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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Ardiles says Japan long way from joining soccer's elite

Staff writer

Argentine soccer legend Osvaldo Ardiles believes Lionel Messi is the best player the world has ever seen, but warns Japan will never produce anyone approaching that level until it fully embraces the beautiful game.

News photo
Candid: Machida Zelvia manager Osvaldo Ardiles speaks at a Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday. YOSHIAKI MIURA

Ardiles returned to Japan for the fourth time in his managerial career at the start of this year, leading Machida Zelvia into its debut J2 campaign after having previously worked at Shimizu S-Pulse, Yokohama F. Marinos and Tokyo Verdy over a 16-year association with the J. League.

The 1978 World Cup winner is better placed than most to judge the evolution of Japanese soccer, but Ardiles believes the roots of the sport must burrow deeper if his current home is to match the achievements of his native country.

"Japan moved very quickly to a good level, but the next step is to be with the elite," Ardiles told a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan earlier this week in Tokyo. "That is the most difficult step to make. At the moment, Japan has kind of touched the ceiling. I would like to be optimistic, but it's an open question whether they will reach that next step.

"It's not only football — it's a question of Japan's culture. For example, would (Diego) Maradona have been Maradona if he was born in Japan? I doubt it.

"Culturally, Japan is still behind what you need to have players who will be in the elite. For that to happen, football has to be much more important than it is right now in Japan."

Producing world-class talent has certainly never been a problem for Argentina. Maradona and Alfredo di Stefano would feature in any greatest-player-of-all-time debate alongside the likes of Pele and Johan Cruyff, but Ardiles believes 24-year-old compatriot Messi has already eclipsed them all.

"I played with Maradona for about seven years, and he was absolutely magnificent," said Ardiles. "After that I thought I would never see a player like that again. It looked impossible for somebody to be like Maradona. But I have to say that Messi is even better.

"Players today are better than before. They are better prepared, they have a better touch technically, they eat better, their boots are lighter, the ball is lighter. So everything is much better now and because of that I believe that Messi is the best player ever."

Ardiles may have won the World Cup with Argentina, but his name will always be just as readily associated with England.

The former midfielder's move to Tottenham Hotspur was unprecedented in pre-Premier League 1978, but it was the start of a love affair that lasted beyond his playing career and into management.

"It is very difficult to be the first one to break the mold," he said. "I did it as a player and I did it as a manager. I remember when I arrived it was very difficult. I look at players coming now, and in a way it is pretty easy.

"When I arrived, I had to go to the Argentine Embassy to read the paper one week later. Not to mention little things like the food. Believe me, the food in England was awful at the time."

Ardiles admits he is not sure whether he regards himself as Argentine or English these days, but the recent 30-year anniversary of the Falklands War has brought back painful memories.

"There have been a lot of comments from both sides and it's not healthy," he said. "I wish the relationship could be better. I want to see the country where I was born and the country that adopted me be as close as possible, but right now they are growing apart.

"In 1982, for me it was tragic. It was an enormous amount of pressure, and the worst part of my life. The people at Tottenham never changed, but with the general public it was a problem at the time.

"I couldn't win because I learned very quickly that the first casualty of war is the truth. You say something and it doesn't appear that way in the papers. So I decided it was better not to say anything."

Ardiles has always preferred to immerse himself in his work, and that has not changed since he swapped his playing kit for a suit and tie. A wandering managerial career has taken the 59-year-old to places as diverse as Israel, Paraguay and Croatia, but the stability of Japan maintains an enduring allure.

"I love coaching," he said. "I do a lot of different things, like being an ambassador for Tottenham and working on TV, and it's fine but you want to be in charge. I can't play football anymore, so to be a coach is the second-best thing.

"In Japan, it's great because I know I am not going to be sacked, so you can plan. In Argentina, if I invite friends I tell them you have to come tomorrow. You don't know how long you're going to be there. Results right now are not so good for us, but I know that my job is long-term."

The J. League landscape, however, has changed since Ardiles first arrived in 1996. High-profile foreign signings like Zico and Dunga have long been a thing of the past, but the Argentine believes Japan must match the growing ambition of regional rival China if it wants to reach a higher level.

"The J. League has to be better," he said. "That means there have to be better teams, better coaches, better players. They need more money to attract the very best foreign players, because at the moment they are not.

"In China you have (Nicolas) Anelka going and maybe (Didier) Drogba going. Japan used to be like that, but it's not any more. This is what is needed."

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