come and gone already, Endo's time is most definitely still to come.. Troussier once described him to me as "the Japanese Redondo" due to his range of passing and long-distance shooting, and said he thought Endo would be a late developer compared to the likes of Ono, Inamoto and Takahara.

The Frenchman has been proved right.


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ACL rules unfair on holders Gamba

2 Jan 2009(Fri)

December 30, 2008: I am not anti-Reysol by any means, but I hope Gamba Osaka win the Emperor's Cup final on New Year's Day.

Calm down, Yellow Monkeys, the reason is simple: Gamba should be in the Asian Champions League already for next season, without having to win the Emperor's Cup in order to defend their continental crown.

Amidst all the format changes made by the Asian Football Confederation, I am wondering if they forgot about the defending ACL champions when deciding how to allocate the 32 places in the expanded competition.

Surely the holders should have been given automatic entry into the following season's event, not only as a reward for winning but also because it makes sense from a marketing and media point of view. The progress of the defending champions is always news, giving the event identity and building up the profile of the clubs around Asia and further afield.

In recent times the AFC went overboard by giving the defending champions a bye into the last eight -- equally ridiculous, as Reds reached the ACL semi-finals last season with a record of one win and one defeat -- but now they have gone completely the other way and forced the holders to qualify.

And the AFC did not stop there. Even though they gave Japan the maximum four spots for next year, the regulations stated that these places must be filled by the top three teams in the league, plus the winner of the main domestic cup.

So while Antlers, Frontale and, to a lesser extent, Grampus can enjoy a nice holiday and think about next season, poor old Gamba are still having to toil away as their injury toll rises.

I don't see why the cup-winners should be guaranteed a place in the Champions League anyway. It's supposed to be for the top teams from the top countries in Asia, and these do not necessarily include the cup-winners. Why should Reysol or either of the two beaten semi-finalists in the Emperor's Cup, FC Tokyo or Marinos, be included in next season's Champions League, especially at the expense of Gamba?

Rather than stipulating that the top three in the league, plus the winner of the main cup competition, should fill Japan's four places, the AFC might have been better to state that Japan's four places must include the ACL holders. The league table would provide the remaining three teams. Had Gamba finished third in J1, for example, the team in fourth place would have qualified for the ACL. The league provides the strongest teams, not the Emperor's Cup.

The same rule could have applied for all nations, meaning that one of their allocations for the following season must be filled by the defending champions, in order to maintain balance across the region.

Gamba should not be in this position of having to qualify for next season's ACL -- and I am sure the AFC will be hoping they win the Emperor's Cup to dig them out of this administrative hole.

One year Gamba represent Asia against Manchester United in the FIFA Club World Cup and attract world attention; the next they disappear from view. Doesn't make sense.


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