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February 2010

Shunsuke's return will be welcome boost for Japan

23 Feb 2010(Tue)

February 22, 2010: Japanese football needs a lift at the moment, and it looks as though Shunsuke Nakamura is going to provide it.

With spirits low after the struggles of the national team in the East Asian Football Championship, the fans, media and probably even the players need something positive, something to boost their self-esteem and their confidence.

So even though Shunsuke is coming back because he has failed to make the grade in Spain, this will not affect the way he is welcomed home: as a returning hero.

After failing to land him last summer when he decided to leave Celtic, Marinos will not want to make the same mistake this time; putting the Nakamura camp firmly in the driving seat when it comes to negotiations over his salary, the length of his contract and his signing-on fee. The deal is not done just yet, but it looks as though both parties want it completed quickly so the player can settle back into the J.League and work on his match fitness.

Then he can turn his attentions to the World Cup, and Takeshi Okada will feel relieved to have him back in Japan as opposed to sitting on the bench at Espanyol.

Even though it didn't work out in Spain, no one can blame Nakamura for going there and fulfilling his childhood dream. I don't believe it was primarily about money; it was simply that, at 31 years old, he had one last chance to play in the league he most admired, and would have regretted it for the rest of his career if he did not take it.

Switching from Scotland - a third-tier league in Europe, and where he was playing for one of the big two - to Spain, where the pace was much quicker and the competition much tougher and his team was not among the elite, proved too much at such an advanced stage of his career.

But he can still emerge from the experience with his reputation intact, and bring his star quality to Japan at a time the football scene really needs a spark.


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Can it get any worse for Japan?

16 Feb 2010(Tue)

February 15, 2010: A miserable failure.

That’s the only way Japan’s campaign in the East Asian Football Championship can be regarded after their 3-1 defeat to South Korea on Sunday.

A 0-0 draw with China was a bad start, and even the 3-0 win over Hong Kong was unconvincing as Japan toiled to put the finishing touches to their undoubted superiority.

So one victory from three home games and a third-place finish in a tournament Japan was looking to win represents an unmitigated failure on the part of the hosts, and you wonder how they can regroup and find the confidence and spirit they will need before heading to South Africa in less than four months.

And no excuses, please, that there was no Shunsuke, no Hasebe, Honda, Matsui, Morimoto…Japan had enough experienced players in the likes of Endo and Kengo, Okubo and Tamada, to really step up and take charge of the game, but they could not rise to the occasion.

Korea’s second goal summed up the gloom in the Japan camp, as Lee Seung Yeoul’s shot struck the back of Nakazawa and flew over a stranded Narazaki and into the back of the net. When your luck is down, that’s the kind of goal that goes in.

Shortly after, the Koreans really rubbed it in when Tulio was dismissed in another penalty box scramble. Captain Kim Jung Woo made sure the referee did not miss his player lying on the floor, and the sight of another Korean player clenching his fists and celebrating when the red card came out was particularly distasteful. To celebrate a goal is one thing; to celebrate when an opponent is sent off smacks of a deliberate ploy to trap him. “Fair Play Please”….what a joke!

So maybe justice was served early in the second half when captain Kim followed Tulio down the tunnel for his late tackle on Okazaki, after his first-half caution for a foul on Okubo.

Japan needed to show a lot of character to get through this game, but they ended up well beaten 3-1 and ahead of only Hong Kong in the final rankings.

Can Japan get any worse in the coming weeks? I really can’t see a saviour or a change of fortune in these uncomfortable days for coach Okada.


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Disgruntled fans give Japan the pressure they needed

9 Feb 2010(Tue)

February 8, 2010: Takeshi Okada wanted some tough matches in the build-up to the World Cup, and the East Asian Championship has already given him one in the 0-0 draw with China.

Unlike a meaningless friendly against a European glamour team playing at half-strength and half-pace, this was a proper match in an official tournament and brought with it the pressure and conditions the players needed.

Japan could not win it, and very nearly lost it but for the late penalty save by Seigo Narazaki, whose importance to the team at the World Cup in South Africa cannot be overstated.

Even though Japan could not be faulted for effort or for commitment in a frequently furious encounter with a determined China team, their inability to score and win produced boos and jeers from the Ajinomoto Stadium crowd.

Good on the fans, I say, as this can only help toughen up the players in the run-up to the World Cup. We all know the players get spoiled in the J.League by their tolerant, forgiving supporters, and that national team games attract a fair percentage of “fashionistas” who love to wear the blue and cheer for their own personal favourite to the bitter end.

So the reaction at Ajinomoto Stadium will serve Okada well, as he will be able to observe the players in a more hostile environment. Some players will rise to the challenge and others may buckle under the pressure and expectation, helping the coach in his selection of the final 23 players for the World Cup.

The next match, against Hong Kong on Thursday, should not provide much of a test, unfortunately, as the gap between Korea and Hong Kong on Sunday night was vast. But still, Japan will need to score early to settle nerves and build up some momentum, just like Korea did, so this will bring its own kind of pressure, too.

When chances come along, Japan will have to relax and take them clinically, rather than snatching at them in a panic and adding to the tension at the next opportunity.

They will need to get the fans on their side, and need to gain confidence as well as the three points before the crunch match with Korea on Sunday.

So this is turning into a very worthwhile tournament for Okada – more than he could have imagined or perhaps even wanted.


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Japan’s bid is sound, but…

2 Feb 2010(Tue)

February 1, 2010: Several of the countries bidding to stage the 2018 or 2022 World Cup could hold the event at the drop of a hat.

One of them, of course, is Japan, as the stadiums, infrastructure and fan base are all in place to guarantee a smooth and successful tournament.

However, this doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea for Japan to be bidding again, so soon after co-hosting the 2002 World Cup with Korea (ditto Korea, who are bidding only for 2022 this time).

So while Japan’s bid is sound, and has the high-profile backing of, among others, former national team coaches Philippe Troussier, Zico and Ivica Osim, I think their chances of victory are slim at best – much less than Tokyo’s chances were of being awarded the 2016 Olympic Games.

First, the 2018 World Cup is surely going to Europe, as football’s richest continent will not have staged it since Germany 2006. FIFA President Sepp Blatter said as much recently, so it really looks like a lost cause for the other continents. While England, the 1966 host, is regarded as the favourite to win 2018, Russia has emerged as a dark horse and must not be ruled out from pulling off a major surprise when FIFA votes in December.

Japan’s best chance, then, would be 2022, but again I think there are countries more deserving of Japan; countries who have not held it before and who would open a new market, a new frontier, for FIFA.

Specifically I am thinking of Australia, and I would like to see the Aussies awarded 2022. This is a great sporting nation, and they would stage a fantastic World Cup. Critics talk of a lack of football tradition in Australia (or maybe “soccer” is the more appropriate word on this occasion) compared to rugby league, rugby union, Aussie Rules football and cricket, but the sports-loving locals in the big cities would really embrace the tournament and turn it into one long festival.

Having attended the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and travelled around to watch Japan in Canberra and Brisbane, the atmosphere was incredible, and I am sure this would be replicated for the World Cup but on a much grander scale – involving thousands and thousands of visitors from overseas.

I think Japan has a no-risk bid, but honestly I don’t know why they are having another go so soon after 2002, and why they think they can win.

If they are awarded the 2018 or even the 2022 World Cup, it will be a bigger surprise than if Takeshi Okada’s boys do actually reach the semi-finals in South Africa.


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