Okada addresses problems on the left

19 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 18, 2008: The Grampus connection, the excellent left foot, keen interest from national coach Takeshi Okada...

We could be talking about Takashi Hirano back in 1998, when the former Grampus midfielder was in Japan's 22 for the World Cup in France, but 10 years on it's all about Keisuke Honda.

With their place in the last Asian qualifying round for the 2010 World Cup already secured, Okada is setting about addressing the weaknesses in his squad.

And, without doubt, one of these remains the lack of a left-footed player to patrol the left flank.

Hence the fact that Okada has promoted Honda from the Olympic squad and recalled the fit-again Yasuda for Sunday's match against Bahrain at Saitama Stadium.

I have said before that I am a fan of Komano's, but on the right side, not left.

Although he can ping over a decent cross from time to time, it's hit and miss whether he will make clean contact with his left foot -- and one miss in a critical area could prove costly against top opposition in the final round of qualifying.

This is why it's vital Okada bolsters this area, and why he will have a look at Honda in training this week and possibly against Bahrain.

Like Hirano before him, Honda is a natural left-footer and has a good physique. Although he is essentially an attack-minded player, he can work much deeper on the left flank, even at left back in a four-man defence.

Another selling point for Honda is his set-piece expertise.

He showed with the Olympic team again the other night against Cameroon that he has a wicked free kick which swerves and dips and makes life uncomfortable for defenders and keeper alike. Has Honda been studying the explosive free kick technique of Rivelino? Looks like it to me.

In the end, Japan's win in Bangkok was very straightforward.

It didn't take long for the heavy artillery (Tulio and Nakazawa) to blast through the Thai defence, but I still felt they needed more punch up front in open play when the ball was worked into wide positions. There was no target to aim at.

Now, with the job done, surely it would make sense to give Shunsuke a rest.

With stronger motivation, which Japan would have at home after their timid defeat in Manama, they should be able to beat Bahrain without Shunsuke.

Give him a break. Let his right ankle heal. Let him build up his fitness in summer training with Celtic and then take him back for the serious business in September.

I just can't see the point in risking him against Bahrain, even with all this talk of revenge.


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Umesaki -- the good and the bad

16 Jun 2008(Mon)

June 13, 2008: Tsukasa Umesaki -- What a quick, clever...totally annoying player he is.

A good player, for sure, with the potential, at 21, to be one of the best Japan has produced.

But doesn't he irritate you, the way he goes to ground so quickly and so often?

Against Cameroon at National Stadium on Thursday night, I reckon Umesaki set some kind of Japanese record: He'd only touched the ball six times but already won seven free kicks!

Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit, but he really does overdo it on the theatrics, expecting the referee to give a free kick every time he falls down.

This is a dangerous assumption by Umesaki, because when the ref waves play on -- and sometimes they do -- he has taken himself out of the game and is no good to his team when he is on the floor appealing or grumbling.

But the boy can play, there is no doubt about that; and against Cameroon he surely secured his place in the Olympic 18.

He set up a wonderful chance for Morimoto in the ninth minute with a low cross from the right, but the striker put it wide of the far post. How costly a miss could that be for Morimoto, who is now struggling to make the squad.

In fact I think Morimoto was extremely lucky to stay on the field after that shocking challenge on the right back, Georges Ndoum. Maybe the ref was lenient on Morimoto because it was only a friendly and it was quite early in the game, 27 minutes, but I thought it deserved a red card at the time and even more so when I watched it again on TV later in the night.

So while Morimoto is doubtful, Umesaki is a certainty.

Going back to the Toulon Tournament, the young Reds schemer scored a lovely header against France, arriving in the box with a late run to meet Okazaki's exquisite cross from the right with a header from near the penalty spot that was perfectly placed inside the far post. The defenders never saw him, and the keeper had no chance.

That was on 16 minutes, and he spent the rest of the game on the floor annoying the French players and bench alike. (In Umesaki's defence, there's actually nothing wrong with annoying the French. I'm all for it really.)

Against Cameroon, he forced a great save from Joslain Mayebi with his clever, side-foot volley, again with a well-timed run into the box to elude his marker.

When Umesaki went off in the 67th minute, Sorimachi gave him an enthusiastic handshake as if to say, "Well done son, you're in!" And he deserves to be because he has a bright future ahead of him.

He is also extremely useful with his delivery at set-pieces; not yet the master of taking free kicks -- but certainly the master of winning them.


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Maki for Okubo would be logical move

12 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 11, 2008: Takeshi Okada has a reputation as a big thinker.

But I hope he does not think too much about how to replace the suspended Okubo for Saturday's match in Bangkok.

Surely the solution is simple -- he just brings in Maki and tries to win this one where Japan are stronger, in the air.

With two set-piece experts in Endo and Shunsuke, right and left foot, respectively, and Nakazawa and Tulio already in the team, the addition of Maki would further boost Japan's chances of victory.

There is nothing wrong with taking a direct route, as Japan proved in the home win against Oman, and I hope they take the game to Thailand from the first whistle on Saturday.

The Japanese are bigger and stronger than the Thais, and quicker, more experienced and more technical; superior in every department, in fact.

The only way they can fail is in their heads; if they allow Thailand to get on top and don't play with the urgency and authority demanded of the situation.

This is why Maki would be a good outlet, occupying one or two defenders with his aerial power and opening up some space for a teammate to exploit, just like Hanyu used to do with JEF United.

The strongest part of Maki's game is his ability at the back post to get up above his marker and head the ball down into the danger zone, where Tamada can capitalise.

Add in the free kicks and the corners, for which the heavy artillery can move up from the back, and Japan should be able to create enough chances to win this game comfortably.

It might not be pretty; it might not be the style of football Okada ultimately wants to produce; but it is practical and logical against such opposition.

No one will care how Japan get three points, just so long as they do -- and, who knows, on the night it might be enough to book them a place in the last round of qualifying with one game to go.

Even if Okubo had not been suspended I still think there was a strong case for adding some muscle up front against Thailand, possibly at the expense of Tamada.

But now, the choices are down to either Maki or Yano up front with Tamada, and Maki's experience gives him the edge.

Japan beat Thailand 4-1 at home in the Saitama snow in February (both Nakazawa and Maki scored, remember), and I don't see why they can't do it again in the Bangkok humidity, provided they play to their strengths: aerial ability at set-pieces.


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Overage player debate nears conclusion

9 Jun 2008(Mon)

June 6, 2008: The big matches are coming thick and fast at the moment, and the Japan-Cameroon under-23 international on Thursday, June 12, is among them.

It's not big in that the result means much, of course, but it is still important and significant for coach Sorimachi and his Olympic hopefuls.

The last time I spoke with Sorimachi, after a trial game against Omiya Ardija at NACK5 Stadium, he said he would decide on the overage player issue after the Cameroon game.

He did not mean he would announce which overage players he would select, but whether or not he would call up any.

If he does decide to bolster his squad with one, two or three players over the age of 23, clearly he is thinking about the welfare of the clubs, as J1 will be ongoing.

"If I picked Tulio, Keita Suzuki and Takahara, for example, the Reds fans would be very angry with me," he said. "There has to be negotiation between the JFA and the clubs."

My own feeling is that Japan should go to the Olympics without any overage players.

Sorimachi can pick only 18, including two goalkeepers, and there are enough good players at his disposal to select a decent squad.

I am not thinking about medals here, because talk of medals in Olympic football misses the point in Japan's case.

Unlike in many sports, the Olympics is not the pinnacle of a player's career.

They are well down the list, not only light years behind the World Cup but also behind continental championships and club championships, too.

I would rather the JFA pick players for the future, using the Olympics as a stepping stone to the national team and for young players to gain experience.

Even though three overage players would strengthen the team, I wouldn't like to see seasoned internationals brought in at the expense of a talented youngster who could really benefit; for example Nakazawa instead of Morishige, or Shunsuke instead of Umesaki.

In addition to this, the final round of World Cup qualifiers starts in September, so I would prefer to save my international players for this, rather than burning them out in China in August.

Sorimachi has named a squad of 21 for the Cameroon game, and there are others on duty with the national team (Nagatomo, Uchida and Kagawa), plus injuries such as Yasuda.

The job of picking 18 is going to be tough anyway, but maybe it will be a little clearer after Thursday.


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Tragedy and triumph at Yokohama

5 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 3, 2008: A day that began with apprehension and continued with sadness ended on a triumphant note against Oman at Nissan Stadium on Monday.

This was a big match for Japan after the timid defeat in Bahrain, and as we queued to enter the stadium in the late afternoon, word came of the death of Ken Naganuma.

In an instant, all the debates about Okada's selection and formation were irrelevant, as Japan had just lost a football pioneer.

I recalled the last time I had chatted with the former JFA president, and remember him telling me that over 1,000 children had just taken part in a tournament at Saitama Stadium 2002.

He was so proud and so excited about this achievement, and had a sparkle in his eye -- as enthusiastic about the game now as a young boy putting on his first pair of new football boots.

A moment of silence before the national anthems and black arm bands for the players created a sombre setting, before Japan burst into life and produced a performance to be proud of.

Japan did everything demanded of the occasion, and more.

Forget tactics and personnel; what impressed the most was their hunger, their positive attitude and their authority.

Their status as one of Asia's top teams was under threat, and they responded with a magnificent display to send the crowd home buzzing.

A swashbuckling header from the captain Nakazawa to get things moving; a cool-as-a-cucumber strike from Okubo after Shunsuke Nakamura had picked out Tulio's bustling run from the back; and then a right-foot drive into the corner from Shunsuke after great work on the left from Matsui.

Predictably, all the post-match talk and the TV replays focused on Shunsuke's magic on the edge of the box, but Matsui's contribution must not be overlooked.

The French aristocrat is looking more and more like the finished product -- the performing sea lion of the Kyoto circus has become the lion king of Japan's World Cup qualifying campaign. And how the fans roared on the final whistle!

This was Japan how they can be, how they should be; a blur of brilliant blue.


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Taka: from Superman to Invisible Man

2 Jun 2008(Mon)

May 30, 2008: All strikers suffer a loss of form when the goals just dry up.

In such circumstances, the player's manager will inevitably say something on the lines of: "I am not worried just because he missed a couple of chances. He can't score in every game. Happens to everyone. I'd be more concerned if he wasn't getting any chances."

Enter Naohiro Takahara.

Had Taka been getting into position in the box and missing chances, Takeshi Okada would have left him in the squad. With a record like Takahara's, it would only be a matter of time before the chances started going in again.

But the problem for the player is that he is not getting any chances at all.

He is not missing a hatful every game; he just isn't in the game.

From Superman at the 2007 Asian Cup, Takahara has become the Invisible Man.

After a recent Reds game, when Takahara was substituted, I had a good chat with Gert Engels about his Boy from the Bundesliga.

"Of course he is worried," Engels said, "but not in a strange way. He has to be worried if he does not score and if he is substituted."

Engels said Takahara and the team were still getting to know each other, and that he was optimistic the goals would come once he learned how to cope with the packed defences Reds faced.

"Of course he is not happy with the situation," added Engels. "I think he is over-working at the moment. He is not cool. You have to be patient. That is the big point."

With Takahara clearly off the pace when he came off the bench against Paraguay the other night (yes, he did come on for Maki on 63 minutes), Okada decided it was best to send him back to Reds in the hope he would find some match fitness...find anything, really, from the Taka of old.

Takahara will be back -- and will be needed for the final round of qualifiers, provided there are no further mishaps in June.

The Invisible Man can change back and still be a super hero on the road to South Africa.


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Okada still has questions to answer

29 May 2008(Thu)

May 28, 2008: If the Kirin Cup was meant to prepare Japan for the Oman game on Monday, Takeshi Okada must have more doubts now than he did a week ago.

What his starting line-up and formation will be is anyone's guess, apart from the goalkeeper (Narazaki) and back four (Komano, Nakazawa, Tulio and Nagatomo).

Of course Shunsuke Nakamura will be in, so that's six.

The rest of the places look far from settled -- and will Japan play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1?

Whatever he decides in the next few days, one thing is clear: Japan must attack hard from the start and try to grab an early goal, because the longer the match goes on without a goal, the more frustrated they -- and the fans -- will become.

Expect Oman to defend deep, as they will be happy with a draw.

This means Japan must get round the back of them, which they struggled to do against Paraguay, and get the ball in the box to create some chances in front of goal.

I want to see them putting Oman under pressure with players running at defenders, players shooting; in general playing at a high tempo.

Against Paraguay there was too much laboured build-up, too much pass-pass-passing in areas that were never going to hurt the opposition.

The Omanis will be happy to sit back and watch that from distance, as opposed to being forced on the back foot from the opening whistle by an aggressive Japan attacking down the wings and through the middle.

For this reason I would play Okubo, as he thinks positively and knows how to win free kicks in the Shunsuke zone.

I'd play Matsui on the left as he has the craft and the speed to get round the full back and send over an accurate cross. Ditto Yamase on the right, although this is not his natural position.

I just want to see some speed and dynamism on the wings, and some width to Japan's attack from the midfield, because they get bogged down with their intricate passing through the middle, and moves break down too easily without a chance being created for all the ball possession.

Suzuki and Konno would hold the team balance in the centre of midfield, and Shunsuke would be allowed to roam free, behind Okubo -- the solitary striker in a Rooney role.

I feel this team has speed, substance, width, experience, balance, height..and, dare I say it, goals -- at least two (and that's only half time!).

My team for Monday (4-4-1-1): Narazaki; Komano, Nakazawa, Tulio, Nagatomo; Yamase, Suzuki, Konno, Matsui; Nakamura; Okubo.


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Lee has earned his Olympic place

26 May 2008(Mon)

May 23, 2008: If Tadanari Lee was not already on Yasuharu Sorimachi's list of 18 for the Olympic Games, then surely he is now.

Displaying equal measures of industry and adventure, the Kashiwa Reysol striker scored the only goal of the game as Japan beat the Netherlands 1-0 in the prestigious Toulon Tournament for young hopefuls.

Sorimachi, it is true, has not much choice up front, as the forward department is quite bare; so much so that Yoshito Okubo is being tipped as a strong contender for an over-age spot.

But Lee for one has done enough in qualifying, and since then, to book his place.

Although he is quite lightweight for a target man, he has pace and a venomous left foot, and used his skill and strength to get the better of his Dutch marker before striking the ball home with the outside of his left foot. I also like his personality, as there is a spark about him on the pitch and a bit of attitude.

Another player who really impressed for Japan, but in an area where the competition for places is much stronger, was Masato Morishige, who played in the centre of the back four, alongside captain Mizumoto (although the TV feed listed Inoha, who played at right back, as captain).

With Aoyama, Inoha, Mizumoto, Yoshida, Morishige and, back home, Makino all in with a strong claim for a place, I don't understand the talk about Tulio and Nakazawa being needed as a central defender in the Olympics. This is one of the strong areas, although I am not saying the younger players are better than Tulio or Nakazawa.

Sorimachi's formation was interesting: 4-2-3-1, with Lee on his own supported by Mizuno, Taniguchi and Keisuke Honda.

This is a very pragmatic solution to Japan's lack of quality strikers in this age group, and the lone ranger up front is a common trend in the modern game (Rooney and Drogba in the Champions League final, for example)

Taniguchi had scored a couple of fine goals in a trial match at Omiya NACK5 Stadium recently, and Sorimachi used him in a more advanced role than he plays for Frontale in the hope he could hit some shots from edge-of-the-box range.

One last word on Inoha. He was guilty of some blatant shirt-pulling that went unpunished in the early stages, and I hope Sorimachi warns him against this.

Goals might be at a premium for Japan in the Olympics, so the last thing they need is to concede a penalty or a free kick around the box due to this unnecessary sort of foul.

Inoha is good enough to get the better of his striker without resorting to such sly and risky tactics.


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Self-policing can prevent escalation

22 May 2008(Thu)

May 21, 2008: Those were disturbing scenes at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Saturday.

Objects flying between two sets of fans; fences to segregate them being torn down; 800 away fans being kept in the ground for safety reasons before 10,000 home supporters waiting for them outside could be dispersed, finally, after three and a half hours.

It took me back to the bad old days of the Eighties, where these scenes were commonplace at football in England and wherever the England national team played.

But it is too early to talk of a major hooligan problem in Japan just yet, and the authorities have the opportunity to act quickly.

Whatever sanctions are imposed, and surely Urawa will be fined for failing to control the situation, a vital role must be played by the fans themselves.

Just like in the fight against racism at stadiums in England, supporters are urged to identify people who racially abuse players to security guards.

Hopefully this can apply in the J.League, as when children are hit by missiles thrown by other fans they will stop coming to matches and so will their mothers -- and that would be a massive blow for the reputation and the future of the J.League.

Japanese football prides itself on its family appeal, and quite rightly, too, as I still find the atmosphere refreshing at J.League games after the dangers of attending matches around England in the 70s and 80s.

So if responsible Gamba fans see an irresponsible Gamba fan throw a water balloon, give him (or her) a ticking-off. (I say "her" because at the height of hooliganism in England, the ring leader of Wolverhampton Wanderers was famously a woman).

Give the trouble-maker a piece of your mind, turn him (or her!) over to the authorities if necessary. Do something -- because this self-policing can play a major role in stemming the problem.

The J.League could do worse than bring together representatives of the official fan groups and advise them what action is necessary to avoid an escalation; Reds at Kashima for example, or Reds at Gamba?

Let's hope the scenes at Saitama were not the start of hooliganism in Japan, but the end.

Somehow, though, I don't think it is over yet.


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Matsui succeeds in tough environment

19 May 2008(Mon)

May 16, 2008: No prizes for guessing who will dominate the news in the build-up to the Kirin Cup and World Cup qualifiers.

Naturally it will be Shunsuke Nakamura, whose set-piece expertise and big-match experience were sorely missed by Japan in the defeat to Bahrain.

But it’s another of the foreign legionnaires I am looking forward to seeing the most, namely Daisuke Matsui.

The former Purple Prince of Kyoto has been an outstanding success in France with Le Mans, and could yet become a major influence in Okada’s Japan.

It is not just his play on the pitch that has impressed, but also how well he has adapted to life in France since moving there in 2004.

Let’s face it, France is not the easiest of places to settle. The language is extremely difficult to grasp, and the environment can appear very alien – hostile at times – even to other Europeans.

So Matsui has done tremendously well in making his name in France, whose league is regarded as fifth in the unofficial European table, behind the big four of England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

For those who have followed Matsui’s career since he started with Kyoto in 2000, his success may have come as a surprise. He always had the skill, of course, and the flashy moves that were pleasing on the eye, but he looked a bit of a show-off and a one-man band.

Pim Verbeek for one found the superstar treatment Matsui received at Kyoto quite frustrating – in the same way Philippe Troussier did with Shinji Ono early in his reign in 1998.

So Matsui has had to add some steel and discipline to his game, some substance to go with the style, in order to survive in a league known for its fast and physical African presence.

If Okada plays 4-4-2, Matsui would slot in nicely on the left side of midfield, with a good defender behind him. Pity Koji Nakata is not around.

Perhaps the best formation for Matsui, however, would be 3-4-2-1, so he could play as one of the two shadow strikers, behind the centre forward, and free of defensive responsibilities.

Wherever Matsui plays, he will be in a position to inject some much-needed pace into Japan’s attack.


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Chasing two hares is not easy for top dogs

15 May 2008(Thu)

May 13, 2008: A few seasons ago, Takeshi Okada described how difficult it was for a team to win both the J.League championship and the AFC Champions League in the same year.

It was like a dog chasing two hares, Okada said, during his time as manager of Yokohama F Marinos.

One hare was running in one direction, the other hare was going in the opposite direction, and the dog was in the middle, having to choose the juiciest prize.

Urawa Reds discovered this last season. After catching one hare, namely the AFC Champions League, they set off in pursuit of the J.League title, only to run out of steam and come up just short.

Now, the team that benefited from Urawa's late collapse last term, Kashima Antlers, are feeling the heat themselves.

The J.League top dogs in 2007 have fallen eight points off the pace as they attempt to book their place in the last eight of the AFC Champions League.

Gamba Osaka have already made it, joining Reds in the hat for the quarter-finals, and Antlers are well on course but must clear one more hurdle -- meaning they still need to win their last game, in Vietnam, to hold off Beijing Guoan.

Having beaten Nam Dinh 6-0 at home, it would be a major surprise if they failed to collect three points again, but, nevertheless, they must still go away and win the May 21 match to be safe.

After a recent draw against Omiya Ardija at NACK5 Stadium, Kashima manager Oswaldo Oliviera said ideally he needed two teams to cope with such a demanding schedule.

The travel, the difference in climate and conditions...and then a hungry J1 team waiting for them on their return to Japan.

This was another major factor in the fight on two fronts, Oswaldo stressed, as the J1 team had more time to prepare and focus only on the J.League fixture.

Oswaldo was not making excuses, though, Far from it. He was just elaborating on the Okada theory of trying to catch two hares at the same time.

If Antlers can follow Gamba into the last eight -- giving Japan three teams in the quarter-finals and a chance of three in the last four as they cannot be drawn against each other -- then at least they have time to regroup.

Which hare will Oswaldo try and catch then?


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More JEF jottings as Miller moves in

12 May 2008(Mon)

May 10, 2008: Saitama Stadium 2002 is earning a reputation as the graveyard of J.League managers in 2008.

Okay, so it is only two managers who have fallen the next day after losing a match at Saista, but the mood in the corridors of power was eerily similar.

First it was Holger Osieck, who was fired after Reds lost at home to Grampus only two matches into the new campaign.

And this week it was Josip Kuze, whose reign at JEF United lasted only 11 games, which yielded a paltry two points.

The following day, Thursday, JEF announced that Alex Miller would take over, leaving his coaching post at Anfield to try and save the Chiba club from relegation.

Although Miller will have his own ideas, he could do worse than heed the words of Gert Engels, who succeeded Osieck at Reds and has taken them to the top of the table.

Admittedly, the German has better players to work with, and a much bigger and more experienced squad, but, still, his observations can also apply to United.

Engels said his first job was to change the mood of the players, to make training fun so that the players looked forward to match day.

He also said he encouraged Reds to play more direct, more straight, and less across the pitch. One of the first things Miller will notice, and no doubt wince over, is the Japanese tendency to play short passes in dangerous areas, even on the edge of their own box.

When this comes off and a team plays its way out of trouble, it is very pleasing on the eye. When a team has no confidence, however, it is suicidal.

I am sure the first thing he will tell them is to play safe, meaning knocking the ball down the line, out of trouble, instead of across their own box. This may seem a very British trait, but it is also very practical and risk-free in such a precarious situation.

Another Engels point was to find a settled formation, so that all players knew their job and when changes had to be made, the new player was completely comfortable in his role. Echoes of Troussier here.

Kuze tried to play a 4-5-1 formation from the start, but a succession of injuries and strategic breakdowns did not allow him to find a settled team or system.

This is going to be hard for Miller, too, as he will be starting from scratch with a group of players low on confidence and with niggling injuries aplenty.

At least Miller will have some time, though, as the summer break follows the 13th round of games, just two home matches from now.

It will be like JEF's season starting over, four months after everyone else.


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Desperate JEF must break the curse of Fukuare

8 May 2008(Thu)

May 7, 2008: What a mess JEF United are in at the moment.

Two points from a possible 33, the future of the manager already in the headlines, and with frantic but so far fruitless efforts behind the scenes to try and sign new players.

The one thing that has remained constant is the support from the Chiba faithful.

They were in their thousands at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Tuesday, more yellow in the away corner than used to be around the whole ground at Ichihara Rinkai Stadium during the dark days.

"They are the best supporters I have ever played for," says Australian central defender Eddy Bosnar.

"If we'd had a run like this at Dinamo Zagreb I wouldn't have been able to go out for dinner. No way. But here...they are fantastic."

And really it's the JEF supporters you feel sorry for the most, as the Osim World has crumbled around them and they are left standing in the dusty ruins.

I have to admit I did not think things would be as bad as this at the start of the season, although I was very much in a minority.

Of course it was going to be hard losing five first-team regulars in Mizumoto, Mizuno, Sato, Hanyu and Yamagishi, but a backbone of Saito-Shimomura-Maki remained, fleshed out by Osim era veterans, hungry new recruits, impressive youngsters such as Matsumoto at right back and Yonekura in midfield, and the foreign contingent.

And after seeing them win handsomely at Todoroki in an early Nabisco Cup fixture, I thought they were looking good.

In the league, though, the curse of Fukuda Denshi Arena struck again. I think a pivotal moment in the season came at home to Vissel Kobe when they were leading 1-0 going into injury time, only for a Norio Suzuki rocket to make it 1-1.

Had JEF held on in that game, their fourth in the league, and secured three points, I honestly feel they would have been up and running, and could have built on this.

That early buzz has disappeared now, though, and captain Shimomura was a forlorn figure after the 3-0 defeat against Reds.

The confidence had gone, he said, and compared to last season it felt like JEF were playing with only 10 men when they attacked due to the lack of options for the player on the ball, and with only 10 men when Reds had the ball. As captain, he told of how he had stepped in to break up an argument among players after the 3-0 defeat against Yokohama F Marinos.

Despite all the problems, I still feel JEF are good enough to get out of this situation and stay in J1. They have two home games -- against Kyoto and Oita -- before the long summer break, and six points would keep them in touch.

And if they falter at Fukuare again (and again), it's not a new manager they need -- it's an exorcist.


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Park Ji Sung -- the unsung hero

5 May 2008(Mon)

May 2, 2008: Sir Alex Ferguson says Paul Scholes will be the first name on his team sheet for the UEFA Champions League final against Chelsea on May 21.

But will there be a place for Park Ji Sung, the "made in Kyoto" midfielder who now enjoys cult status at Old Trafford?

On the evidence of the gripping semi-final victory over Barcelona, Park looks to have a good chance of starting the final in Moscow.

Once again he was one of United's unsung heroes, running tirelessly in both defence and attack to keep Barca busy. No wonder you will find words and phrases such as "industrious" and "lung-bursting efforts" in his profile on the official club website.

He really is a credit to the Asian game, isn't he? To Korea, to the J.League and especially to Kyoto Sanga.

He goes about his business in a professional manner, and never forgets the qualities that have taken him to the top.

There are no frills, no tricks; just good solid play, a strong mentality and the ability to make the right decision at the right time.

He has also made the right career decisions, too; first by joining Kyoto in June 2000 without having played for a K.League club, and then by following his mentor, Guus Hiddink, to PSV Eindhoven in January 2003.

After proving himself with PSV, notably against Milan in a UEFA Champions League semi-final, Park was signed by Ferguson in July 2005.

Since then he has continued to improve, despite having to fight back from serious knee problems, and can now look forward to another momentous occasion.

Hopefully the Asian Football Confederation will revise their long list of candidates for the 2008 Player of the Year award, because Park was not even among the 21 names released by the AFC on April 22.

Quite why the governing body in Asia should publish this initial list in April for an award to be presented in November is anyone's guess, as their flagship competition, the AFC Champions League, is only just getting warmed up.

But don't get me started on this AFC awards subject!

With his efforts so far this year, Park would be on my shortlist -- a shortlist of one.


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Tulio continues to revive Reds

1 May 2008(Thu)

April 30, 2008: One of the big reasons for the Urawa U-turn under Gert Engels is the form of defender turned midfielder Marcus Tulio Tanaka.

At first it appeared a stop-gap solution by Engels, moving Tulio forward to galvanise a struggling team with his energy and his aggression.

But it's working out so well that Tulio looks set to remain in central midfield for the considerable future, especially with a weakened Keita Suzuki recovering from a virus and several kilos lighter.

Reds needed a lift early in the season and Tulio provided it with his leadership, his ability to coax the best out of other players and, on a more practical note, his power in the air.

Against Consadole Sapporo at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday, Tulio was outstanding in his team's roller-coaster 4-2 victory.

Consadole manager Toshiya Miura singled out Tulio as Reds' most dangerous player, ahead of Takahara or Edmilson, and the man any team must shackle if they are to stop Reds.

"No matter which defender marked him man to man at set pieces, Tulio was always too strong," said Miura.

"This is one of the big differences between J2 and J1. In J1, the delivery of corners and free kicks is more accurate, and every team has a player who is very good in the air...Yano at Niigata, Tashiro at Kashima and Tulio at Urawa."

Against Consadole, Tulio notched his fifth league goal of the campaign, bulldozing his way through the visiting defence to head home Umesaki's left-wing corner at the far post, which Consadole had left unguarded.

But it was the one that got away, the effort that was disallowed in the 19th minute with Reds trailing 1-0, that continued to be discussed long after the final whistle.

Again it involved a perfect delivery from Umesaki, who shaped to shoot with a free kick but then changed his angle to pick out Tulio at the far post. A prodigious leap enabled Tulio to nod it back into the middle for Takahara to pounce in a red blur. A wonderful goal, or so everyone thought, including the scoreboard operator who flashed up 1-1, and the stadium announcer, before it was ruled out for offside against Tulio.

There is much more to his game than his heading prowess, of course, and former manager Holger Osieck once likened his range of passing, with either foot, to that of German full back Andreas Brehme.

Engels is convinced Tulio can be equally effective in this midfield role at international level, although he stressed this was not his business.

It is the business of Takeshi Okada, whose plodding team also needs shaking into life after losing their way in Bahrain.

Tulio for central midfield for Japan? It certainly gives the national coach food for thought before the Kirin Cup.


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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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Japan's "nothing" almost got "something"

31 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 29, 2008: One short comment from Bahrain's head coach, Milan Macala, said it all: "Japan had nothing."

Ouch! That hurts, doesn't it, coming from the Gulf veteran who knows Japanese football so well from his previous engagements.

But it was a fair assessment on Wednesday night, when Japan lost 1-0 in Bahrain to put themselves under a bit of pressure for the four-game group finale in June.

Japan looked slow and weary and lacked leadership and experience, particularly in the middle of the park. With Bahrain quick to press the man in possession, Japan could not get hold of the game or find any rhythm.

Even so, the "nothing" as stated by Macala looked like it was going to be good enough to get "something" -- meaning a point from a 0-0 draw -- until the blunder by Kawaguchi 13 minutes from time. Bahrain accepted the gift and no one could argue with the final result.

For all their lack of control and creativity, Japan could still have snatched one at the other end on two occasions in the second half.

Before Bahrain's goal, Okubo failed to connect with a superb Komano cross from the right, and after Bahrain's goal Abe did the same. These were two great heading opportunities that went begging, and it points to a lack of confidence rather than technique.

I wonder if the poor performance and result led to the low turnout (12,718) at National Stadium for the Japan Under 23-Angola friendly the following evening?

Those who did attend at least saw some energy and ambition from the Japan team in the face of a big, strong opponent.

Once again I was particularly impressed with the central midfield pairing of Hosogai and Toshihiro Aoyama, and they must have gone a long way towards securing a place in coach Sorimachi's 18-strong squad for Beijing.

They chase and they scrap, and keep the team ticking over with their ability to win the ball and move it on to the more creative, attacking players around them. In the closing stages, Hosogai played like Tulio in disguise with his swashbuckling efforts in the opposition box.

It is a pity Japan could not hold on for the win, but at least they could leave the field with their heads held high and the supporters feeling some pride.

This was not the case in Bahrain the previous night.


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A point in Bahrain would be fine for Japan

27 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 26, 2008: Japan's World Cup qualifier in Bahrain on Wednesday night will surely be a tough test for Takeshi Okada's team.

Of the six games in this third round of Asian qualifying, this always looked like the hardest assignment for Japan.

Under the circumstances, a draw would be a decent result to add to the three points Japan took at home to Thailand in the Saitama snow.

Even if Japan lose they would still have four matches to clinch one of the two qualifying places to advance to the 10-team, two-group final round. After Bahrain away, those four remaining games all take place in June, starting with Oman at home on the 2nd, Oman away (7th), Thailand away (14th) and Bahrain at home (22nd).

To prepare for this sequence of matches, Japan will have two Kirin Cup games in late May, so Okada will have plenty of opportunity to integrate the players he needs from Europe.

On the subject of which...I am still disappointed Okada did not call up Shunsuke Nakamura for this match.

I have been reading that the player was overlooked because of "club commitments" with Celtic. What, on Wednesday?

Nakamura played for Celtic against Gretna on Sunday, and will be in action in the Old Firm derby against Rangers on Saturday, but that does not rule him out of the Bahrain game.

It is not "club commitments" that is keeping him out; it is because Okada wanted time to prepare his team, and didn't want Nakamura joining the camp a couple of days before the game.

I have already given my reasons why I think Okada should have selected Nakamura, regardless of whether or not that Gretna-Celtic match went ahead, so will not do so again.

Suffice to say that Nakamura will be sitting around in Glasgow on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with nothing much to do, while Japan are playing a World Cup qualifier not too far away, and other players are flying round the world in an international week to play for their country.

In fact, I am surprised a Japanese TV station or newspaper has not flown Shunsuke to Bahrain to be a celebrity analyst!

A prediction for tonight? I will go for 0-0.

Both teams won their opening game in the group and are regarded as the two most likely to qualify. The priority, therefore, may be not to lose to their main rival so early in the group.


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Frontale's 'Fab Four' struggling for rhythm

24 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 21, 2008: Who would have thought that after three games in league and cup Frontale's Fab Four would not have a goal between them?

Juninho, Chong Tese, Kazuki Ganaha and Hulk have so far drawn a blank, with Frontale's only two goals to date coming from midfielders Mori (against Verdy) and Ohashi (Vissel). Ohashi's goal was a little gem, by the way; just a pity they were 4-0 down at the time.

The latest disappointment came against JEF United at a cold, wet and windy Todoroki Stadium on Thursday afternoon, when the Chiba defence held firm and their counter-attack produced two goals in a classic smash-and-grab raid.

It was interesting to see that Frontale manager Sekizuka had already abandoned his three-pronged strikeforce -- a commitment to all-out attack that suggested a name change may be appropriate: Kamikaze Frontale, perhaps?

Against Chiba, Sekizuka went back to the Frontale roots and played a 3-5-2 formation, with Ganaha and Juninho up front, Chong on the bench and Hulk injured. A close Frontale observer said it was, in fact, Hulk's heart that was injured...no goals, no longer the king like he was at Verdy, no confidence.

Could it be true? Has the Incredible Hulk turned into the Incredible Sulk so quickly?

I must admit I thought Frontale would do well this season, with no AFC Champions League commitments and a variety of explosive options up front to build on the solid base already in place.

They still might have a great season, of course, because there are 96 points to play for in the league and five more Nabisco Cup group games to overhaul Chiba.

Against JEF, though, they did not look like the big, bad bullies of old, battering teams into submission with their speed and power inside their Todoroki torture chamber.

Ganaha was off the pace; his replacement, Chong, was put in his place by a crunching Bosnar tackle on the left wing; and 19-year-old JEF substitute Yonekura was left to dance through the Kengo-free Frontale midfield to orchestrate the second-half counter-attacks.

Interesting player Yonekura. Same shirt number (22) as the departed "Goi Galactico" Hanyu, same high school as Hanyu, same position (attacking midfielder), but a rather different physique.

Whereas Hanyu buzzed around like a one-man ekiden team, Yonekura is more sturdy and robust, enabling him to win some physical battles in crucial areas of the pitch.

On the other hand, Frontale's most dangerous moments were the inswinging corners of Ohashi, who used the swirling gusts of wind to great effect and kept Tateishi on his toes.


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The rise, fall and rise of Gert Engels

20 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 18, 2008: After the unrest of Saturday and the turmoil of Sunday, Monday was just like any normal day at the Ohara training ground of Urawa Reds.

With Holger Osieck now history, ruthlessly fired the previous day, Gert Engels was the man in the spotlight -- again.

In his fluent Japanese, clipboard in hand, Engels was attempting to put the team back on track after the chaotic start to the new campaign.

He didn't have too many players to work with, as the squad was depleted by national team call-ups and injuries, but the foundations of the team for the Nabisco Cup were clearly in place.

The highlight of Monday's session for me was the set-piece expertise of new signing Tsukasa Umesaki. He was whipping over some wicked free kicks from the left flank, struck with pace and swerve and causing havoc for the keeper on each occasion. Has he been studying the technique of David Beckham? It certainly looked like it.

After training, Engels held two informal press conferences, first in Japanese and then in English, and was looking remarkably relaxed after his sudden elevation to manager of Asia's champion club.

There was a human touch, too, in his recollection of the dizzying events of the previous day, as he said his morning promotion and afternoon preparation for the official news conference at 4pm had scuppered his plans for a kickaround with his two children after training!

"I spoke to my kids and told them what had happened," he said.

"The first thing they asked was, 'What about Holger?' That was quite sweet of them, because they knew how I felt when it happened to me. I just said that business is like this."

On a more practical front, it is going to be an enormous help having a Japanese speaker in charge of the training; no need for an interpreter to try and get the message across on the practice ground, in team meetings and on the pitch.

And Engels is going to make sure that the players air their grievances to him rather than to the media, as criticism of Osieck from senior players led to the breakdown in communication.

"They know there is nothing to hide," said Engels.

"They can speak to me directly or to a coach who will then speak to me. I am available 24 hours a day for them."

It is highly unlikely there will be any criticism of Engels, though, as it is time for the club to put its house in order. Besides, the new manager is regarded as a good, all-round guy who has the respect of the players.

He has had setbacks with the closure of the Flugels and being fired by JEF United and Kyoto, but has proved he is a survivor -- all the way to the top of Japanese football.


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Okada is making a mistake in leaving out Shunsuke

17 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 14, 2008: There were a few talking points at JFA House in Tokyo on Friday afternoon when the squad list was handed out for the Bahrain away game on March 26.

Inamoto in -- generally welcomed as Japan need some muscle in central midfield.

Tamada in -- why not now he is fit? Who will ever forget his brilliant strike against Brazil in the World Cup?

Shunsuke not in -- now this prompted mixed feelings, but mostly negative.

Some reasoned that Nakamura would be playing for Celtic on March 15, March 18 and March 23 -- the last game, away to Gretna, just three days before the World Cup qualifier. Why should Okada pick him amidst this hectic schedule and when he will be able to train with Japan for a maximum of two sessions, maybe only one?

The other school of thought was that Okada should have called him up, as Shunsuke is in good nick and playing well, and it's more convenient to travel from Glasgow to the Gulf than it is to Japan.

I certainly feel that Okada should have picked Nakamura for this game, despite the tight schedule.

It is not as though Japan's midfield is in dazzling form, is it? While Inamoto will toughen them up and give them a bit of drive through the middle, surely there was still room for Shunsuke.

This is going to be a tough game, and one moment of magic from Nakamura could be the difference -- a brilliant free kick, a corner right on to Nakazawa's head, a slide-rule pass for Tamada to race on to, round the keeper and slot into an empty net...

In addition to this, the 21-strong squad will not be together from day one, so preparation is going to be patchy.

The bulk of the squad will leave for Dubai on Monday, but the five who play for Gamba and Antlers will not join them until Friday, after AFC Champions League games on Wednesday. Inamoto plays for Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday, so the squad will be assembling in dribs and drabs over the course of a few days.

Given all this, and the importance of the game, I think Okada is making a mistake not calling up Shunsuke on this occasion. Good enough to play against Barcelona, but not against Bahrain, it seems.


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Omiya's Yellow Peril settles Orange Derby

13 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 12, 2008: It was the Orange Derby at Omiya on Sunday, but the Yellow Peril won it for Ardija.

With his dancing feet and his flashy yellow boots, Pedro Junior proved to be the difference between the two teams, sending Albirex tumbling to a 2-0 defeat.

The 21-year-old Brazilian forward was much too quick and clever for the Albirex defence, scoring the first goal himself and setting up the second for Daigo Kobayashi with another jinking run and shot.

Trailing 2-0 at the break, Albirex battered away at the Omiya defence early in the second half, playing toward their massive following behind the goal, but when they could not break through in that initial onslaught the result looked safe for Omiya.

All in all, then, a perfect start for Ardija at the rebuilt NACK5 Stadium, and their fans must be quietly confident about the season ahead. Not only because they have their own home ground from the start of the season, rather than touring Saitama prefecture for their home games, but because they may have finally sorted out their overseas signings.

Although this is Omiya's fourth season in the top flight, they can hardly be described as an established force in J1, as their finishing positions have been 13th, 12th and 15th.

And anyone who follows the team closely knows the main reason for this is their poor record in the overseas transfer market, which has always been a handicap in J1.

Toshiya Miura used to complain about it when comparing his foreign players with the likes of even Oita's, and so did Robert Verbeek last season. Anyone remember Alison, Enilton, Salles? Enough said...

Leandro, however, was a rock at the back in 2007, and started well again this time, while both Pedro Junior and Denis Marques joined the club last August.

Denis Marques made more of an impression than Pedro Junior in the second half of last season, but was on the bench against Albirex after an impressive pre-season by Pedro Junior.

Starting the season with a bit of stability in the foreign player department should be an enormous help for new manager Yasuhiro Higuchi, who has inherited an experienced squad in general.

In their opening match, Pedro Junior lifted Omiya to a higher level with all that dazzling dribbling in his yellow boots, and Ardija fans will be hoping he has a "knack" for scoring spectacular goals -- especially at NACK5.


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Reds favourites in J1 'Super League'

10 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 7, 2008: It is never easy to predict the champions of the J.League, even on the last day of the season.

So on the eve of a new campaign?

Almost impossible, but "impossible is nothing" as they say these days, and surely the 2008 champions will emerge from the J1 Super League.

I would say the Super League membership stands at four, led by Reds, Gamba and Antlers and with Frontale as the dark horse.

Apart from those four, I cannot see anyone else challenging -- unless Shunsuke Nakamura returns to Marinos in the summer and transforms his old team, Ogasawara-style.

My tip for this season, though, is Urawa, despite the fact they have lost the goals of Washington, the midfield craft of Hasebe and the extravagant skills (usually off the bench) of Ono. In addition to this, the injured Alex and recovering Robson Ponte will be out for a good few weeks yet, so the new-look team needs a good start.

Reds have bought well in the winter, and I am sure Takahara and Edmilson will work well together and share the goals out, rather than it being a one-man Washington show.

Umesaki is another fine signing, a bright and busy attacking midfielder who can operate all across the pitch behind the front line and help link midfield to attack.

I know Hasebe was a firm favourite of the Reds supporters with his surging runs from deep, but I always felt his potential was never quite fulfilled at Urawa. He had the ability to get hold of a game by the scruff of the neck and really dominate it, and his departure will be more than compensated by the combination of Abe and Suzuki in the engine room.

This gives Reds an altogether tougher centre, not only protecting the defence but providing a solid platform for the attack to function.

Reds have two players for every position, and, unlike Gamba and Antlers, have no AFC Champions League group commitments until they enter at the quarter-final stage.

Frontale, disappointing in the league last season, should be strong enough to maintain a serious challenge this time. The explosive Hulk will give them a new dimension, and the addition of Yamagishi will tighten up the left side of midfield. With the stability and continuity from recent seasons, Frontale are a genuine threat this time.

But I'll go for Reds -- a year after tipping Gamba...


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Television's role in controversy

6 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 5, 2008: In near flawless English, Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira is a quote machine for the media after every match.

He was in particularly fine form on Saturday after the Xerox Super Cup, or the Xerox Super Mess as one English-language newspaper so fittingly described it the next day.

Amongst Oswaldo's cutting observations was the role of television in such controversies; or, rather, the lack of it -- a subject I have written about before as the approach of the TV stations here differs vastly to England and, presumably, most other countries.

Oswaldo pointed out that controversial incidents were often "passed over" and the coverage simply "jumped" to the next moment. No slow-motion replays. No analysis. No debate. Who was right? Who was wrong?

In Saturday's match, the sports news shows had a feast of fouls to dissect and devour, from the red cards to disallowed goals, from the penalty award to the retaken kicks (on both sides) and, of course, the rare pitch invasion.

Wouldn't it have been entertaining, educational even, to see those moments replayed and replayed from different angles in the weekend football shows; not just to show the referee may have been wrong on occasions (Kubo's penalty), but also to show he or his assistant was right, such as Tashiro's disallowed goal in the first half when clearly the flag was up for offside against Araiba before he crossed the ball. It wasn't Tashiro who was offside.

Many decisions look wrong or harsh on first viewing, but replays often prove the officials to be right. On a few occasions this season, for example, I have heard the colour commentators on the English Premier League apologise to the ref and admit he did, in fact, make a great call.

The controversies came so thick and fast on Saturday that it was difficult to understand what was going on, so a thorough debate and analysis by the TV pundits would have shed some light.

It never came -- and the repeat of the match I saw on the G+ Channel in the early hours of Sunday morning ignored the post-shootout melee to focus on a hero interview with Hisato Sato, completely missing the drama and the theatre unfolding behind them.

Oswaldo was trying to be fair to both sides in his assessment, saying he thought the red card for Sanfrecce was unfair, too, while pointing out that the Sanfrecce keeper had advanced off his line more for the penalty misses of Danilo and Motoyama than Sogahata had in saving from Stoyanov and Saito.

Ideal topics for debate and for conclusions, but they were "passed over" -- as Oswaldo would say -- on everything I saw later on Saturday and Sunday.


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J.League's 'one-stop shop' is a big hit

3 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 1, 2008: One of the highlights of the football season is over before a ball has been kicked.

The J.League's "Kick Off Conference" took place at the Tokyo Prince Park Tower Hotel on Friday afternoon, and featured the manager and a player from all 33 clubs, among them Okubo, Iwamasa, Keita Suzuki, Shimomura, Tamada and Tokunaga.

One J.League executive described it as a "one-stop shop" for the media regarding season preview work, and 700 media took advantage of this lavish public relations exercise.

I can't remember anything like this at all back in England, other than the Player of the Year award in London at the end of the season, organised by the Football Writers' Association.

At those events, players and managers were out in force, but, apart from the official business, it was all "off the record", and a chance to relax and chat over dinner.

The situations in England and Japan, of course, are very different.

English football does not need to provide such an organised pre-season event because the game is part of everyday life and the media attention never wavers. The media will turn up no matter how squalid the facilities, how hostile the reception, or how uncooperative the managers and players on occasions may be.

The J.League, on the other hand, had to woo the media in the early days, and hang on to them in a sporting establishment steeped in the history and tradition of baseball and sumo.

And the J.League has done a fantastic job in this aspect, as evidenced by the massive turnout on Friday and the ocean of information available at the 33 colourful club kiosks.

The main theme of the official part of the programme was the J.League's aim to attract 11 million fans in season 2010.

Last year the figure was 8.8 million, and it will need an increase of 7 per cent each season to achieve that goal. The target this year is 9.5 million for J1, J2, Nabisco Cup and the home games of the three clubs in the AFC Champions League, and this looks well within reach.

Clearly the J.League is firmly established in Japan's sporting world, but I cannot imagine the day when the authoritires here take the media for granted and scrap this glittering "one-stop shop".


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There's Something About JEF

28 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 27, 2008: First impressions can be misleading, especially before the start of a long campaign.

But there was something about JEF United Chiba at Fukuda Denshi Arena on Sunday that suggested this season might not be the struggle predicted by many after losing half their team in the winter.

There was an energy and a vibrancy about their play in the Chiba Bank Cup at home to Reysol, as if the players were out to prove a point.

Rather than the end of an era, it was more like the start of a new team, with opportunities for fresh faces.

After the game, new coach Josip Kuze acknowledged this factor, and reassured JEF fans that there was no danger of his team being at the bottom.

It might take some time, he said, but he had some good young players with a lot of potential and enough experience to build a "serious" team.

And, as anyone who was there could not fail to notice, they also have Eddy Bosnar.

At 1.91 metres and 88 kgs, the shaven-headed Australian central defender is a formidable sight, and packs a ferocious free kick with his left foot.

He endeared himself immediately to the JEF faithful in the crowd of 12,933 with some crunching tackles that seemed to surprise the Reysol players, and it will be interesting to see how referees react to his robust style this season. I hope they can differentiate between a foul and a hard tackle, and base their view on the challenge rather than the reaction of the rival player.

JEF, who have lost Mizumoto at the back and the midfield quartet of Mizuno, Sato, Hanyu and Yamagishi, will need Bosnar to paper over the cracks at the start of the campaign, as well as their experienced players such as Saito, prodigal son Sakamoto, the new leader Shimomura (my JEF MVP last year) and, when he is fit again, Maki.

In Maki's absence on Sunday, Kuze played a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Nakajima playing very deep in front of the back four, and Reinaldo the lone striker. One player Kuze has high hopes for is Kota Aoki, the Yasu High School product who started on the left side of midfield before moving up front.

Aoki, as we know from his days with Yasu and occasional J1 appearances, has a lovely left foot, and Kuze thinks he has the potential, at 20, to be a "great" player.

This is always the silver lining with JEF. Stars leave but their places are filled quickly, although admittedly not at the current rate of five at a time.

However, on the evidence of Sunday, when JEF missed six or seven injured players, the early signs are positive.


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Japan stay cool in Chongqing foul fest

25 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 23, 2008: Japan were winners on two counts against China in the East Asian Championship on Wednesday night.

First the result, a 1-0 victory away from home; second, the way Japan conducted themselves in a provocative, occasionally violent, environment.

The worst incident, of course, was the terrible foul by keeper Zong Lei on Michihiro Yasuda early in the second half. Immediately it happened my thoughts went back to 1982, and the brutal assault by West Germany keeper Schumacher on Frenchman Battiston in that epic World Cup semi-final.

The situation was very similar, as the player raced down the middle and flicked the ball past the onrushing keeper before being flattened.

Schumacher's was much worse, as it involved his whole body crashing into the player, and his reaction did not help as he waited, hands on hips, to take the goal kick, showing no concern for the stricken Battiston.

At least Zong was shown the yellow card, but surely if the referee deemed it a foul it must have been a red card. The Chinese keeper clearly aimed a mid-air kick at Yasuda with his right foot, the ball having already gone past him. It was deliberate and dangerous, and the Japanese camp had every right to be furious.

There were others, too, notably on Narazaki, who showed admirable restraint and sportsmanship to get up and get on with it when he could have reacted angrily or stayed down for several minutes after clumsy challenges by the Chinese.

Again I thought of Schumacher in that 1982 World Cup semi-final, when French winger Didier Six had the audacity to challenge him for a loose ball and felt the wrath of the arrogant German keeper. (On the subject of Harald 'Toni' Schumacher, his autobiography "Anpfiff", or "Starting Whistle", is an entertaining read, and highly recommended to Japanese fans and football historians).

Under the trying circumstances, with the Chinese players losing the match and losing their cool, the Japanese players emerged with credit for continuing to play the game, although they were guilty of the occasional theatrics.

All in all, though, it was a poor advertisement for football in general, and for football in this part of the world in particular.

Fortunately, a few hours later, our faith in the game was restored when switching on TV for the Celtic-Barcelona Champions League game. Now wasn't that a treat after the nonsense of Chongqing.


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An age-old problem in age-group football

21 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 20, 2008: Full marks to the Asian Football Confederation for punishing several national football associations for fielding overage players in an age-group competition.

North Korea, Iraq and Tajikistan have been fined and disqualified from this year's Asian Under-16 Championship following the results of MRI tests during qualifying, while five others who did not qualify -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan and Macau -- were fined.

This is a step in the right direction for the football authorities, but they have an impossible task to stamp it out completely due to the systematic abuse of the regulations.

It all reminds me of an incident during the Asian Under-19 Championship in Jakarta in 1994, when Japan lost in the final to Syria.

Behind the scenes, everyone was talking about which teams were "clean" and which ones were not playing by the rules; and it was clear from the physical appearance of several players that their passports did not tell the whole story.

I remember conducting an interview with a Syrian player after they had won their semi-final. We were sitting in the main stand of the vast national stadium, with an interpreter helping us out.

The interview went smoothly back and forth until I came to my last point, a routine check on the player's personal details.

"Can I just get your date of birth," I asked, with absolutely no ulterior motive.

For the first time the interview stalled, and the interpreter became involved in a discussion with the player. Clearly there was some doubt about it, and the pair were beginning to look uncomfortable.

Then I realised why, and I think they could sense my embarrassment. The interview had gone well, they were very friendly and cooperative, so I ended the matter by digging in my bag and finding a team list, complete with the date of birth of all players.

"Here it is," I said. "Is this right?"

They nodded enthusiastically before we shook hands and went our separate ways; crisis averted.

The Japan team, by the way, was captained by the playmaker Suguru Ito, who would go on to join Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Koji Kumagai, whose career with Kashima Antlers would be dogged by injury, was named Best Defender, despite playing in central midfield, and Susumu Oki was up front.

Oh...and there was someone else I remember vaguely on Japan's right wing who looked pretty decent. Now what was his name? Hidetoshi something...


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Yasuda gives Okada new option on left

18 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 16, 2008: These are still early days in the Takeshi Okada reign, and the East Asian Championship in China will give him the chance to learn more about his players and test his ideas in a competitive environment.

One area he will want to address is finding a natural left-footer to bring balance to the team, especially at the back.

So far he has been using Komano at left back, but the player is clearly more comfortable and more effective on the right.

Okada is not short of options on the right side, however, with both Uchida and Zico favourite Kaji available; so Komano finds himself on the left.

I am a big fan of Komano's, admiring his tenacity and his positive approach, and his robust frame makes him an awkward customer for opponents to deal with.

But he still looks like a temporary solution, a compromise, on the left, and the late call-up of 20-year-old Yasuda will give the coach another option.

Yasuda has risen quickly from youth team to Olympic team to national squad, and will surely win his first senior cap in China, where Japan will play three matches in seven days.

In Okada's 4-4-2 formation, the two full backs are expected to provide the width going forward, rather than the midfield players, so it is imperative that the left-sided player can ping over an accurate cross on a consistent basis.

Komano's delivery with his left foot is erratic to say the least, and if Yasuda can supply this it will add another dimension to Japan's attack and make them much more dangerous in the box.

There are other candidates, too, such as Alex when he regains full match fitness at Reds, and Komiyama at Marinos.

Another player with an excellent left foot is Seiji Koga at Vissel Kobe. Now 28, Koga was an inspired signing from Avispa midway through last season by his old boss Matsuda.

Depending on the team performances in China, if Okada is looking for an experienced stop-gap to bring a natural balance on the left flank, he could do worse than check out the former Marinos man Koga when the new season starts.


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Good news for Chiba, Terada

14 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 13, 2008: It was good to see two players in particular in Japan's Olympic squad so early in the season.

The first was Kazuhiko Chiba of Albirex Niigata; the second Shinichi Terada of Gamba Osaka.

Neither player was a key during Japan's tense qualifying campaign, but both are in a position now to force their way into the final 18 over the next few months.

Although Chiba is listed as a defender, he can also play in central midfield and certainly knows the game. This is clear in his every move, and his versatility is a big advantage with places so limited.

I remember last season Chiba having a fine game for Albirex against Reds at Saitama Stadium 2002, man-marking the man mountain Washington and emerging with great credit, despite his team's 1-0 defeat to a late Ponte cracker.

Washington was an expert in winning free kicks and penalties, as well as scoring goals, but Chiba stuck to his task, played with concentration and focus, and refused to be bullied by the burly Brazilian.

In short, Chiba showed some attitude to go with his talent, in the same way Mizumoto did for JEF when marking Juninho at Todoroki last season. This is always good to see in a young Japanese player, especially against an experienced and accomplished Brazilian striker.

As for Terada, I think he is a terrific prospect. He is quick, incisive and adventurous, with two good feet and an eye for goal. Gamba coach Nishino will demand more consistency from Terada this season as he tries to win a starting place in the silky smooth midfield, but his quality is not in doubt.

I feel that both Chiba and Terada have what it takes to jump from fringe member in 2007 to Olympian in 2008.

Regarding the national team for the East Asian Championship in China, it is the four strikers who have everything to play for.

With Okada's top three forwards -- Takahara, Okubo and Maki -- all missing, Bando, Yano, Maeda and Tashiro have the chance to impress.

Personally I hope Bando gets among the goals; he deserves to for wearing a short-sleeved shirt and no gloves when coming off the bench against Thailand in the Saitama snow last week...

Now that's what I call the Samurai spirit!


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Tsuboi offered something different in Japan's defence

11 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 9, 2008: Keisuke Tsuboi's decision to retire from international football was a big suprise.

The 28-year-old defender with 40 caps felt he had no future in the national team under Takeshi Okada so announced on Friday that he was going to concentrate solely on his club, Urawa Reds, from now on.

I watched Tsuboi training with the national squad at Inage in Chiba Prefecture last Saturday and he seemed in high spirits, but was left out of Okada's 18-strong group for the Thailand match on Wednesday.

The coach stuck with the Nakazawa-Abe partnership in the centre of defence, and preferred Mizumoto on the bench to either Tsuboi or Iwamasa.

One problem for Tsuboi is that Okada is playing with a back four, whereas the Reds defender is much more at home on the right side of a back three. In that position he can use his strengths, which are speed and his man-marking ability.

When Reds are on the attack there is no better player than Tsuboi to hold back and keep an eye on the opposing striker waiting to counter. With his pace and his anticipation in one-on-one situations, Tsuboi is very effective at cutting off those counter-attacks when danger threatens.

In this respect he offered something different to the national team -- but the rise and rise of Mizumoto has shunted Tsuboi further back in the queue for a place in Japan's defence.

Another Reds player not going to China for the East Asian Championship is Takahara, who has not been at his best in the Japan blue so far since his return from Germany.

But this will not be a concern for Okada as everyone knows what Takahara is capable of when he is in top condition, and the three matches in China will give the coach a chance to try a few combinations with his five forwards: Maki, Yano, Bando, Okubo and Maeda.


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Thai coach creates talking points

7 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 6, 2008: Now here's an interesting one for Japanese football fans, particularly Yokohama F Marinos supporters.

Who is the better player, Koji Yamase or Shunsuke Nakamura?

Thailand's coach, Chanvit Phalajivin, has no doubt. He thinks Yamase is better, and picked out the Marinos schemer as one of Japan's top players during a pre-training chat with a handful of media at Nishigaoka Stadium on Monday afternoon.

When asked which Japanese players impressed him the most, Chanvit gave the backbone of the team: Nakazawa, Suzuki and Takahara.

"But I also really like the player who scored two goals in their last game," added the Thai coach.

Yamase, pointed out the media.

"Yes, Yamase," said Chanvit. "I think he's better than Nakamura. He's young and has time to develop."

Which Nakamura, Kengo or Shunsuke?

"The one in Scotland," confirmed Chanvit.

Interesting...and quite a confidence-booster for Yamase.

I wonder what Takeshi Okada thinks? We will find out pretty soon as the World Cup qualifying campaign progresses and Nakamura (Shunsuke, not Kengo) returns to full match fitness with Celtic.

Chanvit made another interesting point regarding his own players, saying that many of them dreamed of playing in the J.League.

This would motivate them in the match against Japan, Chanvit said, hoping their talent would be recognised by J.League scouts.

It is a noble thought, and you would like to think there is a chance of a Thai player adding some spice to the J.League, but don't hold your breath.

As much as I would like to see more variety in the transfer policy of the clubs, what can a Thai player do that a Japanese can't?


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Yamase deserves starting place against Thailand

4 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 2, 2008: Coaches can often be led to an improvement in their team due to unforeseen circumstances.

Take the example of the Japan-Bosnia match the other night, when an early injury for Maki led to the introduction of Yamase in the 33rd minute.

Yamase was quick to make his mark, adding some zip and zest to Japan's plodding midfield. Sure enough, in the second half Japan went on to win 3-0, with Yamase setting up the first for Nakazawa and scoring the next two himself.

Surely the Yokohama F Marinos schemer has played himself into the starting line-up to face Thailand on Wednesday, probably at the expense of Kengo Nakamura on the right side of midfield. This would leave Suzuki as the lone "volante", Endo on the left and Okubo at the top of the diamond, behind Maki and Takahara.

I was very happy to see Okubo in the starting line-up against Bosnia, albeit in a deeper role behind the forward line. I wasn't sure if Okubo would be as effective in this position, as his chances against Chile had come by playing as an out-and-out striker.

But Okubo made some very good runs from deep against Bosnia which took him beyond the back line, and he was unlucky not to connect inside the box.

Certainly, with the workhorse Maki charging around after anything that moves -- he set up the clear shooting chance for Takahara against Chile, remember, by doing just that -- and with Takahara looking for space in the box, opposition defenders have plenty to keep them busy even before calculating Okubo's darting runs.

I also thought Yamase lifted the mood of the team and of the fans by being confident and aggressive, and by being prepared to shoot. Okada pointed out after the match that Japan had been too casual in the first half by trying to score the picture-perfect goal. Endo and Uchida were both guilty of declining to shoot when the goal was in front of them, instead opting to pass the ball and with it the responsibility.

This is not a new problem for Japan teams, but is still irritating and frustrating to say the least. Okada can get even tougher on this point by simply substituting a player in the future, or dropping him. Yes, I think it is that important at this level!

Looking ahead to the opening World Cup qualifier, Japan can win comfortably against Thailand if they play in a professional, business-like manner from the start. They must be aggressive. They must shoot. They must take an early chance and not let up.

This is the team I expect Okada to turn out: Kawaguchi; Uchida, Nakazawa, Abe, Komano; Suzuki, Yamase, Endo, Okubo; Maki, Takahara.


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Shunsuke struggles but still shows his class

31 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 30, 2008: One of the biggest decisions facing Takeshi Okada is what to do with Shunsuke Nakamura?

Will Okada make him a key player, as Zico did, or will he phase him out?

Will he be prepared to carry Nakamura for long periods of a match in exchange for one moment of brilliance that can win a game?

It is going to be very interesting how Okada uses Nakamura in the coming months, but first the player must return to full fitness.

Against Falkirk on Sunday, Nakamura looked anything but fully fit -- but then provided the cross that enabled Scott McDonald to head the only goal of the game in first-half injury time.

It was typical Shunsuke. He had been a passenger until this point, hardly touching the ball in his position out on the right of midfield.

Then, in the three minutes of stoppage time, he found space on the right side of the box, shaped to cross with his right foot but, of course, checked back on to his left, and then picked out McDonald's run with a gem of a cross.

"A perfect delivery for an easy finish," purred the commentator. In the second half, Nakamura teased the Falkirk defence with "an enticing free kick", and the commentator then hailed his "telling contribution" on being substituted on 67 minutes.

Still on the comeback trail from his injury lay-off, Nakamura looked rusty in open play and off the pace, but all he needs is one moment of quality to change a game.

This is what Okada must balance, but not for the moment as what the player needs most of all is match fitness. The Kirin Cup at the end of May and the four World Cup qualifiers in June, two home and two away, will give the coach the perfect opportunity to address the situation.

Staying with Celtic, the Mizuno transfer from JEF United has been completed finally -- and the No. 29 shirt with the famous green and white hoops is already available on the official website, at a big discount, too, seeing as we are halfway through the season.

With a three and a half year deal, Mizuno has time to settle and establish himself in Scotland. Who knows, by the time his contract finishes he may be able to work out the Glaswegian accent!


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Okada gets down to business

28 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 26, 2008: If Japan's players can replicate the performance of Takeshi Okada in his press conference on Friday evening, then things are looking good for the national team.

Here was a man who meant business. He was serious and determined, but relaxed enough to share a joke on occasions, and with the confidence to declare that he was very much his own man and would be doing things his way.

Clearly his break from the game has given him a fresh focus, and he looked an altogether tougher character than the former assistant coach who was in the right place at the right time when Shu Kamo was fired in 1997: Oka-chan the friendly salaryman has become Okada-san the company president.

It was clear from the training, too, that Japan will have a go, and be prepared to take the game to the opposition -- another change from the more conservative approach in his previous reign.

Okada has already said that he wants to create a new brand of football, a style that will make an impact at the 2010 World Cup, and to do this he will demand speed, stamina, aggression and, above all, team work from his players.

One player in particular who appears to have caught Okada's eye early is Mizumoto, the Olympic team captain and likely partner for Nakazawa in the centre of defence, should the coach play four at the back.

Mizumoto improved and matured rapidly at JEF United last season, playing so well that Gamba decided it was time to take him on board, and he has the character and personality on the pitch that Okada is looking for.

The same can be said of Okubo, a player with a bit of fire and attitude. Okubo has always been better than his scoring record for Japan misleadingly suggests, and hopefully his goals against Egypt at the end of last season will liberate him and lead to many more from now on.

The relationship between coach and players looks extremely professional, too, built on trust and mutual respect, and it is hard to imagine Okada tolerating any dissent in the ranks; or even confronting any.

Yes, Okada looks like a man in total control; a man who knows what he wants and with the plan to get it. As he said himself on Friday, at least he has some time to work things out before the opening World Cup qualifier against Thailand on February 6. This match, of course, is the first target, and the friendlies against Chile and Bosnia will point him in the right direction.


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Beijing can wait for Honda

24 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 23, 2008: Keisuke Honda is choosing a good time of his career to try his luck abroad.

The left-footed midfielder is still only 21 years old and, having signed a two and a half year contract with VVV-Venlo, has plenty of time to settle and develop in the Dutch league.

If he does well, he can expect to move to a bigger club in Holland, or to a bigger league in Europe.

And if it does not work out he can return home and rebuild his career in Japan, in the same way Umesaki did after his spell with Grenoble.

At 1.82 metres and 72 kgs, Honda has a good physique to cope with the Dutch league. He will find it more physical than in Japan, the tackles and aerial duels more robust and combative.

There is a saying back home that teams have to earn the right to play football -- meaning first they must dominate their opponents by playing harder, running more and being more aggressive. Only then can a team expect to turn on the style and play more attractive football.

This is the first lesson Honda will have to learn, and adapt to this new mentality and discipline, both tactically and technically.

On the technical side, there is no doubt Honda has a fine left foot. Who could forget his incredible free kick against Hong Kong in an Olympic qualifier, when his shot from the right swerved and dipped and flew into the opposite corner, leaving the Hong Kong keeper stranded.

This quality, of course, is a bonus, because there is much more to Honda's game than his set-piece expertise.

He was one of Sef Vergoossen's favourite players at Nagoya with his work on the left flank, and I remember the Dutch coach complaining bitterly after losing a league game last season when Honda was absent on Olympic duty -- and having every right to complain in my opinion.

With the emergence of Yasuda at Gamba, Honda is no longer an automatic choice for the Olympic team. But this should not concern him for the moment. His priority and his goal must be to establish himself at VVV-Venlo and be a success in Europe. Beijing can wait for the next few months.


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Keegan, Gamba, Shearer

21 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 19, 2008: The other day I wrote about JEF United being the "crisis club" of Japan.

The equivalent in England, though for different reasons, was Newcastle United. All that changed, however, with the appointment of Kevin Keegan as manager for the second time -- the "third coming" in total of the so-called "Geordie Messiah".

For Japanese students of English football and culture, a Geordie is a person from Tyneside. Keegan is not a Geordie as he was born nowhere near the River Tyne, and many Newcastle fans are not Geordies, either.

But Keegan is a hero for the Geordie masses, and his return has put a smile back on the faces of Newcastle fans around the world -- including me! The Magpies were a laughing stock at Old Trafford last weekend, losing 6-0. They were a parody of what is expected from a team wearing the famous black and white stripes, but now there is pride and hope again.

I actually remember Newcastle losing 7-2 at Old Trafford in a League Cup tie in the mid-1970s, but at least they were competitive in that particular game and the fans had no reason to feel embarrassed. (The result is still referred to in a Newcastle chant to this day: "We hate Man U, 'cos they beat us 7-2!")

On the subject of Keegan and Japan, I wonder how many Gamba Osaka fans were at the match against Newcastle at Banpaku in the summer of 1996. Keegan was the manager at the time, "Sir Les" Ferdinand scored a wonderful header in a 3-1 defeat, and the manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight, a certain Arsene Wenger, was watching from high in the stands.

I was reporting on the game for The Journal, the morning newspaper in Newcastle, and it came at the end of a three-match tour that started in Bangkok, continued in Singapore and ended at Suita City.

I must admit I was expecting a laidback assignment following the mighty Magpies around the Far East, and arrived at the team hotel in Bangkok to see Keegan rushing through the lobby, chased by fans. I introduced myself, but Keegan had more pressing business. "I'm sorry, I haven't got much time at the moment," he said. "We've just signed Shearer. We'll chat later."

Yes, Newcastle had just broken the world transfer record with a 15 million pound deal for Alan Shearer -- and he would be joining his new teammates in Singapore.

So much for my leisurely summer assignment!


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JEF Disunited Chiba

17 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 16, 2008: When will the torment end for fans of JEF United?

The new season is still over seven weeks away but already JEF "Disunited" are being talked of as relegation candidates after a winter of discontent between the two main backers, Furukawa and JR East.

Mizumoto (Gamba), Mizuno (Celtic), Sato (Kyoto), Yamagishi (Frontale) and Hanyu (FC Tokyo) are either going, going or gone, and the return of the versatile Sakamoto from Albirex is the only bright spot.

JEF are used to losing good players -- Yamaguchi, Chano, Murai, Abe -- but never on this scale, and to describe them as the J1 "crisis club" even in January is hardly an exaggeration.

Well, at least they have a new manager in Josip Kuze, the Croatian coach who led Gamba in 1996 and 1997, but how many players he will have when they report back for training is anyone's guess.

It is truly a sorry state of affairs for JEF, as everything seemed to be going so well with their two Nabisco Cup titles and one of the best stadiums in the league, Fukuda Denshi Arena, near Soga Station.

I remember chatting to one of the club officials outside the ground last season and he told me the number of season ticket-holders had jumped from 1,800 at Rinkai Stadium to 5,000, which was a remarkable feat for the club. And JEF were taking as many fans away as used to attend the home games at distant Goi.

With an attractive team to watch and some exciting players, JEF were on the up and up. But now it has fallen apart, and the departure of Hanyu to FC Tokyo is the latest bitter blow.

Hanyu has been an outstanding player for United, a player who typifies the Japanese qualities so admired by Osim. But his talent and potential were spotted long before that, by a former coach, Jozef Venglos, in 2002. This was Hanyu's first season at United out of Tsukuba University, and while the media buzzed about Abe, Venglos told me he had never seen a player improve day by day, match by match, as quickly as Hanyu. What a shame, Venglos said, Hanyu had been lost to university football for so many years before joining a professional club -- in his opinion six years too late.

Happy memories -- and that's all JEF fans have at the moment.


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Mizuno is hardly the new Nakamura

14 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 11, 2008: So Koki Mizuno is "the new Shunsuke Nakamura" is he?

Must have missed that comparison in the years I have been watching him for JEF, but inevitably this is how the Scottish media have been describing him recently over the Celtic connection.

I can't think of anything the two players have in common, other than that they are Japanese.

There again, I remember receiving a call from a newspaper in England a few years ago asking me if it were true that Akinori Nishizawa was as popular in Japan as Hidetoshi Nakata. The call was from the evening newspaper in Bolton, and they were very disappointed when I informed them that no, Nishizawa was not as popular as Nakata -- Hidetoshi or Koji (the joke was lost, I am afraid).

Mizuno is far from the new Shunsuke, although, admittedly, he is definitely Japanese.

Koki is essentially a right winger; a player blessed with natural speed and who likes to take his man on down the wing and ping over a cross. Sometimes he will go it alone, cut inside and have a shot himself, with left foot or right.

He can also play a more central role, buzzing about behind the front line and running at defenders through the middle.

So no, Mizuno is not at all the new Shunsuke. He is an altogether different player but who still has a lot to offer. In fact, if Celtic boss Gordon Strachan is looking for typical Japanese qualities, then Mizuno is more Japanese than Shunsuke, who is not quick but who, given time and space to operate, is a beautiful passer of the ball, and a set-piece specialist. During his time coaching in Japan, Steve Perryman once told me that "Nakamura could open a can of beans with his left foot" -- and this is probably true (but I would not like to taste them).

Nakamura's passing could work quite well with the pace of Mizuno down the right wing, should the deal go through.

More bad news for the suffering JEF fans, though.


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Gamba strike again with Lucas move

10 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 8, 2008: True to form, Gamba Osaka have been busy in the transfer market for an overseas player – but they have not gone far to sign him.

On this occasion their target – and their catch – was the experienced striker Lucas, all the way from FC Tokyo.

Like other imports before him, Lucas represents no risk for Gamba as he has played in the J.League for four seasons and is a proven, consistent goal scorer.

His haul of 48 in 120 league games is a solid record, and he should work well alongside the powerful Bare next season; Bare, himself, of course, signed from Ventforet Kofu.

Lucas is the replacement for Magno Alves, who left in disappointing circumstances, but Gamba went back to Brazil for the man to fill Sidiclei’s boots at the back, Mineiro from Internacional.

But back to the Gamba policy of signing successful foreign players from other J.League clubs. They monitor their record, they check their character on and off the field – and then they offer them more money and the chance to challenge for titles. Easy really, isn’t it?

I was debating this issue with a Japanese colleague the other day, but he took a very different standpoint.

He thought it was bad for Japanese football that clubs did not go overseas and sign new foreign players to boost interest in the league. He thought it would be more attractive for fans if they were constantly being offered new faces from exotic lands (meaning Brazil, of course, such is the lack of imagination of most clubs).

I found this view hard to understand, as surely it would mean clubs wasting even more money on players (and their agents) they knew nothing about: Premier League wages for non-league players.

In this context, therefore, I find Gamba’s policy quite reassuring and good business – and if other clubs complain they have “stolen” their best foreign players, they should give them two- or three-year contracts at the outset; although that, admittedly, is a massive gamble and expensive risk.

I cannot see how anyone can question Gamba’s policy.



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Total Football, Total Japan

7 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 5, 2008: Takeshi Okada is not exactly holding back in his comments since returning as national coach.

First he told the players his target is to achieve Asia's highest ever finish at a World Cup, meaning third place at South Africa in 2010.

Then, in his interview for New Year's Day, he said he wanted to play a brand of football that would leave its mark on the world game, in the way that the Dutch team of 1974 did with their Total Football.

My reading of those comments is that he is not trying to copy the tactics of master coach Rinus Michels, as this would mean Okada having to unearth a Cruyff, a Neeskens, a Van Hanegem, Haan, Krol, Rep.....the names still roll off the tongue and conjure an orange-hued dream, don't they! Rather, he wants Japan to play a unique style of football, based on speed, movement, passing, fitness and organisation. In other words, to perfect the style started by Osim and which was glimpsed on occasions at the Asian Cup.

This is bold and ambitious talk from Okada, setting the scene for an interesting year ahead during which Japan will face some tough tests on the long road to South Africa (a minimum of 14 matches to qualify, maximum of 18).

Against Thailand, Bahrain and Oman, Japan will have to take the initiative away from home as well as at home and force their football on their opponents. Not only this, they will have to add a sharper edge to their play, and be more ruthless and single-minded when the opposition goal beckons instead of passing the ball to death. This is why I feel Okubo could emerge as a major player this year, and why the news of Takahara's imminent return to the J.League, with Reds, is a massive bonus for Okada and the national team.

After all, why should Takahara -- or any other Japanese player for that matter -- waste their time on the bench in Europe, putting their international career in jeopardy, when they could be playing in front of 50,000 every home game at Saitama, or in packed grounds around the country? I am sure the return of Takahara will add a couple of thousand to every Reds away game, too, and the player will be under the nose of the national coach, his schedule in sync with the commitments of club and country.

It is a sensible move by Takahara, one that will benefit Japanese football as a whole in this critical year ahead...a year of Total Japan.


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Sanfrecce still scrapping

4 Jan 2008(Fri)

January 2, 2008: After the Antlers-Sanfrecce final on New Year's Day, a lot of the talk surrounded a player who wasn't even playing. Such is the stature of one of Japan's most exciting prospects, Yosuke Kashiwagi.

With relegation to J2, should Kashiwagi stay with Sanfrecce or accept a lucrative offer and move on? Kashiwa Reysol want him, and surely others, too.

Would his chances of progress in the Olympic team and national team in 2008 be damaged if he played in J2?

Naturally, the Three Arrows are hoping he will stay, as Kashiwagi is not only important on the field but off it with his marketability.

After the final, which Sanfrecce lost 2-0 without the suspended Kashiwagi, I had a chat with the club's managing director, Toyoharu Takata.

His view was that Kashiwagi should stay and play a full season in J2 -- 42 matches next season in the expanded 15-team division -- so that his game becomes more consistent.

"He is still very young so naturally his performance can be up and down," Takata said of the left-footed midfield wizard, who turned 20 on December 15.

"If he stayed with Sanfrecce I am sure he could close that gap over the course of next season so that his performance level is more constant."

There is logic and pragmatism in Takata's stance, and evidence that a season in J2 is not necessarily a backward step.

Just ask Gert Engels, the former Kyoto manager and now No. 2 at Reds, how much Park Ji-Sung improved during his season in J2 with Purple Sanga. The heavy schedule exposed the young Korean to competitive match situations on a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday basis almost every week, Engels says, and gave him an edge that training could never do. PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United would agree.

The situation for another Hiroshima hot property, wing-back Yuichi Komano, is different to Kashiwagi's, as he is already established in the national team. Vissel Kobe are keen to take him.

Takata, however, insists that national team coach Takeshi Okada has made it clear he would still pick Komano, and others, if they were playing in J2.

It's been a long fight for Sanfrecce in 2007 -- and they are still scrapping to keep their top players for J2. How many of these contests can they win?

A 1-1 draw looks a good bet.


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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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Yokohama FC have nothing to lose

29 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 27, 2007: Who would have thought that the J.League championship would still be on the line on the last day of the season?

It looked as though Reds would wrap it up early and be able to take a breather before the FIFA Club World Cup in the second week of December.

But here we are, in the final week of the season, and Reds still have to win one more game to guarantee a second straight championship.

On paper, of course Reds should beat Yokohama FC at Nissan Stadium on Saturday, but we have seen in the J.League that anything can happen on the last day of the season -- especially at that ground. Just ask Tatsuhiko Kubo!

Look at the match from the perspective of Yokohama FC. It is a wonderful opportunity for them to end a miserable season on a high note, and give their fans something to celebrate over the winter months before they return to J2.

They have nothing to lose, whereas Reds have everything to lose in terms of the championship and indeed their pride. After all, the fact that they won the Asian Champions League has made them an attractive target for all rivals, and this is additional pressure the Reds players will have to learn to live with.

It could have been even worse for Reds if Washington had been sent off against Antlers on Saturday. After being booked for a late challenge on Araiba in the first half, Washington went flying over Sogahata in the second half as they chased a loose ball.

It was touch and go whether he would be booked for simulation – sorry, for diving – and I would not have been surprised at all if the referee had shown him the yellow card, followed by red. There is no doubt Washington tumbled theatrically, twisting in the air, but what saved him probably was that he did not appeal for a penalty. I think he came to his senses as he hit the deck and decided to get up and carry on, realizing that if he pushed his luck a little too far it might backfire on him.

Anyway, it was good to see the angry reaction of the Antlers players. I must admit I love it when players are furious with rivals who dive and try and win penalties or free kicks. I don’t think there is enough of this in Japan (angry reactions I mean; there is plenty of the other).

If a player feels an opponent is trying to con the referee and trying to get someone booked or sent off, give him a piece of your mind! Tell him he’s a cheat. Let everyone in the ground know he’s a cheat. Embarrass him. Humiliate him. Then maybe he won't do it again -- well, at least until the next game.

About the Reds-Antlers match in general: a thoroughly professional performance by Antlers, just like the good old days. Lovely goal by Nozawa. Good spot by the referee for Tulio’s handball. Looked harsh at first, but the decision was spot on.

But why, oh why didn’t Soma shoot on his favored left foot in the second half instead of trying to pass to Washington inside the Antlers box?


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Toshihiro Aoyama – the unsung hero

26 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 23, 2007: It is usually quite easy to identify the stars of a successful team.

But in the case of Japan’s under-22s, where do you start?

As Philippe Troussier would have said proudly, “the team is the star” -- because that is so true of this generation of players, whose qualification for Beijing must be regarded as a major triumph.

While there may not have been any stars – is this a bad thing? -- there are certainly several unsung heroes who deserve praise.

One player in particular I would like to mention is the Sanfrecce midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama.

I thought he made a major contribution to Japan’s 1-0 victory at home to Qatar a few weeks ago when he came on as a substitute. He shows great awareness and anticipation, breaking up opposition attacks with a well-timed tackle or an interception. Nothing flashy; just good concentration and tactical discipline.

On Wednesday night, of course, he saved the day with that marvellous goal line clearance when the Saudis seemed certain to score. Had that gone in so early, then the match would have been very different.

I would have expected it to degenerate into a farce, with more gamesmanship and play-acting than anyone could tolerate as the Saudis held on to their lead. The stretcher would have been on every five minutes, and the goalkeeper would have stayed down after every corner and free kick sent into the Saudi box.

This is why it was so crucial for Japan not to concede the first goal – and why Aoyama’s contribution not only saved Japan but also saved the match from descending into chaos.

I also thought Hosogai had a fine game alongside Aoyama in the midfield engine room, giving Japan a bit of steel, experience and dynamism. He came into the game with confidence surging through him due to Reds’ successful season – and didn’t it show!

While their qualification for Beijing is a big success, this team is far from complete, and no one knows this more than Sorimachi.

But the coach has the basis of a well-organised, hard-working team, and a team that matured and toughened up considerably as the campaign went on.

This is enough reason to celebrate, without the need for individual stars.


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is so close – but still so far

22 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 20, 2007: The Olympic Games in Beijing are just one win – or one draw – away for Japan, ahead of their match against Saudi Arabia at Kokuritsu on Wednesday night.

Yes, it is tantalizingly close, but far from a formality as the Saudis know they will qualify with a victory.

This all makes Wednesday’s match a tense, fascinating contest, all these months of qualifying reduced to what amounts to a cup final – winner takes all, or a draw taking all in the case of Japan.

After their defeat in Qatar, Japan got it exactly right in Vietnam and won handsomely with a performance full of authority, experience and goals.

Coach Sorimachi was rewarded for his attacking line-up with four goals, two for Reysol’s lively Lee, one for Honda from the penalty spot and the last for Hosogai with a superb header.

Sorimachi took a risk by playing only one defensive midfielder in Aoyama of Sanfrecce, and pairing him with the attack-minded Kashiwagi, his teammate at Hiroshima.

With Mizuno on the right and Honda on the left giving the midfield balance and width, Lee and the strong-running Okazaki led the attack.

While the first goal was dreadful defending at a set-piece, the second was thanks to Honda’s industry and wonderful cross, met firmly by Lee for his second goal of the night.

On an off the pitch, Lee has character and personality, and is learning his trade well under the guidance of Franca, one of my favourite players in the J.League.

Japan, of course, hold the advantage going into Wednesday’s “final”, but it would be suicidal for them to defend and play for the draw. I am sure they won’t – as the first goal will be absolutely crucial.

Japan must play very cleverly and maturely, striking a balance between controlling the game but not pushing too much to win it and, in the process, leaving themselves open to the counter.


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Reds-Rossoneri: Finally (hopefully) a meaningful match

19 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 16, 2007: Everything went to plan at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night when Urawa Reds finished the job and became Asian champions.

And if everything goes to plan at the FIFA Club World Cup next month, then Japan will stage one of the most attractive games in the history of football in this country.

On Thursday, December 13, Reds could be facing Milan at Nissan Stadium, Yokohama, in the semi-finals of FIFA’s revamped club world championship – and wouldn’t that be a treat for the nation!

A proper match involving a Japanese club against a top world team; a match that means something from a competitive standpoint instead of another dreary tour/training game; a match that will be watched around the world; a match that will put Japanese football in the spotlight.

The Reds-Rossoneri fixture is not fixed yet, of course, because Urawa must first beat the winners of the play-off between Waitakere United of New Zealand and Sepahan of Iran. Anyone remember them?

Even before the AFC Champions League final took place, the Iranians were already guaranteed a return trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. Win the Champions League and they would qualify as Asian champions; lose, which they did, and they would enter the play-off as the “host” team – due to the FIFA rule forbidding two clubs from the same football association taking part.

Sepahan will surely defeat the Kiwis, who won the Oceania title by beating Ba of Fiji on the away goals rule after a 2-2 draw.

But just because Reds beat Sepahan in the Asian final does not mean they are certain to do it again. The carrot of playing Milan in the semi-finals would be a huge incentive for any club team, so Reds will have to do it all again when they play Sepahan or Waitakere at Toyota Stadium on Monday, December 10.

I am sure the Reds fans will travel in their thousands to Nagoya – and I am sure also that the Reds “brand”, following their ACL success, will have started spreading around the country; meaning strong support from that region, too.

It may be mid-November, but there is a long way to go yet before this football year is out.


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Consadole hanging on in J2 marathon

15 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 13, 2007: With all these mega matches around these days, it is difficult to know where to start this column.

So let's start at the top -- the top of J2, that is.

Under the former Omiya Ardija manager Toshiya Miura, Consadole Sapporo are approaching the finishing line of the long, long race for promotion.

After 46 of the 48 matches, Consadole have 87 points, two more than Verdy in second place. Kyoto Sanga FC are third with 81 points from 45 games, followed by Vegalta Sendai (80 from 45) and Cerezo Osaka (78 from 45).

The top two go up, the third-placed team plays the 16th-placed J1 team in the playoff, and at Sapporo Dome on Sunday, No. 1 meets No. 3...Consadole against Kyoto.

I caught up recently with "young Toshi" at Consadole's picturesque training ground at Miyanosawa. With Tudor House and the pink chocolate factory of (troubled) sponsor Ishiya on one side, mountains and even a windmill in the distance, it really is a lovely setting, especially in the bright sunshine of an early Hokkaido winter.

No wonder the manager was looking relaxed, despite the fact that his team resembles a marathon runner who has hit the front early, opened a huge gap and is now hanging on for dear life as the chasing pack breathes down his neck.

"I like living up here, you don't feel the stress," he told me, after the training session had finished and before he went on his daily 8-10 kilometre run round the pitch.

"Okada-san liked it as well," he added, referring, of course, to Takeshi Okada, who sought sanctuary in Sapporo after the madness of 1998.

Before the season started, I must admit I didn't think Consadole would be among the promotion candidates, with the likes of Verdy, Kyoto, Sendai, Cerezo, Bellmare and Avispa around.

"Me, too, I am surprised," said Toshi. "I thought maybe third or fourth would be good in the first season, and then next season we would be in a position to challenge. But we have been at the top since May and the players have handled it so well. They work hard every day."

They will need to keep working hard for a little bit longer. After Sunday's game against Kyoto, Consadole have a break until the last day of the season, December 1, when they are at home again, to bottom club Mito Hollyhock.


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Another smart move by Gamba

12 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 9, 2007: Gamba Osaka know when they are on to a good thing.

They have proved this with their foreign signings, taking tried and trusted players who have made their mark at a previous club in Japan – Sidiclei, Magno Alves and Bare. No risk there.

Now comes the news that they have agreed a two-year contract extension with their manager, Akira Nishino, taking him through to the end of the 2009 season.

This is a smart move by the club, a two-year deal rather than one; not least because if the JFA comes calling for Nishino then at least Gamba will be able to negotiate a decent settlement to release him.

This is, of course, if the wheels fall off Osim’s Japan. I am not saying they will, because I think Japan are on the right track under Osim, but you never know what will happen in this game, as Jose Mourinho would tell you. Nishino, I am sure, would be at the top of the JFA list next time around.

The club is very settled and established at the top now, having won the league championship in 2005 and now the Nabisco Cup.

There is a strong youth policy and they do not waste money on players who cannot add something to the squad. The rumours flying around at the moment, of course, have FC Tokyo talisman Konno lined up for a winter move to Suita City – which would not go down well with the Tokyo faithful but would be an excellent signing for Gamba.

Konno is very much in the Myojin mould: solid, dependable, giving everything he has got for the team and constantly driving them forward.

Philippe Troussier once paid the ultimate compliment to the former Reysol star by saying that his perfect team would include eight Myojins and three others who could add something a bit extra. Myojin would give you a merit mark of seven out of 10 every game, never six, the Frenchman said, and I think Konno does the same -- and frequently more. In fact on some occasions I have given Konno 10.5.

At the start of the season I tipped Gamba to win the league. With four games to go their chances are remote, but this is more down to the resolve and depth of Urawa than a failing on Gamba’s part. Gamba acknowledge this, too, hence the new deal for Nishino.


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Yasuda -- a new hero for Gamba

8 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 6, 2007: What a weekend for Michihiro Yasuda!

What a season, actually, as the 19-year-old left back/wing back has really emerged for club and country, at least at the age-group level.

Surely it will be only a matter of time before Ivica Osim promotes him to the senior ranks, as the national team needs a natural left-footer in there. At the moment Osim has two solid right-backs, Kaji and Komano, but the latter has been forced to play on the left due to the lack of an outstanding candidate.

I still like Komiyama at Marinos, and think he would be worth looking at, but Yasuda has come through the ranks at Gamba and through the national teams, playing for the under-20s in Canada this year and now in the under-22 squad pushing for Beijing.

Yasuda plays at a high tempo and likes to push forward, like many left backs. Roberto Carlos and Ashley Cole spring to mind, but the player he most reminds me of is the former England left back Graeme Le Saux -- there is the same "buzz" about him as he forages up and down the left flank.

Going back to the Japan-Qatar Olympic qualifier in Tokyo a few weeks ago, I thought the match was set up perfectly for Yasuda to come on in the second half -- not to replace Inoha at left back but to help him out further forward; bringing some balance to the team and forcing the Qatari right flank to retreat, as they were swarming all over Inoha. (Japan won 1-0 with 10 men, so Sorimachi was proved right in the end with his own selections.)

With three points now needed in Hanoi, maybe Sorimachi will put the in-form Yasuda in his starting line-up. After all, his confidence must be sky-high after being named New Hero of the J.League Nabisco Cup, and then MVP after his match-winning goal in the final.

He had a solid game on the left flank, going head to head with Frontale fruitcake Mori, who can be extremely dangerous when he is in the mood -- and dangerous to his own teammates when he is not.

For the goal, Yasuda, now pushing forward, was in the right place at the right time, just in front of Mori, to slide in and meet Bare's low cross from the right.


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J1 – a table of two halves

5 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 1, 2007: At this late stage of the season, many teams have nothing to play for in terms of winning a championship, winning promotion or avoiding relegation.

One such club is Vissel Kobe, but manager Hiroshi Matsuda still has a target he wants to achieve.

“Our aim is to finish in the top nine,” he said, after a 3-1 victory at Kashiwa had helped his cause considerably.

“There are two halves in J1 – the top nine and the bottom nine -- and our target at the start of the season was to be in the top half. This is what we are aiming for now, and we are close to it.”

Indeed they are, as they stand 10th with 41 points from 30 games, only two points adrift of ninth-placed Yokohama F Marinos with four games remaining.

Vissel are always busy in the transfer market, and a couple of mid-season recruits were on view at Kashiwa: the left-sided midfielder Seiji Koga and defensive midfielder Jun Marques Davidson.

As I touched on in an earlier column, Koga looks a fine acquisition, not only because he brings balance to the left flank but also because it allows captain Okubo to play up front. Okubo never looked right on the left side of midfield, did he, because he is first and foremost a goal-getter, a single-minded striker who is much more effective running at the heart of the defence and shooting.

Matsuda told me that Koga had been one of his favourite players at Avispa, and that he had tried to sign him and centre half Chiyotanda at the start of the season.

“He is a natural left footer, the first at the club,” Matsuda said of Koga.

As for Davidson, he did well for Omiya before falling out of favour with previous manager Toshiya Miura towards the end of last season, but his transfer to Albirex did not work out at all and he never got a kick.

Davidson came on for the second half at Kashiwa to anchor the midfield – anchor being the appropriate word in the watery conditions. His long-term future is still up in the air, but at least now he is getting some playing time.


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A splashing afternoon at Kashiwa

1 Nov 2007(Thu)

October 30, 2007: Who said a penalty shootout was a lottery?

Well, you weren't at Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Saturday afternoon for Reysol's home game against Vissel Kobe.

Now that's what I call a lottery!

It wasn't football as we know it, that's for sure; more like waterball on a pitch that was unplayable.

I arrived at 12.30pm, 90 minutes before kick-off, and the hardy Yellow Monkeys were already in place behind the goal, sheltering beneath makeshift blue covers. Very resourceful. The heavy rollers were fighting a losing battle trying to clear the deluge, and the floodlights were on for kick-off under heavy skies and heavy rain -- and getting heavier.

Even though the match would have been postponed in many other countries, my thought was...well, why not play? The conditions were the same for both teams, there were almost 9,000 fans in the ground, the TV feed was organised, and the logistics of a postponement for a mid-table game did not bear thinking about.

In fact it was quite interesting watching the game unravel. A good pass became a bad one, and a bad pass became a good one. The players had to think, adapt to the conditions and revise their technique -- the only danger they faced was drowning.

In the end, Vissel -- maybe they should be renamed Vessel Kobe for the way they mastered the water -- adjusted better, particularly Leandro. The Brazilian forward quickly worked out that you could actually pass to yourself, chasing down a ball that would stop in a puddle before the defender could react.

Leandro's first goal was a neat header to an excellent cross from Seiji Koga -- what a good signing he is by Kobe manager Hiroshi Matsuda, as it brings balance on the left flank and allows Okubo to play through the middle -- and his second was a wonderful finish under the circumstances, chipping the ball beyond Minami without breaking stride.

You had to feel sorry, though, for Reysol's Brazilian forward Franca -- an artist trying to paint another masterpiece on a soggy canvas that had been left out in a typhoon.


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The significance of the Saitama semi-final

29 Oct 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, October 26, 2007: How significant was Urawa Reds’ win over Seongnam in their AFC Champions League semi-final on Wednesday night?

According to industry sources, it was one of the most important results in the last 15 years in terms of Asian football development.

There is no doubt that Japan drives Asian football, off the pitch in terms of sponsorship, marketing and television, and on the pitch with the J.League and the various national teams.

However, one thing has been missing since the Asian Football Confederation merged the old Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners’ Cup and Asian Super Cup (which was contested by the winners of the first two competitions) into the AFC Champions League in 2002. That, of course, was a successful Japanese club.

All that has changed now Reds have booked a place in the Champions League final against Sepahan of Iran, and the marketing men feel that this has raised the profile of the competition to a new level overnight.

“Japan’s Asian Cup triumph in 1992…the launch of the J.League in 1993…Japan’s victory over Iran in 1997 to qualify for the France World Cup…and now Urawa Reds reaching the final of the Champions League. That’s how significant this result is,” said Nick Mould, Hong Kong-based president of World Sport Group’s North Asia operations.

This conversation took place in Tokyo the evening after events at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night, when the formal proceedings finally ended at 10 minutes past 10.

The match had everything, didn’t it, and was played in a terrific spirit, despite the intense rivalry between the two countries and what was at stake.

When the match kicked off the atmosphere resembled a national team game, and my thoughts drifted back to 1997 and the World Cup qualifier between Japan and South Korea at National Stadium. At one point it looked like the result would be the same, too, as the Japanese squandered a one-goal lead and trailed 2-1.

On this occasion, though, Hasebe rescued Reds and the Japanese (and Brazilians, coached by Germans) came through in a penalty shootout.

Germans…a semi-final penalty shoot-out…how could Reds lose that one?


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Lessons to be learned from Yokohama FC

25 Oct 2007(Thu)

October 23, 2007: No matter how inevitable relegation may be, it still hurts when the time finally comes.

That time came early for Yokohama FC, a 3-0 defeat at Kobe on Saturday condemning them to a swift return to J2 with five J1 matches still remaining.

Statistics don't lie, and they show that last season's J2 champions have been completely out of their depth in the top flight, winning only three times in 29 outings, scoring only 17 goals to date, and being stuck on a meagre 11 points since August 18.

Reysol, who came up behind them in second place last season, and Vissel, who won a play-off against Avispa to clinch promotion, have both fared much better than Yokohama FC, thanks to bigger budgets, a stronger balance of Japanese players and better foreign imports.

In J2, an ageing, wily Yokohama FC made few mistakes and played with control and consistency to cross the finish line first in the marathon season. But teams need a bit more than that in J1, and Yokohama simply did not have the pace or the depth in quality to make an impact. In short, they had come as far as possible, and there was nowhere else to go except down.

Not even a change of manager, Julio Leal for Takuya Takagi, could turn things round, or give them fresh impetus for a while, and relegation was confirmed as early as October 20.

At the start of the season it looked so promising for Yokohama FC, didn't it?

New recruit Kubo scored an early candidate for goal of the season with his blockbuster in a 2-1 defeat at Saitama Stadium on the opening day, and then came that incredible match at Mitsuzawa Stadium when the minnows beat the Marinos 1-0. There was a real derby feel to that game, and the contrast in the mood of the two sets of fans snaking their way down the hill from the ground to Yokohama station after the game was a true football moment.

That seems like a different year now, though, and it will be interesting to see how Yokohama FC react to the reality of relegation in their next match -- a massive one for the visitors to Mitsuzawa on Saturday, Omiya Ardija.


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Okubo provides another piece of the Osim jigsaw

22 Oct 2007(Mon)

October 19, 2007: It is a time for belated celebration, a time for quiet optimism, and a time for Yoshito Okubo to finally start making an impact at the highest level.

His two fine goals in the 4-1 defeat of Egypt on Wednesday were long overdue, coming in his 21st appearance for the national team since making his debut on May 31, 2003.

Admittedly, several of those appearances were restricted to only a few minutes as a substitute, but the pressure was building on him to deliver with each cap he received.

And now -- just like the public bus service in England -- you wait a long time, and then two come at once.

So good news for Okubo, who has improved overnight from no goals in 20 games to two in 21 -- an altogether healthier strike rate!

They say that one goal in three games is a decent return for a striker at this level, and Okubo is good enough to climb to that mark next year. Hopefully these goals will liberate him and he will continue to be aggressive and single-minded in his search for more.

It was Zico, of course, who gave Okubo his first chance, and talked him up a lot in 2003. But the goals did not come and he fell out of favour, missing his chance to make the 2006 World Cup squad.

Osim, too, was well aware of his qualities, but has made Okubo work and wait for his chances in the new set-up. Okubo started to repay that faith on Wednesday night and has put himself in the frame for a permanent place in the squad, but there is still tough competition in this department with the likes of Tatsuya Tanaka, Hisato Sato and Ryuji Bando.

Okubo fans, however, will feel that this is another part of the Osim jigsaw completed, another piece that fits the style and personality of the team. Apart from the result, then, this was a bonus at the end of the international year for Japan.


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Pixie -- a Grampus gamble worth taking

18 Oct 2007(Thu)

October 16, 2007: As soon as news broke that Dragan Stojkovic had resigned as president of Red Star Belgrade, his next destination seemed obvious.

Surely it would be Nagoya, due to his strong ties with the club and the fact that he is still regarded as a hero by the long-suffering Grampus fans.

Shortly after, it was out: Grampus had indeed approached "Pixie" about succeeding Dutch manager Sef Vergoossen, who had indicated he would be stepping down at the end of the season.

In football, one and one does not always equal two, but on this occasion the instant reaction to the Pixie story has, in fact, a lot of substance.

Hopefully the deal will be done and Stojkovic will return to Japan, as he is an extremely interesting and entertaining character, respected worldwide.

On the pitch I often thought he got a raw deal from referees, who would over-react to his explosive nature and show him a yellow card for next to nothing. His reputation went before him, and he could not let off a bit of steam without getting into trouble. And then more!

I wonder how he will be on the touchline? Calm and controlled, mature and responsible, or maybe like Buchwald and inclined to throw his suit jacket to the turf in frustration, disgust, anger, or all three?

One thing is for sure: the Grampus fans will adore him and regard him as the saviour, and the players will respect him and be inspired by him. All in all it makes sense for Grampus, who, let's face it, are desperate to be a force in the J.League year in, year out.

On a few occasions Vergoossen looked like he was on the right track, only for the team to take two steps backwards. He has had rotten luck with injuires, of course, especially to his defenders, but the season has fallen away badly after such a bright start.

In fairness to Vergoossen, he always said a top five finish would be good for this team, but they are unlikely to climb that high, while being well away from the danger zone.

Can Pixie turn it round? The club thinks it is a gamble worth taking -- and one guaranteed to boost the profile of the club on and off the pitch.

He would be a welcome return to the J.League, not just to Nagoya.


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Frontale were only trying to win the Champions League

15 Oct 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, October 12, 2007: The Kawasaki Frontale debate has been – and still is – an interesting one.

Were they right to rest most of their first-choice players for a league match at Kashiwa in between the two legs of their Asian Champions League quarter-final?

Or should they have fielded their strongest side against Reysol as a duty to their fans and to the rest of the J1 teams?

To me the answer is obvious.

Frontale were absolutely within their rights to do what they did, and no one should be telling them who to pick for any match.

In a way it is an insult to the Frontale players who did play to suggest they were not up to the required standard, as they are on the list of professional players and, therefore, available for selection.

In fact, looking through the Frontale team at Kashiwa on September 23, it is still a strong side, and would probably be good enough to stay in J1 if they played every week: Kawashima; Sahara, Kawamura, Ito; Igawa, Yabu, Taniguchi, Francismar, Ohashi; Ganaha, Kurotsu.

This is a good team, even though they lost 4-0 in a second-half collapse. If they had won, or drawn, would anyone have been complaining?

For me it showed how seriously Frontale were taking the Asian Champions League, something some other J.League clubs have not done in the past, contributing to Japan’s poor record.

And it is not as though Reysol were at the top of the table challenging for the title, or at the bottom fighting against relegation. In those circumstances, rival clubs may have had the right to complain. But, still, that is not Frontale’s problem.

They were doing what they thought was best for the club, and trying to win the Asian Champions League, so they should not be put in the dock for this.


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Terada shows true Gamba grit

11 Oct 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, October 9, 2007: Anyone doubting the resolve of Gamba Osaka to keep the pressure on Urawa Reds should have been at Hitachi Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

With the injured Bare off at half-time, and a goal down just six minutes into the second period, things looked bleak for Gamba.

But they managed to regroup, fight back in style and win 2-1 to collect another three points in their pursuit of the defending champions. After Reds won on Sunday, the gap between first and second remains at six points, but with six games remaining the title can still be won and lost.

Two of the three goals at Kashiwa on Saturday were top quality; first as Franca fired Reysol into the lead with a sumptuous, first-time right-foot shot which curled inside the post. Great work, too, from Tadanari Lee, cutting inside from the right flank before laying the ball off for Franca to strike home. These two work well together, and Lee could not have a better teacher in the art of the deep-lying centre forward.

Gamba’s equalizer was also a beauty, as Bando rose to meet Kaji’s pinpoint right-wing cross and send a powerful header past Minami.

As for Gamba’s winner? Well, it looked a harsh penalty call for me as Terada swept into the box and tumbled under challenge, and an unnecessary yellow card for Ryo Kobayashi, the right back.

Endo allowed the rumpus to die down before scoring another of his trademark penalties. He makes it look so easy when, of course, it is not, but it needs nerve, self-confidence and a sound technique to succeed with such a nonchalant approach.

The Gamba player who really impressed me on this particular afternoon, though, was the aforementioned Terada. Yet another product of the club’s youth system, the 22-year-old attacking midfielder stepped up a gear in the second half and popped up all over the place, be it crossing, dribbling or shooting. I thought he was the driving force of the Gamba comeback, and his more established teammates responded to his adventurous play.


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Chiba stands out for Niigata

8 Oct 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, October 5, 2007: A few weeks ago I bumped into Washington in Omiya one evening and had a quick chat.

I asked him who were the most difficult Japanese defenders he had come across, and he said Nakazawa first and Iwamasa second.

Now, there is a good chance he would add Kazuhiko Chiba of Albirex Niigata to the list.

Chiba had a fine game for Albirex against Reds at Saitama Stadium 2002 recently. Still only 22, he was asked to man-mark Washington in his own back yard – not the most pleasant of tasks on a Sunday afternoon.

And Chiba did just that in a performance that really caught the eye.

As we know, Washington did not score because he came up against an opponent who showed a lot of character and fight, as well as concentration in treacherous playing conditions.

Like Mizumoto, Chiba has a lot of personality as a player, and is not prepared to be intimidated by a high-profile Brazilian striker.

Like Inoha, Chiba plays with a maturity and composure beyond his years and inspires the players around him with his cool authority.

Like Abe, Chiba looks good at the back or in central midfield, where I saw him earlier in the season against Omiya at Komaba.

In short, Chiba is a natural football player, already with experience in Holland but still establishing himself in the J.League following his debut for Albirex in May 2006.

At 1.83 metres and 74 kgs he has a good physique, two good feet, a good footballing brain and a bit of attitude to go with it. One minute he was displaying his skills by bringing the ball out of defence; the next he was denying Washington with a fearless, perfectly timed block.

In these Osim days of versatility and adaptability, do not rule out Chiba from forcing his way into the national coach’s plans.


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Sakuma sets tough target for Ardija

4 Oct 2007(Thu)

October 1, 2007: Recent victories over Reds at Saitama Stadium and now Marinos at Nissan Stadium suggests a team challenging for the championship.

But no; we are talking about Omiya Ardija, who, despite these two eye-catching results, occupy the second automatic relegation place of 17th with just 24 points from 27 games.

When asked what his target was to guarantee safety, manager Satoru Sakuma said 40 points -- meaning five wins and a draw from the last seven games.

This is a big ask of his players, but Ardija's opponents include fellow strugglers Sanfrecce at home, Yokohama FC away, Oita at home and Kofu away.

What's more, they will finally have their own home stadium at Omiya Koen back on line for the November 11 clash with Trinita, following redevelopment.

One thing is for sure, Sakuma will be glad to leave the Komaba cow field behind, and play on greener pastures.

"Many of my players are small and technical. This is why we can win at Saitama against Reds and at Nissan Stadium against Marinos, on good pitches. At Komaba you cannot play football because of the pitch. It is just a physical battle," he said.

After the previous week's 1-0 debacle at home to JEF, Omiya lifted their game and their motivation several notches to score two excellent goals and win 2-0 against Marinos.

J.League journeyman Takashi Hirano -- one of the original Nagoya Grampus Three bad boys -- was roundly jeered by the Marinos fans before kick-off, and he provided the best answer with a flying header at the far post. It was Hirano's second appearance for Ardija, whom he joined on May 21 but suffered a knee injury on his first day of training and was out for two months.

"Good personality, experienced professional, gives 100 per cent in training every day. I believe in him," was Sakuma's assessment of the former Marinos man.

Yoshihara scored the second, cracking a right-foot shot on the run past a startled Enomoto -- and continuing his run all the way to the Omiya fans behind the goal. At the vast Nissan Stadium, that is approximately two kilometres, so full credit here to the referee, Joji Kashihara. He allowed Yoshihara his moment of glory, all the time looking at his watch but not showing the yellow card. Commonsense refereeing this.

Funnily enough, in the four minutes of stoppage time, Yoshihara got himself booked anyway for pulling back Nakazawa!

Well, you can't win 'em all...

For Sakuma, five out of seven will do nicely.

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In defence of Frontale forward Jong/Chong

1 Oct 2007(Mon)

September 28, 2007: Hopes of an all-Japan final in the Asian Champions League have been dashed with the elimination of Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki on Wednesday night.

I must admit I feared the worst before the penalty shoot-out, as everything pointed to a Sepahan win. Frontale had dominated the match but failed to capitalise on several clear-cut chances, while the Iranians would have settled for a shoot-out even before the second leg kicked off.

Under such circumstances, Sepahan had nothing to lose, while Frontale were now under more pressure to finish a job they had started in Iran but could not quite manage at home.

So full credit to Sepahan. They had ridden their luck, and survived due to a combination of fine goalkeeping from Abbas Mohammadi and some wasteful finishing from Frontale, notably Juninho. Against the big, strong, occasionally violent and frequently cynical Irainian defenders, Juninho looked much smaller and lightweight than usual, but his speed and eye for an opening still got him into some decent scoring positions as Frontale poured forward.

With the swashbuckling Jong Tae Se (or Chong Tese if you prefer) alongside Juninho up front, it is not hard to see why Ganaha cannot get a look-in at the moment, and must settle for a few minutes off the bench.

A few words in defence of Jong/Chong.

In extra time, several Iranian players accused him of using his elbow in an aerial duel with centre half Hadi Aghily. He didn't. It was his head. He was a little bit late into a challenge, but it was not malicious, it was just...well, Korean.

From the theatrical reaction of Aghily's teammates, the blood must have been flowing freely, and they urgently beckoned the doctor/physio/stretcher bearers to come on.

This is when the referee is in a difficult position. Is the player really hurt, or is he faking like many of his teammates before? On this occasion he was hurt, but who could blame the ref for waiting a while because the Sepahan team had cried wolf so many times?

The Iranians accused Jong of using his elbow, and were trying to stir up trouble, but he didn't -- and, in his own defence, he pointed to his head when confronted by an irate Sepahan defender on the resumption of play.

So, in the absence of Frontale, good luck Reds!

In terms of fan base, Reds have an incredible success story to tell Asia and the world, and hopefully they can do it in the Champions League to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, regardless of where they finish in the J.League.

Even Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was impressed with the sheer volume of Reds fans, commenting that, outside the top 10 teams in the Premier League, Reds had as good a following as anyone in England.

Top 10? So many?


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Bad game, good game at Komaba, Ajista

27 Sep 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, September 25, 2007: Two strange games at the weekend.

On Saturday I headed for Urawa Komaba Stadium and the Ardija-JEF United match. Played on a poor surface, the game was a terrible advert for Japanese football.

It was hard to believe that Omiya were fighting for their J1 lives, as the match resembled a pre-season kickabout or an end-of-season affair with nothing at stake for either team.

JEF won 1-0 with a goal from Saito, but their failure to add a second against 10 men in the second half was a major concern for manager Amar Osim. In the end JEF had libero Nakajima to thank for the clean sheet, first with a timely interception in his own goal mouth, and then with a fine tackle just outside the box.

But overall it was a poor spectacle, with too many passes going astray and few moments of inspiration or coordination.

Sunday at Ajista was much, much better, FC Tokyo against S-Pulse.

There was only one team in it for a while – and it wasn’t the home team.

S-Pulse, one of the biggest Japanese teams I have seen, started really well, looking bright, confident and well-organised.

Then suddenly they were 2-0 down.

The first Tokyo goal was an own goal, scored by the unlucky Kazumichi Takagi as he met Ishikawa’s cross from the right with a diving header into the far corner. All credit to Ishikawa, though, as his cross, clipped in early and on the half-volley, was a beauty.

As was the finish shortly after by Akamine, who drilled a left-foot half-volley inside the near post after an incisive run into the box from Fukunishi.

From being in control of the game, S-Pulse were now in trouble and staring defeat in the face. It was incredible how quickly the game had changed, and Tokyo never looked likely to let them back into it thanks to the driving force of Konno.

Konno, happily back in central midfield after his stint alongside Fujiyama in the centre of defence, is always my MVP – and that is before the game even kicks off. It is up to someone else to play better than Konno to win my vote, and it is rare that anyone does.


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Two good results – but quarter-finals are far from settled

24 Sep 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, September 21, 2007: Both Japanese clubs achieved satisfactory results in the first leg of their Asian Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday night.

Reds won 2-1 at home to Jeonbuk, Motors, while Frontale came back from Iran with a 0-0 draw against Sepahan.

Reds were the better team for long periods against the Koreans, who looked uncharacteristically sluggish and distinctly second best in all aspects of the game.

Until, that is, Robson Ponte went off with 10 minutes to go. This is when I thought Reds lost the initiative and the momentum, and Jeonbuk were able to raise their game and snatch one at the end against a Reds team that had started to panic.

Still, as manager Osieck said, Reds won the match – and he insisted they would be aggressive in the second leg. Even though a 1-0 victory for the Koreans would be enough to get them through to the semi-finals on the away goals rule, Reds surely have enough firepower to score again.

As for Frontale, they still have a lot of work to do against Sepahan at Todoroki.

A goalless draw away from home in the first leg was a good result for Frontale – but it must be remembered that it was not a bad result for Sepahan, either.

In the first leg, the home team did not concede a goal, and this could prove crucial in the return.

While Frontale will start as favourites, the Iranians remain extremely dangerous because if they score once, then Frontale will need two. The first goal at Todoroki will be vital, and Frontale must be careful they do not get caught on the counter if they try and kill the game too quickly.

It will be interesting to see Frontale’s tactics; whether they go for broke from the start and risk conceding a goal, or whether they play patiently and conservatively in trying to unlock the Sepahan defence. As I said before, a 0-0 draw at home for Sepahan in the first leg is far from a bad result, as the pressure will be on the home team in the second leg to force the pace.

On the face of it, the first-leg results looked good for Japan – but a lot can still happen in the second 90 minutes.


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Trinita Tales: late substitution brings Oita downfall

20 Sep 2007(Thu)

September 18, 2007: The match is deep into injury time; the visitors are winning 2-1 and have made only two substitutions.

Guess what happens next?

That's right. There is movement on the visitors' bench, the board goes up and they want to replace the No. 11, a left winger, with No. 2, a central defender.

The No. 11 walks off as slowly as possible, eating up a few more precious seconds, and the No. 2 runs towards his own goal, where his team is defending a corner.

The ball comes over, the heads go up, the net bulges and the home team has grabbed a dramatic equaliser for 2-2. The away team kicks off and the full-time whistle blows.

Was the away team just unlucky, trying to bolster their defence for the corner?

Or did they get their just deserts for blatantly running down the clock and trying to spoil the rhythm of the match by making a meaningless substitution?

However you may view this "tactic", I feel that the move by Oita Trinita manager Chamusca backfired on him big-time against Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki on Saturday evening.

The match was 1-1 as we entered three minutes of additional time, but Oita substitute Teppei Nishiyama quickly changed that by shooting home left-footed into the bottom corner for 2-1. Cue mayhem from the Oita fans behind the goal, the players and bench, who celebrated as if they had won the World Cup.

Frontale, naturally, pushed for a second equaliser, and forced a corner on the right. At this point, Chamusca tried to change Shingo Suzuki (11) for Takashi Miki (2), but the referee waved play on.

Oita defended the corner, but in doing so conceded another, this time on the left flank. Now Oita made the change. Ohashi, a Frontale substitute, swung over the kick, and Igawa, another Frontale sub, headed home with the Oita defence all at sea; 2-2. Restart. Final whistle. Cue Oita players dropping to the Todoroki turf Doha-style.

I can't help thinking that Chamusca shot himself in the foot with that late move. His team were focused, they were defending what was surely Frontale's last chance, and they were ready to attack the corner and clear their lines.

Then everything stopped for a few seconds as the change was made. Did they lower their guard and lose concentration, handing the initiative to Frontale?

I think this played a part in the equaliser, so the change actually worked in Frontale's favour rather than Trinita's.

Looking back, I am sure Chamusca must wish he had just kept playing and trusted his team's ability to hold on.


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Sorimachi’s team continues to improve

18 Sep 2007(Tue)

Tokyo, September 14, 2007: That was a vital win for Japan against Qatar in their Olympic qualifier on Wednesday.

An impressive one, too, considering they had a man sent off after 68 minutes and were up against a fast, strong and determined opponent.

Although I was not confident of Japan qualifying for Beijing in the early stages of the campaign, there is no doubt they are improving and looking more dynamic, more united and more business-like.

Now, with seven points from three games, they are in a good position to win the group, even with two away games coming up next.

Once again Sorimachi is going to have to make changes, because Takuya Honda is suspended for the next game and Kajiyama is injured. That rules out the coach’s first-choice pairing in the midfield engine room, so what is he going to do?

The first move is simple: He brings in Toshihiro Aoyama to replace Honda as the midfield anchor. I thought Aoyama made a big contribution to Japan’s 1-0 victory on Wednesday after coming on for Kajiyama in the 56th minute, particularly with his interceptions and tackles as Qatar surged forward.

I wonder, then, if Sorimachi might move Inoha into the center of midfield, giving Japan a very solid base for the two away games. After all, Keisuke Honda will be available again after missing the Qatar game through suspension, and he could easily slot into the left side of the new-look four-man defence.

Inoha found himself in the eye of the storm in the second half against Qatar, and was hanging on for grim life in his unaccustomed role of left back. I thought Sorimachi might bring on Yasuda and play him in front of Inoha to bolster Japan’s left flank, as the more attack-minded Ienaga was drifting and offering little protection.

Instead, the coach took off Mizuno and switched Ienaga to the right flank, where he played exceptionally well in the closing stages by keeping the ball and leading the counter-attack. This was the best passage of play I have seen from Ienaga, as he cut out the crowd-pleasing flicks and the show-boating and played solid, percentage football when the team really needed him to.

Another substitute, Kobayashi, was sent on to strengthen the midfield, although I have no idea why he preferred to roll around on the ground holding his face in the closing stages when he should have jumped up immediately and helped his team defend their slender lead. Did he expect the game to stop just for him? It didn’t, and Kobayashi had no option but to get up and run back, rather sheepishly.

This is a really bad trend at the moment, and something coaches should stamp out among their own players -- especially when they are already down to 10 men.


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Two points lost for Saudis, not Japan

13 Sep 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, September 11, 2007: One point gained or two points lost?

That is the question being asked after Japan’s 0-0 draw away to Saudi Arabia in their Olympic qualifier on Saturday.

Before the game, a goalless draw would have been regarded as a good result, but when the Saudis were reduced to 10 men on 63 minutes, the tide turned in Japan’s favour. Unexpectedly, Japan now had a good chance to take all three points.

They could not manage it, but this does not mean the 0-0 result should be taken as two points lost.

I still regard it as a satisfactory result away from home, and sets Japan up nicely for a crack at Qatar on Wednesday night.

Teams having a man sent off can often lift their game. They feel hard done by, they run more for each other, they move up a gear in motivation as they will be regarded as heroes if they can hold on to what they’ve got, or do even better.

I thought the Saudis did this, and played well with 10 men, but they will still view the match as two points lost, not one point gained at home.

Sorimachi’s selection was interesting, not just for dropping Hirayama but also for bringing in Uchida on the right flank and moving Mizuno further forward, alongside Ienaga and behind the lone striker Morishima.

Uchida played well, as he has done all his career at Kashima, but Mizuno was less effective in this more central role. I must admit I prefer to see Mizuno bombing up the right flank, taking defenders on his with pace or cutting inside and letting fly from distance.

It was reassuring to see Inoha back from injury at libero, although Sorimachi retained Mizumoto as his captain. The back three of Aoyama, Inoha and Mizumoto must be as good as it gets in this final stage of Olympic qualifying, and the problems for Japan lie further forward; not in scoring goals but in controlling the midfield.

Sorimachi must now decide whether to restore Mizuno to the right flank at the expense of Uchida, and bring in a second striker alongside Morishima for the home game against Qatar.

Japan are still on course for Beijing with four points from two games, but they need all three against Qatar at Kokuritsu with their next two matches away from home.


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Tough target for women's team at World Cup

10 Sep 2007(Mon)

September 7, 2007: There can't be many Japan teams who have gone into a World Cup fresh from a 2-1 victory over Brazil.

But that is the case of the women's team, "Nadeshiko Japan", who open their FIFA Women's World Cup campaign against England in Shanghai on Tuesday, September 11.

Thanks to the generous support of Kirin, Japan were able to play two warm-up matches in recent days, against Canada at Kokuritsu and against Brazil at the home of JEF United, Fukuda Denshi Arena.

I attended them both -- but, sadly, the crowds were sparse -- less than 2,000 at National Stadium on a Thursday evening and just over 4,000 at Fukuare on a lovely Sunday afternoon.

The fans who did turn up, though, were really into it, and there is a very positive vibe around the women's team in general.

It's also a good time to be a member of the women's football scene in Japan, as the JFA is clearly sparing no expense in the development of this area of the game.

In his programme notes for the games against Canada and Brazil, JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi says: "Of all Japan's national squads, only Nadeshiko Japan can be considered close to achieving world-class status. Make no mistake -- Nadeshiko Japan's breakthrough will have a significant and lasting impact on other Japanese national teams."

Strong words indeed from the Captain, who states the target for the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics is the semi-finals, and long-term to be in the world's top five by 2015. (They are 10th at the moment).

This is a big ask by Kawabuchi and the JFA, especially for this World Cup and next year's Olympics, and I hope it will not be regarded as a failure if they don't make it.

Several people have been asking me about the strength of Japan's first opponents in the Women's World Cup, England. I have to admit I haven't got a clue.

I like women's football but I don't go out of my way to see what's happening in England. I couldn't even name you one big girl who plays in the England team -- apart from Emile Heskey.

As luck would have it, I stumbled across a dusty copy of the pocket-sized football bible "Playfair Football Annual 2004-2005" the other day. Under the category of "Other Football" there was a whole chapter on "Women's Football". Well, not a whole chapter actually, but the bottom half of Page 329, under news on the English FA Academy Under 17 League.

Arsenal had won the women's league in 2004, one point clear of Charlton Athletic, and Arsenal won the cup, too, beating Charlton 3-0 in the final at Loftus Road, home of QPR. The crowd was over 12,000, and Fleeting scored all three for the Lady Gunners -- a headline writer's dream if ever there was one.

The women's game is growing around the world, and Japan is determined not to be left behind, so good luck to them in China next week.

I am looking forward to their matches against England, Argentina and Germany in Group A, and I hope many others are too.


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Cho keeps S-Pulse racing forward

6 Sep 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, September 4, 2007: What a difference a goal makes, especially when it comes in the fourth minute of injury time in a local derby.

The clock was almost on 94 minutes when Cho Jae Jin stooped to meet the expertly taken free kick of Jungo Fujimoto and head the only goal of the Shizuoka derby at Ecopa on Saturday.

The goal sparked wild scenes of celebration, as Cho removed his shirt and threw it into the S-Pulse fans behind the goal. That was a great sight to see – and the tattoos were pretty impressive, too.

The repercussions were severe. Jubilo’s manager and former defensive anchor, Adilson, resigned in the wake of the 1-0 defeat, and the club must once again try to recapture the glory of yesteryear under a new manager, Atsushi Uchiyama, an in-house promotion. But not this season, as Jubilo are in J1 no-man’s land, ninth place with 34 points.

As for S-Pulse, they just won’t go away will they?

Kenta Hasegawa is doing a fantastic job with limited resources, and his team is packed with exciting young talent in all areas of the field. In central midfield, Ito – rated the best midfield player in Japan by Steve Perryman all those years ago -- holds it all together; there is Brazilian flair in the extravagant skills of Fernandinho, plus the strength and quality of Cho up front.

Although S-Pulse lie fourth with 44 points, eight behind Reds, they cannot be regarded as title challengers just yet. Not even dark horses, as that tag must surely belong to Kashima Antlers, who were simply irresistible in crushing Frontale.

But with another season of experience behind them, S-Pulse should be ready in 2008 to have a crack at the championship.

Their regional rivals Jubilo, meanwhile, must start again – again.

As I said, what a difference a goal makes.

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Passion, emotion and quite a bit more at Todoroki

3 Sep 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, August 31, 2007: FIFA president Sepp Blatter is always talking about football being a game of passion and emotion.

Sef Vergoossen, the forthright Dutch manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight, showed plenty of this the other night at Todoroki – and was promptly dismissed from the dug-out.

Personally, I felt Vergoossen was hard done by, not once but twice.

First, his left-winger Honda was extremely unlucky to be shown a yellow card for a perfectly legitimate attempt to get to a loose ball in the Frontale box. I thought Honda had every right to challenge for the ball, and even a free kick for a foul would have been debatable.

But a yellow card?

And it was Honda’s second of the night, so out came the red and he was off after 68 minutes.

Vergoossen, with his team leading 1-0 and looking good, was furious with the decision – and let everyone know. I am not sure which language he was using, but it didn’t really matter. It could have been Swahili and the message would have got through.

So Honda is off, the match is back on, and we could all sit back and watch Frontale try and equalize and watch Grampus invent even more ways to waste time.


One of the linesmen thought it necessary to draw the attention of the referee to Vergoossen’s colourful language, and the referee responded loyally by sending off the coach. This only exacerbated the problem, and prompted a fresh round of abuse and another delay when everything seemed to have settled down.

Fair enough, Vergoossen laid it on as thick as his moustache – more passion and emotion than Blatter could shake a stick at.

But surely a more appropriate course of action for the linesman would have been just to ignore it, let the game go on and maybe feel a bit of sympathy for the coach considering he had just lost one of his best players in dubious circumstances. It would have all died down, at least until the final whistle, but now it all flared up again.

I know the match officials have to endure way too much abuse in football, but there are occasions when they can cut someone some slack in the heat of the moment.

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Arrows pointing upwards for Sanfrecce

30 Aug 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, August 28, 2007: Even without suspended goal machine Ueslei, Sanfrecce Hiroshima were a good match for Yokohama F Marinos in a 2-2 draw at Nissan Stadium on Sunday evening.

I particularly liked their midfield four of Komano on the right, Toda and Aoyama in the middle and Hattori on the left.

Komano and Hattori not only provide natural width going forward, they also cover the flanks for the three-man defence, which was anchored by the former JEF favourite Stoyanov.

With Toda, in his 2002 World Cup position of central midfield, and current Olympic team player Aoyama alongside in the engine room, the team looked compact, balanced and flexible in their 3-4-2-1 formation.

The “1” was Hisato Sato, whose running into the channels behind the Marinos back four caused problems all night for the home defence. Sato really is a bright and inventive player, a natural finisher in the box but much more than that around the pitch.

Thanks to the four players strung across the middle, Kashiwagi and Koji Morisaki could feel free to support Sato in attack – and both of them scored a goal by doing exactly that.

Kashiwagi is making his mark in Japan this season, graduating from the youth team to the Olympic team and establishing himself in the top flight. He is still only 19, though, and cannot be expected to turn it on match after match, even though fans look forward to his next goal celebration.

I wrote recently about his left-footed masterpiece in open play from the edge of the box against Vissel Kobe, as that goal marked him out as a player with special talent. Let’s hope he keeps working hard, keeps growing and keeps a smile on his face, as he is a breath of fresh air in Japanese football.

Even though Sanfrecce are only five points clear of the play-off place of 16th, I cannot see the Three Arrows being dragged into the relegation dogfight on the evidence of Sunday night.


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Japan bounce back with encouraging victory

27 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 24, 2007: Japan coach Ivica Osim and fans of the national team could not have asked for much more from the first game since the Asian Cup.

A home win against a good team, a couple of excellent goals, and no signs of any post-traumatic stress disorder on the return from Vietnam.

Perhaps it was significant that both goals in the 2-0 victory against Cameroon were scored by players who were not in the Asian Cup squad: Tulio because he was injured and Koji Yamase because he was not selected.

Tulio was sorely missed in the Asian Cup, and showed exactly why with his clever first-half header. The big central defender makes things happen, rather than waits for them to happen.

Too often in Hanoi I thought Japan were too passive -- with the emphasis on "pass" -- and did not force the pace, especially in the opening game against Qatar. This is why Tulio's return was so noticable, and I would still like to see Osim appoint him captain because of these leadership qualities and his ideal position on the pitch to influence the team.

As for Yamase, he has been on fire this season for Marinos, and his return to the squad was widely predicted. His goal was a gem, and brought a big smile to the face of Osim. Not only did he have the confidence and the will to shoot first time from the edge of the box, he also had the technique to pull it off. The result was a spectacular strike that drew gasps of admiration from the fans watching the match on the big screen at the National Stadium in Tokyo, before the Japan-Vietnam Olympic qualifier.

Without the Europe-based players, and with a few fresh faces around, it definitely looked like the start of stage three of Osim's rebuilding programme. There was more pace, solidity and energy about the team, as the likes of Okubo, Maeda and Tanaka tried to make their mark. Yamase certainly did, with his wonderful goal.

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Olympic team must keep it simple

23 Aug 2007(Thu)

August 21, 2007: The final qualifying round for the Beijing Olympics is about to start, and for me there is only one option for Japan – keep it simple.

Japan’s strength is out on the wings, with Mizuno on the right and Honda on the left, and the aerial power of Hirayama at center forward.

Readers know that I still have great reservations about Hirayama in general, and whether he is good enough to make the grade even in J1, but there is no doubt he is good in the air at the age-group level.

So while a direct style of play may go against what Osim is trying to achieve with the national team, I believe it represents Japan’s best chance of topping a group that is completed by Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The priority must be to get the ball out to the wings, and get crosses into the box for Hirayama to wreak havoc. Primitive may be; predictable may be; but also pragmatic.

What I don’t want to see is Japan trying to pass the ball too much and either losing it in dangerous areas or squandering chances to shoot, which this Olympic team has been guilty of in previous games, despite their successful record.

This does not suit Hirayama’s style, and clearly coach Sorimachi has decided the Athens Olympian is going to be his main man in attack, hence the omission of the more refined, mobile and technically superior Bobby Cullen.

I think Japan’s defence is good enough, but where the team struggles is in the center of midfield. I do not think they have the quality to dominate a game in this area, but they can stretch opponents on the wings and provide a supply line to Hirayama in the middle. Then it is up to the second striker and the attacking midfielders to get up in support of Hirayama and be first to the knock-downs and the scraps in the box.

Like I said, not particularly pretty, but I think it’s Japan’s best chance. There is not much point trying to involve Hirayama in intricate passing moves across the line. Better to just keep him in the middle, tell him to watch for offside, and let the wingers or full backs, depending on the formation, just knock it into him.

I still think Japan can win this group, but only if they play to their strengths, persistently and unashamedly.


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Amusing sideshow to Beckham saga

20 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 17, 2007: When he's playing he's big news.

When he's injured he's big news.

When he's scoring free kicks he's even bigger news.

There is no end to the David Beckham story -- and no end to the amusing list of headlines which have followed him to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

They are all, naturally, based on the hit movie "Bend it like Beckham" and have included the following:

On the subject of Beckham missing another match because of his ankle injury: Bench it like Beckham.

On the amount of Beckham merchandise being sold in Los Angeles and beyond: Vend it like Beckham.

On Beckham's recovery from the ankle injury: Mend it like Beckham.

The headlines are an interesting sideshow to the events on and off the field, and you have to wonder how long the editors can sustain their output.

Here's a few more to be going on with:

David wins an award for his gardening skills at his Beverley Hills mansion: Tend it like Beckham.

David joins another club on loan/rental: Lend it like Beckham.

David finishes his England career by scoring a hat trick of free kicks: End it like Beckham.

David changes position from right wing to right back: Defend it like Beckham.

So you see, Japanese readers, there are many opportunities out there to expand your vocabulary through football, especially with corny Beckham headlines.

See if you can come up with any more...

On the subject of Beckham and England, I cannot understand why Steve McClaren is talking about bringing him back to England to play a friendly against Germany when he knows he is far from fully fit.

Don't you think the Osim approach would have been better? Leave him alone, let him recover fully, select only 12 players including two goalkeepers...

Funny isn't it, how McClaren now needs Beckham for a friendly when he wouldn't have touched him with a barge pole a few months ago for European Championship qualifiers.


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Finish it like Juninho

16 Aug 2007(Thu)

August 15, 2007: When Jean Carlo Witte was at his peak with FC Tokyo, I used to think he was the ideal defender for Japanese youngsters to study.

Jean offered a 90-minute lesson in how to defend. Combative and aggressive in the air and on the ground, he knew when to clear the ball, when to pass the ball and when to break forward to help his attack.

Turning to the forwards, another Brazilian provided a coaching master class on Saturday, this time in the art of scoring goals.

Juninho's hat trick in Frontale's 3-1 defeat of JEF United at Fukuare was outstanding in its simplicity and execution. No long, mazy runs through the JEF defence, no thunderbolts into the top corner from 30 metres; just three precisely-taken and very different goals.

The first, from close range after Tateishi could only parry the ball, was about anticipation and positioning. He was in the right place at the right time, and was ready for such a moment. The goal looked easy -- but only if you were in position to score it in the first place.

The second was about confidence and improvisation. It was a toe poke, with the minimum of back lift, and reminded me of Romario or Ronaldo. It happened in the blink of an eye. One moment he was in the box with a couple of defenders on him, the next the ball was in the corner of the net. Ronaldo against Turkey in the 2002 World Cup semi-final at Saitama?

The third was my favourite, as he took a pass in his stride in the inside right channel. Instantly he swept it low into the opposite corner, giving Tateishi no chance again.

This was goal-scoring of the highest calibre, and a lesson for players of all ages, including fellow professionals.

Not so much "Bend it like Beckham" but "Finish it like Juninho."


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Ogasawara’s return paints new J1 picture

13 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 11, 2007: Watch out for Kashima Antlers!

This must be going through the minds of Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds as J1 prepares to resume after the lengthy break.

Even though Antlers are 11 points behind Gamba, the return of Ogasawara from Messina should make them a different team.

And with Yanagisawa back from injury, they certainly look good enough in all departments to mount a title challenge over the last 16 games of the season.

They can’t afford to lose more than a couple of those games, though, as they have already lost four times compared to just once for Gamba and Reds – and draws won’t be much good either if they are to close the gap.

No, Oswaldo Oliveira knows there is only one way to make up this lost ground, and that is to attack and win. All of which should make for some exciting but also tense matches involving Antlers from now on.

The presence and influence of Ogasawara will make the players around him better, and there is plenty of depth in the squad, too.

One of my favourites at Kashima is Iwamasa, the successor to Akita as the defensive rock. I was chatting with Reds forward Washington recently and asked him which Japanese defenders were the most difficult to play against.

He said Nakazawa first, followed by Iwamasa, as he was big and strong and played like a defender should do – rugged and uncompromising. If Washington rates him that highly, his opinion must be respected.

Apart from Antlers, I also think Kawasaki Frontale cannot be ruled out just yet.

They went off the boil in the league after qualifying for the Asian Champions League quarter-finals, but anyone who saw their incredible Nabisco Cup victory over Kofu at Kokuritsu will know that the hunger and spirit is back.

Frontale have 28 points, 13 behind Gamba, and, like Antlers, must go for broke and hope the top two slip up.

As a Newcastle United fan, teams have been known to throw away big leads…


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And one more thing on Osim...

9 Aug 2007(Thu)

August 7, 2007: JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi does have a good point in the Osim debate; that he thinks the coach should watch the penalty shoot-out and not waddle off down the tunnel.

I have to say I agree with the Captain on this one -- Kawabuchi, I mean, not Kawaguchi.

Even though it was always on the cards that he would head for the dressing room before the shoot-out with the Socceroos, given his track record with JEF United, I was still surprised he refused to watch the Korea climax.

After the Aussie game he said he didn't want to die of a heart attack on duty with Japan, so the only thing I can think of for the Korea game was that he didn't want to die of boredom.

If ever there was a time for Osim to change course and stay to watch the shoot-out, this was it. After all, it couldn't get any worse, unless Shunsuke had tripped over his boot laces on his run-up, fallen head first and headed the ball into the arms of the Korean keeper; or Endo had actually crossed it from the penalty spot.

With Japan having lost the shoot-out, Osim now has no excuse that he is a jinx for his own team -- so next time (in South Africa 2010 of course), please stick it out with the boys.

Apart from watching Osim disappear down the tunnel, another amusing sight was seeing him join in the team huddle. As big as two Hanyus, possibly three, he didn't exactly look comfortable performing this rather namby-pamby bonding exercise.

Whatever happened to the old, stiff-upper-lip style of Alf Ramsey, with his Churchillian address before extra time in the England-West Germany World Cup final of 1966.

"You've beaten them once, chaps. Now go and do it again," Ramsey told his players (although I am not sure he actually said "chaps" -- but he should have done.)

By the way, did anyone try counting all the Japanese players and staff in the team huddle? There were hundreds of them! Who were they all? Agents? Hairdressers? Manicurists?

No wonder the JFA needs all these friendlies.


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may need 18 games to get to South Africa

6 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 4, 2007: If you are having problems fitting in all this football, spare a thought for the J.League fixture-makers.

The Asian Football Confederation announced the dates and qualifying process for the 2010 World Cup on Friday, and Japan may have to play as many as 18 games to get to South Africa.

And with the next Asian Cup scheduled to take place in Qatar in January 2011, Japan will have to qualify for that, too, after finishing only fourth in the last one.

It all adds up to more football than anyone knows what to do with, so good luck to the fixture planners in their efforts to keep everyone happy.

As everyone knows by now, Japan were seeded fourth of the 43 teams in the Asian qualifying competition for the 2010 World Cup, behind Australia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, and ahead of Iran.

These top five teams all received a bye into the third qualifying round, where they will be joined by 15 qualifiers in five four-team groups. The top two in each group advance to the fourth round, meaning six matches for Japan between February 6, 2008, and September 10, 2008.

The remaining 10 teams for the fourth round will be split into two groups of five, giving Japan (presuming they are still around) another eight games between October 15, 2008, and September 9, 2009.

The top two in each group qualify for South Africa. The two third-placed teams play off home and away, and the winner then faces the Oceania champions over two legs for the last spot in South Africa.

If Japan finish third in their fourth-round group they will need 18 games to qualify, the last four of these taking place between October 10 and November 21 – just when the 2009 J.League championship is reaching its climax.

In those circumstances, how on earth the qualifying games for the 2011 Asian Cup would be fitted in, too, is anyone’s guess – as is the likely physical and mental condition of the Europe-based players Japan will need to get to South Africa.

For any Japanese player with the chance of moving to a club in Europe, this must be a big consideration for the next couple of seasons.


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Woeful end to Japan’s Asian Cup

2 Aug 2007(Thu)

July 31,2007: The less said about the Japan-Korea match the better.

But here’s a few words before it is consigned to the history books – and I am sure the JFA would strike it from all records if possible.

I thought the match was a shambles and, at times, an embarrassment for Japanese football. The harder they tried, the worse they got – and the referee put everyone out of their misery by blowing his whistle to end extra time.

Neither side wanted to be there, but unfortunately there were two important reasons why the match was worth winning.

First, it was Japan against Korea.

Second, the winner would book a place in the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar – one of six automatic qualifiers, note – and therefore do away with the hassle of qualifying during World Cup year in 2010.

Despite this, I am still surprised Osim made only one change to the team, a midfielder, Yamagishi, for a forward, Maki, leaving Takahara on his own again up front.

This formation did not work against Qatar, and it did not work against Korea as it left Japan short on numbers in a crucial area. No wonder they rarely looked like scoring.

I thought Osim should have made wholesale changes to freshen up the team and give the regulars a rest before returning to their clubs. Had Japan lost in those circumstances it would have been more palatable, but to lose, albeit on penalties, with his top team undid a lot of the good work that had gone before.

I was feeling quite positive after the group stage, after the win against Australia and even after the defeat against the Saudis.

But Saturday’s game was one too many. As the match progressed, everything pointed to a Korea win. The point-blank block by Lee from Nakazawa; the red card for Kang, giving the Koreans every excuse to retreat; Hanyu’s shot striking the defender, who wasn’t even looking; the smooth penalty-taking of the Koreans…

So it was left to Hanyu to join the long list of grief-stricken players who have missed in a penalty shootout.

He should forget about it as quickly as possible, while the rest of Japan should try and forget that this play-off ever took place.


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Gunes: Skill and strength are not enough

30 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 28, 2007: The FC Tokyo-FC Seoul "pre-season match" at Kokuritsu on Thursday evening was well worth the visit.

Not for the football, which was grim and goalless, but for the chance to get a few words with Senol Gunes.

A former goalkeeper and captain of Turkey, Gunes is the man who steered the Turks to their third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup, beating Japan and Korea in the process.

UEFA's Coach of the Year 2002 has been in charge of FC Seoul for six months, and had some interesting things to say on football in this part of the world.

Basically, he said, the Japanese had better technical skills and the Koreans were stronger physically, but both sets of players needed more than this to be a success at the highest level. In short, they needed to think more and think quicker.

"For the World Cup, the mentality must improve because the players cannot arrange the game, cannot manage the game easily," he said, through an interpreter.

"Technique and physique are not enough in football, so they have to get some good mentality so they can arrange the game, can manage the game in all conditions.

"The two countries' players should decide more quickly. That is the problem. When the ball comes to them, before they kick the ball they have to decide everything; they have to decide the next step."

One Japanese player who did this, of course, was Hidetoshi Nakata. You could always see him planning his next move before the ball had reached him. Add to this his skill level and robust frame -- the two qualities talked of by Gunes -- and it is clear why Nakata stood out among his Asian peers.

How Osim needed a player of Nakata's stature to lift his tired team against the Saudis, who were well worth their 3-2 win on Wednesday night. Japan came back twice but could not do it a third time, as the explosive Malek proved too hot to handle in the air and on the ground for Abe, Nakazawa and Kawaguchi.

Credit to the Saudis. After all, they have qualified for the last four World Cups. The result was not a surprise. A disappointment, but not a surprise.


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Osim lays foundations of New Japan

26 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 24, 2007: There were many positive aspects of Japan's victory over Australia, but there were some negatives, too, which Ivica Osim will be eager to rectify.

The positives included the calm, assured way in which New Japan controlled the game; how they came back to equalise quickly with a great goal from Takahara; and how they kept their concentration and discipline right to the finish.

These are all signs of a team that is mentally and physically strong, one that believes in itself and its coach.

However, the performance was not without its more frustrating moments, some of which I noted after the opening 1-1 draw with Qatar.

I still think Japan are not shooting enough when the goal is in range. One example was Nakazawa in the first half. He collected the ball deep in his own half and broke forward, and when no one came towards him he continued to break forward.

He was looking confident and determined and I was hoping he would let fly from 25-30 metres out with absolutely nothing to lose, but he seemed to doubt himself and, instead of shooting, attempted to find Takahara on the left edge of the box. The move broke down, and Nakazawa had to race back.

This was just one example, and an aspect of Japan's play that Shunsuke Nakamura has pointed out on several occasions in Hanoi. At one point in extra time, against 10 men, I thought Japan's tactics were to pass the ball so much that the Aussies would fall asleep, and then someone might actually think about scoring.

One of Maki's strengths is his ability in the air, especially at the far post (I am sure JEF fans, and the Gamba defence, will remember his prodigious leap to set up a goal for Arai at Fukuare this season). But against Australia, Japan seemed reluctant to cross the ball into the middle, and dithered too often around the box.

When Shunsuke knocked one deep, Maki did his job at the back post, Milligan did not do his in the middle, and Taka switched from right foot to left and scored another fine goal.

I think Japan need to find a balance between when to keep the ball and when to step it up and find that explosive, unpredictable element. (I am still pushing Yoshito Okubo for this role!)

But the style and identity of New Japan is set -- and Osim is well on course in his mission.


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MUFC -- a class act

23 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 20, 2007: Manchester United were magnificent ambassadors for...well, Manchester United, when they came to Tokyo at the beginning of this week.

Press conferences, charity work, training, playing, signing autographs; they were busier than the Vietnamese keeper against Japan.

On Tuesday evening, the Red Devils played the Red Diamonds, English champions against Japanese champions, and over 58,000 turned out to watch on a dank evening. In fact it was so wet, miserable and slightly chilly out there in the Saitama countryside that it reminded me of driving over the Pennines to Old Trafford (a different one) to watch cricket, only to be denied again by a Mancunian summer.

United's tour, of course, had come under fierce criticism from both the Asian Football Confederation and from FIFA. The general feeling was that big European clubs like United came to the Far East just to take, take, take and not give anything in return; and were showing disrespect by touring when the Asian Cup was being held in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand (have I missed any?).

This was absolute nonsense all along, and Sir Alex Ferguson gave the perfect reply when asked about it.

He said it was unfortunate that the tour clashed with the Asian Cup, but they had to take the window of opportunity when it was open, as players were committed to the European Championship and World Cup every second year. Fergie spoke of the charity work and the soccer schools, and insisted United were not trying to "steal" fans from other clubs.

"It is not about us taking. We also give," he said.

The match ended 2-2, and United's charity included a goal for Hideki Uchidate, who embarrassed Edwin Van der Sar with a Cristiano Ronaldo-style strike that swerved and dipped on its way into the net. Reds' second was a touch of genius from Shinji Ono, proving again that you can lose some of your physical fitness but you can't lose class.

After the game, Fergie picked out Yamada and Ono for special praise.

"I think number six (Yamada) did very, very well. I like him. I think he's a clever footballer and very mobile," said Sir Alex.

"And the number eight (Ono) in the second half, took his goal very well. A clever goal."

Rio Ferdinand also spoke of Ono -- this time by name -- and said he "always thought he was a very talented footballer -- and he showed that again tonight. I liked him at Feyenoord."

Oh, Shinji! What might have been...


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Defender Komiyama catches the eye as goals flow

19 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 17, 2007: The Asian Cup is not the only cup in town for Japanese players and fans at the moment, as there was a domestic treat during the storm-lashed weekend.

The four Nabisco Cup quarter-final second-leg ties yielded a total of 23 goals, with seven at Gamba Osaka-Urawa Reds (5-2), six each at FC Tokyo-Yokohama F Marinos (2-4) and Kawasaki Frontale-Ventforet Kofu (4-2), and four at Kashima Antlers-Sanfrecce Hiroshima (3-1).

On Saturday I took in Tokyo-Marinos at Ajista, and on Sunday Frontale-Ventforet at Kokuritsu, and both games were crackers.

Although Marinos won through only 4-3 on aggregate, they were 4-0 up in the second leg thanks to a dynamic performance by captain Koji Yamase. He was on fire in the soggy conditions, scoring the first goal with a lovely right-foot finish into the top corner and then chasing down a loose ball and crossing perfectly for Oshima to head the second.

I wondered if Yamase had a personal grudge against FC Tokyo, as he was on a one-man crusade to sink them. Plagued by injury during his career, he is still only 25 and has never looked sharper or more effective.

Another player who is impressing for Marinos is the 22-year-old left back Komiyama. He is bright, busy and plays at an intensity that appeals to national coach Osim. He has two good feet and does not hold back in the air, launching himself at anything that comes his way and winning some thundering headers.

On Sunday, Kofu striker Sudo was the unluckiest player around, scoring all five of his team's goals over two legs but still finishing on the losing side, against Frontale.

This was a fantastic match for the 10,000 fans who had defied the typhoon warning to trail to the capital. It was a true cup-tie played at beakneck speed with goals galore, one team in control then suddenly the other, and packed with incident such as the heated exchanges between Kofu teammates Akimoto and Inoue, and the wrestling match between Kofu defender Ikehata and Frontale striker Chong Tese.

Overall, Komiyama took my vote as Nabisco Cup New Hero for players aged 23 and below.


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Komano sets the right example

16 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 14, 2007: Now that was a whole lot better, wasn't it?

Not only did Japan beat UAE 3-1, they played with a much more professional and business-like attitude.

They added some steel and bite to their game, especially in the last third of the field, and had the victory wrapped up by half-time thanks to the extremely generous penalty award.

Still, it was worrying that UAE managed to pull one back with only 10 men, and there are clearly communication problems through the middle with the Kawaguchi-Abe-Nakazawa combination.

So Japanese fans must not get carried away, as the team only has four points and faces a last group game against the host nation. This will be a unique experience for the Japanese players in an incredible atmosphere, and they will have to tame the home team quickly in order to take control and avoid an embarrassing upset.

With their superior skills, experience and height advantage, though, Japan should be able to come through, but they will have to scrap furiously against Vietnam in the opening exchanges.

Against UAE, the presence of Maki opened up more space for Takahara, who produced two expert finishes to underline Japan's superiority.

But the player I was most pleased with was Komano. Very early in the game he cut in from the left wing and shot for goal, and soon after Endo ran through the middle and tried to score alone. This was great to see from Japan, players taking responsibility, and set the tone for the evening.

I hope they retain this positive attitude for the rest of the tournament instead of passing the ball to death on the edge of the box and refusing to shoot when they are in a good position.

Osim must encourage them to shoot, and encourage them when they miss the target, just like Komano did shortly after.

Taka's two goals put Japan well in control with less than a third of the match completed, and the penalty ended the game as a contest.

I must admit I could not believe it when the ref penalised the keeper for catching Endo, who had lofted the ball to the far post. But this is not Japan's concern, and Shunsuke brushed aside the controversey and scored convincingly from the spot.

Late in the game, Osim sent on his JEF United ekiden team of Hanyu and Mizuno to join Maki and old boy Abe -- further evidence that "JFA" stands for JEF Football Association -- in order to maintain an attacking tempo, and resting key players for the battle ahead.

Monday will be mayhem, and Japan's job is far from finished -- but this was much better.


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Japan must be more aggressive in attack

12 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 10, 2007: No wonder Ivica Osim was furious after Japan's 1-1 draw with Qatar.

I was angry, too, as I am sure many Japanese fans were around the country.

Japan, of course, should have won this game comfortably. They dominated possession and were in a different class to their opponents in terms of individual quality and big-match experience.

But without that second goal there was always a chance Qatar would come back and draw level, which is exactly what happened to ruin the night.

I was not so much annoyed with Abe for the foul that led to the goal, or for the failure to put away one of the clearcut chances that came Japan's way.

Abe was clearly waiting for Kawaguchi to come out and clear the ball, and when the keeper was not there he panicked and gave away the free kick. Abe's body language after his mistake told its own story -- that the equaliser was on its way.

As for the chances, the two that most spring to mind were Yamagishi's left-foot half-volley over the bar from Takahara's lovely header, and Hanyu's late effort that curled round the far post.

No, these were frustrating moments, but not the chief source of my anger.

I was annoyed because Japan would not shoot when the goal was in sight, notably Endo, who looked like he was aiming for the Assist King award. Japan were trying to walk the ball into the net with a series of intricate passes instead of letting fly from distance. I think they needed -- and need -- to be much more direct in their approach and play with more dynamism and aggression in the last third of the pitch.

For this reason, once again, I would play Maki alongside Takahara and sacrifice one of the midfielders -- but not Keita Suzuki, who was my man of the match.

The presence of Maki and Takahara would open up more options on the ground and in the air. If Maki is not scoring he is doing something, working hard for the team and being a constant menace to the defenders.

The result against Qatar could have been worse, but Japan will be in real trouble if they do not beat UAE on Friday the 13th.


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Japan are good enough to win the Asian Cup, but...

9 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 7, 2007: During the second half of Japan's goalless draw against Colombia on June 5, I felt convinced that Japan were good enough to win the Asian Cup.

After surviving a shaky first half, Japan had come back into it in the second period and were playing some good stuff against the Colombians.

You could sense the unity, the purpose and the goal of the players under Ivica Osim, and they were playing a brand of football that could brush aside Asian opposition.

One month on, the Asian Cup is about to start, and I think Japan will play well.

I am not saying they are going to win it, but I think they will show enough to suggest they are on the right track to qualifying for South Africa 2010 and putting on a good show in the next World Cup; something they did not do in 2006.

Osim, of course, is in a no-win situation in Vietnam, as his two predecessors, Troussier in 2000 and Zico in 2004, both steered Japan to the continental crown.

If Japan do not win for the third time in a row and fourth in all, I hope fans don't start saying Osim is not as good as Troussier or Zico, because this is clearly not the case.

Osim is giving out mixed signals about his targets. On the one hand he says that World Cup qualification is the priority ahead of winning the Asian Cup, but his selection contradicts that theory.

If he had been thinking of the future and not the present, he would have picked more Olympic players in his final 23, such as Honda for the left flank, Ienaga for attacking midfield and Inoha for central midfield/libero. Inoha has since been called up, of course, due to Bando's injury, and he can offer more options for Osim.

Even without Tulio and Mizumoto, a back three of Tsuboi, Abe and Nakazawa is good enough to win the Asian Cup, as is a back four of Kaji, Nakazawa, Abe and Komano. I really liked the Abe-Nakazawa partnership against Colombia, and Inoha is the perfect understudy for Abe at libero or in central midfield and a player who can only benefit from his time with the seniors.

To sum up, I think Japan can win the Asian Cup -- but it will not be the end of the world if they don't, provided there are signs that the Osim method is taking root.


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Please..no more Mexican Wave

5 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 3, 2007: I don't know about you, but that was quite a strange experience watching Japan beat Scotland 3-1 in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

The result was impressive for Japan, but the environment was unusual to say the least.

All those people walking around as the game was in progress; all the tents; and the near silence of the large crowd providing a training ground atmosphere for the players.

It looked as though the players were walking through a cow field to the stadium pitch, and that the football match was just part of a summer show. I was wondering what would be next on the entertainment programme, the sack race for boys or the egg-and-spoon race for girls? Or maybe it was time for the Victoria Vegetable Society to display their spring onions?

Whatever, it was a very surreal backdrop to the match -- and the situation deteriorated when the Mexican Wave began in the second half.

Sorry to be a kill-joy, but the Mexican Wave should be outlawed by FIFA at all football grounds, with anyone found guilty of starting it escorted to the nearest exit and banned for life. Rather than showing how much everyone is enjoying themselves, it reveals boredom and is disrespectful to the players trying their hearts out at a potentially career-changing moment.

Just think...a young player with stars in his eyes finally pulls off the Cruyff trick he has been practising in his back garden for two years, and half the audience are looking the other way, preparing to raise their arms and cheer.

Football is not about fun! "It is not even about life and death -- it is much more important than that," to paraphrase the late and legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly.

Against the big Scots, Japan won well in a confident team display (notably Umesaki) marred slightly by Japanese players feigning injury (Umesaki) and taking the ball into the corner (Umesaki) a good five minutes before full time.

The Canadian neutrals, brought up in the rough-tough world of ice hockey, did not appreciate the theatrics and were quick to boo and jeer the "injured" players. Good on 'em!

But please no Mexican Wave.


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Stoyanov: only one solution for JEF

2 Jul 2007(Mon)

June 29, 2007: Losing Ivica Osim; losing GM Ubagai and captain Abe; sliding down the table; now losing Stoyanov...

It has not been a good 12 months for JEF United Chiba.

There was, sadly, no other conclusion to the Stoyanov issue than the club terminating his contract.

He had come out in public and criticised head coach Amar Osim, and with it the club as a whole.

When Stoyanov refused to apologise, there was only course of action open -- to get rid of him.

I feel -- but may be wrong -- that Amar has been close to being fired this season, notably after the home defeat by Gamba on May 26.

But once Stoyanov had spoken out, the club could not be seen to be following the wishes of one, in their eyes, "rebel" player. This would look like the club was being run by the players, not by the management.

With the situation at deadlock, the club had to act first and make a strong statement, which was to kick out the rebel, no matter how good a player he was, or how much he was idolised by the fans.

So JEF have lost again -- at home again, you might say, because this was a homegrown problem.

I have to admit being a fully paid-up member of the Stoyanov fan club (emotionally, that is, not financially), as he was -- still is -- a wonderful football player.

He is a true libero, possessing the skill of two players.

I used to love watching him play; taking the ball off the keeper and spraying a 50-metre pass on to the toe end of Yamagishi on the left or Mizuno on the right.

But he was at his best, his most elegant, when moving forward, beating two or three men at a time as easily as an Austrian alpine skier glides through the gates of a slalom course. Then he would play a neat one-two and advance on goal, before shooting just as comfortably with left foot or right.

Defensively he used to trick and tease opposing forwards, allowing them to think they had a bit of time and space before making his move. He would time his tackle to perfection, always staying on his feet, and whip the ball away from the striker in a flash of yellow.

At the top of his game, Stoyanov was a different class to anything else in the J.League. He would make it look so easy it was almost funny to watch.

There was no denying, however, that he was a bit of a hot-head on the pitch. Off the pitch, his biggest mistake was to go public with his feelings and put the club in an impossible position.

The final result? Another defeat for JEF United Chiba -- through an own goal.


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Tongues wagging over Kashiwagi

28 Jun 2007(Thu)

June 26, 2007: There was a special goal on Saturday from a youngster with the potential to be a special player.

Yosuke Kashiwagi, still only 19 and a product of the Sanfrecce Hiroshima youth team, scored a goal of true beauty in the game at Vissel Kobe -- a goal that gets better with every replay.

Naturally it came from his left foot, and followed a lovely interchange between Sato and Ueslei. When the ball broke free on the edge of the box, Kashiwagi took one touch to control it before wrapping his foot around the ball and stroking a dream of a shot across the face of the goal and into the far corner from the left side.

Talk about "Bend it Like Shunsuke"! This was a wonderful goal in open play, and was followed by a celebration that further demonstrated his creativity without being offensive or provocative to the foe.

After a Roger Milla-style wiggle of the hips, Kashiwagi went ten-pin bowling and pretended to roll a ball down the alley, presumably for a strike.

Sanfrecce's second goal, in what turned out to be a 3-2 defeat, was another fine effort -- a textbook header from Ueslei to a masterful right-wing cross from Komano.

But who turned defence into attack in the first place by jinking his way up the right wing and waiting to play the decisive pass? Why, Kashiwagi again, showing the touch, pace, composure and quick mind that would have Ivica Osim purring.

Osim is already well aware of Kashiwagi, of course, and the upcoming FIFA World Under-20 Championship in Canada provides the perfect stage for the youngster to display his talents.

These are considerable -- but realising this potential is another matter altogether, especially with such a light frame.

For the moment, though, Yosuke Kashiwagi is a combination of Harry Kewell and Harry Potter -- a silky, left-footed schemer, with a touch of magic in those boots!


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Nakata, MLS would make a good team

25 Jun 2007(Mon)

June 22, 2007: Without saying a word, Hidetoshi Nakata is back in the news, less than a year after his retirement.

During a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Thursday, national coach Ivica Osim said the door was open for Nakata to return to the team should he end his retirement and join a club.

So what are the chances of a Nakata comeback?

Having followed his career closely since seeing him play for Japan in the Asian Youth Under-19 Championship in Jakarta in 1994, I would not rule out a Nakata return at all.

In fact, on several occasions while reading all the Beckham-for-Galaxy stories, I have thought the United States and Major League Soccer would be the perfect place for Nakata to reinvent himself. He is the Asian Beckham after all, and a Nakata comeback in America would provide another massive impetus to the game over there.

As in the case of Beckham, all parties would win substantially.

I honestly think a Nakata comeback in MLS is a possibility, as he is still only 30 and would have three or four more years left in him, at least through to the 2010 World Cup.

I saw a few highlights from the Figo match the other week, and Nakata, now with long hair, reminded me of his early days with Bellmare Hiratsuka.

He looked far too young to have given up the game, and being back in that kind of football environment may have rekindled the fire and interest he had lost.

Also, it might be as simple as this: he might be bored after his year on the road and want some roots again. And where better than the States, in a growing league and where he would enjoy celebrity status.

America and its youth/pop culture would appeal to Nakata, and also enable him to increase his profile in this vast market -- perfect for when he decides to open his chain of swish (not Swiss) restaurants in the world's major cities -- Tokyo, New York, Paris, London, Rome, Milan...

Menu, decor, furniture, clothing, merchandise...a Nakata fusion from around the world.

I am sure this is his destiny!


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Lightweight Omiya need more muscle

21 Jun 2007(Thu)

June 19, 2007: A J.League Saturday that had started with an anti-climax at Todoroki ended in exhilarating style with a dramatic finish at Komaba.

First up in the Kanto football feast was Frontale-Reysol at sun-drenched Todoroki, where Kengo Nakamura really looked the part but the forwards on both teams wasted clear scoring chances in a forgettable 0-0 draw.

I was hoping Ganaha would get among the goals ahead of the Asian Cup squad announcement on Monday, but it just wasn't happening for him and he remains on one league goal for the season. He really needs an injection of confidence (is that legal under J.League rules?)

From Todoroki in the afternoon to Komaba in the evening, where there was a superb atmosphere and a big crowd of almost 17,000; two thirds of the stadium clad in orange, and the other third in...well, orange. Ardija against Albirex, and the Orange Derby certainly lived up to its billing in terms of controversy and drama.

First, the sending off of Niigata right winger Matsushita six minutes before the break. Whatever you think of his second yellow card for what the referee deemed a studs-up tackle, it was his first yellow that was ridiculous. The game was going nowhere after 25 minutes, Albirex were on top if anything, and Matsushita needlessly delayed play by kicking the ball away. Referee Osada was absolutely right to show him the yellow card, and I hope Albirex manager Suzuki will be critical of his own player rather than the officials.

With a man advantage, Omiya went on to win 2-1 with goals from Yoshihara and a soaring header from substitute Wakabayashi. Daigo Kobayashi played a big part in both goals, although he still looked a long way from full match fitness, unlike the lively Yoshihara and Fujimoto. But when Daigo has such quality with the ball at his feet, manager Robert Verbeek is happy to keep him on the pitch and get those minutes in.

Unfortunately, the standard of Omiya's foreign players leaves a lot to be desired once again, with only central defender Leandro in the starting line-up of a struggling team and both forwards staying on the bench.

Maybe scouting trips to Romania and Brazil will have produced some muscular additions in attack and central midfield to Omiya's creative yet lightweight personnel.


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Apple alert for Frontale fans in Iran

18 Jun 2007(Mon)

June 15, 2007: Well, let's look on the bright side -- an all-Japan final in the 2007 Asian Champions League in November.

Reds against Frontale; one leg at Todoroki, the other at Saitama Stadium 2002. This would be the perfect scenario for Japan, wouldn't it, and it is still possible now the draw has been made for the knockout stages.

We knew before the draw that Reds and Frontale would be kept apart for the quarter-finals, but there was no guarantee they would avoid each other in the semi-finals, should they get there, of course.

One school of thought is that it would be better for them to meet in the last four, as it would guarantee Japan had a representative in the final.

But that's slightly negative in my opinion.

I prefer to take the ultra-positive approach, and back them both to reach the final now they have done the hard part by coming out of their groups. After all, there is little margin for error in the four-team preliminary round groups, as only the top one, not top two, go through.

So hopefully Reds and Frontale can get past Chonbuk Motors and Sepahan, respectively, in the quarter-finals, and will motivate each other in the semi-finals to set up an all-Japan showdown.

Reds will be at home to the reigning Asian champions in the first leg, on September 19, while Frontale will have home advantage for the second leg, on September 26.

My only advice to the Frontale fans thinking of heading for Iran is...take a crash helmet!

This is from my experience of joining 800 Japanese fans on a "dangan" tour to Tehran in March 2005 for the Iran-Japan World Cup qualifier.

We arrived at the hotel for lunch at midday, and were informed that there was already 100,000 fans in the Azadi Stadium six hours before kick-off!

When the convoy of buses with the Japanese fans arrived at the ground, it was like a scene from "The Gladiator" as we entered the arena like sacrifical slaves to the slaughter, for the entertainment of the spectators. They had reserved a small section behind the goal into which Fukunishi would score Japan's equaliser in an eventual 2-1 defeat, but the stand above us was packed with Iranians who used the Japanese as target practice for a cascade of missiles -- fortunately none of them nuclear.

One Japanese girl had turned round to look at the giant electronic scoreboard above, and an apple had caught her full in the face, producing an ugly, massive swelling on her cheek but fortunately missing her eyes.

Frontale fans -- take those helmets, and watch out for flying apples. They pack quite a punch from the second tier of a stand.


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A one, two or three-horse race?

14 Jun 2007(Thu)

June 12, 2007: Last weekend was Round 14 of 34 in J1 -- and it may well go down as a turning point in the 2007 season.

Suddenly, Gamba Osaka are seven points clear, even though Reds have a game in hand due to their involvement in the A3 Champions Cup (what do the three As stand for anyway? Another Avoidable Absence?).

Reds stayed second in the J1 table, even without playing, as none of the teams within range could win on the day. A worrying factor for those predicting a two-horse race already.

All of which combined to propel Albirex Niigata into a lofty fourth place, following their 3-1 victory at home to Vissel Kobe.

Earlier this season I saw Albirex demolish a poor, but now improving, FC Tokyo at Ajista, and liked what I saw -- a tidy, well organised team with three good foreign players.

Only two of them were on duty against Kobe, and they accounted for all three goals.

Marcio Richardes, who plays on the right side of midfield, got the first two; with a free kick that deceived Tatsuya Enomoto by entering the middle of the goal rather than the corner, and with a crisp, close-range header.

The third goal was another stylish header following another clever move, scored by Edmilson -- one of my favourite foreign players in the league for his power and his poise, which is an attractive and dangerous combination. (In fact he is so smooth I am surprised Gamba have not signed him under their risk-free policy of relieving less glamorous clubs of Brazilian imports of proven quality and character! Maybe next season.)

Although the season is not quite at the halfway stage, seven points is a handy lead for Gamba and will keep their rivals under pressure.

Personally, I think two teams are capable of catching Gamba: Reds and Frontale, although both of them are drawing too many games and have won only six apiece this season, compared to Gamba's nine league victories. There's the difference.

In midfield and attack, Gamba have plenty of quality on the pitch and the bench, so the only area where they look vulnerable is a lack of cover in central defence for Sidiclei and Yamaguchi.


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Now that's more like the Taka of old

11 Jun 2007(Mon)

June 7, 2007: No doubt about it, Taka's back!

The two Kirin Cup games, and the Peru match in March, have revealed a hungry, mature and rejuvenated Naohiro Takahara; a player ready, willing and able to lead Japan's line again.

I must admit I went off Taka for quite a while, as he struggled at Hamburg and lost the cutting edge to his game. When he returned to the Japan team in those days he was not the same player, and his manner had turned from confident and ambitious to rather cocky without the results to back it up.

But the Takahara on display these days is a battler and playing with something to prove. He has come back well after his transfer to Eintracht Frankfurt and now looks the part, scoring goals, tackling back and running hard off the ball.

His goal against Montenegro was a cracker, that flying header at the near post to Komano's pinpoint cross from the right, and he played well against Colombia, despite missing a decent chance to head the winner right at the death.

The Colombians clearly targeted Taka for some rough treatment, especially early in the second half, and Japan's centre forward complained bitterly to the Danish ref that he was the victim of elbows as the match progressed.

In Osim's 4-5-1 formation, Taka did a good job on his own up front, although I would have liked to see Maki in there from the start, alongside him, like the Peru game.

It seemed a strange choice to play Inamoto so far forward, and Osim realised it was a mistake by replacing him at half-time.

"Ina" just could not get into the game. I have always regarded him as a defensive midfield player who likes to push forward, and he looked lost in that advanced position.

Troussier once told me, while preparing Japan's team for the 1999 FIFA World Youth Cup in Nigeria, that he always thought Inamoto would end up as a central defender. It has not happened yet, but it may be one option for his new employers, Eintracht Frankfurt, or even for Osim if he wants another look at Ina in the future.


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Nadeshiko Japan show style

7 Jun 2007(Thu)

June 5, 2007: There were so many positives about Japan's 6-1 victory over South Korea in a women's Olympic qualifier the other night it is difficult to know where to start.

The result, of course, was excellent, and put Japan firmly on course for a place in Beijing next summer with three straight wins.

The manner of victory was also impressive, with the goals shared around and highlighting the quality and technique of the Japanese players.

As always, Japan played the game in a true spirit of fair play, and were a credit to the JFA in particular and the game of football in general.

Clearly not the biggest team in the women's game, they have developed a distinctive style of play and tactics that should give them a chance against the world's best. Like Osim's Japan, "Nadeshiko Japan" are trying to play to their strengths, such as speed, movement and organisation.

And I really like their midfield diamond, of Miyamoto at the base, Sawa at the top, Sakai on the right and Miyama on the left. Sakai and Miyama are both buzz bombs, and link well with their full backs coming up from defence on the flanks.

But, rather than knocking hopeful crosses into the middle, which would be food and drink for the bigger central defenders they will face at this year's World Cup, the Japanese have nurtured a very noticeable and suitable strategy to counter this problem.

The cross will be knocked long, beyond the far post, where a player has pulled off her marker at the last moment, and is able to nod the ball back into the middle. This puts the defence at a disadvantage, and allows the forwards to move in and attack the ball from close range, thereby eliminating the direct confrontation between big centre half and small centre forward.

It is a tactic which yields goals, and can be refined further as Japan play with width and speed and a good attacking rhythm.

There is a good feeling around Nadeshiko Japan, and head coach Hiroshi Ohashi must take a lot of the credit for the way in which they go about their business. They actually look like they are enjoying themselves, and there is none of the cynicism and gamesmanship that blight the men's game at the highest level.

Before the national anthem of Korea Republic, the home fans and Japanese players alike applauded with gusto – and it was nice to see the small band of Korean fans clap the Japanese players after the game as they went on their lap of honour.

The only disappointment was that only 8,779 fans turned up at Kokuritsu on a pleasant Sunday evening.

This team deserves more, and hopefully they will get it on August 12 for the visit of Thailand.


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Komano shines again in Japan's win

4 Jun 2007(Mon)

June 2, 2007: Although the quality and pattern of play fell away significantly in the second half, there was still enough positive aspects to take from Japan's 2-0 victory over Montenegro on Friday night.

The first was the two goals, beautifully crafted and expertly finished and which virtually killed the game by half time.

The opening goal had clearly been refined on the training ground, as Endo opened up a better angle from his left-wing corner and Nakazawa moved into position on the far post. When the ball came over, Nakazawa really attacked it and hit the target with a powerful header, proving again his value at both ends of the pitch.

The second was even better. Kengo Nakamura changed the direction of attack and Komano, breaking down the right, sent over a magnificent cross to the near post, where Takahara headed home in spectacular style.

A couple of minutes earlier, Komano had crossed too deep, and Takahara had shown his frustration by pointing to the near post. Komano adjusted his sights quickly and served up a perfect ball next time for Taka to head home.

Once again Komano was my man of the match, like he had been against Peru. Starting the match at right back and finishing it on the opposite flank following the introduction of Mizuno, Komano has established himself as a key player for Osim with his energy, intensity and versatility. He also knows when to clear the ball from dangerous situations or when to pass and move from deep, and he has a first-class attitude. Troussier would have loved Komano in his squad as he is the ultimate team player who just gets on with his job.

Osim's style of play demands quick minds and reactions as well as fast legs, and one step forward I noticed against Montenegro was how the players were in position to pick up the scraps from a move that falters. Playing at such pace and with such movement and intricate passing, mistakes will inevitably occur, but Japan's players have learned to read the situation and anticipate the break down.

Montenegro, it must be said, looked slow and lacked flair, but any team from the former Yugoslavia knows the game and deserves respect.

Japan's midfield pressing, though, put them under too much pressure, and prevented them from building any rhythm.

Colombia should be stronger at Saitama on Tuesday night -- but so should Japan.


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Koji gives Osim even more options

31 May 2007(Thu)

May 29, 2007: And then there were three...

After selecting Shunsuke Nakamura and Naohiro Takahara for the Peru game, Japan coach Ivica Osim has expanded his band of European exiles to three by calling up Koji Nakata for the Kirin Cup.

Many observers, myself included, will be glad to see Koji back in the fold, as his qualities are many.

First, he is versatile, and can play a number of positions in defence and midfield.

Second, he has a good footballing brain, allied with keen concentration, and Osim needs thinkers as well as movers in his team.

Third, he has a lot of experience at this level, having featured in two World Cup squads.

Fourth, he has stuck with it in Europe after a tumultuous time in France, and has found his home in Basel. This shows a strong character and ambition, when it would have been easy to return to the J.League.

All in all, then, Nakata still has a lot to offer the national team, and Osim will be able to capitalise on his versatility, even during a game if necessary.

Koji is listed as a defender in Osim's squad, along with one of my favourite players at the moment, Mizumoto.

Despite JEF United's wretched season, Mizumoto has emerged as a bright prospect for the future. Injuries to Stoyanov and Djordjevic have thrust Mizumoto into the spotlight, and he has emerged as a natural leader.

I wrote recently that Mizumoto played with an attitude, and it was good to see him standing up for himself and giving Juninho as good as he got in some verbal exchanges during the recent Frontale-JEF game. This Kirin Cup experience can only help his career, like those of his fellow Olympic team members.

There is a wealth of talent in this Kirin Cup collection, and the toughest job for Osim will be finding the right combinations and deciding who to leave out, rather than who to play.

The return of Koji Nakata gives him even more options, especially with Abe and Konno in there, too.


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Sydney FC coach salutes Reds fans

28 May 2007(Mon)

May 24, 2007: The head coach of Sydney FC, Branko Culina, was spot on with his assessment of Urawa Reds after their 0-0 draw in the AFC Champions League on Wednesday night.

Culina was in awe of the spectacle he had just witnessed at Saitama Stadium 2002, as 44,793 fans produced an incredible atmosphere to match the occasion. (I estimated that 44,700 of them were wearing a red shirt, and 93 were Aussies).

"Urawa is a wonderful, wonderful club," said Culina. "You've just to look at the facilities they have."

Regarding the fans, the Sydney FC coach added: "The supporters are absolutely brilliant. This is not only one of the best crowds in Asia, but one of the best in the world. I congratulate them. To come so close against one of the giants of Asian football...we are very proud and pleased."

High praise indeed – and, of course, he is right.

I have said before that Reds, should they go on and win the Champions League and qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup in December, would be a marvellous advertisement for Japanese football.

Their story needs telling to the world, as I am sure many football fans around the globe are unaware that a team in Japan receives such fervent support, and an average home attendance that many clubs in the so-called big leagues of Europe could only dream about.

The J.League is in a very healthy state at the moment, but there is no doubt Reds are one step ahead in terms of both fan base and the quality of the team. Other clubs, notably Albirex, also attract big home crowds on a regular basis, and other teams are at consistently the same level as Reds, particularly Gamba, but none can match the overall standing of Urawa.

Almost 45,000 fans on a Wednesday night against Sydney FC out in the sticks is a fine effort, and the club's decision to kick off at 7.30pm rather than the customary 7pm is another factor which has led to such good attendances for the three home games.

To close, there were some nice touches at the end of the Reds-Sydney match, when the home fans applauded the Aussies generously – and some of the Sydney players threw their sweaty shirts to the small away contingent in the corner.

Well worth the trip for all concerned, then.


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Japan could stage the perfect World Cup in 2010

24 May 2007(Thu)

May 23, 2007: Weren't those words of Sepp Blatter music to the ears of Japanese football fans?

The fact that Japan was high on the list -- if not at the top, as that was clearly the United States -- of substitute hosts should South Africa be deemed unsuitable to stage the next World Cup in 2010.

Of course it is a remote chance that FIFA will remove the hosting rights from South Africa, as President Blatter has said there would be only a change if there was a natural catastrophe, rather than any political/financial pressure.

And the chances of Japan being selected as emergency host would be even smaller -- but at least Blatter mentioned Japan as a world player in the modern game when discussing the topic in a recent interview with the BBC.

Blatter, of course, is absolutely right, as Japan could stage the next World Cup at very short notice -- on its own, not with Korea.

The 10 stadiums used in 2002 for half a World Cup are still there -- well, I hear that Miyagi is still there, but no one seems to know for sure.

Add to these the likes of Ajinomoto Stadium, home of FC Tokyo, plus Toyota Stadium, the sometime home of Nagoya Grampus Eight, and even the Big Arch at Hiroshima, and Japan has more than enough top-quality stadiums to host a 32-team, eight-group World Cup tomorrow, so to speak.

The hotels are here, the transportation system is excellent, and the fans would embrace the full World Cup, as they did half the World Cup in 2002. So would the sponsors.

Crowd trouble would be non-existent, as the local fans would welcome all-comers, and the Japanese police would show restraint and not behave like their Italian counterparts in Rome by attacking fans from overseas.

I think it would be wonderful for the World Cup to return to Japan, and a wonderful success for FIFA and the world.

Blatter has some big decisions to make in the near future, not only with South Africa but also with Brazil for 2014. By all reports, Brazil is light years away from being able to stage a World Cup in modern, safe stadiums, so the United States, Australia, Japan and England among others can all regard themselves as on stand-by.

The 2010 and 2014 World Cups are far from decided at the moment.


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J.League sets good example with Ganaha

21 May 2007(Mon)

May 18, 2007: The Kazuki Ganaha Case has been a good lesson for all, especially for club doctors who should know better.

And, I must say, it has been extremely well handled by all parties.

First by Frontale themselves, on learning that Ganaha had received medication via an intravenous injection -- treatment banned by both FIFA and the J.League, even though no illegal substance was involved.

And second by the J.League, who issued a six-match ban on the player, backdated four games.

That punishment, along with a fine of 10 million yen for the club, suited the "crime", and served as a reminder to all clubs about the regulations.

Some hard-line anti-doping lobbyists may think Frontale/Ganaha escaped lightly, but sports authorities can frequently over-react when faced with such an emotional, complex issue, and end up handing out punishments that are too severe due to inflexible guidelines. So well done to the J.League for getting this one spot on.

The suspension came to end following Frontale's 3-1 win at Kofu on May 13, and, at the time of writing, Ganaha is pencilled in for an instant recall at Oita on Saturday.

In Ganaha's absence, several players have taken up the responsibility of scoring goals, one of them being Yusuke Mori at Kofu last weekend. The right winger scored a lovely goal with the outside of his right foot, and, at the start of Golden Week, had provided a wonderful cross for Chong Tese to head home at the far post against JEF United.

The boy has talent, but also has a short fuse. To use some English slang, Mori could be described as "a bit of a nutter", or "nutcase" if you prefer -- they are both perfectly appropriate. JEF fans know this only too well from the controversial Nabisco Cup semi-final last season, and, during the recent game between the two sides at Todoroki, Mori puzzled me by staying down, pretending he was injured, as JEF pressed for an unlilkely winner near the end.

He would have been better off getting up and helping his team defend, but instead got himself a yellow card for dissent on jumping back to his feet and launching a tirade against the linesman.

There's never a dull moment these days at Todoroki.


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Kazu's cracker lifts Yokohama FC

17 May 2007(Thu)

May 15, 2007: You are never too old to learn – and never too young to learn from the old master, Kazuyoshi Miura.

That was a great goal he scored on Saturday, wasn't it, smashing the ball with his left foot on the run into the back of the Sanfrecce net. The perfect dipping volley.

What I liked about it was that Kazu just hit it! Too often in the J.League – and at the Emirates Stadium for that matter – you see players take one more touch than necessary, and the chance to strike is gone.

Worse still, they will control the ball and try and cross when the only thing on their mind, as a forward, should be to shoot.

That is why I loved Kazu's goal. Cynics may argue that he had no other choice but to shoot from that position as he no longer has the legs to keep running – and they may have a point as it was in the 42nd minute after all – but he knew what he wanted to do and executed this difficult skill in textbook fashion.

A shot like that can go horribly wrong, and the ball flies over the bar like a balloon, but on this occasion it rose and dropped at speed like a big dipper at the fairground. The result was another Kazu cracker -- his first league goal as a 40-year-old.

The lesson here for youngsters (such as Gon Nakayama, for example) is to feel confident in your own ability in front of goal. Don't be afraid to take a chance, especially when you are 1-0 up and there is only a couple of minutes to go to halftime.

There was nothing to lose and everything to gain at this stage of the match, and Kazu gambled and came up trumps with his spectacular dipping volley. (I have heard Japanese commentators call it a "loop shoot" – a "chip" or a "lob" in English, but that just does not do it justice).


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AFC – Another Football Calamity

14 May 2007(Mon)

May 11, 2007: What will the AFC think of next?

Their attitude towards the visit of Manchester United to Asia in general and Malaysia in particular is another low point for the AFC – standing, of course, for Asian Football Confederation; although, in this case, Another Football Calamity might be more appropriate.

They do not want Manchester United to come to Asia in July because they want everyone to focus on the Asian Cup, even though three of their destinations, Japan, South Korea and Macau-China, are not hosting the Asian Cup.

They think it is disrespectful to Asia, despite the fact United have millions of fans in this part of the world and have actually turned people on to the game of football.

I would like to think AFC have a strong point and deserve support, but then I turn up for the AFC Champions League game at Todoroki between Frontale and Arema Malang and see that the Indonesians have brought only 12 players – and the lone sub on the bench is a goalkeeper!

This is despite the fact clubs could register as many as 30 players in their provisional squad, and have 20 on the team sheet for any group game.

It was a farce to see this, and also to hear that a 13th player should have turned up at the airport back home but failed to arrive and was not answering his mobile phone. Perhaps he was watching Manchester United on TV.

So the AFC have enough of their own problems to tackle without turning on Manchester United, who cannot be blamed for being a massive global sporting success (note the lack of the word "brand" here, folks).

If they do not want United in Malaysia two days before the Asian Cup final in Jakarta on July 29, why should they allow Zinedine Zidane to visit Indonesia from July 6-8? Won't everyone be talking about his World Cup final headbutt and not the start of the Asian Cup on July 7?

And why should they allow Reading to play in Seoul, and Liverpool, Pompey and Fulham to play in Hong Kong, all in July?

Can't they try and ban them, too, as Asian fans will be distracted from the Asian Cup.

The AFC make me laugh, although it is too serious to laugh, really. After all, their annual awards have lost credibility, and the AFC Youth Player of the Year for 2006 went to China's Ma Xiaoxu, an 18-year-old Chinese girl who also won Female Player of the Year. Readers know I support the women's game, but this is just so PC (Politically Correct) it is absolutely PC (Plain Crazy).

What will happen this year? A futsal player being named Asian Player of the Year?

Do not bet against it.


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Football and fish and chips at Ajista

10 May 2007(Thu)

May 8, 2007: These are grim times for FC Tokyo fans, as the team stumbles from one calamity to the next.

Well, maybe a couple of beers and some fish and chips might cheer you up!

The countdown clock is ticking to Saturday, May 12, at 7pm to be precise, when Tokyo entertain JEF United at Ajinomoto Stadium.

With full credit to the people behind the scenes at FC Tokyo, they are making the occasion "UK Day" and hope to attract the many Brits who live in the Tokyo area to the game.

There will be a special discount price for Brits attending the match, and fans will be able to buy the traditional fare of fish and chips, washed down with an English pale ale. The British Embassy are also involved, so hopefully there will be a festival atmosphere before the game.

The UK Day theme is a natural progression for FC Tokyo, whose home matches try to capture the feel of a game in England in several aspects.

The first thing that comes to mind is the pre-match rendition of the Liverpool anthem "You'll never walk alone", plus the English stadium announcements by resident Brit Steve Spencer, who hails from Blackpool (to use the parlance of the typical player pen picture in the match day programme back home).

And Steve really loves his music, too, as all Brits do. "That's Entertainment" by The Jam and the Oasis classic "Don't Look Back in Anger" are part of the staple diet at Ajista, and the Brits who take advantage of this special offer on Saturday night might be feeling a little homesick listening to this as they devour their fish and chips (hopefully served in old newspapers, covered in salt and leaking with vinegar) and enjoy a pint or two (or three).

On the subject of football stadium food in England, I would like to relate a very funny story from a Wimbledon-Newcastle United match at Plough Lane, London, in the late 1980s.

About an hour before kick-off, myself and half a dozen other football writers from the north-east down there to cover Newcastle were milling around the centre circle, enjoying a juicy hamburger.

I was just about to take a large bite out of my mouth-watering snack when a hand reached over my shoulder and grabbed the burger. I turned round to see who it was, but was not quick enough to prevent a young and playful Paul Gascoigne from stuffing the whole burger into his mouth in one, chewing quickly and swallowing -- and this was an hour before kick-off!

This match would become famous, or, rather, infamous, for the physical abuse suffered by Gazza at the hands of Wimbledon hooligan Vinnie Jones -- but that is another, long, long story!

Enjoy your fish and chips at Ajista!


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Mizumoto emerges, Marinos' goal rush

7 May 2007(Mon)

May 5, 2007: When Yuki Abe left JEF United for Urawa Reds in the close season, Amar Osim would have been looking for a new leader to emerge.

He's found one already, and his name is Hiroki Mizumoto.

The 21-year-old Olympic team defender is having a fine season with the Chiba club, helping to fill the spiritual void left by Abe. Not only is he strong and quick, and good in the air and on the ground, he also has a bit of attitude. This is always good to see in a Japanese player, especially when confronted by an influential and dangerous foreign player.

Take the case recently of the Frontale-JEF game at Todoroki.

Mizumoto's job that afternoon was to man-mark Juninho, which is not easy due to the speed and the movement of the clever Brazilian. A couple of times the pair had words, and Mizumoto gave as good as he got in the verbal exchanges. He can clearly look after himself in the physical and mental sides of the game, and I am sure he will become a permanent fixture in the national squad in the near future.

In their next game, against Reds at Saitama Stadium, JEF were in big trouble when Saito was sent off early in the second half. They already trailed 1-0, but Mizumoto dragged them back into it with an equaliser which again displayed his fighting quality and character.

Successive 1-1 draws at Todoroki and Saitama are two good results for JEF, but now they must find some consistent home form to start moving up the table. It won't be easy, though, because a confident Reysol are next up for United, in the Chiba derby at Fukari on Sunday evening.

On the subject of confidence, you can't beat Yokohama F Marinos at the moment. Three straight wins, scoring 13 goals in the process and conceding only one, speaks for itself, and it was good to see over 33,000 at Nissan Stadium for the visit of Frontale.

I saw the first of those three wins, 5-0 against Oita, and there were just over 17,000 inside the vast stadium. What impressed me about the home team was how they defended from the front, with both Oshima and Sakata keeping the pressure on and forcing mistakes from their opponents. With the Yamase brothers on fire, things are starting to look up for the Marinos fans.


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Suganuma shows electrifying form

3 May 2007(Thu)

May 2, 2007: There was plenty to admire at Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

The electric storm that delayed the Reysol-Grampus game for 49 minutes was quite impressive, as a warm, sunny day gave way to thunder, lightning, torrential rain and gale-force winds.

Even Reysol's hardy band of Yellow Monkeys were sent scurrying from behind the goal, presumably to seek sanctuary in the tall trees, their natural habitat after all, just over the wall.

And some of those lightning flashes were mighty close; one of them, in fact, was closer to the goal than any Grampus forward would come during the match.

A chilly evening followed the thunderstorm, but the Reysol fans, especially in the back stand, created a marvellous atmosphere in one of the best stadiums in the league.

Reysol's first goal in their energetic 2-0 victory, scored by Tadanari Ri, was a soft one, but their second was a beauty, set up by Ri and finished in fine style by Minoru Suganuma.

It was Suganuma's fifth goal of the campaign and displayed all his confidence and composure. Ri intercepted a weak Nagoya clearance and headed the ball into the path of Suganuma, who had moved inside from the right wing and was bursting through the inside-right channel.

Without breaking stride, Suganuma took one touch to control the ball before firing it low past Kushino and into the bottom left corner from the edge of the box. Coming, as it did, five minutes before the break, the goal put Reysol in control and they were able to hold off Nagoya's late onslaught to claim all three points.

Suganuma is an interesting player, as Philippe Troussier would say. He graduated from the club's junior youth team through the youth team into the first team, and had spells with Vitoria of Brazil and Ehime FC of J2 along the way -- and he is still only 21.

While on loan with Ehime last season, Suganuma made 45 appearances in the league and scored 11 goals, and has clearly benefited from all those competitive games if his early-season form in J1 is anything to go by.

I always remember Gert Engels stressing how a season in J2 with Kyoto Purple Sanga, in 2001, had helped transform Park Ji Sung.

"You can train and train all week, but there is no substitute for playing competitive matches," Engels said of Park when they were together at Kyoto.

"In J2, teams are often playing Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, and you could see Park growing and improving throughout the year because he was having so many opportunities to play competitive football. He played 38 league games that season in J2 and it really helped his development."

While it may seem a frustrating step down at the time, dropping from J1 to J2 or moving from a big club to a smaller one (like Suganuma, as Reysol were also in J2 last season), it is a career move worth exploring for young players who feel they are not getting enough playing time where they are.


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Frontale spring up in April

30 Apr 2007(Mon)

April 28, 2007: In the nine-year J.League history of Kawasaki Frontale, April 2007 will go down as a breakout month.

Not only did they leave Saitama Stadium with a landmark 2-1 victory over Urawa Reds, it was also when they displayed their true colours on the Asian stage.

Their two victories over Chunnam Dragons have enabled them to take a six-point lead in the AFC Champions League Group F with only two matches to play, and they will surely go on and clinch a place in the last eight.

Japan's poor record in the Asian Champions League is well documented, so for a J.League club to beat a Korean rival away and then at home on consecutive match days is a significant step forward, as they followed up their 3-1 victory in Korea with a 3-0 win at Todoroki on Wednesday night.

Unlike in their previous Champions League home game, the lame 1-1 draw with Bangkok University, Frontale were in J.League mood, and it was too much -- even for the robust, desperate Koreans.

They were strong and aggressive at the back, creative and hard-working in midfield, and fast and dangerous up front -- the combination of power, pace and organisation that has transformed them into one of Japan's most-feared teams.

I like the way the back three of Minowa, Terada and Ito really attack the ball when it is in the air, and don't wait for it to bounce. This is when mistakes can happen and confusion can set in, but the lack of errors, and the lack of risks, is what enables them to maintain their consistency.

The home game against Chunnam was actually closer than the 3-0 scoreline suggests. Turning round 1-0 behind, the Koreans really went for it in the second half and enjoyed long spells of possession. For a while it looked like Chunnam were the home team, taking the initiative and winning free kicks in dangerous areas, and Frontale the away team, soaking up the pressure and attacking quickly on the break.

But when the dynamo Juninho, who had opened the scoring, set up Jong Tae Se for Frontale's second in the 81st minute, the three points were in the bag, and Jong added a third just for good measure.

Jong (to use his AFC spelling, as opposed to his J.League name of Chong Tese) did a great job in the place of Ganaha, taking up good positions across the line and flying into challenges in true, swashbuckling Korean style.

The football month is not quite over, though, as Frontale have a home game with JEF United on Sunday. But whatever happens at Todoroki tomorrow, April 2007 has been a vintage month for the Kawasaki team.


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New injury is cruel for 'Atsushi-Goal'

26 Apr 2007(Thu)

April 25, 2007: Just when Kashima Antlers were getting going, and just when Atsushi Yanagisawa was getting going, everything has been put on hold again.

After breaking a bone in his left foot, the Antlers captain is out for three months, which is a great pity for fans of the player in particular and the team in general.

Throughout his career Yanagisawa has won many admirers by scoring some fantastic goals for club and country. One that remains in the memory for me was a sparkling solo goal against Reysol one evening at Kashiwanoha, where he used his tremendous acceleration to surge through the home defence before finishing with a cool, crisp strike.

I have seen him in action only once this season, in a 3-3 draw at Chiba, and after the match Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira said Yanagi was starting to hit peak condition.

And so it proved, with a lovely winner away to Yokohama FC and then both goals in a 2-1 victory at Shimizu S-Pulse on Saturday.

With the bright and skilful playmaker Nozawa back in action after his injury, the two linked well for Yanagisawa's first goal at Shimizu, and then the striker scored his second of the match with a clean, precise header at the far post.

This was the Yanagi of old, showing all the predatory instincts needed for a top-class striker.

Sadly, though, his injury has ruled him out for some time, which will surely hold up the progress of the team as they were starting to climb the table.

Looking ahead to this weekend, an Antlers team with Yanagisawa in top form would have posed a great threat to Urawa in what should still be a cracking match played in front of a huge crowd, thanks to the masses travelling from Saitama Prefecture and the improved form of the home team.

The setback also ends any hope he may have had of a national team comeback in time for the Asian Cup in July.

Although he would not have been thinking about that, I am sure deep down he would like another chance in the blue shirt to bury the nightmare of Germany, where he missed so horribly in the 0-0 draw with Croatia.

Many critics will remember him for that alone, but he has scored too many fine goals during his career to be labelled a national team flop.


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J.League, JFA must resolve Olympic problem

23 Apr 2007(Mon)

April 21, 2007: Japan's Olympic hopefuls beat Syria in midweek with two fine goals from Mizuno and Honda.

But I wonder how their club managers at JEF United and Nagoya Grampus Eight felt about it?

Well, I know the feelings of Sef Vergoossen, as I spoke with him about this matter after Nagoya's match against Omiya at Komaba.

Honda, his exciting and important left-sided player, was not there, of course, because he was already in Damascus, preparing for the under-22 match.

I asked Sef how he felt about having to give up Honda for an Olympic qualifier, and, being Dutch, he gave an honest answer.

"Unbelievable!" was his first comment.

"It is not fair and not correct, for all teams," he added.

I have to say that I totally agree with him, and I am sure Amar Osim feels the same, as he was without Mizuno and Mizumoto when JEF lost at Kobe. Those are two massive losses for the Chiba team, as was Honda for Grampus at Komaba.

In this day and age, with international calendars and with the jobs of head coaches on the line in virtually every match, I cannot believe that teams must lose their top young players from championship matches to play for the Olympic team.

I know that Japan puts more emphasis on Olympic football than probably any other country in the world, but these kind of fixture conflicts simply should not happen.

Sef stressed that he was not against giving up players for the Olympic team. What frustrated him was that the J.League insisted clubs field their strongest teams in the Nabisco Cup, but then had to give players to the JFA and miss league games.

"Give me one hour to make a schedule for the season," was the observation of Sef, who said that basically this should not happen in a professional league.

Sef is absolutely spot on.

It is ridiculous for teams to have to lose players for J1 matches, and the same applied for Reysol when they played Reds last Sunday. Without top scorer Suganuma and Lee/Ri, depending on the JFA/J.League spelling, this was not the Reysol team that was setting the pace at the top of the table.

Hopefully the powers that be can get their heads round this issue as quickly as possible, because clubs should not have to lose players from the championship for national team duties.

One quick fix suggested by Sef and another coach I spoke to about this was to give clubs the right to postpone a league game if they had to give up players, as there was plenty of room to reschedule games later in the season.


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Referees deserve praise

19 Apr 2007(Thu)

April 17, 2007: Referees are usually in the news for the wrong reasons, answering the doorbell when controversy calls.

So let's give credit where it is due to the referees of the two matches I attended at the weekend.

First up was Omiya against Nagoya at Komaba, where the ref was Akio Okutani. I thought he had a fine match, allowing play to continue as often as possible and refusing to allow the trainers to come on to treat stricken players.

I use the word "stricken" very generously here, because, of course, most of the time the players are not hurt at all.

The Nagoya players were particularly annoying in this aspect, until Omiya scored in the 27th minute.

It is amazing, though, how quickly players will get up on their own once they know the ref is not going to stop the game.

Omiya fans may disagree with me about the performance of referee Okutani due to the late dismissal of their Brazilian central defender Leandro -- but again the ref was absolutely spot on.

Leandro had been booked in the first half for a late challenge on Toshiya Fujita, and received his second yellow card for delaying the game as Ardija clung on to their 1-0 lead. Omiya had been awarded a free kick deep in their own half, and Leandro shaped to take it before changing his mind and walking away to allow keeper Aratani to take over.

Leandro's actions really were insulting the intelligence of the match officals, so Okutani was quite right to show him his second yellow. Leandro will now be suspended, but who's fault is that? Not Okutani's, that's for sure.

And so to Sunday, Reysol against Reds at Kokuritsu. Or should that be Reds against Reysol, as the Urawa masses turned it into a home game for the champions.

On this occasion the ref was Hajime Matsuo, and his decision to caution Reysol's Brazilian striker Franca for a blatant dive should be applauded. Sorry "Yellow Monkeys" at the other end -- but Franca deserved everything he got in the shape of a yellow card.

Franca tried to get Tulio booked, and subsequently sent off, when tumbling in the Reds box under no contact whatsoever.

Shortly before that incident, Tulio had been shown the yellow card for dissent, furious that the referee had not taken action against, what he claimed, was a dangerous elbow from Koga in an aerial challenge.

Reysol were 2-0 down at the time, Franca was desperate and tried it on when Tulio raced back to defend.

Fortunately, referee Matsuo did not fall for it, even though the Reds fans behind the goal must have been nervous when he reached for his pocket, fearing a second yellow for Tulio.


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Abe proves his value -- again

16 Apr 2007(Mon)

April 14, 2007: When Urawa Reds bought Yuki Abe from JEF United in the close season, they got a lot for their money.

A central midfielder, a libero, a goal scorer...and now a match-winning left back in Reds' most recent outing.

That came at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night, when they beat Shanghai Shenhua 1-0 in the third round of Asian Champions League group games.

Abe is one of the best headers of a ball in the J.League -- just check out his two great headers at Oita recently -- and proved it again with another athletic effort from Ponte's free kick.

Abe's goal, in the 43rd minute, was greeted with a sigh of relief among the people who wanted to see a football match, as the time-wasting tactics of Shanghai were threatening to turn another Asian Champions League match into a farce.

Even though they had lost their first two games and needed a win here, the Chinese started like they were 1-0 up with five minutes to go, trying to protect a slender lead.

This was particularly noticeable when they ventured forward and actually won a corner. The player taking the kick would walk as slowly as possible to the corner flag, eating up the seconds in order to preserve the stalemate for as long as possible. Was it only the referee that failed to spot this?

As a colleague pointed out, what would have happened if Shanghai had gone in front? It does not bear thinking about, but possibly the goalkeeper would have been "injured" on a regular basis.

So well done to Reds, and also to Frontale for their excellent win in Korea. They needed to put that dire performance at home to Bangkok University firmly behind them, and did so in emphatic fashion to take control of the group at the halfway stage.

One thing that puzzled me about the fixture list on Wednesday was that the Nabisco Cup and J2 were also being played on the same night as the Asian Champions League. This diluted the significance of the Asian Champions League, instead of the football focus being fully on Japan's teams in the continental club championship. Seemed a bit strange to me, as the Nabisco Cup suffered, too, in terms of attention.

This coming Wednesday, on the other hand, Japan's Under 22s are away to Syria in Olympic qualifying, but there is no Asian Champions League, no J1, J2 or Nabisco Cup in Japan on the same night.


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Sakamoto's experience boosts Albirex

12 Apr 2007(Thu)

April 10, 2007: Judging by events at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday, Albirex Niigata have built a tidy team as they continue to establish themselves in the top flight.

The former JEF United stalwart Sakamoto had a particularly impressive afternoon in the 3-1 defeat of FC Tokyo, making life extremely uncomfortable for one of my favourite young players, Inoha.

Sakamoto used to play all over the place for JEF, such was his versatility on either flank, in defence or in midfield, but with Albirex he has settled into the left back slot in an orthodox back four.

With the explosive Shingo Suzuki in front of him, this is a dangerous combination, and Inoha's lack of natural pace was exposed at right back in Tokyo's four-man defence. I would prefer to see Inoha in the centre of defence or in defensive midfield, where his qualities can really shine through.

Sakamoto opened the scoring for Albirex with a lovely little goal, robbing the ball from a floundering Kawaguchi as easily as taking candy off a baby. Kawaguchi had come back to help out Inoha, but got himself into all sorts of trouble -- and Sakamoto saw his moment and pounced ruthlessly like a praying mantis. It was all over in a blur.

There is a bit of height in the Albirex team, too, notably the two central defenders, Nagata and Chiyotanda, and striker Yano. It is easy to see why national coach Osim has had a look at Yano, as he never stops running and always seems to find some space. He reminds me a bit of TBS's favourite footballer Kubo -- raw and unpredictable, awkward for opponents to mark.

On the foreign player front, Silvinho conducts the Albirex midfield and controlled the game against Tokyo, while the sturdy Edmilson is top quality in attack. He scored once and could have had a couple more, and he remains crucial to the team's future.

The third foreign player is Marcio Richardes, formerly of Sao Caetano, and he looked lively on the right side of midfield, cutting in towards goal.

Unlike Tokyo, Albirex kept their shape as a team and passed the ball accurately; Silvinho was at the centre of everything -- including Tokyo's consolation goal when he turned in Norio Suzuki's cross from the left.

Yes, Albirex looked a confident and well organised team. Not championship-winning material, but one that should be able to stay closer to the top of the table than the bottom and give any opponent a decent game, home or away.

The final word must go to the Albirex keeper, Kitano. Without wanting to exaggerate, he produced a truly world-class save at the end to deny Lucas. Tokyo's cultured Brazilian forward thought his curling shot from the edge of the box was in all the way, but Kitano, at full stretch, pushed it over the bar with his right hand.

It was a magnificent save, a candidate for Save of the Season if the J.League or one of the TV companies had such a competition.


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Waiting for Kota

9 Apr 2007(Mon)

April 7, 2007: It has not been the smoothest of starts at Omiya Ardjia for Robert Verbeek.

At the time of writing he has seen his team lose all four J1 games but win two and draw one of their three Nabisco Cup group matches.

The draw came at a cold and soggy Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Wednesday night, 0-0 against Reysol.

After the game I had an interesting chat with Verbeek about a player who has been around a long time (he is now 29) and who has bags of talent, but who has still not delivered on his potential: Kota Yoshihara.

Against Reysol, Yoshihara played on the right side of midfield in a 4-4-2 formation, and did a good job in providing pace and width to the attack and also tackling back deep inside his own half. With 20 minutes to go he moved up front, alongside Morita, and this time caught the eye with his accomplished back-to-goal technique, controlling the ball and shielding it from the defenders around him.

Verbeek feels that finally he is beginning to see the real Kota -- but it has been a struggle to bring him to this point.

"I had two meetings with him at our training camp in Guam and told him he must train harder otherwise he can forget it," Verbeek said.

"I also told him that I saw some DVDs from last year and every time I thought, 'he can play nicely, he is a good striker', but I had not seen that since I came here. I told him that this is a different Kota, and I want to see the Kota I saw on the DVD."

The message seems to have got home, as Verbeek acknowledged about Wednesday's lively display: "This is a totally different Kota. He is dangerous, he can keep the ball and he can score goals. I am very happy and very proud of him. It was a little bit of a battle, but, okay, that can happen."

When I told Verbeek that Philippe Troussier had once described Yoshihara as the Japanese Romario for his finishing prowess in the box, the Dutchman stated: "He has something -- but he must be 100 per cent. He is still 80 per cent and he misses 20 per cent. In two or three weeks he can be 90-95 per cent, and he can be very dangerous for us."

These must be encouraging words for the Omiya fans, who need a sharp and hungry Yoshihara to put away a few goals in what already is looking like a fight for survival in the top flight.

Yoshihara must also be encouraged by the new coach's philosophy, as he changes the playing style from "waiting, waiting", as he described it, to a more adventurous..."let's challenge, play football, attack."


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Nagoya Grampus Four - so far so good

5 Apr 2007(Thu)

April 3, 2007: Let's just call it the Nagoya Grampus Four -- for the time being at least.

After four rounds of the new J1 season, Grampus are sitting proudly at the top with a perfect 12 points, ahead of Gamba on goal difference.

And that is something to celebrate for the club in particular, and for neutrals around the country keen to see a new challenger, even so early in the campaign.

Nagoya's Dutch coach, Sef Vergoossen, puts the good start down to a good pre-season, and stability and continuity from last term.

Even so, Grampus have long-term injuries in Marek Spilar -- out for the year, according to Vergoossen at Mitsuzawa on Sunday -- and Atsushi Yoneyama, a stylish defender for Verdy but who could not establish himself in Frontale's land of the giants. (Even the ballboys are bigger than 'Yone' at Todoroki).

Can Grampus stay at the top?

Vegoossen said a top five position at the end of the season would be an excellent display by his team in the circumstances.

"We have 13-14 players, whereas the likes of Urawa, Gamba especially, Frontale and S-Pulse have 20-22 for the first team," he said.

"We have no magic team. We have a normal team who play with discipline and a good mentality. We have 13-14 players, and after that players are coming in with quality but without any experience."

They should have beaten Yokohama FC much more comfortably than 2-1 on Sunday, thanks to a flashing near-post header from Keita Sugimoto and a slow-motion, far-post finish from Kei Yamaguchi after a lightning raid up the right flank from Sugimoto.

Grampus played with a very well-organised 3-5-2, and a strong backbone of Masayuki Omori, Toshiya Fujita and Frode Johnsen.

Naoshi Nakamura and Keisuke Honda gave them width, and Yamaguchi and Kim Jung Woo some solidity in midfield, while Akira Takeuchi and Takahiro Masukawa played at the back, either side of Omori. It was Masukawa's excellent cross, whipped in from the left, that allowed Sugimoto to head Grampus level, and Nakamura's delicious pass up the right which released Sugimoto, who had timed his run behind the defence to perfection, to set up Yamaguchi's winner.

The Grampus fans were in fine voice behind the goal into which their team scored twice, and, let's face it, they deserve something to celebrate after some barren, post-Pixie years.

Fujita, now 35, is critical to Grampus Eight's season, not just for his ability and experience but also for his leadership and tactical brain. He may not cover the amount of ground he used to during his Jubilo heyday, but he knows where everyone should be and what they should be doing.

Good luck to Grampus. It's good for the game to see them up there.


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England job too ‘white-hot’ to handle

2 Apr 2007(Mon)

March 30, 2007: It is quite embarrassing being English at the moment.

Not just because we are struggling in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, but because of the abuse hurled at the players and coach by their own fans.

We still reckon we are the “home” of football – but football has not come home since the 1966 World Cup.

Since then we have produced some great players, and occasionally a very good team – 1990 World Cup, for example – but our head coaches cause mixed reaction to say the least.

The latest in the hot seat – make that the “white-hot” seat – is Steve McClaren. He is viewed as dull and lacking charisma, even though his coaching credentials were obviously admired by Alex Ferguson and Sven-Goran Eriksson to name but two.

This respect does not spread too far among the England support, though, and that must be worrying for the Football Association considering the thousands upon thousands of fans who travel all over the world to cheer – and now boo -- the team.

A 3-0 win over Andorra in midweek could not ease the pressure, and McClaren must be wondering what he has to do right to please some people.

This is where Japan and England differ so much, because in Japan you still support the team when the going gets tough, whereas in England – fans and media alike – we love to pile the pressure on and almost hope for failure to keep the news and the controversy flowing.

I remember once the Japanese fans getting very angry after a 1-1 draw with UAE at Kokuritsu in 1997, when it looked like Japan might miss out on the 1998 World Cup with the so-called Doha Tragedy of 93 still fresh in the mind. But all the trouble and the shouting came after the final whistle and outside the ground, not during the match as Japan toiled to try and claim three points.

I wonder what state the England team would be in now if the FA had been a bit more patient in looking for a successor to Eriksson. They could have got Luiz Felipe Scolari – but the FA insisted he sign the contract before the 2006 World Cup, and not after it. I heard this from Scolari’s good friend, Jose Roberto Guimaraes, who is head coach of Brazil’s women’s volleyball team. Jose Roberto told me he had spoken to Scolari a couple of times on the phone from Germany, and Portugal’s coach could not understand why England wanted the deal done before the World Cup. Scolari would have signed for England, but was put off by their attitude.

Clearly McClaren is struggling, and the London media would love Terry Venables back in the job.

I may as well get my choice in now – Steve Coppell. A great player for Manchester United and England on the right wing, studying at Liverpool University while playing for Man United, and an excellent coach with Reading.


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Komano establishes himself under Osim

29 Mar 2007(Thu)

March 27, 2007: With a goal for Takahara and a successful return for Shunsuke, no wonder the two Europe-based players dominated the headlines after the Peru game.

But my man of the match for Japan was neither of these.

My MVP was Yuichi Komano. I thought he had a fine game out on Japan’s left flank, and has quickly established himself as an Osim favourite.

He is just the kind of player you would not want to play against, isn’t he? It would be very annoying and frustrating to play against Komano because he just won’t leave you alone or go away. When you think you have a second or two on the ball to assess the situation, Komano would be snapping away at your heels like a tough little terrier. You just couldn’t shake him off, by fair means or by foul, and this would test the patience and the resolve of any opponent.

Against Peru he was everywhere. He attacked with pace and purpose down that left flank, and set an example for Kaji on the other wing. I have always been a fan of Kaji’s, and still am, but Komano was much the more aggressive and adventurous of the two wing backs on this occasion. I was wanting Kaji to push forward more in the first half, to take his man on, but he seemed reluctant to take a risk and leave the team without cover behind him. This is where Abe and Keita come in, though, because they can both read these situations quickly and move across the pitch into position, offering protection to the two wingers.

When it comes to full backs/wing backs/wingers, Japan are in pretty good shape, with Kaji and Mizuno on the right, and Alex, Komano and Honda on the left – and Komano, of course, can play on either flank.

At 25 years old (26 in July), Komano has plenty of time to mature and develop under Osim. He is just the kind of player Osim likes with his pace, mobility and intensity – and just the kind of player the opposition must dislike.


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Kawasaki Frontale at home to Bangkok University?

26 Mar 2007(Mon)

It was a formality, right?

Frontale would be 2-0 up at half time, and add another four in the second half to win six-nil -- with Bangkok lucky to get nil.

Well, how wrong can you be?

I did not think it was possible for Kawasaki to play so badly, even with Ganaha on the bench nursing an ankle injury. I am sure coach Sekizuka was not expecting to call on Ganaha, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and off the bench he came midway through the second half to try and breathe life into his ailing team.

Frontale did manage to equalise, thanks to an own goal, but could not find a second and ended up with a point from an embarrassing 1-1 draw. It could have been worse, too, as Bangkok looked quite sharp on the break and full of confidence in front of goal against a strangely lethargic and nervy Frontale.

Usually they are like a machine. Big, strong, relentless and ruthless, they have grown accustomed to bullying and battering opponents into submission in the J.League with their potent cocktail of speed and aggression.

But the roaring lions of the J.League became timid fieldmice on the Asian stage. They started slowly, conceded an early, well-taken goal, and could never really get into it.

The pace was pedestrian, their passing was poor and they failed to get behind the Bangkok defence, either down the flanks or through the middle with the speed of Juninho. Magnum had a decent game and tried to stir them into action, as did libero Terada moving forward, but it was not Kengo's day -- and the team struggled with its chief playmaker out of sorts.

All in all, then, a bad day for Frontale and for their hopes of winning Group F to advance to the quarter-finals. They still have an away win under their belts, though, and, with four points from two games, are in a good position -- but it could have been so much better going into their clashes with Chunnam Dragons.

Sensing an upset, it was inevitable that Bangkok University would use every trick in the book to prevent Frontale from gaining any momentum. Time-wasting, players, notably the keeper, going down "injured" at every opportunity, the match was close to a farce at times.

But with the rules as they are at the moment, and the mentality of the players locked in the culture of "Unfair Play Please", there is little the referee can do except add on time; only four minutes on this occasion.

It was a poor spectacle, but at least Frontale cannot play worse than this.


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Anyone for Taka-Maki? Sounds like a tasty combo

22 Mar 2007(Thu)

March 20, 2007: There's nothing like a bit of pressure on your forwards to see who delivers the goods at the crucial time.

This is surely what Ivica Osim is doing with his strikers in the build-up to Saturday's friendly with Peru.

His 18-man squad on Monday included just one forward, Takahara of Eintracht Frankfurt.

The rest, such as Maki, Ganaha, Bando, Sato and maybe even Okubo, are all on hold for one reason or another -- lack of fitness or lack of goals.

With Wednesday's national holiday bringing with it Nabisco Cup and Asian Champions League games, Osim will hold off for the time being and add a few more names later.

For the strikers, then, there is only one way to impress him -- goals.

I watched Maki on Saturday against Antlers and thought he played okay.

Nothing special, no goals, but well marked by the human bulldozer Iwamasa. There was an amusing spell in the second half when the ball was played up to Maki on the halfway line three times in quick succession, and Iwamasa battered him on each occasion. Hard but fair, Akita-style. No problem with that at all, even though the JEF trainers had to bring their shovels on to the pitch the third time to dig Maki out of the turf.

Maki works hard for the team and never hides. He's always running and making himself available, despite knowing that a good clobbering is just around the corner -- and he always comes back for more.

So Maki, currently a goal-free zone, would still get my vote -- and don't forget he's pretty much a one-man band up front for JEF with Hanyu buzzing around from deep and Arai still finding his J1 feet. Arai should have scored first in Saturday's goal fest with Antlers, but directed his free header to Stoyanov's wonderful left-wing cross against the bar.

Sato embarrassed FC Tokyo on the opening day of the season, and always makes an impact for Japan off the bench, while Bando is full of fire and energy. Just a pity about the theatrics to get Fabao sent off the other week, though. Bando looked like he was auditioning for a part in Hamlet, and that he had been poisoned, strangled or both.

Ganaha missed Saturday's rout of Yokohama FC due to injury, so Osim will take his time before naming Takahara's sidekicks. A Taka-Maki partnership looks pretty good to me, though, now that Takahara has kept the goals coming in Germany. One to run and one to score.

Taka-Maki? I am sure someone ordered that in an izakaya near Soga Station on Saturday night.


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Marinos president feels the hurt of derby defeat

19 Mar 2007(Mon)

March 17, 2007: When it comes to being down in the dumps, Shigeo Hidaritomo was about as low as it gets after the Yokohama derby.

Naturally the Yokohama F Marinos president was bitterly disappointed after watching his side lose 1-0 to newly promoted Yokohama FC at Mitsuzawa, but his despair went deeper than this.

The away fans, who had contributed to a typical derby-day atmosphere, made their feelings clear after the final whistle by giving their team the thumbs down. It was only two matches into the new season, but this defeat hurt for the Marinos faithful, and hurt more for Hidaritomo.

"We have to realise we are not the same club that won the championship in 2003 and 2004," he mumbled to me, in the corridors under the main stand after the game.

"We are not Newcastle United. We are more like Sunderland."

That last statement must have been hard to admit, as the Marinos president is a keen Newcastle United supporter -- and Sunderland are their fierce rivals in the north-east of England from a division lower.

Clearly money is tight within the Marinos organisation, and Hidaritomo was acknowledging this with his Newcastle-Sunderland comparison. First and first in 2003 and 2004, ninth and ninth in 2005 and 2006 tells its own story.

As a fellow Magpie, I tried to console him by reeling off the names of the Marinos players who were not avaialble for the Yokohama derby -- Matsuda, Kurihara, Takayuki Suzuki -- but to his credit he would not use this as an excuse.

It was probably no consolation, either, that Koji Yamase was in such scintillating form so early in the season.

Yamase had scored a wonderful solo goal in the opening match of the campaign, and was on fire at Mitsuzawa. Showing all the qualities and characteristics of the Japanese player so admired by national coach Ivica Osim, Yamase was carving through the Yokohama FC midfield at will, only to be denied, time and time again, by some last-ditch blocks and interceptions.

I also liked the look of the rangy left back, Yusuke Tanaka, only 20, and the 18-year-old Takashi Inui, from Yasu High School, who came on as a substitute and quickly showed his pace and his flair.

There is plenty of experience in the Marinos squad, a solid team backbone and some young talent, too, but the quality of the foreign players on view -- the ageing, much-travelled J2 specialist Marcus, the ageing, injury-prone Marques -- left a lot to be desired.


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Japan's first-leg victory: Sweet and Sawa

15 Mar 2007(Thu)

March 13, 2007: Three-nil would have been perfect, but no one can complain about Japan's 2-0 victory over Mexico in the women's World Cup qualifier at National Stadium on Saturday.

On the balance of play over 90 minutes, and considering Mexico looked extremely dangerous on occasions, Japan escaped with an excellent result from the first leg.

This two-leg play-off is far from over, though, and Japan will have to play as well, if not better, at Toluca on Saturday to stay in front.

This means cutting out the careless individual mistakes in midfield, such as the one by Miyamoto on halfway which almost allowed Mexico to take the lead, and the panic attacks in defence, when Japan failed to clear the ball cleanly.

A Mexico goal looked likely on several occasions, but keeper Fukumoto was in fine form for Japan and visiting captain Dominguez was extremely unlucky to see her long-range lob hit the top of the crossbar when it seemed certain to drop in.

A 2-0 win, then, was about as much as Japan could have hoped for, but not nearly enough to render the second leg a formality.

Japan's two goals were excellent in their creation and execution, with Sawa scoring the first and making the second for Miyama.

The first goal was a stunner, Utsugi overlapping on the left flank and sending over a perfect cross into the middle. Sawa, near the penalty spot, met the ball at the peak of her jump, and expertly directed a header into the far corner.

For the second goal, Sawa herself did all the hard work on the left, beating her man -- woman? -- on the outside and crossing invitingly for Miyama to dash in and head firmly into the net. You don't have to be a Crouch or a Hirayama to be a danger in the air, as Sawa (1.64 metres) and Miyama (1.57 metres) both proved triumphantly.

Overall it was an entertaining game to watch, with plenty of action at both ends and free-flowing play. There was no stoppage time at the end of the first half, and only two minutes at the end of the second half, after the referee had allowed a trainer to enter the pitch for the first time as late as the 87th minute. No, it was not to attend to an "injured" Japanese player wasting time with a 2-0 lead, but to a Mexican player with a twisted left ankle.

Fair play does still exist at the highest level in the modern game -- at least in women's football.


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Washington adds spice to Indonesian fare

12 Mar 2007(Mon)

March 9, 2007: Washington was in top form again for Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium the other night.

Not for his goals, of course, because you all know by now that he did not find the net in Reds' 3-0 victory over Persik Kediri in the Asian Champions League; it was for his reaction to being substituted -- or "dragged" to use the vernacular of the players in England.

A Reds substitution had looked imminent at 2-0 midway through the second half, with the pace and unpredictability of Ya-jin the obvious change.

But for whom?

Washington clearly did not think it would be him, and questioned the bench when the No. 21 was held up.

"Me?" he seemed to say, only in Portuguese. "Surely not. I'm bound to score soon, boss."

That was probably true, because by the law of averages Washington was due a goal, having missed too many chances and half-chances to list.

But off he came -- and so did his gloves and his shirt. Sources close to the tunnel said he had stormed into the dressing room to the accompaniment of every Portuguese swear word in the dictionary, and several that weren't.

"Where's Washington?" I asked Reds' assistant coach, Gert Engels, after the game. "In the dressing room?"

"No, he's gone," replied Engels, grimly.

"So he's on the team bus already?" I asked.

"I hope so," said Engels, with the hint of a smile, albeit a concerned smile.

During the post-match press conference, Urawa boss Holger Osieck gave a fine impression of Arsene Wenger.

Just like Wenger does not see all close decisions that favour his team, Osieck said he "did not realise" what had happened when Washington went off, and quickly changed the subject to Okano. All that training in FIFA diplomacy really came in handy on this one for the German coach.

It was a serious incident, though, and Washington should be fined for his outburst. We can't have every youngster in Saitama Prefecture throwing his gloves and shirt to the floor when being taken off. Even the fans might start removing their replica Washington shirts in frustration at Urawa Misono Station if they have to queue at the Fare Adjustment machine.

One last point from a very one-sided game. The team manager of the Indonesian side, Iwan Boedianto, blamed his keeper Wahyudi -- all 5ft of him -- for Reds' three goals. The first two, fair enough; but the third?

Very harsh on the keeper that, as Shinji's goal was a gem, curling it home, left-footed, from the edge of the box. Ono can do that in his sleep; a class act on the night, which is more than can be said for Washington.

By the way, does anyone want to buy a pair of Washington gloves? Worn for only 68 minutes.


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Top teams get the tough job done on opening day

8 Mar 2007(Thu)

March 6, 2007: It is never easy to win the first game of a competition, be it in a sprint or a marathon.

The World Cup group phase is like a sprint, with only three games to play and little room for error.

Win the first game and you have one foot in the next round (ask Australia); lose it and the pressure is on (ask Japan).

The J.League is the marathon -- 34 matches over the course of nine months -- and with much more time to recover from a slow start.

This is why the results of two recent championship-winning clubs were a bit worrying in Saturday's first round, as Urawa and Gamba both emerged with three points from opening day struggles that could so easily have ended in a draw.

There is a lot of optimism and renewed ambition at the start of a season, as clubs feel their new signings or new manager can lead them to the promised land.

So the fact that Reds and Gamba both won in testing circumstances sent a message to the rest of the first division that the hunger is still there.

Reds needed a late winner from Nagai to seal a 2-1 win over Yokohama FC at Saitama, while Gamba had new recruit Bare to thank for their 1-0 victory at home to Omiya.

Coming off the bench after 64 minutes, Bare's somewhat fortuitous goal two minutes from time, when his left-foot shot from the edge of the box bounced into the turf, looped over the keeper and dropped into the net, enabled Gamba -- my favoruites for the title -- to make the perfect start.

Two great goals were scored, too, albeit very different in execution.

Kubo's left-footed rocket was spectacular for Yokohama FC. Although Ono should have closed him down as he moved in from the right, who would have expected Kubo to find the top corner from such a long way out? Classic Kubo. When he's fully fit and match sharp he still has the element of surprise and unpredictability that makes him such a danger.

Yamase scored a wonderful goal for Marinos, at home to Kofu. Displaying terrific acceleration, ball control and composure, Yamase looked at peak condition after some bad injuries so early in his career.


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Gamba's squad has the look of champions

5 Mar 2007(Mon)

March 3, 2007: With the new J.League season about to kick off this afternoon, it's time for predictions.

Without further ado, here's my tip for the title: Gamba Osaka.

I am not just saying this because they battered Urawa 4-0 in the Xerox Super Cup, but because they look to have the most quality in terms of foreign players and, more importantly, Japanese.

They also play vibrant, attractive, well-organised football -- sort of a JEF United but with money.

The much-travelled Sidiclei is a rock at the back; Magno Alves has proved his goal-scoring quality with Oita Trinita and with Gamba last season; and new recruit Bare will be a handful for any defence. These three players know Japanese football well, and there are no risks for the management in terms of their performance.

Even though the face of Gamba, Miyamoto, has gone to Salzburg, coach Nishino still has plenty of options at the back, alongside Sidiclei and the stylish Yamaguchi. Reds, however, have the advantage over Gamba in this department, but this department only.

It's in midfield where Gamba look particularly strong.

Endo is admired around the league, and higher up than that, for his ball-playing abilities and the fact that he keeps possession. Troussier once described him to me as a Japanese Redondo due to his range of passing and long-range shooting.

The rejuvenated Myojin and the emerging Hashimoto provide stability in the engine room, and Kaji and Ienaga the width. This still leaves the clever Futagawa to pop up and use his creative flair and keep the chances coming.

The competition for places is fierce in this area, so no player can ever afford to let his form slip.

Up front, Bando is a livewire, and Gamba will not be short of goals with him, Magno Alves and Bare around.

Yes, they have the look of champions again, following their incredible success in 2005. All those who were at Todoroki on the last day of the season will never forget those amazing scenes, and Gamba came very close to repeating that title triumph last year.

It took Gamba a couple of years longer to emerge under Nishino than I expected, but they are here to stay in the championship race with all-round quality like that. For me they are the team to beat.


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Japan-Mexico brings back bronze memories

1 Mar 2007(Thu)

February 28, 2007: There are some massive games coming up for Japan in the next few weeks.

No, not the under-22s as they attempt to qualify for the Beijing Olympics; or the national team as they prepare for their first match of the year, against Peru on March 24.

I'm referring to the women's team, who face a two-leg play-off against Mexico for a place in the World Cup in China in September.

The home leg will be played at Tokyo National Stadium on March 10, with the away leg in Mexico a week later.

Unfortunately, the home game clashes with a slate of J.League matches, but I am sure there will still be a big crowd at Kokuritsu to watch the "Girls in Blue" go about their business against the CONCACAF representatives.

I must admit the women's team provided one of my most memorable moments from the Athens Olympics when they beat Sweden 1-0 in their first group game.

The match was played at some remote venue in the days leading up to the official opening ceremony of the Games, and Homare Sawa and Company produced a wonderful display to keep out the European powerhouses. When the final whistle blew there were some emotional scenes all around, notably from the JFA president, Saburo Kawabuchi, who was watching from the grandstand.

It was a great moment for Japanese football, and helped to popularise the women's game back home.

Now under head coach Hiroshi Ohahsi, Japan are just two steps from qualifying for the World Cup, and the second of those steps must be taken in Mexico.

If the players are looking for motivation or inspiration, they should talk to the former JFA president, Shun-ichiro Okano, who still paints a vivid picture of the men's campaign at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico.

That was when Japan won the bronze medal, beating Mexico in front of 100,000 spectators at the famous Azteca Stadium. The players were so exhausted after the game that they could not even drink without assistance from a member of the staff.

They had given their all for the team and for their country in testing conditions, and with two goals from the legendary striker Kamamoto had won the bronze in the Mexicans' own fortress.

Let's hope "Nadeshiko Japan" can do it again, and maintain their proud record of having appeared in all FIFA World Cups since the women's edition started in 1991.


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Keeper Seitz on course for stardom

26 Feb 2007(Mon)

February 23, 2007: Think of a nation with the best keepers in the world and you can't do much better than the United States at the moment.

Brad Friedel, Tim Howard and Marcus Hahnemann are all playing in the English Premier League, with Blackburn, Everton and Reading, respectively, while Kasey Keller is captain of Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga.

Judging by reports from Kumamoto this week, the Americans may have found another gem in 19-year-old Chris Seitz.

Seitz, at 6ft 4ins a good height for a keeper, left the University of Maryland after two years to pursue his career with Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer. It seems only a matter of time before he joins the trail to Europe.

England used to take pride in its keepers -- Banks, Shilton, Clemence, Seaman -- but there is no doubt we have fallen behind the United States in terms of top-quality "cats" -- the name we used to use for a keeper, in reference to Peter Bonetti, who was nicknamed "The Cat" for obvious reasons (he drank milk from saucers. Actually it was for his athletic spring, but I'm just testing your concentration!)

Why is it that the Yanks are streets ahead of us, or should I say thoroughfares ahead of us?

Possibly, probably more likely, because the Americans are athletes before they are goalkeepers. They are brought up playing sports that demand a high level of hand-eye coordination, namely basketball, so they adapt easily to the job of a cat.

Here's an interesting story.

Joe Bryant, father of NBA star Kobe and now coaching in Japan, attended a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan last year, and revealed that a young Kobe had, in fact, wanted to play in goal for Juventus. Joe, or "Jellybean" as he is known due to his love of the soft, chewy sweet, was playing basketball professionally in Italy and Kobe, naturally, became interested in football.

Just think...Kobe Bryant in goal for the Los Angeles Galaxy, under captain Beckham!

In England, the natural selection of a goalkeeper followed a similar path: if they were hopeless out of goal, put them in the goal where they could do less damage. No one wanted to go in goal, so we would have to take turns after we had let one in -- but if the next keeper let one in deliberately so he could get out again straight away, he would be punished by being made to stay in for another.

Maybe this lack of formal training for young keepers has now caught up with us...and the athletic, all-round Americans are the true top cats.


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The wait was worth it for JEF fans

22 Feb 2007(Thu)

February 20, 2007: JEF United fans must have greeted news of their new signing with a mixture of anticipation and relief.

Anticipation because World Cup defender Nenad Djordjevic looks a mighty fine signing -- and relief because the new league season is less than two weeks away.

The 27-year-old Serb is listed as "DF" in the club's official announcement, but maybe that should have read "VVDF" -- very versatile defender, as Djordjevic can play either in the centre of defence or at full back. He also has experience of playing in the holding role in central midfield ("volante" as you say here), which makes him almost like a Serbian Abe: comfortable and competent in a number of roles -- and a bit taller, too, at 1.83 metres.

Just like Abe strengthened Reds in defence and midfield, Djordjevic looks like doing the same for JEF, and that can only increase the competition among the Japanese players.

After appearing a little lightweight a few weeks ago, the JEF squad is now looking much more business-like, and manager Osim will have numerous permutations at the back, built around Stoyanov, and in central midfield.

I have written before about Stoyanov's ability -- surely the most complete player in the J.League when he is fully focused -- and also about his suspect temperament, as he is the kind of guy who could start an argument in a telephone box.

But if Djordjevic and Stoyanov hit it off at the back, accompanied by the emerging Mizumoto or the wily Saito, then teams could find it hard to break through.

Djordjevic, I am sure, will increase the team's power considerably. The Serbs, as the former Yugoslavia, have the reputation of being the Brazilians of Europe in terms of natural talent, creativity and improvisation. Think Dragan Stojkovic, for example. They can all play, but, at the same time, they can all self-destruct -- as I am sure the Bulgarian at Fukuare will tell you.

Anyway, it looks like a long wait for JEF fans has been well worth it. Djordjevic will be quality -- and he cannot be blamed for any of Argentina's six goals against Serbia-Montenegro in Germany because he was on the bench!


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The Euro guessing game goes on

19 Feb 2007(Mon)

February 17, 2007: If Ivica Osim does decide to bring back some players from Europe for the Peru friendly next month, it will be interesting to see just who.

A few names have been circulating in the media --Shunsuke, of course, plus Matsui, Takahara, Koji Nakata, Alex.

Personally, I can't see Osim calling up half a team, as it would undermine the foundations he spent the second half of last year laying down.

And is there any need for five or six additions to the squad, when analysing what is already there?

I think he might just settle for two -- Nakamura and Matsui, although his reasons for leaving out some of the others mentioned are very different.

Takahara would be a popular choice for many, but I am not convinced. Osim likes Maki and Ganaha, and he has a third target man in his training squad in Takamatsu. Add to these Bando and Sato, and the permutations are numerous without even considering the newcomer Yano.

At the latest count, following Eintracht Frankfurt's 4-0 drubbing by Stuttgart on Friday night, Taka has netted seven goals this season for his new German team. A decent strike rate, true, but is it enough to convince Osim he needs him back? I am really not sure, but Osim is the kind of coach who prefers continuity rather than tinkering -- and Taka has had his chances before.

Alex? Well, of course he is in Osim's plans for the Asian Cup. For the moment, though, Osim might be tempted to leave him in Austria. After all, Alex has just made the move from Urawa to Salzburg, will still be adapting to the lifestyle and the training, and does he need any upheaval so early in his new start?

Osim knows everything there is to know about Alex, and his training squad includes Alex's former Reds understudy, Soma, as well as the robust Komano. Osim may well settle for this.

In the meantime, let the guessing and speculation continue, but if I had to play safe I would go for Shunsuke and Matsui, with Takahara an outside bet.


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Time is right for Shunsuke recall

15 Feb 2007(Thu)

February 14, 2007: Shunsuke fans can prepare for a homecoming at Nissan Stadium on March 24 when Japan play Peru in their first match of the year. I have no idea, of course, if Ivica Osim is going to pick Nakamura -- but somehow I feel the time is right for him to do so.

Since succeeding Zico after the World Cup, Osim's priority has been to bring in fresh faces and change the mood of the team, and most people would agree he has achieved this.

He felt there was no point in bringing back players from Europe for matches that would provide a good test for his J.League players; and it is not as though he did not know everything there is to know about the players in Europe anyway.

But now, with his focus changing to the defence of the Asian Cup in July, he is moving on to step two -- and this is why I feel Shunsuke will be back in business for the Peru game.

Osim has said the timing of such a move is everything, not just for the national team but for the player himself.

And it is no coincidence that Nakamura is enjoying his best season in Europe and playing consistently well for the Hoops because he has been concentrating only on club football.

Celtic's Champions League Last 16 ties with Milan are on February 20 and March 7, and, if the Scots progress, the quarter-finals will be between April 3 and April 11.

In the Scottish Premier League, Celtic play Falkirk on March 18 and Dundee United on March 31 -- so Japan-Peru on March 24 at Yokohama is ideal for a Shunsuke return. I would also think Osim would like to see how Shunsuke fits into the team, bearing in mind there are only two Kirin Cup games in June before they head for Hanoi.

Yes, all things point to a Shunsuke call-up for the Peru match -- a full house and mountains of cash for the JFA.

Makes sense to me.


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Bellmare building from the back

12 Feb 2007(Mon)

February 10, 2007: If you want to build a strong team, build from the back is the usual philosophy.

That seems to be the case at Shonan Bellmare, who have added another defensive veteran to their ranks as they try to challege for promotion from J2 in 2007.

The former Antlers and national team right back Akira Narahashi is the latest acquisition for Shonan, who had already signed Toshihide Saito from S-Pulse and Jean Witte from FC Tokyo.

Narahashi and Saito were both members of Takeshi Okada's World Cup squad in France. Whereas Saito was the understudy to captain and libero Masami Ihara, Narahashi was the first-choice selection on the right side of the coach's 3-5-2 formation.

On the other wing, of course, was his Antlers team-mate Naoki Soma, and this pair formed a dynamic combination for club and country, either as wing backs in the national team or on the flanks of Antlers' four-man defence. In the good old days for Antlers fans, the back four of Narahashi, Akita, Fabiano and Soma used to roll off the tongue as smoothly as the defence used to operate, again providing a solid base for the team to build from.

Some serious injury problems for Narahashi in recent seasons, though, together with the emergence of teenage right back Atsuto Uchida, led to the inevitable release of the 35-year-old defender, and he has now returned "home" to Bellmare with the experience of 310 J1 games behind him, and 38 caps for Japan.

The class of Saito and the combative qualities of Jean should make for a useful combination in the heart of the Bellmare defence, in much the same way Kyoto are hoping for the Akita-Morioka partnership to anchor the team.

Meanwhile, Uchida, still only 18, will be hoping to emulate the career of Narahashi, and is already on the international ladder with a place in Japan's under-22 squad for the friendly against the United States in Kumamoto on February 21.


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Henry: the perfect global ambassador

8 Feb 2007(Thu)

February 7, 2007: Anyone who has spent some time in the company of Thierry Henry will understand fully his recent appointment as global brand ambassador for Gillette.

Henry was one of three sportsmen named in the Gillette Champions programme, along with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.

You cannot get much higher than that, can you, and it is a fitting reward for Henry's attitude and performance both on and off the pitch.

I was lucky enough to be given an exclusive interview with Thierry at Arsenal's fabulous training centre at London Colney, near St Albans in rural Hertfordshire. It was around this time of the year in 2001, and the interview was arranged at short notice by none other than...Arsene Wenger!

I had already set up a meeting with Wenger before leaving Japan, and after a long chat with the Gunners manager I asked him about the possibility of interviewing the charismatic Henry. With Wenger's support, the Arsenal press officer booked me an appointment with Henry a week or so later -- and that was that.

With a photographer and his assistant, we returned to London Colney for the Henry interview a couple of hours ahead of schedule, and after a nervous wait were greeted by the man himself, dressed casually and immaculately as if he had stepped off the training pitch straight into the pages of a fashion catalogue.

The interview was to take 20 minutes, but we were still talking an hour later after he had signalled to the press officer that he was happy to continue. And then came the extensive photo shoot in the quickly assembled "studio" the photographers had set up.

At this stage of his career, of course, Henry was already a World Cup winner from 1998 and a European Championship winner from 2000, although it is worth remembering that he did not actually play against Brazil in the '98 final. He was on the bench and would have come on, he said, until Desailly was sent off in the 68th minute and coach Jacquet had to change his plans.

During the interview Henry spoke of how France's World Cup success had united the country in a way the politicans never could, and how the French fans at Euro 2000 had been so much more noisy and passionate than at the World Cup on home soil two years earlier. He also said he would be forever in Wenger's debt for rescuing him from Juventus and transforming him from an orthodox winger to a centre forward.

Henry was friendly and funny, and serious and sincere -- the perfect global ambassador.


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No surprise about Naka

5 Feb 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, February 2, 2007: When a club feels obliged to deny something on its official website, you know it must be serious.

That was the case this week with Celtic and Shunsuke Nakamura.

“Naka NOT on the move,” read a headline on celticfc.net on Tuesday, January 30, the day before the transfer window closed.

“This story is absolute nonsense,” said the “Shunmeister.”

“I am very happy at Celtic and I am very much looking forward to all the challenges which lie ahead at the club.”

The two-paragraph article was carried to deny “a story doing the rounds on the Internet” claiming he would be leaving Celtic this summer to return to the J.League.

A day after the transfer window closed I had a long chat with a J.League insider about the prospect of Nakamura returning to Japan, and he could not believe it either. Not just yet, anyway.

After all, why should Shunsuke be thinking about coming home when he has finally found his place in Europe, a level at which he can shine?

Playing for a big club in a small league, Nakamura has the time and the space to weave his magic on a weekly basis. With this has come the confidence to express himself, and his manager, Gordon Strachan, is never slow to praise him to the heavens.

So when he plays against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League, and soon against Milan, the former Marinos schemer feels he can do anything with a swish of that left foot. Kaka, in fact, has some very interesting things to say about Celtic in general and Nakamura in particular on uefa.com, looking ahead to the Celtic-Milan clash.

As I said before, Shunsuke has found his perfect level. He can enjoy his football at a famous club with a massive worldwide following, he is one of the brightest stars in the Scottish Premier League, and he has the Champions League to look forward to.

Considering his form and his eye-catching goals against Manchester United, I was a little surprised there were no stories linking Shunsuke to a move to England or Spain during the transfer window.

Unless the bigger leagues feel he has found his level, too.


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Morimoto takes his chance

1 Feb 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, January 31, 2007: Takayuki Morimoto brought back memories of the now retired Hidetoshi Nakata with his goal-scoring debut in Italy at the weekend.

Nakata, remember, set Serie A alight in 1998 when he netted twice for Perugia in a 4-3 defeat against Juventus – and could have had a hat-trick on his debut if the coach had let him take a penalty.

Now, finally, it is Morimoto’s turn to grab the headlines.

After waiting patiently in the reserves for Catania, the 18-year-old striker was sent on in the 84th minute against Atalanta in Bergamo on Sunday. Catania were trailing 1-0 at the time, but Morimoto earned them a point with a quick and confident finish inside the box.

This will surely earn him more playing time, but a starting position cannot be guaranteed with Catania playing well and standing joint fourth in the table.

For all those who saw the shaven-headed Morimoto play for Verdy, they will testify that the youngster really looks the part. He is sharp, has a good physique and is always on the move, qualities which make him a bright and dangerous player.

I remember having a long chat about Morimoto with Ossie Ardiles when the Argentine was Verdy manager. He told me that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson held Morimoto in high regard and that he would follow his progress carefully after seeing him in a youth tournament.

Ardiles has a similar man-management approach to the likes of Kevin Keegan and Gordon Strachan, always talking his players up and making them feel they are the best, but there was no doubting the former Tottenham star’s genuine valuation of Morimoto.

The teenager is on loan to the Sicilian club from Verdy until the summer, and may yet feature in the plans of Olympic team coach Sorimachi.

After all, Japan’s under-22s are looking a bit short of firepower as they prepare to challenge for a place in Beijing 2008, and I am sure the explosive qualities of Morimoto would give them a new dimension.

That is for the future, though. Hopefully, Morimoto will have more chances to show his quality for Catania now that he has marked his Serie A debut with an eye-catching goal.


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Hope springs eternal from new fixture list

29 Jan 2007(Mon)

January 27, 2007: What a wondrous, reassuring event each year -- the release of the new fixture list.

It is a sign that life will soon be returning to normal, with football dominating the weekends and every other day of the week for that matter.

There is hope and optimisim and promise at the start of the new season for all teams. The dead wood has been cleared out, new heroes have arrived, the new manager is just the man we need for success, the old manager will have learned from his experience...yes, everyone is starting from the same line, and this year is going to belong to us.

Well, for a couple of weeks at least.

The fixtures for 2007 were released on Thursday and all eyes immediately turned to the opening day. After that I always look for Boxing Day (old habits die hard), before remembering the J.League chooses to play through the hot and humid summer months and waste all this glorious football weather we have now -- crisp and sunny, and no baseball to compete with in the media. Anyway, that's another story.

March 3 is when the new campaign gets under way, and when the winter business behind the scenes is finally put to the test on the pitch.

The pick of the opening day fixtures is Frontale-Antlers at Todoroki. It will be an awkward test for the new-look Antlers, as they try to reassert themselves under new Brazilian management. Let's face it, Frontale away is about as tough as it gets, and no one looks forward to playing them, even at home.

FC Tokyo fans can expect a roller-coaster season with the attack-minded, Spanish-influenced Hiromi Hara back in charge, but much will depend on the fitness of new signing Paulo Wanchope, the much-travelled, injury-plagued striker from Costa Rica. The Gasmen entertain Sanfrecce and will be satisfied with nothing less than three points.

Yokohama F Marinos manager Hiroshi Hayano will be trying to exorcise the ghosts of Kofu at Nissan Stadium, as he was in charge of Reysol when Ventforet sent them tumbling down into J2 two seasons ago with Bare's six-goal salvo at Hitachidai, where even the rock Tsuchiya was powerless to prevent the rout.

Niigata's Orange Army face a long trek to Oita for the first game, whereas S-Pulse's Orange Army will welcome J1 returnees Vissel Kobe -- Yoshito and all -- to Nihondaira.

J1 champions Reds are at home to J2 champions Yokohama FC, whose big signings Kubo and Oku can expect a warm welcome from the generous Saitama masses, while Gamba's powerful attack will be hoping to plunder a few goals against a fragile-looking Omiya team, especially with Tsuchiya gone to Verdy.

On March 4 it's newly promoted Reysol at home to a rejuvenated Jubilo, and Nagoya at home to JEF. It could have been worse for JEF, though -- they could have been playing Grampus at home.


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Abe’s move from Chiba was inevitable

25 Jan 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, January 24, 2007: It was inevitable that Yuki Abe would leave JEF United sooner or later.

Their former manager, Ivica Osim, predicted as much during a pre-season chat three years ago – and is probably surprised it has happened later rather than sooner.

Osim said that JEF would always find it difficult to keep their best players whenever a bigger, richer and more ambitious club moved in, and that’s exactly what has happened with Abe’s transfer to Reds.

JEF will miss Abe immensely. He was a symbol of the club and a proud and inspiring captain. He could also play in a number of positions, but spent most of his time alongside Yuto Sato in central midfield. In fact the triumvirate of libero Stoyanov, with Abe and Sato in front, was the fulcrum of the team, although Abe’s future for Reds and for Japan now looks like being on the right side of a back three, alongside Tulio in the middle and Tsuboi on the left.

JEF fans must be wondering who will be next to leave, not this season but in the near future: Maki? Mizuno? Mizumoto? Hanyu?

The departure of the versatile Sakamoto to Niigata has a silver lining, though, in that Mizuno will now be a regular starter – and that is good news for club and country.

Mizuno, quick and clever, is effective on the right wing and also in a more central role, attacking from deep positions behind Maki.

Rumour has it that Yamagishi will succeed Abe as captain, but that would be a surprising choice for me. I thought Osim Junior would give the job to Stoyanov in the hope that the responsibility might calm him down. When the Bulgarian with the silky skills lets his feet, and not his mouth, do the talking, he is surely the best all-round player in the J.League, capable of forming a one-man defensive line and able to break forward and dribble past three or four at a time. When he is in the mood, the J.League is too easy for him – but he is no good to anyone sitting in the stands suspended.

Abe will have learned a lot from Stoyanov and from “The Professor”, Saito, about the art of defending, but, sadly for JEF fans, he will now be putting it to good use for Urawa.

Must admit I can’t wait for the JEF-Reds game at Fukuare next season. Last year’s was a cracker, when Maki and Nakajima swept JEF to a pulsating 2-0 victory, and this season’s will be even more special following the Abe transfer.


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All change at Yokohama

22 Jan 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, January 20, 2007: So who's got the better deal -- Yokohama FC with Tatsuhiko Kubo or Yokohama F Marinos with Takayuki Suzuki?

I'd have to say Marinos at this point, as I have always been a fan of Suzuki's, whereas the physical condition of Kubo is just so up in the air.

When he is fully fit over a sustained period of time, of course, Kubo is a special player in the J.League, with distinctive qualities. He is awkward for defenders to mark, all elbows and sinew, and unpredictable in his play. Is he going to shoot with that powerful left foot, or is he going to lay the ball off and get in the box to meet the cross with a soaring header, trampling defenders in his wake?

That remains the attraction of Kubo. At 30 years old he is still raw, difficult to mark and even more difficult to read for a defender.

But that's when he is fit, and clearly Yokohama FC will be hoping that a change of environment and the challenge of leading a newly promoted team in J1 will bring a change of luck -- and a few goals, too.

His replacement in the Marinos squad is the much-travelled Takayuki, who has returned to Japan from Red Star Belgrade.

Unlike Kubo in his prime, for example 2003 when he bagged 16 goals in 25 games, Suzuki has never been a prolific scorer.

His highest single-season tally, in fact, is only six from 26 games in 2001, before he began his European tour, but scoring goals has never been what his game is about.

Takayuki is the ultimate team player, a resilient leader of the line who takes the knocks and opens up space for his teammates. I once thought a Takayuki-Okubo partnership would work well in the national team, but both players disappeared off Zico's radar long before Germany and were never in the running for a place in the 23.

Suzuki is also 30 and past his prime, but he will give the Marinos attack a focal point and keep his markers busy. He is also the master of winning free kicks around the box, so no doubt Koji Yamase will be rubbing his hands together at the prospect of a shooting gallery.

Both Kubo and Suzuki will provide experience and leadership in their respective new clubs, and will be crucial figures if their teams are to have successful campaigns.

In the case of Marinos, success means getting back up there and challenging for the title; for Yokohama FC, their goals are more modest -- and Kubo will have to score a few of them to give them some momentum.


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Gamba take no risks with foreign players

18 Jan 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, January 17, 2006: You have to take your hat off to Gamba Osaka, even though they could not quite defend their league crown last season.

Looking at all the transfers flying around at the moment, it seems that Gamba have perfected their policy in the risky and expensive business of signing overseas players.

Quite simply, they let other clubs bring them to Japan, monitor their form and, if they think they are good enough, just offer them more money to move to Suita City!

Well, this may be over-simplifying their policy, but their three foreign players for 2007 are all established in Japan, and, to use some English soccer slang, can do the business.

The latest addition to the Gamba fold is the big and powerful forward Bare, who impressed for Kofu in J1 last season. Bare is not a risk at all. He is a good pro with a good attitude and plays hard for the team – I will never forget how overcome he was with emotion after scoring all six Kofu goals at Kashiwa in the promotion/relegation play-off in 2005. (Unless he was crying because he should have scored 10, but missed so many other chances!)

Bare will join Magno Alves and Sidiclei in the blue and black stripes of Gamba, replacing Fernandinho, who has joined S-Pulse to replace Marquinhos, who has joined Antlers!

Magno Alves was not a risk, either, when signed from Oita to replace the prolific Araujo, and neither was Sidiclei, who had been around for several seasons. In fact I remember watching him play for Yamagata at Tochigi Green Stadium in an Emperor’s Cup tie against Nagoya Grampus Eight – and, I am sure, missing a penalty (sincere apologies to Sidiclei if my memory escapes me!). It was 1998 and Philippe Troussier was there, too, watching Kenji Fukuda play for Grampus as he assembled his team for the Sydney Olympics.

Sidiclei, Magno Alves and Bare…this is sensible business by Gamba, who, of course, have the money and the prestige to attract good players who have made their mark in Japan with other, less fashionable teams (Oita, Kofu, Vissel, for example).

Gamba know exactly what they are getting on and off the field, while other clubs often have no idea as they search in the dark for instant superstars from Brazil.


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From Galacticos to Galaxy: Perfect move for Beckham, MLS

15 Jan 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, January 12, 2007: A few weeks ago I wrote that David Beckham might be on the move, and urged J.League clubs to make a serious attempt to sign him.

Well, Beckham is leaving Real Madrid all right, but nowhere did I read that an option for him was Japan. Oh well, never mind, it was worth a thought!

He is, of course, going to Los Angeles, swapping the Galacticos for the Galaxy and being paid a vast amount of money to help spread the gospel of association football in a country which is reluctant to embrace it.

Not surprisingly there has been bitter criticism of Beckham on the football websites I have read, saying he has “sold out” by going to the US and that his wife, Posh Spice, has made the decision to pursue her career in Hollywood. This type of comment was to be expected, as Beckham was Public Enemy No. 1 after his red card against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup and was still being lambasted by large sections of the British media in Germany last summer. I attended four of the five England games and was always surrounded by media men who wanted him to fail; they wanted his passes to go astray; they wanted his free kicks to fly wide; they wanted him to be substituted.

Yes, this is the mentality of the British media…build them up and then knock them down. In Japan you protect your national treasures, such as Nakata and Nakamura, Ichiro, Matsui and now D-Mat, but in England we just love to knock ‘em down to size and put them in their place. Sad, but true.

Personally, I think it is a great move by Beckham. He is taking on a massive challenge to popularize the sport in the US, and could have received big money elsewhere. It is not as though he needs it, right?

He is a decent man, and he loves football and plays with pride and passion. I read amidst all the recent hysteria that many Real Madrid fans actually wanted him to captain the team last year because of these qualities.

At 31 he still has a lot to offer the Galaxy and MLS in general, and, in my opinion, the cynics are wrong on this front. Why go to Italy and be bored in Serie A with Milan? Why go back to England and have the press on your back every day and just waiting to pounce on any mistake, on or off the field?

Beckham has done enough for his country, and is now doing more for the US and for football at large. Yes, the game has been good to him, but he has put a lot in and deserved it.

Good luck, Beckham. The US needs you!


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Consadole need Miura’s J2 experience

11 Jan 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, January 10, 2007: It will be a strange experience for Toshiya Miura next season when he swaps Omiya Ardija for Consadole Sapporo.

Omiya, of course, live in the vast, red shadow of big brother Urawa, and they go about their business as Saitama’s second club.

At Sapporo, however, Consadole are the pride of Hokkaido, and the focus of attention in the J.League.

Having taken Omiya up to J1 in 2004, and kept them in the top flight in 2005 and 2006, Consadole supporters will be expecting Miura to do the same for their team in 2007. After all, getting a team out of J2 is much different than running an established team in J1, and this is why Consadole have hired Miura.

Last season, Consadole finished sixth in the 13-team second division, 16 points from an automatic promotion place after 48 games. That is a lot of ground to make up for the Hokkaido team, and Miura will be setting his targets in detail, as usual.

Personally, I thought he did a fine job at Omiya, especially in his first season in J1, in 2005.

He always said the second season in the top flight would be more difficult than the first following promotion, and Omiya’s cause was not helped last year by the poor quality of the foreign players.

Although Omiya signed some talented Japanese players this time last year, notably Daigo Kobayashi and Yukio Tsuchiya, the team lacked muscle and physical presence. Also, the lack of a home stadium must not be under-estimated. This was a huge disadvantage for Omiya, and the new-look Omiya Koen will not be ready until October this year.

Omiya’s priority now, under new head coach Robert Verbeek, is to become more solid and stop making careless individual errors in dangerous areas, something the aging Toninho was guilty of on too many occasions.

Omiya will be hoping Verbeek can take Ardija the next step forward, while Consadole will be aiming to use Miura’s coaching craft and experience to take them back to where they belong, J1. After all, the Sapporo fans are among the best in the league for loyalty and passion, and J1 in 2008 will be better with the Hokkaido team in it.

I am already looking forward to Ardija vs Consadole at Omiya Koen on the opening day of the 2008 season -- in J1, not J2!


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Figo deal would be a waste of money

8 Jan 2007(Mon)

January 6, 2007: “What a waste of money!”

Anyone visiting a football ground in England will be familiar with this cry from the stands.

It is used by the fans after an expensive signing of the opposing team makes a terrible error, for example shooting wide from a good position.

On this occasion, though, I am using it in reference to the possible move of Luis Figo from Inter to Al Ittihad of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

I say possible because last week it looked like a done deal, but now Inter are denying Figo is going anywhere until his contract ends in June.

The deal reported would have seen Figo join Ittihad for six months, from January to June, and receive $8 million for his work. In the reports I read last week, and saw on TV, there was no mention of a transfer fee, which, of course, the Saudi club would have to pay as Figo was still under contract with Inter. He would not be a free agent until July.

Anyway, I still feel that $8 million to Figo for six months would be a waste of money. Presumably it would be tax-free, too, so the only party to have any long-term benefit would be Figo himself.

I wrote recently that the J.League needed a bit of star quality, and mentioned the likes of Beckham, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, but I was thinking more of a couple of seasons, and a more sensible salary.

For Figo? I think he would struggle in Japan. The game is too fast for him and I doubt Figo would have the motivation to start again and make an impression in a new country at the end of his career.

He looked exhausted most of the time at the World Cup in Germany, having come out of international retirement once already, and the long sweltering summer months of July and August would have taken their toll in Japan.

The deal with Ittihad may still come off, but Inter, having seen the amount of money available for Figo, will make sure they get a handsome transfer fee. And why not? They are entitled to it, and what’s another couple of million dollars for the Jeddah club.

You cannot blame Figo for taking such an offer, but I don’t think Ittihad would get anything near good value.

What a waste of money!


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Tennohai format needs overhaul

4 Jan 2007(Thu)

January 2, 2007: There was a happy ending to Guido Buchwald's three-year reign as Urawa Reds manager when his team completed the league and cup double on New Year’s Day.

It was an incredible finish, wasn't it, when Nagai poked home the winning goal from Ya-jin's low cross from the right in the 88th minute for the only goal of the game against Gamba. 

I thought Gamba had been on top for much of the second half, and looked the more likely to score. Indeed, Tsune missed a wonderful chance to write his own happy ending when he failed to connect with a near-post header from a Yamaguchi cross, and Reds keeper Tsuzuki pulled off some fine saves to deny his former club.

This is what cup finals are all about, and Reds were able to win it with a team that was far from full strength at the end of a long campaign. Personally, I thought both teams looked jaded, as if the Emperor's Cup was one tournament too many。Surely didn't the season end when Reds beat Gamba at Saitama Stadium to win the league championship a month ago? 

I have said before that Japanese football has outgrown the Emperor's Cup and the JFA competition should be restructured to give it more prestige. For a start I think the Emperor's Cup should be restricted to J1, J2 and

JFL teams only. No high schools. No universities. The 18 J1 teams could enter at the second round and be joined by 14 teams from J2 and the JFL who have won through the first round.

This would give 32 teams in the second round, 16 in the third and then the quarter-finals, semis and final.

If the Nabisco Cup could finish in the summer, the Emperor’s Cup could start around September and the rounds could be slotted in the J1 schedule. This would mean all teams would play with their strongest members, rather than foreign players going home and the season-long reserves taking over, which is the case now.

Also, no neutral venues except the semi-finals and final. Each new round could be drawn at JFA House on a Monday afternoon, with the first team out of the hat playing at home.

This would give the surviving JFL and J2 teams the chance to be drawn at home to a big club such as Urawa. An unseeded draw would be much more attractive than the current format, where tired teams and their patient fans have to trail huge distances to play at a neutral venue.

I still think the Emperor’s Cup has its place, but it needs drastic changes to bring it into the modern Japanese football era.


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Akita, Kyoto get good deal

31 Dec 2006(Sun)

December 29, 2006: What a smart and sensible move by Kyoto Sanga to sign the veteran defender Yutaka Akita from Grampus.

Relegated this season, Kyoto have become a "yo-yo" team in the J.League, meaning they go up and down quite quickly.

If they had signed a player of Akita's quality and experience this time last year, maybe they would have survived in the top flight instead of leaking goals and always facing an uphill struggle.

Akita is my kind of player. A combative and rugged centre half, he is very much a British-style defender. He leads by example and makes sure the opposing centre forward knows he is in a game, a one-on-one duel for 90 minutes and a battle which will play a significant part in which team wins the war.

Akita to Kyoto, therefore, is a good deal for both parties. Kyoto get all his experience and commitment, while Akita gets another year as a player.

It could also lead him into coaching, as I am sure Akita's knowledge and ability will be a constant source of inspiration for his teammates.

J2, of course, is a long old slog, and the Kyoto management will have to be careful with Akita's aging limbs. With injury and suspension sure to take their toll at some point during the marathon campaign, it is unlikely Akita will be able to play all the games.

But, still, just having him around will be a boost to Kyoto. On the training pitch, on the bench, he will be of great value to Sanga next season.

Strong in the air when he attacks the first ball, he will need a quicker player around him to sweep up the second ball, but again this can only be a positive for Kyoto. It is a wonderful opportunity for a young defender to learn his trade alongside the master, whose professionalism on and off the pitch should have lasting effects on the team in general.

Akita has been a great servant to Japanese football, and his presence on the J2 circuit will be appreciated by those hardy fans of all teams.


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Frontale have the right stuff to make ACL impact

28 Dec 2006(Thu)

December 27, 2006: It’s only natural that Urawa Reds are getting all the attention at the moment.

Crowned league champions for the first time, still in the Emperor’s Cup, Guido Buchwald with his suitcases packed for Stuttgart, Tulio the J.League MVP…

But spare a thought for Kawasaki Frontale.

Runners-up to Reds after a swashbuckling campaign, Frontale will also represent Japan in next year’s AFC Champions League – and have a great chance to win their group and advance to the last eight.

While Reds were being drawn with Sydney FC, Shanghai Shenhua and Persik Kediri of Indonesia in Pool E, Frontale will play Bangkok University, Arema Malang (Indonesia) and Chunnam Dragons of South Korea in Pool F.

The format is tough, with only the group winner progressing to the quarter-finals, so there is little room for error.

Frontale, though, have enough quality to get through. They have a very distinctive style of play, unlike any other J1 team, and I hope they maintain this style in the Asian Champions League.

They have several big, strong players who form the backbone of the team, as well as pace up front and out wide, and craft in the middle through Kengo Nakamura. They are relentless and ruthless against physically weaker teams in Japan – just ask Omiya Ardija – and batter opponents into submission.

I hope they do this next season in the Champions League, especially against the Koreans, who may be intimidated by their all-action style. It would be great to see Frontale coming out firing on all cylinders at home and away against Chunnam, as surely first place in the group will be contested by these two teams.

The conditions and environment may not be too inspiring on their travels, but still Frontale should be able to brush past Bangkok University and Arema Malang.

One thing is for sure. Both Reds and Frontale will be giving it their best shot in the Asian Champions League next year, especially with the juicy carrot of a place in the FIFA Club World Cup waiting at the end of it.


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Timing perfect for Miyamoto

25 Dec 2006(Mon)

December 23, 2006: These are exciting times for the Japanese duo Tsuneyasu Miyamoto and Alessandro Dos Santos.

Both players have been linked to moves overseas for several seasons now, and they will finally get their wish when they team up at Salzburg in the Austrian first division.

Salzburg the club is now run by the energy drink giant Red Bull, and Salzburg the team by Giovanni Trapattoni and Lothar Matthaus. This means the club is awash with money, and why they will be able to pay the considerable salaries of Tsune and Alex.

For both players it is a wonderful opportunity to change their environment, play their football in a beautiful country and, as Philippe Troussier would say, to grow as human beings with this experience outside Japan.

It makes complete sense for Miyamoto, who has lost his place in the national team to Tulio and who has absolutely nothing to lose by leaving Gamba. He has deserved this break in his career and I am sure he will continue to be a fine ambassador for Japanese football.

With his business and economics studies behind him, his experience as a player, his language skills, I could imagine Miyamoto one day heading the multi-million dollar industry known as the Japan Football Association. Chief Executive, perhaps? National coach? The world is his oyster.

There was nothing left for him to achieve at Gamba, having won the league championship in 2005 and coming close this time. His move to Austria, therefore, is perfect timing.

As for Alex, his departure should serve as an incentive to all left-sided players in Japan.

National coach Ivica Osim has adopted a policy of using J.League players for matches so far, rather than disrupting the lifestyle and body clocks of the players in Europe. This policy may change in 2007, of course, as Osim builds towards the Asian Cup in July, and he may bring some players back and integrate them into the new-look team.

I doubt if Alex will be one of them, though, as Osim knows everything there is to know about him. It also makes sense to leave Alex in Austria for the next few months, let him settle, and try and find a new left-sided player for the national team.

Komano is already there, but Osim may take a longer look at Honda from Grampus, Ienaga from Gamba, or even Soma from Reds. Soma is the readymade replacement for Alex at Urawa, but he needs games to rediscover the form that caught the eye at Verdy two or three years ago.

For Japanese looking for a new travel destination, Salzburg will be well worth the trip in 2007.


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Time to celebrate on two fronts

21 Dec 2006(Thu)

December 19, 2006: It is about time a defender won a top individual award.

Too often these awards go to the forwards, to the flair players and goal scorers, and the valuable contributions of defenders go unrewarded.

Their job is not as glamorous as the role of the fantasistas, and they do not grab the headlines as much, but this does not mean they do not deserve equal recognition.

This is why I was delighted with the outcome of two awards this week: Fabio Cannavaro winning the FIFA World Player of the Year, and our own Tulio being named MVP of the J.League.

For me, both were natural and obvious choices.

In a World Cup dominated by defence, Cannavaro was simply outstanding for Italy. He is a player I have admired for several seasons, and one any manager in the world would want in his team. He is tough, inspirational, a natural leader, strong in the air and rugged on the ground.

Critics may say Cannavaro has not settled well at Real Madrid, but personally I don’t care too much about this. After all, 2006 was World Cup year, and whatever happened – or whatever did not happen – in Germany should dictate the whole year.

This is why Cannavaro was the logical choice, ahead of Zidane and Ronaldinho.

Is Cannavaro a better football player than Zidane or Ronaldinho? Of course he is not, but he is magnificent in his own position and was at his best when it really mattered.

And so to Tulio.

As I wrote in this column recently, he is the life and soul of any team in which he plays, and has been the symbol of Urawa Reds this season.

I will never forget an evening with Guido Buchwald at the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan shortly before the World Cup in Germany. Buchwald, the guest speaker, said Tulio was the best defender in Japan, but Zico had not spoken to the German coach about his Reds players for two years.

I still wonder what might have been if Tulio had been on the plane to Germany, battling against the Aussies and the Croatians.

That is ancient history now, though, and Tulio can look forward to a long career with the national team under Ivica Osim. I still think he should be appointed captain of Japan, and am a little surprised Osim has not done so already.

Overall, the awards to Cannavaro and to Tulio are good for the game.


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Barca -- winners on and off the pitch

18 Dec 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, December 15, 2006: Thank goodness for Barcelona. And thank goodness for Ronaldinho in particular.

Wasn’t that a wonderful evening’s entertainment at rainy Nissan Stadium in Yokohama on Thursday? When the match kicked off I was a bit worried because there was a distinct lack of atmosphere in the stadium, despite the fact over 62,000 people were inside.

Even at half-time it was still too quiet, the audience very polite and restrained as if they were attending a performance by a symphony orchestra in a concert hall.

When the final whistle blew, though, it was like being at a proper football match. The crowd had got into it, the Barca fans were full of pride and the neutrals full of admiration for a dazzling display.

At times in the second half it was like an exhibition match, rather than the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup, as Barca tormented their Mexican rivals with some bright, fast and controlled attacking football.

The first goal, however, was not football; it was art, a beautiful painting full of sweeping brush strokes and a riot of colour on a green canvas. Ronaldinho's back-heel, the intricate play of Iniesta, the precise finish of Gudjohnsen.

My favourite Barca player, Rafael Marquez, headed the second, and then produced an unusual celebration by sucking his thumb -- maybe to suggest his header was as easy as taking candy off a baby!

The third goal was what most people had come to see, as Ronaldinho collected a loose ball in a crowded penalty, showed composure and technique and made the finish look easy, curling it into the corner. It was a wonderful piece of individual skill, and provided a lesson for all players how to keep calm and keep focused when the goal is beckoning.

As for the fourth…well, what is there to say? A swift Barca counter, a lay-off from Ronaldinho after getting crowded out on the edge of the box, and a magnificent drive from Deco into the far corner. Again, textbook technique. I thought Deco had a fine game, staying on his feet and using all his ball skills and vision to keep the America defence on the back foot.

There was just time for Ronaldinho to hit the crossbar with that exquisite chip in injury time after another mazy dribble, and on that high note the match ended. By now the fans had lost their earlier inhibitions and were ready to show their appreciation.

Having been to several Toyota Cup matches over the years, it is not easy for teams to inject energy and passion into the crowd, but Barca achieved this in their own impressive style and set the stage for the final on Sunday.

Apart from the play and the goals, what stays in my mind most from Thursday’s visit to Yokohama was the noise of the crowd at the beginning and at the end of the match. Barca had won convincingly, on and off the pitch.


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Passion and emotion can be found after the final whistle

14 Dec 2006(Thu)

Saitama, Japan, December 12, 2006: The J.League has got many things right in its short history, but none more so than the promotion/relegation play-off.

Last season was sensational, with Ventforet Kofu sending Kashiwa Reysol down in extraordinary style. Kofu won both games, 2-1 at home and then 6-2 away thanks to Bare's six-goal salvo at Hitachi-dai -- and he could have had 10!

There were not quite as many goals this time, only two from both legs, but still the drama was intense as Vissel Kobe returned to the top flight at the expense of Avispa Fukuoka.

A choked-up Atsu Miura, close-up shots of tearful fans of both teams, and an emotional Kobe manager Hiroshi Matsuda, sacked by Avispa early in the season and now taking Vissel up. What a story line!

And then there was that late goalmouth scramble. It was like playing a pinball machine as the ball flew around in all directions, before finally being cleared from the Kobe goal. Had that gone in, then both teams would surely have stayed where they were, Avispa in J1 and Vissel in J2. That is the beauty of this game, that a decisive couple of seconds at the end of a nine-month campaign could have changed everything.

In the end, Vissel went up on the away goals rule, meaning that a goal scored away from home counts double if the scores are level. (I am sure most of you knew this, but just in case!)

Once Kondo had scored for Vissel in the second half, Avispa were always struggling because they would need two. They got one but could not find another, resulting in the scenes of joy and despair after the final whistle -- and full marks at this point to the TV broadcasters as they stayed with the theatre of football and captured all the drama as it unfolded. I don't know about you but I get quite angry when the final whistle is followed immediately by advertisements, replays or studio chit-chat. I love to see the players walk off the pitch -- or, in the case of Hidetoshi Nakata at Dortmund, lie on the pitch and stay there thinking. (Is it true he is still there, that Sunny Side Up take him his meals on a tray and the Bundesliga teams just play around him?)

As I was saying, I love to see the scenes after the final whistle. Players exchanging shirts, players exchanging insults, players applauding their fans, players running off to avoid the wrath of their fans...here is the passion and the emotion of football that FIFA President Sepp Blatter is always talking about -- and the game is over!

The J1/J2 play-off was a fantastic idea, and provides a sting in the tail at the end of a long season.

And congratulations to both teams for their fair play (well, reasonably, as Avispa wasted time in the first leg and Vissel in the second leg, notably Park Kang Jo with his disgraceful bootlace-tying farce for which he should surely have received the red card.)

Avispa will be missed in J1, as their fans are loyal and noisy, but Vissel and others have proved you can bounce straight back.


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Bare for Reds on J.League "Rumour Mill"

11 Dec 2006(Mon)

December 9, 2006: Who is staying? Who is going? Who is coming?

These are interesting times in Japanese football as teams release players, release coaches, and search for replacements who may make them stronger for next season...or who may not.

Antlers have been busy, with the departure of manager Paulo Autuori, veteran players Narahashi and Honda and Brazilians Fernando and Alex Mineiro.

FC Tokyo will be changing manager, and Jean is going, too. I must admit, two or three years ago, I thought Jean was possibly the best foreign player in Japan, a no-risk, combative centre half who provided a weekly 90-minute study session for would-be defenders.

At Omiya Ardija, veteran Brazilian Toninho has played his last J.League game for the club, and manager Toshiya Miura will be on his way after the Emperor's Cup, possibly to Consadole Sapporo. That is what I heard on the "Rumour Mill" the other day, along with the following:

# Brazilian striker Bare is leaving Ventforet Kofu and joining Urawa Reds, and

# Omiya will appoint Pim Verbeek's brother as head coach, replacing Miura.

As I say, these are only rumours, and they may not happen. In English journalism we call it "kite flying" -- meaning some kites stay in the air, while others fall to the ground.

Bare would be a great signing for Reds, and proves their intent ahead of the Asian Champions League next season. Make no mistake, Reds are going for it next year, and the whole of Japan should be behind them as they make a serious attempt to win Asia's equivalent of the UEFA Champions League.

With midweek matches, maybe even in Australia, remember, Reds need plenty of fire power, even though they have Washington, Ponte, Yamada, Tatsuya and Nagai, among others.
I saw Bare play recently for Kofu at Saitama Stadium 2002, where he had a fine game. He is quick for such a big man, and is always dangerous when he has the ball. He is direct and positive, and has the happy habit of being in the right place at the right time to put a loose ball into the net.

If Bare joins Reds it would ease the strain on Washington without weakening the team -- and, of course, they could play together, with Ponte behind, if attack is more important than defence in some games.

I am sure next year will be very exciting for Reds fans as they take their "brand" across Asia, and no doubt Mitsubishi will be planning promotional campaigns for away games in vast potential markets.

Bare for Reds (but Gamba are keen, too), and the brother of former Ardija coach Pim Verbeek as Omiya manager...just rumours for the moment, so we will have to wait and see which kites fly and which tumble to the ground!


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Football used to be so simple!

7 Dec 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, December 6, 2006: When it comes to the end of the season, certain facts cannot be disputed.

Such as: Urawa Reds are the best team in Japan. After 34 games, the table cannot lie. Washington and Magno Alves were the best scorers, with 26 goals each.

But when it comes to other rankings, I must say I do not pay too much attention.

Such as: assists, and a couple I read the other day in a football publication, "goast" ranking and "goalkeeper earned run average.”

Goasts and earned run averages? Is this football or baseball? More of those two later.

Regarding assists, I am sorry but I just don't rate this statistic because it relies on the scorer, not the player who gets the assist、so it is not a true reflection.

For example, a midfield player dribbles past five players, plays a wonderful pass to his striker, and the striker misses. No goal and therefore no assist.

On the other hand, a player makes a short pass across the field to a teammate, who lashes the ball into the top corner of the net from 30 metres. A great goal, and the player who passed the ball five metres to the scorer is credited with an assist.

This is why I think an assist ranking is unfair, as it depends on the goal scored, not on the creative talents of a player. I am not saying players who lead assist rankings are not talented; of course they are, but their ranking depends on the people who score the goals, not on themselves.

The "goast" ranking includes goals and assists, therefore “goast”, which is quite clever! I have seen this before in ice hockey, but never in football, and, like assists themselves, from a British perspective it is a very North American concept.

Out of interest, Juninho and Washington led the goast ranking with 31 points (20 goals and 11 assists for the Frontale man, and 26 goals plus five assists for the big Brazilian).

And so to goalkeeper earned run average. This is the number of goals conceded by a keeper, in relation to matches played. Interesting, but way too American for my liking!

Oh, football used to be so simple! Urawa Reds 3 Gamba Osaka 2. That is the only statistic I need to know.


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A tale of one city

4 Dec 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, December 2, 2006: On the one hand, it does not seem that long ago when the tearful and angry Yokohama Flugels players said farewell to the J.League.

It was at the end of 1998, down at Mitsuzawa Stadium, and followed the bursting of the financial bubble which had enabled the J.League to soar into the Japanese sports stratosphere.

But, on the other hand, it seems an age away. At that time, remember, the J.League was still in two stages, still with one division, clubs were paying ridiculous amounts of money for over-the-hill players (Paulo Futre at Flugels in 1998), or showing a complete lack of business sense by investing a fortune (US$10 million for the admittedly talented trio of Cesar Sampaio, Zinho and Evair to Flugels in 1995) when income from attendances was miniscule in comparison.

So the Flugels ceased to be, and the Yokohama Marinos became the Yokohama F Marinos in 1999.

From the ashes of the Flugels came Yokohama FC, and in 2001 they joined the J.League second division from the JFL.

In 2007, Yokohama FC will be in J1, playing local derby matches against Yokohama F Marinos, and, in my mind, this is an incredible success story.

The race for the J2 championship has been fast and furious, with Reysol and then Vissel Kobe seemingly in control, only for both clubs to stall and see Yokohama FC sweep past them and clinch the title. On this day, the last day of the 2006 season, Yokohama FC can bask in the glory, while Kobe and Kashiwa will be scrapping for the second automatic promotion place, and trying to avoid the two-leg play-off against Cerezo or Avispa next week.

The rise of Yokohama FC is not only a triumph for the club and the supporters who refused to go away on the demise of the Flugels; it is also a triumph for the J.League and for football in general.

It proves that, with good management on and off the field (Takuya Takagi deserves enormous credit, of course), and with a mixture of hungry players and seasoned, honest professionals, a club can reach its goal modestly.

Everyone at the club will tell you, though, that the work has just begun. The foundations have been laid but nothing more, and there will be many tough decisions to be made for next season and the future as Yokohama FC attempt to consolidate their position in the top flight and keep building for the long-term.

The collapse of the Flugels, when Sato Kogyo pulled out and ANA switched to Marinos, was a bitter lesson for the J.League. Yokohama FC have proved that those lessons have been learned, and the future of the league will be better for it.


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Recent history suggests a last-day sensation cannot be ruled out

30 Nov 2006(Thu)

November 29, 2006: Surely no; surely it can’t happen again, can it?

Reds against Gamba at Saitama Stadium 2002 in a match that has been sold out for weeks.

Reds three points clear with one game remaining.

Gamba needing to win by three goals or more to overtake them.

No, it cannot happen. The championship is already decided, and Saturday will be one big red, black and white party, apart from the section reserved for visiting fans.

Well, this is the logical scenario for Saturday.

But, as we have seen in recent seasons, the J.League is not logical and therefore a result such as Reds 0 Gamba 3 simply cannot be ruled out.

Just imagine it. Gamba leading 2-0 with four minutes of injury time to play. Then Magno Alves goes down in the box and the referee awards a penalty. He scores – and Gamba retain their league crown in another incredible finish.

Or he misses – and Reds win the championship for the first time in Buchwald’s last league match in charge.

After watching Marinos beat Jubilo with that Kubo header in injury time in 2003 to clinch the second stage and the perfect championship, and then seeing Gamba win at Todoroki on the last day of the 2005 season, I am not ruling anything out on Saturday.

The unthinkable can happen in football, especially in Japan, and recent history proves this.

In all probability it won’t, and the match may well finish 0-0 or 1-1 to give Reds the title in a bit of an anti-climax. An anti-climax, that is, for the neutral fans, but not for the Reds fans, of course, because the title is won over a season, not on one day.

This is why whoever wins the championship these days is the best team in the league, unlike in the days of the two-stage system when the most consistent team may not even have appeared in the two-leg final, and the eventual champions may have finished several points behind the runner-up in the overall standings.

Thankfully those days are over.

But the days of shocks and incredible finishes are not, and never will be over in football.

My tip for Saturday?

A draw, 1-1, Reds to score first (Washington, 35 minutes) and Gamba to equalize late in the second half (Magno Alves, 80 minutes) to ensure a nervy finish.

Reds to win the league.

But there again….


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Reds trio in the running for J.League MVP

27 Nov 2006(Mon)

November 25, 2006: The end-of-year awards season is upon us, so let's think of the J.League MVP.

Chatting with a few media colleagues the other afternoon at Saitama Stadium 2002, three names cropped up, all of them Reds.

A popular choice was Washington, but he would not be mine.

Of course Washington is a valuable player. Anyone who scores the amount of goals he does must be valuable. He proved this with Verdy before moving to Urawa, and looks set to win the "Golden Boot" award as the leading scorer in J1. There is no argument about that, because the statistics are there for all to see and do not lie.

The next name that came up was that of Nobuhisa Yamada -- or should I call him Nobuhisa Del Piero after his wonderful goal against Kofu, who I thought were extremely hard done by with the two penalty decisions and a red card which left them with no hope of getting anything from the game.

I have written earlier this season about Yamada's ability to score goals. Unlike some players who snatch at chances and panic when they see the goal, Yamada remains remarkably cool and relaxed. This quality enables him to score goals like he did against Kofu, cutting in from the left wing, beating three players and curling a lovely shot inside the far post. I saw Paul Gascoigne score many goals like that for Newcastle United and for Tottenham, so there can be no finer compliment to Nobuhisa Del Piero.

During the title run-in Yamada has been in inspirational form, and it is no wonder that Tatsuya and Shinji were on the bench against Kofu when Yamada is linking so well with Ponte and Washinton, supported by Hasebe and Keita from central midfield and the two wing-backs, Hirakawa and Alex.

Also, Yamada's cross early in the second half with his left foot was perfect for Washington to loop a header over the Kofu keeper and open the scoring.

And then, of course, we have Tulio. He is the heart and soul of any team he plays for, committed to the cause and never giving anything less than maximum effort. He regards any goal conceded by Reds as a personal insult and simply hates to see the other team celebrating. But his head does not go down and his response is to try and score at the other end.

All things considered, then, Tulio would get my vote as J.League MVP, with Keita in second place. Too many of these awards are given to players who grab the headlines and the glory for scoring goals, but other less glamorous roles are equally important, if not more so, and deserve recognition. I remember Emerson winning it the other year when Marinos had swept both stages and Nakazawa was clearly the MVP, or Kubo or Oku.

All will be revealed at the awards night on December 18.


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Shun-soo-ki does it again!

23 Nov 2006(Thu)

November 22, 2006: Well, what else can be said about Shunsuke Nakamura?

The former Marinos magician did it again for Celtic on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning Japan time) in their UEFA Champions League group match against Manchester United in Glasgow.

His free kick at Old Trafford a few weeks ago was pretty good, but this one was a beauty, one of the best I have seen him score but still nowhere near as good as the one he struck past Barthez in the Confederations Cup in France.

The one in France was on his “wrong” side, meaning to the left of the goal, whereas his latest gem against Manchester United was from the right side of the goal – a much better angle for a left-footer.

Some 25 metres from goal, Shunsuke struck a perfect free kick over the wall – well over the wall – and brought it down under the crossbar into the top corner, giving the keeper absolutely no chance.

The goal suited the occasion, coming in the 81st minute of the second edition of the so-called “Battle of Britain” between two mega clubs with a massive worldwide fan base.

The English commentary provided some interesting lessons for Japanese viewers in “working football English” – and here’s a few phrases I picked up during the early morning transmission (it was about 6.25 am Japan time when Shunsuke scored).

“Absolute perfection” was one comment from analyst David Pleat, who described it as a “wonderful goal” and a “tremendous piece of skill.”

Whereas Pleat was the “colour” man in the commentary team, there to provide expert analysis and fill in the gaps between play, the match commentator described it as a “breathtaking goal” and a “moment of magic.”

A few minutes later, when Shunsuke was substituted as Celtic defended their 1-0 lead, the commentator spoke of the “standing ovation for a stunning goal.”

Wonderful, breathtaking, stunning…as I said earlier, there is not many more words left in the English language to describe a Shunsuke free kick.

I thought Celtic’s victory was justice because United (Manchester United, I mean, not Newcastle, Leeds, JEF or any of the other Uniteds who are disregarded by arrogant ManU fans) should not have been awarded a penalty in the earlier game at Old Trafford when keeper Boruc was adjudged to have fouled Giggs.

This time, Boruc got his revenge when he saved a late penalty from Saha, who never looked like he was going to score, did he? I don’t know what it is, but I always feel a left-footed penalty-taker is going to miss. Maybe Saha should ask for lessons from Tulio!

Of course Boruc was well off his line as he dived to his right to keep out Saha’s kick, but how many times do referees/linesmen have the courage to call this offence, even though it should be perfectly clear?

All in all, then, another great night for Nakamura in Glasgow. I wrote recently that he had made a good decision to stay with Celtic, rather than trying to play in Spain and maybe ending up on the bench again.

The big question is…when will the TV commentators learn how to pronounce Shunsuke (Shun-ski) instead of Shun-soo-ki, with the emphasis on the “soo” in the middle?

No wonder the players and fans just call him Naka!


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Happy and relieved over Osim’s Japan

20 Nov 2006(Mon)

Saturday, November 18, 2006: A year that began with high hopes for the World Cup ended this week with high hopes for the future, following Japan’s 3-1 defeat of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday night.

I have to say I was delighted – and relieved, too – at Japan’s victory, because it pointed the way ahead for Osim’s new-look team.

Delighted because I feel Osim has picked some fine young players in his short time in charge. They are talented, intelligent players who will listen to the coach and who will learn from him – and quickly.

Take the second goal against the Saudis, for example.

It was a wonderful piece of play from Konno, who crossed exquisitely from the right with his left foot for Ganaha to hit the target with an expertly-weighted header. Ganaha has always scored goals and made Japan’s third look easy when it wasn’t, thanks to another clinical finish after Komano’s run down the left.

Delighted also for Tulio. He’s a fine leader and an inspirational player, and it was his goal that put Japan on the winning trail. I can’t understand why they let him take the penalty, though, because that is really not his scene.

Tulio likes to score goals by battering his way through defences, competing for the ball and lashing it into the net through a crowd of desperate defenders like an old-fashioned mud-caked hero from a comic book. Penalties? Naaah…those are for softies!

Also, what was the Australian referee doing awarding a penalty to Saudi Arabia? That was a joke decision in my opinion, after seeing it on TV replays. Didn’t the Saudi player just fall down? Maybe the Aussies, having been cheated at the World Cup by Grosso’s theatrical tumble at the end of their second-round game with Italy, are getting their own back on the world game and following the lead of the World Cup ref: if a forward falls down, give a penalty against the innocent defender!

All in all, though, I am happy about the result, and, as I said before, relieved.

In my opinion there are too many people around who did not realize the size of the job Osim took on. The team needed rebuilding after the World Cup debacle; a new mood had to be created, a new method and a new direction.

I feel Osim has already done this, and the future is very exciting as he will now look at the players in Europe who may be able to add something to the squad. Osim, of course, knows he must not affect the chemistry of the squad, as this is crucial for a successful team, but the faith he has shown in the J.League players will be repaid on the pitch with effort and energy and pride in the blue shirt.

Unlike many, I was not confident about the 2006 World Cup this time last year. But now I am full of optimism again for the national team.


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Japan-Saudi Arabia game is still important

16 Nov 2006(Thu)

Osaka, Japan, November 15, 2006: Although both Japan and Saudi Arabia have already qualified for next year's Asian Cup finals, I still think their match at Sapporo on Wednesday night is significant.

By the time you read this, the match will have finished, and the result will have brought an end to the first stage of Osim's rebuilding process.

This is why I think the match is important.

If Japan play well and win against strong Asian opposition, then Osim is on the right course. Many of these players will be retained for next year and the long-term future.

But if they do not play well and the performance is a mess, then Osim will have to rethink his strategy and selection policy for next year. Maybe he will bring back some more experienced players, and concentrate more on the present than the future.

And then, of course, there are the players in Europe. I am sure some of them -- Nakamura and Matsui, for example -- must be in his mind for next year's Asian Cup, so this is why it would be a good idea for Japan to play a friendly or two in Europe next spring.

By doing that, it would provide good experience for his J.League players, while at the same time give Osim the chance to integrate the European players without disturbing their careers or body clocks too much.

So, while one view point is that the match against Saudi Arabia is meaningless, I do not agree at all. I think it is a crucial test at the end of Osim's first phase of rebuilding.

I must admit I like the selection of Jubilo's Maeda. He always plays with intensity and pace, and is always very imaginative and direct with his running. He seems the kind of player who, when a scoring chance comes along, does not hesitate or have any self-doubt. In other words, he does not think too much, which can often be a problem for forwards; he just gets on with it.

By now you will know the result of the Japan-Saudi game, but I feel Japan can play well and bring a successful conclusion to the first stage of post-2006 World Cup development.


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Takahara must keep his place in starting line-up

13 Nov 2006(Mon)

Nagoya, Japan, November 11, 2006: Aaah yes, Naohiro Takahara.

I was wondering what had happened to him, and then he pops up with a couple of goals for Eintracht Frankfurt.

No doubt this will prompt a round of "Osim should pick Takahara" chit-chat among fans and maybe even in the media, but I am not convinced at the moment.

It will take more than a couple of goals (and three in all so far this season) for me to join the Takahara Fan Club; or, should I say, renew my membership of the Takahara Fan Club.

Because once I was a big fan of Takahara's when he was banging in the goals for Jubilo Iwata, the Olympic team and the national team, until that serious illness ruled him out of the 2002 World Cup.

At the 2006 World Cup I thought he was a major disappointment, and wondered if he would ever play for Japan again after that. I still have my doubts.

A few weeks before the World Cup I had a long interview with Zico for a Croatian newspaper, and Japan's Brazilian coach picked out three players he thought would shine on the world stage. He named Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke and...yes, Takahara.

I always thought that was a bit optimistic, as Takahara, in all his time out of Japan, in Argentina and then Germany, had never done anything over a sustained period to suggest he would trouble world-class defences.

The move from Hamburg to Frankfurt, though, has freshened him up, and given his stagnating career the drive it needed.

So the big question is...will Osim be taking note and still have Takahara in his plans for next year, once he has completed his survey of the J.League talent?

Well, of course he will be monitoring Takahara, as anyone who can score regularly in the Bundesliga must be a good player. But he's got to keep his place in the team for Osim to be tempted to call him back -- and that means over a period of months, not weeks.

I have said before and will repeat here that Osim's decision to leave the European players alone this year and let them settle at their clubs is absolutely the right one -- and Takahara himself says he is relieved not to have to travel back for games against the likes of India and Yemen.

This is commonsense from Osim, as there is plenty of time for him to inject some Euro quality into the squad in time for next year's Asian Cup defence.

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Memories of fiery Fergie at Saint James's Park

9 Nov 2006(Thu)

Nagoya, Japan, November 8, 2006: Sir Alex Ferguson deserves all the plaudits he is receiving at the moment.

In the modern game, and in the pre-Premier League days, it is an incredbile achievement to be in charge for 20 years. At such a massive club, too, who are expected to be challenging for the trophy in every competition they enter in every season.

I remember once, back in my days as the Newcastle United reporter for a morning newspaper in the north-east of England, being on the end of a fiery Fergie reaction at Saint James's Park one sunny afternoon.

Newcastle had just beaten Manchester United 2-1, and the incident that everyone was talking about was a terrible tackle by Manchester United's Norman Whiteside on Newcastle's John Anderson.

Whiteside was a big, strong forward from Northern Ireland, well known for his combative style; Anderson was a quick and tough right back or central defender who played for the Republic of Ireland.

It was a shocking foul by Whiteside, which left Anderson in agony on the touchline. Anderson was from the old school, before players feigned injury, and would never have stayed down if he had not been hurt. Whiteside had been in the news a lot at that time for his disciplinary problems, and for his fouling.

Anyway, after the game Fergie came into the lobby of Saint James's Park where the media was waiting nervously.

He stopped in front of a group of us, and one older reporter, clearly quivering in his shoes because Fergie was angry at losing, asked him about the over-enthusiastic nature of Manchester United's tackles. Fergie dismissed the question, and the reporter was silent. Obviously he had wanted to ask Fergie specifically about Whiteside's terrible foul on Anderson, but could not pluck up the courage.

I was standing right next to Fergie. I was young and innocent and naive, so simply said to Fergie: "I think he means what did you think of Whiteside's tackle on Anderson?"

At which point everyone ran for cover to avoid Fergie's fury.

Fergie turned to me and scolded: "Why are you always asking about Whiteside these days? You are jumping on the band wagon and making life very difficult for him. He commits one foul in the match and that's all you talk about. What about all the other fouls? Whiteside is a marked man now by the referees because of you lot."

Well, it was something like that, because it was in 1987, maybe 1988, so I cannot remember the exact details -- and my tape recorder melted at the time under Fergie's blast of hot air.

Fergie's outburst, of course, made all the headlines the next day. "Whiteside victimised!" "Lay off Big Norm!"...things like this.

The media all thanked me for pushing Fergie to get the response, and patted me on the shoulder sympathetically, as if I had just missed a penalty in a cup final shoot-out.

But I didn't think I had pushed him at all. I had just asked him a specific question about a specific challenge, and he had gone ballistic.

Oh yes...life is much more serene in the J.League!

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Why so much negativity around JEF?

6 Nov 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, November 4, 2006: Congratulations to JEF United Ichihara Chiba Japan Asia for winning the Nabisco Cup again.

I must admit I didn’t fancy their chances after watching them lose horribly at home to Omiya Ardija recently.

But they saw off Kashima Antlers with late goals from Mizuno and captain Abe, who proved once again that he is one of the best headers of a ball in the J.League.

Chatting with a Japanese football writer on the morning of the cup final, I was surprised to learn that JEF have caused something of a split among the media. In other words, some newspapers dislike the Osim dynasty and want both Japan and JEF to fail, while others are being patient, if not exactly supportive of the post-Zico regime.

This is all very strange to me, as JEF come across as a rather harmless club who haven’t done anything wrong to anyone. I can understand people (mainly who wear red shirts or black T-shirts and live in Urawa) disliking Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata because they have been successful in the past – just like many fans in England hate Manchester United and Liverpool – but JEF United?

It is no secret that I admire JEF – among others – for several reasons. It is a friendly, homely club. They have lived beyond their financial means in terms of league position. They have been well managed from the top; the fans are not jumping on the bandwagon of glory, because there hasn’t really been any, and they have built a production line of talented Japanese players.

Maybe Osim Senior has picked too many of his former players for the national team for some people’s liking, but I am sure this is only a stop-gap measure until other players emerge in a couple of problem positions.

He knows the JEF players and can trust them, and the players know what the head coach wants, too, so it is a relatively safe move for the time being.

However, players such as Maki, Abe and Mizumoto, and possibly Hanyu, will be around the national squad as long as Osim is, as they have the Japanese characteristics he cherishes. And if Osim really was biased towards JEF, then he would have picked their most under-rated player – Daisuke Saito, who is nicknamed “The Professor”. (By whom, you may ask? Well, by me, actually, because Saito really knows the art of defending, and is the ideal teacher for Mizumoto).

So, enough of this nonsense criticizing JEF United! They have been a huge success story for the J.League since the early bubble burst around 1997.

Osim Senior may be rude to the Japanese press on occasions, just like Troussier was, and many media may miss the mild-mannered Zico’s all-star, fantasista policy.

But don’t blame JEF United for this.


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Blatter should speak out more against the conmen

2 Nov 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, November 1, 2006: Have you been following the latest Sepp Blatter controversy recently?

It makes for very interesting reading, as usual.

First, Blatter was reported to have apologized to Australia for their World Cup exit at the hands of Italy. For me this was one of the worst and most depressing moments of a World Cup blighted by diving and cheating.

It was when Italy’s left back, Fabio Grosso, tumbled theatrically following a challenge by Australia defender Lucas Neill. In my opinion it was never a penalty, as Grosso clearly had only one thing on his mind and executed his task with cynical professionalism.

Sadly, referees are much too quick to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player, and it happened here in a very unfair way to bring a cruel end to Australia’s challenge. No wonder the sports-mad Aussies, brought up on rough-tough games such as Aussie Rules football, rugby and cricket, thought they had been cheated in a sport they are still trying to embrace.

Anyway, Blatter later back-tracked on his comments, saying he had no intention to criticize Italy, but just to offer his sympathy to Australia.


What good is that?

Blatter, as head of FIFA, is the man who has allowed diving and gamesmanship to reach the current level. He could crack down on it by introducing video replays to punish the conmen, but he prefers to let the poor old referees suffer on their own in an environment in which the FIFA Fair Play slogan simply does not exist any more.

The 2006 World Cup was a big turn-off in my opinion, with incidents like the Grosso-Neill penalty the main reason.

Blatter should speak out more in an effort to cure the ailments, and not be afraid of telling the truth and presenting the situation as it is. On a smaller scale, much smaller, there was a controversial incident at Komaba last Saturday in the Omiya-FC Tokyo match.

Leading 1-0 in the second half, an FC Tokyo player fell to the floor in his own half when there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. A team-mate kicked the ball out of play to stop the match and allow the player to receive treatment he did not need, but the “injured” player got to his feet on his own.

So it was Omiya’s throw-in, and the Tokyo fans whistled as the Ardija players refused to pass the ball back to them. Omiya coach Toshiya Miura urged his players to keep the ball and attack, as they were trailing 1-0 and Tokyo had blatantly stopped the game for no reason.

Tokyo fans – I admire you and your team…but you were completely wrong on this occasion. Omiya had absolutely no obligation whatsoever to return the ball to your team at the throw-in. Omiya were quite right to play on, and the referee allowed them to do so.

I have said before it is the job of the ref to stop the game, not the team-mate of an “injured” player so they can waste time when they are winning. There is too much of this tactic in the modern game.


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Come on J.League clubs -- go for Becks!

30 Oct 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, October 28, 2006: David Beckham is unsettled. David Beckham is on the bench. David Beckham wants to leave Spain.

Life is never dull in the Beckham household -- or Beckingham Palace as we say in England, after the Queen's royal residency, Buckingham Palace, in London, of course.

Maybe David wants to move again; a final challenge in his roller-coaster career.

All of which has got me thinking: I wonder if any J.League team is considering making a move for King David the Lionheart?

I hope so, because the time is right if they are going to do it. Beckham unsettled, clubs looking for new foreign players for next season...Posh Spice loving the attention of the Japanese media. Yup, it all makes sense to me.

So come on Nissan, Toyota or Mikitani-san at Kobe. Marinos and Grampus need a boost and you two have lots of cash, while Vissel could come back to J1 next season with a full house of season ticket-holders -- and Beckham would provide value for money, unlike the disastrous signing of that Turkish bench-warmer at the 2002 World Cup.

Beckham loves his football, would be an ambassador for the game, a role model for the kids, an idol for male and female fans alike. Crowds would go through the roof. The eyes of the football world would be on Japan.

Personally, I think the new England coach, Steve McClaren, made a big mistake by cutting Beckham from the squad so quickly. I thought he had a decent World Cup, even though England did not, and he still has much to offer.

This idea may sound ridiculous to some, but why should not a Japanese club make a serious attempt to sign Becks and Posh and the young Beckhaminhos?

There are even reports that Beckham might end his career in the United States, playing Major League Soccer.

If he's thinking about that, then I am sure he would consider Japan, too.

He might be expensive, but think about all the money J.League clubs waste on third-rate Brazilians.

Come on, J.League clubs, go for it. It's not a dream!


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In dreamland at Ajista

26 Oct 2006(Thu)

October 24, 2006:It is now Tuesday afternoon, and I am staring at the pink football paper in front of me.

It says FC Tokyo 3, Gamba Osaka 2, but I still can't quite believe it.

Two days on from that incredible match at Ajista, I am still in a daze, did I really see that happen, or was it just a dream?

Not just the fact that came back from 2-0 down against the league champions, or that they scored three times in quick succession.

It was the quality of the goals, and the hysteria that followed. When I think back it's all a blur of blue and red, played in slow motion.

I know you will have read about the Tokyo goals before, but I would like to add my comments here.

First, Konno's. For a start he's one of my favourite players, I vote for him after every Nabisco Cup match in the New Hero award, even when FC Tokyo aren't playing!

What I liked most about Konno's goal was that he actually believed he could reach the ball. Losing 2-0, a long pass over the top¡­I am sure some players would have given up under those circumstances and let the ball run through to the keeper. Not Konno the Lionheart. He never gives up, and his agility, touch and calm finish sparked the revival.

Then it was Norio's turn. What can we say about this? I had a great view of the strike as it whistled into the top corner like a missile. Had the Gamba keeper got in the way, it would have taken him with it, too, flying into the back of the net. It was an incredible goal, and even likening it to a Roberto Carlos thunderbolt does not do it justice.

And then the winner from Fly High Nao. Again it was Konno on the left flank who was in the thick of the action. Suzuki crossed, Ishikawa showed a lovely touch to make himself some room, and then produced a cool, curling Ronaldo-style finish as he caressed the ball into the corner.

When that goal went in and the stadium erupted, I have to admit to being­well, quite emotional.

It was an extraordinary comeback, and no more than the magnificent Tokyo fans deserved in such a disappointing season.

The Gamba players and fans looked shell-shocked. One minute they were cruising to three points to stay in touch with Urawa, the next they were six points behind with six to play and possibly emotionally scarred by this unlikely reversal of fortunes.

Yes, that was an amazing afternoon at Tobitakyu, or was it just a dream?


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Shunsuke benefiting from decision to stay in Glasgow

23 Oct 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, October 21, 2006: Shunsuke Nakamura's decision to stay where he was and continue to play for Celtic always looked like the right one.

There were reports out of Britain last season that he was only using Celtic as a stepping stone to mainland Europe, and that his goal was to play in Spain.

But Scottish football has been good for Shunsuke -- and there is no doubt he has been good for Celtic.

The level is perfect for him, playing for a big club in a small league and for a strong team in which he can express his creative skills. He is now doing it at a higher pace than he did for Reggina in Italy, due to the quicker tempo of the game in Britain.

A hat trick against Dundee United, completed with a cool and classy left-foot finish into the top corner, was followed by a 90-minute display in a 3-0 Champions League victory over Benfica. He is settled and he is clearly enjoying himself, so it was a wise decision to stay in Scotland rather than go to Spain and start again.

All of which is good news for Japan -- maybe!

With Osim in charge, Shunsuke needed to step up his game to continue playing for Japan. He needed to run more and to contribute more in open play, in addition to his set-piece expertise.

He is doing this and keeping himself in the news -- but I still think Osim is right to leave him in Scotland for the time being and test his J.League players.

I am sure the national team door is not closed on Shunsuke, and Osim may well decide next year that he needs a touch of class in his midfield to add a new dimension to his emerging team. Imagine a five-man midfield, with Keita and Abe or Konno as the two defensive halves, and Shunsuke in front, behind the two strikers, Maki and Bando or Tatsuya.

It is an option Osim will consider for the future, especially in the build-up to next summer's Asian Cup finals.


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Baron likens team-mate Hokuto to 1998 World Cup member Nakanishi

19 Oct 2006(Thu)

Please wait for a while.

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Bando, Kengo and canines -- a dog's life in India

16 Oct 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, October 14, 2006: The problem with a weak opponent is that it can bring down the level of a vastly superior team.

Add to this a poor pitch in Bangalore, floodlight failure and a runaway dog halting play, and, in such circumstances, Japan could not have done much better than win 3-0.

These Asian Cup qualifiers are giving Osim's new team a gentle introduction to international football. The travel, the lifestyle on the road, the different conditions on and off the pitch, the ability of the opponents...Japan's players will be looking and learning all the time. Further down the line, in tougher circumstances, they will be able to draw on this experience and use it to their benefit when the pressure is on.

Osim, too, will be learning a lot about his players, not just their ability but also their attitude and mentality.

After the game against Ghana, I pointed out the fact that Osim would have loved Bando's angry reaction to his missing a good chance to equalise near the end. I am sure Osim would have preferred Bando to score, but, in missing the chance, Bando displayed his passion and his intensity -- and won a place in the starting line-up against India. In this game he scored twice, could have had more, and has quickly established himself in the squad. It depends on Bando, and no one else, how long he stays there.

I also liked Kengo Nakamura's goal, and celebration, against India. It was a magnificent strike with his right foot, and then he kissed the JFA crest on his shirt! Again, it shows a bit of pride and personality, and Kengo has put himself in the picture for the long-term.

I noticed on TV last Saturday night that Kengo was getting the "Shunsuke" treatment, with a couple of mushy, sugary interviews following the Ghana game. The TV people in question were clearly trying to promote Kengo as the new "fantasista" -- the new Shunsuke, in fact -- but let's not get carried away too quickly, or forget that other, less glamorous roles in football are equally important, if not more so.

Finally, wasn't that an amazing moment in the India-Japan game? No, not the dog, which I actually thought was India's most dangerous player, the way it eluded Japan's markers and found so much space on the pitch. I am talking about Alex's cross for Bando's diving header. I know the stadium lights were bad, but was that really Alex's right foot in action -- hitting an expert cross on the half-volley?

I wish he would use it more often. Just think how more dangerous he would be with two feet instead of one!


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This is no time for Japan’s fantasista lovers

12 Oct 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, October 11, 2006: One popular topic of conversation at the moment is how tickets for national team games are no longer like gold dust.

In other words, the public aren't that bothered about watching Japan anymore because there are no superstars in the team.

My answer is that I just don't care, it's irrelevant, and I am sure that Osim does not care either. If a few thousand fans do not want to watch the team because Shunsuke is not playing, then that is their problem. It is definitely not Osim's problem and hopefully it is not the JFA's problem either. (JFA, by the way, stands for JEF Football Association).

Osim is looking at the big picture. He is testing new, hungry, young players, and giving them the chance to play against a team like Ghana. For the time being this is the right way to go, as Japan's line-up of fantasistas and Euro-stars had their chance in Germany and failed miserably.

And another point.

I actually think the crowds for the three home games under Osim have been excellent. Over 47,000 at Kokuritsu for a friendly with Trinidad and Tobago; over 40,000 at Niigata for an Asian Cup qualifier with Yemen; and over 52,000 at Nissan Stadium for the friendly with Ghana.

Those are great crowds by anyone's standards. England against Trinidad and Tobago in a friendly at Manchester, for example? Maybe 30,000. Against Yemen at Newcastle? 20,000?

In my opinion, the most important thing is to build a new team from the ruins of Germany. Zico inherited some wonderful players and left nothing behind and no one should forget that.

Osim is the right man for the job, and true football fans in Japan will appreciate what he is trying to do. I am not saying the days of Shunsuke and other players in Europe are over, but the focus has to be on Japan and J.League players during this period of transition.

Everyone needs to be patient and to support the new regime, because this is the way forward for Japanese football. Bringing back Shunsuke, Takahara, Inamoto, Oguro for friendlies against Ghana is a waste of time and a huge step backwards. Even if it means 65,000 at Yokohama instead of 52,000.


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Ghana give Japan a glimpse of the future

10 Oct 2006(Tue)

Tokyo, October 7, 2006: Ivica Osim wanted a tough game for his young Japan team -- and that is exactly what he got against Ghana.

From the moment the match kicked off I was impressed by the speed, the power, the team work and the confidence of the Black Stars.

What's more, they actually grew stronger as the match wore on, and completely dominated the early stages of the second half.

No one could deny that they deserved their goal, which happened in the blink of an eye and highlighted the difference between the two teams: Japan are still learning to play at this level, whereas Ghana are several steps ahead in terms of experience.

Under such circumstances, I thought a draw would have been a fine result for Japan.

In the end they lost 1-0, but I am far from pessimistic about the new-look team.

In general I thought Japan stood up to the hard examination quite well, especially considering there were players making their debuts (Mizumoto and Yamagishi) and others playing out of position, such as Abe and Konno.

What became clear, though, was that Japan must, absolutely must, be first to the second ball if they are to dominate an opponent. What I mean by this is that if a Japanese player is tackled and the ball breaks loose, or if an opponent is tackled and the ball breaks loose, another Japanese player must be in exactly the right position to collect the loose ball and keep possession.

Playing at such a frantic pace demands a sound first touch and awareness of what is going on around you so that a team can establish a rhythm and a momentum in all areas of the pitch. This has not happened yet, which is not surprising considering the number of players Osim has used.

It will come in time, however, as the new coach settles on his best team and their movements become more automatic and systematic.

At times against Ghana, especially in the second half, it looked like Men against Boys -- and the boys were wearing blue! But this does not mean Japan were out-classed. They showed they were prepared to fight a physical battle and then to move forward with determination and pace.

Bando came close to equalising near the end, but could not wrap his right foot around the ball and the attempt went wide. Still, he will definitely get another chance, as Osim will have been impressed by his angry reaction to missing the chance!


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Koreans outshine Japanese in Singaporean eyes

5 Oct 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, October 4, 2006: If you want to overdose on English football, there is no better place to be in Asia than Singapore.

Japan is quite good, too, but is an hour ahead of Singapore, making the kick-off times in England much more viewer-friendly down there in south-east Asia.Also, the English newspapers in Singapore are packed with reports and news from the English Premier League, or EPL as they call it.

I will stick with the Premier League, if you don't mind, as EPL is too much of a brand name, for marketing people, not football fans.

I have just returned from a long weekend in Singapore, where a popular topic of conversation was:Why are the Korean players more successful in England than the Japanese?

That is a good question, and a good topic for debate, so this was my response.

In general I think the Korean players are more robust, play a more physical game and can maintain a faster tempo for longer periods than the Japanese, I said.

I donft think the Koreans are better players technically, but they are more suited to the British style of play. They get stuck in and keep running, whereas the Japanese players who have gone to Europe tend to be more the fantasista types who can survive better in a more technical, slower league, such as Italy.

That was my assessment, based on watching the likes of Park, Seol and Lee at Manchester United, Reading and Spurs in recent weeks/months.

On the opposite side, take the case of Ahn Jung Hwan. Surely he has more natural talent and flair than any of these three, but he has failed miserably in Europe.

Ahn could not even make the grade with modest Perugia, where Hidetoshi Nakata excelled, of course, to earn a big-money move to Roma, and then struggled in France and Germany. The only foreign country where Ahn has been successful is Japan, as his game is more suited to this style of technical play.

I still think Japanese players can be a success in England, someone like Kaji for example.

For the time being, though, the football fans in Singapore are talking about Koreans, not Japanese. And you cannot really argue with that.


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Why would a World Cup final replay solve the shoot-out problem?

2 Oct 2006(Mon)

September 30, 2006: The World Cup final being decided by a penalty shoot-out is just not right, is it?

It is a big problem for the game, but a bigger problem is what system should replace it.

The subject is in the news again because FIFA president Sepp Blatter says a new system may be in place for the 2010 World Cup. There is talk of a replay, or removing a player from both teams, or having a golden goal system in extra time.

I must admit I love the idea of a replay. Growing up in England with the FA Cup, I have wonderful memories of replays and even second replays – under floodlights on muddy pitches, at a neutral venue in some cases (West Ham United against Everton at Elland Road, Leeds, was a classic, as was Newcastle United against Bolton Wanderers at the same venue).

In those days the teams would keep playing until there was a winner. No golden goals. No penalty shoot-outs. Just heart and soul, and midweek drama all the way.

With the World Cup final, though, you can’t simply keep replaying.

Look at the last World Cup final. A replay could have taken place two nights after the final, but that, too, could have ended level after extra time. What then? We would still have the same problem.

The idea of reducing the number of players as extra time continues is ridiculous. Football is 11 against 11, not eight against eight, and I hope that idea is buried quickly.

I would be in favour of 90 minutes, then the golden goal rule for a maximum of 30 minutes extra time. In other words, if one team scored in extra time, the game would end. No chance of a comeback for the other team.

Some people think that is unfair, but why? The teams have had 90 minutes to determine a winner, and if they both know the first goal in extra time would win the match, then it should encourage them to attack.

If there is no goal during the 30 minutes, then in my opinion it would have to be a shoot-out, not a replay. Nerve, technique (vital elements of the game) come into play…not satisfactory, of course, but what else can they do? What would be a better solution? I would love to hear some other views!


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Three points for Reds, but...

28 Sep 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, September 26, 2006: Now Reds fans...take a deep breath before you read on, 'cos you ain't gonna like this (please excuse my terrible English -- I have used the more colloquial/lazy "cos" for "because", "ain't" for "aren't" and "gonna" for "going to" to increase the drama about to unfold)!

I thought Reds were poor on Saturday, despite beating S-Pulse 1-0.

What's happened to Tatsuya? I am a big fan of young Tanaka's, but he wasn't playing his normal game.

When you get the ball, Tatsuya, run at them -- and keep running! And then shoot!

Don't stop and look for Washington. I appreciate the big Brazilian scores goals as easily as the rest of split pistachio nuts to munch with our "nama" beer, but you don't need to play the role of "king of assists".

Go for goal yourself -- ignore Washington, even if he shouts at you if you miss and haven't passed to him.

Anyway, enough of that topic.

Let's move on to Reds' blatant time-wasting tactics for the last....oooh...30 minutes or so? Maybe more.

Yamagishi was taking an age to take a goal kick or free kick outside his box.

This is the scenario.

A Reds player is fouled deep in his own half, and Tulio or Tsuboi (anyone for that matter) prepares to take the free kick. But just before they start their run-up they walk away, because Yamagishi is waving them up field. He will take it instead.

Yamagishi has mastered the art of eating up the seconds/minutes when you are leading 1-0. First he'll have a drink of water, then wipe his face on his towel like a sweaty salaryman in an "izakaya". After that he'll send a couple of e-mails, call his agent on his mobile to ask about next season's contract, read a few pages of the novel he keeps in the back of his net for when Reds are dominating....and then, only then, will he actually kick the ball.

Yamagishi is so good, in fact, that Alex became jealous on Saturday -- and produced a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination when he eventually fell to the turf after a slight collision late in the second half. You could see Alex thinking about it very hard, and in the end he decided to go down in installments. But what category in the Oscars -- tragedy or comedy?

The referee, who did not caution any Reds players all afternoon, added four minutes of "lost time" at the end of the second half. I thought it should have been 14 -- but I'm just a naive observer!

Sorry Reds fans, but your team does not look confident about its own chances of winning the championship.

I need a beer -- and some pistachios.


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Fukuare stages another football fiesta

25 Sep 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, September 22, 2006: What an amazing start to Wednesday's Nabisco Cup semi-final, second leg between JEF and Frontale at Fukuare!

And what a fantastic comeback by Frontale!

Come to think of it, it was a pretty incredible finish, too -- ecstacy for Abe and Co., but agony for Mori and Co.

All in all, then, a good night's entertainment at the best stadium in Japan.

I have said before that any club/city/prefectural government planning to build a new stadium should check out Fukuda Denshi Arena and basically copy it: close to a big station (Soga), sensible capacity of 18,500, no running track, all sides covered so the noise booms out, and fans close to the action (but still not quite close enough -- try watching the English Premier League and see the player taking a corner almost next to the fans in the front row, within touching distance. Now that's what I call close!)

Anyway, I am sure this environment contributes significantly to the tempo and the excitement of the game. I have watched football in over 40 countries and the JEF-Reds game this season was as good as it gets in terms of atmosphere. I really mean that -- a solid wall of yellow blocking out two-thirds of the seats, and the rest a bright red. It was an occasion, not simply a football match.

On Wednesday night, the Frontale fans were incredible. Even as JEF romped into a 2-0 lead with goals from Sakamoto and Yamagishi -- into the goal behind which the Frontale supporters were assembled -- the away fans were unfazed and continued to sing. In England we'd have been silent and taken the opportunity to pay an early visit to the "gents" (toilet) -- and only become interested again when our team actually started to move forwards, instead of backwards.

I am sure the enthusiasm of the away fans affected the Frontale players and encouraged their comeback. So, big praise for the Frontale faithful -- and also in the way you accepted defeat graciously in such testing circumstances at the end of a gripping match.

Oh, and I must say I love the Ganaha song. "Gaaa-na-haaa, O-le! O-le!" I have heard that tune before but can't quite place it -- maybe when I was on holiday in Okinawa!

That match had everything. The only pity was there had to be one loser.


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Nozawa catches the eye in the absence of Ogasawara

21 Sep 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, September 20, 2006: There were some pretty good goals around the J.League at the weekend.

Tulio scored a beauty for Reds, cutting in from the left wing (what on earth was he doing out there anyway?) and curling a right-foot shot inside the far post. It was a trademark Ahn Jung Hwan strike -- and more ammunition in my campaign to have Tulio installed as the new captain of Japan!

I saw that goal on TV in the evening, as I had been at Kokuritsu in the afternoon to watch Shimizu S-Pulse extend their eye-catching unbeaten run. I had already written my article in my head before the kick-off against Kashima -- and it was a glowing one, praising Kenta for building a new, exciting, hungry team.

And then, of course, S-Pulse lost.

Which brings me round to another fine goal.

It was scored by Takuya Nozawa, a player long held in high esteem by the Antlers staff but now 25 and still trying to impose himself on the J.League.

Only a player with good touch, good vision and high technique can score a goal like Nozawa did against S-Pulse on Saturday. Spotting Nishibe off his line, Nozawa floated a right-foot shot from 30 metres over the keeper and under the crossbar. Nishibe got a hand to it but could not divert the ball from its course, and Nozawa had every right to celebrate a wonderful goal.

It was so good it could have been scored by...well, Ogasawara.

With the former Antlers captain now at Messina for a year, this is the perfect time for Nozawa to step it up and fill the creative gap left by Ogasawara.

"His technique is at the highest level," Antlers manager Paulo Autuori said of Nozawa after Saturday's game.

"But he has to be more competitive and more effective going towards the goal.

"Ogasawara was thinking more on the pitch, whereas Nozawa has more mobility with or without the ball. We will see."

I asked the Brazilian manager if he thought Ogasawara would return to the national squad.

"I hope so," he said. "I think he can come back if he does what Mr Osim wants his players to do. He knows what Mr Osim is looking for, and can show it with his performances at Messina."

So all is not lost for Ogasawara, according to Paulo Autuori, nor for Kashima, who are in fifth place and trail Gamba by 10 points with 11 matches to go.

"We must win every game, and not make any mistakes," he said.

A few more goals of Nozawa's quality on Saturday would help, too.


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Shunsuke 'paints another masterpiece'

18 Sep 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, September 15, 2006: Did you watch the Manchester United-Celtic match in the Champions League the other night?

What a great game -- and what a great goal from Shunsuke Nakamura.

It was, inevitably, a free kick, and had to be special to beat a keeper of Edwin van der Sar's quality and height from some 25 metres.

I saw the game for the first time on TV on Thursday evening, but had read about it earlier in the day. The report I read said that Shunsuke's free kick went into the top corner of the net, so I had a vision of the goal in my mind before settling down to watch it.

But it didn't go into the top corner at all -- and that is why the Sky TV commentators, Martin Tyler and Andy Gray, were so enthusiastic about it.

Shunsuke did not perform a Michel Platini-style "falling leaf" free kick, lofting the ball high over the wall and then bringing it down sharply under the crossbar, like a leaf falling to the ground almost vertically.

He struck it quite flat, just clearing United's defensive wall, and the ball entered the net halfway up -- or halfway down, whichever way you want to see it.

Van der Sar did not see it all, and was rooted to the spot like a tree (a Dutch elm, maybe?) at the other side of the goal.

Before he took the free kick, Tyler referred to Shunsuke as "an artist" at set-pieces, and after the goal he quickly added, "the artist has painted another masterpiece!" Great stuff!

Gray noted the low flight of the ball, and also criticised United striker Louis Saha for not jumping up in the wall and taking the ball in his face! Gray, after all, was a classic British centre forward: rough, tough and as Scottish as a plate of haggis eaten while listening to a lone bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace".

Later in the match, with United leading 3-2 and Celtic pushing for an equaliser, Tyler said that Celtic were within "one swish of Nakamura's left foot" from scoring again, if they could only get another free kick around the box.

That's a lovely word, "swish", to describe Shunsuke's action, again like a painter with his fluid but gentle brush stroke.

A memorable goal by Shunsuke, a memorable game to showcase the appeal of British football...but it was never a United penalty for Celtic keeper Boruc's challenge, or, rather, non-challenge, on Giggs.


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Viduka's commitment is good for the Asian game

14 Sep 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, September 13, 2006: The involvement of Australia in the Asian Football Confederation can only be good for the development of the game in this part of the world. Quite simply, they have become the team to beat at both club and national team level.

They have already proved their quality at the World Cup, beating Japan and going out unluckily to Italy when the referee awarded a very generous penalty late on.

Now comes news that Mark Viduka wants to carry on playing for the Socceroos through to the Asian Cup finals next summer, when Japan will be attempting to win the continental crown for the third straight time. It was thought Viduka would retire from the national team after the World Cup, but he clearly wants more action.

The presence of Viduka, and maybe other leading players such as Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill, can only raise the profile of the Asian Cup in the eyes of the football world. It will also make it more prestigious to win for the established Asian powers such as Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In 2000 in Lebanon, and in 2004 in China, Japan proved they were the top team in Asia, but Australia will provide much tougher opposition than Japan have faced at either of those two events.

By then, of course, Japan will have played considerably more matches under Ivica Osim, and I expect the team will be settled and will know exactly what they are supposed to be doing.

For Osim and the JFA it will be a big step on the road to the 2010 World Cup, just like it was for Troussier's team in 2000 when the Frenchman was still rebuilding the side.

If Osim is going to use any of the players based in Europe, particularly Shunsuke Nakamura, the Asian Cup will provide the perfect time to do it. Qualifying from a group containing teams at J2 level, such as India and Yemen, is one thing; but playing in the Asian Cup itself is another.

Will Osim want to win the title at all costs, or will he settle for the continued development of the team on the road to 2010, which is the much bigger goal?

Although it is too early to say, I would think Osim will persevere with the players he has, rather than fall back on recalling players in Europe.

I think he will show faith in the J.League players and faith in his own judgement regarding selection, and trust that they can build a new Japan.

All of which makes a Japan-Australia rematch in the Asian Cup next year a mouth-watering prospect.


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Hirayama can rebuild his career in J.League

11 Sep 2006(Mon)

September 9, 2006: The tale of Sota Hirayama is a strange one; or we might say a “tall” one.

The Athens Olympics centre forward left Heracles last week under a cloud. The club said he had gained weight in the close-season and was not in good condition, and therefore released him.

This was only his second season in Holland, and it was believed he was going to return to Japan and look for a J.League club.

That seems a smart move by the youngster, who, in my opinion, made a bad move when leaving Kunimi High School and going to Tsukuba University. He should, of course, have joined a J.League club at that time if his goal was to be a success as a professional footballer.

Now, though, Hirayama has to start again. If he does join a J.League team, and I am sure there will be many offers, he will find the pace of the game very fast, probably more so than in Holland.

Just because he became a media celebrity in the run-up to Athens, and beyond, this does not mean he is going to set the J.League alight instantly. He will have to be fit and he will have to be mature as a player and focused to make the grade, otherwise his professional career could be over before it has virtually started.

The news from Holland last week surprised me because I thought he had settled well at Heracles.

He scored some good goals last season and he looked to be much more coordinated in his play than in his Olympic qualifying days, when I always thought he was a bit clumsy, handling the ball too often and being caught offside too much. In short, he was starting to look like a footballer.

But he was only young after all, and with good coaching and more experience this could be changed.

His biggest asset is his height, but this alone is not good enough to make you a success.

I hope now that Hirayama will return to Japan, find a club in the J.League and start his career afresh. If he wants to catch the eye of Osim there is only one place to be, and it’s not on the bench in Holland.


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Japan were too elaborate in Saudi loss

7 Sep 2006(Thu)

September 5, 2006: The longer the match went on against Saudi Arabia, the more the home team looked like scoring and the more Japan looked like losing.

And so it proved, as the Saudis grabbed the only goal of the game midway through the second half to condemn Japan to their first defeat in three matches under new coach Ivica Osim.

I felt frustrated at the final whistle, because Japan had done enough to win the match or to draw at least, and should not have lost.

First the improvements. After Osim had criticised them for playing too slowly against Yemen, likening their passing around the defence to a local train stopping at every station, there was a noticeable increase in tempo against the Saudis. The ball was played from the back much quicker, and Japan tried to maintain a faster pace.

Thanks to this, they created several decent chances, and Tatsuya Tanaka was very prominent in the first half. He should have scored, of course, with that low shot just before half-time, and he also did the donkey work for Endo’s curling shot which produced that fantastic save from the Saudi keeper.

In the second half, both Maki and Ganaha missed good heading opportunities, so Japan cannot make excuses for losing, which Osim, to be fair, didn’t.

The Bosnian said Japan at times played like children. I think, but don’t know, that Osim was talking about Japan’s over-elaborate play in two areas.

This was what led to the Saudi goal. Japan lost the ball carelessly around the halfway line, near the touchline, and this put the whole team in danger. With the deflection into the path of the Saudi striker on the right, Japan were exposed and paid the price for the mistake a long way from their goal.

I also thought Japan did not shoot enough when they got within range. They tried too many passes in the last third of the field, and the Saudis were able to smother them and break.

It was crying out for someone to shoot from the edge of the box, like Endo had done in the first half, and Hanyu did near the end, with a fine effort which almost found its way into the top corner.

Fans should not be too depressed about the loss, because the Saudis are an Asian force, especially at home, if not exactly a World Cup force. Yemen away on Wednesday gives Japan a quick chance to remedy the mistakes by a team which is still in its infancy.


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Inoha...one for the future, as well as the present

4 Sep 2006(Mon)

September 2, 2006: There's no doubt that Ivica Osim, in a remarkably short time, has revamped the national team.

Among the latest batch of new faces is Masahiko Inoha, who has gained a rapid promotion from the Under-21 team to senior squad.

It's the kind of move Philippe Troussier would have made, and it is a very exciting one for the future of Japanese football. The head coach sees a talented young player, a player with bags of potential, and does not hesitate to move him up the ladder of international football.

Without wanting to build up Inoha too much, I must admit he's one of the most mature, all-round players I have seen during my 10 years in Japan.

I first noticed him in Macau last autumn, playing for Japan in the East Asian Games in a team led by his FC Tokyo team-mate, Tokunaga. Inoha was playing "volante" and looked like he was born for that role, stroking the ball around and linking the play like a veteran.

Then, earlier this season, FC Tokyo manager Gallo used Inoha as an old-fashioned man-marker, a modern-day Claudio Gentile but without the violence! I saw him mark Ponte out of the game against Reds at Komaba, and Juninho against Frontale at Todoroki, although Gallo made a grave mistake on the latter occasion by redeploying Inoha with a few minutes to go, and Juninho revelled in the new-found freedom.

The last time I saw FC Tokyo, with Gallo now sent to the gallows (ie: fired -- if you will pardon the pun), Inoha came off the bench and played on the left side of midfield; and later moved into the middle. It was against Avispa at Kokuritsu, and he scored his first J.League goal with a thundering header to a right-wing corner.

To sum up, Inoha looks like he can play anywhere on the pitch, but especially at right back, libero and volante.

Whether or not Osim uses him in these two games is not the point at the moment.

It shows that Osim is ready to select players he feels best represent the strong characteristics of Japanese football, no matter their age or club. I have said before that results may suffer on occasions -- maybe in Saudi Arabia and Yemen -- but this is the price you pay when rebuilding a team from scratch.

Troussier suffered the same way, and came under intense pressure from within the JFA, but the end product was worth the sacrifice.

After the disappointment of Germany, Japanese fans must show patience, because players such as Inoha will give the team a bright future.


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Timing is perfect for Ogasawara

31 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 29, 2006: So Mitsuo Ogasawara has finally swapped Japan for Italy.

The midfield playmaker has been the subject of transfer rumours for a couple of seasons now, and he left Japan on Monday for a one-year spell on loan with Messina.

Who can blame him for going -- and for getting out of Japan so quickly?

After all, there wasn't much left for him here, apart from staying with Kashima Antlers and hoping for a national team recall.

But after playing in the last two World Cups, and being overlooked so far by Osim, Ogasawara must feel his international career is over, so why shouldn't he move to Italy while he has the chance? Perhaps his last chance.

The timing, then, is perfect under these circumstances, and, without the pressure of trying to impress for his club so that he can stay in the national squad, Ogasawara might just thrive in this environment.

On the subject of the national squad, I think the policy of Osim will force many players to think more carefully about their future, and not just take the first offer that comes along from a European club.

Osim is clearly showing he has faith in the ability of the J.League players, and letting everyone know that it is not a disadvantage to be playing in Japan as opposed to playing in Europe.

Younger players will have to think carefully about this matter when, or if, offers come up, but Ogasawara was not in this category.

He has been there and done that with the national team, and has nothing to prove to anyone, and nothing to lose.

He can relax and enjoy himself in Italy, and think only of settling into a new lifestyle with his young family -- and not think about all the travel and hassle for Japan national team games.


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Okada will feel he did not complete his Marinos mission

28 Aug 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, August 26, 2006: One way or another, Takeshi Okada had to go, didn't he?

His Yokohama F Marinos team was getting worse and worse, and there was nothing to suggest things would improve either in the near future or next season.

In the end, Okada fell on his sword, and resigned shortly after Marinos' 2-1 defeat at home to Omiya on Wednesday.

I wasn't at that game at Mitsuzawa -- a resurgent FC Tokyo and Naohiro Ishikawa beckoned at Kokuritsu -- but saw the highlights on TV later in the evening; Matsuda equalising from the penalty spot late on, only for Yoshihara to snatch the winner in a scramble at the other end.

The TV camera showed Okada leaving the dug-out, his body language indicating that there was no way forward from here. It was no surprise at all, therefore, to learn the next day that he had resigned his position.

Okada will feel he did not complete the job for Marinos. Despite winning the championship in his first two seasons in charge, 2003 and 2004, success at the continental level deserted him, and Marinos failed to challenge for the AFC Champions League title.

Frequently this season I have wondered what the future held for Okada. After all, he's coached the national team at a World Cup and won the championship twice with Marinos -- and there's only way to go after that: down.

I could see him taking a break from the game and doing some media work before looking for his next job. I am sure he will be in big demand from clubs of all standing, from small teams in J2 trying to move up, to bigger clubs in J1 trying to fulfil their potential.

Okada is very much his own man, though, and will wait to see what attracts him. He may fancy another period in the "wilderness", to get away from the mass media spotlight, like he did in Sapporo, and take a lowly J2 team.

That would be my bet, for the start of the 2007 season.

The offers will come in, but he will not be in a hurry to take a new challenge.


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Tulio stands out as leading candidate for captaincy

24 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 23, 2006: Shortly after taking over the national team, Ivica Osim was asked who his captain would be.

Osim replied that a captain would emerge naturally from his new group of players, and in the meantime the experienced and respected Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi would wear the captain's armband.

Well, after two games, I know who my long-term captain would be.

Without a doubt, it would be...Tulio!

Okay, he's only played two games for Japan, but so what? He's a natural leader, loves the blue (and the red) and would run through a brick wall to stop a goal being scored.

His position, also, makes him the perfect captain, just like Miyamoto and Ihara before him and like John Terry now for England. I always thought Terry, rather than Gerrard, was the favourite to replace King David as captain of the 2010 World Cup-winners in South Africa, and Tulio reminds me of Terry -- apart from (maybe) his salary.

Osim has other options. He could stick with Yoshi, or promote his captain at JEF, Yuki Abe, or even give the job to another Red, such as Tsuboi or Keita.

But I think Tulio has more presence than anyone else in the squad, and is surely guaranteed a place in Osim's starting line-up, which is an important factor.

I also think the captaincy would be good for Tulio. He would relish the responsibility and would lead by example, making sure that everyone gave maximum effort and that heads never dropped if things were not going well.

Yes, Tulio would be the man for me to succeed Miyamoto, and I would like to see it happen in time for the two away games with Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Also, Tulio will be only 29 when the 2010 World Cup comes around, and will be at his peak for a central defender.


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Mature Matsui will get his chance

21 Aug 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, August 19, 2006: The Japan-based players, quite rightly, are the focus of attention at the moment as new head coach Ivica Osim begins the massive job of rebuilding the national team from the ruins of Germany.

But the players in Europe will not be forgotten by Osim, as some of them will have a part to play as the team development continues.

Who and when is another matter, and those questions will be answered in the near future.

The only name I keep hearing, though, is that of Daisuke Matsui.

I saw some highlights of a Le Mans game on TV last Sunday night and Matsui looked in great form. He was fast, confident and dangerous, dribbling past two or three players on a couple of occasions and very much looking the part of the creative midfield player. In fact he reminded me of one of my favourite England and Newcastle United players, Peter Beardsley, who once formed a dynamic strikeforce for the Magpies alongside Kevin Keegan and Chris Waddle, and also supplied many of Gary Lineker's goals for England.

Beardsley was a quick and clever player, with lovely balance and control, and tough for a little guy...similar to Keegan, in fact, but with more natural talent than KK.

Matsui, of course, was overlooked by Zico for the World Cup, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. I thought his omission was something of a surprise at the time, but the inclusion of Maki provided the main news.

Osim, I am sure, has not abandoned all the players based in Europe -- only most of them -- and Matsui must be top of his list. His game has matured since his J.League days, and he plays with more discipline and responsibility. In short, he plays for the team and not for himself, and has learned some valuable lessons in France.

Japan's next tests are away to Saudi Arabia and Yemen in early September, and they will provide stern examinations of the new-look Japan. Personally, I would like to see Osim continue with the J.League players, and let the team build its own identity and character. After those two away games he will know what is lacking -- in fact he probably knows already -- and can then address the situation with the Euro players.

It's only a matter of time before Matsui is recalled.


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JEF players deserve recognition

17 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 15, 2006: No one can say they were surprised that Ivica Osim picked four JEF United players for his squad to face Yemen.

And no one can say the players did not deserve it, either.

Two of them, Maki and Abe, were certain to be selected once the A3 Champions Cup was out of the way. Maki, of course, played at the 2006 World Cup -- but not enough in my opinion. He should have been sent on after 60 minutes against Australia when it was clear Takahara and Yanagisawa were exhausted and when the game could still have been won...by Japan I mean.

Abe did everything asked of him by Osim in the months leading up to the World Cup, and Osim was bitterly disappointed when his young leader was not selected.

So those two, Maki and Abe, were quite predictable; the other two JEF selections, Hanyu and Yuto Sato, not so.

But Hanyu and Yuto epitomise the JEF "ekiden" style and the JEF spirit. They run until they drop and just never give up, often surprising opponents with their tenacity and aggression.

When the opposition has possession deep in their own half, just watch Hanyu and Yuto put the pressure on them. They take it in turns to dash from midfield, and spring on their adversary like a jack-in-a-box, or like a Venus Flytrap in those nature documentaries. Watch, pounce and retreat -- all in the blink of an eye.

One coach who will be particularly pleased about Hanyu's selection is former Aston Villa and Celtic manager Jo Venglos. When "Doctor Jo" was manager at JEF, he raved about Hanyu, only wishing he had been able to coach him from 16 years old instead of 22 out of Tsukuba University.

Yuto, too, is a terrific little player who, like his twin brother Hisato, knows where the goal is.

I don't know what Osim's team will be against Yemen, but a top three of Maki, supported by Tatsuya and Hanyu, could be very tasty indeed. There would be so much movement and pace that Yemen's defenders would not know what day it was, or whether they were in Niigata, Nigeria or Naples.

Expect, therefore, the visitors to slow the game down as much as possible. This is how they will try and deny Japan, so it could be a frustrating night for the home team, needing patience as well as pace.


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Tulio, Hasebe, Tatsuya: Japan's Rising Reds

14 Aug 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, August 12, 2006: One of the banners at the National Stadium on Wednesday said it all: "Rising Reds."

Although it's still very early in the Osim era, I thought three Urawa players showed enough to suggest they can play a major role in the new-look Japan.

At the back, Tulio brought an intensity and aggression to the team. Not only is he strong in the air, he reads the game well, and makes many timely interceptions and clearances.

In front of Tulio, in Osim's three-man midfield, Hasebe produced moments of sheer class. Without wanting to build him up too much, Hasebe at times reminds me of a young Roberto Baggio.

He has the touch, the skill and the grace of Baggio, and also has the power and the presence. During last year's Emperor's Cup campaign, I saw Hasebe score an individual goal which was a mini-replica of Baggio's solo slalom against the Czechs at the 1990 World Cup.

Hasebe does not simply pass the ball; he does not merely kick it. He strokes it and caresses it, and a couple of his passes, up the right wing in the first half, were beautiful examples of this technique. Hasebe, still only 22, can get better and better.

And then there was Tatsuya Tanaka. He deserved a goal for his tireless efforts, as I thought he made some excellent runs from a deep position behind the Trinidad and Tobago back line.

There is always debate and discussion about formations, but I thought Japan played 4-3-3, or, to break it down further, 4-1-2-2-1, with Keita Suzuki the lone "volante" and Ganaha the lone striker, supported by Yamase and Tatsuya. Some people may say Tatsuya was right up front alongside Ganaha, but I thought he was slightly withdrawn, enabling him to make those impressive, well-timed runs, and also to receive the ball deep and run at defenders.

As for the other Reds, Tsuboi looked more commanding and authoritative than in previous national team games, and Alex had more freedom to attack with Komano behind him. Keita, as usual, played a mature, disciplined game in rear midfield, but he needed help, especially in the second half, and that will surely come from Abe.

"Rising Reds" indeed. And surely "Rising Japan" also.


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A3 has its place, but not in mid-season

10 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 9, 2006: The JEF United-Gamba Osaka game at the A3 Championship in Tokyo on Tuesday night really felt like a cup final.

It was fast and furious, with incidents and controversy at both ends.

In the end, of course, Gamba won 2-0, but the trophy and first prize of US$400,000 did not go to either of them. It went to Ulsan Hyundai, for whom Lee Chun Soo had been outstanding in a strong team effort.

The A3 leaves me with mixed feelings. Is it worth playing, or is it just another tournament that brings in money but clutters up the fixture list and disrupts the J.League season?

Overall, I think it deserves to stay in the calendar, but it should not be played mid-season. A pre-season tournament, for example in early March, for all three countries makes much more sense, and would give the teams a chance to finetune their line-ups for their coming domestic campaigns.

The timing of the 2006 edition has been poor, not only resulting in another frustrating break in the first division when it was just warming up again but also depriving new national coach Osim of players from two strong teams.

The Gamba-JEF game saw the Osaka club inflict another defeat on the Chiba team, shortly after they had won a recent J1 clash at Fukuda Denshi Arena.

Endo was the hero and then the villain for Gamba, first scoring with a great free kick, low into the corner, but then paying an expensive and embarrassing price for an arrogant approach to taking a penalty. (Was it really a free kick, just outside the JEF box, when Magno Alves went flying through the air? To me he was moving across the box, had pushed the ball too far to his left and simply took off into the night sky. Replays may prove me wrong, but I didn't think it was a free kick.)

Shortly after, when Abe was late on a sprightly Myojin, the ref awarded a penalty. Endo was way too casual with his kick, walking up to the ball, and then playing a back pass to Tateishi, who saved easily.

Possibly feeling he had to make amends to JEF, the Korean ref then awarded United a penalty when Sakamoto gave a fine impression of Kosuke Kitajima leaping off his podium into the Olympic pool. Like Kitajima at Athens, that deserved a gold medal, too, possibly two! I was not the only member of the media laughing in the press seats when the ref pointed to the penalty spot, but Abe hit a home run out of the ground and into Jingu Stadium.

The match could easily have been 2-0 to Gamba, and then it could have been 1-1, but it was still 1-0 to Gamba after the two penalty misses. What a great game football is!

It was left to Bando to settle the issue with a fantastic goal, a diving header which flew in off the underside of the bar.

Bando had also scored at "Fukuare" in the recent league game, and that was a fine finish, too, into the bottom corner with his right foot.

When Osim looks through the JEF, Gamba and Antlers teams ahead of next week's game against Yemen, Bando might not be too far away.


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Osim changes mood of national squad

7 Aug 2006(Mon)

August 5, 2006 -- Well, there are only 13 of them, but it's an exciting start for "Uncle" Osim's Japan.

Five players with no caps, some outstanding young talent returning, and six of the 13 from Urawa...I wonder if Japan are going to start playing in red, rather than blue, and then we can have the Red Samurai and Red Fever!

This is the fresh start Japan needed after the poor showing in Germany, and Osim has wasted no time in his rebuilding process. He has been in Japan long enough to know a good player when he sees one, and to know one who best represents the strong characteristics of the Japanese player.

Personally, I am delighted to see Tulio in the squad. Raw and rough, Tulio will bring an intensity and commitment to the back line, and possibly also to the forward line when he charges forward. I still find it hard to believe that Zico never gave him a chance, knowing last December the physical threat posed by Australia and Croatia.

Tulio would have loved those aerial scraps against the Aussies. You could have imagined him, couldn't you, standing on the edge of his own box, inviting the Aussie defenders to launch a few more long balls into the middle and then challenging them with a cry of "Is that the best you got?"

Delighted, too, to see Konno back in there after Zico looked at him all too briefly. Zico's under-use and under-development of Konno bordered on the criminal, one of the worst mistakes he made in his bungling reign.

It has been obvious for several seasons that Konno has bags of potential, but Zico was allowed to discard him and waste two years of the young player's international career.

Daigo Kobayashi has been in sparkling form for Omiya but knows he must increase his running under Osim, and his selection puts a big question mark against the future of Shunsuke Nakamura.

Hayuma Tanaka has lots of experience on the right side, either in a four-man defence or five-man midfield, and will put Kaji under pressure for that position, but I still feel Osim rates Kaji highly and is the No. 1 choice. A few years ago, when Hayuma was at Verdy, the coach at the time, Lori Sandri, said the player would eventually become Japan's right back, and his prediction is coming true.

Hasebe, of course, oozes class, while Ganaha is rewarded for leading the Frontale front line and the team to the top of the table. With Maki on A3 duty, Osim needed some height and Ganaha gives him that, and will probably give him some goals, too.

All in all, then, a bright and imaginative start by Osim, who clearly felt he needed to change the mood of the team after Germany as the squad had gone stale under Zico.


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Frontale stay out in front

3 Aug 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, August 2, 2006 -- Yes, I think it is safe to say that Kawasaki Frontale is a genuine candidate to win the J.League championship.

Although they have played well all season, I have been a bit reluctant to count Frontale among the title contenders.

This is for one reason only: the fact that they have not been in this lofty position before, and therefore do not have the experience to handle the pressure. They have big players, but no big-name players, if you see what I mean!

But now, 16 games into the 34-match season, Frontale are still at the top with 34 points, holding a one-point lead over Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka, and a three-point advantage over Kashima Antlers in fourth place.

I feel we are down to a four-horse race for the championship, because none of the acknowledged "big teams" below this pack, such as Yokohama F Marinos and Jubilo Iwata, appear capable of improving their form dramatically over the second half of the season.

The rise of Frontale is good for the game in Japan, as the more teams equipped to challenge for the title, the better.

It seems unlikely that Frontale will self-destruct and collapse, either, as they are clearly made of tough components and have a strong team spirit, a solid team structure and with flair on top.

Their results since J1 resumed after the World Cup have been impressive, apart from the 2-0 reverse at home to Urawa Reds. I have visited Todoroki many times and did not think it was possible to get 23,000 fans in that stadium -- but this occasion proved otherwise, thanks to the Reds masses plus the attraction of such a visiting team to Todoroki for the home supporters.

That defeat was sandwiched between two impressive victories, 4-2 at Kashima and 3-2 at home to Gamba, and then a solid 1-1 draw at Oita.

Having seen Oita play recently at Komaba, against Urawa, this was a good result for Frontale away from home, and underlined once again they have what it takes to last the pace.

But we will all have to wait until August 12 for the resumption of hostilities, as there is yet another frustrating break in the J1 calendar. It should be worth the wait, though, as it's Frontale against Marinos at Todoroki, guaranteeing another bumper crowd.


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Tatsuya's winner brings mixed feelings

31 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 29: Football can be uplifting and cruel at the very same moment.

This happened at Komaba on Wednesday night, when Urawa Reds beat Oita Trinita 1-0.

The precise moment was the 78th minute, when Tatsuya Tanaka scored the only goal of the game. It was a lovely, cool finish by Tatsuya, and suggested he is a long way back to full fitness after his terrible injury.

At the same time, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Oita. This was the cruel part.

I thought Oita had been the better team until that moment, and Urawa could not have complained if the match had finished in a draw.

The visitors kept the ball expertly, dictated the pace of the game and then broke quickly to catch the Reds defence unawares time after time. The Reds fans may have jeered this patient, possession football by Oita, but it was nice to watch and so was their passing in the last third of the field.

What was missing, of course, was the finish, as Oita created several clear chances to score. They couldn't, and Tatsuya could at the right time, and that is what decided the match.

Although the Reds fans were whistling their discontent at Oita's tactics, they should have been more concerned about their own team. A five-man midfield with Hasebe, Keita and Ono in the centre could not get the ball, although I do remember a wonderful pass from Hasebe in the first half that sent Tatsuya racing away, and a fierce shot that was tipped to safety by Nishikawa.

That was a rare moment of Reds fluency, though, as I thought Oita played a good match. It was a pity that, in the second half, as they scented a draw and a point, they resorted to some blatant time-wasting tactics to run down the clock.

I always think of a Steve Perryman comment when that happens: that it shows to the opposition you are not good enough to do the job honestly and fairly.

It all came to nothing when Tatsuya found some space and collected a short pass from Uchidate before clipping the ball into the corner. It was a quality finish from Tatsuya, who had shown a refreshing willingness to run at the opposition and to shoot when the goal was in sight. If Osim does call him up, I hope Tatsuya maintains that positive approach.


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Morimoto has nothing to lose

27 Jul 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, July 25, 2006: Good luck to young Morimoto!

What has the teenager got to lose by joining Catania on a one-year loan deal from Verdy?

I would think absolutely nothing, and feel the experience can only benefit him.

It's not like he is near the national team or anything, and a move overseas would rule him out of selection.

He is still very young and his career is at the beginning, so a move overseas is unlikely to prove a setback in any way.

It could even "make" him as a player, if he does well for Catania and attracts the interest of bigger clubs, but it will certainly not "break" him as his current status is Japanese second division, with only age-group football for Japan in the near future. And this is not a good enough reason to stay in Japan.

For all the media, and fans, planning trips to watch Morimoto, I envy them!

I visited Catania in the early 1990s, not to watch football but to cover the Hong Kong rugby team in the Sicily Sevens, which was a qualifying tournament for the World Sevens to be held in Scotland.

It is a lovely place, as most of Italy is, with so much sightseeing to do, and so many restaurants to fill in the gaps between sightseeing!

I am sure Morimoto will have a wonderful time there, not just from a football point of view but also from the view of a young man just setting out in the world.

As for his chances of success; well, very difficult to say.

Catania will surely struggle to stay in Serie A, like many clubs do who come up from Serie B, so he could be in for some long, hard Sunday afternoons.

But there is no doubt Morimoto has the raw materials to improve as a player. He is quick, physically strong, aggressive with the ball at his feet, and knows how to score goals.

Former Verdy manager Ossie Ardiles once told me that Sir Alex Ferguson was a big fan of Morimoto's after seeing him play in a youth tournament. Ardiles said Manchester United were monitoring his progress, but obviously nothing has come of that...yet.

A season in Catania, in Serie A, will attract more attention than had he stayed in J2 with Verdy, so there is no pressure on him at all.

He can relax off the pitch, train hard, play hard and enjoy Italy. All in all a good move for the talented young forward, and maybe for the long-term future of Japanese football.


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Winter season is worth considering

24 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 22, 2006: He's got a big job in front of him, hasn't he?

No, not Ivica Osim.

I'm talking about Kenji Onitake, the new chairman of the J.League.

For a while now I've been thinking the J.League needs a bit of a shake-up.

There are far too many breaks for my liking, and the league could do with some streamlining in certain areas, such as scrapping the all-star game.

I'd start with a radical change, namely from a summer season to a winter season. The hot and humid months of July and August are no time to be playing football, and I'd like to see a European-style season, kicking off in early September and finishing in May.

This would leave June and July free for national team commitments, such as the World Cup and Confederations Cup, without forcing another break on the league season.

I also feel it would benefit clubs by bringing them into line with the European transfer market, where contracts end June 30, and make it easier to negotiate transfers in and out of Japan.

Another advantage -- and I think this is a very important factor -- is the media exposure. At the moment, the J.League season and baseball season run hand in hand, but there is a void in the months from December to February, apart from the Emperor's Cup.

Just think, if the J.League ran from September to May, the profile in the media would be much higher, as it would have a monopoly in the winter months when baseball was closed down.

Right now the two compete for space, and there is no doubt baseball still dominates as a rule, apart from national team matters.

Also, if the J.League switched to a European season there would be less need for midweek matches. Wednesday night games are not big crowd-pullers, and reduce the average crowd considerably. With a September to May season, midweek dates could be reserved for Nabisco Cup and Emperor's Cup rounds.

I know there are disadvantages of a winter season, notably the harsh conditions in Sapporo, Yamagata and Niigata. But Sapporo has a dome, and surely the fixture list could be manipulated so that Yamagata and particularly Niigata play the majority of their home games in late summer/autumn and in the spring. This would mean only a couple of months would be out of bounds.

Yes, I know there would be problems with, and objections to, such a transition, but to me the advantages of a September-May season far outweigh the disadvantages. Overall I think it would be much smoother.

I don't know if the new J.League chairman is even thinking about this, but I feel it would be worth detailed discussion and research, as I am sure Japanese football would benefit as a whole in the long-term.


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Osim will reward hard work, dedication

20 Jul 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, July 19, 2006: Not surprisingly considering Japan's poor showing at the World Cup, there has not been a glut of transfer stories linking Japanese players with clubs in Europe.

And that, in the current situation, is not a bad thing.

One of the biggest problems Zico faced was that so many important players were in Europe, but several of them were spending more time on the bench than the pitch.

When they played for the national team, therefore, they were not match fit -- as training every day is much different to actually playing competitive football.

Zico always insisted that the Japanese players in Europe were better than the players in the J.League, otherwise they would not have been signed by a European club in the first place. While he may have a point to some extent, it did not excuse Zico from showing such blind loyalty to players from European clubs who were so lacking in form, rather than taking a wider look round the J.League and expanding his horizons.

According to comments I have read from JFA president Kawabuchi, Osim will not adopt the same approach as Zico. He will follow the line that Hiddink took with South Korea in 2002, that a player must be a first-choice selection for his club, no matter where that club was. (Ahn Jung Hwan, for example, was very close to not being selected for the 2002 squad, and would not have been had he stayed with Perugia rather than returning to Korea).

This policy from Osim can only be good news for the J.League and for the players. Unlike Zico, Osim will be able to identify the players who can make the step up from Asian level to a world level, and he will encourage young talent in the same way Troussier did.

It will also make players (and hopefully their agents) think more carefully before accepting the first offer from Europe that comes along.

Why should the national coach pick a player like Takahara, struggling to make an impact in the Bundesliga, over a player such as Maki, who is playing, scoring and confident? At the highest level, with very little to choose between the technique of individual players, confidence and form makes the world of difference.

I expect Osim's selections, therefore, to be fresh and adventurous, and this approach will inject the same qualities into the game in general here. Osim brings hope, a ray of light after the dark, depressing days of Zico.

A passport to Europe should not be a passport into the national team, and Osim will not sacrifice his principles to keep a so-called "fantasista" in the team just because female fans think he's handsome and because he's popular with the TV stations for giving melancholic, "little boy lost" interviews. His style will have to fit the Osim style, the Japanese style, and that means he's going to have to run, keep running and then run some more. There will be no room for players who are not prepared to give everything for the team, as Osim demands this work ethic and, indeed, receives it.

Europe is not the only answer for a Japanese player who wants to be successful at the highest level. Not any more.


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FIFA should embrace video tech, not fear it

17 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 15, 2006 -- The Zidane-Materazzi incident has been a terrible setback for the game, with its ugly provocation and violent reaction.

But, who knows, some good may actually come out of it in the end.

That is if FIFA decides to introduce video technology to assist the officials and right the many wrongs in the game. Personally, I think FIFA should have done this several years ago, and their reluctance to use video replays is holding back the development of the game.

Shortly after the Zidane dismissal, reports were circulating that video technology had been used to punish the crime. The referee had missed the incident, through no fault of his own as play was going the other way and he has only one pair of eyes, but it had been spotted on a pitch-side monitor replay by the fourth official, who sits in between the two team benches.

FIFA moved quickly to say this was not true, and insisted that the fourth official had seen the head-butt with his own eyes and had informed the referee via their communication system. The world governing body stressed that video technology had not been used at all.

But the big question remains: What is wrong with using a TV monitor and a few replays if it brings to the attention incidents such as these? Is it not good for the game, rather than bad?

Rather than welcoming such a change, FIFA president Sepp Blatter says video technology undermines the authority of the referee. Surely it helps the referee and his assistants, and enables them to make correct decisions.

Blatter says that referees are only human and everyone makes mistakes, but that is not a good enough excuse in the modern game with so much money at stake and so much technology available.

I often think back to the 1998 semi-final between France and Croatia when the French defender Blanc was sent off after Croatia's Bilic pretended he had been seriously hurt in an off-the-ball incident in the box. Blanc received a two-match ban, ruling him out of the World Cup final in his own country, and FIFA refused to change their decision, even though TV replays showed to millions of viewers around the world that Bilic had conned the referee. The cheat had won, and the honest player had lost.

Just think what could have happened in other circumstances. After the game, match officials could have reviewed the TV replays and, on seeing the scale of Bilic's theatrics, cancelled the two-match ban for Blanc.

Would anyone have argued about this? Could anyone in all honesty still have said Blanc deserved to miss the final?

I think FIFA should introduce video technology/replays immediately. There is no argument for saying it would hold up the flow of the game, because there is no flow any more, especially at the World Cup, where the next petty foul and whistle was only a few seconds away.


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Zidane should have won the "Golden Butt" award, not Golden Ball

13 Jul 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, July 11, 2006 -- A joke or what?

I'm talking, of course, about the Golden Ball Award for the Most Valuable Player of the World Cup going to Zinedine Zidane.

Maybe FIFA should rename the award the "Golden Butt" or even the "Golden Bald Head-butt Award."

I think the award does the game no favours whatsoever, and FIFA should have stepped in to change the result.

In fact I am sure many non-soccer fans, and many fans too, will be laughing at the award, because Zidane's act of violence shocked the world and made a mockery of the claim (not mine) that he is one of the best players in the history of the game.

With ability, genius even, and with the captaincy comes responsibility and discipline, and there are no excuses whatsoever for Zidane's hooligan behaviour, even if motor-mouth Materazzi did call him "the son of a terrorist whore".

Zidane should have been big enough to have walked away from the slur, but his temper got the better of him, just like it did at the 1998 World Cup when he was sent off for stamping on a Saudi Arabia player in France's second group game. That was vicious, too, and brought a two-match suspension, which could have proved costly for France long before they reached the final.

In the final, of course, he scored two fine headers against Brazil, and his violent act against the Saudis was swept under the carpet.

Now, though, there is no hiding, and no chance of redemption, as Zidane has hung up his boots and retired.

But let's get back to the award, in which the journalists vote for a 1-2-3 MVP, with five points for first place, three for second and one for third.

Personally, I would have voted for Cannavaro because I thought he was magnificent in the heart of the Italian defence, especially in the absence of the injured Nesta. Even if Zidane had not been sent off and even if France had won the final, I would still have voted for Cannavaro, provided that he didn't score three own goals, concede a penalty and get sent off for spitting or something equally repulsive.

I would not have voted for Zidane, and think many people did for "romantic" reasons. After all, what a great story! Zidane retires from international football in 2004, comes back a year later and, at 34, helps his team reach the final in his last game before retiring for good.

The problem is, most of the people vote before the final, because, with all the interviews and articles journalists must write after the final, the last thing they need is a FIFA "suit" pestering them to complete their voting forms (unlike Nabisco Cup games in Japan, for example, when we can vote at leisure for Konno or Inoha after each FC Tokyo game!)

I have read many interesting comments on websites around the world, and one argument is that a red card, for behaving like a drunk and bald mountain goat, should not be enough to affect your overall opinion of a player. Really?

Excuse me, but isn't getting sent off in the final, and missing the shoot-out as your colleagues toil and lose, quite an important part of the World Cup?

It reminds me a bit of Alex Santos a few seasons ago, when he was sent off for S-Pulse in the second leg of the championship play-off against Jubilo, who went on to win. The next day, Alex was named J.League MVP, which I also thought was wrong (and, more recently, Emerson, but we won't go into that! Emerson, by the way, will be 19 years old next week).

With the media being encouraged to vote early, although the ballot box did not close officially until midnight, this leaves the system open for mistakes and ridicule.

Next time, maybe FIFA should examine the results the morning after the final, and make the Golden Ball choice after a discussion with the Technical Study Group. In other words, the media vote would be a contribution to the award, not the whole of it.

Zidane is in disgrace, and I think the reputation of football as a whole has been tarnished by the award, when FIFA could have prevented it. Cannavaro was a worthy winner, but he won't mind...he has the World Cup for four years!


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Let's put an end to the nonsense

10 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 8, 2006 -- It has been very encouraging to read lots of articles lately about the amount of diving, feigning injury and gamesmanship at the World Cup, and that FIFA accepts there is a plague that needs wiping out.

I say "encouraging" because many times I feel the media do not write about this aspect of the game, and just accept it as a modern trend.

My thoughts on the subject have been well documented over the years, and I will never turn a blind eye to an injustice brought about by someone cheating, even if a member of the Japanese press once criticised me for standing up for "old-style football." I think he meant "honest" football.

I just can't help myself from commenting on the subject, and this led to a heated argument in the Media Seats during the England-Ecuador second-round game at Stuttgart.

From the opening whistle Ecuador were clearly playing for a goalless draw, extra time and penalties, when they could suddenly turn from negative spoilers to brave heroes.

So when yet another Ecuador player decided to stay down after an innocuous challenge and one of his team-mates kicked the ball out of play, I threw my pen down on the desk and said it was a joke. Actually I used a bad word before "joke", beginning with "F", and I apologise for not being able to keep my "passion and emotion" in check!

Sitting to my right were four or five Spanish-speaking journalists, who were clearly cheering for Ecuador. And I mean cheering!

They took offence to the fact that I thought the Ecuador players were play-acting, and repeated my "F" word several times between themselves, which was quite amusing.

"What about 'F...ing' Rio Ferdinand?" said the one next to me, who did not even have a note book or pen with him. "The 'F...ing' King of Fair Play!"

He then proceeded to demonstrate the use of his elbows and started punching thin air, a bit like Tim Cahill's boxing celebration at the corner flag against Japan (sorry to mention that readers, still painful isn't it?)

"It's a man's game," I replied, "not a girl's game."

So, as you can see, there are very differing views on the subject. Strangely enough, though, Ecuador stopped play-acting after "Prince David of Beckingham Palace" scored his wonderful free kick. From that point on, Ecuador actually tried to score, too, which was quite a novelty. Had the clowns sitting next to me noticed the link between their team falling behind and the subsequent lack of time-wasting? Probably not.

Anyway, thanks to Portugal in general and Cristiano Ronaldo in particular, all the dark elements of the game have been highlighted at this World Cup, and Franz Beckenbauer -- "Der Kaiser" of Fair Play -- says a panel of players, referees and coaches will discuss the problem at a meeting later this year.

It could be long gone by then, of course.

Yes, it is as easy as that, if the players really want it.


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Memories of Nakata's last match

6 Jul 2006(Thu)

July 5, 2006 -- Well, I thought there was something not quite right about Hidetoshi Nakata at the end of the Brazil game.

His last game at the World Cup, definitely. His last game for Japan, possibly.

But never his last game as a professional.

Once again, though, Nakata has written his own rules and done his own thing, which is typical of the man and of his lifestyle.

He's never been one to follow the crowd, or to stand still. He's kept moving and kept challenging himself.

Now, fresh challenges lie ahead, off the pitch, and, just like he did on it, he has the talent to be a success.

Of all my memories of Nakata, dating back to 1994 when I first saw him play, for Japan's under-19s at the Asian Youth Championship in Jakarta, the one that is with me at the moment came during the Brazil game.

It was towards the end of the match, when Brazil had the three points safely in the bag. Japan broke down the left wing and Nakata made a run to the far post, hoping the ball would reach him.

It didn't -- and Nakata flopped to the floor, exasperated. He must have known, at that crushing moment, that this had been his last chance to score a goal, to feel the ecstacy when the ball makes the net bulge, the linesman's flag stays down and the referee is pointing back to the centre circle.

After the chance was gone, he dragged himself to his feet and began to run back into his own half, as Brazil were breaking quickly again and another goal looked possible. I watched Nakata closely, and he was absolutely exhausted. His head was bobbing from side to side and he was surviving purely on his instincts, as every ounce of energy had been spent.

What happened after the final whistle, of course, has been well documented. Watching him from the Media Seats in Dortmund, I was quite concerned about his well-being, as I am sure a few other people were, too, including Miyamoto and Adriano, both of whom went over to check he was okay.

I felt sure at this time that he had played his last match for Japan, and this was his "thank you" to the fans, and when he announced his retirement this week, it seemed to be a logical conclusion to those events in Dortmund.

I think he knew that his career would be all downhill from here, and he has never given the impression that he would like to prolong his career just for the sake of it, moving from club to club, at a lower and lower level, for another pay packet until his mid-30s.

He has a much bigger agenda than that, and I am sure he must be feeling a sense of relief right now rather than facing another uncertain close-season in Europe, wondering where he will be playing.

At the moment, this is my lingering memory of Nakata, but others, happier ones, will come back in the future.


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Osim not yet signed, sealed and delivered

3 Jul 2006(Mon)

July 1, 2006 -- What's happening in the Osim Affair?

I thought the procedure would have been quite straightforward for the JFA.

First, the JFA technical committee draws up a list of candidates to succeed Zico after the World Cup.

Second, they approach the man at the top of the list, or, if he is employed by a club, they approach the club to ask for permission to speak to the candidate.

Third, they offer the job to the candidate, and discuss the length of the contract/salary etc. If there is no agreement, the JFA moves down the list...Osieck?

Fourth, if an agreement is reached, they then negotiate a settlement with the club, if necessary.

Fifth, the new head coach of the national team is presented to the media.

But no, the Osim Affair is still running, as June turns to July. Hopefully it will be concluded soon, for the good of Japanese football, and then Osim can start repairing the damage caused by the Brazilian, who should never have been appointed in the first place.

I must admit I was quite surprised when, on his return to Japan from Germany, JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi revealed that they were negotiating with Osim, and that the initial approach had been made before the World Cup.

Clearly this was a clever piece of "political spin" by the JFA president, trying to deflect attention away from Zico and Japan's failed campaign and putting Osim, a popular choice, in the focus.

The announcement appeared to take some people by surprise, including JEF United, who said they had not been approached by the JFA for permission to speak to Osim.

The last I saw about it was on the NHK evening news on Friday, when Osim was at Gifu and receiving a bouquet of flowers, rather embarrassingly.

Hopefully the three sides -- JFA, JEF and Osim -- can reach a deal soon, and an official announcement can be made, so we can put the Zico Episode behind us as quickly as possible and move forward.

I have been saying for a couple of years that Osim would be the ideal national coach, as it will need someone who knows the Japanese players now to start rebuilding the team.

And there is no need to think about the 2010 World Cup just yet, especially in the case of Osim.

Surely a one-year contract, though to the 2007 Asian Cup, or a maximum two-year deal would suffice, and then, if everyone is happy, an extension through to the 2010 World Cup could be discussed.

I also don't want to read any more comments from the JFA president about Osim being the ideal man to continue Zico's philosophy.

To me this is an insult to Osim, who is a respected and proven coach, as opposed to Zico, who had no experience at all and displayed his shortcomings time and again during those four long years.


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Tulio may have helped Japan´s cause

29 Jun 2006(Thu)

Stuttgart, June 26, 2006 – It is very interesting reading the comments of Zico from his final press conference as Japan´s head coach in distant Tokyo.

He is pointing out that Japan suffered at the World Cup because they did not have enough tall players to match the Australians in particular, and also the Croatians.

While this is true, it must be noted that Zico was aware of this since last December, when the draw was made in Leipzig. He knew then that Japan would be in a tough, physical group, and when the USA ran Japan ragged in a San Francisco friendly early in the year, the alarm bells should have been ringing even louder.

But Zico did nothing to bolster his defence, instead staying loyal to the players who had been around for some time.

I have said before in this column that, on his day, Naoki Matsuda is the best Japanese player in the J.League, although he let down Zico and himself by walking out on the squad before a World Cup qualifier in 2005. Under those circumstances, I can understand Zico not picking him again.

This could not be said of Urawa Reds defender Tulio. He has the height and the muscle to be of use to Japan in the future, although he is still a little rough around the egdes.

With all those friendlies in 2006, I thought it was well worth Zico taking a look at Tulio, but he never got the call.

Reds manager Guido Buchwald has said consistently this season that Tulio has been his best defender, and the best header of a ball in Japan, even though Tsuboi is in the national squad ahead of him.

At a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan at the end of May, Buchwald was the guest speaker, and told the audience that the only time Zico had talked business with him was two years ago.

He was asked why Zico had not given Tulio a chance, and replied: ´´I don´t know, but I have heard it is because Zico thinks Tulio speaks too much on the pitch.´´

That´s strange, isn´t it, as the lack of communication among Japanese players is always being highlighted as a fault by Zico!

So I disagree that Japan does not possess players of sufficient height. This reminds me of a response by Philippe Troussier to a question from a Japanese reporter about the size of the Japanese defenders.

´´Does Mexico have players as tall as Matsuda in defence?´´ he said. ´´Mexico are always in the World Cup. This is not a problem for Japan.´´

Of course it is too late now to talk about what Zico should have done, but his reluctance to introduce new players and freshen up the squad played a part in Japan´s downfall.


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Hide and Gazza

26 Jun 2006(Mon)

Hannover, June 23, 2006 – Who would ever think Hide would “do a Gazza”?

Japan´s Ice Man, Hidetoshi Nakata, who rarely shows his emotions or feelings in public, went down in World Cup history alongside England´s Paul Gascoigne, and no doubt many other less famous players, who shed tears of anguish on their team´s exit.

Gascoigne did it in the 1990 semi-final against Germany in Italy. After being booked for a foul on Thomas Berthold, a yellow card meant he would miss the final, should England get there. Gazza´s tears started and would not stop.

The image of his team-mate, Gary Lineker, indicating to the bench Gazza was in distress will forever remain in my mind. As it happened, England lost the penalty shoot-out to Germany, and this prompted a second wave of Gazza tears.

The show of emotion, however, endeared him to the nation, and his life was never the same again.

And so to Hide, a player who has been accused of not caring enough, of being a businessman rather than a footballer, as he moves around Italy and then to England.

But Nakata´s act of despair, desolation even, after the final whistle against Brazil dispelled this theory for ever.

It was a poignant moment, seeing Nakata lay there on his back in the centre circle, long after his team-mates had walked over to thank the fans and then disappear into the changing rooms.

I must be honest and admit I feared for Nakata´s health, as he looked physically and emotionally drained.

Midway through the second half, with Brazil in control and Hide pushed more forward after the introduction of Koji Nakata, I recall seeing him struggling back to defend. Japan had attacked, lost the ball, and Nakata now tried to race back to help out the defence.

He reminded me of a “toy nodding dog” you see in the back of cars, as his strength was draining away and he was running on empty.

This match, this World Cup, meant so much to him, and the frustration of the early elimination, together with the fact that Japan could do nothing to stop Brazil running away with the game, proved too much.

Nakata does care, and always has done. It is just that he is different, something many Japanese cannot accept.

For all those cynics and doubters, he has served his country well, and deserves credit in the same way Gascoigne did when he returned to England a folk hero and a legend in 1990.


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Kaji can still be around in 2010

22 Jun 2006(Thu)

Bonn, June 19, 2006 -- Looking through Japan´s squad here at the World Cup, there are not many outfield players you could say with confidence will still be around for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

(That is provided Japan qualify, however, as Australia will be a formidable foe for the established Asian powers next time around).

But one of these is most certainly Akira Kaji, Japan´s Cafu for his work up and down the right flank.

Against Croatia at Nuremberg, Kaji was among Japan´s top performers.

As well as having to deal with the attacking threat of the athletic Babic down Croatia´s left, Kaji also found time to get forward and provide some dangerous moments at the other end.

The former FC Tokyo and current Gamba Osaka man is equally at home at right back in a four-man defence, or on the right side of a five-man midfield, and this has made him indispensible to Zico for the past couple of years.

The fact that Tokunaga (FC Tokyo) and Nakamura (Avispa Fukuoka) are both talented young right backs will keep Kaji under pressure for his place, and that is a good thing, while Komano, his able deputy against Australia, might be advised to switch to the left flank to try and take Alex´s place.

It was interesting watching Kaji against Croatia. In Zico´s 4-4-2 formation, the Brazilian coach looks to his two full backs, Kaji and Alex, to provide the width, in the same way Narahashi and Soma used to do for Kashima.

It is not the job of the wide midfield players to break down the flanks, get to the line and cross into the box, it is the job of Kaji and Alex, and the team must be well organised to put these two in the right position at the right time. When Japan can hold the ball long enough, and not give it away carelessly with an ambitious pass or a poor piece of control, they can frequently bring these two into play, and catch the covering defence out of position.

I feel the national team needs a major overhaul after the World Cup, but Kaji will remain one constant.

Japan´s MVP against Croatia, however, was undoubtedly Kawaguchi, although Hidetoshi Nakata received the official award from FIFA.

There is no doubt Japan´s heads were down after the Australia debacle, but Kawaguchi changed the mood with his excellent save, low to his left, from Srna´s well-struck penalty. No arguments about the penalty award, either, as Tsune had allowed Prso to get behind him, and paid the price for his hasty challenge.

Yoshi proved again he is a big-game player, and deserves another hero´s reception on his return.


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Please end the Rooney Saga

19 Jun 2006(Mon)

Bonn, June 16, 2006 -- England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was speaking for a lot of people when he welcomed the end of the “Wayne Rooney Saga” after his team’s 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago.

The sports pages of the English newspapers have been dominated by Rooney´s metatarsal since he injured his right foot playing for Manchester United against Chelsea seven weeks ago.

But at Nuremberg on Thursday, Rooney came off the bench and played for 33 minutes – his first appearance at the World Cup.

“It is a great relief the saga is over,” Eriksson said in his post-match press conference.

“It has been talked about every day, and really all of us in the camp are fed up with it…and now it’s over.”

Well, Eriksson thought it was over.

Next question.

“Can you talk us through the last 24 hours?” asked one reporter, wanting the details of the doctors and the examinations. For a moment I thought I was watching “E.R.” or “Chicago Hope” as the medical talk dominated the football.

Next question.

“Will Rooney be fit to start against Sweden?”

Eriksson managed to keep his temper in check, and said he would have to wait for a day or two to check on Rooney´s condition after his runout against T-T.

Question to Peter Crouch.

“How did Rooney´s entrance lift the team?”

Crouch was most definitely fed up, too.

“Not only Wayne, but also Lennon and Downing lifted the team. We needed fresh legs in the attack,” said Crouch.

So, as you can see, the Rooney Saga is not quite over yet, despite Eriksson´s profound hopes.

Rooney´s name gives the headline-writers lots of opportunity to create corny headlines, such as “Wish Roo were here!” (when Rooney did not play against Paraguay), or “We are thROO!”, meaning England are through to the next round with six points from two games, or “Wayne to go!” (instead of the American rallying cry, “way to go”).

Not for a long time can one player have dominated the sports news – and this goes to show how special Rooney is.

But sitting through an England press conference these days is painful, as you know what is coming next. A question about Wayne Rooney.

So here is my own contribution to the Rooney Saga.

“This is all Wayne over the top!”

“Write about the SocceROOS instead!”

“Fergie thinks Sven is a ROOnatic for bringing Wayne back so quickly!”

I apologise readers, and promise this is tROOly the end of the Saga -- or you may start becoming unROOly!


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Maki left on sidelines during Aussie onslaught

15 Jun 2006(Thu)

Bonn, June 13, 2006 – Many of the media covering England here at the World Cup have been critical of Sven-Goran Eriksson for not giving Theo Walcott a run against Paraguay.

Why bring a young but untried talent such as Walcott and then leave him on the bench when the team lacks attacking spark?

That was the school of thought after England´s cautious approach, and I was thinking similar things after Japan´s defeat by the Socceroos.

Having picked Maki as his one surprise, I thought the latter stages of the Australia game were perfect for him to make his debut in the World Cup.

But no, Zico made a puzzling choice by sending on Ono at a time when Japan needed some defensive grit and fresh legs rather than a third playmaker alongside Nakata and Nakamura.

I thought the situation called for Maki. Zico could have sent him on and told him to run after anything that moved, preferably in a gold and green shirt.

Japan were defending deeper and deeper as the second half wore on, and Maki could have defended from the front, harassing the Aussie defenders and midfielders when in possession and putting them under pressure. Who knows, Maki might have been an attacking threat, too, as his height and fresh legs would have caused problems for the tiring Australian defenders.

Instead, though, the Australian substitutes just formed an orderly queue on the edge of the Japan box, and waited for the next high ball to come along.

It was only a matter of time before the Socceroos broke through, and no one could say they were surprised when Cahill equalised following a moment of misjudgement by Kawaguchi.

What a shame for poor old Yoshi, who was in line for an MVP performance due to a string of spectacular saves in the first and second half.

His error came on a Neill throw from the left. The keeper came but didn´t quite make it, and Cahill was on hand to fire home the loose ball.

This was just the beginning of the end, as Japan quickly crumbled. I hope it´s not too late for Maki to have a meaningful run against Croatia. Or what was the point of bringing him?


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Bonn celebrates German victory

12 Jun 2006(Mon)

Bonn, June 9, 2006 -- Can you hear it, outside the Internet cafe where I am working?

It´s crazy!

It´s mad!

It´s the perfect start to the 2006 World Cup!

Cars are whizzing by, sounding their horns and flying the German flag out of the window.

Families are walking home in the late evening sunshine after watching the Germany-Costa Rica game on TV in a restaurant or street cafe, the children with their faces painted red, yellow and black.

Groups of young men and women are walking down the street, waving giant flags and stopping the traffic.

Not everyone is happy, though, because the police sirens are sounding out loud, as the police cars chase the speeding revellers down the street.

The celebration route takes the drivers over the Kennedy Bridge, at the end of which stands the Bonn Hilton, home of the Japanese national team. Now, for sure, the Japanese players will feel they are at the 2006 World Cup!

Today, Friday, I visited the England training session at Frankfurt, rather than attending the Japan session, as I wanted to feel the positive vibes surrounding the England team for the first time. I was not disappointed.

Heading back from Frankfurt to Bonn, a group of Germans from the Black Forest invited me to join them at the bar of the train, and have a few glasses of refreshing German beer after a hot day at the stadium.

2-1 to Germany very early on, 3-1 to Germany, 4-2 to Germany….the passengers on the train from Frankfurt to Bonn, via Mainz, were kept in touch with the match, and everyone was in high spirits at the end.

So, on arriving at Bonn, suitably refreshed, it was then that the hysteria in this conservative town really hit me.

No other sport can unite a nation like football. I read once, recently in fact, that only war could prompt a similar, impassioned spirit as football, especially when the host team is performing to expectations at the World Cup.

Yes, the perfect start to what is surely going to be a magical World Cup…and with England and Japan still waiting to start.


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Japan's friendlies are over -- thank goodness!

8 Jun 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, June 6, 2006 -- Well, at last it's over.

Japan's build-up to the 2006 World Cup officially ended Sunday with a 1-0 victory over Malta.

But, like so many of the friendly games played in the four years under Zico, it was pretty much a waste of time.

What did Zico learn?

Probably nothing.

What did the hollow victory do for the morale and confidence of the team?


Apart from Tamada, whose early goal gave Japan the win, it's unlikely anyone gained much.

Even the defence, who kept a clean sheet, know the opposition was of a low quality.

With so many changes during the game, it became meaningless again, as Japan struggled to beat a team they were clearly dominating. It was just a bunch of individuals going through the motions, because they all know who's in and who's out when it really matters.

No, I'm relieved all the build-up games are over, and so, I suspect, is Zico.

He'll just want the Australia game to arrive as soon as possible, so they can finally play the real thing.

No more tests, no more mass substitutions, no more excuses -- just two teams playing for the massive prize of three points in their Group F opener.

Among the subs on Sunday were Ono, Inamoto, Ogasawara and Maki. I was surprised Zico did not start Maki, in the absence of Takahara and Yanagisawa, because I feel Oguro is tailor-made for the bench.

The former Gamba forward is lethal coming into the game as a second-half substitute. As much as I admire his poaching prowess, I just don't think he has the all-round game to make an impact in the starting eleven at this high level.

Let Maki run the defenders into the ground for 60 or 70 minutes, and then bring on Oguro to finish them off...

Tamada took his chance, but I tend to think he would be more suited playing on the left side of midfield when Zico deploys a 4-4-2 formation, provided he has a solid left-back behind him.

Which brings us round to Koji Nakata. I have said before and will repeat that he is wasted on the left side of defence. Koji has the experience and the football brain to be playing in the centre of midfield.

I'd love to see him alongside the other Nakata -- Hidetoshi -- in the middle of the park, in a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 formation, because he is a natural defender who can also break forward and score goals.

As I said, all these friendlies seem to cause more problems than they solve, and I am just glad they are over.

Bring on the Aussies!

It's now or never for Japan.


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FIFA must end shirt-pulling nonsense

5 Jun 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, June 2, 2006 -- At every World Cup, FIFA, belatedly, attempts to clamp down on one particularly negative trend in the modern game.

In the past it's been tackling from behind (but Germany's Schweinsteiger proved this dangerous challenge is still alive and kicking, as poor old Kaji found out rather painfully) and also simulation -- FIFA speak for diving (but another German, the substitute Odonkor, showed this blatant form of cheating is still rife, too, and got a yellow card for his troubles).

So what would you like to see referees target specifically in Germany over the next few weeks?

For me there's only one answer: shirt-pulling.

How many photographs do you see in newspapers and magazines these days where one player has hold of his opponent's shirt?

Take the example of "Atsushi-Goal" against Germany the other day. His marker, Borowski, ripped Yanagi's shirt right down the middle, revealing the Antlers striker's "six-pack" torso (imagine six cans of beer, or grapefruit chu-hai for that matter, on their side, and you can guess the shape "six-pack" refers to).

The more I think about it, in fact, the more this incident might have been planned by the two players....Borowski deliberately tears Yanagisawa's shirt, the TV camera focuses on the Japanese poster boy's chiselled chest, owners of fitness clubs and gyms back in Japan see this on TV and rush to sign him up for a new advertising campaign -- and the German gets his cut of Yanagisawa's massive ensorsement fee!

Okay, so that's a bit far fetched, but don't rule out someone approaching Yanagi with an offer.

Shirt-pulling, though, is deadly serious.

Unlike an "honest" foul, shirt-pulling is deliberate and pre-meditated. Just like diving, shirt-pulling is becoming an art in itself.

How can a player grab his opponent's shirt without making it look too obvious in front of the referee? It's happening all the time, and is resulting in players throwing themselves to the ground to bring the foul to the attention of the referee.

The shirt pull might be very sly and clever, so does the offended player play on and pretend nothing has happened, meaning the dishonest rival has got away with it? Or does the offended player simply stop in his tracks or just fall down, showing his rearranged shirt to the ref and hoping for a yellow card for the offender as well as a free kick for himself?

I hope FIFA really gets strict on this tactic at the World Cup. A clear and deliberate shirt-pull should be punished with an immediate yellow card, and a second offence should receive the red.

Only when the officials show they are serious about this shirt-pulling plague will it be wiped out.


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Nakata should have headed for goal, not for Oguro

1 Jun 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 31, 2006 -- On Monday evening, Guido Buchwald was the guest speaker at a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters' Association of Japan in Tokyo.

As a World Cup winner and an ambassador for his hometown Stuttgart, the Reds boss was the ideal choice to give the foreign sports media an insight into last-minute preparations, plus the hopes and expectations of the German people.

But, naturally, as a football man, he also had some interesting things to say on the game itself, in Japan, Brazil and Europe.

One of his observations of the Japanese player was the lack of killer instinct in front of goal. Buchwald, of course, is not the first person to say this, and neither will he be the last.

There is a feeling that the Japanese want to score the perfect goal. They want to pass and pass and eventually walk the ball into the net, something Arsenal fans may feel their team try to do too much instead of just finishing.

Guido's words were still fresh in my mind as I watched Germany against Japan in the early hours of Wednesday morning. It was especially relevant near the end, when Japan had a wonderful chance to score a third goal but squandered it.

A beautiful cross from the right by Shunsuke, who had spotted an astute run to the far post by Hidetoshi Nakata. When the ball came over, I was certain Nakata was going to launch himself at it, like he did against Tunisia in the 2002 World Cup and, more recently, against Bosnia.

But, instead, Nakata tried to direct the ball across goal and into the path of Oguro.

Surely Nakata should have gone for goal himself. The angle was a bit tight, admittedly, but he was so close to the goal that he would have had a good chance of beating Lehmann at his near post, or enough time to aim for the far corner.

I couldn't believe it when he tried to pick out Oguro, who was eventually crowded out and the chance disappeared. The television camera focused on Oguro, but it was Nakata's missed chance, not Oguro's.

A goal for Nakata would have been a just reward for another impressive game, in which his midfield inter-play with Shunsuke enabled Japan to keep creating chances. Yanagisawa, too, was very much involved in the approach play, fully justifying Zico's faith in him as he recovered from injury.

But it was Takahara who scored the two goals, both of them beauties, although the German defenders, notably Ballack, should never have allowed him to wriggle free inside the box for the second one.

Nakata could have won it for Japan right at the death -- but wanted one pass too many.

There is still time to learn, though, and hopefully he will be more single-minded if a similar opportunity comes along against Australia on June 12.


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Haas: Maki would be ideal in England

29 May 2006(Mon)

More on Maki...

Well, he is the hot news right now, and the new star of Japanese football.

The good news for JEF fans is that the team can win without him, as they proved in a recent 1-0 victory over a plucky S-Pulse in the Nabisco Cup.

Of course they missed his pace and his presence up front, but JEF came through in the end to win the match and the group.

After the game I took the opportunity to ask the opinion of Maki's strike partner, "Super Mario" Haas.

The Austrian has been as impressed as anyone with Maki's rapid progress, saying: "He gets better match by match -- and it is right that Zico has picked him for the World Cup."

With Maki's rise, it will be only a matter of time before he is linked with a move to Europe -- and Haas thinks there is a league just waiting for him to make his mark.

"I think English football suits Maki's style -- and Maki's style would suit England," said Haas.

"Maki is good at heading and running, and in the English game it's always long balls and lots of crosses."

I asked if Maki would struggle against the likes of Chelsea's England defender John Terry, and Maki replied: "Well, if the fight is close-in, it would be very hard for Maki.

"But if Maki runs with the ball, with his speed even these players have no chance."

These are words of praise indeed from Haas, who has displayed all his elegant skills in the J.League when fully fit.

JEF fans will be hoping that Haas now stays clear of injury for the rest of the campaign, because, with Maki alongside him, United would have the attacking spearhead to challenge for the championship.

The national team is now in Germany, of course, and the midfield and attack looks vibrant and powerful enough to trouble their rivals.

But I still feel the defence is a bit lightweight, and would like to have seen Matsuda on the plane, and possibly even Tulio -- if Zico had given him a chance.

The fact that Zico looks like playing a 3-5-2 formation will help Japan, as a 4-4-2 would have exposed the defensive deficiencies and highlighted the lack of muscle in the middle.

But with Miyamoto running the line from libero, and with the height of Nakazawa and the speed of Tsuboi alongside, the defence does not look quite as vulnerable as in a 4-4-2 formation.

But the central midfield duo of Fukunishi and Hidetoshi Nakata will have to tackle their hearts out to protect the defence, and Kaji and Alex will have to run like marathon athletes to secure the flanks.


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An afternoon in Hiratsuka

25 May 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 23, 2006 -- With no J1 or Nabisco Cup games last Saturday, May 20, it was a good opportunity to watch some J2.

So why not have a day out on the Kanagawa coast, by the "beautiful sea" of Bellmare?

Shonan were at home to Mito Hollyhock, and the visitors eventually won 3-1.

I watched two sports news programmes over the weekend, one on Saturday night and one on Sunday, and neither of them showed the goals from this match; which was a great pity -- unless you were a Bellmare fan, of course.

The first goal of the game, scored by Mito midfielder Ogura, would be a candidate for "Goal of the Season", if the J.League had such an award.

Ogura must have struck the ball from fully 35 metres with his right foot, and, with a stiff Bellmare breeze behind him, it flew into the top corner, past a startled Kobayashi in the home goal. Kobayashi should not feel ashamed of being beaten from such a distance, as Kawaguchi, Narazaki and Doi could all have been in goal at the same time and they still wouldn't have stopped this thunderbolt. Yes, it was that good.

Mito's second was another great finish, this time by Kim, from a little closer in, and the third was a penalty from Anderson after he had been pulled down in the box by a frustrated Bellmare defence.

Trailing 3-0, Bellmare finally got on the scoresheet when Kato, their former Reysol favourite, scored direct from a left-wing corner, using the swirling wind to curl the ball in at the back post. I am sure he meant it, too; not that it really mattered at the time as the home side was well beaten.

After the game, Bellmare manager Ueda was a forlorn figure. He was desperately hoping for a win to stay up with the pace, but defeat left them in fifth place.

He said six or seven of the 13 J2 teams were capable of winning promotion this season, but feared Reysol might start to run away at the top.

While Bellmare were playing in front of 3,504 fans, their famous Old Boy, Hidetoshi Nakata, was training in front of about 13,000 fans at J-Village with the national team.

Nakata, of course, is not just a footballer any more, and has not been for several years. He is a multi-million dollar industry, and his legacy lives on at Hiratsuka with a "nakata.net" advertising board and a huge banner reading "Pride Gate 7", clearly referring to their former playmaker (and if it's dedicated to current captain Sato, I apologise!).

It's funny how careers work out, as I first saw Nakata playing for Japan Under-19s in the Asian Youth Championship in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1994. He was on the wing, and Suguru Ito was Japan's captain and playmaker.

Ito's J.League career is now finished, and he is a coach at a university, while Nakata is a superstar in the world game.

As the train pulled out of Hiratsuka, in brilliant sunshine following a short thunderstorm, a rainbow appeared in the clear blue sky. So it's true what they say...that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow -- because Hidetoshi Nakata found it!


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Koji can still be an influence in Germany

22 May 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, May 20, 2006 -- Zico's squad announcement must serve as a warning to Japanese players in the future -- that a move overseas is not necessarily a passport to success.

Players have to be careful over their choice of country and club when the opportunity comes along, as it could affect their careers.

For various reasons, Daisuke Matsui, Yoshito Okubo and Takayuki Suzuki all missed out on Japan's 23 for Germany, and you can't help feeling their chances would have been better had they remained in Japan so that Zico could have actually seen them play on a regular basis.

I am not, for a minute, saying they were wrong to move overseas, just that they can disappear from view quite quickly.

Chatting with several Japanese sports writers in the build-up to the squad announcement, another former J.League favourite now in Europe often came up in conversation.

Would Zico call up Koji Nakata, or leave him out after his miserable time at Marseille and his attempt to get his career back on track at Basle?

Thankfully, Zico selected him -- and now I hope he tries to integrate him into the starting line-up.

Despite claims that Zico has a special bond with his "Kashima children", this cannot be said of Koji.

In fact I think Koji has been under-valued and under-utilised by Zico throughout his reign, and that he has much more to offer the national team.

No matter what formation Zico picks, 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, he will need two central midfield players to hold the team together.

One of them, preferably both, must be a naturally defensive player, and Fukunishi is the favourite for that role at the moment. But Koji could do the job just as well, if not better.

He always controlled the Kashima team in the middle of the park, and has the experience and the football brain to do the same for Japan.

With Koji staying deep, and having the tactical discipline not to rush forward unexpectedly, the midfield retains its balance and the team retains its shape -- and that can't always be said of Zico's tactics.

Zico could even play Koji and Fukunishi together, building a tall and resilient wall in the centre of the pitch, but it's unlikely he will do so due to the abundance of more creative, attacking players he clearly prefers.

The inclusion of Koji, though, gives Zico many midfield options, and, of course, the former Antlers favourite could also fill in for Alex at left back in a four-man defence...when Alex is suspended for two yellow cards: one for diving, the other for a silly foul!

No one knows exactly what condition Koji is in, but he has three weeks of training sessions and two matches to state his case.

I still feel he can be a major influence on the team in Germany.


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Maki: a success story for Japanese youngsters

18 May 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 16, 2006 -- The selection of Seiichiro Maki in Japan's World Cup squad was not only a personal triumph for the player, but also for the J.League in general.

Had Maki been left out, then not only him but many others within the game would have been disappointed and deflated.

But Zico's bold move -- well, bold by his own cautious standards -- has offered hope to young players around the country that hard work and ambition can be rewarded at the highest level.

I've had a couple of long chats with JEF United manager Ivica Osim about Maki this season, and he could not speak highly enough of his eager centre forward.

"He's an example to all Japanese players," was one comment. "He has come from nothing to the national team."

Another Osim observation was that "every team needs a player like Maki" -- someone who can come off the bench for the second half or maybe for the last 30 minutes and change a game with his tireless running and foraging for an opening.

"Not big technique, but a very, very big heart," said Osim.

As the season has progressed, there has been a groundswell of support for Maki, certainly among the English language media in Japan.

And if any match left no doubt as to Maki's electric form and value, then it was JEF's 2-0 home win over Urawa Reds.

Not only did Maki score a fantastic goal with a flashing drive that flew into the net off the post, he also led the JEF line in a hard, bruising battle against the power of Tulio and the pace of Tsuboi.

The two Kirin Cup games then confirmed the current form and condition of Maki compared to that of Kubo, who has struggled to overcome a catalogue of injuries and is not the potent, unpredictable, awkward force of old.

Zico kept everyone waiting, didn't he, by leaving Maki's name right to the end. Would it be Kubo, who was the logical choice in normal circumstances, or would it be Maki?

He went for the latter -- and put a smile on the face and a spring in the step of many people in the game.

No player deserves this accolade more than Maki, who, as Osim says, has come from nothing (Komazawa University) to the national team, and now to the World Cup....in just over three seasons.

It's a success story which should inspire young players around the country.


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Ono looks to have his timing perfect

15 May 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, May 12, 2006 -- Well, Reds fans, wasn't it reassuring to see Shinji Ono in such fine form for club and country in the last few days.

At Saitama Stadium 2002 last Sunday, Shinji scored two lovely goals in the 4-0 demolition of a very disappointing Kashima Antlers team.

Two days later, at Osaka, he came off the bench in the second half against Bulgaria and looked confident and authoritative, almost like the Shinji of old.

I must admit I'd been worrying about him a lot this year -- as many others would have been.

He didn't look fully fit, he didn't look sharp, and he was not imposing himself on games. In fact sometimes I thought he'd been substituted, because he disappeared for long spells, which is most un-Ono like!

But with Ponte and Hasebe in the team, and Keita holding things together behind them, Ono could afford to take his time and work his way back to full fitness. Ono is nothing if not a true professional, and, barring any late setbacks, it seems he'll be in as good a condition as could be expected for the World Cup, considering his cruel history of injuries.

Apart from his two goals against Antlers, what impressed me the most was when he picked himself up, unscathed, after being clattered by Antlers substitute Chugo.

I bet Guido Buchwald and Gert Engels on the bench, plus some 50,000 Reds fans in the stadium, were fearing the worst when Shinji stayed down. Another knock, a trendy metatarsal injury, maybe?

But no. Shinji was able to continue, and eventually left the field four minutes from time to, as expected, proud and loud applause from the Reds nutcases.

But will Shinji be a starting member against the Aussies on June 12?

It's too early to say, of course, because lots can happen between now and then, but his chances are improving by the game.

And where's his best position?

I've said before this year that defensive midfield would suit him better, where he can read the play and control the game more with all his experience.

Alongside Fukunishi or Hidetoshi Nakata? Probably Fukunishi, who is a naturally defensive player, whereas both Nakata and Ono are naturally attacking players. A four-man midfield of Ogasawara-Nakata-Ono-Nakamura could give Japan too much flair and not enough substance in the centre of the park against the Aussies and Croats.

Zico doesn't need to worry about that kind of detail just yet. He'll just be happy to have a fit and confident Ono back in business and available for selection.


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Matsuda only has himself to blame

11 May 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 9, 2006 -- As the May 15 deadline draws near for Zico to announce his World Cup squad, arguably the best Japanese player in the J.League won't be there.

No, he's not injured.

He's in good form, and, according to club sources, disappointed he won't be involved in the World Cup.

I'm talking about Naoki Matsuda, the Yokohama F Marinos captain.

The 29-year-old central defender is surely among Japan's top all-round players. When he is fully focused on his game he can do anything he wants at this level, and I remember writing, maybe two years ago, that Matsuda had outgrown the J.League and needed to move to Europe to keep improving.

He is a strong, athletic defender, who can play in any position in a back three and either as stopper or libero in the centre of a four-man defence. He also has great skill and vision, and would make an excellent "volante" in front of the defence.

To cap it all, Matsuda has also scored one of the best goals of the season so far with an exquisite chip, following a midfield run, against FC Tokyo at Ajista in a recent Nabisco Cup game. It was so good it could have been scored by Eric Cantona, and I can't think of many other Japanese players who could have done the same.

But, for all this, Matsuda won't be in Japan's 23 -- and he knows he only has himself to blame.

Zico showed how tough he was on squad discipline after the infamous curfew-breaking by the "Kashima Eight", and Matsuda has paid a heavy price for walking out on the squad last year when he wasn't selected in the starting line-up.

The Brazilian has proved on numerous occasions he values loyalty above all else, and there has been no way back for Matsuda.

So I'm not blaming Zico for sticking to his guns, just saying that Matsuda's mental lapse has cost him and the national team.

Wouldn't a Matsuda-Miyamoto-Nakazawa back line look stronger than anything Zico will field in Germany? And wouldn't the presence of Matsuda give Zico another option in the centre of the back three, or in the centre of the back four?

Even with all the Europe-based players back in the fold, there aren't many better Japanese players than Matsuda.

I wonder if he wishes he could turn the clock back a year, and swallow his pride and stay with the squad.

Alas, it's too late now, for Matsuda and for Zico.


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Reds players must keep their cool in red-hot atmosphere

8 May 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, May 6, 2006 -- What would the J.League be without the Urawa Reds?

Every game, home and away, they bring a special atmosphere to the J.League, and, who knows, their participation in next season's Asian Champions League might just spark some interest in the continent's premier club competition in Japan.

At the recent Saitama derby, for example, it was truly a magnificent spectacle when the Reds "end" came alive with a colourful combination of red, black and white flags flying in the sunshine.

And then, at Fukuda Denshi Arena for the away match with JEF United, a wall of noise boomed out from the away "end" to urge the team on.

Home or away, then, the Reds fans -- young and old, male and female -- are a mobile advertisement for the J.League. They have proved their loyalty, even when they were relegated to J2, and will continue to do so.

This is why I was a little surprised, therefore, at the reaction of the Reds fans on the final whistle at Chiba. Although their team had lost 2-0, I thought the Reds supporters were a little harsh, booing and jeering them as the JEF fans at the other end greeted their heroes as if they had won the championship.

I've said before that if a team doesn't try and loses, then fans, by all means, give them a piece of your own mind. After all, you pay the money!

But if they try and are beaten by a better team, then either show your mooted appreciation for their efforts, or, better still, just leave the stadium in silence and disappointment.

I thought this was the case at Chiba. Reds huffed and puffed but were beaten by a better team on the day, a much better team, in fact. JEF's collective energy and drive -- from the excellent Stoyanov at the back through the combative Abe in midfield to the dangerous Maki up front -- made Reds look like a collection of star names, with little cohesion or rhythm.

How many times did Ponte, for example, give the ball away with a careless back-heel? His team-mates were just not on the same page this day, as JEF harried and hassled and never allowed them to settle.

So give JEF credit, Reds fans. They played you off the park and thoroughly deserved their victory.

One downside to the fanatical support and expectations may be that Reds players are finding it difficult to control themselves...Keita in the home game against Omiya, Washington at Chiba.

I thought Keita was fortunate not to get a straight red card for his wild foul on Sakurai in the first half. He was clearly angry he had not been given a free kick deep in his own box during a rare spell of Omiya pressure, and took out his frustration on Sakurai.

And Washington completely lost the plot at Chiba, screaming at the referee when he did not give a penalty late on for a Maki challenge on Tulio.

Washington scores a lot of goals, and could probably score more if he channelled all his energy into playing rather than complaining.

Just because Reds have great fans does not mean the players can run the games. That's the ref's job.


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No need for Yanagisawa to rush back for Kashima

4 May 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 2, 2006 -- The "Yanagisawa Affair" is not quite of Rooney proportions, but it's still a matter of concern for the player and for Zico.

The name of Yanagisawa was missing from Zico's Kirin Cup squad on Tuesday, and that's quite understandable considering he is recovering from injury.

After all, there's still two weeks before Zico must name his "final" 23-man squad for Germany by May 15, and even then a player can be replaced due to injury and with sufficient medical evidence.

So time is on Yanagisawa's side, and there's no reason for anyone to start panicking.

Unlike in England, of course, where the Rooney injury is dominating the news in the same way as Beckham's injury did four years ago.

England's coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, seems determined to select Rooney, against the wishes of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, in the hope he will be fit for the second round. England should be good enough to come through a group comprising Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago and Sweden, and the Round of 16 does not start in Germany until June 24 -- eight weeks after Rooney's injury.

Zico does not have such a luxury with Yanagisawa, as Japan need their top players from the moment the whistle blows against Australia on June 12.

This is Japan's critical game. They must take at least one point, preferably three, against the Aussies, because it won't get any easier against Croatia and Brazil in the next matches.

Judging from Zico's comments, it seems clear that Yanagisawa will be in the 23 if he continues to improve and does not injure the foot again.

Zico is also known to favour Takahara and Kubo, and if he's planning to take only four forwards to Germany that leaves only one place available.

Alongside Takahara, Kubo and Yanagisawa, therefore, must be a player with different qualities, and the last spot seems certain to go to Oguro. Zico acknowledges the former Gamba striker has something special, and Oguro scored some big goals for the national team during World Cup qualifying and at the Confederations Cup. So that's it...no Takayuki, no Tamada, no Maki, no Sato and no Okubo (anyone remember him?)

I'm not saying these would be my choices, because I would certainly find room for Maki on current form and fitness, but that's the way it's turning out.

These broken bones are certainly causing problems around the world, though, and it was interesting to hear the comments of Robbie Earle -- the former Wimbledon midfielder -- during the Chelsea-Man Utd game on TV on Saturday night.

He says the lighter, softer boot favoured by the players now is leaving them short of protection, hence the rise in "metatarsal" fractures.

Not so long ago most football fans wouldn't have known what a metatarsal was or where it was located in the body (the elbow, maybe, or the nose?) but now it's as much a part of Beckham's history as is Posh Spice, Brooklyn and Romeo.


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Shunsuke should stay with Celtic

1 May 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, April 28, 2006 -- Not many Japanese players can claim to have had a satisfactory or enjoyable 2005-06 season in Europe.

But Shunsuke Nakamura most definitely can.

Which is why I'm puzzled to keep hearing that Shunsuke wants to move to Spain next season rather than stay in Glasgow with Celtic.

I know it's been Shunsuke's dream to play in Spain, but I think he's better off where he is and playing in a winning team which enjoys massive worldwide support.

Let's face it, Shunsuke had a lean time in Italy. He was not a success in his three years with Reggina, and, despite alleged interest from clubs in Spain last summer, he decided to transfer to Scotland.

The move has worked out perfectly for Shunsuke and for his style of football. Playing in a big team in a small league, Shunsuke has flourished in his playmaking role.

With players like Lennon and Keane around him in the midfield, there's not much need for him to tackle back and perform any defensive duties, which is and always will be one of his weak points.

And with the individual quality of the players around him greater than that of Celtic's rival teams, Shunsuke has been able to play his own game -- and look very good in doing so, with plenty of space and time to carve out that defence-splitting pass.

Celtic won the league handsomely, and are guaranteed UEFA Champions League football next season. This should represent a big enough challenge for Shunsuke without the need for him to pack his bags again and try and settle in another new country, Spain.

What will happen if he goes there, to a mid-table team striving for survival against the Spanish giants?

Well, it could end up like Italy, where he was in and out of the team and where his extravagant but fragile skills were often sacrificed for the all-action qualities of a journeyman midfield battler.

Stay in Scotland, Shunsuke.

Enjoy the haggis (I can strongly recommend this traditional, savoury dish to Japanese readers who may be thinking of visiting Scotland...your word "oishi" just does not do haggis justice!)...enjoy the atmosphere and occasion of the Old Firm derby against Rangers...and enjoy playing and winning for a team, remember, that became the first British club to win the European Cup (in 1967, with the famous "Lisbon Lions", beating Inter 2-1 in the final).

Stay in Glasgow, settle your mind, look forward to the World Cup...and, whatever happens in Germany, you'll still return to Celtic a hero and can taste UEFA Champions League action early next season...as well as the haggis.


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Wenger wrong in North London derby debate

27 Apr 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, April 26, 2006 -- Congratulations to Arsene Wenger for steering Arsenal into the UEFA Champions League final.

Wenger, of course, is still remembered with affection in Japan, especially in Nagoya, and is, quite rightly, a JFA target for the job of national coach.

Wenger has told me on a couple of occasions that he would like the job -- but not yet. He says it's a part-time job, more suitable for semi-retirement, and he is not ready to leave club football just yet.

And who can blame him, with Arsenal about to appear in their first Champions League final and set to move into a magnificent new stadium just a goalkeeper's kick away from the historic -- but small -- Highbury. He's also been linked with the Real Madrid job, and, according to one of his close friends working in Japan (all right -- it's Stuart Baxter!), could even go at the end of this season.

So Japan will have to wait a while longer for Wenger's expertise. Maybe the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is a more realistic target for the JFA.

While admiring Wenger, I am afraid I cannot take his side in a controversial incident that happened during the North London derby against Spurs at Highbury on Saturday afternoon, shown live on Saturday evening in Japan.

Very briefly, two Arsenal players collided while challenging a Spurs player. It must be pointed out that the two players, Eboue and Gilberto, bumped into each other and stayed on the turf, but clearly were not injured seriously, like in a clash of heads.

Spurs played on and scored. Wenger was furious, thinking Spurs should have kicked the ball out of play to allow his players to be treated.

Personally, I think Spurs had every right to play on, and Wenger was wrong to criticise his opposite number, Martin Jol.

It's not as if there had been a heavy collision between two rival players, and one of them had been injured. That's totally different.

But anyway I feel there is too much these days of teams kicking the ball out of play to allow a player, who may or may not be injured, to receive treatment.

You see it a lot...a team is leading, a player drops to the turf to waste time, his goalkeeper or team-mate stops the game by kicking the ball out of play, the medical staff come on and, lo and behold, he's not hurt at all. It's just another form of time-wasting and gamesmanship that has crept into the modern game.

It's the referee's job to stop the game, not the players' job, and I think refs in Japan should be much tougher. They should keep the game flowing and tell the "injured" player to get up, or show a yellow card to a player who deliberately kicks the ball out of play to stop the match without the ref's permission.

Even then, I think some teams are way too generous in kicking the ball back to the opposition on the restart, as they are losing and their opponents who have delayed the game are all now back in formation.

Who'd be a ref these days?


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An eventful night at Mitsuzawa

24 Apr 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, April 21, 2006 -- A free kick from midfield general Yamaguchi to Jo; a Kazu cross, a Jo header and a goal...

This article may sound like a sentence from "All Our Yesterdays", particularly in the build-up to the 1998 World Cup, but in fact it all took place at Mitsuzawa Stadium on Tuesday night.

It was Yokohama FC against Vissel Kobe in J2, and the stadium was so packed that fans were hanging from the balconies of the apartments overlooking the ground.

(Actually, this is an exaggeration, as the attendance was 3,286 -- and there are always people watching from their balconies at Mitsuzawa...but I am trying to build an atmosphere here, folks!)

As we all know, Yokohama won 2-1 with two Jo headers, the first from a pinpoint Kazu cross from the left, after the one-time king had beaten the offside trap, and the second in controversial circumstances when everyone else had stopped playing, believing there had been an infringement. It was all a bit messy and extremely unsatisfactory, and matters got worse for Kobe when goalkeeper Ogi moved up for a corner in the closing seconds, and then ran into his opposite number, Sugeno, after the YFC keeper had collected the ball.

It was comical and amusing more than violent or malicious, but Sugeno decided to take the law into his own hands and chased after Ogi to the edge of his penalty area. A Yokohama player then pushed Ogi (I couldn't see who it was because I was laughing so much), and then several other players got involved, too, before Ogi was shown the red card. What you might call a case of: "Ogi, Ogi, Ogi, off, off, off!"

It was more like a scene from "The Keystone Cops" or even "Benny Hill" when everyone is chasing everyone else, but the Vissel camp were not laughing on the final whistle.

All in all, though, excellent value for money for the home fans, as they had also seen former Flugels star Atsu Miura back on his old home ground as Vissel captain, as well as charismatic Kobe manager Stuart Baxter with his new assistant, Rafa Benitez...I'm sorry, I mean Pedro, but just check him out next time. From the stand, Pedro is the double of Liverpool's Spanish manager!

I had a nice chat with Takuya Takagi before the game, and he was very calm and pragmatic about his new job and about Yokohama FC's recent upturn in fortunes.

He told me to watch out for midfielder Uchida. He was wearing the No. 10 so I presumed he must be a "fantasista", but Takagi-kantoku shook his head and said Uchida ran much more between the two penalty boxes and was always looking to score.

"More like Lampard, then?" I asked.

"Little Lampard!" came the reply (Uchida is 1.66 metres and weighs only 58 kgs).

There's lots going on in J2 these days, and it's well worth taking in a game when the J1 schedule permits.


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Tsune's socks and Shunsuke's shin pads would be a well-deserved treat for fans

20 Apr 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, April 18, 2006 -- Nagoya Grampus Eight head coach Sef Vergoossen was among the spectators at the Frontale-Ardija game at Todoroki on Sunday afternoon.

He was there to study Frontale ahead of Nagoya's home game against them on Saturday, and, judging from a quick chat I had with him, seemed to pick up a lot of useful information.

He also made some very interesting comments about Japanese football in general, or, rather, about Japanese players.

What he said made sense to me, and I must admit I've seen it frequently in the past. It's just that a newcomer to Japanese football notices these things immediately, as Europe is still fresh in his mind.

This is what he was on about:

Basically, he feels that the players do not give enough of their time to the supporters. He's not talking about holding social functions in the evenings or anything like that, just dealing with the kind of situation that arises after training and after matches all the time.

"I think there's a big difference between the players and the fans," he said, adding that it was the responsibility of the players to close this gap.

He gave a few examples.

After training, players could spare a few minutes before jumping into their luxury SUVs to sign autographs and have their photos taken with fans who have hung around for a couple of hours in all sorts of weather.

And after games, he said the fans may be only 10 metres away from the team bus, but often players ignored them.

He even recalled the case of a Japanese player in Europe, whose name I shall not reveal, who just walked past a small group of Japanese supporters who had gone to watch him train with his club.

"It looks a little bit arrogant," said Vergoossen.

I have seen this with the national team, especially away from home. There may be a couple of thousand "daihyo" die-hards (hey, that phrase has marketing potential...I think I'll register it as a trademark!) who have paid a lot of money and travelled a long way to cheer on the Boys in Blue, only to be ignored after the final whistle.

I've often wondered why the players haven't gone over to them, waved and maybe even thrown them a souvenir or two.

A sock from Tsune, a shin pad from Shunsuke, one of Hide's gloves...I'm sure the JFA would be able to replace them at little extra cost!

Vergoossen, of course, is not referring to all players, as there will be some exceptions. He is just generalising from his first impressions, and I must say he has made a good point.

Although the players bow ritually to their fans after J.League games, win, lose or draw, I feel there could be more recognition and emotion on behalf of the players.

"You have to respect your supporters," said Vergoossen, "because without them there would be no professional football."

So come on players...next time show the fans you really care and throw them a sock or a glove -- and then they'll keep coming back to try and get the other one to complete the pair!


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Batistuta, Suker and Urawa sensation 'Yama-gol'

17 Apr 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, April 14, 2006 -- If Japan's leading forwards are looking for a master finisher to copy his style, the answer may be closer to home than they think.

Yes, the master finisher is playing in Japan.

And, yes again, he is Japanese!

You may be surprised by this observation, especially when the player I am referring to has played for Japan's national team on a number of occasions under Zico.

Still puzzled?

Well, it's none other than Nobuhisa Yamada, the versatile Urawa Reds veteran who displayed his sublime finishing skills yet again in the Nabisco Cup against Avispa Fukuoka at Komaba on Wednesday night.

After robbing a dithering Hirajima, Avispa's right-sided midfielder, Yamada cruised down the inside-left channel before clipping the ball delightfully over goalkeeper Kamiyama.

Talk about cool!

Yamada was so cool he should be renamed the "Ice Man" -- and he left the keeper frozen solid.

It wasn't the first time in recent months I've noticed a stunning finish from Yamada, as he's found the net before with some delicate touches, caressing the ball into the corner rather than blasting it.

Yamada's goals bring to mind a conversation I had with UEFA technical expert Andy Roxburgh, the former head coach of Scotland, during the 1998 World Cup in France. (It was at the same seminar in Paris when a certain Philippe Troussier was giving an amusing speech about African football, shortly before he became Japan's new head coach.)

Japan had already been eliminated, losing 1-0 to Argentina and Croatia and 2-1 to Jamaica, and Roxburgh said there had been little difference between the two teams -- apart from the fact that Argentina had Batistuta and Croatia had Suker (actually, that's a pretty big difference).

"Watch the leading strikers in the world," Roxburgh said. "See how they relax when they have the chance to score a goal.

"Now watch the Japanese forwards. They are in too much of a hurry. A chance comes, they panic and the chance is gone."

Well, it was something like that, but the conversation was eight years ago now.

Had Roxburgh been at Komaba on Wednesday night, and seen Yamada's beautiful goal, I'm sure he would have thought: "Wow, the Japanese strikers have improved a lot since 1998!"

Only that, as we all know, Yamada is hardly a striker, even though he played up front on Wednesday alongside Kurobe.

A right back in 4-4-2, a right wing-back in 3-5-2, a "top-shita" even...Yamada has played in all these positions, but it was the first time I'd seen him so far forward.

On this particular night, Yamada made scoring a goal in a one-on-one with the keeper as easy as Batistuta or Suker used to do...and you can't get better than that.

They used to call Batistuta "Bati-gol", so let's hear it for Reds' latest scoring sensation..."Yama-gol"!


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Marinos fail to fire at Komaba

13 Apr 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, April 11, 2006 -- Whatever has happened to the Yokohama F Marinos?

I have seen them twice in the past few days, and, despite the undoubted quality throughout the team and on the bench, they have looked anything but potential champions.

The most recent occasion was Saturday at Saitama Urawa Komaba Stadium.

Their opponents were Omiya Ardija, and it was quite strange watching a J.League game at Komaba without the involvement of Urawa Reds.

Where was assistant coach Gert Engels having his pre-match cigarette in the lobby? Where was the White Horse to carry Guido home? Where was Ya-jin running down the right wing?

Marinos must have thought it unusual, too, as they lacked motivation and urgency, and cannot complain at all about losing the game 2-1.

Takeshi Okada was in a grim mood after the defeat, so much so that I didn't even try to speak to him in English, in which he is very competent. I just let him walk by, and remained at a safe distance!

But who can blame him?

His well-paid stars had been humbled by modest Omiya, and the large "away" following had every right to jeer their players after the game.

Looking through the Marinos team, there should be no excuses for such a limp performance.

Matsuda, Kurihara and Nakazawa form a formidable back three, and Kurihara, at 22, must have a chance of being called up into the Japan squad post-Germany World Cup. He is impressive in the air, and can learn a lot from the two "old hands" either side of him.

The Marinos midfield has good balance, with Tanaka on the right, Dutra on the left, and Ueno and Magrao in the middle, allowing Yoshida to link up with his two strikers, Kubo and Marques.

Yoshida, however, is rather lightweight, and made little impact on the game, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the two forwards.

Although Kubo scored with a trademark header, after some poor defending by Omiya, he was rarely in the game and looked far from 100 per cent fit. It must be a real worry for Zico, as clearly the Brazilian head coach has Kubo earmarked for a key role in Germany.

Marques is a clever player, but still looked slightly traumatised by the man-marking of Inoha the previous week in a 1-1 draw with FC Tokyo at Nissan Stadium. It was as if Marques could sense Inoha on his shoulder (even though he was not in the same prefecture at the time), and the Brazilian could not relax into his game.

The lively Sakata and the predator Oshima, who always looks dangerous in the box, failed to spark a late revival in a generally flat and lethargic display from Okada's team.

Perhaps Nakazawa and Kubo are saving themselves for the national team cause. If they are, Marinos fans will be hoping their team has not fallen too many points behind Reds when the action resumes after the World Cup.


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All quiet on the coaching front in Japan, but not in England

10 Apr 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, April 7, 2006: What have Japan and England got in common at the moment?

Well, with Zico and Sven-Goran Eriksson stepping down after the World Cup, both countries are looking for a new head coach.

And while the English papers are full of stories, almost on a daily basis, about the Swede's successor, it's pretty quiet over here in Japan.

So here's a bit of gossip I've picked up in recent weeks from a variety of sources, all of them on the inside of the game rather than the outside.

The latest I heard is that JFA President Saburo Kawabuchi is leaning towards appointing a Japanese head coach, and that his favourite is Akira Nishino.

The Atlanta Olympic team coach has a strong case, with Gamba winning the championship last season. Also, if the JFA wants a coach to look after the Olympic team and the national team, then it makes sense to appoint someone who knows the quality of the players available at various age levels.

In fact, with the Asian Cup in 2007 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a Japanese head coach, appointed on a two-year contract after the World Cup, looks like a logical move. In addition to this, if a leading coach from overseas is not available to come to Japan in 2006 (Wenger, for example), then why waste money on someone who knows nothing about Japan and who would be starting from zero?

Anyway, this was the latest I heard, that Nishino seemed to be favoured by Kawabuchi.

Regarding overseas coaches, the former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier is known to be admired by the technical people inside the JFA, but it's highly unlikely he would leave Lyon so soon.

Another name was that of former Antlers manager Toninho Cerezo, who left Kashima with a very high reputation at the end of last season, but who has since taken a job in Brazil. That's not a problem, though, as managers change clubs on a regular basis in Brazil, but compensation to the Brazilian club from the JFA would be an issue.

Many people seem to think that Sorimachi, the former Albirex manager, will take over the Olympic team's preparations. If this is true, it would mean that Japan would need a head coach for the senior team, maybe even on a one-year contract through to the 2007 Asian Cup. Who could that be? Osim, maybe? Or Nishino? Or Okada?

By all accounts, the JFA technical committee is compiling a list of candidates to present to Kawabuchi by the end of this month.

Maybe then the intense speculation will begin in the media, like it is already in England.


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Is there time for Maki to make it?

6 Apr 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, April 4, 2006: The closer the World Cup comes, the more I think the chances of Seiichiro Maki going to Germany improve.

And I don't mean as a fan on a "dangan" tour.

I mean as a member of the "daihyo", one of the 23 chosen by Zico before the rather early FIFA deadline of May 15.

Let's look at the facts.

First, Maki is physically fit, 100 per cent fit, meaning he is not carrying a slight injury from week to week.

Second, Maki is match fit, meaning he is sharp and alert on the pitch.

Third, he is playing 90 minutes every week.

Fourth, he is scoring goals...three in six J.League games this season.

Under normal circumstances, the above list of attributes does not add up to anything special.

But these are not normal circumstances for Japan's forwards, and how many of Maki's rivals can place a "tick" in all of the above boxes.

Yanagisawa is injured; Kubo is rusty and looks like he could break down at any time; Takahara is on the bench at Hamburg; Takayuki has disappeared into the mists of Belgrade; Yoshito is off Zico's radar in Mallorca; Tamada is struggling to rediscover the form of yesteryear, and Oguro is playing Sunday morning pub football in France.

Have I forgotten anyone?

Oh yes, Hisato Sato. That was a fine goal against Ecuador from an equally impressive cross from Alex, who, after a couple of quiet years, is finally beginning to sparkle again.

Sato is the only player who, like Maki, his strike partner for Japan's "C" team, can tick all the relevant boxes.

I saw Maki play for JEF on Sunday at Todoroki against Frontale.

It was a fast and physical match, with tackles flying in all afternoon, and extremely well refereed by Tsutomu Anazawa. The ref knew the difference between a blatant dive, namely from Juninho, and a genuine trip, and between a fair shoulder charge (Ito on Maki) and a push, and he let the game flow as much as possible.

Frontale don't play with a "back three" as much as a "basketball three", as Minowa, Terada and Ito are all well above 1.80 metres -- or the same as Hanyu standing on Yuto's shoulders.

But Maki battered away all afternoon, and ran his socks off for the team to help earn a 2-2 draw.

After the game I spoke to JEF manager Osim, who said every team needed a player like Maki, including Nippon Daihyo.

Osim said Maki would be most effective coming off the bench for the national team, say at half-time or with 30 minutes to go, and running relentlessly at a tiring defence.

"Three years, no problems. It's a miracle!" said Osim, referring to Maki's fitness level.

"Very courageous...tackling...not big technique but a very, very big heart."

This is how Osim summed up Maki.

For the first time, and for the reasons listed above, I am starting to think that Maki has a chance.

But what does Zico think?


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Germans, sausages and Kajiyama

3 Apr 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, March 31, 2006: Foreigners are quite rare at J.League matches, apart from on the pitch and in the dug-out.

Sometimes there's a few agents around, checking on their players, and occasionally there's a scout from a European club.

At Todoroki Stadium the other day I met Ulrich Mohr, chief scout of VfL Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga.

He said he wasn't in Japan to watch any specific player, just to view the scene in general and meet with the likes of Guido Buchwald and Ivica Osim.

Mohr was also at Komaba on Wednesday for the Nabisco Cup group game between Reds and FC Tokyo, and I chatted with him again after the match.

He said he was impressed with the speed, the aggression, the forward movement of the teams and the technique of the Japanese players, and was interested in signing a young player who could be taught the European way.

He asked me who I liked, so I said Tokunaga, Konno and Inoha of FC Tokyo, but he said he preferred the more creative, attacking play of Kajiyama.

Had I still been working in English newspapers I would have gone to my labtop immediately and pounded out the following story: "German giants VfL Wolfsburg are ready to pounce for FC Tokyo's brilliant young schemer, Yohei Kajiyama.

"Top scout Ulrich Mohr checked out the 20-year-old midfield whizz-kid in Wednesday's match at Urawa Reds, and his club is preparing to make a one million-pound bid.

"FC Tokyo would be reluctant to lose such a talented player, but Kajiyama is already having German lessons and eating sausages and saurkraut three times a day to prepare for life in the Bundesliga."

This is how some of the English football writers would have reacted to such a harmless, post-match chit-chat, and, who knows, the story may come true. After all, the German scout mentioned Kajiyama (actually he said the No. 23), not me!

What was clear, though, was that there seems little chance of a Japanese defender being transferred to Europe, due to their lack of height, which is a crucial factor in the big, tough, physical world of the Bundesliga, where 1.90-metre eastern Europeans lurk in every penalty box.

"I liked the No. 2 for Reds (Tsuboi)," said Mohr, referring to an earlier match.

"He is quick and aggressive and has good technique, but is 10 centimetres too small. In Germany you want high players (he meant 'tall', but it was close) in the defence. Midfielders and strikers are better, and young players so they can be coached," said Mohr.

Japan is not without tall defenders -- for example Nakazawa and Matsuda at Marinos, or the entire back line of Frontale, who resemble a basketball team when they walk out on the pitch -- but clearly the more creative players stand a better chance of impressing the Euro scouts.

Kajiyama is 20, a midfielder, 1.80 metres and 75 kgs...just a minute, I have thought of an article!

"Bayern Munich are preparing to replace Manchester United-bound Michael Ballack with FC Tokyo's 10 million-pound rated midfield schemer Yohei etc. etc......"


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Stubbs presents the case for the defence

30 Mar 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, March 28, 2006: Think of a typical old-fashioned centre half and someone like Alan Stubbs comes to mind.

The veteran Everton defender is all heart and no nonsense, and has been in the news recently for some interesting comments about foreign players in the Premier League.

In short, Stubbs feels foreign imports are responsible for the alarming rise in gamesmanship -- and thinks the authorities should act quickly to stamp it out.

He's talking about the kind of things we see every week in the J.League: players diving to try and win free kicks or penalty kicks, players feigning injury to delay the game (just check out the closing stages of the Jubilo-Frontale match on Saturday), and players appealing to the referee to take out his yellow card and caution an opponent.

"It is a foreign thing that has crept into our game lately," Stubbs said, after the Merseyside derby against Liverpool.

"The foreign players have brought a lot of good things to the Premiership but a lot of the other side as well."

Personally, I am glad that an experienced and honest professional such as Stubbs should make a stand, because he will remember the good old days when none of this nonsense happened -- and it wasn't that long ago, either.

And while Stubbs has a point about the foreign players, English players dive, too. Lee Bowyer (at my favourite club, Newcastle United) and Shaun Wright-Phillips at Chelsea are just two of many examples, and I remember being embarrassed by Ashley Cole clearly diving for England against Argentina at Sapporo in the 2002 World Cup.

So this is not new; it's just that it's getting worse.

Stubbs says the players themselves must take steps to stop it, for example asking the opposing player why he is rolling around on the ground when he's not hurt.

I also like to see defenders giving forwards a piece of their mind when they have dived to try and win a penalty. This happened to Shunsuke Nakamura playing for Celtic the other day, I think against Hibernian, when two burly defenders frightened the life out of Shunsuke after he had dived on the edge of the box.

I think more Japanese players should start doing this when they know an opponent is cheating. Harangue the conman! Embarrass him! Make sure everyone in the ground knows he's trying to con the referee!

And referees should be strong and keep the game moving, rather than stopping the play and rushing half the length of the pitch to attend to a player who is feigning injury.

Stubbs feels that a player who waves an imaginary card at the referee to encourage him to book an opponent should be shown the yellow card himself for unsportsmanlike behaviour -- and I totally agree with this.

Just think what an enjoyable job refereeing would be if players were honest.

Sadly, that's just too much to ask these days, even in England.


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Avispa fans should remain in good spirits

27 Mar 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, March 24, 2006: Although Avispa Fukuoka have failed to win any of their four games back in the top flight (maybe it's five by the time you read this), they looked hungry and lively in a recent 2-2 draw at Chiba.

JEF, in fact, could count themselves fortunate to be level 1-1 at half-time, and even more lucky to finish with a point from a 2-2 draw.

Avispa, bravely and confidently, decided to take JEF on at their own game, and at their own stadium of Fukuda Denshi Arena, or "Fukuare" for short.

This meant lots of running and lots of passing and a high tempo for the whole 90 minutes. On the day, JEF looked uncharacteristically disorganised and lethargic, lacking rhythm and motivation, while Avispa were fresh, fast and fearless.

In fact, when the action stopped for half-time and the stadium music began, one of the songs was the catchy pop tune with the chorus, "I said 'hey! What's going on?"

This is exactly how I was feeling: Hey! What's going on with JEF United? They were being played off the park!

Even the half-time Chiba Cheerleaders, lined up in an adventurous 5-4-0 formation, were moving more smoothly than the Chiba team -- and they were carrying flags.

But let's give Avispa credit, and if they continue to play like this they should be able to stay alive in J1 this season.

"Are you happy with a point away from home against one of the J.League's top teams?" I asked Avispa's manager, Hiroshi Matsuda, after the game, already knowing the answer.

"Not at all," he replied, "because we were leading twice."

Matsuda put his team's late lapses in either half down to naivety.

"We have very young players without experience and that is the main reason, I think," he added.
"It's a matter of concentration in extra time."

It has to be said that Avispa received tremendous support, with some fans leaving Fukuoka by bus at 9pm the previous evening and arriving at the ground at 2pm, two hours before kick-off.

The manager's words, then, should provide comfort for the Avispa faithful. "We have been building the team for three years, and I have confidence in the organisation, tactics and 4-4-2, offensively and defensively," he said.

"I have a good feeling in the J.League that we can do it, and fight with this organisation and tactics. Unfortunately, the individual quality is not so high like Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka. That is why we could not win the last three games."

Matsuda was referring to the three draws to open the season, but since then they have slipped up 1-0 at home to Grampus.

Even though Avispa, on this bright showing at Chiba, looked good enough to stay up, they need a win quickly to make sure confidence does not drain.

By the time you read this, maybe they'll already have it.


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Gallo is still learning about his Tokyo players

23 Mar 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, March 22, 2006: Just when a coach thinks he's got it exactly right, it can all go horribly wrong!

This was the case at Todoroki Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, when Kawasaki Frontale and FC Tokyo played out an extremely entertaining 2-2 draw.

A draw was a fair result, but FC Tokyo had looked certain to win after coming back in the second half thanks to some smart changes from their first-year coach, Alexandre Gallo.

Frontale were leading 1-0 at half-time, so Gallo decided action was needed.

He put Inoha, his impressive young midfielder, on the dangerous Juninho in a man-marking job, and left just Moniwa and Jean at the back.

Then he pushed his two full-backs, Tokunaga on the right and Suzuki on the left, further forward, and asked them to attack, which they did in some style.

Konno, one of my favourite players who, sadly and, in my opinion, inexplicably, is nowhere near Japan's World Cup squad for Germany, dropped a bit deeper to shield his defence.

Jean equalised with a flying header, and the ex-Jubilo raider Kawaguchi put Tokyo in front 2-1 with a lovely finish after sterling work on the right flank by Tokunaga (what a good player this guy is!)

Absolutely full marks to Gallo at this point for his tactical changes, and FC Tokyo, playing toward a jumping mass of their fans behind the goal in the second half, looked on course for three welcome points.

But Gallo, I'm afraid, then got it all wrong. He replaced the tiring midfielder Miyazawa with the defender Masushima, and moved Inoha back into central midfield. There was only five minutes or so left at this point, and clearly Gallo thought Masushima could look after Juninho for the rest of the contest.

This was where FC Tokyo came unstuck. Inoha had done a fine marking job on Juninho, easing the pressure on Moniwa and Jean, but it's not easy for a late substitute to pick up the pace of the game, especially when we're talking about the pace of Juninho! The speedy Brazilian saw his chance, and linked twice with Nakamura to enable the midfielder to equalise with another excellent goal.

Looking back, I'm sure Gallo would have done things differently, perhaps asking Masushima just to sit in midfield, alongside Konno, and leave Inoha on Juninho.

All in all, then, a very tactical battle, and Juninho showed his quality by taking advantage of the tiny bit of space afforded to him late in the game.

At 38, Gallo is still young for a head coach, and is still learning about his players.

I am sure he will have learned from his experience at Todoroki, where he looked to have got it so right until that late switch.


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Kyoto's Purple Nightmare

20 Mar 2006(Mon)

March 17, 2006: It's only two games into the new J.League season, but things already don't look too good for Kyoto Purple Sanga.

Two games, two heavy defeats, and a crowd of under 8,000 for their first home match of the campaign.

Of course there is plenty of time for things to improve, but it's just the kind of start any team coming up from J2 must fear and avoid.

Even before the season kicked off, Purple Sanga's squad looked a bit thin and inexperienced.

They had made only two significant signings during the winter, striker Hayashi from JEF United and defender Kodama from Gamba, as manager Koichi Hashiratani kept faith with the players who had won the J2 championship in 2005.

Playing away to Yokohama F Marinos on the opening weekend of the season is not the easiest of returns, and Takeshi Okada's team won comfortably 4-1, aided by some poor goalkeeping.

Next up was Kawasaki Frontale at home. These two were meeting in J2 not so long ago, but they were in a different league at Nishikyogoku as Frontale ran riot and won 7-2!

That's 13 goals for Frontale in two matches, but for Kyoto it was 11 conceded and a goal difference of minus 8. Needless to say, this kind of form is certain to guarantee you last place in the J1 table, and that's exactly where Kyoto stand -- in 18th position and already looking up at the rest of the division.

I haven't attended either of Kyoto's two games to date, but have seen the highlights on the sports news programmes.

The defending has been calamitous, especially at home to Frontale, when the Kawasaki forwards took it in turn to race through, almost unchallenged, and have their own scoring contest.

You couldn't help but feel sorry for the Kyoto fans, who have seen it all before.

Yet there were only 7,921 supporters for the Frontale game, and it would be unreasonable to expect all the Kyoto fans among them to return immediately.

After playing Jubilo away on Saturday, Kyoto will entertain Sanfrecce Hiroshima in an evening kick-off on Tuesday, a national holiday.

Sanfrecce have made steady progress under Takeshi Ono, and will provide another stern test -- and a guideline -- for Purple Sanga as they attempt to cement a place in the top flight.

Kyoto will need to adjust quickly and gain some confidence, as they can't afford to fall too far behind too early in a long season.


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Reds-Jubilo -- what Saturdays were invented for!

16 Mar 2006(Thu)

March 14, 2006: There are times in Japan when you really appreciate how much football has become part of the sporting and social fabric.

Saturday was one of them.

It was Reds against Jubilo at Saitama Stadium 2002: a rising force of Japanese football against a fading force, and it was an occasion too good to miss.

The sun was shining, spring was in the air, and a spring was in the step of the Urawa masses as they headed for the ground.

On the trains it was chaos, but an enjoyable kind of chaos. There was red everywhere, and a feeling of excitement all around among the generations of fans crammed into the carriages and packed on the staircases of the stations.

The journey from Omiya Station to Urawa Misono is never straight-forward, with two changes necessary, but on this day it was much longer due to the slow pace of the fans.

So when you emerged into the open air at Urawa Misono, and the silver outline of the stadium was beckoning in the distance, like a gleaming space ship waiting to take off, you could finally walk at a brisk pace. Past the kiosks selling a wide range of replica shirts, and the stalls offering a wide range of pre-match snacks.

Being English, the donner kebab stands made me feel right at home, but the queues were too big and the service too slow to entice me to join them and risk delaying the journey even more.

Arriving at the stadium, the plaza was packed with families having a picnic in the sunshine. Mitsubishi had taken the opportunity to display a new model, and the park and grassy banks on the far side were full of kids playing football.

Yes, this was the true world of football -- and not a hint of any crowd trouble, despite the rivalry between the two teams. (Japanese readers may wonder why I have pointed out this fact, but don't forget I grew up in England in the Seventies, when the threat of violence hung over every game, from the moment you walked out of the train station or bus station to the moment you got off at your stop on the way home again! Police sirens, dogs barking, shouting in the distance, people running and causing others to panic...were they running toward trouble or away from it? You never knew.)

So still, after all these years, the atmosphere in Japan is alien to me, and special. Positive, refreshing, friendly.

As I walked round the stadium toward the Media Accreditation desk, the Jubilo fans in the "away" corner started chanting "Yoshikatsu" as, presumably, Kawaguchi and his fellow keepers emerged for their pre-match routine. The Reds fans whistled and jeered in reply...great stuff!

As kick-off approached, the stadium was a magnificent spectacle, bathed in sunshine, covered in red except for a sky blue line of Jubilo faithful, and over 56,000 fans to see the game.

This is what Saturday afternoons are all about.


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Champions League, Asia-style

13 Mar 2006(Mon)

March 10, 2006: Well done to the Verdy fans for their unwavering support during the Asian Champions League match against Ulsan the other night.

It was an impressive performance, not just to keep singing with defeat inevitable but to actually to stay awake for the entire 90 minutes!

Wasn't it a poor spectacle?

This is supposed to be Asia's equivalent of the UEFA Champions League, but it's light years away, isn't it?

Funnily enough, I awoke very early, by accident, on the morning of the Verdy-Ulsan match.

It can't have been excitement or tension about the upcoming "thriller" at Kokuritsu that woke me long before the alarm clock was due to go off. It must have been something else...

Instinctively, I turned on TV...and was rewarded immediately by seeing Ronaldinho's fantastic goal against Chelsea.

The colour, the spectacle, the atmosphere...will Asia's Champions League ever come close to matching that?

Let's face it, these matches are pretty grim viewing, and I often wonder why I've bothered making the journey to the game when I could be at home doing something useful, such as washing the dishes.

I suppose it's the prospect of seeing a team play from another country that "entices" me there, if that's the right word to use.

But what often happens in these games, in Japan at least, is that the home team is way too strong or that the visiting team employs every trick in the book of gamesmanship to try and stop the Japanese team from playing.

Either way, the result is often a farce, with low quality football from a visiting team or a match almost impossible to watch due to the blatant cheating and time-wasting of the opposition.

On Wednesday, for example, the Koreans fell to the ground at every opportunity, and their fall was often accompanied by a pathetic "scream" of pain. I'd like to have seen some TV replays of the alleged fouls, because there looked to be minimum contact on a few occasions, if any contact at all.

And when a visiting team goes ahead, of course, the theatrics and play-acting gets even worse.

It's bad in this part of the world, but even worse in west Asia. The favourite trick over there is for the goalkeeper to pretend he is injured, and stay down after every corner, free kick or challenge. With the goalkeeper rolling around and his teammates putting pressure on the referee and the opposition to stop the game, the charade continues through to the final whistle.

I remember Palestine doing this against Japan at the Asian Games in Pusan, Korea, in 2002, as they tried to keep the scoreline at 0-0 as long as possible. Only when Japan eventually took the lead in the second half did Palestine even attempt to play football, as they now had to actually score a goal to equalise...something they had clearly never worked on in training!

Verdy 0, Ulsan 2, in front of 4,436 fans, which is not a bad attendance when compared to the levels of support in Korea.

Anyone heading to Ulsan for the second leg on May 3, apart from Ramos and the boys?

I think I'll stay in and do the dishes!


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A game of two halves at Saitama

9 Mar 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, March 7, 2006: In English, we often talk about "a game of two halves."

Every game, of course, has two halves of 45 minutes, and some, in knockout competitions, have another two halves of 15 minutes if they are still level after 90.

The specific reference here, then, to "a game of two halves" is about one half being entirely different to the other, which can happen frequently in football.

It did at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Sunday afternoon, when Omiya Ardija hosted JEF United.

JEF were brilliant in the first half, and at times I thought I was watching Holland in 1974. Saito was Krol, defending in his own penalty box one minute and then attacking at the other end of the field the next; Abe was Neeskens, driving the team forward; and Maki was Rep, but without the mop of blond hair.

Who was Cruyff, you ask?

Well, I'm sorry, but there can only ever be one Cruyff. (What was all that FIFA nonsense recently about the greatest player of all time, Pele or Maradona? Surely it was Cruyff, followed by Alan Shearer...hey, I'm a Newcastle United fan, of course!)

Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating about JEF, because the 1974 Dutch team would have buried Omiya by half-time...and might still be able to do so today (sorry Ardija fans...just a small joke!)

Saito put JEF in front with a lovely shot, curled into the far corner, but poor defending at a corner immediately allowed Tomita to equalise with a back-post header.

Maki then gave JEF the lead for a second time...and the match was still only 15 minutes old.

JEF were running the show, playing bright, inventive, mobile football in the classic Osim way. Forget Reds, Marinos, Antlers, Gamba and Jubilo...there was only going to be one team at the top of the table this season!

But that was the first half -- and this was a game of two halves, remember.

On the hour mark, Sakamoto equalised for Omiya with an own goal (not quite as spectacular as the Hasebe-Tsuboi combo for Gamba in the Xerox Xuper Cup, but still worth watching several times on the big screen), and the JEF collapse had begun.

Yuto Sato was shown the red card for two minor fouls in quick succession -- shame on the Omiya players in question for pretending they were hurt -- and Daigo Kobayashi, pouncing like a young Kazu, promptly headed Omiya into the lead for the first time, 3-2.

They say it never rains, it pours, and Sakamoto's own goal, Yuto's red card and Daigo's header was quickly followed by Haas walking off rubbing his hamstring.

"His left hamstring, wasn't it?" I asked Osim after the game.

"Does it matter?" he replied, with a smile, having made a perfectly good point.

To round off a miserable afternoon for JEF, Toninho headed home Omiya's fourth, and the men in orange (Ardija 2006, not Holland 1974) were in Total Control. So much for Total Football!

To win J1, JEF needed a full-strength team in virtually every game, but already Yuto was suspended and Haas injured.

Maybe they could take Tsuchiya on loan from Omiya. After all, he had only a game of one half...


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J2, J1 treat on opening weekend

6 Mar 2006(Mon)

March 3, 2006: This weekend is a special one for the J.League.

Not just because it's the start of the new season, but because J2 is playing on Saturday and J1 on Sunday.

Apart from Gamba and Reds, of course, who clash in Suita City on Saturday afternoon.

This is just like the good old days, when J1 played on Saturday and J2 on Sunday, and it was easy for fans to take in two games over the weekend.

I enjoyed those times, when you had the pick of the Kanto games on Saturday and could then keep an eye on the second division the following day.

Personally, I'd like to see the J.League go back to that format.

They could still hold a couple of J1 games on a Sunday, especially one in the Kanto region due to the large number of clubs, but the second day of the weekend would be primarily for J2.

I think this would give J2 more exposure in the media and also produce bigger crowds, because neutral fans around Japan would, I am sure, always attend a J1 game over J2 if they had the choice.

If there were six J2 games on offer, alongside only a couple of J1 games, every Sunday then the chances of fans heading for the second division would be much greater.

So where's it to be for the Kanto fans this weekend?

Gamba and Reds is out of the question for financial reasons -- I will accept all donations to FC Japan in aid of a poor freelance football writer! -- so Saturday is down to two choices: Ehime or Tosu.

No, I'm joking, because those are near Okinawa, aren't they? Or Taipei?

It's either Reysol or Verdy.

The Yellow Monkeys are always worth watching behind the goal at Kashiwa (and occasionally so is the Reysol team), and their opponents on Saturday, Shonan Bellmare, play in one of the nicest strips in the J.League...that very attractive royal blue and lime green (maybe Miki Ando can try wearing a Bellmare strip the next time she skates...apart from the boots and shin pads, of course).

As for Verdy, well...it's going to be a circus isn't it at Kokuritsu, where the once mighty Greens take on Vortis.

Verdy look to be world-beaters again, with Ramos, Hashiratani, Tsunami and Kikuchi -- and that's just on the bench!

They have clearly splashed out a lot of money on the coaching staff, but have they got any players left after most of last season's bunch, including several Kobayashis, moved to Saitama Prefecture.

Well, readers, enjoy the weekend wherever you go...and don't forget those donations (no coins please, only notes above 5,000 yen)!


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New Grampus boss looks for Tamada boost

2 Mar 2006(Thu)

February 28, 2006: For a club that kicked off the J.League in 1993 with one of England's most famous players (Gary Lineker), and was later under the command of one of the modern game's great coaches (Arsene Wenger), Nagoya Grampus Eight have become the forgotten team of J1.

Despite the generous backing of Toyota, Grampus have been left behind by clubs with much smaller financial resources, playing squads and fan bases.

All in all, then, Grampus finished 2005 in a pretty sorry state, in a humiliating 14th position and with Nelsinho, the Brazilian coach hired to take them to the top, long since gone.

Enter Sef Vergoossen, a Dutchman charged with pointing Grampus in the right direction.

I had a good chat with the man with the rather extravagant moustache during the J.League's annual "meet the managers" function in Tokyo last Friday.

Not surprisingly, Vergoossen was in upbeat mood ahead of the new season, and said his players were very motivated. Too motivated, in fact, and this had resulted in some preseason injuries.

The old war horse Yutaka Akita, the evergreen Toshiya Fujita and the new Slovakian import, Marek Spilar, from Club Brugge in Belgium, were among the casualties, but Vergoossen said he had total faith in his medical staff. Clearly he knows them well already.

The subject quickly turned to "Tamada Keiji, Tamada Keiji, Tamada Keiji woh-oh-oh!" (sorry about that readers; I thought I was at Hitachi Stadium for a moment!). Tamada, of course, joined Grampus from relegated Reysol for around 300 million yen -- well, that's the transfer fee I was told by someone close to the deal.

I liked Tamada a lot two or three years ago, but my opinion has changed. In my eyes, and maybe in Zico's too, he has to prove himself again at Nagoya, when he's fully fit, of course.

I want to see a hungry and energetic Tamada, running into the channels, taking on defenders and scoring goals with that lovely left foot. His slump in form and confidence seemed to be reflected in the whole Reysol team, but Tamada -- and Kashiwa -- can now start again in rather different places.

"We have to be careful with him," Vergoossen said of Tamada. "He can be important, and I have to give him the time to come back to his normal level.

"I heard that last season was not his best, but before he was a very good striker with high quality and soon he will be good again."

Grampus are an important club to the J.League, one of the 10 founder members. The J.League needs a strong Grampus, so hopefully Vergoossen, with a fresh approach and optimism, can turn them around.

And the Grampus fans can always look forward to singing the made-in-Kashiwa "Tamada Keiji" anthem...surely one of the best in the J.League!


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Reds start as favourites, but several teams can challenge for the title

27 Feb 2006(Mon)

February 25, 2006: Can the J.League ever again match the drama of last season's final day, when Cerezo Osaka lost the championship and Gamba Osaka won it, all in the space of a few crazy seconds?

It's unlikely we will go into the last round of games with five teams still in with a chance of finishing on top, but there are no signs that one "super team" -- such as Chelsea in England, Juventus in Italy, Barcelona in Spain and Bayern Munich in Germany -- will run away with the title in a one-horse race.

Chatting to JEF United manager Ivica Osim the other day, he feels that eight or nine teams are capable of playing at a consistently high level, and that three or four will be contesting the championship.

Last season, only one point separated the top five, with Gamba winning on 60 points and Reds, Antlers, JEF and Cerezo following on 59.

This season, however, two more former champions will be in the hunt.

"Now, Yokohama and Jubilo will play very strong," said Osim. "This is logical."

Another manager who agrees with Osim is Akira Nishino. He feels that Reds and Marinos will be the biggest threat to his Gamba team this year.

Nishino felt that Marinos and also Jubilo were badly affected last season by their commitments in the Asian Champions League. This gives both teams an extra six games in the group, and lots of travel around the eastern half of the vast continent for midweek games.

There is no doubt these engagements take their toll, physically and mentally, and I am sure Marinos manager Takeshi Okada will be relieved not to have to play in the Champions League this season. Even though the reward for winning the ACL is a place in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December, Okada would prefer to qualify for the FIFA event by winning the J.League title this season. Much less stress and hassle!

Although I have tipped Gamba to win the league in the past, I will not be doing this time.

They also have Champions League commitments, but, more than that, they will not have Araujo or Oguro, who scored a staggering 49 goals between them last season.

It was Gamba's attack that won them the league, not their defence, and I don't think the Magno Alves-Bando-Fernandinho strikeforce will be anywhere near as productive as the 2005 line-up. Maybe the defence will be tighter, though, with Kaji on the right and Myojin closing down the centre of midfield.

Reds are the, well, red-hot favourites to take the title, with Ono and Washington in the team, plus Soma and Kurobe joining the squad.

But, like Osim says, I don't think one team will run away with it.


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Ogasawara: Send it like Beckham

23 Feb 2006(Thu)

February 22, 2006: The other day I was reading the "David Beckham Annual" bought in England a year ago.

Under the headline "Dateline David", there was a landmark entry for August 17, 1996.

"David makes his mark when scoring a sensational goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon, at Selhurst Park," says the diary entry.

"The goal comes late in the game with United leading 2-0. Becks sees 'keeper Neil Sullivan off his line and decides to lob him. The rest, as they say, is history."

Well, for "David Beckham" read "Mitsuo Ogasawara".

Yes, Ogasawara's long-range goal against Finland on Saturday was of Beckham quality. In fact it was better than Beckham's effort against the Dons because it was from further out, but of course not as many people around the world will see it because it was not an English Premier League match involving Manchester United.

The Sunday sports and newspapers in Japan could not decide on the actual distance -- some said 50 metres, others 55, 57, 58 and one even 60 -- but, whatever it was, the message was clear: Ecopa and Japan had witnessed a truly remarkable goal from a player whose talent has never been in doubt.

He was well inside his own half when he launched his right-foot shot. Like Beckham in the above incident, he had spotted the keeper off his line, by around eight metres, and his strike was absolute perfection.

Tiger Woods could not have played a better approach to the flag from the fairway, such was the accuracy and precision of Ogasawara's beautifully flighted effort.

In such circumstances, it was impossible to criticise the Finland keeper. Just look at it from his view point: A Japanese player receives the ball in his own half, and prepares to send it forward. If it is a long pass aimed for his forwards, then the keeper is ready to race out of his area and intervene. But suddenly he realises it is not a pass; it has been struck harder, but he also knows there is very little space behind him. He back-pedals, to cover his line, but he is off balance and cannot even touch the ball as it drops under the bar. Perfect!

No, it would be unfair to blame the keeper, and would take away some of the credit Ogasawara deserves.

Beckham's sensational goal helped launch him to superstardom in 1996, and, on a smaller scale, Ogasawara's wonder goal will always be remembered in Japanese football history.

"Bend it like Beckham" became a very famous movie around the world, but, on this occasion, "Send it like Beckham" would be more appropriate, as Ogasawara sent the ball Beckham-style over such a long distance into the back of the net.


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Ogura's J.League career is finally over

20 Feb 2006(Mon)

February 17, 2006: The article I read the other day was only three or four paragraphs long, but it still made a big impact.

The subject was Takafumi Ogura, and the announcement that his J.League career was finally over.

The reason why it was such a short news item is obvious: because Ogura, now 32, had not played in the first division since 2002, and was a fading force before that.

But I will never forget the comments of Arsene Wenger after Ogura, young and fit, had scored twice for Grampus in the 5-1 demolition of Kashima Antlers in the Emperor's Cup semi-final in 1995.

I was visiting Tokyo at the time from Hong Kong, and wanted to see the match and also catch up with Wenger, whom I had met in Abu Dhabi, UAE, in the autumn of 1994, after he had left Monaco and before he became Grampus coach.

In the after-match press conference, Wenger was asked about Ogura, and said that Ogura "could be as good as he wanted to be." This was high praise indeed from Wenger, who recognised all the qualities in Ogura to make him a success at the highest level, on the international stage. The raw material and the natural talent was there, Wenger was saying, and it was now down to attitude and a strong work ethic on behalf of the player.

But professional football can be very cruel as well as kind, and only two months later, during Japan's Olympic team training camp in Malaysia in February 1996, Ogura suffered a serious knee injury, ruling him out of the final qualifying round and also the Atlanta Games.

Ogura, it is widely regarded, was never the same again, and after leaving Grampus in 1999 he drifted from JEF United to Verdy to Sapporo and finally to Kofu, where he played from 2003.

Nicknamed "Lefty Monster", Ogura will be remembered as one of the best left-footed players Japan has ever produced. With a powerful physique, and a 1.83-metre frame, he had it all, but was never able to fulfil his potential due to that terrible injury.

He had already scored a goal for Japan against a star-studded France team in the Kirin Cup in May 1994, albeit in a 4-1 defeat, and the following season netted 14 goals in 37 league games for Grampus, in Wenger's first season as coach (and five goals in five Emperor's Cup games).

A couple of days after reading the short article on Ogura, I saw him on TV on Saturday night in a football show, still in good heart.

No one will ever know how good he could have been, but he proved, throughout his career, that he did have the right attitude and a strong work ethic to match that early talent.

And that's just what Wenger would have wanted to see.


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Shinji must drop back for the future

16 Feb 2006(Thu)

February 14, 2006: Well, it was brave and adventurous of Zico to give Shinji Ono a run behind the solitary striker against the United States.

But, even allowing for Shinji's lack of match fitness, it was clear the days of Ono as a bright and inventive attacking force are over.

Now it's Shinji the deep-lying midfield general; Shinji the protector, prompter and provider rather than the exciting, all-action player of old. He's the old head on young shoulders, a player Japan needs in the midfield engine room rather than playing further forward, where his qualities may be bypassed.

But it was well worth Zico taking a look at him in that advanced position against the USA, alongside Ogasawara and behind Kubo in the 3-4-2-1 formation.

Although the Japanese were taken apart in the first half and early in the second half by the fast, fit and motivated Americans, I don't think the system can be blamed.

It's just that, individually, Japan's players were outclassed and overwhelmed. I still think 3-4-2-1 is the way to go for Japan, as it means Zico can field six midfield players and have a balanced line-up with, basically, five defenders (the three at the back, plus the two central midfielders) and five attackers (the two wing-backs, the two shadow strikers and, of course, the centre forward).

Zico pointed out that Japan played well for the first 10 minutes, and it's true they did. One of the jobs of Ono and Ogasawara in that position is to harry the defenders and put them under pressure in the hope they will give the ball away.

When Shunsuke comes back he's going to have to do the same, so it's a demanding role as the two shadow strikers must defend effectively well up the field.

This is another reason why Shinji should drop back into central midfield, as his long-term fitness must still be a worry for Zico and Urawa after his recent injury problems.

If Zico prefers Nakamura, Ogasawara, Matsui, even Okubo or Hidetoshi Nakata for the two attacking midfield positions behind the lone target man, Ono would then have to scrap for a place in central midfield along with Nakata (both Hidetoshi and Koji), Inamoto, Fukunishi, Abe, Endo and now Hasebe (hopefully Konno, too).

Looking at Shinji's hectic schedule for club and country, let's hope he does not try and do too much too quickly.


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Osim is off the mark over Nakata, Nakamura

13 Feb 2006(Mon)

February 11, 2006: The comments of JEF United manager Ivica Osim have always to be respected.

But I think he went a bit too far this week with his criticism of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura.

In an interview with a Croatian newspaper, which was picked up by the Japanese media and then the English-language media in Japan, Osim said Nakata and Nakamura did not work hard enough.

"Zico will suffer because of Nakata and Nakamura. They don't run like Kranjcar. They just hold the ball," Osim was quoted as saying, comparing the Japanese duo with Niko Kranjcar, Croatia's young playmaker and son of national coach Zlatko Kranjcar.

Now, I watched Kranjcar twice in Hong Kong recently, playing for a depleted Croatia team in the annual Carlsberg Cup.

Yes, he is a very accomplished technician, stroking the ball around elegantly and playing lots of short passes with his team-mates to keep the attack moving forward.

But he lost the ball on several occasions, mainly through inaccurate passes, and looked quite sluggish at times. I discussed him with the Croatian media following the team in Hong Kong and the verdict from them was that the young Kranjcar was slow and still had a long way to develop.

I was happy they had confirmed my impression, although, of course, I am sure he will look much better in a full-strength Croatia team in Germany.

As for Nakata and Nakamura, I would say Nakata is much more dynamic than Kranjcar, and able to play at a higher tempo. One of Nakata's qualities is his stamina, so I can't understand why Osim -- a coach I admire immensely -- thinks he does not run enough.

Regarding Shunsuke, there is no doubting the effort he puts in, but he does not have the staying power of Nakata and this is why he is often substituted in the second half, even in Scotland.

Nakamura's talent lies elsewhere, in his skill, his vision, his passing and, above all, his world-class free kicks. The latter quality cannot be under-estimated in today's game, as many matches at the highest level are determined by a single, set-piece play.

In his interview with the Croatian newspaper, Osim made several interesting points -- such as Zico's reluctance to bring through new players, his loyalty to players not playing well for their clubs, his emphasis on attack and not enough balance in defence, and his policy of handing responsibility to individual players when this does not suit the Japanese character.

But to say that Nakata and Nakamura do not run enough for the team is off the mark.


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Kubo still has everything to play for

9 Feb 2006(Thu)

February 8, 2006: A few months ago, Tatsuhiko Kubo looked to be out of the running for a place in Japan's World Cup squad.

But a new year has brought a new chance for Kubo to re-establish himself in Zico's plans.

With all Japan's Europe-based strikers not involved in the friendly with the United States in San Francisco this week, Kubo has the platform to prove his fitness and his worth to the team.

When fully fit, Kubo certainly offers something special, something different.

Of all Japan's forwards he is the best in the air, climbing high and being a constant menace to his markers.

He has a strong physical presence and is not afraid to put himself about in the box, unsettling defenders with his awkward playing style.

On the floor, Kubo is unpredictable. You never know what he's going to do next. Will he shoot from such an unlikely position with that powerful left foot, will he pass or will he dribble?

With Kubo around, Zico will have someone who can unlock the tightest of defences, and I still feel Troussier made a mistake in not selecting him for the 2002 squad, ahead of Nishizawa.

Looking through Japan's list of strikers, the race is wide open for places in Germany. Suzuki, Yanagisawa, Takahara and Kubo could all play as the solitary target man in a 3-4-2-1 formation, so provided Kubo stays fit this year, and scores some goals, he has a good chance of making it.

So far, in squad selection assignments, I have ignored Kubo, simply because he has not played for Japan since September 2004 due to a catalogue of ailments.

Once he starts playing regularly again for club and country it's a different matter, of course, and then he must come into the reckoning.

For the time being I am sticking with Takayuki and Yanagisawa as my two choices for the centre forward slot, backed up by Oguro and Okubo, but things can change very quickly in football.


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Koji can put his career back on track

6 Feb 2006(Mon)

February 3: At last, Koji Nakata has left Marseille.

The former Antlers star had a rough time in France, even though most times I saw his face in the papers he was smiling.

But now the nightmare is over, following his transfer to FC Basel in Switzerland and the signing of a contract through to June 2008.

Personally, I think this is a great move for Koji, and the kind of deal Shinji Ono would probably have wanted.

First of all, Switzerland is a wonderful country, and will be perfect for Koji to enjoy the mixture of European cultures...French, German and Italian, with English widely spoken, too.

Second, the fo otball is of a standard where Koji can have an impact. Obviously it is a big step down from Marseille and the French league, but this does not mean it is a backward step for the player.

He can focus again on playing, and has the time to establish himself as a first-team regular. I am sure he has the quality, the experience and the versatility to be a success at Basel, and he must feel liberated by his new, extremely pleasant surroundings.

So good luck to Koji for sticking it out in Europe. He could have moved to Israel, but went back to Marseille and waited for something more attractive. He has found that now in Switzerland.

As for his position on the pitch, I still think he is Japan's most natural defensive midfield player.

In a 4-4-2, 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation, Koji can easily fit into one of the two defensive midfield slots. He reads the game so well and gives the team balance in midfield, an d could be partnered by Hidetoshi Nakata, Ono, Inamoto or Fukunishi.

A match-fit Koji gives Zico many options, so his welcome move to Basel is not just good for the player, but for the national team, too.


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Koreans grow in self-confidence

2 Feb 2006(Thu)

Hong Kong, January 31, 2006: There's a very familiar face among the South Korean delegation at the Carlsberg Cup in Hong Kong over Chinese New Year.

For a long time they had a reputation as dour and machine-like, rarely smiling and always playing under pressure.

But their achievement in reaching the World Cup semi-finals four years ago, eventually finishing fourth, has clearly given them a lot more self-confidence and esteem, and this is reflected in their manner.

Of course they continue to train hard and play h ard, but now they seem to have an inner strength and self-belief to accompany their athleticism, speed and physical power.

Pim pointed out all these things, and feels the preparations are well advanced compared to four years ago. With a few more matches to come and the Europe-based players to be drafted into the team, the chances of Korea qualifying from a group which also comprises Togo, France and Switzerland are looking good.

On Sunday they beat Croatia here 2-0, with two fine goals from left-sided wing-back Kim Dong Jin and forward Lee Chun Soo. The first was a cracking long-range drive from Kim, who collected the ball just inside the Croatia half and powered forward befo re having a go himself; the second was a smart finish from the lively Lee after center forward Lee Dong Gook had controlled a long clearance from goalkeeper Lee Woon Jae and fed Lee, all in one smooth movement which carved open the Croatia defence.

Advocaat says Korea have become hard to beat at home, but now they have to do the same away by playing physical, European teams.

Judging from their impressive performance against Croatia − admittedly with only one first-team regular − the Koreans look to be on the way to achieving this next target. ENDS

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Hirayama shows big improvement in Holland

30 Jan 2006(Mon)

January 27, 2006: Ask 10 Japanese fans to name their favourite striker and, in all probability, you'd get 10 different answers.

Unlike in defence, with Nakazawa, or in midfield, with Hidetoshi Nakata, Nakamura and Ono, Japan does not have one outstanding forward who immediately springs to mind.

This is why World Cup places are wide open for the forwards, and why there is a movement growing for Sota Hirayama to be given a chance.

Hirayama, of course, is now in Holland and scoring goals for Heracles Almelo.

I must admit I have noticed a big improvement in the lanky striker since he moved to Europe, compared to the raw and awkward version from Japan's Olympic qualifying and Athens campaign.

He looks much more coordinated and much sharper than he used to, and is scoring goals in the air and on the ground.

Despite the ridiculous media hype that surrounded him during the Olympic qualifying campaign -- with TV stations guilty of focusing on him constantly, even when he was on the bench -- I always reserved judgement on his ability and his potential.

In all honesty I did not think he was ready for the Olympics, as he lacked the experience at such a high level against seasoned professionals.

He would often be penalised for handball or for offside, and would look clumsy at times, so his decision to go to Tsukuba University rather than turn professional with a J.League club appeared to me as the beginning of the end of Hirayama's brief career.

This is why I was pleased to learn he had signed with Heracles, and the benefits of this professional environment are there for all to see. Training every day under coaches and alongside players in the Dutch league is really improving his all-round game, and he looks to be a firm favoruite with team-mates and fans alike.

At the time of writing he has scored seven goals, and if he keeps on going there is a strong possibility that Zico might have a look at him soon, for example when Japan play Bosnia in Germany at the end of February. After all, he's not too far away and it wouldn't do anyone any harm just to have him involved in training, so Zico can check him at close quarters.

The only thing that would worry me about a Hirayama call-up would be the media spotlight shining brightly on him again. That would be hard to watch!


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So Emerson was cheating us all again...

26 Jan 2006(Thu)

January 25, 2006: True to form, Emerson was in the news again recently...for cheating.

Now this should not come as a surprise to football lovers in Japan, as he cheated on the pitch by diving extravagantly, rolling around as if seriously injured, and trying as hard as possible to get an opponent sent off.

Reds fans and coaches turned a blind eye to all this because he scored goals, but he even let them down by walking out on the club last season and moving to Qatar.

Now, the authorities have finally caught up with him, and arrested him at Rio de Janeiro International Airport as he attempted to return to the Middle East.

His passport gave his date of birth as September 6, 1981, the same as he used to register with the J.League when he joined Consadole Sapporo in February 2000.

Checking all the details, the authorities in Brazil discovered that his original birth certificate gave his date of birth as December 6, 1978. In other words, Emerson was three years older than he would have us all believe.

Does that surprise you?

No, it doesn't surprise me, either.

I was always suspicious of his alleged age, and couldn't stop laughing when an asterisk appeared against his name on the team sheet for Nabisco Cup matches. An asterisk meant a player was eligible to be voted Nabisco Cup newcomer, as he was under 23, but I never considered Emerson for this award -- and would not have done if he'd scored a double hat-trick in every match.

Emerson, in fact, is 27 years old, and was 21 when he joined Consadole for the start of the 2000 season.

The puzzle is: why was he busted this time, when he has gone in and out of Brazil on so many occasions? Did someone tip off immigration?

And why did he change his birth certificate? To stand more chance of playing for Brazil at age-group level? To give him more years at the top to earn the riches he is making in the Gulf?

His goals records in Japan still stand, of course, because it does not matter how old you are. Still, at least everyone now knows his true age.


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Nakata is the central piece in Japan's World Cup jigsaw puzzle

23 Jan 2006(Mon)

January 21, 2006: As the J.League players prepare to assemble for the first national team training camp of the year, at Miyazaki from January 29, the game to pick Japan's 23 for Germany is underway.

I call it a game, because it is for the likes of you and me. It's fun exchanging ideas and views, and debating which player should be in and which should be out.

But for the players, of course, it's deadly serious. Selection for the World Cup is a life-changing experience, and a player who has been included in a World Cup squad can enjoy that extra bit of recognition for the rest of his career and his life.

The first name on my list would be Hidetoshi Nakata, who made the news last weekend for being sent off against Blackburn Rovers. But, according to reports from England, this has actually increased Nakata's popularity among the Bolton fans.

It showed his commitment to the cause, and that he was prepared to "get stuck in" against his midfield rivals. So a red card is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it does not happen too often (like Alpay, for example).

The more I watch Nakata these days, the more I have come round to thinking that Zico needs him in the centre of midfield, in the "volante" position.

Nakata is naturally an attacking player, but as he has matured and developed I now see him as the fulcrum of the team.

Whether Zico picks a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 system, I would have Nakata in the centre of midfield, directing the traffic and organising the team.

His experience will be vital against the likes of Australia and Croatia, and he can influence the game more from that deeper position.

If he plays further forward, I fear he may be cut off from the rest of the team, which would then lack direction in the most important area of the field.

With the likes of Shunsuke, Ogasawara and Daisuke Matsui, Zico has plenty of other attacking options, but he does not have the same luxury in defensive midfield.

No one knows whether Shinji will be fit, or how match-fit Koji Nakata will be. The good news is that Inamoto is now getting more playing time for West Brom, so he should be sharp and ready for Germany.

There will be more time to discuss everyone's World Cup 23 in the near future, but for now I have pencilled in Hidetoshi Nakata in central midfield.

Mmmm, now for the other 22...


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Asian Cup qualifying causes problems

19 Jan 2006(Thu)

January 18, 2006 -- What's happening at the Asian Football Confederation these days?

First there was the farce over the Player of the Year award for 2005, when the AFC ruled out any player who could not attend the gala dinner and prize presentation in Kuala Lumpur.

This made Saudi Arabia's....well, I've forgotten his name already....Asian Player of the Year.

Now we have the problems over the qualifying competition for the 2007 Asian Cup.

Even before the draw was made, I thought it was very unfair that the four Asian teams who had qualified for the World Cup should have to play qualifying games for next year's Asian Cup before the finals in Germany. Surely the four teams -- Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and South Korea -- should have been given a clear first half of the year to organise their own World Cup build-up.

But when Japan were drawn to play Saudi away on March 1, the JFA gave their full backing to the match, saying it would be good preparation for the World Cup as they could bring all their European exiles to the Middle East for a competitive game.

Then Saudi, without Japan's backing, asked the AFC to postpone the Asian Cup qualifier until September 1. Instead the Saudis will play a friendly against Serbia and Montenegro.

The AFC agreed to the request, which leaves Japan without an opponent on March 1, and on the end of some shabby treatment by Asia's governing body.

However, "Captain" Kawabuchi has come to the rescue!

The JFA president has revealed that Japan are trying to organise a game against Bosnia in Germany at one of the World Cup stadiums on March 1.

This is a smart move for several reasons.

Bosnia, like Croatia, used to belong to the old Yugoslavia, and will have a similar style of play to Japan's second World Cup opponents in Germany.

By playing in Europe, Japan's exiles will have minimal disruption to their body clocks.

Third, it will give Japan another "feel" for Germany, following their Confederations Cup campaign last summer.

And finally, it should provide Japan with a win on European soil, which will boost confidence as the countdown continues.

So it looks like Japan might come out of this sorry episode in good shape.

But it was never a good idea by the AFC to give its four World Cup teams (not including newcomers Australia) an extra burden in this important period.


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Suzuki still has what it takes

16 Jan 2006(Mon)

January 14, 2006: Takayuki Suzuki is back in the European spotlight, with the news that he might be joining Red Star Belgrade.

While it may surprise some observers in Japan that his services are sought by such a famous European club -- albeit not at the same level as yesteryear -- it does show his qualities are still appreciated.

I have to admit to being a Takaykui fan, and I hope sincerely Zico picks him for the World Cup.

He is a great team player. He leads the line tirelessly, wears down defenders with his non-stop running, and creates space for his teammates. He also knows how to win a free kick, and, while I don't like this tactic, sadly it has become part and parcel of the modern game.

So many matches are decided by set-pieces these days, and with Takayuki to win the free kicks around the box and Shunsuke to take them, anything could happen in Germany, provided Japan can defend well.

Critics will point to his goals per game ratio -- 11 in 55 appearances for Japan, well down on the commonly accepted rate of one goal per three games for a striker -- but it is not his main job to score goals.

For me, a Suzuki goal is a bonus, and a couple of crucial ones spring to mind immediately.

The first was Japan's first goal at the 2002 World Cup, to make it 1-1 after Belgium had taken the lead, and the second was in Oman in 2004. It was the winner, the only goal of the game in fact, when he rose at the far post to thunder in a header from Shunsuke's left-wing cross. That was a vital goal by Suzuki, and virtually ensured Japan a safe passage to the second round of qualifying.

He did not set Belgium alight, that's true, but he has the physical attributes and the mentality to look after himself in Europe and make an impact across the forward line.

Will it affect his chances of World Cup selection if he leaves Japan just a few months before Germany?

Personally, I doubt it, as Zico knows everything there is to know about the Antlers man, and knows he can rely on him to give his all when he pulls on the blue shirt (and also the "away" ivory one).

No one can fault Suzuki for wanting to give it another go in Europe. He is now 29 years old, and this could be his last chance to test himself overseas at club level.


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High school game reveals changes for the worse

12 Jan 2006(Thu)

January 11, 2006: Overall, the high school final at the National Stadium on Monday was a very enjoyable occasion.

There was some bright, inventive, attacking football, and the atmosphere and emotion provided a colourful back drop.

But a few things worried me during the semi-finals and the final.

First, I saw a lot more diving than I used to see at this level. When I watched my first high school final in Japan, in 1998, it was very noticeable that the players did not deliberately try to win free kicks or penalties. They played honestly, and it was a refreshing sight.

Top referee Leslie Mottram agreed with me at the time, and said that players started to dive when they became professional because there was so much money at stake in the modern game.

Having watched the latter stages of this year's high school championship, there is now very little difference between these youngsters and the J.Leaguers in this matter.

Players would dribble with the ball, and be tackled firmly but fairly, and would then take off and twist and turn in the air after losing the ball. Thankfully, the referees were alert to this, and allowed play to continue while the player picked himself up.

I also felt that too many players preferred to stay down after a challenge, and wait for the cheers of their supporters when they staggered to their feet, rather than just getting up and getting on with the game.

I have said before that in England we regard it as a man's game -- and a man does not want to show pain, as it gives the opponents a psychological advantage. In other words, a defender will think a rival forward is soft if he keeps complaining and feigning a non-existent injury.

The defender will be more concerned if the forward takes a hard challenge and just ignores it.

I hope that, in the future, referees remain extra vigilant at the high school matches.

There is too much gamesmanship in the modern game, and it must be punished from a young age.

Coaches, too, have a duty to protect the spirit of the game, and should tell their players to stop trying to win free kicks. Surely they can see it from the bench, and there should be no shame in quietly, at the right time, telling off your own player.

Let's hope the youngsters concentrate on football and not theatrics in the future. They are very good at the first -- and improving quickly at the latter.


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Ogasawara could make the grade at West Ham

9 Jan 2006(Mon)

January 7, 2006 -- Whether he comes back to Japan or stays in England, Mitsuo Ogasawara will further have enhanced the reputation of Japanese players during his time at West Ham United.

The Antlers playmaker is on a week's trial with the east London club, and has quickly impressed manager Alan Pardew.

At the moment, Ogasawara's visit only looks temporary, but in football you never know.

The Kashima player wants to play in Europe, and West Ham have money to spend during the January transfer window.

But that does not mean they will buy Ogasawara, as English Premiership clubs can choose players from just about anywhere in the world due to the global appeal of the league.

And the big problem for Japanese players, of course, is that they are very well paid in Japan, and their agents will be wanting similiar deals overseas. Transfer fee to the Japanese club, signing-on fee, salary and other costs and this all adds up to an expensive package.

I think Ogasawara could survive in the Premier League, though. He is a clever player, and can look after himself. He's not quite as robust in the tackle as Hidetoshi Nakata, but he can handle the physical stuff and is not afraid to give it out himself when necessary.

So he has the ability, the mental strength and the physical qualities needed to play in England.

The English game will be a bit of a culture shock to him, though, and he won't have as much time on the ball as he gets in the J.League, or with the national team.

If he holds it too long he will be "crunched" by the opposition, and referees allow the game to flow much more in England, and don't allow players to roll around when they are not hurt and stop the game all the time.

Ogasawara would be a hit in England at the right club...and West Ham is a good level for him to adjust. I hope it comes off, because he is serious in his work and deserves a chance at a higher level.

After watching Ogasawara train this week, Hammers manager Pardew commented on the "energy" and the "attitude" of Japanese players.

Ogasawara has these in abundance, but I feel he would have to open up more on the pitch, talk and shout more and communicate with his teammates.

In other words, he's too quiet! So learning a few basic English terms quickly and having the confidence to express himself would be a priority if he were to fulfill his potential overseas.

This would be his biggest challenge. Not playing football.


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All roads lead to Germany in 2006

5 Jan 2006(Thu)

January 2, 2006: There is no doubting the main topic of conversation for football fans for the first half of the year, and probably the second half, too.

Of course it's the 2006 World Cup in Germany, which kicks off June 9 in Munich and ends July 9 in Berlin.

The big days for Japan are June 12, June 18 and June 22, when they play Australia, Croatia and Brazil respectively in Group F, chasing one of two qualifying places for the round of 16.

Between now and then, every performance of the candidates for the 23-man squad will be scrutinised and debated, as Zico prepares to make the tough decisions at the end of his four-year cycle.

There are still many question marks over the physical fitness and the match fitness of the Europe-based players, especially Shinji Ono, so Zico has no choice but to be patient and wait and see what happens over the next few months.

I can't imagine Zico getting too concerned over these problems. He must pick the players available at the time, and if the condition of some is not right he must leave them out, no matter how big a "star" they may be in the eyes of the media and the fans.

And it's not as though Zico does not have enough options in reserve, as he has tried many players in various areas of the pitch during his reign. He reckons that, as things stand now, he has filled 17 of the 20 outfield places, so that still leaves plenty to play for in the next few months for the players on the fringe of selection.

The big question is, though, can Japan win through this group into the second round?

I think Japan are in a very tough group, as Brazil and, in my opinion, Australia were the two teams to avoid from their respective pots at the draw. Although Japan avoided Holland from the pot of non-seeded European teams, Croatia were another hard draw, as they won seven and drew three of their 10 qualifying games and beat Sweden home and away. Bulgaria and Hungary were also in their pool.

Japan will have to win at least one game and draw another to stand a chance of progressing, and their whole campaign could depend on the very first match, against the Socceroos in Kaiserslautern. This puts both teams under immense pressure from the first whistle, as Brazil and Croatia are widely regarded as the two favourites to advance.

But if Japan play to their strengths -- speed, mobility, quick passing, organisation and discipline -- they may be able to wear down the bigger and more physical Aussies and Croats. I am not being negative, just realistic, when I say that Japan will do well to win one game.

This view is due entirely to the quality of the opposition -- the Hiddink-led Australia, in particular, must not be under-estimated -- rather than the talent available to Zico.

If Japan qualify for the second round, then Zico's reign can be regarded as a success, after all the earlier problems and confusion.

Before the World Cup, though, there's qualifying games for the 2007 Asian Cup, plus the start of the J.League at the beginning of March. It's going to be another long and fragmented J.League season, but, with their Emperor's Cup success behind them and goal machine Washington waiting to join, Urawa Reds have become an early favourite for the J1 title in 2006.

Welcome, too, to Ventforet Kofu in J1, and Ehime FC in J2. They will broaden the appeal of the J.League even more, as the game continues to grow strong roots and foundations around the country.


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J.League passes single-stage test with flying colours in 2005

29 Dec 2005(Thu)

December 27, 2005 – Japanese football officials can look back proudly on a very successful 2005 on and off the pitch.

On the domestic front, the single-stage J.League season was a massive triumph, and has pointed the way forward.

On the international stage, Japan qualified with ease for the 2006 World Cup finals, and can be guaranteed a huge following in Germany next June and at home.

Overall, then, the game is in a very healthy state in Japan, with J.League crowds remaining stable in J1 and continuing to grow in J2. As for the national team, they could play virtually anyone at home (such as Chad or Macao) and still attract a full house, such is the pride in the blue shirt which has now become a national symbol around the world.

This time last year, as J1 planned for a single-stage season, there was a certain amount of pessimism around. Would the fans like to watch a marathon instead of two sprints? Would they continue to follow their team if they were out of the running for the championship?

These concerns were understandable, because the single-stage season in 1996 had not been a success from an attendance point of view, and was scrapped after one year.

But 2005 proved that the J.League fan has grown with the game, and was ready for an orthodox championship, with no gimmicks such as penalty shoot-outs, extra time, golden goals, and a two-leg play-off.

In a sense, then, the J.League was rewarded for its courage in making the move when five teams could have won the title on the last day of the season…after 33 games! This was a remarkable scenario, and I was fortunate to be at Todoroki on that “Super Saturday” to see Gamba win the crown in emotional and dramatic circumstances.

I was also one of the few people allowed into the stadium in Bangkok to see Japan beat North Korea and clinch a place in Germany. What a moment it was when Oguro scored the second late on, and raced around, Ya-jin-style, to celebrate!

Regarding the J.League awards, there is no disputing the right of Araujo in being named MVP. His 33 goa ls in 33 appearances papered over the cracks in a shaky defence, and Gamba must start again next season with Araujo in Brazil and Oguro in France.

The J.League 2006 will have a hard act to follow after the J.League 2005, but with the World Cup attracting even more attention and creating more heroes, I believe the domestic game will continue to evolve as a major factor in the Japanese sports scene.


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Verdy go back to the future

26 Dec 2005(Mon)

December 24, 2005 -- The Christmas and New Year holidays are always an enjoyable time for movie fanatics, as the big screens at the cinema and the small screens at home entertain us with past and present offerings.

With this is mind, Verdy’s favour ite movie must be “Back to the Future” following the appointment of Ruy Ramos as the new head coach.

The move was not unexpected, and had been talked about after he became Hayano’s assistant at Reysol midway through the season.

I must admit I thought Ramos could have helped save Reysol from relegation, due to his inspirational and motivational qualities, as well as his knowledge of the game and his experience.

But he couldn’t, and now he has taken up the challenge of rebuilding Verdy into a J.League force once again.

It will not be easy for Ramos the coach. For a start he won’t have the goals of Washington, who is set to sign for Urawa, and pre sumably he won’t have the biggest of budgets to work with.

There will inevitably be lots of new faces at Yomiuri Land next season, and Ramos, a star of the past as a player for Verdy Kawasaki, must bring them together to from a unit.

With 13 teams in J2 next season, and four rounds of games, this gives each team 48 league matches, so Ramos will have time to rebuild Verdy.

Who knows, he might even need more than one season to bring Verdy back into the top flight, and I am sure the Verdy management will not expect him to work miracles overnight.

His team must have the right balance of steel and flair, and, if anyth ing, his experience as a beach football coach is a disadvantage, not an advantage, as they are two completely different games.

Ramos has been given a wonderful opportunity to make his name as a coach in Japan, and Verdy need his experience and influence more than ever.


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Brazil’s year-end celebrations are not happy viewing for England

22 Dec 2005(Thu)

December 21: For an Englishman, it’s not been a good end to 2005. I turned the TV on thi s morning and everywhere on the sports news it was about Brazil.

First, Ronaldinho retained his FIFA World Player of the Year award.

Next, Sao Paulo arrived home to show off the Toyota Cup after beating Liverpool in the FIFA Club World Championship final on Sunday.

In addition, Sao Paulo goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni was made a “Freeman” of the city as a reward for his MVP services to the club – and this honour coming from the city mayor who is a fierce supporter of Sao Paulo’s rival, Palmeiras!

Oh, and just to round it off, we saw a few shots of Ronaldinho playing his part in Barcelona’s latest victory to keep his team on top of the table going into the winter break in Spain.

So not a good day so far for an Englishman, as 2006 looms, bringing with it the World Cup in June.

There can be no complaints about Ronaldinho winning the award again, though, as clearly he is well ahead of Lampard and even Eto’o. He is, without doubt, the most exciting player on the planet at the moment, and how Manchester United must wish they had tried that little bit harder to sign him a few years ago.

As for Sao Paulo. Well, many people are saying they were lucky to beat Liverpool 1-0 at Yokohama. Liverpool had 17 corners to 0; Liverpool had three goals disallowed. Lugano should have been sent off for a crude tackle on Gerrard.

Goals win matches, not corners; the officials looked to be spot on by disallowing Liverpool’s goals, although the third was very close; and Lugano, yes, may have been shown the red card on another day, but I think many would have been surprised if he’d been sent off for that foul on Gerrard as he surged down the right wing.

No, Sao Paulo defended well. They have two good full-backs and a good keeper who commanded his box.

I think Benitez got it wrong with his selection, was too cautious and paid the price. Morientes should have scored in the first minute with that header to Gerrard’s right-wing cross, but his miss was hardly Sao Paulo’s fault. Brazilians can defend and attack; it’s as simple as that.

There is no doubt Brazil go into 2006 with a massive psychological advantage over their World Cup rivals, even though I feel England still have a good chance to win in Germany.


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Ono to Reds seems strange move for both parties

19 Dec 2005(Mon)

December 16, 2005 – Shinji Ono, of course, is a fine player, but quite why Urawa Reds are ready to bring him “home” to Japan is a bit of a mystery.

And quite why Ono would want to leave Europe is rather puzzling, too.

Ono’s position at the moment seems quite clear. It’s all a matter of wait and see, to see if he recovers from his latest injury and if he will be fit to play at the World Cup in June.

I don’t mean fit as in physically fit, but match fit, as Japan will need to be strong mentally and physically against the robust and combative Australians and Croatians in the first two games if they are to still have a chance of qualifying when they play Brazil in the last game.

Reds will surely feel that they are trying to help Ono on the road to recovery, and this is a noble move. And if Shinji does recover full fitness, then naturally they will have signed one of the best footballers Japan has ever produced.

For Ono, though , it would surely be a step back if he returned to Urawa.

I always thought Feyenoord would be a stepping stone for him to move to a bigger club in a bigger European league, such as Spain or England.

This would surely have been the case, too, if he had steered clear of injury, and not been sidelined on such a regular basis.

The fact that Feyenoord say they would be prepared to sell him tells its own story; that they feel this latest injury is one too many, and he may never actually reach his full potential in Europe.

All of which is a great shame for the player, the club and for Japanese football, as a fully-fit Ono is a joy to watch.

I think Ono would be making a mistake to return to Reds at the moment. He still has time to get fit, and to continue his career in Europe, although perhaps not in Rotterdam.


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More reasons to visit Kofu City in 2006

15 Dec 2005(Thu)

December 11, 2005: It was a shame either Reysol or Ventforet would not be playing in J1 next season.

I say this mainly because of the fans, as the atmosphere at both play-off games was, well, "fan-tastic."

At Kose Sports Park, where Reysol, remember, actually took the lead with a fine header from Reinaldo, the away fans showed their loyalty by stripping down to their jeans (I must point out it was only the male fans who took their shirts off, although the Press Seats were a long way away and I could not see clearly, especially when the floodlights went out).

Anyway, this was a remarkable show of spirit from the Reysol faithful, as it was a pretty chilly night in Yamanashi Prefecture. The home fans knew better, and bunched together very tightly on the "Curva Kofu".

The Kofu fans went crazy at the end, following their 2-1 victory, even though it was only "half-time" in the play-off.

The scenes, and the atmosphere, reminded me very much of the old days in the English FA Cup first round, when a non-league club would beat a team from the lower divisions of the professional league.

There'd be butchers and bakers and maybe even candlestick-makers playing for the non-league team (meaning, in this case, non-Football League, as it was before the Premiership when all four divisions belonged to the same professional national league), and they would pull off a giant-killing act over their well-paid, well-groomed rivals.

For the second leg, now in the winter sunshine of Chiba Prefecture, the Kofu fans were out in force, packed behind the goal and looking like FC Tokyo supporters in their blue and red.

The big centre forward, Bare, formerly of Omiya Ardija, had given the slow Reysol defence a lot of problems in the first leg, but this time he was out of control.

He scored an incredible six times, and could have had 10, as he romped through the Reysol defence. Some of them were great finishers, too, notably the first, with a delicate chip past Minami after showing good close control, and the third into the roof of the net in full stride. I really did not think it was a penalty for the second goal, though, but that is not Bare's problem.

I love that Reysol banner "No Reysol No Life" followed by the words "Without Reysol Where We Go?"

Without wanting to sound like an English teacher, I think someone has missed the word "do" from that sentence. "Without Reysol Where Do We Go?" would be better, but that's the last thing on the minds of Reysol fans and Hitachi money men at the moment.

They go, as we all know, to J2, while Kofu come up to J1.

As well as the castle ruins and Takeda Shrine, there will be another good reason to visit Kofu City in 2006.


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It's FC Tokyo after all for Tokunaga

12 Dec 2005(Mon)

December 9, 2005: I was quite surprised to read the other day that Tokunaga had signed for FC Tokyo after all.

I must admit I thought the chances were slim, after all the talk about him going to Valencia or even to Kashima Antlers.

When I spoke to him after a Japan match at the East Asian Games in Macau recently he gave the impression that FC Tokyo was not an option. In fact it was Tokunaga himself who mentioned Kashima, which made sense to me as he would be a fine replacement for the combative Narahashi.

As for Valencia, some people seemed to think he would be signing permanently, and others that he would be going for two weeks of training in December, and then returning to Japan.

But, in the end, he did the logical thing and signed for FC Tokyo, where he played so well, of course, while he was still at Waseda University.

Tokunaga is an extremely talented and verstaile player, and will serve Tokyo well in a number of positions.

However, his decision to sign for "The Gasmen" has put a question mark against the future of their current right back, Kaji.

Rumour has it, and has had it for several weeks, that he might be going to Gamba, to toughen up their right flank.

This would also make sense, as Gamba clearly need to strengthen their defence after conceding so many goals in J1 this season.

Talking about goals and Gamba, this brings us round to Oguro, who, it seems, appears keen to move to Grenoble in the French second division.

I am sure Oguro will be offered good terms by Grenoble, and it is a wonderful opportunity to move to Europe, but the timing seems awkward.

There's only six months to the World Cup in Germany, and Oguro, I am convinced, has one of the 23 places in Zico's squad nailed down. If he stays in Japan he will be available for all the national team's preparations, and will be playing for Gamba and keeping in good match condition.

If he goes to France, he may not settle to the lifestyle -- the language is very difficult -- and may not be guaranteed a place in the starting line-up -- and Grenoble will not be too keen on releasing him for friendlies. He may disappear off Zico's radar, like Okubo.

Gamba have offered him a multi-year contract, and I feel Oguro should sign it, play at the World Cup, score a few goals (hopefully against Brazil), earn a big-money move to a bigger club than Grenoble, secure a hefty transfer fee for Gamba Osaka...and then everyone is happy!


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Gamba's strikers win matches -- and championships

8 Dec 2005(Thu)

December 6, 2005 -- If you are looking to buy a friend the perfect Christmas gift, try "A Miscellany of Football."

It is a small book, published by Past Times of Oxford, England, and is packed with "quips, tips and quotes for the football fan."

One of the quotes is from John Gregory, the former Aston Villa and Derby County manager, who once said: "Strikers win matches, defenders win championships."

But this does not apply to Gamba Osaka!

For Gamba it is exactly the opposite. They conceded 58 goals in their 34 league games, but fortunately scored 82 to keep the wins coming.

So, in Gamba's case, strikers won matches and also won the championship.

This is why I feel Araujo will be named J.League MVP at the awards night on December 20. His record of 33 goals in 33 games speaks for itself, and his two at Todoroki on Saturday were a joy to behold.

The first, after playing a neat one-two with Fernandinho, was struck beautifully with his left foot, curling inside the far post to give the keeper no chance. The second was a true poacher's goal, timing his run perfectly to be in the right place at the right time to score from close range.

If I'm looking for a Man of the Match or a season's MVP, I try to avoid the player who scores the crucial goal, or goals, as that's too easy a choice. I prefer to look for someone who has made a more solid, all-round contribution, maybe not as glamorous but just as important.

You may find this a strange criteria, but, there again, my favourite Real Madrid player is not Beckham, Zidane, Raul or Robinho but...Helguera! He's my kind of player, tough and does a great job every game (Javier Zanetti of Argentina is another).

But in the case of the J.League 2005, I cannot think of anyone who deserves the accolade more than Araujo, and it is a great pity he will not be at Gamba next season.

Whoever made the decision to sign him from S-Pulse deserves massive credit, as it's unlikely Gamba would have won the championship without him.

At the other end, it was not difficult to see why Gamba have conceded so many. Just look at Frontale's first goal, headed home by Terada. The Gamba defence had already given him one free header at a corner, and he sent it high over the bar. But almost straight away they gave him another, and he buried this one.

Despite the defensive blunders, Gamba are worthy champions because the league table does not lie after 34 games.

And Araujo, I feel, may have more trophies to come, for leading scorer and, quite possibly, for MVP.


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Verdy must face up to the facts, and to life in J2

5 Dec 2005(Mon)

December 3, 2005 -- There is no reason why Verdy's last home game in J1 on Saturday should be depressing.

After all, they have been struggling for weeks, and relegation was confirmed at Kashiwa last Saturday.

So, rather than everyone being morbid and tearful -- meaning players, officials and fans -- it would be an appropriate time to start rebuilding spirit and confidence, and look forward to the challenges ahead, rather than looking back on what went wrong.

Next year, of course, Verdy will be in J2 for the first time, and, ironically, also in the revamped Asian Champions League for the first time.

But they cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves, or think they are too good to be in J2 just because of their former glories.

The league table does not lie after 34 games, and Verdy deserve to be exactly where they are. They have to face up to it and get on with it, so I hope I don't see any tears from players this afternoon. I want to see fists clenched, fighting talk and optimism.

The Asian Champions League will toughen them up, especially when they play the Korean champions, and this can only benefit them in the J2 season.

Personally, I am amazed at Verdy's decline.

At the start of the season I tipped them as a "dark horse" for the championship, meaning not a logical favourite, such as Marinos, Antlers, Reds and Jubilo, but a team capable of pulling it off if everything came together.

My faith in the Greens was based on the Emperor's Cup success of the previous season, plus the signing of Washington and Toda.

Washington was wanted by several clubs in Europe and Japan, but Verdy won the race and they can have no complaints about Washington's attitude or goals return.

Toda, I thought, would provide the steel and the experience Verdy needed, especially in midfield, where they have always been a bit lightweight: Nice, technical players, such as Yoshiyuki Kobayashi and Daigo Kobayashi, but needing a Keane, a Vieira or Souness-style battler. I thought Toda was just that man, but he fell out of favour very quickly with Ardiles, and looks like he'll be leaving Verdy after a frustrating season.

All is not lost for Verdy, though, as they should have one of the best strikeforces in J2 next season, if Hiramoto and Morimoto both stay at the club.

But the most important thing will be to rediscover the pride and the passion that once made Verdy mighty.

That cannot be coached. The players must do this for themselves next season, to ensure a swift return to the top flight.


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All the pressure switches to Cerezo

1 Dec 2005(Thu)

November 30, 20005: So where's it to be on Saturday?

As usual, there are several attractive options for J.Watchers.

But this Saturday, the last Saturday of the season, is rather different.

In fact it's an incredible situation, as five of the teams can still win the championship.

There have been some close finishes in the recent past, such as the second stage in 2003, when Kubo settled it for Marinos right at the death at home to Jubilo, but nothing like this after 33 games.

This time, of course, Cerezo are in the driving seat. They are one point clear of Gamba in second place and have a home match, against FC Tokyo at Nagai Stadium.

It will not be easy to win against FC Tokyo, especially with all the pressure on the home team, and the expectations of, hopefully, a rare full house at Nagai.

Cerezo have been in this position before, five years ago in the first stage, when they needed to beat Kawasaki Frontale at home in the last game. A win in extra time, worth two points (aren't you happy that old system has been scrapped?), would have been enough, but they lost, and Marinos celebrated an unlikely first-stage title at Kokuritsu.

So will Cerezo be able to handle the pressure this time? It's difficult to know, because they have been under no pressure all season. For a while it was a two-horse race between Gamba and Antlers, but Cerezo have come up on the rails, almost unnoticed, and can now see the finishing line.

The championship is there for Cerezo to lose, as their destiny is in their own hands.

If they slip up and draw, or lose, can Gamba muster enough motivation and determination to beat Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki?

Again, who knows the answer to this, as Gamba must be full of self-doubt rather than self-confidence, after the blows they have taken in recent games.

And there's still Reds, Antlers and JEF, all together on 56 points, two behind Cerezo.

Reds are at the Big Swan against Albirex Niigata; Antlers are at home to Reysol, who have had another miserable season and must scrap again for J1 survival in the playoffs; and JEF are at home to Nagoya.

After 33 games, it is highly unusual to be in this situation, and the J.League planners could not have asked for a more dramatic conclusion to the first single-stage season since 1996.

And they deserve it for taking the plunge and doing away with the two-stage system, which, hopefully, will never appear again.

One problem though. How many championship trophies or replicas do the J.League have? They will need five on Saturday in five different cities, ready to present to the top team!


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Thanks for the memories, George Best

28 Nov 2005(Mon)

November 26, 2005: It’s a beautiful autumn day here in Tokyo. The sun is shining and it’s a crisp, cool morning.

But it’s also an extremely sad morning, because, a few hours ago, George Best died at the age of 59.

Alcoholism was the only opponent he could not beat, and it led to his inevitable early demise.

BBC World has been paying tribute to him non-stop, and rightly so, but asking a question that, for me at this time, is irrelevant and unfair.

Will George be remembered for his football or for his extravagant lifestyle?

Of course it must be the first, as he would not have been able to live his celebrity lifestyle if it hadn’t been for the football.

Many Japanese readers will be too young to remember Best, and there will be some who have never heard of him as the global game was late arriving here in Japan.

Georgie was a footballer and an entertainer. He was fast, had the balance of a ballerina, and was brave. When he had the ball at his feet defenders were terrified, as he could humiliate opponents at will.

Sometimes it was like watching a bullfight. George holding the cape and the sword, the bull hoping for a quick death after being worked to exhaustion.

I remember watching George Best play once, for Manchester United at my hometown club, Halifax Town.

It was in a pre-season competition long since scrapped called the Watney Cup, which featured the highest scoring team in each of the four divisions from the previous season.

So the great Manchester United came to the humble home of Halifax Town, the Shay, in the early Seventies. It was raining, and I remember an argument breaking out because a woman standing in front of us had put her umbrella up, blocking the view of some men behind her.

In those days, men did not carry umbrellas. They were too tough for that. They wore flat caps to keep out the rain, with a peak to protect their cigarettes from getting wet as they smoked the whole match.

And we were all standing up, of course, because, in those days, seats were only for the wealthy. True fans stood on the terrace, in the wind, rain and snow, stamping their feet to keep warm and watching the last five minutes from in front of the gates, so you could beat the rush to the car park or the bus station.

Anyway, amazingly, George Best came to the Shay…and he missed a penalty! If I remember correctly, and it’s over 30 years ago, he hit it too softly and the Halifax keeper made an easy save.

His team-mate, another wing wizard called Willie Morgan, would score from the spot, but Halifax won 2-1. What an upset!

Everyone in Britain followed the life of George Best, the “fifth Beatle”, after he stopped playing, but there was nothing anyone could do to help him, although many tried.

Yes, it’s a sad Saturday, and I urge you to watch all the sports news programmes and buy a video if possible, because he really was an extraordinary talent.


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Relegation is not the end of the world for Vissel

24 Nov 2005(Thu)

I once remember Manchester United being relegated from the English top flight in the 1970s, but they came back stronger and just grew and grew.

The ironic thing for Vissel, though, is that they have been relegated in the second season of funding by Hiroshi Mikitani.

With all that investment you'd have expected Vissel to be stronger with the "Rakuten Golden Eagle" behind them.

But it's been the opposite. The signing of Ilhan Mansiz was a great publicity vehicle, but the player was not fit and it turned out to be an expensive disaster as he returned home, no doubt extremely wealthy from his brief Japanese sojourn.

Patrick Mboma was not fit, either, and this also seemed a strange signing. Vissel were clearly going for "name"value, or star quality, and it backfired on them twice in that first season.

Much better was the signing of Atsu Miura, who succeeded Kazu Miura as captain midway through this season, but his leadership could not save the team after a brief honeymoon period.

To be fair to Vissel they made some useful mid-season signings, such as Endo from Marinos and Kaneko from Antlers, plus the Czech players brought in by Rehak, the team's third coach of the season.

The fact that Vissel failed to stay up speaks volumes for the growing quality of the J.League. There is much more strength in depth these days, and teams need to keep winning, like Oita, to pull clear of the relegation zone and then stay clear.

It's no good winning two or three and then going into another slump, as the teams below can also hit a patch of good form and take over.

As I said, these will be depressing days at Kobe, especially for Mikitani as he is genuinely trying to build a team the city will be proud of.

His words, following relegation on Sunday, were reassuring, as he said Vissel would be back after one season in J2, and that his continued aim was to make a top-class team.

Vissel will have 44 matches next season, so can afford to be patient on the coaching front, and it gives them a chance to rebuild.

Let's hope Mikitani, despite his problematic start, will stick with football and stick with Vissel Kobe, and that the fans do, too.


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Reds fans should not be surprised by Alpay's violence

21 Nov 2005(Mon)

November 19, 2005 -- Well, who can Alpay Ozalan blame this time?

The referee?

The Swiss team?

Takayuki Suzuki?

I don't know if you saw the highlights -- or, rather, the lowlights -- of the World Cup qualifier between Turkey and Switzerland in midweek, but they were pretty shocking scenes at the end.

As the players ran for the tunnel, following Turkey's 4-2 victory on the night but Switzerland's overall victory on the away goals rule to qualify for Germany, missiles were flying from the stands above.

This is inevitable in Istanbul, one of the most volatile stadiums in the world, and in a city where two Leeds United fans were stabbed to death a few years ago.

A Swiss player ran past a Turkish trainer and kicked him on the back of his left leg, and then a Turkish player tried to exact revenge.

Guess who it was, Reds fans?

Yes, it was Alpay, who could be seen kicking a Swiss player from behind, but not the same one who had kicked the Turkish trainer.

Then a wrestling match began -- in fact I'm sure I saw Kyoko Hamaguchi in there, and her father "Animal" -- as the players filled the tunnel.

They were disgraceful scenes, but totally predictable from Alpay.

After all, this was the guy who was run out of the English Premier League after his verbal attack on David Beckham in Istanbul, who walked out on his club in Korea and who was fired by Urawa for his appalling disciplinary record.

The weather now in Japan, sunny and crisp, is similar to what it was on the opening day of the season at Saitama Stadium, where Alpay was sent off for his assault on Takayuki Suzuki.

It was easy for Reds staff and fans to point the finger at Takayuki, but everyone knows the Antlers player's tricks and tactics to win a free kick.

The fact that Alpay took the bait and got himself sent off for grabbing Takayuki round the chin was nobody's fault but Alpay's. At his age and with his experience he should have known better, but clearly he still doesn't, and now he can expect a ban from FIFA.

The problem with Alpay is that he is such a gentleman off the pitch, friendly and polite, as anyone who came across him during his time in Japan will tell you.

It's just that a red mist descends over him when he goes on the pitch. Urawa suffered from this, and will feel vindicated with their decision to fire him after this latest episode.


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Kobayashi catches the eye for Cerezo

17 Nov 2005(Thu)

November 16, 2005: One of the most competitive races in the J.League this year will be to find the winner of the Manager of the Season award.

There are several candidates, alongside the manager of the championship-winning team.

One of them must surely be Shinji Kobayashi at Cerezo Osaka.

He has worked wonders with the team, and they are still in with a chance of winning the league crown with four games to play.

I saw Cerezo win 1-0 against Verdy at Ajista on Saturday afternoon, and, while their performance was nothing special, they turned this into three points, which is the mark of a good team.

Verdy, of course, should have scored at least once, maybe more. Manager Vadao pointed out after the game that they had created eight to 10 chances, but had not converted any. It would have helped if they had taken more shots, but, as so often happens with a team struggling for confidence, players did not trust themselves and tried to pass the ball, and the responsibility, to a team-mate.

Hiramoto looked sharp and hungry after coming on, but blazed wide, as did the lively Tamano after creating a wonderful chance for himself.

But all this is not Cerezo Osaka's fault. They did not have too many chances before Furuhashi scored the only goal of the game, in the 89th minute, with a well-struck free kick into the bottom corner of the net, beating Takagi at his near post.

That was enough to give Cerezo the three points, and there was no need for Bruno Quadros to feign injury near the end and almost cost his team an equaliser. There was nothing wrong with him when he went down in his own penalty area in injury time, and I applaud referee Okutani for not allowing him to return to the pitch immediately.

In fact it would have been nice to see Verdy equalise, and punish the cheating Cerezo player as he stood on the touchline waiting to come on when he should have been helping his team-mates defend the lead.

Cerezo now have 53 points, still four behind Gamba, and they won their last three points without several top players, such as Fabinho and Ze Carlos, Kudo and Nishizawa.

In the centre of midfield, Nunobe and Shimomura are real grafters, Maeda is improving all the time at the back, and Furuhashi is an intelligent and mobile forward.

Kobayashi has done a fine job, but the competition for the manager award is too close to call.


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Can Nishino survive the pressure? JFA will be watching

14 Nov 2005(Mon)

November 12, 2005 -- These are testing times for Gamba Osaka and, in particular, for manager Akira Nishino.

Three weeks ago, Gamba were looking good for at least one trophy, possibly two and, who knows, even three.

They were five points clear of Kashima Antlers at the top of the table after 27 games, were in the Nabisco Cuip final against JEF United and still had the Emperor's Cup to come.

But two successive defeats in the league, at home to Oita and away to FC Tokyo, allowed Kashima to close the gap to one point, and now only five points separate the top five teams.

It was this nervy scenario which accompanied Gamba into last week's Nabisco Cup final, which they lost on penalties to JEF United after a 0-0 draw.

So now, all hope of a title treble has gone, although I am sure Gamba and Nishino would settle for a first league championship, and a first J.League title for Kansai.

They are still in control of their own destiny, but the likes of Kashima in particular and also Urawa Reds have proved they can win a championship, or half a championship in the case of Reds last season.

This experience could be vital in the title run-in, as all the pressure is on Gamba to hold on to their lead.

Antlers, on the other hand, have a manager in Toninho Cerezo who has won everything in Japan, including the treble in his first season here, in 2000.

This will be Toninho's last season with the club, and the announcement that he will be leaving must have united the club. Everyone, especially the players and the fans, will be wanting to give him the perfect send-off after such loyal and distinguished service.

This unity, experience and quiet determination will be a vital source of inspiration to the club over the closing weeks, whereas Gamba will be under pressure to stay at the top after looking the best team for so long.

Nishino won the Nabisco Cup with Reysol a few years ago and came very close to winning the second-stage championship, too, only to be denied on the last day of the season by Antlers in a 0-0 draw at Kokuritsu.

With the national team job up for grabs when Zico moves on after the World Cup, a championship for Gamba would put Nishino in the frame to succeed the Brazilian, should the JFA opt for a Japanese coach.

Although Nishino will not be thinking about this -- he has far too many things on his mind at the moment -- it could prove to be an important factor for the JFA powers in a few weeks/months time.

If Gamba can hold on and Nishino can survive the pressure, the former Olympic team manager would be a strong candidate to succeed Zico next summer.


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Osim sows the seeds for FIFA World Premier League

10 Nov 2005(Thu)

November 8, 2005 -- JEF United's manager, Ivica Osim, had some interesting (as always) things to say after his team's victory over Gamba Osaka in the Nabisco Cup final.

He questioned the value of winning the Nabisco Cup, as success gave the club nothing except prizemoney.

He was comparing the Nabisco Cup with a cup competition in Europe, where victory in the domestic cup final guaranteed the winners a place in the UEFA Cup the following season.

The UEFA Cup, of course, is Europe's second-tier club competition, and a big step down from the more lucrative and glamorous UEFA Champions League.

But, still, the prospect of European football is a big incentive to do well in the domestic cup competitions.

In his comments to the Kyodo News agency after the Nabisco Cup final, Osim suggested the winners of the Nabisco Cup should be allowed to play in the UEFA Cup next season.

It seems like he was joking, of course, because how can a Japanese club play in Europe?

Impossible, right?

Well, Kazakhstan switched from Asia to Europe not too long back, and Australia will switch from Oceania to Asia.

If Europe was looking for more money -- and everyone is in football these days -- would it be possible for them to invite a Japanese club to play in the UEFA Champions League, or the UEFA Cup. Think of the TV rights, the marketing and the ticket sales...

The travel and the schedule would be very difficult, of course, and Asia's governing body would probably not allow it.

But, who knows in the future, the UEFA Champions League could eventually produce a FIFA World Premier League. Perhaps 12 teams in total, with matches scheduled between domestic league and European cup fixtures and replacing dates in the FIFA calendar reserved for friendly internationals, which are becoming more and more troublesome.

Yes, I know the concept sounds far-fetched and impractical, but the football world is getting smaller, and new ideas are needed to satisfy the worldwide demand.

The FIFA World Premier League...mmm, sounds pretty good to me.

As does JEF United against Barcelona at Ichihara Rinkai Stadium on a wet and windy Wednesday night in November.

How many times would Ronaldinho get past his marker, the excellent and unheralded Saito, in a competitive match like that!

Maybe Osim is on to something after all.


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Nabisco Cup takes over as Japan’s showpiece

7 Nov 2005(Mon)

November 5, 2005 – It’s Saturday, cup final day.

In England, that means the FA Cup, the showpiece match which brings the curtain down on the season, and is played in May, before the summer break.

In Japan, though, cup final day now refers to the League Cup, as the standing of the Nabisco-sponsored event has grown in importance every year at the expense of Japan’s FA Cup, known, of course, as the Emperor’s Cup.

The Emperor’s Cup has kicked off early this season as far as the big clubs are concerned, as usually it does not start in earnest until the league season has finished.

I have never liked that system, because I don’t think some clubs take it seriously. They just want to get the season over with, and have a longer holiday.

The fans, too, didn’t seem that interested, as matches were poorly attended until the final on New Year’s Day. Now this is a grand occasion. It’s usually crisp and sunny, absolutely perfect football weather, and the teams have come so far they feel they may as well end the long year with a trophy for their patient fans.

The Emperor’s Cup, of course, used to be the showpiece event of the season in the old days, as it lifted domestic football on to a higher plane.

But times have changed, the J.League is an outstanding success, and a football culture is growing all around the country.

Neither the Nabisco Cup nor the Emperor’s Cup is perfect, but for me, as an outsider looking in, the former is a more prestigious title to win.

And whoever wins Saturday’s Nabisco Cup final at National Stadium will be good for the game.

Gamba against JEF, a perennial under-achiever against a perennial over-achiever.

Kansai desperate for a title, JEF offering proof of sensible management with a small fan base, and an excellent coach and many talented home-grown players.

Only football can win on Saturday.


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Inoha impresses in Macau

3 Nov 2005(Thu)

MACAU: November 2, 2005 – It was a strange feeling watching Japan against Chinese Taipei on Saturday afternoon here in Macau at the East Asian Games. (Chinese Taipei, of course, means Taiwan, but, for political reasons, they are referred to as the former by sports bodies so as not to upset the motherland China).

Anyway, when I entered the main stand of the sports field at Macau University of Science and Technology, there was the usual loyal band of supporters in blue, one banging a drum and the other leading the singing.

To my surprise, though, they were from Chinese Taipei, waving blue scarves adorned with the word “Taiwan” and with a slogan on the back of their blue T-shirts reading “Soul? Just.”

Like many slogans I read in Japan, I’m not quite sure what it meant, but this culture clash is always amusing.

Japan played very well and won 6-1, scoring four times in the second half.

But the Taiwanese players were not strong, especially at the back, and the big centre forward, Komatsu, took advantage of this to score twice. At 1.87 metres, he looks like the new Hirayama, and plays for Kwansei Gakuin University.

Hyodo, Japan’s captain at the World Youth Championship in the Netherlands but not here (Tokunaga is the leader of this team), scored a goal with a fine long-range drive, and he even has his own personal fan club.

After the game I managed to track down a few Japanese, who were attracting the attention of the players by waving plastic branches of cherry blossom over the fence. One of the banners read “Hyodo – Pride of WMW.” The initials stand for Waseda, Maroon and White, which was quite clever, and, to be frank, I was amazed to see such loyal support for a 20-year-old student.

Regarding the team, I really liked the central midfielder Inoha, from Miyazaki and a student at Hannan University.

He reminded me of Kumagai when I first saw him play for Japan’s youth team in Indonesia in 1994, alongside the likes of Hidetoshi Nakata and under the captaincy of Suguru Ito. Positioned just in front of the defence, he was like a midfield sweeper, collecting the loose balls, and doing the simple things right, like tackling and passing.

I know this sounds basic stuff, but it takes a lot of discipline and maturity to play the right pass all the time, the safe pass to a teammate, rather than looking for the glorious through-ball on every occasion.

Tonight (Wednesday), Japan will play Korea at the main Macau Stadium, but are in the semi-finals already.

Japan against Korea in Macau. Followed by dinner and red wine in a Portuguese restaurant, and then maybe a visit to a swish new casino so I can win lots of money and buy Vissel Kobe.

Yes, it’s tough being a football writer – but someone has to do it!


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Women’s game deserves support

31 Oct 2005(Mon)

October 29, 2005 – FIFA, quite rightly, is ecstatic about the IOC decision to increase the number of teams in the Olympic women’s football tournament from 10 to 12.

This is rightful recognition of the value of the women’s game, and its growing appeal on all continents. Last year, for example, provided Japan with two memorable sporting moments, as emotional and dramatic as many accomplishments in the men’s game.

First, the crushing defeat of North Korea at Kokuritsu to qualify for Athens.

Then, in Athens itself, the heroic 1-0 defeat of the talented Sweden team.

Well, to be precise, it was nowhere near Athens, as it was held in one of the Olympic Games’ satellite cities in the north of the country.

Despite all the gold medals Japan won in Athens (16), this one game will remain a highlight, as Japan scored a goal, could have had a couple more (just ask Homare Sawa…she was so unlucky not to net one, maybe two goals) and then played with a spirit and determination that brought tears of emotion from JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi at the final whistle.

No matter what happened after that, Japan’s women had done the nation proud, and created enough interest back home to breathe new life into the L.League.

Although the women’s game has many critics among the men, I have supported it for many years. Lacking the physical power and the pace of men, it is played at a slower tempo, with more emphasis on skill, touch and movement. Up until now, it is also played in a fair spirit, with little evidence of diving, feigning injury and time-wasting. Against Sweden, for example, Japan could have resorted to all sorts of tricks late in the game, but they kept playing an open style with a smile on their faces, which was such a refreshing change in the modern game.

Ten teams was not a good number, and 12 is far from perfect, as in Beijing we will probably be having three groups of four, and from there it must come down to eight teams for the quarter-finals. This means the top two from each group qualifying, plus the best two third-placed teams.

For me this is a highly unsatisfactory formula. Eight teams works well, and so does 16, but 10 and 12 falls in between.

But FIFA must work with what they’ve got, and that means 12 teams in Beijing.

The women’s game deserves this increase, and deserves support around the world.


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Unlucky Tsune must think of 2006

27 Oct 2005(Thu)

October 25, 2005 −Tsuneyasu Miyamoto is not the luckiest of players.

At the 2002 World Cup, Miyamoto became famous for his Batman-style mask to protect a broken nose.

Now, with Gamba in the running for a league and cup double −and, who knows, maybe a treble with the Emperor's Cup thrown in as well −Miyamoto is set to miss around a month's action with a right knee injury.

Miyamoto collected the injury toward the end of Saturday's 2-1 loss at home to the rejuvenated Oita Trinita, which was a double blow for Gamba in the space of a few minutes.

He looks certain to miss the Nabisco Cup final against JEF United on November 5 −but you never know with injuries these days −and that will be a huge disappointment for such a loyal club servant.

But Miyamoto knows he must not rush back, not necessarily for the Nabisco Cup final but for the rest of the season.

The reason for this is simple...hat the 2006 World Cup must be uppermost in Miyamoto's priorities.

If he comes back too early, when the ligament injury is not fully healed, and he makes it worse, then he has a much bigger problem on his hands.

If a few weeks on the sidelines becomes a few months, he would miss the start of the build-up to Japan's World Cup campaign, and he knows as well as anyone that Zico will stay loyal to a player who comes in and does a good job.

These next couple of weeks are critical for Miyamoto's World Cup campaign, as he must be patient and not let his Gamba heart rule his national team head.

Of course the Nabisco Cup final will not be the same without him, but, if there are no setbacks, he should be up and running in time for the end of the league season.

If he ends the J1 season as a league champion and with his right knee strong again, then maybe he might be feeling lucky after all.


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Could a Chinese star be good for business in Japan?

24 Oct 2005(Mon)

October 21, 2005 -- Like me, you must get fed up of reading sentences such as the following:

"Also, if they sign a Japanese player he would be good for business, and may attract Japanese sponsors to the club."

Know what I mean?

So how about this for a change:

"If a Japanese club were to sign this player, he would be good for business, as there would be a lot of interest in his exploits back in his home country."

The country in question is China, and the player is...?

Well, I am sorry, I cannot reveal his name at the moment, because he is still playing in China and it would put him in a difficult position with his current employers.

But he's a good player, with lots of international experience, and he wants to play in Japan. I know this because I am trying to help the player's agent arrange a move to the J.League.

I haven't even asked for 10 per cent commission yet, because we are only talking about talks, rather than about a transfer, but I hope the deal goes through.

First, because he's a good, hard player, as I said before, and the Chinese domestic league is a shambles. He deserves better.

Second, I would like to see J.League clubs broaden their horizions on the foreign player front, and try and make more imaginative signings.

I often feel the club front offices are brainwashed by Brazilians, and that experienced agents find naive Japanese clubs easy pickings in terms of selling a player, the quality of which can be third-rate, and the salaries and fees first-rate, on occasions.

While there have been plenty of top-notch Koreans in the J.League, China has not been well represented, although several Chinese have played in Europe, such as Sun Jihai (Manchester City), Li Tie (Everton) and Fan Zhiyi (Crystal Palace among others).

Of course an agent would say such and such a player would be good for business, but in this case it seems very reasonable.

A Japanese club signing a high-profile Chinese player could expect benefits in terms of fan support at home and, possibly, corporate support from Chinese businesses in Japan. On the other hand, the parent company of the Japanese club (for example Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota) could use this player to expand their market in China.

It's a win-win situation, provided the player is good enough to fill one of the three places for foreigners, and I can safely say he is.

Maybe you will hear more of this in the near future, as it's an interesting venture.

And if it comes off, only then will I ask for my 10 percent!

Or maybe 20.


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JFA take tough stance over friendly

20 Oct 2005(Thu)

October 19, 2005 ・It's nice to see the JFA getting tough by replacing Ivory Coast with Togo for the Tokyo friendly on November 16.

Ivory Coast should have been coming, but said they would not have a full team, notably Didier Drogba, so Japan invited Togo instead.

I'm sure Chelsea will be delighted by that, as the last thing they need is for one of their millionaires to be travelling to Japan and back in the middle of the season, risking injury in a friendly international.

On the other hand, the Ivory Coast Football Association will be missing out on a big pay day, as the JFA, I'm sure, would have been paying them a hefty fee.

I am sure that the JFA have learned their lesson from the Nigeria fiasco a couple of years back.

The match, won 3-0 by Japan, was a joke, a complete waste of time for all concerned except Takahara, who improved his goals per game ratio for the national team significantly.

If I remember correctly ・and forgive me readers, I am approaching another birthday! ・Nigeria did not even have enough players to fill the five substitute slots. I think they had only four players on the bench, including a reserve keeper, which was a real slap in the face for Japan.

The only memorable thing about the evening was the traditional Nigerian headgear worn by the man who sang the national anthem, and I half-expected him to remove it, put on the No. 16 shirt and sit on the bench.

This time, however, the JFA have cracked down, and told Ivory Coast to forget it ・and full credit to them for doing so.

Togo will be interesting opposition. Like Ivory Coast they have qualified for the World Cup for the first time in an African revolution which has seen the likes of Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria all fall by the wayside.

Togo have also promised to send their best team, but would anyone really notice if they didn't? The point is they will take it seriously, and will be grateful for the experience, the exposure and, of course, the cash.

Hopefully there will be no more friendly farces at the National Stadium.


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Osaka pushing hard on two fronts

17 Oct 2005(Mon)

October 14, 2005 -- Watch out this weekend for Osaka.


No, Cerezo actually.

Take a quick look at the first division table and then at this weekend's fixtures, and the scene could be very different come Sunday afternoon.

Just in case you'd forgotten what was happening in J1 due to yet another break -- and anyone could be forgiven for this -- Gamba are top with 51 points from 26 games. Antlers are second with 48 and Cerezo third on 43.

There are still eight games to play, worth, of course, 24 points, so there is plenty of time for things to change.

Like this weekend maybe.

Gamba are away to Vissel Kobe on Saturday night, and on paper this looks a certain three points for Gamba.

But the match is a Kansai derby, and Vissel are playing for pride and for points as they try to climb off the foot of the table, five points behind Verdy. Of course it would be a big surprise if the bottom club beats the top club, but they say that the form book goes out the window in a local derby, even when 31 points separate the two teams.

On Sunday, Antlers are playing Jubilo at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa. This is not a local derby, but it's Japan's equivalent of "El Classico" between two teams steeped in tradition (well, by J.League standards).

Jubilo could win this one, as they are not exactly out of the title race yet themselves, in fourth place with 42 points.

As for Cerezo, they are at home Saturday to struggling Omiya Ardija, whose fine start to the season is now keeping them out of the two automatic relegation places...but only just.

Just think, Vissel shock Gamba in the Kansai derby...Jubilo beat Antlers in the "J.Classico"...and Cerezo, almost unnoticed, beat Ardija at home in Nagai Stadium.

Then the top positions would be Gamba (51), Antlers (48) and Cerezo (46)...only five points separating the top three with seven games remaining.

There's no pressure on Cerezo. They've been enjoying themselves climbing the table, as Gamba, Antlers, Reds and Marinos have been feeling the heat, and they should be relaxed going into the Omiya game.

So why shouldn't they continue to play in this style, leaving Gamba and Antlers to knock each other to a standstill like two boxers in the ring.


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Uzbeks were clearly hurt by FIFA's decision

13 Oct 2005(Thu)

Wednesday, October 12 -- The Uzbekistan-Bahrain match made painful viewing on Saturday night.

Especially when Bahrain took the lead early in the first half.

Although Uzbekistan equalised shortly after, you couldn't help feeling sorry for the home team.

As one TV commentator put it, surely a fairer decision by FIFA would have been to restart the match from the 39th minute, when Uzbekistan were awarded a penalty.

They were 1-0 up at the time, and a successful penalty would have made it 2-0.

In the original game, of course, Uzbekistan scored from the penalty spot, but the Japanese referee, Yoshida, quite rightly disallowed the goal because an Uzbek player had run into the box before the kick had been taken.

But instead of making Uzbekistan take the kick again, he awarded Bahrain an indirect free kick, which was completely the wrong decision -- and it still amazes me that Yoshida was not helped out by one of his assistants, or the fourth official.

When the dust had settled on Saturday's replayed first leg, the teams were level at 1-1 going into the second leg on Wednesday at Manama, Bahrain.

Bahrain will start the second leg as favourites, but the Uzbeks have the most experienced player on the field in Kasimov, and an in-form striker in Shatskikh.

I remember visiting Hiroshima for the 1994 Asian Games and the left-footed midfield general Kasimov was in the Uzbek team that won the gold medal, beating China 4-2 in the final at Big Arch.

Other players who remain in the memory were the goalkeeper Sheikin, the central defender Tikhonov, the left wing-back Lebedev, the attacking midfielder Abduraimov and the potent forward Shkvyrin.

Eleven years on, Uzbekistan are still not out of World Cup contention, but if they fall in Bahrain they will have every right to feel hard done by.

After the first leg, they appealed for a 3-0 victory, but that was way too ambitious and was ruled out by FIFA.

And who knows what would have happened if the game had started from the 39th minute? Maybe Uzbekistan would have missed the penalty, the whole flow of the game would have changed, and Bahrain may have won the first leg 4-1. Alternatively, Bahrain may have collapsed and Uzbekistan would have won 5-0.

This is the great thing about football. You just never know what will happen, apart from the fact that controversy is lurking around every corner.


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Time to vote for Asian Player of the Year

10 Oct 2005(Mon)

Friday, October 7, 2005 -- Who would be your Asian Player of the Year for 2005?

I'm asking this because it's awards time again. Like Christmas, it seems to start earlier every year.

Hidetoshi Nakata? No, because he's only been playing well for about half a year.

Shunsuke Nakamura? He caught the eye in the Confederations Cup, and the Celtic fans seem to like him. But, sorry Shunsuke fans, no again.

Lee Young Pyo, formerly of PSV, now at Tottenham, and building on his success from the 2002 World Cup? He's an exciting player down the left flank, but Asian Player of the Year for 2005? I don't think so.

I mention these three because they are on the list of 10 candidates released by the Asian Football Confederation on Friday. The list comprises three players from Saudi Arabia (why?), two each from Iran, Japan and South Korea, and one from Uzbekistan.

The voting panel consists of AFC executive committee members, the head coaches of the 45 national teams affiliated to the AFC, and the AFC's commercial partner, World Sport Group.

Each voter must pick three players. First place is worth five points, second place three and third place one point, and the player from the 10 on the shortlist with the most votes will be crowned Asian Player of the Year on November 30.

So who's my choice?

Well, I feel it should be someone who has excelled outside their own league, not just at their club or even in the Asian Champions League.

Somebody who has made a name for himself, put his country, and Asia, on the map.

Someone, like Nakata earlier in his career, who has proved he can step up to a higher level, and make a new audience sit up and take notice of Asian football.

Someone, in fact, like Park Ji Sung.

A World Cup semi-finalist in 2002, a UEFA Champions League semi-finalist with PSV in 2005, and now playing well at Manchester United.

Made in Japan, at Kyoto Purple Sanga, Park would be the perfect choice for Asian Player of the Year 2005.

I hope he wins it, because he deserves to. ends

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Kazu still makes the news

6 Oct 2005(Thu)

October 5, 2005 -- You just can't keep the King out of the news, can you?

From Kobe to Yokohama to Sydney, all in the space of a few weeks, Kazuyoshi Miura's star quality is still shining brightly.

Earlier this week, the short-term transfer of Kazu from Yokohama FC to Sydney FC was agreed, meaning the Japanese sporting icon will be able to play in FIFA's revamped Club World Championship in Japan in December.

It's a fantastic bit of public relations by the Australian club, who can now look forward to some passionate Japanese backing during the event.

Australia, of course, have been given permission by FIFA to switch from the Oceania confederation to Asia, and Sydney officials hope that this move will help build a bridge between the two countries and continents.

They also know that Kazu will give his best, and will be professional in every aspect of the job. On the training pitch, with sponsors, with media, with his teammates and with the fans.

He may have lost some zip and some sparkle, but he hasn't lost his hunger or his ambition, and he will repay Sydney's investment many times over in terms of publicity and fan support.

Organisers, too, will be rubbing their hands together, as Sydney FC will give the neutral supporters in Japan some local interest.

Both Yokohama F Marinos and Jubilo Iwata failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League, and the Emerson-powered Al Sadd have been eliminated now, too (I will refrain from giving my thoughts on this subject, as I don't want to upset Urawa Reds fans any more).

But now, with Kazu at Sydney, plus Sao Paulo and Liverpool as the "big two" from South America and Europe, there should be healthy ticket sales -- a factor FIFA (and Dentsu) must have been worried about after the early departures of Marinos and Jubilo.

As for Kazu, he will be moving to a wonderful city, albeit for only a couple of months.

Football (or soccer as the Aussies call it, as they have their own brand of football, Australian Rules Football) is not as high-profile as rugby league, rugby union, cricket or Aussie Rules, but they are trying to promote the new A-League just like Japan did with the J.League in 1993.

It will also give Kazu the chance to improve his English conversation, and this could assist him immensely in his career when he finally hangs up those much-travelled boots.


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Striking problem for Zico

3 Oct 2005(Mon)

September 30, 2005 -- Zico is going to have a very big selection headache before the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Just look at the names in the squad for the two-match tour of eastern Europe, and then see who's missing because of the all-star game or other reasons.

Apart from the three goalkeepers picking themselves, and several of the defenders, the competition for midfield and forward places is expanding all the time.

His four strikers for Latvia and Ukraine are Suzuki, Yanagisawa, Takahara and Okubo, but that still leaves Oguro, Tamada, Tanaka, Maki and even Kubo at home in Japan.

Midfield is clearly Japan's strength, so I can't imagine Zico picking any more than four forwards in his squad of 23 for Germany, which must include three keepers.

At the moment, my choices would be Suzuki, Yanagisawa, Okubo and Oguro.

I think this gives Zico stability and unpredictability in equal measures. I could see Suzuki (or Yanagisawa) leading the line, with Okubo in support, and Oguro on the bench, waiting to come on when defenders are tiring and finding the spaces other forwards can't see.

So where does this leave Takahara?

I know the World Cup is in Germany and Takahara is playing there, for Hamburg, but Zico will show no sentiment in this matter when the time comes.

I don't think Takahara has played well for Japan on a consistent basis for quite some time. In fact he was awful in the 2-1 defeat to Iran in Tehran, playing without confidence and unable to control the ball.

Zico knows he can trust Suzuki, Yanagisawa and Oguro, and clearly likes Tamada, no matter what kind of form the left-footed forward is in for Reysol.

Zico would like to trust Okubo, too, but obviously feels he is far from the finished product, despite his exuberant talent, while Tatsuya and Maki always seemed to be temporary call-ups.

As for Kubo? Maybe Zico has written him off already, as his long-term fitness is a huge concern.

Takahara has everything to prove to Zico on this two-match tour.


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Is football about winning or about entertainment?

29 Sep 2005(Thu)

September 28 -- Most of the time, Arsene Wenger talks nothing but sense.

But his idea to change the points system to encourage teams to score more goals is way off the mark.

Arsene's plan is to give a team a bonus point if they win by three clear goals, for example 3-0 or 5-2.

This would encourage teams to keep attacking, even if they were leading 2-0, and provide more "entertainment" for the fans.

Do you like that idea?

I must admit I don't, and it seems a remarkably naive suggestion from the French professor.

It also leads to the question, is football about winning or about entertainment?

I remember, many years ago in the north-east of England, Sunderland were playing dull and no-risk football to try and grind out results to stay in the first division.

After one particularly dour affair, a member of the press asked the Sunderland manager, Alan Durban, if he thought his team should be providing more entertainment for the fans.

"If you want entertainment you should go to the circus," replied the manager. "I have to win football matches and keep my team in the first division."

That's a good point by Durban.

Fans support winners, and I don't think many Brazilians were disappointed after they beat Italy on penalties in the 1994 World Cup final, following a 0-0 draw.

With Dunga and Mauro Silva in the middle, this was not a particularly creative or entertaining Brazilian team, but they had a brilliant striker in Romario and the right man to feed him in Bebeto.

The Brazilians have always been associated with entertaining, attacking, instinctive football, but on this occasion they knew they had to be more pragmatic, more organised, more European, to end a World Cup trophy drought stretching back to the glory days of 1970.

The problem at the moment, for Arsenal and the rest of the Premier League, is that Chelsea are winning all the time...but only just. They have an astute coach in Jose Mourinho, who knows when to attack and when to shut up shop.

For the majority of coaches, I'm sure the perfect result is a 1-0 win. Tight defence, scoring the crucial goal, and then closing out the match. At times it might not be pretty, but the winning team's fans will not complain.

And football is about winning, not about entertaining, although it would be nice to do both, like Brazil...in 1970.


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Robson Ponte: the master craftsman

26 Sep 2005(Mon)

September 23, 2005 -- It's a familiar sight, isn't it?

The Urawa Reds No. 10, scoring goals and helping to win matches.

No, I'm not talking about Emerson, of course. He's long gone.

I'm referring to his replacement, Robson Ponte.

I must make it clear that he is Emerson's replacement by number only, not by position, as Ponte was signed to fill the gap left by Yamase's move to Yokohama F Marinos.

In fact, on the Sunday a few weeks ago when I went to Reds' Ohara training ground to find out where Emerson was, Ponte was already there and about to join from Bayer Leverkusen.

No, Tomi Maric is Emerson's direct replacement as a striker, but Ponte has softened the blow of losing their goal-scoring hero "Eme" to the riches of the Gulf.

Emerson and Ponte could not be more different, could they?

Whereas Emerson used his explosive pace and power to break down defences by smashing through the front window, Ponte is much more subtle and crafty. Ponte is more like a skilled locksmith, patiently picking the lock and entering through the back door.

In his six league games so far, Ponte has scored four goals, which is an excellent return for a midfield player, and one of the reasons why Reds cannot be written off in the title race.

Although Gamba (47 points) and Antlers (46) occupy the top two places after 24 games, Reds are not far behind in third place with 40. Urawa, of course, will be hoping for a Gamba-Antlers draw at Suita City on Saturday night, and aiming for three points themselves at home to Yokohama F Marinos. Although Marinos are out of the title race in a distant 10th with 32 points, they will make life as hard as possible for Urawa with so much pride at stake in front of a big crowd at Saitama.

With 10 league games to go, there are still 30 points available, so every team will keep fighting at the top and at the bottom.


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Monaco, Wenger, Nagoya and...Deschamps?

22 Sep 2005(Thu)

September 21 -- A few years ago, in 1994 to be precise, I was on an assignment in the United Arab Emirates.

I was walking to my seat in the Press Box at Abu Dhabi when I saw a familiar face in the stands.

At first I couldn't put a name to the face, so asked a colleague from the Asian Football Confederation who the distinguished European gentleman was in the stands.

When he said the name, instantly I recalled a recent article and photograph in World Soccer magazine.

It was Arsene Wenger.

He had just parted company with Monaco after seven years, and was in the UAE to conduct a coaching course on behalf of FIFA.

The next stop on his journey was Japan. He asked me about the J.League and said he knew the Sanfrecce coach, Baxter. But he never told me he was going for a meeting with Nagoya Grampus Eight! The rest is history.

The reason why I recall this secene is two-fold.

First, Grampus need a new manager after Nelsinho was fired on Sunday.

Second, Monaco's latest coach, Didier Deschamps, resigned on Monday.

Any connection there?

Maybe. Maybe not.

You never know in football. I am sure Deschamps will receive many offers from Europe, but, like Wenger before him, perhaps he would like a change of scenery.

During a speech at the 1998 World Cup in France, Wenger spoke of how the J.League had refreshed him. He said he was disillusioned with France, because it was the time when the Marseille match-fixing scandal was rife, and his stint in Japan had given him hope and optimism. Arsenal reaped the benefits, and still are doing.

Wenger: Monaco to Nagoya to Highbury.

Deschamps: Monaco to Nagoya? Is there a chance?

Nagoya have the money to hire Deschamps, that's for sure. Also, they are desperate, and I mean desperate with a capital "D", for a coach who can turn things around. Apart from two Emperor's Cups, Nagoya have not won any J.League honour, meaning stage championship or Nabisco Cup, although Wenger took them close.

Perhaps I am putting two and two together here and coming up with 10!

But it's worth a thought, as I am sure Wenger would recommend Deschamps to move to Japan to recharge his batteries, if that's what he needs.


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Reysol try again in bid for mid-table safety

19 Sep 2005(Mon)

September 16 -- Has Ruy Ramos still got the magic?

Not in his spindly legs and quick and clever feet, but in his football brain out on the training field.

Kashiwa Reysol need something from somewhere, because no matter what they try the result seems to be the same: struggling along at the wrong end of the table, and annoying their loyal and passionate supporters with a series of below-par performances.

Ramos joined the "Yellow Submarine" -- that seems an appropriate title for Reysol, as they play in yellow and are always near the bottom -- this week as assistant coach to Hiroshi Hayano.

And the Hitachi club will be hoping the presence of the shaggy-haired former national team midfielder will inspire the players to achieve more, in training and on the pitch.

During the past two or three years I have often said that Reysol have too many good players to be in trouble, and the same still applies.

But nothing ever seems to work. A change of manager, a change of foreign players, some experienced Japanese players coming in...and Reysol continue to struggle.

Maybe it's a question of confidence and motivation rather than a lack of technique and ability, and maybe this is why Ramos could prove to be so valuable to the team.

His very presence on the touchline could lift the spirits of the players, and perhaps even help them to relax and enjoy their football rather than playing with so much fear and self-doubt.

At times Reysol look like they have turned the corner, and are heading up the table. Just like FC Tokyo.

But then they lose badly again, and they are back at square one.

On Saturday, Ramos and Reysol have the perfect chance to make a fresh start, when championship-chasing Gamba Osaka come to town.

After 23 games, Gamba have 47 points, which is a whopping 23 more than Reysol.

Gamba are in pole position and hoping to pull clear of the chasing pack, while Reysol are 15th, just two points clear of the automatic relegation zone.

It's an interesting move by Reysol to appoint the popular Ramos, but Hayano will surely be feeling the pressure even more with such a famous assistant.


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No Araujo -- please, no more 'all-star' soccer!

15 Sep 2005(Thu)

September 14: See what I mean!

They call it an all-star game?

So where's the player leading Gamba Osaka's charge toward a first J.League title?

Araujo, with 24 goals in 23 games, was nowhere to be seen when the J.League announced the two teams for the JOMO All-Star match at Oita on October 9.

Due to the rule that does not allow more than three players from one club, the silky Brazilian striker with the lovely left foot was overlooked, behind national team trio Miyamoto, Endo and Oguro.

Araujo's exclusion is further proof, if any were needed, that the all-star game should be scrapped after this season.

I have said before this year that I think the match has served its purpose and is now way past its "sell-by" date. It is an alien concept in the football world and means just one more match in an already crowded calendar, and an occasion I am sure the players selected would rather miss, if they were honest.

This year, too, it is sandwiched between two national team games in eastern Europe, meaning Zico cannot have all his best players in Latvia on October 8.

I really think the authorities should look long and hard at this event -- or, perhaps, "non-event" would be more appropriate -- and lay it to rest. Yes, it was good at the beginning to stir fan interest and involvement in the new professional league, but the league is now well established in Japan's sports culture and the fans are involved simply by being fans of their clubs. Let's just leave it at that.

The match is always well supported by sponsors and superbly presented by the J.League, so surely JOMO could be involved in another deal.

How about the JOMO J.League Championship, just like the Barclays English Premier League?

Or the JOMO Player of the Season?

Or even the JOMO J.League Awards Night?

Anything but the JOMO All-Star Soccer, as the absence of Araujo -- a candidate for the MVP award at the end of the season -- diminishes the event even more.


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Gamba trio set fine example

12 Sep 2005(Mon)

September 9 -- It's not hard to see why Gamba Osaka are doing so well in J1 this season.

Just look at the list of leading goalscorers.

At the top is Araujo with 21 goals, six more than Verdy's Brazilian ace Washington.

In third place is the J.League's top Japanese striker, Masashi Oguro, with 14, and way down the list comes the third member of this striking triumvirate, Fernandinho, with five.

What really catches the eye, though, is the fact that all three players have played in all 22 league games. Not started all and not finished all, but they have been available for all.

The fact that they stay fit and stay out of trouble is crucial to Gamba's cause, as injuries and yellow cards are inevitable these days with so many matches.

Without wanting to open old wounds, just think how many more games Urawa Reds would have won had Emerson been available all the time, instead of missing matches through suspension.

It's vital for foreign professionals in Japan to bring with them a professional attitude, and nobody epitomises this quality more than Gamba's third Brazilian player, Sidiclei.

I remember watching him play years ago at Tochigi Green Stadium -- and missing a penalty for Montedio Yamagata against Nagoya Grampus Eight in the Emperor's Cup.

In fact it was 1998, because Philippe Troussier was also watching the game, in particular the form of Grampus striker Kenji Fukuda as the coach assembled his squad for Olympic qualifying.

I apologise to Sidiclei for bringing that incident up, but it does illustrate how long he's been around and, through hard work and a professional approach, has climbed the ladder until he's now at the very top with Gamba.

Can Sidiclei and company stay there?

Personally, I think they can. I was very impressed with Gamba from an early stage of the season, when I saw them at Saitama Stadium against Urawa, and the players now realise that a first league championship is within their grasp.

It's still very tight, of course, and won't be decided for a few weeks yet, but the Araujo-Oguro-Fernandinho combo has shown already how important it is to stay on the field and do what you are paid to do.


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Zico gives Koji the chance to become a regular

8 Sep 2005(Thu)

September 7 -- One of the biggest bonuses of Zico's reign has been his identification and development of Akira Kaji.

One of the biggests minuses has been his under-use of Koji Nakata.

But maybe this is going to change from now on, as Zico named Nakata in his starting line-up for the friendly with Honduras on Wednesday night.

Needing two defensive midfielders in either of his formations -- 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 -- Zico has frequently overlooked Nakata, despite this being his natural position.

Under Troussier, of course, Koji was a lock, but on the left side of a three-man defence, not in midfield.

So it's good to see Zico putting Nakata in the midfield engine room, alongside another European-based player and 2002 World Cup hero, Junichi Inamoto.

This pairing should give the team balance and poise, with Inamoto allowed to push forward as Nakata holds the fort in front of the defence.

Nakata reads the game so well, and maintains the tempo and the rhythm of the team.

He is very experienced for his age, and his time at Marseille can only make him a stronger character.

Many times I interviewed managers ahead of or after games with Kashima Antlers, and on every occasion the name that cropped up was that of Koji Nakata.

They would praise the qualities listed above, and point out that it was Nakata who conducted the Kashima orchestra.

With the national team, though, there is strong competition for places in this department, and maybe Nakata might not have been selected had Ono been available.

Personally, my first choice midfielders in the engine room would be Ono and Koji, with Inamoto and Fukunishi in reserve, and these four appear to have the edge in terms of World Cup selection.

But that's a long time away, and players cannot afford to be thinking about Germany right now. To use a football cliche, they have to take one match at a time, and show their quality and, above all, their consistency at every opportunity.

Koji has his chance. I'm sure he's going to take it, and Japan's national team will be better off for it.


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Miyamoto, Ishikawa make the right decision

5 Sep 2005(Mon)

September 2 – It is encouraging to read that two Japanese players have rejected a move to Italian club Treviso in recent days.

On Saturday, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto turned them down, and decided to stay with Gamba Osaka.

Three days later, Naohiro Ishikawa did the same, and will remain with FC Tokyo.

Miyamoto has been interested in moving to Europe for three or four years now, but he did not feel the timing was right on this one.

He said he did not have much time to make up his mind, but, after thinking of his family and his immediate future, he decided to stay in Osaka.

I think Miyamoto has made the right choice.

The World Cup is not far away; he is Japan’s captain; he can be at the heart of all the preparations.

Why exchange all this certainty for a list of uncertainties?

The last thing he needs is to be a squad player with a struggling team in Serie A. He may not play regularly; he may lose confidence; he may become frustrated, and this could carry over into his personal life with his young family.

On top of that, of course, Gamba Osaka are in the running for the league championship and Nabisco Cup, and why not the Emperor’s Cup, too!

Tsune said he wants to win the league championship with his friends at Gamba – and wouldn’t that be a boost for Kansai football in general?

Tsune says he will wait for the next time, which may well be after the World Cup in Germany next summer. Like Ogasawara before him, the World Cup will be a shop window for all players to show their quality and their value, and the fact that Tsune is a fluent English speaker will undoubtedly help his cause.

As for Ishikawa?

Well, I would have understood it more if he had moved to Treviso. FC Tokyo are marking time at the moment (not going forwards, but going backwards slightly), and Ishikawa has only an outside chance of making it into Japan’s World Cup squad.

Personally, I would like to see him in the squad, as he offers genuine pace and danger.

But while there is a chance to catch Zico’s eye, Ishikawa should keep playing and keep hoping. If he’d gone to Treviso, he may have disappeared off the radar altogether.

Japan is not a bad place to be, and the grass is not always greener in Europe.


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Atsu relishes the challenge at Kobe

1 Sep 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (August 28): Seven points from three games, including a draw at Urawa Reds.

Sounds like championship form, doesn't it?

But no, it's Vissel Kobe form, down at the other end of the table.

Since the resumption of J1 on August 20, Vissel have beaten Nagoya Grampus Eight at home, drawn at Urawa and then beaten Oita Trinita at home.

Although they are still bottom of the table with 19 points, they have closed the gap right up on Oita, and several other struggling clubs are coming into view.

The catalyst of the revival has been the new captain, Atsuhiro Miura.

Did anyone see his free kick at Komaba the other night?

It was a fantastic effort, from maybe 35 metres out, that was hit with power and curve. It was a David Beckham special with the right foot, and Atsu then went and scored another one, not quite as spectacular, in the win against Trinita on Saturday.

Clearly Atsu is revelling in the role of captain and attacking midfielder, rather than out on the wing.

A right-footed left back, Atsu had lost his way at Verdy, and lost his place to Takahito Soma, who has missed Verdy's last couple of games due to sickness.

Atsu needed a fresh challenge, and Kobe has given him just that.

He is leading a team that has changed remarkably in composition from the start of the season, both on and off the field, and he has several new teammates around him, such as Kaneko and Muller at the back, Endo (Akihiro) in midfield and Ulich up front.

These transfer moves seemed like a last throw of the dice by Hiroshi Mikitani to keep the club in J1 during a season in which two managers, Matsunaga and Emerson Leao, have both been fired in double-quick time.

When I asked Vissel's third manager of the year, Pavel Rehak, if this concerned him, he gave a good reply.

"I hope I'm the last manager," he said.

Regarding a points target for the season, he said he had not drawn one up, as the form of the other teams was too unpredictable. Instead, Vissel would just concentrate on one match at a time, and try and catch the team immediately above them.

This plan is working a treat, and Atsu is proving to be an inspiration in the middle of the park.

Whether or not this new position will affect his World Cup chances as back-up to Alex is open to debate, as Zico has shown loyalty to his players.

This will be the last thing on his mind, though, as Vissel pay his wages and he has a job to do...to keep them in J1.

So far, things are looking up -- and Rehak remains the club's third manager of the year.


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Referee Noda keeps the game flowing

29 Aug 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (August 27): A few weeks ago I wrote an article critical of a referee.

Some readers agreed, and others didn't, while one wrote to me in English to say my article was completely out of character.

Yes it was, and I explained that I was always reluctant to criticise referees because they have such a hard job in the modern game.

So, today, allow me to try and redress the balance, by praising a referee who had an excellent game in a recent J.League match.

It was Urawa against Kobe at Komaba Stadium, and the ref was the 30-year-old Yuki Noda.

He gave a textbook performance on how to keep the game moving, how to distinguish between a hard tackle and a foul, and how to read the minds of the players when they were thinking about time-wasting.

In the first half, Alex went past a couple of Vissel players in midfield but lost the ball. Instead of retreating to help his defence, Alex went down looking for a free kick, and feigning injury.

There was no foul, and I doubt Alex was hurt, although he was substituted at halftime, and Noda played on, despite the calls of the Urawa fans. Alex was angry with the ref when the game finally stopped, but the ref was completely right.

It's a man's game (or used to be); there is physical contact, and the game can't just stop when one player thinks it should.

A few minutes later, Vissel midfielder Saeki man-handled Ponte on the right wing. Noda saw the foul, but waited for a Reds advantage; when there was no advantage, he blew for the free kick.

Again, this is excellent refereeing, and neither side could complain.

Late in the second half, with Vissel defending a 2-1 lead, Saeki went down and you could clearly see he was considering staying down to waste time. Noda saw it, too, and raced over to tell him to get up, and that the game would not be stopping.

Well, I presume that's what he said, because Saeki got up without any trouble.

Noda looked fitter and faster than most of the players, and kept up with the play to make sure he was always in the right place at the right time.

Everyone happy now!


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Osim points Abe towards Germany 2006

25 Aug 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (August 24, 2005): Yuki Abe produced one of the best midfield performances I have seen this season at Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Sunday night.

The JEF United captain was everywhere.

One minute he's putting in a crunching tackle on Satsukawa, the next he's breaking forward to join his attack.

With the excellent Stoyanov at the back, Abe holding down the midfield and Hanyu as elusive and bright as ever, JEF controlled the game for long periods and should have won more convincingly than the 2-1 scoreline.

After the game I waited for the "Osim Show" to see what JEF's always interesting, always amusing head coach would say.

In the past he's always tried to play down his own players and their chances, preferring to keep his feet on the ground and to err on the side of caution and realism.

So when I said Abe had played a fine match, I was expecting Osim to shoot me down!

But no, he smiled and commented: "I am always happy with Abe."

And then he even said that Abe could go to Germany next year with the national team, if he does more.

More what, I asked?

"More everything. More running, more tackling, more shooting."

Osim said Abe's defensive game was already good enough, especially his tackling, his physical strength, his reading of the play and his heading, but he needed to improve his attacking game.

"He needs to become a more dangerous player," said Osim.

"He times his runs well from midfield, he can shoot from 20, 25 metres with either foot...but he needs to do more. For the next three months he needs to give 10 percent more in everything."

Osim acknowledged that the competition for places in defensive midfield is strong, with the likes of Ono, Inamoto, Koji Nakata, Fukunishi, Endo and Konno, but he feels Abe has a chance if he steps it up around the pitch.

With encouraging words like these from his experienced coach, Abe knows exactly what he has to do in the coming weeks.

And if Osim says he has a chance, he has.


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Kaji fills role left by Narahashi

22 Aug 2005(Mon)

Tokyo, August 20, 2005: One of the big success stories of Zico's reign is undoubtedly Akira Kaji.

The FC Tokyo defender has made the right back/right wing-back position his own, whether Zico plays 4-4-2 or 3-5-2.

If you start picking Japan's team, there is debate and discussion about most positions.

But not Kaji's.

In 4-4-2, maybe Hayuma Tanaka would be a solid right back; in 3-5-2 maybe Naohiro Ishikawa would be a good selection on the right wing.

But the dynamic, consistent form of Kaji has left all challengers behind, and it was fitting that Kaji should score his first goal for Japan in their last qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup, the 2-1 victory over Iran.

It was a straight-forward goal from Kaji, a cool, side-footed finish, but, of course, he had to be in the right place to score it.

A great run from Tamada down the left, followed by a perfect cross -- low, curling away from the keeper -- which tempted the keeper, defender and Oguro to reach it. They all missed it, and there was Kaji, on the far post, to guide it home.

Yes, he deserved that goal, as he has repaid the faith shown in him by Zico and enabled the coach to sleep soundly over that demanding position in the team. With Alex on the left, improving all the time as a defender if losing some of his attacking sparkle, the two wing-back positions are decided a year ahead of the World Cup.

Kaji, 25, looks to have finally filled the gap left by Akira Narahashi.

I was a big admirer of Narahashi's, and so was Takeshi Okada. The Narahashi-Soma combination served Antlers and the national team well, especially at the France World Cup.

But Okada's successor, Troussier, thought Narahashi a bit wild and undisciplined, leaving his position to attack without thinking of the consequences.

In the end, Troussier compromised and picked the reliable, solid Myojin to bolster the right side, with Ichikawa in reserve, ahead of Hato, who was unlucky to miss out on the 2002 World Cup squad.

But now, Kaji has emerged, and become a Zico stalwart.

He deserved his goal against Iran, but scoring goals is not his main job.


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Zico's third-string players deserved another chance

18 Aug 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (August 17): Once again Zico is showing a remarkable amount of faith and loyalty in his "shadow" squad.

For tonight's World Cup qualifier against Iran at Yokohama, he is going back to the team that lost 1-0 to North Korea in the East Asian Football Championship in South Korea.

He looks set to sideline his "third-choice" team, despite improved results against China and then South Korea.

Personally, I think Zico is wrong again.

Or maybe he is giving certain players one last chance to impress in the national team shirt before he starts to think about mixing the European players with the J.Leaguers for the final months of preparation.

I'd like to have seen at least Moniwa, Konno and Murai still in there and being given a chance to press their claims for a regular place.

As I've said before, there aren't many arguments about Zico's first-choice team when all the senior players are available, but I think there is plenty of room for these East Asian Championship players to fill out the squad, and put more pressure on the established players.

It's like Zico has already decided his first team, and his reserves, and it's a "closed shop" from now until next summer, no matter how well the new players perform when given a chance.

For the East Asian Championship, Zico had no choice but to call up some new faces, as the senior players were with their clubs in Europe, but it looks like he's going backwards by overlooking them against Iran.

If Zico did not want to recall his European players for this game -- which is quite understandable -- then why not go the whole way and test the East Asian Championship players in such a hard match.

Japan must try and win this one, as it's a World Cup qualifier, and there won't be many more pressure games in the months to come.

Iran will be fast and physical, and it would have been a good test for the likes of Moniwa, Konno and Murai. If they didn't perform, then Zico would be right to doubt them, but he is very slow, reluctant almost, to put his trust in players from outside his "family."


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Nakata looks England-bound...at last

15 Aug 2005(Mon)

August 12, 2005 -- Hopefully, by the time you read this, Hidetoshi Nakata will be with Bolton Wanderers.

It's about time, too, that he has moved to England.

He has messed about for too long in Italy, since his career started to go off the rails during his time with Parma.

Parma's coach was Prandelli, who then took over at Fiorentina, so Nakat's departure has been expected.

I have been saying for at least two years that Nakata should move to England, and I don't think his agents have worked hard enough to get him there.

He is a fluent English speaker, and his game is perfectly suited for the English style: he is strong, robust, tackles hard, is fearless in the challenge, he goes past players, he passes well and he scores goals.

Though he has not scored anywhere near enough in relation to his ability.

I think he will do well at Bolton, a northern club near my hometown, but on the other side of the Pennine Hills.

It could be a big culture shock for him, moving from Italy in general and the beautiful city of Florence in particualr, but it's about time Nakata got back to business.

At Bolton he will get playing time, and the matches and football environment will be so fresh and exciting after playing in front of half-full stadiums around Italy for too long (but not Fiorentina).

It's just what Nakata needs, and I think he can be successful in the Premier League and show his quality against the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and the rest.

Of course he would have preferred to move to a London club, and Chelsea looked a good bet a couple of years ago before they signed Mutu from Parma.

But he still has time, and he can project Japanese football in a positive image.

I still have faith in Nakata's talent and motivation, if others continue to question it.

He is still the best Japanese player, by some considerable distance.


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Gazza and Sheryl...a tale from 1992

11 Aug 2005(Thu)

AUGUST 9 -- It's strange, and quite sad, how Paul Gascoigne still makes the news.

The other day I was reading a short article with a headline "Gazza says he never loved his wife."

No prizes for guessing the content of this!

In the article he claimed he only married Sheryl so he could continue seeing their two children.

None of this surprises me, as I met Sheryl in Rome in 1992, and was not impressed.

I had been reporting on the Olympic Games in Barcelona for my newspaper in Hong Kong, and my return journey enabled me to stop off at any major European city on my way back from Spain.

I looked at the airline's list and chose Rome, because Gascoigne had just signed for Lazio.

I had known him quite well in England, when reporting on Newcastle United, and have more stories than I have room for here in two months of articles!

But anyway, he was a brilliant tennis player, too, and a keen fisherman, and I can claim to have eaten a salmon for dinner caught by Gazza when he took me fishing one day in deepest Northumberland. But that's another story.

So there I was, outside Lazio's training ground one sunny morning, waiting for Gazza to arrive.

He was still recovering from his terrible knee injury, suffered a year before playing for Spurs in the FA Cup final against Forest, and had his own fitness schedule, separate from the other players.

A couple of hours later he drove up in a red BMW, maybe a Mercedes (it was 13 years ago!), and looked surprised to see me.

"What yee deein' 'ere?" he asked, in his strong North-east accent (for English, read, "What are you doing here, kind sir?").

"I've come to see you, why do you think I'm here?" I replied.

"Where are you staying toneet (tonight)?"

I told him I had booked a hotel down town, very near the Coliseum.

"It's a pity," he repiled. "Me mates all went home last night and I'm on me own in me big villa, but....."

I waited for the let-down.

"But I'm just going to the aiport to pick up Sheryl. I don't think she'd like it."

Gazza, usually so carefree and funny, was a different person.

Before he left, he took me into the training ground, and I watched the likes of Doll, Riedle and Winter, and Beppe Signori, at close quarters.

When he came back, Sheryl was in the passenger seat.

Paul tried to introduce me as a friendly reporter from his Newcastle United days -- not a tabloid gossip columnist-- but Sheryl did not want to know. She turned away, very snobbily, and Paul looked embarrassed.

I felt sorry for him at the time and thought..."Paul, what have you let yourself in for here, mate?"

Blonde hair, super-model outfit, hard, looking every step of the way that her goal in life was to become a footballer's wife, and now she had hit the jackpot.

Well, if Paul says he never loved her, I am sure she never loved him, either.

I thought that then, and I think it now.

She knew what she was doing all right.


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Zico should retain fresh faces for Iran test

8 Aug 2005(Mon)

AUGUST 6, 2005 -- Whatever the final outcome of the East Asian Championship in Korea, Zico will surely have learned many lessons from Japan's performances, win, draw or lose.

First, isn't it refreshing to see so many new faces in the blue of Japan.

This is a long overdue process by Zico, who has stuck with the same bunch of players when clearly the squad has needed revamping.

Players such as Tatsuya Tanaka, Konno and Murai have at least injected some dash into Japan's play.

Whether they have sufficient time to adapt to the national team environment is another matter, and you are left wondering where these players would be if they had been picked a year ago.

Zico, however, has his own reasons to stay loyal to the back-up squad, who are now, finally, under pressure to keep their places.

He has created "Zico's Family", as one Japanese football watcher put it to me -- and he wasn't talking about Zico's brother!

These players have taken Zico through the World Cup qualifying campaign and won the Asian Cup, and if there is no one better, in his opinion, then why change things?

After all, why should Zico think about the future?

The only thing that matters to him is the present, and if Japan keep winning then why should he care about building a team for when he's gone?

He will be judged by what happens in Germany next summer, and for that job he wants experienced players.

The big question, though, is this: is Zico's judgement right?

A great player does not make a great coach, as some people are born to teach and not necessarily perform at a high level.

Hopefully, though, Zico wil continue with some of the new faces, especially in the "dead rubber" against Iran.

"Dead rubber", by the way, is a tennis term, used in the Davis Cup between national teams to describe a game that has no meaning.

Japan and Iran have both qualified for Germany, but Zico can still use this chance to reward some of the East Asian Championship recruits, notably Konno, Murai, Moniwa and Tatsuya.


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Hirayama should have turned professional earlier

4 Aug 2005(Thu)

AUGUST 2 2005:One player in Japan has baffled me for a while now...and he still does.

That player is Sota Hirayama who has become a media darling in Japan without achieving much if anything in the real world of football.

As readers may know I have never understood the hype surrounding Hirayama.

Okay he is tall for his age very tall for a Japanese player of his age and this enabled him to dominate the air waves at schoolboy level.

He scored a lovely goal a back-post header on his Olympic team debut but of course he looked very raw and in my opinion at times uncoordinated.

In all honesty I did not think he was ready to lead the Olympic team and I still think it was a mistake for Yamamoto-kantoku to put so much faith in him. Takayuki Suzuki in the absence of Takahara would have done a much better job.

But that is in the past and not the point of this article.

I read the other day that Hirayama is going to spend some time with Feyenoord.That is an interesting move and a surprising one as I thought he was concentrating on Tsukuba University and not planning to play professional football until graduating.

I could never understand Hirayama's decision to go to Tsukuba instead of joining a J.League club after leaving Kunimi. Leaving university at 22 and turning professional is six years too late.

It is a wasted six years during which a young player could have learned so much about the game. At 22 it is very difficult to step up and a player has only six or seven years left in him to reach the top as 26-28 is regarded as the peak.

Maybe Hirayama is regretting it too and that is why he is going to train with Feyenoord.

If Feyenoord took him on it could be the perfect situation for Hirayama playing for a big club in a small league and being cared for and nurtured by a coach who could pick him for certain games and develop him slowly.

Hirayama despite the adulation in Japan is far from the finished product but if he goes to learn his trade in Holland he still has a chance.Or if he went into the J.League.

If he stays in Japan and plays for Tsukuba it is a waste of time for himself and Japan will never know how good he is or could be.


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Clubs must stop these tours, not FIFA

1 Aug 2005(Mon)

July 30 -- FIFA's general secretary, Urs Linsi, has had some strong words about European clubs visiting Asia.

Basically, Linsi said the visits of Real Madrid, Manchester United etc. do nothing to benefit Asian football.

All they did was earn the rich European clubs even more money, when that money should be going into the local game here in Asia.

Do you agree?

Personally, I don't agree at all.

I think the visits by European clubs help promote the game on a worldwide scale, and bring the fans closer to the stars of the world game.

A few weeks ago I went to Saitama Stadium for the visits of Hamburg and Barcelona.

The first game was a waste of time, as there was hardly anyone there.

Hamburg, without Takahara, playing in Saitama? Why should anyone be interested in that?

Hamburg playing at Shizuoka Ecopa, with Takahara in the team against his old club Jubilo Iwata...now that would have made more sense.

Barcelona at Saitama was much better.

There was a friendly festival atmosphere on the trains leading to Urawa Misono. Thousands of fans wore Barcelona shirts, and thousands wore the red of Urawa.

Even without the likes of Ronaldinho and Eto'o, Barca fielded a strong team, and the match was reasonable entertainment for the supporters.

I say "reasonable" because I do not like these games anyway.

Football is not about fun and entertainment. It is about passion, tension, where the result is important.

If sponsors have the money to bring teams over, and the fans want to watch, then why criticise it?

Linsi would be far better off criticising the unprofessional behaviour of clubs and leagues around Asia.

There has been so much corruption in recent years, especially in China, why should sponsors throw their money down the drain on local leagues?

The J.League is easily the most efficient, most attractive league in Asia, and has no problems attracting fans, sponsors and TV money.

Fans can vote with their feet and stop attending games like Real Madrid against Verdy or Jubilo.

But if they keep turning up to watch, why should FIFA criticise the concept?

It is up to the clubs and the fans to stop it, not FIFA.


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Shunsuke must prepare for fast and furious football

28 Jul 2005(Thu)

July 27 -- So it's Shunsuke for Celtic.

That's a brave move by Celtic manager Gordon Strachan, and by the player himself.

Make no mistake, the Scottish league and Italian league are worlds apart from a football point of view.

Whereas the Italian league is often slow and tactical, almost like a game of chess, in Scotland it's fast and furious.

This makes me wonder whether Shunsuke will settle there, because he is not the quickest of players, nor the most physical.

If it were Hidetoshi Nakata transferring to Scotland, or to England, I would have no doubts that he could look after himself.

But Shunsuke?

Not so sure.

It will be particularly interesting to see him play in the Glasgow derby against Rangers.

This occasion goes much deeper than football, of course, because Celtic represents the Catholic community of Glasgow, while Rangers are the Protestants.

The city comes to a standstill for this game, and fans of the winning team can enjoy life much more until the next derby takes place.

The action comes thick and fast, with tackles flying in from all angles and the pace of the game never relenting.

Another change Shunsuke will face is the fact that referees allow play to flow much more, instead of the stop-start Italian style which makes Serie A difficult to watch.

Anyway, good luck to Shunsuke.

At least he will have a chance of winning trophies with Celtic, instead of mid-table slogs with Reggina, a team with only one thing on their mind: survival in Serie A.

It's a good move to get out of Italy, and Scottish football can only improve his game.


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King Kazu not quite ready to abdicate his throne

25 Jul 2005(Mon)

JULY 22 -- And so, another chapter has opened in the colourful story of the charismatic Kazuyoshi Miura.

His transfer from Vissel Kobe to Yokohama FC looks like a smart move for both parties, meaning Kazu and Yokohama FC (and probably Vissel, too, actually).

Obviously he was finished at Kobe, and had the sense and the pride to realise this.

With Kobe at the bottom of the J1 table, he decided to drop down to J2 and shift roots from Kansai to Kanagawa.

Although I have no idea how much Kazu will be earning at Yokohama FC -- and, to be honest, don't actually care -- I am sure he will provide value for money.

He will bring in the crowds around J2, and will set an example to the younger players at the club with his work ethic and his professionalism.

Around the J.League, you will never hear a bad word against Kazu, as he has remained a model professional, training hard and looking after himself off the pitch.

The legs may be slower than the glory years, but the mind is just as quick and the sense of responsibility just as strong...to his team-mates, to his club and, above all, to himself.

Not that long ago I went to watch Vissel play at Omiya. Kobe lost easily, and it proved to be the last game in charge for Emerson Leao.

After the game I was waiting outside the main entrance to try and interview Mikitani-san about Vissel's desperate plight.

Before he emerged, Kazu walked past -- and there was no denying the man remains an icon.

The Omiya fans could not believe how close they were to this living legend -- which he is in Japan -- and, old and young, they took photo after photo as he made his way through the crowd.

With this enduring star appeal and personality, Kazu will provide a boost for his new team in particular and for J2 in general in the coming months.

Kazu and Shoji up front?

That sounds familiar, doesn't it?


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Ardiles hits the road again

21 Jul 2005(Thu)

JULY 20 -- It had to happen, didn't it?

7-1, 7-0, 6-0....it's difficult for a manager to survive a crisis like this, and Ossie Ardiles is out of a job again.

A few months after steering Verdy to the Emperor's Cup, the Argentine coach was fired by Verdy on Tuesday.

Verdy had given him every chance to turn the sinking ship around, but the 6-0 defeat at Iwata was the last straw.

Ardiles has paid the price for the club's lack of activity during the seven-week break, while the club will have learned a valuable lesson.

A "gutsy" -- to use Ossie's own word -- performance earned Verdy a 0-0 draw in the Tokyo derby the other week, and seemed to have put them back on course after the seven-goal maulings by Gamba and Reds.

In the next match they led Vissel 3-1, but were lucky to survive in a 3-3 draw when Atsu Miura led Kobe's comeback.

Then...6-0 away to Jubilo, where Maeda was very impressive for the home team.

The Verdy team is a typical Ardiles outfit...a nice, technical team, playing attractive football where it should be played, on the ground. They have several extremely talented players, such as Daigo and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi, Yoneyama, Soma and Morimoto, but, also like previous Ardiles teams, they have a soft centre and lack defensive discipline.

They do not possess the physical quality to battle teams, except up front, where Washington, Hiramoto and Morimoto are all strong, and, from a team spirit point of view, Ardiles had lost them as a group.

Even with proud Verdy fighters like the captain, "Yamataku", the team could not motivate itself anymore.

And when this happens, there's only course of action open to the club.

Ardiles, however, leaves Verdy with enough good players to survive, but they need a tough coach to push them harder and tighten the play. Anyone know where Troussier is these days?

Or Perryman perhaps?


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The thin line between passion and violence on derby day

18 Jul 2005(Mon)

July 16: The J.League is trying hard to promote the concept of the "local derby" match this season.

They want fans to feel pride and passion about their team, like supporters do around the world.

But that doesn't mean fans have to get too excited by the occasion and let their emotions run away with them.

I know there's a very thin dividing line between the two states of mind, and some micro-second of madness, when the brain switches off, can spark an act which the person will regret for ever.

I am referring to the incident at the Tokyo derby at Ajinomoto Stadium last Saturday, when an FC Tokyo fan threw the narrow lid of a cigarette bin toward the Verdy fans, injuring three people.

The injured included a policeman, and the offender was seized on the spot and taken away.

I didn't know anything about this until after the game, although I had been surprised, when visiting a food kiosk for an extremely unhealthy pre-match snack, to hear the FC Tokyo fans in full voice nearby. I thought this was a bit starnge, as usually they are in their "end" to the left of the grandstand. On this occasion, however, they were in the middle of the concourse.

FC Tokyo's managing director, Yutaka Murabayashi, is usually one of the most cheerful officials around, but after the game he was clearly upset by the incident, and worried that it might tarnish the otherwise positive image of the supporters.

He said there were around 200 supporters singing songs near the Verdy fans, but the actions of just one had spoilt the occasion.

Trouble-makers, of course, are always in a minority. This is what observers say about England fans overseas.

"The problems were caused by a small minority," is the customary phrase.

Well, if you have 25,000 England fans in Marseille at the 1998 World Cup, and a small minority, say one per cent, cause trouble, that's still a lot of hooligans -- 250? Is that right? I am sorry, maths was never my strong point!

The J.League is learning lessons all the time, such as at Kashiwa Reysol earlier in the season.

It is no coincidence, of course, that the Reysol fans and the lone FC Tokyo hooligan commited their deeds when the team was not in good form.

With FC Tokyo finally having won, and Reysol, too, hopefully life will return to normal on the terraces.

It might be a good idea, though, for FC Tokyo to prevent home fans from gathering near the away end and singing songs, even if it appears harmless.

It does suggest provocation and taunting, and that's when violence can occur, from one side or the other.


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Reds fans should not be surprised by Emerson's move

14 Jul 2005(Thu)

JULY 12: No one should be surprised by Emerson's move to Qatar.

"Think money," I was told by a member of the Reds coaching staff, when I went to their Ohara training ground on Sunday to get the latest news on the absent "hero."

"Don't think about football," he added.

"It's where players go at the end of their careers for one last big pay check."

In the modern game, that means Qatar, and on this occasion Al Sadd.

Emerson, too, was clearly thinking about money.

Lots and lots of it, even more than he was earning with Urawa -- and that was over US$ 1 million a year. Probably well over.

It wasn't that long ago when Emerson made a strange move in Japan.

After scoring 31 goals in 34 games for Consadole Sapporo in 2000, he didn't come up into J1 with the J2 champions.

Instead he stayed in J2, transferring to Kawasaki Frontale, who were the only team prepared to meet his financial demands. Or should I say his agent's financial demands.

He seemed quite happy in the second division, running rings around outclassed opponents, but moved to Urawa midway through the following season, in the summer of 2001.

Of course Emerson has given the Reds fans plenty to cheer about with goals galore, but they deserved better treatment from him and from his agent.

Emerson was given an extended holiday in Brazil, and when he was a couple of days late returning for the training camp it was pretty much par for the course.

But when a couple of days became a couple of weeks, the writing was on the wall that he would not be coming back to Japan at all.

While his so-called team "mates" were losing the Saitama derby to Omiya Ardija, Emerson was in Europe finalising the details of his lucrative contract.

Some people may accuse me of being naive, of being too much of Englishman in my feeling for what is right and what is wrong.

They may say that....hey, Emerson is a professional. He has to earn as much money as he can during his short career. Nobody has ever done him any favours in his life, so why should he start doing the same?

And you may have a point.

But there is more to football than money. There is personal pride, loyalty, playing for a team and playing for a club.

Those supporters who worshipped him must feel badly let down.

But they should not feel surprised.

I, for one, will not miss Emerson one bit, despite his goals and talent.


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What have Verdy been doing during the break?

11 Jul 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (July 9): If anyone could turn back the clock to just one week ago, then surely that man would be Ossie Ardiles.

This time last week, Tokyo Verdy 1969 were looking forward to the resumption of J1, like everyone else, after the seven-week break.

But in their first two games, Verdy have conceded seven goals each time and the alarm bells are now ringing at Yomiuri Land.

After Gamba had beaten them 7-1 at Banpaku last Saturday, Urawa Reds then humiliated them 7-0 at National Stadium on Wednesday night in what was, technically, a home game for Verdy.

I did not attend either game in person, but saw all the goals flying in on the TV highlights shows.

It was grim viewing for the Verdy fans, as their side looked lost and conceded goals which a professional team simply should not do.

Admittedly, Gamba have a dynamic strike force in Araujo, Fernandinho and Oguro, but they must have felt they were playing against a schoolboy side.

Against Reds, sure, Urawa got a couple of breaks with some timely deflections, but this is no excuse for Verdy.

After all, when a team lets in seven goals for two games running, it's more a matter of heart and commitment, rather than technical or tactical inadequacies.

All of which puts the Argentine coach's job on the line, starting with Saturday's Tokyo derby with FC Tokyo at "Ajista."

I hear that the club will not review Ardiles's position until the end of the month, on the completion of the six-game July schedule, but another performance like the previous two could change all that.

The first two have been a debacle, but the local derby gives Verdy the perfect opportunity to restore some pride and try to extend the slender points lead over Tokyo, who have simply forgotten how to win.

It all makes for a very spicy derby this evening.

And it makes you wonder what Verdy have been doing, or not doing, during the break to come back in such poor mental and physical condition.


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"Emerson Bento" leaves a bad taste in the mouth

7 Jul 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (July 6): It was interesting to see the "Emerson Bento" for sale outside Saitama Stadium 2002 on Sunday night.

Naturally, I did not buy one, as readers know he is not exactly my favourite player.

His ability as a goal-scorer is not in question.

It's his approach to the game I don't like, always looking for a free kick or a penalty, always pretending he is injured, and always looking to get an opposing player booked or sent off.

Anyway, all this is not an issue at the moment, because he has let down the club and the fans yet again.

"When is he coming back?" I asked Guido on Sunday, after the win over Albirex.

"I don't know," he admitted.

"Where is he?" was the follow-up question.

"I don't know," said Guido again. "It's unbelievable!"

Yes it is. A player earning so much money, who is clearly capable of playing at a higher level than the J.League, just not showing up after his holiday.

According to sources, first he said his baby son had a fever, so they could not travel back, and then his wife needed a transit visa for the United States, hence another delay.

It reminds me of the Edilson fiasco with Kashiwa Reysol, when the player said he needed to go to the dentist's in Brazil and would be late back.

I really hope Reds are severe with Emerson, like they were with Alpay, as this is hardly the first time it has happened.

In fact Hans Ooft told me they had fined him a total of US$60,000 during the 2003 Nabisco Cup-winning season for being late back to Japan or late for training.

"I told him it would be cheaper to buy an alarm clock," Ooft said.

Guido is not laughing at the moment, though, and who can blame him?

There are six rounds of J1 games in July, and Reds are capable of claiming 18 points to haul in Kashima Antlers.

They already have three from one game, without Emerson, and it's unlikely he will feature soon when he comes back, as he will not be match-fit. And why should Guido leave out Tanaka or Nagai or any other player who has the good of the club at heart?

Back to the Emerson bento.

This led to a few jokes, of course. One was that you opened the Emerson bento box and there was nothing inside. It had disappeared!

Another was that the pieces of meat were, in fact, Emerson himself, having been cut up by angry fans.

Will the Reds fans continue to worship him?

Sadly, I suspect so.


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Alpay only had himself to blame

4 Jul 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (July 1): A few weeks ago I was sitting at home and the telephone rang.

Not the mobile phone, but the landline.

I thought it must be another fax from Urawa Reds, informing me that only 267 tickets were still available for the home game at Saitama Stadium in April 2007...even though they won't know who they are playing for another year and a half!

As I picked up the phone, expecting to hear the high-pitched tone of the fax, there was a faint voice on the other end.

"'Ello, 'ello, is this Monsieur Walker?"

Yes, you've guessed. She was French, and she worked for a football agent.

"Avez-vous le telephone number of Monsieur Alpay Ozalan, s'il vous plait?"

I said I didn't, but gave her the number of an Urawa Reds club contact, who could pass on the Frenchwoman's number to Monsieur Alpay at the earliest opportunity.

"There is a French club who wants to sign Alpay," she added.

"Yes, I think he'll be available quite soon," I replied.

"Why, is his contract finished? Is he not playing very well?" asked the Frenchwoman.

"Errr, no," I said. "He's not playing at all. He keeps getting red cards and yellow cards. In fact I think he has received more cards this season than Brad Pitt on Valentine's Day."

(Actually, I didn't say the Brad Pitt joke, as I've only just thought of it, but I will remember it for next time.)

The next day, Alpay was sent off. I was sitting at Omiya Stadium, watching them thrash Vissel Kobe, when a Japanese colleague gave me the news, via his colleague at Niigata.

Sure enough, Alpay was fired this week, six months before his contract was due to end.

For me, the writing was on the wall when he got sent off on the opening day of the season, against Kashima Antlers.

Alpay, for all his experience, had allowed Takayuki to annoy him.

That's not difficult, admittedly, as Takayuki annoys everyone, but Alpay fell for it hook, line and sinker.

He grabbed him by the chin, and Takayuki hit the deck again. In fact he fell down so often that afternoon that there is rumoured to be an imprint of Takayuki still in the turf on the edge of the penalty box. Like something you see on the X-Files.

Alpay arrived in Japan with a reputation as a hot-head. Off the pitch he is a very nice and friendly guy, but on it he goes crazy.

Call it commitment, determination...whatever you like.

But a player who goes overseas must learn to adapt to the football environment.

Japanese football can hardly be described as vicious or violent, yet Alpay just couldn't stay on the pitch long enough to hear the final whistle. Sometimes even the half-time whistle.

He has let down the club, who were prepared to give him a big break in Japanese football (and no doubt an even bigger salary), and let down himself.

It's a great pity, because he's a good player, an interesting character and could have given a lot to the game here.

I'm sorry. I must go now. The phone's ringing.

Must be that French agent again!


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Four or five teams can catch Kashima

30 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (June 29): The long wait is almost over, and the J.League first division will be reopening for business on Saturday.

It feels like the start of the season, doesn't it, as teams have been in camp, playing warm-up games, and there's been lots of talk on the transfer front.

But, of course, the J1 season is already 12 matches old, and there are another 22 rounds to go.

So, even though Kashima Antlers have a nine-point cushion at the top, it's still far from over.

As a Newcastle United fan, I know from painful experience how teams can blow big leads when they are clear at the top well into the season!

So for fans of the chasing pack, don't give up on your team, as there will be many twists and turns ahead on the long road to the championship.

Marinos manager Takeshi Okada was the guest speaker at a recent meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan, and he was asked if the crowds would drop with one team dominating J1.

"Don't you think Marinos can catch Kashima?" he replied, with a chuckle.

If there were two or three teams clear of the pack, Okada added, then maybe some fans of other teams might lose interest as the season wears on. But there's only one with a big lead, and several capable of catching them.

Indeed, it is going to be fascinating to see if Antlers can hang on. Much will depend on whether their captain, Mitsuo Ogasawara, stays or leaves.

The word is that Lazio would like to take him to Rome, and if he left there would be a massive gap to fill.

So who's capable of catching Kashima?

Well, Marinos for one, although I hear they are having problems signing a new striker to replace Adhemar and Ahn Jung Hwan.

Ailton, who plays in Germany, and Luizao have both been linked with the club, but no concrete news as yet.

Urawa Reds will get better and can still put in a challenge, and Gamba Osaka must have a chance, too.

They have some fine players in all areas of the pitch, especially going forward with Fernandinho, Araujo and Oguro. There is a strong backbone, too, with Miyamoto, Sidiclei and Endo, and lots of experience elsewhere, so Gamba must not be written off.

Jubilo Iwata could start to click, as they have enough good players.

So, when Saturday comes, the chase is on, and I expect Antlers to be hauled in, and the race to expand considerably over the next few weeks.

Before the next break, that is!


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Miyamoto points the way forward

27 Jun 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (June 25): With the World Cup in Germany less than a year away, what needs to be done in the coming months to further strengthen the team?

One of the most important things, as "Captain Tsune" said in Bangkok after victory over North Korea, is for Japan to play more teams from Europe and South America.

The Confederations Cup gave Japan the opportunity to play against teams from three of FIFA's six confederations: CONCACAF (Mexico), Europe (Greece) and South America (Brazil).

After a disappointing start against Mexico, Japan adapted well to playing the big and physical Greeks, and then picked up the pace to give Brazil a real fright.

So Japan showed that they are adaptable to both styles, and Zico must now find some common ground down the middle.

Meaning, having players who are defensively strong and physical, and others who are quick and creative in attack.

As the coach said himself in Germany, it's now a matter of balance and organisation, and finding the right combinations.

Japan's qualities, of course, are speed, movement and technical skill, but these alone are not enough to succeed at the highest level.

They need to have physical strength to win the one-on-one battles around the pitch, and the aerial power in both penalty areas to combat their opponents.

FIFA's technical study group representative, Andy Roxburgh, also said on the FIFA website that Japan must learn to change their tempo when the situation demands, and not keep playing at such a fast pace.

So, all in all, there is plenty to work on over the next few months.

Playing against South American and European teams, away from home, will help Japan develop their own special style, and enable Zico to sort out Japan's men from Japan's boys!


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Fans hope for the "Miracle of Cologne"--but would it be a miracle?

23 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (June 22): Well, are you ready for tonight?

Could it be the Miracle of Cologne?

Maybe it could. You never know, especially as Brazil's head coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, has said he is resting the likes of Ronaldinho and Kaka for the decisive Confederations Cup clash with Japan.

But it doesn't matter who is missing, because whoever comes in will be good.

I think Japan's biggest hurdle to overcome is psychological, rather than from a footballing point of view.

I know Brazil are good, but they are not supermen, and Mexico proved this by beating them the other day.

So if Japan enter the match in this frame of mind, and try and ignore the history and the awe of the famous canary yellow shirts, then they could do all right?

Could win? Well, I don't know about that, because they must stop Brazil scoring in the first place, which will be difficult.

If Brazil score once, Japan will need to score twice, and this team does not look like it is bursting with goals, does it?

Brazil, remember, can draw and advance to the semi-finals, while Japan must win, and this is not a bad situation for Japan really.

Brazil may relax a bit, play for the draw, and then Japan can hit them with a sucker punch near the end, from Oguro, of course.

That scenario is not beyond the realms of possibility, so Japan must play calm and composed, and keep it 0-0 for as long as possible, before looking for that vital goal.

If they score too early, this may wake Brazil from their slumber, make them angry and make Japan pay for their cheek!

Whatever happens in Cologne tonight, though, Japan can count the Confederations Cup campaign a success, thanks to the 1-0 victory over the European champions Greece.

This was a fine performance by Japan, whose passing and movement ripped apart the big and clumsy Greeks.

Were Greece ever that good anyway, even in winning Euro 2004?

I was never that convinced, and they haven't done much since in their World Cup qualifying group, and Japan proved this.

Still, the performance of the Greeks, and Japan's catalogue of missed chances, should not detract from Japan's achievement.

It must rank as one of the best results in the history of Japanese football, as the Confederations Cup is the second biggest FIFA tournament after the World Cup.

So my message to the fans ahead of tonight's match is: Relax and enjoy it.

I really hope Japan can win, and lay to rest the myth that Japan will never be able to beat the mighty Brazil.


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Wenger offers expert insight

20 Jun 2005(Mon)

Tokyo (June 18): It's always refreshing to hear comments from an "outsider" about the Japan national team.

Especially from an "outsider" with a little "inside" information to add to his vast knowledge of the game at large.

So the half-time viewpoint of Arsene Wenger was one of the highlights of the Japan-Mexico Confederations Cup game.

Wenger said he was impressed with three Japanese players in particular: Yanagisawa, for his movement up front; Kaji, for his power down the right flank; and Hidetoshi Nakata, for his all-round skill in organising the team.

Japan had played quite well in the first half, but lost their rhythm and shape in the second as Mexico dominated.

Yanagisawa's goal, a delicate finish at the near post into the far corner, followed an exhilarating move, thanks to some great control, vision and skill from Ogasawara and Kaji's run and cross.

But Mexico's two goals in response highlighted bad defending by Japan.

There was too much space in front of the defence for the first one, a well-struck long-range shot, and weak challenges in the air for the second. How Japan missed Nakazawa in that situation!

However, I still think Zico's 3-4-2-1 is an interesting formation, but needs finetuning in terms of personnel.

I would bring in Koji Nakata alongside Fukunishi to bolster the midfield defence, move Hidetoshi Nakata forward alongside Ogasawara, and put Shunsuke on the bench. I thought Shunsuke looked tired, slow and weak against Mexico, and a Nakata-Ogasawara pairing behind Yanagisawa would be much more dynamic and dangerous.

Japan now have a tough task to qualify, and must beat Greece and at least draw with Brazil.

If they don't qualify for the semi-finals, though, I won't be too concerned, as at least Zico has devised, after three years, a system that can play to Japan's strengths.

It's just a matter of picking the player most suited for each position.


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Leao says Japan was stronger 10 years ago

16 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (June 15): Emerson Leao at Vissel Kobe...Washington at Verdy...the Confederations Cup just around the corner...

All these factors came to mind the other day, when Leao brought his struggling Vissel team to Omiya for a Nabisco Cup group game on Saturday.

Leao, remember, was in charge of Brazil at the 2001 Confederations Cup in Japan and South Korea. At that time, Washington was leading Brazil's attack, and the playmaker was Ramon, who would also go on to play for Verdy.

After Saturday's game at Omiya I was able to ask Leao a few questions about this month's Confederations Cup, where Japan will play Brazil again, in Cologne on June 22.

Four years ago the teams drew 0-0 in group play at Ibaraki, but Leao thinks it will be a different story this time.

"The game will not be at home for Japan. It will be in Germany, and this is a big difference. Japan will lose in Germany," he said.

Leao, in fact, was not very positive about the current Japan team in general.

He knows Japanese football well, of course, having worked with S-Pulse in 1993-94 and with Verdy in 1996, and thinks Japan was stronger 10 years ago!

Brazil has all the technique, and nowadays Japan has only tactics, he said, and no outstanding individual players.

"Japan is a different team today," he said.

"There is no superstar, only the team. The difference today in games is the superstar."

Doesn't Hidetoshi Nakata come into this category, I suggested/pleaded?

"No. Japan has no big star. A superstar is Robinho, Ronaldinho, Zidane."

Mmm....very interesting.

Japan's previous coach, Philippe Troussier, would have loved to hear these words, as this was his philosophy: a team in which all players had their specific role and were equally as important, with no superstar.

Of course Leao's opinion must be respected, and no one would argue that a player such as Ronaldinho can turn a 0-0 draw into a 1-0 victory with an outrageous piece of skill.

But I can't agree that Japan was stronger 10 years ago, can you?

Ten years ago, in fact, in June 1995, I followed Japan around England in the Umbro Cup, watching them play England at Wembley, Brazil at Goodison Park and Sweden at Nottingham Forest.

Those were the days of Kazu and Gon up front, Ihara and Hashiratani at the back....

But no one in midfield of the individual quality of Nakata or Ono.

Well, we will find out soon enough how much progress Japan has made since the 2003 Confederations Cup.


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JFA should fine Alex for diving

9 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (June 6): Well, hats off to Zico this time.

With the pressure on, the Brazilian coach made all the right calls for the Bahrain match, didn't he?

I really liked his 3-4-2-1 formation, as it played to his squad strengths: midfield.

It enabled him to field six midfield players, even without the injured Ono, and finally he found the right balance.

The back three looks here to stay, and the four across the middle gave Japan solidity and plenty of width.

With seven players ready to defend, the other three could concentrate on attack.

Nakamura and Ogasawara had the freedom to roam, in support of the solitary striker, Yanagisawa, and these three players, plus Nakata, combined for the only goal of the game.

Despite defending Suzuki after the UAE game, Zico dropped him and brought in his former Antlers teammate to lead the line.

Everything worked well on the night, and Japan dominated the game, controlled the ball and restricted Bahrain to just a a couple of half-cahnces.

What a difference a goal makes!

Suddenly Japan is relaxed and optimistic, as qualification is just around the corner.

It should, in fact, be achieved on Wednesday night in Bangkok against North Korea.

Even though Japan will be without Nakamura, Hidetoshi Nakata and Alex due to suspension, they should still be capable of winning or drawing against a team with a 0-4 record in the final qualifying round.

What on earth was Alex doing?

It was a ridiculous attempt to win a penalty, a needless dive, and another yellow card.

I hope the JFA fines Alex because incidents like this reflect badly on Japanese football in general.

Two years ago in the Confederations Cup against New Zealand, the result could have been so different if Alex had been sent off in the first half.

He was booked for a clumsy foul early on, and should have been shown the yellow card again for diving in the New Zealand box. He escaped punishment, and Japan went on to win 3-0, so it was forgotten.

The JFA should tell him to stop cheating and just play football.


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Reysol and Troussier may be the right combination

6 Jun 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (June 3): There's never a dull moment at Kashiwa Reysol these days.

Not many points. Not many goals. But never a dull moment.

First of all I want to make one thing clear about last Saturday's "sit-in" after the 5-1 defeat by JEF United.

The Reysol fans did not cause trouble, and were not violent.

They were just frustrated, quite understandably, and concerned, and the demonstration was peaceful and good-natured.

From what I can gather, club officials were quite upset by some of the media reporting, as it suggested the Reysol fans were misbehaving again.

They weren't. They just wanted to make their views heard when their passions were high, and spent large chunks of the demonstration showing their support by chanting a desperate "Kashiwa Reysol" for minutes on end.

The group of around 100 included several children, aged no more than three or four, maybe younger, and it was quite amusing to see them joining in the applause when one older fan made a suggestion that received widespread support.

Although the Reysol fans demanded an immediate audience with either the president or with the manager, the club sent a sacrificial lamb to bow deeply and apologise for the performance, and try to appease the fans before the forum planned for Sunday morning at Hitachi-dai.

No doubt there will be many questions put to the club's top management.

One of Reysol's biggest problems, in my opinion, is the recruitment of unsuitable foreign players.

I believe Reysol have become a soft touch for agents due to weak front-office management, and they need to set up a fresh network of contacts and expand their horizons beyond Brazil and South Korea.

Of the current crop, Cleber is an obvious exception because he looks a fine player, but you have to wonder how long he will be around if the team continues to under-perform.

On the coaching front, they have tried Brazilians, an Englishman and Japanese, but no one seems capable of turning the team around, and this must be a worry.

A tough manager is what's required, and the club do worse than check out the availability of Philippe Troussier. He wouldn't tolerate any nonsense, although I'm sure there would be players and staff shaking in their boots at the thought of the fiery Frenchman working at Kashiwa.

Good! Maybe this is what they need.


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Troussier for Japan? No way!

2 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (May 31): Did you read those comments from Philippe Troussier the other day?

Apparently, Troussier wants his job back as national coach of Japan, and accused Zico of not giving the players enough freedom on the pitch.

Did he really say that?

If he did, then it's quite a statement from Troussier, who was not known for his flexibility in formation and strategy, although he was always happy to give talented young players a chance and help to toughen them up.

So, would there be a chance of Troussier having his old job back in the near future?

To me the answer is obvious: No!

I think there's absolutely no chance of JFA president Kawabuchi even considering Troussier for the post should the results go agai