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Wednesday, June 1, 2005

J. WALKING

Okubo Japan's forgotten man in search for World Cup goals


Zico has long championed the cause of firebrand striker Yoshito Okubo.

Jeremy Walker

Which makes it all the more strange why Japan's head coach did not recall Okubo for the two upcoming World Cup qualifiers with Bahrain and North Korea.

With Japan struggling for goals, Okubo is just the kind of player who could have sparked the Japanese attack, thrown caution to the wind and grabbed a goal out of nothing.

But Zico resisted the temptation to add Okubo to his deflated Kirin Cup squad, preferring Atsushi Yanagisawa as an extra option up front.

Even when Naohiro Takahara pulled out with a hamstring strain, Zico decided to leave things as they were.

The situation seemed ideal to bring the Athens Olympian back into the international fold.

With two defeats and no goals scored in the Kirin Cup debacle, and with Okubo ending the Spanish season on a high note, it seemed logical to throw Okubo into the mix.

But, as Zico has shown so often in the past, he is very reluctant to change his squad and bring in fresh faces.

Not that Okubo would be a fresh face, as he made his national team debut in the summer of 2003 and was one of Japan's few bright spots of a disappointing Confederations Cup campaign in France.

Even Inter Milan's rugged defender Ivan Cordoba said Okubo had caused him a lot of problems in the game against Colombia.

Okubo is different.

He's single-minded, thinks only of scoring a goal, and is not afraid to miss. A chance wasted will not worry him, and he'll be back for more at the earliest opportunity.

The confidence and self-belief can't be too high in the Japanese camp at the moment, and once again Zico must work out how to incorporate his two most creative players, Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, into his formation.

Maybe the coach feels he has enough selection problems, without the individual talents of Okubo to deal with, too.

Admittedly, Okubo's progress in Spain with Real Mallorca has been hard to gauge due to injury and time on the bench, and there were rumors among the agents' circle recently that he would return to Cerezo Osaka when his six-month loan deal ended.

But since then Okubo has come alive, playing a major role in keeping Mallorca in the top flight and looking certain to earn an extended stay with the club, perhaps even a full transfer.

A draw in Bahrain on Friday night would be satisfactory for Japan, but if his strikers aren't firing, there's still time for Zico to recall Okubo for the North Korea game in Bangkok on June 8.

He's a match-winner, and Zico hasn't many of those right now.

In recent weeks there has been evidence of player power behind the scenes of the national team, but at struggling Kashiwa Reysol it's more a matter of fan power.

Following Reysol's humiliating 5-1 home defeat by JEF United in a Nabisco Cup Chiba derby on Saturday, around 100 supporters refused to leave Hitachi Stadium.

They sat in the early evening sunshine, demanding to speak with club president Shigeyuki Onodera or manager Hiroshi Hayano. Preferably both.

The protesters included several children aged no more than three or four. Dressed, inevitably, in their replica "Tamada 28" shirts, the tiny tots even joined in the applause at the end of each demand from the fans.

"Come over here Onodera," "Resign Hayano," and "We will become violent" were just three of the calls from the stand, the last one a reference, but not so serious, to recent crowd trouble in a home game with Nagoya.

Reysol dispatched a member of the sales team to bow deeply and apologize for the embarrassing loss, thereby ending the sit-in after a symbolic 90 minutes.

The upshot of the peaceful demo was that Reysol will open Hitachi Stadium for a fan forum on Sunday morning, when the president will attend to answer all questions from disgruntled supporters.

"It's the first time for us to have such a meeting with the supporters, so we don't know how many will attend. We are expecting at least 1,000, maybe 3,000," said a club insider.

If the players don't start winning matches soon, this could be the attendance on a Saturday afternoon, never mind Sunday morning.

South Korean forward Ahn Jung Hwan could be on the move again.

The 2002 World Cup star is delaying signing a new contract with Yokohama F. Marinos, as he seeks a summer return to Europe or even to another club in the J. League.

One team that could afford him in Japan is Nagoya Grampus Eight, awash with Toyota cash and desperate to sign a proven goal-scorer now that Brazilian tandem Ueslei and Marques have returned home.

Grampus officials, in fact, have already contacted Yokohama about signing Ahn, whose current six-month contract ends June 30.

Marinos want him to stay until the end of the year to lead their charge for a third consecutive J. League crown, but have already begun looking elsewhere for a new foreign striker.

Brazilian forward Adhemar, who arrived in Japan with a shoulder injury at the start of the season and never gained full match fitness, proved to be an expensive mistake, and was released Tuesday by Yokohama.

Better news for Marinos manager Takeshi Okada is that national team central defender Yuji Nakazawa looks likely to stay, despite interest from Bayern Munich.

Another German club, Bochum, as well as Celtic have also shown an interest in Nakazawa, who prefers to delay a move to Europe with the World Cup in Germany just a year away.

Player of the Week: Villarreal striker Diego Forlan.

Much maligned at Manchester United, the Uruguayan forward scored twice in a 4-1 victory over Levante to earn his club a place in the UEFA Champions League for the first time, and also overtake Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o to become the Spanish League's leading scorer with 25 goals.

Quote of the Week: "The winner should have a chance to defend the title. If there is a rule that harms the tournament, we have to discuss changing the rule."

-- UEFA president Lennart Johansson, giving a boost to Liverpool's chances of defending the UEFA Champions League next season, despite finishing fifth in the English Premier League and out of the automatic qualifying places.

There is no UEFA rule guaranteeing the holder the right to defend the trophy the following season, but that looks set to change.



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