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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

J. WALKING

Zico too hasty in returning captain's role to Nakata


It wasn't a surprise to see Hidetoshi Nakata back in the national squad for Japan's upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Iran and Bahrain.

Jeremy Walker

After all, Japan's J. League midfield quickly fell to pieces against North Korea last month, and Zico will need all of Nakata's experience in the white-hot atmosphere of the Azadi Stadium in Tehran.

But it was something of a surprise when Zico announced this week that Nakata would return as captain, above his successful stand-in, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto.

In Nakata's yearlong absence, resulting from groin and back injuries, Miyamoto has done an excellent job.

From his position as libero, the Gamba Osaka defender is in the perfect place to see what's going on in front of him in all areas of the field.

He is a calm and reassuring presence at the back, and this style of firm but unruffled leadership has worked well, especially away from home in a hostile environment such as China.

But Zico will look to Nakata again to lead the team, provided the Fiorentina midfielder comes through the four-day training camp in Frankfurt unscathed ahead of the March 25 date with Iran.

Is Zico making a mistake by placing too much responsibility on the shoulders of one player, albeit his best?

Before he suffered his groin injury last April, Nakata had been chief playmaker, captain and coach as he attempted to bring order to Zico's make-it-up-as-you-go-along tactics.

In fact, he was such a dominant figure it wouldn't have been a surprise to see Nakata driving the team bus and choosing the menu in the hotel.

Clearly Nakata's own game suffered, and his strong personality and influence seemed to intimidate other members of the squad.

The last point, however, is hardly Nakata's fault, and Zico has acknowledged this by saying he remains his first-choice skipper.

It is the job of the other players, reasons Zico, to step up and show more character and leadership qualities, and he is right.

On this occasion, however, maybe Zico should have opted for continuity and stability and kept Miyamoto as captain.

This would have allowed Nakata to ease his way back into the squad and concentrate on his own performance and his role in the team rather than trying to think for everyone else.

There is no doubt the team has progressed in the year Nakata has been out, but the danger is it will revert to a one-man band if Zico asks too much, too soon of his most experienced international player.

There's always an added incentive to make the trip to Ajinomoto Stadium in Chofu, west Tokyo.

That's because of the continental Europe-style coffee and sandwich bar on the street next to Tobitakyu Station.

When the sun's shining it's the perfect place to enjoy a pre-match snack, or a post-match beer, and the menu caters for the Italian palate.

Take your pick from the Bologna, Fiorentina, Milano, Roma, Inter or Parma sandwiches, but you won't find a Reggina (maybe it was left on the bench this week).

Rumor has it the owner is considering adding the following to the list:

Chelsea: Very tasty, with expensive ingredients from around the world. But it needs a lot of confidence and a big mouth to tackle this one.

Real Madrid: Looks fantastic, white and light and fluffy, but it doesn't quite do the job. Too much filling and not enough ballast to hold it all together.

Arsenal: It's a winner at home against the largely bland English competition, but compared to its Euro rivals it continues to be left behind. Maybe next year it will make the grade, or maybe the one after that.

Manchester United: Plenty of flavor around the edges, but it's gone stale in the middle. Has the long-serving chef been around too long? Dare anyone tell him?

Norwich City: This one goes down very easily, but beware! It might come back up just as quickly.

If anyone has any other soccer sandwich ideas, send your recipe to jwalker@gol.com

There were a few old favorites at the Verdy-S. Pulse game on Saturday.

Ruy Ramos, Tsuyoshi Kitazawa, Jose Luis Chilavert . . .

Yes, the extrovert former Paraguayan 'keeper was there, but keeping an uncharacteristically low profile.

His agent said the now retired Chilavert's engagements included a talk show in Machida, and also to promote the "matecha" tea famous in South America.

Aware of Chilavert's strong personality and the awe in which the Japanese fans and media hold him, Verdy officials decided to "hide him upstairs" in an executive lounge, from where he could see both goalkeepers finish on top in a 0-0 draw -- and neither of them try to score from a free-kick at the other end.

Player of the Week: Yokohama's Hideo Oshima.

Takeshi Okada needed some goals from his depleted F. Marinos squad, and the winter signing from Montedio Yamagata gave him all three in a 3-2 win at Cerezo Osaka.

It was the perfect hat trick: one with the left, one with the right and one with the head.

Quote of the Week: "It is not a done deal, but if it happens -- and it is likely to happen -- then we can achieve anything."

-- Frank Lowy, chairman of the Australian soccer federation, on the Socceroos' wish to jump from Oceania to Asia.

An Aussie presence would certainly increase the competition for Japan.



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