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Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005

J. WALKING

Park, Nakata prove Asians are useful on the pitch, too


So, Park Ji Sung was signed by Manchester United to sell red shirts in South Korea, was he?

Jeremy Walker

And Hidetoshi Nakata was signed by Bolton Wanderers to sell white shirts in Japan? Funny isn't it, but they both looked completely at home in the English Premier League in their respective matches at the weekend.

Park was, to use Sir Alex Ferguson's word, "excellent" in United's 3-2 victory at Fulham, while Nakata received a standing ovation from the Wanderers fans when he was substituted in the closing stages of Bolton's 2-1 defeat at Wigan.

And how many replica shirts, Man United milk jugs or Bolton bog rolls were sold in Asia on Monday?

Who really cares, apart from the marketing men trying to promote the "brand" and sell the "product" across distant frontiers. (When did words such as "brand" and "product" enter the English game anyway? Whatever happened to the more humble, proletariat-friendly staples such as "Bovril" and "Wagon Wheel"?)

You can almost hear the spivs spouting the usual claptrap, can't you, in a Cockney second-hand car salesman's accent, of course.

"Park's a vital tool in our strategic global campaign," says one.

"Nakata's going to expand the club's profile into new markets in Asia with an emerging middle-class," adds another.

Sorry?

It didn't used to be like this in the recent past, but "brands" and "products" and "prawn sandwich brigades in their corporate boxes" are all part and parcel of the game these days.

Oh yes, the game.

Park, of course, was made in Japan, at Kyoto Purple Sanga, and polished by the Dutch master Guus Hiddink, first with the South Korea national team, and then with PSV Eindhoven.

He played in a World Cup semifinal in 2002 and a UEFA Champions League semifinal in 2005, yet there was still cynical talk that Park had been signed to plug the gap in United's post-Beckham Asian market.

Now surely everyone can see that's nonsense.

One commentator at the Fulham game on Saturday described him as "a free-flowing menace down United's right flank," while Fergie purred gruffly (if that's possible): "The boy is coming on terrifically. His movement off the ball and his awareness of space is exceptional for a young man."

Park played a major role in all three United goals. First he surged through the Fulham defense, only to be brought down in the box for Ruud van Nistelrooy to score from the spot; then he played a short, incisive pass through to Wayne Rooney, who finished with so much style you wanted to applaud (or slap) him in his face; and finally Park beat Fulham's offside trap to put Van Nistelrooy's second goal on a silver platter.

The following day, Nakata was in the Wanderers lineup at Wigan, where Bolton could have gone second in the table with a victory.

Instead, thanks to some dreadful defending at one end and poor finishing at the other, Bolton lost the Lancashire derby 2-1.

But Nakata still impressed with his ball control, his strength on the ball, his range of passing, his movement and his stamina, so much so that the Bolton fans were applauding, hands above heads, when he gave way to the Mexican striker Jared Borgetti with eight minutes to go.

When Nakata arrived in England, surely it was to sell Bolton shirts in Japan. The fact that he'd played in Italy for seven seasons, with varying degrees of success at five clubs, was irrelevant. He was a "marketing tool to promote the brand on a global scale."

No.

Like Park, he is there on merit and deserves respect as a player, not as a mobile merchandise catalog.

Another Japanese referee is in the bad books.

This time it's Yoshitsugu Katayama, who showed a red card to Kashiwa Reysol's Ryo Kobayashi as he made a slow exit off the pitch, but still allowed the substitute, Harutaka Ono, to enter for the last three minutes, plus stoppage-time, against Vissel Kobe.

How could this mistake have been allowed to happen, with two linesmen there, a fourth official right on the spot and a match commissioner?

It's another embarrassing blunder for Japan, after Toshimitsu Yoshida made a hash of the Uzbekistan-Bahrain World Cup qualifier when he didn't know the rule about encroachment at a penalty. That match must be replayed, and Yoshida has been suspended by the Asian Football Confederation.

It's a pity Katayama couldn't deduct one from 11, as he was right to show Kobayashi a second yellow card, followed by the red, for walking off too slowly.

How many times do you see a team, defending a slender lead or hanging on for a draw, make a late substitution to delay proceedings. Often it's the player furthest from the dugout, and he takes an age to walk across the pitch, sometimes making a slight detour to shake the hand of a teammate, while the substitute waits to come on. Everyone stops to watch this charade, the seconds tick away and the opposing team is denied any chance of finding some late rhythm.

In this law, soccer could learn a lesson from field hockey. There, substitutions work much more smoothly, and the game continues to flow.

A substitute waiting to come on stands on the touchline, holding a card with the number of the player to be substituted. The action does not stop, and the player coming off must run to the side and collect the number from the player waiting to come on. The sub can't come on until his teammate comes off, so it's up to the team to make it happen as quickly as possible.

This rule would be well worth testing in soccer, but, inevitably, the coaches would quickly find a way to cheat; such as telling the player who is due to be replaced to lie down and pretend he's injured.

Sad, but true.

On the subject of changes, reader David Birrell has a comment to make on last week's column, suggesting the number of goals scored by each team dictates league positions, rather than the fixed three-for-a-win, one-for-a-draw points format. For example, Manchester United would collect three points for beating Fulham 3-2, and Fulham would get two.

"The points for goals system would be brilliant for fans," writes David. "But I wonder how often we'd get to the last game of the season and have a team not only needing eight goals to win -- but actually getting them!

"Enquiries, probes, scandals . . . etc."

That's a fair point, David. Clearly you follow Italian soccer very closely.

Player of the Week: Bernd Dreher, Bayern Munich's goalkeeper coach, who was pressed into service due to an injury crisis -- and kept a clean sheet in his first game for almost five years. Bayern beat Wolfsburg 2-0 to remain in first place in the German League.

Quote of the Week: "I thought at halftime this could end up 20-all, but in the second half common sense took over."

-- Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, displaying 20-20 vision after his team's 3-2 win at Fulham, where all the goals came in a frenetic first half.



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