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Wednesday, March 9, 2005

J. WALKING

Battle of Saitama causes early concern for J. League


The J. League season is only one weekend old, but it would be no exaggeration to say there is a crisis brewing.

Jeremy Walker

After events at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Saturday, and to a lesser extent at Kashiwa the following day, it is clear that the thorny subject of diving and gamesmanship has escalated from a problem to a plague.

At Saitama, Urawa defender Alpay Ozalan was sent off for violent conduct, and eight other players -- four each from Reds and Kashima Antlers -- were shown the yellow card in an ugly confrontation.

The Turkish tough nut received a straight red card for grabbing Antlers striker Takayuki Suzuki around the chin and shoving him to the ground in the latest round of a duel that started last season.

Suzuki, as everyone knows, does not need a second invitation to hit the deck, and there could be only one possible outcome for Alpay.

After the match, the rival managers blamed each other for the distasteful spectacle, which was a poor advert for the game when the setting -- over 52,000 fans in a space-age stadium bathed in winter sunshine -- offered so much more.

So which manager was right?

The answer is simple.

They both were.

Suzuki has a reputation for diving and feigning injury. It's part of his armory, just like his ability to lead the line, shield the ball with his back to goal as defenders snap at his ankles, and to score goals.

He does all these things well, but it's not pleasant for the purist watching Suzuki go about his business.

However, if his aim was to provoke Alpay -- and the experienced World Cup defender fell into the trap and blew a fuse, which he did, with bells on -- then it was mission accomplished for Suzuki as Kashima won 1-0 against 10 men.

And it's no good Reds manager Guido Buchwald pointing an accusing finger at Suzuki when his own star striker, Emerson, has been on more successful diving expeditions than Jacques Cousteau.

Even the Inter Milan players got fed up with the Brazilian flyer in a friendly at Saitama last summer, one Italian defender handing out his own justice by kicking the ball at him as he lay on the pitch (again).

There's another area, though, where Buchwald has every right to complain about Toninho Cerezo's team.

That's with the constant time-wasting and spoiling tactics of the Antlers players, who took it in turns to lie down and wait for the referee to stop the game.

The stretcher appeared more times than in an omnibus edition of "ER," but after a few seconds of treatment on the sideline the players were miraculously cured and returned to the pitch, running around like spring chickens.

This is where referees must be strong, keep the game moving and tell the player to get up and get on with it.

What they fear, however, is that a player may, in fact, be seriously injured, or even have swallowed his tongue in a life-threatening situation. Imagine the abuse, even more than usual, a referee would face under those circumstances if he chose to ignore a stricken player because so many others had cried wolf earlier in the game.

On the subject of diving, Suzuki may be disappointed to learn that he has lost his crown at the top of the J. League rankings.

According to an inside source on the referees' circuit, Kashiwa Reysol striker Keiji Tamada is now regarded as the best -- or worst -- offender, and it was easy to see why during Sunday's 1-1 draw with Kawasaki Frontale.

A fast and elegant, predominantly left-footed, player, Tamada didn't used to dive, but with a national team callup comes certain obligations.

Now a star in Japan, he can fall over whenever he wants and have thousands of Reysol fans chanting his name when he staggers bravely to his feet and rejoins the battle.

On occasions it was laughable, but fortunately the referee, Takuji Shiokawa, did not fall for it every time.

Although the new season is in its infancy, the J. League should consider calling a summit of coaches and laying down the law before it gets out of control. Some would say it already has.

As one former referee commented: "That was just the first week. Imagine what it's going to be like in the 34th."

Call it "Animal Magic."

Maybe it was no coincidence that FC Tokyo walloped Albirex Niigata 4-0 on a night when the home fans were galvanized by none other than Heigo "Animal" Hamaguchi.

The shaven-headed bruiser, a former pro wrestling star and excitable father of five-time women's world champion Kyoko Hamaguchi, has a reputation for over-the-top rallying cries.

Last seen attempting to throttle the Olympic judges after his daughter's shock defeat in Athens, Hamaguchi was hired by FC Tokyo to fire up the supporters.

Clearly it worked, as the Tokyo fans spurred on their team to an exhilarating victory at Ajinomoto Stadium in Chofu.

"Mr. Hamaguchi lives in Tokyo and loves Tokyo, and we needed him to give us some power at the start of the season," said the club's managing director, Yutaka Murabayashi.

"He has a strong image and good spirit, and said that he always expects his team, or his daughter, to win when he attends."

Ten minutes before kickoff, Animal was let loose on the Tokyo fans and delivered a customary, ear-splitting display.

But it was a "one-night only" performance by Animal, who is now back in his cage counting down the days to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when Kyoko will finally have her golden day.

Well, that's what he says, and would you argue with him?

Call this one "Osim Magic."

Two goals down with less than 10 minutes to play at Nagoya, who would have thought that JEF United (Ichihara Chiba Japan Asia) could come back and snatch a point?

Probably not even JEF's manager, Ivica Osim.

But Masataka Sakamoto gave JEF hope with a flying header, and Seiichiro Maki made it 2-2 in injury time with a header that slipped through the hands of Grampus 'keeper Seigo Narazaki.

With Japan's first-choice 'keeper, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, nursing a fractured index finger, Narazaki is expected to come in for this month's World Cup qualifying matches away to Iran and at home to Bahrain.

Better make that "was" expected, as Zico may be tempted now to take a longer look at FC Tokyo's Yoichi Doi.

As for Osim, a 63-year-old coach who has been there, done that and got the track suit (he's been wearing the same one for three seasons), he just can't stop JEF from doing the unexpected.

No wonder they call it "Osim Magic" in Ichihara (and Chiba).

Player of the Week: Naoto Sakurai. Making his debut for his hometown club Omiya Ardija, the former Reds and Verdy striker scored his team's first goal in J1 to set up a 2-0 victory at Gamba Osaka.

Quote of the Week: "In Japan, when one talks of football hooliganism, it is hordes of young girls in mini-skirts who throw teddy bears on to the pitch."

-- Former national team coach Philippe Troussier, on the culture shock awaiting Koji Nakata at Olympique Marseille. Good to see the Dictionary of Troussierisms is still expanding.



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