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Japan Football: Zaccheroni, Samurai Blue, and general J chatter
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Japan vs. Bahrain: Looking for the Next Step
I am exhausted. Yesterday's game between Japan and Bahrain turned out to be yet another heart-stopping patience-wearing battle.

The loss against Iran had a bigger effect on the team than I had initially estimated. The team had three days to train after the Iran game, and it became clear as the match progressed that though Japan looked much more comfortable overall in the 3-back, mentally the shadow of last week's loss loomed. The first half was characterized by Japan's all-too-careful progression. It looked like they couldn't quite find their way forward for fear of Bahrain's counter-attack. Japan's first wave came at about 20 minutes, when Nakamura took a stubborn right-footed shot that flew above the right corner of the goal. From there, Japan repeated corners, free kicks, and throw ins but were continuously thwarted by Bahrain's tall and focused defense.

The second half brought a more invigorated Japan team -- from the first 10 seconds, where Santos ran up the left side to beat the defender to a nicely placed cross, Japan patiently repeated their attempts. Most of the offensive plays took place on the left side of the pitch, as Zico had instructed Santos and Nakamura. Things were looking more promising, but Japan still could not find a goal. Fukunishi ( stayed back most of the first half, allowing Nakata to go forward, and did not even participate much offensively. But in the second half, the three midfielders changed postions and were able to use the sides widely. The most promising scene came at 57 min when Suzuki was able to fake-out a defender and take a left-footed shot from the left corner of the penalty area. The Bahrain goalie could not hold onto the ball, but Takahara could not get to it in time before the defenders cleared.

Japan finally found their goal at 21 minutes right after fw Tamada was subbed in for Suzuki. From the practice reports, it looked like fw Yanagisawa was displaying some good stuff all week, so I had thought maybe he would be subbed in here like he was at the Iran game. However, considering the 'history' Tamada has with Bahrain (of being able to score two amazing goals against them in last year's Asia Cup semi-final) perhaps Zico was counting on the mental factor of placing him on the pitch at that time. The defenders would be keen to go after Tamada before he got too close; which is exactly what happened when Tamada made first contact with the ball. He was tripped, and a FK was awarded Japan.

The Strategy of Free Kicks
I think Nakamura kicked about 20 FK/CKs in total. I know that going into the game, Nakamura's "image" for a goal was that of Japan's first goal against Bahrain at the Asia Cup -- a kick to the near post which is deflected in quickly by Japan (at Asia Cup, dmf Koji Nakata headed it in). In this second half FK at 21 minutes, Nakamura used a signal/pattern play. The majority of Japan players were to all rush to the near side of the goal, and Nakazawa would pull wide to the far side. Nakazawa was able to make contact with the ball, and the ball flew to the crowd of teammates waiting at the near side. Miyamoto was able to make head contact, and the ball fell to Takahara who dove for it, creating further confusion. The ball fell in front of Bahrain number 10 Salmeen -- he tried to kick it out, but getting pressure from Nakazawa behind him Salmeen caught the ball on the outside of his right foot, and the ball went into the goal. This was not a completely "lucky" goal for Japan, as there was a strategy behind the play (not just hauling it in haphazardly) and Nakazawa's presence behind Salmeen invited the mistake. However, going forward, it is obvious that Japan's free kicks are being thoroughly analyzed by opponents so there is a need going forward for Japan to use different kickers and add variation to their free kick patterns. They have enough quality place kickers and trained receivers for this, so it's more a matter of practice.

Danger Zone
The last ten minutes of the game became a dangerous time for Japan. As the time ticked by, the team began to feel the collected exhaustion from this past week. Bahrain sensing this was their chance to tie the game turned on the heat, and Japan's main aim was to hold on to the ball for as long as possible and use up the time. When Nakamura attempted a cheeky flick pass and lost the ball to Bahrain, he exposed Japan to a dangerous situation. Santos, who is known to blow off his steam some time during the course of a game, blasted at Nakamura "What are you doing, you're supposed to keep the ball, idiot!" Nakamura, who looked to be the most exhausted player on the pitch, yelled back. Nakata went to break up the argument cooly. Nakamura and Santos made up right after the end of the game, and Santos admitted "I was irritated and blew off steam, and felt completely better, but I know I went too far with what I said." I'm actually not very perturbed by this -- in fact it was a good thing to happen with this team, who have been almost too patient with their own game and with each other last year. But last year was a team that was strong because they held together; this year, it is not enough merely to hang on.

Turn the Heat Up
In order for the team to step it up to the next level, scenes like the above between Nakamura and Santos are sometimes necessary. It's a form of blowing off steam, and also of snapping a player out of bad habits. Of course, this team rarely fights like this (probably Santos is the only one who brings it up to this level). The difficulty of incorporating a new system and newish players to the team during the tough Iran match made all the members on the team conscious of the importance of communicating and even sometimes arguing. Where any one mistake could lead to a tragic result, this type of pressure they create for themselves will inevitably strengthen their focus and increase each player's sense of responsibility. Supporters are relived by this win, but they are not satisfied by the finishing capabilities of this team. Now that this team has some of the groundwork out of the way, it will be up to Zico and the players to synchronize their vision.

Three Promises
Japan went into this match with three key things in mind:
1) Must Win -- needless to say, this team's main objective for this game was a win. It is always difficult to tell any football team that they must win 100%, no matter what. There were even articles in the media regarding the fate of Zico should the team lose/tie against Bahrain. However, JFA chair Kawabuchi did publicly state that "Japan is no longer a team where we panic every time we find ourselves in a tough spot -- we stand by Zico, and are not going to make a habit of hiring and firing coaches like some wheel of fortune."
2) Always be prepared for the counter-attack -- Japan most feared the kind of swift and accurate counters that Bahrain showed during their game against North Korea last week. In this, I believe the players organized and defended well and there only a couple times when there was any true danger from Bahrain.
3) On 1-on-1 matchups, beat your opponent. The players felt that their loss to Iran was due mostly to their ineffectiveness 1-on-1 against Iran players -- that they did not take the numerous challenges with guts and intelligence; and blame for this cannot be laid on any strategic reason. They just did not show the guts they should have. For the Bahrain game, this was on each player's checklist. There was definitely a visible change among the players yesterday compared to last week. Whether by foul, running, fake-outs, etc., the players were able to create good scenes defensively and offensively by being aggressive in these situations.

Cleverest Plays?
Probably would have to go to Nakamura, who invited a yellow card for Bahrain's Salmeen in the first half. Japan was fouled and Nakamura was about to pass the ball to a teammate when Salmeen tried to get in the way by leaping back and forth about a meter in front of him. Nakamura kicked the ball into Salmeen, and the ref penalized with a yellow. This is Salmeen's second total yellow, which means that Bahrain's playmaker will be unable to play in the next game (against Japan in Bahrain). Nakamura also first brought the tempo to Japan's side by taking an aggressive right-foot shot in the first half. Up until then, Japan had scarcely kicked anywhere near the goal -- this shot brought about ten minutes where Japan had numerous chances at a goal.

Sadist meets long-lost Masochist?
The re-integration of Hide Nakata was a big theme this past week. Understandably it did not go so well at first, what with the system change and Hide's long absence. He is a prickly and sometimes harsh personality who has high expectations of teammates -- probably the biggest hurdle for him was to be able to communicate better and less abusively. In the Iran training camp, the media made note of an "argument" that Fukunishi had with Nakata regarding positioning and defensively zones/responsibilities. Fukunishi is the same age as Nakata and was in the NT at World Cup 02; could explain the ease with which he was able to speak up. Looking back on that now, it turned out to be a good thing afterall -- with Fukunishi being paired with Nakata in def. midfield. The two were seen to be constantly exchanging instructions, and doing so effectively (lots of nodding agreement). The other player Nakata is paired up with on the offense is right side Kaji. Kaji is known to be somewhat of a masochist -- he is a die-hard health nut, and loves to push his body running up and down the length of the pitch. He also admitted to finding pleasure in being used by teammates, for example as a red-herring-type lure for opponent defenders. The problem was that last year Kaji was not able to contribute to the offense more actively. This year, he has shown more independent thinking and challenge-taking, probably sending up more crosses in this last 2-3 games than he did all of last year. Nakata (who has a bit of the sadist in him) may pair up nicely with Kaji. He can release some of his bossy tendencies on an eager Kaji and push him to want more in the process. Kaji was also involved in the "argument" with Fukunishi and Nakata last week, so it is a sign that he is making himself involved in these discussions. Nakata is also dependable defensively, so Kaji can aggressively play a bigger role in offense without worrying about the back line. If these two can work together effectively and Nakata can pass on some good ideas to Kaji, it will mean a much stronger right side.

Lonely Goal
Looking at the past few qualifier games, it is undeniable that the JapanNT needs some help offensively. It is not that they don't have quality players -- it may be more of a question of prioritization and speed-shifting. Playing against most Asian teams, they have had difficulty overcoming teams that have clearly analyzed Japan and teams that play a stubborn defensive/counter game. The thing I felt was missing from yesterday's game was the speed-shifting. And more specifically, plays that involved two or three players invading Bahrain's defense with quick one-touch back-and-forth passes. This requires a certain amount of unified thinking and timing, and the quick change in speed is also necessary. The forwards may have prioritized their contribution to the midfield a little too much, due to the fear of counter-attacks. Takahara and Suzuki did play their part in switching positions with the midfield and sides, but it may have taken some of the energy away from them. Neither are known to be particularly quick, mostly tough. This team may have to spend a little more time together ironing out these problems. Yanagisawa is quite good at these one touch passes near the goal, and maybe if he had been substituted for Tamada in the last 15 minutes of the game he may have come out with a goal or assist. However, I do feel that starting Suzuki and Takahara was the best choice going in. These two were probably best suited for the demands that were being placed on the forwards, and it is still an option to use the unknown Yanagisawa or Oguro in the next game.

Still Haven't Found What We're Looking For...
From interviews with players it looks like the team is still searching for their character of attack. Many supporters want Zico to put his experiences as an inspired player to use and give the players some direction. The players themselves have spent the last week constantly talking to each other, but in the end it can only be done through concentrated practice time together. Zico, who used to be quite the whip-wielder during his days as an advisor coach for Kashima Antlers (J.League), has been the target of dissatisfaction among supporters because he is not giving the team a clear plan of attack, a strategy. People are divided on whether the players will be able to answer the expectations put on them by coming up with their own creative plays and by taking advantage of team unity. As far as peaks and valleys go, these few weeks we were in the valley. And probably a necessary one, too, looking at the greater picture. I would prefer for the team to find the next peak in June: they will have two qualifiers with Bahrain and North Korea, and then will head to Germany for the Confederations Cup group games against Brazil, Greece, and Mexico. This is not an inexperienced or unintelligent team -- but finding this last important piece will continue to be difficult with half the players playing on the other side of the world. They will all need to arrive at the NT with ideas and put what little practice time they have together to effective use.

Standards, Asia, Standards!!
Last week I reported that five Iranians were killed in the mob scene that ensued after the Iran/Japan game in Tehran. Yesterday, I was able to watch the Iran/NorthKorea game in Pyongyang. Trouble started even before the match.

Just like Azadi (Iran) stadium looked to be way over capacity in last week's game, Kim Il-sung Stadium was packed beyond capacity. Too many people had made their way through the entrance gates, and a few hundred people spilled onto the track area behind one of the goals. It took about ten minutes for ladders to be brought, and the crowd slowly climbed back up into the seats. People ended up squashed up against each other, and I remember thinking how uncomfortable they must be.

All Parties were Pretty Pathetic
The real problem started after Iran had scored their second goal (first from NK's headed own goal, second from a swift and clean counter). North Korea did not ease their pressure on Iran, and a player made his way into the penalty area with the ball. An Iran defender's body got in the way, and the North Korean player went down. The Referee did not call for a penalty kick, and the North Korean team unleashed their frustration and wrath on the Syrian ref. This was no ordinary objection, either. Even in AFC games, I haven't seen this kind of ganging up on the ref in a long time. North Korea could have been too inexperienced, and unable to control themselves. The players rushed the ref, grabbing his shirt and pushing him around en masse. Some Iran players tried to intercept, and the FIFA game commissioner and NK staff got involved. Though no punches were thrown, it looked rather dicey for a while. The first player to rush the ref got a red card. The referee's call was understandable -- in other words, he could have called a penalty, but only if he had treated Iran the same way, which he hadn't. Refs have their own characteristics, and it's important to figure out what those are. In the end, the ref has the last word; it is sort of the first rule of football, no matter what.

After the game ended, the spectators were now the ones who could not control their anger -- people threw plastic drink bottles and glass beer bottles as well as detaching their seats from the bleachers and hurling them onto the field. The referee and Iran players were unable to make their way to the lockerrooms. It took intervention by army/security and about an hour for things to calm down, but Iran still had trouble getting their bus through a huge mob of a couple hundred angry people outside who surrounded their bus and threw rocks. News sources stated that some yelled that "all foreigners should be killed". It was really good to hear that no one on the Iran team got hurt.

Broadcasting Manipulation?
The funny thing about North Korea's handling of football games is that in the past only games where they won or drew were broadcast after the fact, and in edited versions. This month, things changed when North Korea broadcast the vs. Bahrain game two days after the game. Yesterday, they broadcast a one-hour edited version of the game only 6 hours after the final whistle, leaving out the pre-game crowd footage and post-game crowd footage. They did repeat the scene-in-question in slo-mo several times. This has North Korea analysts in Japan scurrying to figure out exactly what their intention is with the broadcast changes. Who knows. The irony was seeing all the sponsor signs lined up along the sides -- Toshiba, JCBcard, Kirin...

Dealing with the Aftermath
The JFA of course followed these events very carefully. It looks like they are going to appeal to the AFC/FIFA for some followup. The utter incompetence behind the management of this game, the unacceptable behavior of the North Korean team, the poor behavior of the spectators (albeit only a portion of the sixty-odd thousand total), and general unavailability of good footballing conditions (artificial turf, no lights, etc.)... For such crucial games like World Cup qualifiers, it is more than reasonable to request some change. The JFA may be looking for a ban on North Korean spectators, a change of venue to either Japan or some third-party country, etc. This is something I really would like the JFA to push -- given the particular political and emotional tension that exists between Japan and North Korea, sending the JapanNT into an environment like that could prove to be extremely dangerous. It is the host's responsbility to make sure these things don' t happen.

As for the North Korean team itself, I was really surprised at this behavior. The coach had sent off a letter of objection to FIFA regarding the supposed bias the Thai referee had for Bahrain in last week's game (which they lost 1-2). I had mentioned then that doing this without much of a case would only breed bad morale within the team, a sense of victimization and indignation -- and maybe the combined frustration of losing three times and anger at questionable referee judges proved to be too much for the team to handle emotionally. They don't have the same international experience as the Japan team, and perhaps it is too much for me to expect them to be able to navigate all these disappointments. Still half the battle during these qualifiers is mental. I hope the coach is able to remotivate and focus the team again.

Security Precautions in Japan
In contrast, Japan is ridiculously thorough about these World Cup-related games. The JFA has had recent experience co-hosting World Cup 02. Spectator entry into the stadium is organized -- people are let in in small group increments. All drink containers are confiscated, and the liquids are transferred to paper cups. All spectators go through the metal-detector inspection. There is a lottery system for buying tickets to the games -- no more tickets are given out beyond capacity. For those that couldn't get a ticket to the game, there is an option of gathering at the virtual stadium -- where fans can watch the game on large screen in a stadium with other supporters. It all sounds so dull and overly organized, I know, but with football being what it is, it would be a silly way for someone you love to die or get hurt.

Pre-Game Therapy
The team has been training in Saitama prefecture this week, preparing for tomorrow's WC Qualifier match against Bahrain. Yesterday, the team was able to get together with a high school football team to do a little practice game. This is it, the big one. I thought a therapeutic pre-game overview would help keep my mind focused til tomorrow. The sorry-looking visual aid to the left is my humble attempt to illustrate the starting lineup and formation... (Click the image to see the larger version so you can actually read the names!)

The biggest difference of course between this lineup and the one from the Iran game last week is obviously the switch back to the 3-5-2 system (from 4-4-2). The roster is also very familiar, with leftwing Santos and right defender Tanaka back in. Forward Suzuki is also expected to pair up with Takahara up front after injury. I am not surprised by the return to the 3-back -- the players had discussed the system issues amongst themselves, and they shared their views with Zico. I'm happy with the switch back -- not for any strategic reason. This team's golden rule is "balance", and the team maintains stability with the 3-back. Also, the comfort/confidence factor that the team has with the 3-back is significant going into such an important game.

The Aim of the Midfield
Ono collected his second yellow in the last game and has returned to Feyenoord today (though he had asked to remain to support the team). I know that Fukunishi and Inamoto are competing for the same position, and Ono and Endo are more or less considered similarly positioned. With Nakamura taking the only offensive midfield position available, there was also a question of what would happen to Hide Nakata. Well, Zico answered both questions by putting Hide in Ono's place, but putting him not completely in the "defensive" zone. If you look at the diagram, you'll see he is placed in between Fukunishi and Nakamura. In other words, he will be looked upon to play a more direct role in offensive plays. Nakamura will be vigorously marked. So the two tall/strong forwards (Takahara and Suzuki) will aim to hold the ball and allow the midfield and sides to rise up and move into better position. From there, faster and more accurate offensive plays can be created. Since it is expected that Bahrain will pack their players in front of their goal, one can't expect the forwads to create goals on their own with the numerical disadvantage.

This is a must-win game for Japan, and there is a lot of pressure on the team to succeed. The team has had a tough week, with over 24 hours of travel, changing systems, injuries, jet lag and so on. But psychologically they are a strong and mature team, and with their ability to communicate and think amongst themselves (and the freedom to do so) I am optimistic about tomorrow's game. If you have a moment or two around 7 pm Friday night (Japan time), please send some good energy our way! Our spirit is with You, Nippon.

[japan football soccer world cup qualifier]
Our Boys in France
Oh, goody! I am happy to learn that both Koji Nakata and Daisuke Matsui now have upped their own official websites. I was hoping they would come around and do this. Since they are now abroad, it is difficult to get any direct information about/from them. There are a number of J.League players who also have their own official website, but all the nine Euro-based players now have one (see right side column list of some player websites).

Koji Nakata (France Ligue 1, Marseille): first message is up! He writes that he was sorry to have caused so much trouble during his transfer process, and thankful for the warm wishes. He felt that this website would help the process of getting his thoughts and feeling across to supporters without the middleman. (rough summary/translation)

Daisuke Matsui (France Ligue2, Le Mans): not much is up yet, just basic info. Both Koji and Daisuke belong to the same management company, so it looks like they've decided to launch websites for these two at the same time. Both websites have the same design, and I hope they jazz it up a little later on when they have more content.

The main feature of these websites is of course their periodic messages to fans. Some players keep it pretty dull (sorry, Takahara!) and basic (let's please stop talking about the weather!). Some try to keep things very upbeat and cute (like Ono, whose Jack Russell Chocolat should have his own agent by now). Some incorporate various aspects of their lives (like Hide Nakata), and some concentrate on a brief analysis of recent games (like Nakamura).

Of any Japanese players, I have to say that Miyamoto's (Gamba, JLeague) website is the most thorough. Not surprising considering his personality, he ups a new message like clockwork every 7-8 days, while most other players are pretty bad about updating. He also has a pretty neat photo collection. Hayuma Tanaka (Marinos) is also very good about writing, and his messages are very personable and appealing. [japan football soccer national j-league]
Husky Girls -- FCTokyo Supporters, and an Ad
Japanese ads have lost much of their punch since the eighties bubble when there was so much money to throw around. Still, once in a while you still come across some charming commercials.

I just found this commercial for watching football (with FCTokyo supporters, woohoo!). It comes with English subtitles.

This commercial makes use of one of the main characteristics of the Japanese football scene -- the huge presence of young female supporters. Not a phenomenon that is unique to Japan, but still characterizes the supporter base enough to be an important factor in marketing endeavors. The cool thing about this commercial is that it appeals to both young men and women.
Tragedy After Joy: Fans Die
Five Iranian fans were trampled to death following the Iran qualifier match against Japan and forty more or so were injured, according to Reuters.

It didn't take a genius to at least consider the possibility that crowd control would be an issue at any game in Azadi Stadium (which officially has a 100,000 capacity but can hold up to 130,000 when you squeeze people into the steps and second-tier bleachers). And you could tell that this stadium was holding way more than the capacity, just by looking at how closely people were sitting.

I was really stuck by the Iran football fans during Japan's stay in Tehran. I don't think Japan has ever faced fans quite like that before. In China, sure there were mobs, but it was all political and belligerent. India's football fans seemed less interested in the game itself and more eager to catch a glimpse of Zico. Iran's fans are hard-core. Which makes me wonder how the Iran football association could have not tried to control the crowds a little better. It could have been the over-capacity numbers; it could have been other factors. But with so many games held in Azadi, there could have been better protocol in place... at least they should have anticipated the worst-case scenario (what would have happened if Iran lost?).

Japanese supporters numbered about 1000-1500 at this game. Several people were hit with thrown objects coming from the Iran supporters, and cut their heads. They were also forced to stay inside the stadium way after the game was over, until the crowds outside had dispersed. They faced similar problems in last year's Asia cup final against China -- getting locked in without water or food for several hours after the match in terrible heat and humidity in the dark.

Anyway, it's over. The deaths are unacceptable, especially after such a (surprisingly) uncontroversial game. Usually when you have such crowds and two top teams facing each other in a country where all the spectators are men and hardcore football supporters, some "incident" is bound to happen. I was worried that the referee (who is known to give out yellow/red cards like they were going out of style) would do more damage -- but he was relatively conservative for him. The only regrettable game-effecting mistake he made was giving Shinji Ono a yellow for tripping an Iran player, when he actually did not touch him. Unfortunately, this means Ono will not be able to play in the next game.

An interesting aside, the Singapore referee Maidin after the game was overheard saying, "This was just an unlucky game for Japan. Given the choice, I would probably would have prefered not to referee such a crucial game." (For more discussion about Mr. Maidin and refs, see my previous entry) I guess the two teams weren't the only ones coming into the game with some trepidation.
Power of Blogs and the Voice of Small People
When was it that blogs became such a powerful media force? I remember maybe five years ago, there was an article in the New York Times about how blogs were becoming a new trend and how the exposure of regular folk on the net (along with the simplicity of "googling" people) sometimes came with unexpected and regrettable consequences. I was watching CNN today, and was surprised to see that now they had a segment tracking activity on high-profile blogs. In the segment, they also addressed a new concern among bloggers about the movement to try and control blogging content -- part of this comes from new problems that have risen due to blog activity. The U.S. government (White House) has just recently allowed their first Blog correspondent...

Anyway, this profusion of information should be a good thing in principle. Us "little people" get to voice and read opinions from all over. Information is liquid... no, almost gaseous, in its ability to permeate and spread. However, there are downsides to it too, like being fired for what you put on a blog...

The Boy Who Cried "I snuck into a football game for free" Wolf?
Last week in Japan, an FCTokyo supporter apparently sent out a "merumaga" (email newsletter) saying that he had snuck into the Tokyo/Kashiwa Nabisco game without paying for a ticket. The people who read it went to the FCTokyo club management with the info. It turned out that the guy had actually bought a ticket, and had only sent out the message "for fun". Weeeellllllll... let this be a lesson to all of us! A-hem. The supporter had to formally apologize to both clubs, and his yearly home-game pass/ticket was confiscated. All for, what, two seconds of "harmless fun"? The internet may seem like a gigantic crowd where you feel like you can lose yourself among the masses. But it is made up of individual people, and more importantly you are never completely anonymous. Since the internet has the power to reach so many people so quickly, it makes me realize even more how important it is to take responsibility for what you say on the net.

Luckily very few people read my blog...heh heh.

We Lost
SIGH. It wasn't a complete shocker, but the JapanNT lost to Iran yesterday in their second qualifying game in Tehran. 2-1. Still, it has been a while since Japan lost a 'real' match, and I woke up this morning with a flash of dread before remembering why...

I haven't gone over the video yet. I may come back to the blog with more specific analysis if I find anything upon review of the tape, but for now I thought I'd jot down some of the overall themes that I saw.

First of all, I knew there were going to be lots of difficulties within the team this week. The Japan-based players were carrying many injuries; the Euro-based players were able to join the team for only three practices (including the one on the day of the match). There were several regular players missing, and the system was different.

Overall, the team did not have the same "team-psychic-ness" that it used to -- back when they were playing the first round qualifiers and Asia Cup, the play itself may have been less than impressive but the team had the ability to tune their minds together during the course of the game. A really good example, looking at it from a data perspective, is the Bahrain game during last year's Asia Cup. The team, down to 10 men for most of the 120 minutes, were able to create 4 goals during crucial periods of the game. In the
graph shown here, you can see that though possession went back and forth between the two teams, Japan was able to capitalize exactly when their possession was high. In other words, although they were running ragged, all players were able to come to the same conclusion at the same time just when it was most statistically probable to score a goal (the peak in the wave). Yesterday's game was lopsided, with a bunch of players eager to attack, and the rest prioritizing the defense. They were not able to capitalize when they were most likely to score, and that scatteredness showed.

Shunsuke Nakamura said as much in his post-game comments: "After the game was tied 1-1, I asked Zico what the plan should be, and was told to keep on the attack. I asked him again, shouldn't we be defending, and he told me that we should stay on the attack." Nakamura has the best "sense" of the team, having had longest play time with both the Japan-based players and the Euro-based players. If anyone, he would have had the most accurate feel for the team's situation -- and up until now the team had concentrated on getting the signal from him. However, yesterday, with two playmakers the team's leadership got split.

Perhaps the focus of yesterday's result is Zico. He chose the starting lineup, decided to change to the 4-back system, told the team to keep on the attack when the score was tied (which would have been a satisfactory result for this difficult match), and when to use which substitutes. Did he bring about the loss? Would different players resulted in a better result? Was he right to bring back Nakata to start with so little time to prepare? I was terribly annoyed with the media for spending so much time pointing the camera at Hide Nakata, but perhaps that is unavoidable considering who he is. Which brings up the question: how did Nakata's presence influence yesterday's result?

I'm not sure. There was so much attention on him, that even I have to admit that a big portion of my attention was distracted by his recall to the team this week. I don't want to place more significance on him than he deserves. But I am also positive that his return to the team created an imbalance that left the team unable to capitalize on their strengths and that exposed the weaknesses. And you could easily see that he played fine mostly, but he definitely did not have the speed and strength that he once used to. Japan's strengths have been team unity, Nakamura's playmaking and free kicks, Miyamoto's captaincy, and the team's patience/coolness in defense and doggedness particularly in away-environments. The weaknesses being (with this "new" lineup) defensive confusion due to switch in formation, lack of variety in offense. Previously, the lack of offensive variety was overcome by Nakamura's skills. The entire team trusted him and was behind him, and knew that their first priority was to get free kicks and corners. From there, the team knew that "this was it, the chance for a goal", and concentration was high -- reflected in a 35% success rate for Japan resulting from deadball situations last year. If anything, it would have been more satisfying to see the team support Nakamura, not sacrifice him to Iran's roughing up for the sake of Nakata's offensive plays.

Of course, this is a unique situation that Japan is facing right now -- with the polarization of Japan-base and Euro-based players last year (aside from Nakamura), the team has to now embark on the road to unification. And it wasn't going to be something that could be addressed in 3 days. How to make the conversion? Who will lead? Will they show a unified strength?

One decision I did like was the use of defensive mf Fukunishi in what many assumed would be Inamoto's position. As I said before, Fukunishi is a goal-getter and has the physical strength to throw up against strong players like Iran. I had been thinking that if anyone of the midfielders would get a goal, it would be Fukunishi. I felt like something was building up inside him ever since he missed that first header in the Kazakhstan friendly, followed by an equally unbelievable missed header in the Syria friendly, followed by his controversial "hand" ball goal in Jubilo's first J game against Marinos. This guy was ready for a honest-to-goodness goal.

The other surprise yesterday was the performance of fw Yanagisawa, who had been fading from our memory in this past year. But compared to the light and mistake-riddled performances of Tamada (and some Takahara), Yanagisawa's performance showed that he had enough speed and strength to still be considered viable in the NT despite his long time bench position in his club Messina. Maybe it was a result of his struggles in Italy; maybe it was the fact that he was more than revved to get the opportunity with the NT again. I was surprised at how much Tamada and Takahara were in disharmony with the midfield. It could be that they are used to following only Nakamura, deciding where to move when according to Nakamura's plays. Now with both him and Nakata to watch for, the two forwards were caught in some weird limbo.

With def mf Ono out of the next game against Bahrain (two yellow cards) and the return of Santos (left side) and Tanaka (right def) back in, the question will be whether the team will return to the 3-back formation again or keep what they did in the Iran game. The Bahrain match will be a must-win game. I don't really care which system they use in the end; I would like to see the team show a little more unity of mind and spirit. And that includes having set priorities contributing to defensive periods as well as how to utilize possession for a higher probability of scoring. Just increasing variety is not enough unless they increase the probability of a goal.

My last word on Nakata (really, I am sick of talking about him, but for some reason it ends up being "all about him")... he is merely one player in a team. The team had a good flow coming in from last year; they should have built ON it, not destroyed it to accomodate one player. I am glad Zico gave the captain's band to Miyamoto -- apparently it was because he felt Miyamoto performs better when he is captaining a game. It was the right thing to do. And I am really happy to see the rest of the team stepping up to the challenge of warmly welcoming him back on better footing than last spring. Now it will be up to him to find a natural place for himself, and tap into rhythm with the rest of the team while still adding a little bit of his own jazzy synchopation. Trying to force the team to his own rhythm just by beating the drum louder will not make the team any stronger, and the strain of it will ultimately undo him.
Rounding Up Qualifiers Game 2
Suck It Up: North Korea Complains about Unfair Ref
I hate the expression, but it just so aptly expressed my reaction to the news I just had to lead with it. Apparently after yesterday's qualifier against Bahrain the coach for NK said that the Thai referee was so biased towards Bahrain that he was going to make an official complaint to Fifa. I empathize -- what footballing fan doesn't understand the frustration of bad referees? But unless they can come up with strong proof of something, just dragging that mentality along is pretty bad for team morale. (Ahh...makes me recall the former China coach Haan who really took the prize for unsportsmanlike conduct in last year's Asia cup finals.)

And it doesn't help that North Korea have been quite the big baby during their return to the international football scene in the recent couple years. First there was the Asia Cup qualifier game against Iran (in Tehran), where a player faked being hit by a thrown firecracker, after which the team just up and left the game saying they couldn't play in such dangerous circumstances. They ended up appealing to Fifa/AFC, but were told that they forfeited the game (official result was set at 3-0 for Iran). Last year, before the official group drawing process, North Korea went to the AFC Chair and asked that they not be placed in the same group as South Korea (which of course was denied). When it was determined that NK would play in the same group as Japan, they contacted the Japanese football association requesting that all flags and anthems not be displayed/performed during either games (um, forgetting the meaning of "World" Cup, are we?). Right before the game with Japan, they threatened the JFA saying that should the NK team's trip to Japan result in any problems (security, supporters, media), they would retaliate by making things very difficult when Japan went to Pyongyang. The JFA walked on eggshells all January, and security measures were extreme and ridiculous, and luckily they have nothing to complain about.

Group A Upset?
Well, this was a bit of shocker for me, but Korea played Saudi Arabia away and lost 2-0 (second goal was penalty). I didn't watch the game, so I can't comment any further -- wonder if I can find some Korea fans who can shed some light on what the deal was.

Culture Shock
The World Cup Qualifiers, particularly in Asia, is an interesting vehicle through which to observe different cultures. Last year's qualifier game in Kolkata India taught me many new things about the state of Indian football and fans. Even though I had lived there for years as a child it was the first time I thought of it in the context of football.

Love To Death?
The overwhelming interest in this upcoming game between Japan and Iran has truly brought out the masses of press and football fans. From the airport to the training grounds, the JapanNT has pretty much been mobbed. Part of the problem is the lax security preparations provided to the team. After the practice, Zico and various players were essentially carried out to the bus on a crushing wave of mauling arms, kisses, and demands for autographs and souvenirs. It is an added stress on the team, and Iran management should have extended the courtesy of seeing that they were at least not physically harmed. Not that any harm was intended -- just that the overwhelming fervor with which they express their excitement for the game is quite different from anything we've seen visiting other countries. Press people have also been the focus of crowd interest -- some Japanese news people have been surrounded by a hundred curious fans who wanted to see what was inside their bags, who they thought would win the game, etc. There have been reports that some media people have had rocks thrown at them, but on the whole it seems that the energy is pure enthusiasm, unchanneled pre-game excitement, and curiosity.

Which sort of makes me wonder why Iran's football association has not better organized the ticketing system for the game. The price for tickets are something like 50yen, and in some articles I've read that upper balcony seats have become free. Making tickets free in a country where there are more than plenty of enthusiastic football fans seems to be asking for trouble. People who can't get in due to capacity will feel that they have been "robbed" of their right to watch the game. In the past, there have been problems like this, where over twenty thousand people who couldn't get in basically pushed themselves into the stadium. Hundreds of people had to spill over onto the pitch, and utter chaos ensued. Firecrackers, rocks, dead animals, etc., have been thrown onto the pitch in the past. This being such an important match for Iran, the football association should make sure no problems like this arise, particularly when thinking of the safety of the players (which include a big chunk of Asia's superstars).

Iran Confidential
The IranNT, on the other hand, have kept their training sessions closed to outsiders. I was surprised to hear that Iran would do so, given that they are in an advantageous position at home. Zico does not believe in closing any session (this has been his philosophy since he took the reins) , and though it leaves the team vulnerable to "spies" I honestly believe that a team cannot build mental strength and focus at the top class level without being able to show results despite being analyzed and having distracting spectators -- certainly if you consider the future pressure of playing in the spotlight at the World Cup. Though Iran coach and players have alluded slyly to some "secret strategy that would take advantage of Japan's weak points", I am a bit disappointed in Iran for not doing things in the open -- it would have been cool to see "two top teams with nothing to hide".

NT Update
The hot topic of today's news seems to be the conflict of opinion between Hide Nakata and defensive midfielder Takashi Fukunishi in yesterday's practice. The differences of opinion revolved around defensive responsibilities in a particular situation. Last year, before Nakata dropped out to injury, the main troublespot for the NT was the lack of assertion among the Japan-based players particularly when dealing with Nakata. Some of it had to do with confidence, some of it had to do with Nakata's international status and the unwavering trust Zico had in him. It used to be "Nakata's JapanNT".

However, after the ordeals and accomplishments of this past year, the team (particularly the Japan-based players) have developed a strong sense of responsibility and confidence -- this is now "the Team's team". The fact that Fukunishi, Akira Kaji and the other defensive players asserted their own opinions about what they thought they should do (not just giving in to Nakata's wishes like previously) reflects a valuable growth. The responsibility for the team, therefore, is no longer Nakata's alone -- and I hope this point in particular makes it into Nakata's head. He was frustrated last year because the team never fought back or questioned him on anything. And now they are. Despite the tension that these debates bring, airing things out in the open is much better than letting things stew belowground unaddressed. Nakata has a tendency to be bossy verbally, whereas Nakamura suggests ideas through his play -- the right and left "brains" of ZicoJapan lead in different ways. It will be up to Tsuneyasu Miyamoto to organize the team's thoughts and bring it to Zico's attention.

As important as these "arguments" are to the growth of the team, I'd also like to see Nakata step back a little and observe how other players communicate with each other. This team has gone through a lot of stressful situations together and I believe they have found a good wavelength in which they exchange opposing views and solve problems. If he can pick up on some of that, it may help him understand the team better and get his own opinions across.

From Frying Pan Into Fire
As for reports on Nakata's performance (since he is the big risk factor), it did not look too good during yesterday's practice. Various media sources have said he looked heavy-footed, lost the ball frequently, made unbelievable mistakes and lacked smooth passing with teammates. He ended up destroying the tempo of their attack. It is understandable that he is not perfect, considering his long absence from the team; however if he is truly not ready to play in this crucial game, he should be the first to recognize his limits and speak up if that's the case. At least wait until the Bahrain game. If not him, then I hope Zico looks realistically at what is best for the entire team. Since I can't watch the practices myself, I cannot honestly say what is better or worse.
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