Home > Sports > Other Sports
  print button email button

Thursday, Oct. 13, 2005

J. WALKING

World Cup newcomers keep Japan guessing ahead of draw


Looking at the list of qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup, there's a fair chance Japan will be entering the unknown when the draw is made in Leipzig, Germany, on Dec. 9.

Jeremy Walker

Angola, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo will all be making their first appearance in the finals, while Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay and Poland would all prove tricky opponents for Japan.

As well as the four first-timers from Africa, another, from Europe, is Ukraine, and Japan was due to get the chance to see Shevchenko and Co. in close quarters in their friendly in Kiev on Wednesday night.

Another smart move by the JFA is to bring Ivory Coast to Tokyo on Nov. 16, and the Africans can be expected to take the game seriously, unlike Nigeria a couple of years back, despite the strong possibility of an early winter chill.

So far, 24 of the 32 teams have been decided, and the only ones Japan can ignore for the time being are the three Asian nations -- Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia -- as they will be kept apart in the draw.

But a top eight seed (meaning Argentina, Brazil, Germany or Italy to name but four) will be guaranteed to head the group, followed by a second-string European team, and then either a CONCACAF, African or South American nation.

Looking back on Japan's two previous World Cup campaigns, Takeshi Okada's team faced Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica in France '98, losing all three by a single goal (1-0 against both Argentina and Croatia, and 2-1 to Jamaica).

Two of the best strikers in the world at the time, Gabriel Batistuta and Davor Suker, were on target for Argentina and Croatia, respectively, before Japan, trying too hard too quickly to win the consolation match against the Reggae Boyz, panicked and fell behind 2-0.

Four years on, the opposition was Europe (Belgium), Europe again (Russia) and Africa (Tunisia), and Philippe Troussier's men won their first World Cup point (2-2 with Belgium), then their first World Cup match (1-0 against Russia), and then another (2-0 against Tunisia) to finish on top of the group. Quite a turnaround from 1998, but with home advantage, of course.

The Turks were not impressed and won the second-round game 1-0 at Miyagi, before going on to finish third.

Japan's World Cup record stands at two wins, one draw and four defeats in seven outings, which is a cold fact that needs repeating ahead of the Leipzig draw.

In other words, Japan's technical staff will have a lot of work on their plates in between the draw and the big kickoff, as there are so many unknowns out there, and so many possibilities.

And there's still eight teams to qualify.

The Asian Football Confederation has announced a shortlist of 10 candidates for the AFC Player of the Year Award 2005.

The list is headed by three players from Saudi Arabia, two each from Japan, South Korea and Iran, and one from Uzbekistan.

The two Japanese are, not surprisingly, Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, the two main creative forces of the national team who are both now playing in Britain.

Nakata is a two-time winner of the award but will struggle to make the shorter shortlist of three, to be announced Nov. 14, because he didn't play much at all in the first half of the year.

Nakamura, who came close to winning the award last year, has a better chance than Nakata this time but may fall just short again due to the form and achievements of one of the two Koreans.

Surely this year's trophy has got Park Ji Sung's name written all over it.

He has been a tremendous advertisement for the Asian game, not only excelling for PSV Eindhoven in the UEFA Champions League semifinal against Milan last season,but then making a quick transition into the English game with Manchester United.

His attitude, work ethic and ability combine to make the Red Devils favorite a solid bet for the Asian Player of the Year Award, which will be announced Nov. 30.

Many awards are decided by players or media, but neither group is involved in the AFC version.

The voting panel comprises AFC executive committee members, national coaches of the AFC's 45 member associations (will Zico pick Nakata or Nakamura in first place, or maybe even Park?), and the AFC's commercial partner, World Sport Group.

Iran's Ali Karimi, who has settled well at Bayern Munich, has a chance to defend his crown, but surely Park is a lock.

Another player on the Top 10 list is Uzbekistan's Maksim Shatskikh, who did his chances no harm at all with a timely glancing header in the 1-1 draw with Bahrain in Tashkent on Saturday.

This was the first-leg rerun of the World Cup qualifier which Uzbekistan had won 1-0, only for FIFA to declare the match null and void and order a replay due to a refereeing blunder by Japan's Toshimitsu Yoshida.

Anyone watching the game on Saturday night couldn't help feeling sorry for the Uzbeks, who were winning the original game 1-0 and looking good for a 2-0 lead when awarded a penalty in the 39th minute.

Although the Uzbeks scored from the spot, another Uzbek player had run into the penalty box before the kick was taken, and Yoshida quite rightly disallowed the goal for the encroachment infringement.

But instead of making Uzbekistan take the penalty again, he awarded Bahrain an indirect free-kick -- the decision which led to the official protest and ultimately the replay from scratch, despite Uzbekistan's ambitious appeal for a 3-0 victory.

So when Bahrain took the lead in the 17th minute of Saturday's replay, no wonder the Pakhtakor Stadium fell silent. As one of the TV commentators suggested, surely a fairer decision by FIFA would have been to start the match again from the 39th minute, with Uzbekistan about to take the penalty.

Instead of the possibility (but in no way probability) of a 2-0 win for the Uzbeks, the score now is 1-1, and the Bahrainis have home advantage for the second leg on Wednesday.

Expect more complaints from the Uzbek players and supporters if the result goes the wrong way in Manama.

And who could blame them?

Certainly not Yoshida.

Player of the Week: Fabrice Akwa, Angola's captain, who headed the only goal of the game 10 minutes from time to beat Rwanda 1-0 in Kigali and earn his country a place in the World Cup finals for the first time in history.

Quote of the Week: "We will go there with a squad that, apart from Brazil maybe, I am sure is not bettered. The aim is certainly to get as far as the semifinals -- but it wouldn't stop there."

-- England striker Michael Owen, sounding an early battle cry for Germany 2006 after clinching qualification on Saturday.



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.