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Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005

J. WALKING

JFA works hard to prevent another 'super' friendly fiasco


It looks like the Japan Football Association is getting tough on the friendly front, and not before time.

Jeremy Walker

First, the JFA scrapped plans to play the Cote 'd Ivoire in Tokyo on Nov. 16 when the Africans said they would be without Chelsea star Didier Drogba and some other first-choice players.

Togo came in as a replacement and officials promised to send a full team to Tokyo. The only trouble was they forgot to send a full team, anyone in fact, to sign the match contract, so the opponent was changed again.

Finally, the JFA secured Angola to bring the curtain down on the national team's year. Another first-time qualifier for the World Cup in this African revolution, and a new test for Japan at the end of a busy year.

So busy, in fact, that you wonder if it's worth playing a game at all, considering the disruptions for Japan's players in Europe and, domestically, when the season is reaching fever pitch.

Arsene Wenger has a good point when he says he would scrap all friendly matches as they just cause too much aggravation.

Japan national team games, however, mean cash. Masses of it, as Tokyo's National Stadium will be packed with over 50,000 fans and blue merchandise will be everywhere. It's a license to print money for the JFA, and, of course, the opposition will always receive a hefty slice of the pie.

Even Nigeria a couple of years ago, when the match was as farcical as an Arsenal penalty.

On that occasion, the so-called "Super Eagles" could only scramble enough players together to put four on the bench, including a reserve 'keeper.

The Nigerians' only significant contribution to the evening was the performance of the chap in the fancy head gear who sang the national anthem, and it would have been no surprise to see him remove it, put on the No. 16 shirt and take his place on the bench, where there was plenty of room.

The occasion was a complete waste of time for all concerned, except for Naohiro Takahara, who filled his boots to improve his goals per game record significantly with two in a 3-0 canter.

Even many of the fans seemed blissfully unaware of the shambles being played out in front of them, as following the national team has a glamour that cannot be matched in the bread-and-butter life of the J. League.

The JFA, thankfully, did take note, and proved this time that an opponent can't simply take the money and run . . . or, in the case of Nigeria, take the money and not run at all.

No Drogba, no Cote 'd Ivoire, and Chelsea will be delighted he's not heading to Japan and risking injury in the middle of the season.

No Togo representative to sign the contract, no second chance.

So, at the moment, Angola it will be, and Japan should get better value for money than the Nigeria debacle, having learned a lesson and simply not paying a team to be cannon fodder.

* * *

The Aussies are not even in the Asian Football Confederation yet, but they are already causing ripples from afar.

At a recent seminar in Sydney, Football Federation Australia chief executive John O'Neill said an annual tri-nations championship between the Socceroos, Japan and South Korea could eventually compare with the Ashes cricket series with England and the Bledisloe Cup rugby union clash with New Zealand.

Is he serious?

Not so much about the Ashes and the All Blacks, as that's really not worth commenting on, but about another regional international championship?

There's already the long-standing Asian Cup, played every four years, and the relatively new East Asian Championship, which attracted lukewarm interest at best in only its second edition in South Korea a few months ago, having been launched in Japan in 2003.

The last thing the region needs is another tournament for national teams, with so many players in Europe struggling to get a summer break between seasons and domestic calendars full to bursting.

The Aussies will be an interesting addition to the scene, and a dangerous opponent for the Asian aristocracy like Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But they don't need a tri-nations championship with second-string teams to make their mark.

* * *

On the subject of the Japan national team, Zico has already announced he will be stepping down after the World Cup in Germany next summer.

Who's going to be his replacement?

Rumor has it he will be Japanese, meaning a choice of three: Akira Nishino (Gamba), Takeshi Ono (Sanfrecce) and Takeshi Okada (Marinos).

The latter, of course, steered Japan to the World Cup for the first time, in France '98, with Ono as his handpicked assistant.

Nishino, meanwhile, was in charge of the Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996.

But there was some interesting news out of Ibaraki prefecture last week, when Kashima Antlers announced that the contract of manager Toninho Cerezo would not be renewed at the end of the year after six seasons in charge.

Aside from the strange timing of the announcement, with Kashima challenging strongly for the championship, it could open up all sorts of options.

Such as Toninho Cerezo to join Zico's World Cup coaching staff in the new year, or even succeed him as manager, where he would surely be more comfortable than his former teammate from Brazil's golden midfield of 1982.

Kashima-Zico-Toninho Cerezo-Brazil-JFA . . . it's a connection that cannot be overlooked.

* * *

Player of the Week: Magno Alves, Oita Trinita's Brazilian forward, whose double strike sank title-chasing Gamba 2-1 in Suita City, Osaka, on Saturday. He now has 15 goals for the season as the men from Kyushu continue their climb up the table.

Quote of the Week: "Players feel they have little privacy as it is but these measures would make them feel they have none at all."

-- Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, speaking out against plans to perform drug tests at players' homes, on days off or when shopping or socializing.



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