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Mitsuo Ogasawara Turns 26
Browsing around the Antlers supporters' blogs today, I learned that it was Mitsuo Ogasawara's 26th birthday today. Happy Birthday! [photo from tv-asahi.co.jp]

ogasa.jpgThis is his eighth year as a professional J-Leaguer (coincides nicely since he wears the #8 jersey!) at Kashima Antlers. His career until now has been one that any professional footballer in Japan would be proud of, but the view of Ogasawara from the general footballing community is that "he can do more".

Ogasawara was called to the U-17/-19/-23 national teams, was part of the World Youth team in 99, the Kashima Antler's ACL team in 02; he was called by former NT coach Troussier for the World Cup 2002 team, and is continuously called to the NT by present coach Zico. From 2001-04, he was chosen by the J-League Awards as part of the "Best Eleven". He played his first international A match in 2002 (vs. Ukraine), scored his first A match goal in 2004 (vs. Malaysia). This year, he has inherited the Captain's armband from Koji Nakata (who now plays under Troussier at Olympique Marseille in France). So, what's the deal with everyone giving him such a hard time?

Well, Ogasawara had the "bad luck" of being born perhaps a few years too early...at least, this is how I sometimes tend to think of it. He ended up being born into Japan's "golden generation", the one that includes stars like Shunsuke Nakamura, Shinji Ono, Naohiro Takahara, and Junichi Inamoto. There was always a lot of expectation surrounding his future and potential from the late 90s.

He has been a Kashima boy from the beginning, and has nicely climbed the ladder to the present where he and Masashi Motoyama (pic bottom) are given the gamemaking responsibilities. However, many feel that by now he could have grown more, broken through to the next level. It is a frustrating position for him to be in as he has the stability, skills and pedigree no question -- he can play both offensive and defensive mf, is one of the Kashima and the NT's most trusted place-kickers, and has solid dribbling skills as well as a long-range shot. But on the NT, he is always one step behind his immediate rivals for the playmaking positions (Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata). Compared to Nakamura, Ogasawara still lacks the imagination and "magic" that seduces football fans. Compared to Hide Nakata, he lacks the powerful physique and tough mentality. Most of all, people feel that his relatively comfortable time at Kashima has robbed him of valuable "suffering and growth" time that the others have gained playing in the demanding environments abroad. Which is not entirely his fault, as he is at the mercy of others with regard to transfers. There have been some interest by Italian teams like Messina and I think Lazio (I forgot what some of the other teams have been), but nothing ever came out of it (yet).

As was clear even during his time at the NT during the World Cup in 2002, this is not a new problem/challenge for Ogasawara. In this interview video just before the last World Cup (in Japanese), he shared that "stepping up to the next level is the eternal challenge" for him and that he has to continue to search for what exactly it is that he himself is missing, what is expected from him in order to become a regular member of the starting eleven. The irony is that while Ogasawara was chosen for the 2002 World Cup team, Shunsuke Nakamura was shockingly dropped -- but Nakamura used that disappointment to make a hasty transfer to Serie A's Reggina where he struggled painfully for two years before finally finding himself in a team-leading position at the club last year. Prior to Nakamura's exclusion from the World Cup squad there was even talk of an offer from Real Madrid; however, Real Madrid was not willing to sign a player who was not playing for his NT and Nakamura ended up taking the next offer he got, from Reggina.

Last year, Koji Nakata (who was captain at Kashima, pic bottom) nominated Ogasawara to be the Players' Representative -- basically his responsibility was to make sure that the "voice" of the players got heard by club management, and vice versa. In a rare on-tv interview (NHK) a couple months ago, Ogasawara admitted in an unusually open and talkative manner that it was a great learning experience for him. He had never thought of himself as that type, but the more he talked to teammates and stood up for their opinions in front of club officials the more he discovered a new side of himself. He learned to be a better communicator. Last year he had a tough year balancing the duties of the NT (being part of all the rosters but used in games infrequently) with his playing at Kashima -- his fitness suffered, and he admitted that he ended up not being able to do much good anywhere.

As I've discussed before, one of the biggest hurdles that the Japan NT faced last year was trying to deal with the difficulties of reintegrating overseas players while keeping the motivation of Japan-based players up. Zico started off 2004 with the stubborn use of overseas players who joined the team 1-2 days before starting in qualifier games, despite the fact that Japan-based players were showing good form and motivation from the beginning of the entire training week. Right before the NT qualifier against Singapore last year, there was a "scandal" during the NT training camp in Japan -- a number of the players went out of the camp without permission for a night of eating and drinking. They ended up causing an incident at a restaurant, and it was headline news in sports papers for a while. The eight players involved (Ogasawara was one) were mostly non-starting players, who had gotten tired of being treated like outsiders by Zico, who had been clearly treating the non-starters more as dummy-opponents instead of part of the "team". They were shut out of tactical explanations. The morale among the non-starters was very low, stress was high, and Ogasawara was one of the most vulnerable to that bad atmosphere. (As punishment, Zico cut everyone involved in the mess out of the team -- some players like Nobuhisa Yamada who plays for Reds have not been called back since.)

In the NHK interview, he admitted that he was not a strong person in that department. He said he truly respected strong people like Atsu Miura and Toshiya Fujita who had even less playing time than he did and still managed to contribute to the team morale during non-game times, whether it was during dinner or practices. Ogasawara used the month in China during the Asia Cup as an example. Though he felt himself getting pulled down by the disappointment of not given a starting position despite the six consecutive games that month, he looked around and saw the other non-starters keeping spirits up and participating in the practices maintaining a high motivation. He said that seeing them like that, he knew he couldn't start complaining or feeling low and it saved him. Being substituted in sporadically is not the same as having a consistent starting position, especially for someone in the playmaker's position, and though he had some amount of play time throughout the year the lack of continuity made it difficult for him to show the results he wanted.

Ogasawara got his long-awaited starting position in an honest-to-goodness real qualifier game this February in Japan's game against North Korea. He was given the playmaking position among an entirely Japan-based team. In the interview, he said that though he had always thought what an incredible thing it must be to be playing in a World Cup qualifier (watching as a teenager), he did not feel nervous at all. Instead he said that he just had an immense joy at being able to play. He even scored a goal in the first few minutes of the game off a free kick. He was also able to contribute to the second goal in injury time that gave Japan a win. But the assessment of his performance during that game is mixed -- and he was ultimately overshadowed once again by the substitution of Nakamura in the last twenty-five minutes of the second half (after North Korea equalized). Nakamura's presence opened up space for Ogasawara to play the type of football he is good at, and I think they paired up nicely as offensive halfs. Unfortunately for him, the reintegration of Hide Nakata after a year's absence may be giving him some bad deja vus. Upon Nakata's return to the NT last month, Zico handed Hide the starter's position alongside Nakamura against Iran on his first day back without hesitation.

Well, the media have baited Ogasawara on that development, and he was again easily lured to comment that he was disappointed that someone who had not been playing constantly at their club, had not played with the NT for over a year, suddenly could be handed the starters position so easily. Zico apparently had taken Ogasawara aside, and asked him to "be patient" this time. Since this is his birthday, and he is a year older and wiser, I hope he is able to manage his motivation and feelings better this year. It is true, Nakata's return has caused difficulties not only for Ogasawara but most of the other members as well. But with the blossoming of his leadership abilities at Kashima, I hope that Ogasawara can also use last year's experiences and come out a stronger person -- keep an eye on the big picture, and remember that "luck" happens when opportunity coincides with preparation. There are still many opportunities for him ahead.

As I mentioned above, interviews with Ogasawara that make it to the magazine or tv sports show are relatively rare. I think part of why people have a harsher opinion towards him is that most people misunderstand more than understand him -- he has a slightly quaint personality and doesn't open up easily. He is not particularly savvy around the media, and when he opens his mouth he does not put a "spin" on things the way most other players do -- some think he is childish, but I think he is strangely honest. I don't think he says anything that is particularly different from what everyone else on the team is thinking.

Anyway, today being his birthday, most of his fans are hoping to hear that his Antlers teammates have celebrated in the traditional Brazilian fashion -- of attacking him with raw eggs and flour after practice. The rumor is that his teammates are definitely up to something...! teamegg.jpg

(photo from Zico's blog; pic taken on goalkeeper Yoichi Doi's birthday during the Asia Cup 04 tournament in China. The players have just crushed raw eggs on Doi's head and covered it in flour. Doi, middle in white shirt, with his arm around Ogasawara. Ogasa's offensive half partner at Antlers, Motoyama, is pictured in yellow bib up front, and former Kashima captain Koji Nakata on very right.)

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上記広告は1ヶ月以上更新のないブログに表示されています。新しい記事を書くことで広告を消せます。