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Wednesday, May 4, 2005


No fans at neutral venue makes no sense at all

FIFA came down surprisingly hard on North Korea last week with that "triple whammy" of sanctions.

Jeremy Walker

No World Cup qualifier against Japan in Pyongyang on June 8. No spectators for the game, even when it's played at a neutral venue. And a token fine of 20,000 Swiss Francs (around 1.8 million yen) for incidents in both North Korea's previous two home games, against Bahrain on March 25 and Iran five days later.

Of course the Japanese are delighted, as it means they won't have to worry about security or about playing on an artificial pitch at the Kim Il Sung Stadium. The neutral venue has not been announced by FIFA, but the Japan Football Association is pushing for Malaysia.

Singapore or Thailand would also do nicely, thank you very much, but please no China or South Korea, for obvious reasons in the current political climate.

While the decision to play the game in a third country is reasonable, considering the violent behavior of the North Korean players and fans alike in the Iran game, it makes no sense to play it behind closed doors.

Who will benefit from that?

Just think if the match were to be played in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Bangkok.

Thousands of upwardly mobile blue shirts would flock to the game, not just expatriate Japanese living in southeast Asia but also from Japan.

North Korea, too, would enjoy substantial support, from Korean expatriates and also from neutrals who will always back the underdog.

All the money from the gate receipts could be given to the North Korean F.A., paying off the FIFA fine many times over and still having plenty left for other expenses.

Everyone gains with this scenario: Japan because it would be more like a home game, North Korea financially, and FIFA because it would be a spectacle for Asia during World Cup qualifying.

North Korea had three days to lodge an appeal following FIFA's announcement Friday, and the South Koreans offered their support.

But there had still been no word of a protest at FIFA House, Zurich, by close of business Monday.

Have the North Koreans taken their punishment on the chin and accepted all the sanctions?

Or have they decided to pull out of the World Cup altogether and just not told anyone yet?

Don't rule out the latter.

Even when things aren't going so well on the pitch, the Yokohama F. Marinos supporters can never be accused of giving up on their team.

At "Ajista" on Sunday evening -- "Ajista" being the Japanese short form for Ajinomoto Stadium in Chofu, west Tokyo -- the blue-shirted mass of Marinos fans produced a wall of noise for the entire 90 minutes during a 1-1 draw with Verdy.

The biggest cheer of the night from the "away" contingent, though, was for something that happened off the pitch.

Midway through the second half, Koji Yamase left the substitutes' bench, removed his tracksuit and trotted out to replace Masahiro Ohashi.

It was Yamase's first appearance of the season since his controversial 250 million yen transfer from Urawa Reds in the winter, and he gave a hint of what's to come during his 20 minutes of action.

Playing behind the front two of Hideo Oshima and Ahn Jung Hwan, the 23-year-old playmaker provided an extra dimension to the Marinos attack with his well-timed runs into the box and his slick passing.

Although he couldn't inspire a winning goal, his comeback from a knee injury after seven months on the sidelines must have provided some cheer for a concerned-looking manager Takeshi Okada, who is still without his leading striker, Tatsuhiko Kubo.

The Marinos fans, naturally, gave Yamase a hero's welcome, but their Reds rivals will not be quite so generous when the two teams meet at Nissan Stadium, Yokohama, on May 15.

The Red Army, and the Urawa club in general, felt badly let down by Yamase's decision to leave at the end of last season, after they had stuck by him for two injury-plagued years.

No, the air will be more blue than red on that particular Sunday afternoon.

There's no doubt Japan has inherited some pretty impressive stadiums due to the co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup.

Nissan Stadium at Yokohama and Saitama Stadium 2002 are the pick of the bunch in terms of capacity, and Japan now has an abundance of top-class venues dotted about the country.

But this doesn't mean the smaller grounds are out of fashion.

Take Omiya Stadium in Saitama Prefecture, for example.

With a capacity of only 12,500, no running track, no cover on all four sides and very little space between the pitch and the spectators, there's an old-fashioned feel to the stadium which cannot be found in some of the concrete and steel behemoths.

Think of the English F.A. Cup. . . think of a journey into the unknown for a Saturday afternoon cup-tie at a non-league ground. . . well, that's Omiya Stadium.

"Yes, we think it's an advantage to play here, and our results in J2 and J1 prove it," said Omiya manager Toshiya Miura, after a recent 3-1 victory at home to Oita Trinita.

"It's small and compact and there's a good atmosphere, even with 5,000 or 6,000 spectators. I have seen many Dutch stadiums like this. It's football-specific and I like that."

Miura listed Mitsuzawa Stadium, the home of Yokohama FC, plus Sendai Stadium and Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium as three of his favorite away grounds.

But he hopes he won't have to visit Mitsuzawa or Sendai in the near future. . . unless the two J2 clubs are promoted, of course.

Player of the Week: Jubilo Iwata striker Masashi Nakayama. The 37-year-old veteran notched his landmark 150th J. League goal in his 287th appearance as Jubilo won 4-0 at Kashiwa Reysol. "Gon" just keeps on goin'.

Quote of the Week: "When we have to play, we play. When we have to fight, we fight. When we have to suffer, we suffer -- always together."

-- Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, summing up the qualities of his team after clinching the English championship for the first time since 1955.

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