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November 2009

Maeda on course for top scorer award

30 Nov 2009(Mon)

November 27, 2009: It has been seven years since a Japanese player was the top scorer in the J.League first division; Naohiro Takahara, to be precise, in 2002.

But hopefully Ryoichi Maeda can hang on this season and join Takahara and another Jubilo hero, Masashi Nakayama (1998 and 2000), as Golden Boot winners.

I say “hopefully” because I am a big fan of Maeda's, and think he can do a good job for Japan at the World Cup in South Africa next summer.

Whether Takeshi Okada agrees is another matter, as he left Maeda out of his squad for the South Africa and Hong Kong matches earlier this month. This was surely because of Maeda's poor display against Scotland at Yokohama, where the Jubilo man started the game but always resembled “a dead man walking” as Takayuki Morimoto was waiting to come on for his eagerly awaited debut.

Maeda was the obvious candidate to give way, and it was just a matter of “when” rather than “if.”

But I really hope Okada has not written off Maeda, despite his tepid display against the Scots when, admittedly, he looked a bit lost in trying to lead the line. This was a one-off as far as I am concerned, because Maeda has many qualities that Japan will need in South Africa.

He is tall and mobile, good in the air and quick on the ground, and plays without fear or doubt in the Jubilo colours; no wonder that Shimizu S-Pulse and Gamba Osaka are rumoured to be interested in signing him for next season.

With Japan, a run of games in the national team would help his cause, and hopefully this chance will come in the East Asian Championship in Japan next February.

In the meantime, Maeda can underline his claims by finishing top scorer in J1. He has 20 from 32 appearances - none from the penalty spot - to date, and is three clear of Urawa Reds' Edmilson, so he has every chance of clinching top spot with games to come against Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vissel Kobe.

The J.League MVP is always debatable, but there is no argument when it comes to the leading scorer. In this case, statistics do not lie.


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Tulio: Football or finance?

26 Nov 2009(Thu)

November 25, 2009: Tulio should have plenty of offers now that he has decided to leave Urawa Reds, but will he go for the football or go for the money?

If he goes for the football then I’d really like him to join the English Premier League, with Wigan Athletic thought to be interested. Judging from their most recent result, the 9-1 humiliation at Spurs, they certainly need a new defender or two. The money won’t be bad, either, but don’t forget he’s already on around 100 million yen at Reds.

If he goes simply for the money then he could end up in Qatar, playing in front of empty stadiums but earning tax-free mega-bucks and surrounded by ex-J.League Brazilians.

And then there’s the prospect of the money-no-object lure of Bunyodkor in Uzbekistan, where World Cup-winnng Brazilian manager Luiz Felipe Scolari and Rivaldo are earning mind-boggling salaries.

As a free agent, he can bide his time and wait for the offers, as there will be no transfer fee to Urawa and therefore the prospect of a massive signing-on fee to secure his signature, even before the salary is negotiated.

With his Brazilian-Japanese background, and his experience with the former Asian club champions and national team, Tulio will be an attractive target and will bring a lot of media profile and publicity with him.

There will be more interest in the near future, and hopefully that will include other clubs from the English Premier League as he has the game, the character and the personality to make an impact at that high level.

Guido Buchwald used to rate him as the best defender in the J.League, and championed his cause before the 2006 World Cup, to no avail, while Holger Osieck marvelled at his footballing skills as well as his natural leadership qualities.

I remember once asking Osieck if Tulio reminded him of any German defenders, and I was expecting an answer along the lines of Klaus Augenthaler or maybe Bernd Forster, older brother of one of my favourite all-time German players, Karlheinz Forster.

But Osieck picked put the 1990 World Cup-winning left back Andreas Brehme, mainly because Tulio was so comfortable with his right and left foot and could pass the ball with pinpoint precision over a long distance. This is certainly one admirable aspect of Tulio’s game, on top of his aerial ability and the danger he poses in opposition penalty boxes.

After playing at Reds in front of those huge crowds, and enjoying a cult status with the fans, Tulio will have to start all over again to establish himself at a new club – and hopefully his decision will be based on football rather than purely finance.


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Henry incident undermines the game all over the world

23 Nov 2009(Mon)

November 20, 2009: How long must this nonsense go on?

When is FIFA going to do the right thing and introduce video technology?

Who will be the next team to suffer at the hands of a blatant injustice that could be corrected so quickly.

The frustrations of the Irish, sparked by Thierry Henry's hand ball and France's controversial victory in their World Cup qualifying play-off this week, can be felt around the world as the game suffered another body blow in terms of credibility and integrity.

It is unbelievable in this day and age that FIFA will not use video technology for incidents such as this. It makes no sense at all, and is severely damaging the reputation of the game.

I remember attending a press conference in Paris in 1998, the day before the World Cup final between France and Brazil, and the newly elected president Sepp Blatter was asked if video replays would be introduced.

Blatter was adamant. "No," he insisted, "we cannot undermine the authority of the referees."

I never understood that word "undermine" as it suggested a siege mentality on the part of the authorities. Personally, I felt video replays would help referees make the right decision. It would assist them, not undermine them.

And all this nonsense about replays interrupting the flow of the game?

What flow? I don't see any flow anymore, with so many stoppages due to fouls, time-wasting, feigning injury, players kicking the ball out so an "injured" team mate can receive treatment…the list goes on.

The modern game is in a mess. It needs help as the cheats and the divers and the conmen have taken over. It needs strong leadership and Blatter must provide this amidst this latest crisis by ordering a replay and then introducing sweeping reforms.

By all means have an extra official behind each goal (making six in all, with the ref, two assistants running the lines and the fourth official near the dug-outs), but surely the most practical thing is to have the video replay, conducted by the fourth official.

In the Henry incident, for example, the Irish appeal, the fourth official checks the replay, and the goal is cancelled. Simple. No one can argue. In fact it would not have gone that far, to a video replay, in any case as an official behind the goal would have spotted the hand ball immediately.

To say that mistakes happen, and human error is all part of the game, is simply not good enough; not when the Irish are deprived of the chance to go to South Africa and bring colour and humour to the World Cup in their thousands.

There is too much at stake these days, and the integrity of football continues to suffer.

"Fair Play Please!" says the FIFA slogan, but, as Scottish referee Leslie Mottram once told me during his time in Japan, there isn't any fair play in football anymore, and hasn't been for a long time.


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Inamoto brought defensive balance to Japan

19 Nov 2009(Thu)

November 17, 2009: One thing that has always worried me about Japan under Takeshi Okada is the lack of protection for the back four.

But the coach began to address this problem against South Africa by playing Junichi Inamoto in front of the defence, as a midfield sweeper.

Not only did this give Japan a second line of defence in front of the back four, it also gave Hasebe and Endo more freedom to push forward and dictate the tempo of the game, which they did for long periods.

In the past I've thought Japan lacked defensive steel throughout the team. Against Asian opposition – with the exception of Australia, who are more like European opposition – Japan could get away with this approach, but against bigger, tougher teams like they will face in South Africa next summer it is asking for trouble.

Hasebe and Endo are both fine technical footballers, but they are naturally attacking players and offer little protection on the defensive side when they play together in central midfield.

In front of them in Okada's normal line-up, be it 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, Shunsuke Nakamura on the right and whoever else fills the other positions – Kengo Nakamura, Okubo, Matsui, Honda, Okazaki – is simply too lightweight for the overall defensive structure of the team.

Who can protect the two full backs out wide when Japan are under pressure? Shunsuke? Okubo? Matsui? I don't think so.

And who can tough it out in the middle of the park when the opposition comes forward through the centre of midfield? Endo? Hasebe? Not really; it is just not their game.

This is why I liked the idea of Inamoto in there against South Africa; a tackler, a ball-winner, someone to break up the opposition attack and give Japan that extra layer of defence.

Other players besides Inamoto could fill this midfield sweeper role, such as Abe or Konno, or even Myojin, the forgotten man, for that matter.

So I will take this positive from the 0-0 draw with South Africa, and hope that Japan will continue to have more midfield muscle from now on alongside the ball-playing artists.


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Gon: a good catch for a J2 minnow

16 Nov 2009(Mon)

November 13, 2009: Good for Gon!

It would have been easy for Masashi Nakayama to hang up his boots and stay with Jubilo Iwata as an adviser. Steady money, a job for life, no risk.

But no, true to form, Gon has decided he wants to keep on playing, even at 42, and is quite prepared to step down to J2 or even lower.

With his attitude, his professionalism and his popularity, Gon would be a good catch for some of the smaller clubs in the second division. He would attract a lot of publicity in the media and maybe interest from local sponsors; he would increase the number of spectators at home and also wherever his team played; and his presence would help the club attract other players, especially talented youngsters needing a role model to look up to.

His decision to keep on going is typical of the man, who has never given less than 100 per cent in any shade of blue for club and country.

But with 157 goals in 353 league appearances dating back to 1994, his time was up at Iwata as the club attempts to rebuild.

To be fair to Jubilo, they have been extremely generous with their veteran centre forward and cannot be faulted at all for their decision. They could have made this move a couple of years ago and offered him a back-room role, but stayed loyal with the player who gave them everything, despite his diminishing effectiveness.

And who knows, there could still be a job open for Gon at Jubilo in another year or two, when he has really had enough, although I think the JFA would also be keen to hire him as a roving ambassador, instilling his enthusiasm for the game to school children around the country.

This is an attractive career option, so you have to admire and respect Gon for his desire to keep going as a player.

One of my earliest memories of Nakayama was at a rainy Wembley Stadium in June 1995, when he played up front with Kazu against England in the Umbro Cup. He was quick and made some good runs off the ball against a rather plodding central defence of David Unsworth and John Scales.

Fourteen years on, Gon still has something to offer.


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Half-full "Kokuritsu" still represents success for AFC

12 Nov 2009(Thu)

November 10, 2009: Well, hats off to the Asian Football Confederation and the Japan Football Association!

The neutral venue of Tokyo for the ACL final turned out to be a success after all, with over 25,000 fans turning up for the Pohang Steelers-Al Ittihad showdown.

That was way more than I expected - and way more than people working on the inside of Asian football had expected, too, judging by their concerns over a lack of Japanese club in the final.

In a recent column I wrote that I thought 10,000 would be a decent crowd for this match, but clearly I under-estimated the selling power of the Japanese football rulers and the love of the “occasion” by the Japanese public.

So a crowd of 25,000 on the night was a good turnout; more than good, actually, it was excellent under the circumstances. A half-full stadium was a success, something to build on, rather than dwelling on a half-empty stadium for the biggest match in the Asian club calendar.

The atmosphere was good, too. I must admit I was not in Japan at the time of the final, but was able to catch the match on ESPN in my Hanoi hotel.

Two things surprised me: First, there looked to be a decent crowd, especially behind the goals as opposed to down the far touchline; second, it was quite noisy, even though some 20,000 of the spectators would have been neutral.

(What did not surprise me, though, was the utter shambles and chaos at the end, when the Koreans were taking it in turns to encroach at the free kick in stoppage time and take a yellow card for the team. What a terrible advert for the modern game that was.)

The atmosphere, however, was much better than some of the one-off Toyota Cup matches I can remember at the same venue, when there was a bigger crowd but less noise. Some of those Toyota Cup games had the atmosphere of a graveyard, with the calls and shouts of the players clearly audible as if playing in a training game. Occasionally the crowd stirred to life at Toyota Cup time, and woke up to applaud a goal, but more often than not it was a snooze fest and instantly forgettable. Like that one in…err…when was it?...between…err…you know...

On the occasion of the ACL final, then, the grand old National Stadium served its purpose -- but you wonder how many other countries could have pulled in 25,000 for a match between teams from South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Or 10,000 for that matter.


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Kimura: always a caretaker boss at Marinos

9 Nov 2009(Mon)

November 7, 2009: News that Yokohama F Marinos would not be keeping Kokichi Kimura as manager next season could hardly be described as a surprise.

Although he has done reasonably well in difficult circumstances - with no money to spend and the Shunsuke Nakamura saga proving a huge distraction - Marinos were only ever marking time under Kimura, who always looked like a stop-gap appointment.

The management clearly felt it was time to take the next step and move on, and I thought their target would be Jun Suzuki from Albirex Niigata. There had been rumours of this switch a couple of years ago -- at the same time Albirex striker Edmilson was being linked with a move to Urawa Reds -- and it seemed to make sense this time.

But then Marinos announced that Kazushi Kimura would be the new manager, a former star player being given a big job with little experience behind him.

Kimura will leave a squad with a solid base but desperately lacking some flair and creativity.

It is overloaded with central defenders/defensive midfielders (Nakazawa, Kurihara, Matsuda, Kawai, Ogura), but needs some punch up front, despite the encouraging goals return of Watanabe. The fact that they have been linked with Takahara of Reds makes sense, although the player would have to take a hefty pay cut to join Marinos.

And could the Shunsuke deal be revived in the January transfer window, if Nakamura feels he is making no headway at Espanyol and wants to come home to prepare for the World Cup? That would be the dream scenario for Marinos, of course, as it would stir the public into action and give the team some personality, profile and star quality, which is sadly lacking.

It has been a grim time for Marinos fans in recent seasons as they try and lift the team and create some atmosphere in the cavernous Nissan/International Stadium Yokohama, but hope always springs eternal with a new manager in the pipeline.


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Remarkable turnaround by FC Tokyo

5 Nov 2009(Thu)

November 4, 2009: It's difficult to work out which is the bigger surprise: the recovery of FC Tokyo or the failure of Kawasaki Frontale to win the Nabisco Cup this season.

In the opening months of the campaign, FC Tokyo were in all sorts of trouble and losing on a regular basis before the international break in late May.

On more than one occasion, but particularly after a “home” defeat to JEF United at the National Stadium, I thought manager Hiroshi Jofuku was in danger of losing his job. The players were listless and lacked motivation, and the fans were uncharacteristically subdued.

But “JFK” managed to turn things round, and already their season can be regarded as a success with this second Nabisco Cup triumph, no matter where they finish in the league.

Of course the goals of Ishikawa – in the form of his life until his recent knee injury against Reysol – played a big part in the revival, as did the central defensive pairing of Konno and Bruno Quadros. With Konno settled at the back, the athletic, wiry teenager Yonemoto has established himself alongside Kajiyama in the midfield engine room, and cleaned up with the New Hero-MVP double to give the club a season's bonus.

Really, I think it's been a remarkable turnaround by Tokyo from their patchy form of April and May, as it needs a strong will and character to beat a top, tough team like Frontale these days.

Despite their lack of a trophy, Frontale went into the final as favourites, but came up short again.

This was another surprise for me, as I thought they had turned the corner in crunch games with their J1 victory over Omiya Ardija at Saitama Stadium recently. This was a big match in their challenge for the league title, and a fixture they had lost, at NACK5 Stadium, in similar circumstances the previous season.

Captain Kengo Nakamura thought so, too, and said as much after the game, but when it came to the Nabisco Cup final they failed to produce.

This must be a very worrying factor for their fans, as the team must regroup quickly and try and push on to win their first league championship.

This is still well within their grasp, as their last four fixtures are JEF at home, Oita away, Albirex at home and Reysol away on the final day of the season. They are good enough to take all 12 points here, but each game will feel like a cup final with the pressure mounting – and Frontale just don't like cup finals.


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Tokyo venue will test Asian football's standing

2 Nov 2009(Mon)

October 30, 2009: Soon we will see if the Asian Football Confederation have bitten off more than they can chew with a neutral venue for their Champions League final.

Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia against Pohang Steelers of South Korea? In Tokyo? On a Saturday night?

Looks like a tough sell to me, and not the showpiece match the AFC wanted.

With four Japanese clubs in the competition, obviously they were hoping one of them would reach the final and have a chance of completing a Japanese 1-2-3, after Reds in 2007 and Gamba last season.

But their plans were ruined when the sole Japanese survivor in the semi-finals, Grampus, lost to the Saudis 8-3 on aggregate after their 6-2 battering in the first leg in Jeddah.

So now we are left with Al Ittihad against Pohang, and wondering just how many fans will turn up at Kokuritsu on the evening of November 7. I reckon 10,000 would be a good crowd for this match, but it could be lower and that would be an embarrassment for the continental governing body.

Just think of the highlights on the international news and sports channels, with banks of empty seats in a silent stadium, especially after the success of the past two finals played over two legs.

On those occasions, the fans responded in their thousands for all four games, providing a colourful spectacle inside the stadium and making for attractive viewing on the small screen. There was hometown pride and passion, and a good atmosphere and media coverage throughout. Yes, we thought, Asian football really was on the march after several false dawns.

But I always thought the AFC was taking a big – and unnecessary -- risk by announcing Tokyo as the venue for the 2009 final, and a poor turnout and anti-climax to the competition could undo a lot of the good, solid work that has gone on in recent years.

They should have retained the two-leg format for at least a couple more years, and built stronger foundations before trying to move to the next level.

This is not Europe yet; not by a million miles.


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