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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

J. WALKING

Zico, Japan both in jeopardy without victory over Bahrain


It's time for the bickering to stop and for Japan to knuckle down and focus on Wednesday's crucial World Cup qualifier against Bahrain.

Jeremy Walker

It's also time for Zico to show some coaching acumen and firm man-management before it's too late, possibly for him but not necessarily for the team to make it to Germany.

Anything other than a Japan victory at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night would put Zico's job in jeopardy, as there would be just three games remaining -- the next two of them away from home -- to secure one of the two guaranteed places from Group B at the 2006 World Cup.

A draw would not be satisfactory, and a defeat would be humiliating, as it would probably mean Japan's best chance of qualifying for Germany would be via the playoff between the two third-place teams, followed by a final two-leg eliminator against the fourth-place team from CONCACAF.

This is not the kind of scenario JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi had envisaged when he single-handedly appointed Zico as Philippe Troussier's successor in July 2002.

Kawabuchi was hoping that Zico, a genius on the ball for Brazil, would release the players from the tactical straitjacket imposed by Troussier and allow them to express themselves in flamboyant samba style.

It hasn't worked, and the team has gone backward in terms of organization and self-confidence to such an extent that players are now openly questioning the coach and each other.

Perhaps the one quality a coach needs that Zico has in abundance is luck, as he proved in last-gasp qualifying victories over Oman at Saitama last year and North Korea at the same venue last month.

This kind of luck, with injury-time winners following bizarre defensive blunders, cannot go on, and Japan will have to beat a confident Bahrain team on merit.

The Bahrainis will be fired up and aiming for three points after beating North Korea 2-1 in Pyongyang on Friday, as a victory at Saitama would give them a four-point cushion over Japan.

Zico will change his formation again, abandoning his clumsy 4-4-2 system for the more fluid 3-5-2 the players prefer.

This will mean that his two most creative players, Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, will have more central roles instead of being stuck out on the wings like they were in Tehran. Nakata will take over from the suspended Shinji Ono in defensive midfield, and Nakamura will play behind the top two with a license to thrill.

This should provide a better balanced team, and will relieve the lightweight Nakamura from the defensive duties he clearly cannot handle, despite his experience in Italy.

Although Bahrain looked sharp on the break and defended resolutely in Pyongyang, Japan should have enough big-match experience and individual quality to take the three points.

But Zico must instill confidence and unity among the players and show the Bahrainis the respect their recent performances deserve.

Eagle-eyed TV viewers may have been surprised to see a Japanese flag adorned with the words "West Ham" at the Azadi Stadium on Friday night.

It belonged to 29-year-old Atsushi Kamiyama, a student of English and of the English game who became a Hammers fan in 1996.

"I love football, especially English football, and I just went to England to find my favorite English team," he explained.

"It was my dream to go to England and experience real football. I went to watch Arsenal, Leeds United and Liverpool, and most of the games were really boring, so I was quite gutted about it.

"On my last day, I went to West Ham United against Tottenham. It was a London derby on a Monday night and West Ham won 4-3. That game was really good and the atmosphere was electric. That was the stuff I had imagined, and it made me a West Ham fan."

Kamiyama, an Urawa Reds supporter at home, could not speak a word of English at the time, but neither could most of the West Ham team.

"I decided to learn English so I could know more about football, and I still go to see West Ham almost every year."

His learning materials included the Brit-cult mag Loaded, plus DVDs of the comedy classic "Only Fools and Horses." Now he's a fluent English speaker, and is hoping to set a trend in Japan with his West Ham Hinomaru.

"The Japanese carry flags, but they just say 'gambare' or a player's name. I think that's totally ridiculous. In England, all the Union Jacks and flags of St. George have the names of the fans' hometowns, favorite teams or local pubs. I keep telling my mates about this but they don't understand the concept.

"I am thinking of making one with the name of my hometown, Tokorozawa . . . but it's a bit long."

For many Japanese fans in Tehran, the chilling atmosphere would have been something new, and not particularly pleasant as the Iranians used the "away" end as a giant garbage bin.

One young Japanese woman looked like she had just gone five rounds with Mike Tyson, as she applied ice to a painful swelling under her right eye.

Her mistake had been to turn away from the pitch to look up at the giant screen behind the Japanese fans, only to be hit in the face by an apple hurled from the second tier.

Another Japanese fan, 53-year-old housewife Toshiko Noguchi, from Zushi, was struck four times by a variety of Iranian missiles, fortunately none of them nuclear.

A piece of rock-hard bread, a cucumber, a plastic flag pole and a pet bottle all managed to pick her out among the 2,000 or so Japanese supporters, 800 of whom had traveled on a "dangan" (bullet) tour with no hotel sleepover.

Before the match, Iranian security guards mingled with the Japanese fans to spot garbage-throwers from above, and point them out to colleagues.

But once the game started, and especially when Iran scored, the guards went just as crazy as the rest of the Azadi Stadium as the rubbish came flying down.

No, this was certainly not Sanfrecce Hiroshima against Vissel Kobe on a pleasant Saturday afternoon.

Player of the Week: Tokyo Verdy 1969 striker Washington. The Brazilian target man maintained his solid start to the season in all competitions with a headed winner against Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the Nabisco Cup.

Quote of the Week: "We are so used to the 3-5-2 shape that you do not even need to look up when you pass the ball."

-- Midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, blaming Zico's system for his feeble performance against Iran in Tehran last week.



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