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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

J. WALKING

Confederations Cup offers Japan chance to show progress


The Confederations Cup, which starts Wednesday in Germany, could not have come at a better time for Japan's national team.

Jeremy Walker

Freshly qualified for next summer's World Cup finals, Japan will be able to assess how much progress has been made since the last Confederations Cup in France two years ago.

Japan's opponents in the group stages are Mexico, Greece and Brazil, and a top-two finish is necessary to advance to the semifinals.

It's not going to be easy to get through this group, although not quite as difficult as the other pool, which comprises Germany, Argentina, Australia and Tunisia.

But if the Japanese are targeting a place in the World Cup quarterfinals next summer, they have to prove their pedigree on the international stage a year in advance by winning at least one of these Confederations Cup games and, preferably, by reaching the last four.

Two years ago in France, Japan couldn't quite manage it, despite opening up with a 3-0 victory over a New Zealand team described after the match as J2 level by Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo.

A second-string French side proved too strong in the next match, winning 2-1, and Japan then collapsed against Colombia, losing 1-0 when a draw would have been good enough to clinch a place in the semifinals.

So Zico, at his second Confederations Cup, has at least three high-profile games to assess the strengths and weaknesses of his players at this higher level.

Should they fail again, then he has big problems, as there can be little debate that the starting members are the best players available.

Where the squad is weak, though, is the backup players, who are not good enough to challenge the established players for a place in the starting lineup.

This is where Zico can begin his work on his return to Japan, by introducing fresh faces into the squad to increase the competition for places.

He has already made a positive move by calling up FC Tokyo's Teruyuki Moniwa to replace the injured Yuji Nakazawa, who will be a big miss in Germany.

Hopefully this will lead to more opportunities in the coming months for other Athens Olympians such as midfielder Yasuyuki Konno, right-winger Naohiro Ishikawa (both FC Tokyo) and Real Mallorca forward Yoshito Okubo, whom Zico seems to have forgotten about altogether.

In addition to this trio, Verdy left wing-back Takahito Soma and Yokohama F. Marinos right wing-back Hayuma Tanaka are also worth taking a look at.

For the moment, though, Japan's national squad remains the "Zico Family" for better or for worse, and the Confederations Cup will provide a pointer toward next year's World Cup finals.

Looking at the squad right now, a place in the last 16 next summer would surely be regarded as a success, especially on European soil.

Vissel Kobe manager Emerson Leao hasn't particularly fond memories of the Confederations Cup.

The former S-Pulse and Verdy boss was in charge of a third-string Brazil team at the 2001 Confederations Cup in Japan and South Korea, and was fired at Narita Airport after an embarrassing fourth-place finish in the eight-team tournament.

Brazil's results included a 0-0 draw with Japan, but he thinks it will be different when the two teams meet in the upcoming Confederations Cup in Germany.

"Japan will not be at home. This is the big difference. Japan will lose in Germany," Leao said, ahead of the teams' meeting in Cologne on June 22.

"Japan is not a strong team. Ten years ago Japan was a very strong team, technically, but now they have only tactics.

"Today it's a different team, with no superstar, only the team. The difference in today's game is the superstar."

Not even Hidetoshi Nakata?

"No, there is no big star. A superstar is Robinho, Ronaldinho or Zidane."

No superstars, only a team?

Philippe Troussier would plant a French kiss on the forehead of Emerson Leao if he heard him say that.

Well, it wasn't exactly Johor Bahru 1997, but at least Japan qualified for the 2006 World Cup in a true soccer city, Bangkok.

The National Stadium was surrounded by sports shops selling replica shirts from near and far, the most prominent being Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Liverpool, the flavor of the month.

(There was one particularly aggressive slogan aimed at Manchester United fans which read, "I will kill U -- Champions League, Liverpool FC." And they call Thailand "the land of smiles"?)

There was the customary sea of canary yellow, too, for Brazil's disciples, but, in the middle of these, one shirt stood out with a slightly different hue of yellow and green.

No, it can't be . . .

But there it was, the distinctive red, yellow and green crest under the words "JEF Ichihara."

So what's a nice shirt like you doing in a place like this?

"It's the design," said the shopkeeper. "We took only one team from Japan, and liked this the best."

JEF officials, struggling to attract supporters to their remote Goi outpost in Chiba Prefecture, should consider adding Bangkok to their list of home venues to satisfy this worldwide fan base.

Player of the Week: Argentina's Hernan Crespo.

Two fine goals in his team's 3-1 demolition of Brazil to become the first South American nation to qualify for Germany 2006.

Quote of the Week: "Honestly, at this point in time, I don't think we have the strength to go through at the finals. This next year will be very important for all of us."

-- Hidetoshi Nakata, pricking the balloon of euphoria the day after Japan had qualified for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany. Like him or loathe him, Nakata can always be relied upon to speak his mind.



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