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Red Alert for 2005?
A Mini Asia Cup
Yesterday, the final schedule for the East Asian Cup (7/31-8/07 in Korea) was announced. It looks like both men's and women's teams will be squaring off against North Korea for their first games. The other two nations represented are Korea and China. Well, I don't have to point out what a politically charged tournie this will be. From what we saw of last year's Asia Cup, China will be rip-roaring to go against especially Japan (though I understand they have other issues against Korea). Korea and Japan have always been rivals, and having the games held in Korea will mean that Japanese supporters will be ridiculously outnumbered. And who know how long the Takejima problem will drag? North Korea will probably not send any supporters -- however, Korean spectators will undeniably root for their North Korean brothers. This tournie may actually make the Asia Cup in China look like warm-up. Right now, the Japanese government is being bombarded with protests and diplomatic difficulty from all three countries. Things could get worse if Japan decides on sanctions against North Korea some time in the next few months.

Get In, Get Out
Japan's upcoming away game against Iran has also kept embassies busy. Azadi stadium in Tehran can hold up to 120,000 spectators, and about 1,500 will be Japanese. Alerts have been issued from the embassy there to all supporters outlining how to dress and behave. Not surprisingly, the biggest problem will be for the women. The behavior between men and women will also be under scrutiny. There have even been warnings that arrests could be made depending on certain offenses. Yikes. Luckily, Japanese supporters are rather conservative to begin with, and are well-behaved in general. The supporters are mainly comprised of Japanese living in Iran (in which case they are more than aware of how to act) plus those that are coming from Japan on a direct tour (in which case they arrive, watch, and leave with no time to "get in trouble"). Iran supporters will be populated by men only, and depending on the outcome of the game things could get more heated than normal (firecrackers thrown in, etc., is pretty normal fare there).

Wear Helmets
Hayuma Tanaka, sidehalf for Yokohama Marinos, just updated a new message to his website after returning from Indonesia where their team played in an ACL game. He recounted the overwhelming away environment, and said that the presence of Marinos supporters who had made the trip to cheer them on helped breathe spirit back into the team. At the end of the game, when Marinos won 2-0, the Marinos supporters began chanting cheer songs to celebrate. The Indonesian spectators began throwing drink bottles at them but they did not stop singing. Tanaka said he was tremendously touched when he saw that. Going from ankle-deep snow in the J.League game against Cerezo Osaka to the 35 degree celcius humid climate of Southeast Asia had really taken a toll on the already-limping Marinos. The supporters' presence made all the difference to them, he said. The ACL games this year will prove to be an enormous challenge for both Marinos and Jubilo -- not only will they face a tough schedule, but will also have to get results in rough environments abroad. Climate differences, travel, bad pitch, referees, etc. Japanese players are used to relatively luxurious conditions, and their ability to overcome whatever disadvantages will determine their survival in the tournament.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My
The Away match that probably has the JFA most worried this year is the NT qualifier against North Korea in Pyongyang. An acceptable grass pitch is unavailable, so Japan has agreed to artificial turf. However, even the fake turf has JFA people shaking their heads as it seems to be very old and hardened. A few decades ago, when Japan played in Pyongyang on artificial turf, a Japanese player broke his skull after taking a spill. There have even been worries about whether proper lighting will be available. In addition to that, Japan will be traveling in from an away game against Bahrain prior to the NK match. This means that the players will have very little time to get used to the fake turf. JFA concerns also stretch to shuttling up to 5,000 Japanese supporters. As I mentioned above, further concerns may include political tensions if the Japanese government decides to take (economic or other) actions against North Korea. I hope the AFC keeps a close eye on this match-up and works with both sides to keep things fair.

After the North Korea/Japan game last month and Asia Cup last year, I have pretty much had my fill of the "political" getting in the way of a football game. I also am tired of seeing unsportsmanlike behavior among spectators. But I guess that would mean I'd have to stop watching football altogether...! sigh. Well, the one thing I am proud of is that both Japanese supporters and players have kept high standards for themselves. I hope they continue to set equally high standards for themselves in this year's myriad tough match-ups.
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