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Japan Football: Zaccheroni, Samurai Blue, and general J chatter
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So Long, Toulon. (U-23)
Japan bid farewell to Toulon, after a very bumpy and strange week.

Toulon Higashi loss
It was a prime chance for coach Sekizuka to really see some of the Europe-based players (those, of course, who were not already tapped for Zaccheroni's WCQ squad) and to assess the squad as a whole.

One thing is clear -- this team definitely cannot win without the Europe-based players. Takagi, G.Sakai and Usami in particular showed a clear superiority in vision and confidence. Ibusuki, and Otsu also provide their respective strengths, though they are not as fully formed. Whether Sekizuka can or will call up Miyaichi, Kagawa, H.Sakai, and Kiyotake, to form a truly last-minute untested squad for London, I can't say. Something needs to be done about defense as well. Probably best way to use Over Age slots is with defenders.

For those who missed the Toulon group round games, here are some great links to proper highlights from the three games -- vs. Turkey, Netherlands, and Egypt.

0-2 vs. Turkey
3-2 vs. Netherlands (no, it's not a typo)
2-3 vs. Egypt: Usami goal 1, Usami goal 2
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Ballon d'Or Gala: Nadeshiko Show How It's Done!
Sawa and Messi
The World Cup victory by the Japanese Women's Football team in Germany 2011 was a tremendous feat, especially following the earthquake-tsunami-radiation triple-tragedy of last March. Add three Ballon d'Ors to that feat and it's almost a story too unbelievable for Japanese football supporters. Captain Homare Sawa, coach Norio Sasaki and the Japan Football Assosiation received highest honors at last night's FIFA ceremony.

Sawa is the first player ever from Asia to win the Ballon d'Or.

Here's a clip of the women's presentation.

Here's a clip of the Women's Coach presentation

Here's a clip of the Fair Play presentation

It is partially voiced-over in Japanese but relevant bits remain in English.

If you're interested, here's the Voting Breakdown.

Japan Men's Coach Alberto Zaccheroni voted for 1. Iniesta 2. C.Ronaldo 3. Messi.
Japan Men's Captain Makoto Hasebe voted for 1. Messi 2. Dani Alvez 3. Xavi.

Sahara Cup 2005: J's Youth
I thought I'd wrap up the results of the Sahara Cup, the annual J's Youth Cup I've been following out of the corner of my eye. Since these games are not televised (at least not included in my cable tv package), it has been extremely helpful that J's Goal website has been posting game highlights.

Semi-Finals

Shimizu S-Pulse Youth 6-2 Gamba Osaka Youth
>>Click to launch video digest stream

Vissel Kobe Youth 1-1 (PK 3-1) Yokohama F Marinos Youth
>>Click to launch video digest stream

Finals

As someone who spends time writing about football in Japan, I have to admit it is easier to find overarching themes if the teams that consistently make it to the top are to some degree predictable. But if this year, and writing for this blog, has taught me anything, it's that sometimes lessons can be learned in the exceptions to the rule. You have teams with undeniable strength in defense, you have teams that are young and can become unstoppable if they get momentum, you have teams that take advantage of individual excellence, you have teams with tremendous presence in their veterans and leaders, you have teams that have managers who know how to strategize.

The Sahara Cup finals this year took place between two teams that weren't really expected to end up there. It wasn't Gamba Youth, with their artillery of talent. It wasn't Verdy Youth, who were aiming for their third title of the year. And it wasn't even Marinos Youth, with their army of players with international experience.

Both Shimizu S-Pulse and Vissel Kobe Youth clubs have had so-so years. But the fact that they made it to the finals in this final competition of the year does show that they have grown and acquired on a game to game basis a strength of character and power of spirit. Not to mention, a mental cohesion and balance of the team. And maybe it is fitting that in this final month of the year, when it is easy especially for young players to start getting distracted and lose focus, other teams that have depended on pedigree and individual talent could not put forth that little bit extra to clinch a win.

Shimizu S-Pulse Youth 4-1 Vissel Kobe Youth>>Click to launch video digest stream

Both Shimizu and Vissel managers were far from impressed when they first took over their respective teams about a year ago. One said he couldn't believe this was the youth club for an actual professional J league team, the other said of his team that in the Youth clubs theirs was the worst team. Under their harsh but perhaps honest evaluation, it took them a year or so, both teams gradually matured and got their act together -- and the result was their ascension to the finals of this Cup just before the close of the year.

Both sides played with a 4-4-2 system, with their strength in defense and liking their attack via the sides. But Shimizu had one ingredient Vissel didn't -- attacking options via the top scorer Nagasawa. Shimizu put on an aggressive display, pressing well and switching to a speedy attack when they gained possession. Kobe, in retrospect, may have gotten overly careful and played too timidly. Though Kobe were helped by some good saves from their GK, and woke up to play some good football in the second half, Shimizu had the momentum and took it to the final whistle.


The Youth program is of course foremost seen as the developing grounds for the professional stage. And in that respect, the current Youth scene, characterized by the lack of eye catching break-out talent, is something that has people worried with respect to the future. But it is also important for these young players to acquire a taste for winning. Football is a sport, and in the end winning is everything in the pros. The art may be in the technique and talent, but the drama is in the knife's edge difference between losing and winning.

Congratulations to Shimizu S-Pulse Youth!
J's Youth: Sahara Cup Quarterfinals
fctYouth.jpg(click on photo to see original enlarged at J's Goal: A last minute goal allowance meant an exit for Tokyo.)
I introduced the Sahara Cup to you last week -- a youth cup that is taking place right now. >>Click to see previous entry

I thought I'd do a follow-up, since I attended a couple of the games that took place this weekend. Despite the numb toes and buttocks, it was just pure fun to sit and root and enjoy being outside. J's Goal has posted video digests of the games. I thought it would be fun to share what some of the youth look like.

>>Click to watch FC Tokyo Youth 0-1 Shimizu S-Pulse Youth

>>Click to watch Gamba Osaka Youth 1-1 PK(5-3) Sanfrecce Hiroshima Youth

>>Click to watch Mitsubishi SC 3-3 PK(8-9) Yokohama F Marinos Youth

>>Click to watch Vissel Kobe Youth 1-1 PK(3-1) Nagoya Grampus Youth

A lot of PKs...
Have J-Refs learned nothing?!
I meant to touch on this earlier, but had forgotten about it until today.

Uzbekistan and Bahrain are competing for the remaining 0.5 slot in the WC qualifiers. This week, in the first leg, Uzbekistan won 1-0, but all the talk was on the very very strange referee decision to make null a penalty awarded to Uzbekistan after some Uzbek players entered inside the box before the kicker had kicked.

This itself is not a big deal, as this happens. But then, the referee took away the PK altogether instead of letting the kicker retake the PK.

The referee was a Japanese ref.

Because of this one mess-up, the two countries will have to REDO the match. FIFA made the annoucement today. ...CONTINUES
New JFA Development Academy
I'm not sure how many of you are aware of this, but the Japanese football development structure was first designed on an American model. So, future footballer wanna-bes would have to get whatever training they could at their schools first, and then try and get into some of the J club youth teams before heading into a pro contract. This sort of made sense from a Japan culture point of view, but we've seen already that its too slow and vulnerable a plan, and this has delayed the development process in individual players. Not just the skills and such, but other things like maturity, independence and so forth. While European teenagers are already starting for top clubs in Europe, Japanese players are just getting their toe in on what it means to be a pro footballer.

jfadevprog.jpgIn a previous entry where I introduced the Japan NT coaching staff, I mentioned that Zico's brother and technical advisor Edu had tried to get an academy started of his own. But there were financial problems, and really it is a difficult thing to keep going with little help. And most of all, places like Okinawa, where some of Japan's most rhythmically gifted, outgoing, athletic personalities come from, doesn't even have a local league club where kids could get organized youth level training. The photo on the right is of Christopher Tatsuki Kinjo, one of Okinawa's best in the U-12 group.

Well, thank god, the JFA must have been on the same wavelength in recent years. This past month, 662 children from all over Japan applied for the chance to join the new JFA Academy Fukushima. Kids in the middle and high school level will be picked from the hundreds after a three tier evaluation process (boys and girls), and they will end up living in the Academy. Christopher, from the photo, showed up at the J-Village for the evaluation and selection process.

The kids will live in dormitories, train under JFA coaches on the Academy grounds (there is a pitch set aside for them), and attend the local schools for basic education. On top of that, they will also get additional educational electives like languages. I forget what the final acceptance numbers are, but I think it's something like 15 for boys. Not many, but I guess it's good to start with a smaller group and see how that goes before expanding.

The JFA feels that if Japan continues with the plan they had so far used for the past ten or so years, we will never catch up to international standards. They feel that in order to close the gap, the JFA will need to play a more active role in developing promising players, 24/7. Their aim is to be able to have 3 or 4 national team members come out of their Academy ten years down the road.

This Academy is modeled after France's National Football Academy, the one that Zidane and Henri have graduated from. The French academy is I think about 30 years old.

During the selection trials, the evaluators looked for potential and natural football sense. For instance, during the lifting test, they didn't look at how many times a candidate lifted without dropping the ball; but instead looked at the the style of lifting, whether the candidate had a natural soft relaxed touch with the ball. In the 50 meter dashes, they didn't look at just overall speed, but also evaluated running form. They had speed-reading machines at 10 meter intervals so they could see what the increment by increment speeds were, whether the candidate decelerated considerably in the final 10 meters, what the acceleration was like, and so on. And of course the kids played a game at the end, and evaluators looked at how well the candidates could express their strengths, intelligence and style during an actual game situation.

This is really exciting stuff, and could make a huge difference on the future if done properly. Things won't go perfectly smoothly, that's a given, but if something valuable can be gained in the process for the kids as well as the Academy people, it will be worth it.
JOMO All-Stars Clash with International Friendlies
The tug-of-war between clubs and national team priorities has been a regular hurdle for many of the football associations across the world. Japanese football only started to deal with these schedule and logistical problems in recent years. We all know the debate: there is immense expectation for the national team to get results and play exciting football, but the clubs complain their players are fatigued and return with injuries from international matches, and the Japanese clubs have to squeeze their league season in while side-stepping a crowded international calendar.

The Japan Football Association had negotatiated this year's schedule so that domestic league and international games did not overlap. But another wrinkle has popped up.

The promotional fireworks are gearing up for the fourth annual JOMO All-Stars Game which kicks-off on October 9. Fans select the players they most want to see by clicking in their votes on the official internet website. All good -- except that the JFA has just planned a two-game East-European tour for the national team during that same week -- friendlies with the Ukraine and Latvia on October 8th and 12th.

Kazuki Sasaki, director and general secretary of the J-league, had indicated earlier in the week that some sort of understanding had been reached with the JFA giving JOMO All-Stars precedence over any national team call-ups. However, JFA chairman Saburo Kawabuchi responded by saying that it would be meaningless if national team manager Zico were not able to call up the players he felt he needed.

Both sides have a right to their objections. With Germany 2006 just over the horizon, Japan does not have the luxury of wasting any international friendly that tests them against a world standard. But the J-league is especially sensitive here because the point of the All-Stars is that fans get to decide, and many of the crowd favorites are understandably regular members of the national team. The JOMO also plays an important role in the expansion of football in Japan by bringing glamour and excitement to football-anemic regions. In the past, the JOMO has brought the stars of the J to Saitama, Niigata and Sapporo; this year it's Oita. Taking many of the top national stars from the all-star mix will decrease the level of interest in the event.

This scheduling conflict will inevitably place the burden of choice on the fans. Now that we are aware of the scheduling conflict, it is impossible for the fans to vote without mixed feelings. Should they avoid submitting names of regular members of the national team for fear of undermining the national team's limited occasions to play together? Should they even avoid submitting names of players they hope might have a chance at a call-up? Should they hold off voting until they know how this problem will be handled?

The players must also be quelling conflicting desires. The biggest star to emerge from the domestic league in the past year, Gamba Osaka forward Masashi Oguro, has commented that he'd like to be called up to the national team for these matches. "I'd like to experience and see how Shevchenko plays", he said to Daily Sports. With an emphatic performance in both Gamba and the national team this year, his absence from either event will be significant.

Zico is not expected to return to Japan until the latter half of July, when he will be calling up the members for the East Asian Cup beginning July 30 in Korea. The JFA may need to ring him up sooner than that and hear what he has to say about this situation.
Oh No. Asia Cup Again?
asiachamp.jpgThe next Asia Cup will be held in 2007, and co-hosted by four (yes, 4) Southeast Asian countries. Now, don't get me started on the inevitable logistical/organizational problems that swim around in my mind when I contemplate this. Let's put that aside for now.

So what am I so ticked off about? Well, a couple things. One, this 4-country co-hosting idea means that 4 southeast asian countries will get an automatic entry to participate in the Asia Cup. These four countries are Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Their current FIFA ranking are: 91, 111, 88, 94 respectively.

On the other hand, unlike the previous Asia Cup, where the current champions get to sit out of the qualifying rounds, this time they are requiring Japan to play the 6 home and away games to qualify for one of the 12 slots. The first two games will be held on February 22 and March 1 of 2006. The groups have not been decided yet.

I don't know what the resoning behind this was. Do they feel that current champions have the duty to play in the qualifying matches to create excitement and interest in the opponent countries? Or is it that giving four automatic berths to the host countries will mean an odd number for the groups and Japan needs to fill the open spot? Or do they just feel that allowing Japan to sit out of the qualifying round will give us an unfair advantage over the other Asian countries who are also trying to prepare for the World Cup but have to participate in the Asia Cup qualifiers too?

I don't know. I guess we should look on the bright side and say that this will be a chance for Zico to call up new players to the team and test them out one last time before the World Cup.
Generations of Youth: U-13 & U-20
I'm not sure many of you may know this (I certainly didn't have a clue), but for the past few weeks South Korea was hosting the U-13 World Championships tournament. "Under-thirteen" sounds so ridiculously young, but I guess you have to start young. And can we say, ADORABLE!

The strange thing was that we didn't really hear a peep about it til yesterday when the sports news segment announced that the Japanese U-13 team just won the championship -- in a final against South Africa, 2-0. They did show the goal clips, and they were actually very high quality approaches -- the first a long shot that hit the post on the inside but the ball was picked up by a teammate and slammed back in. The second came off a long dribbling approach on the left side, a cross to the far side post that was then pushed in. Anyway, it must have been such a blast for these kids, wearing the exact NT uniforms of their big brothers and representing their country.

As for the U-20 World Youth Championships, Japan is becoming known as the miracle team -- the first in tournie history to make it to the knockout stages without winning one single game (1 loss, 2 draws; total of 2 points). Not exactly something to write home about, but it's an opportunity that they should definitely take full advantage of. Their next game is against Morocco. If you have a chance to watch this game, keep an eye out for the forwards (Cullen, Morimoto, Maeda, Hirayama), plus Mizuno and Ienaga whose high quality crosses and kicks can often give Japan a new lease on life.
World Youth Championships
I don't know if anyone who reads this blog is aware of this, but the 2005 World Youth Championships is currently kicking off in the Netherlands. Japan's U-20 team is in the same group as host Netherlands, Benin and Australia. There are 24 teams total. It has been difficult keeping track of the youth games this past year, and frankly I don't know much about the team (only that I don't like the coach). But I did want to mention it in case anyone reading may want to check out the site. Watching these youth teams can be refreshing, as they are different in personality from the National Team of the same country and you get a glimpse of some 18-19 year olds with potential. In Japan, for instance, the youth team's stars are all forwards (Cullen, Jubilo Iwata; Morimoto, Tokyo Verdy; Hirayama, university). Other familiar names include Masushima of FCTokyo and Honda of Nagoya Grampus. I won't comment on whether they are any good, because I've watched only a few of their games. Plus a number of players were switched around just before the Championship began so anything I saw previously may not give me an accurate sense of how they will perform in the Netherlands. They have a tough job to do as the bar was set high by the 1999 Nigeria World Youth Championship Japan U-20 team:

"The sensations of Nigeria '99, however, were the team from Japan, coached by Frenchman Philippe Troussier. The Asian side waltzed their way to the final, ousting England, Portugal, Mexico (who beat holders Argentina) and Uruguay en route. Led by the two gems in their side, Masashi Motayama and captain Shinji Ono, the young Japanese played excellent football throughout, with the exception of the Final, when fatigue clearly took its toll. Japan's second-place finish was nonetheless the best by an Asian side since Qatar finished runners-up in 1981." -- excerpt from Fifa.com review

Some of the members from this 20-player 1999 roster who are in or near the NT today include Junichi Inamoto, Yasuhito Endo, Mitsuo Ogasawara, Koji Nakata, Akira Kaji, Naohiro Takahara, and Hitoshi Sogahata(gk), plus Shinji Ono and Masashi Motoyama as mentioned above.

These are big shoes to fill, but the 2001 Japan U-20 team and the 2003 U-20 team didn't make it past the group stages.


Yesterday/today (depending on your time zone), the U-20 team played the first game against the Netherlands (ouch, that's a tough game to play on the first day!). Japan 1 - 2 Netherlands. I caught a glimpse of the game, and the overall impression is that the Japan team looked out-classed by the Dutch. Power, speed, technique, accuracy on shot, mental strength -- they just didn't compete. However, Japan created enough opportunities to clinch at least a draw, if they had just capitalized on a number of perfect opportunities.
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