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Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2005

J. WALKING

Tokunaga in no man's land for World Cup countdown


MACAU -- Anyone remember Yuhei Tokunaga?

Jeremy Walker

He was outstanding for FC Tokyo in a short spell out of Waseda University and was one of Japan's best players in the Olympic team that ultimately disappointed in Athens in 2004.

Strong and robust in defense, adventurous and enterprising in attack, Tokunaga looked good enough to make an immediate leap from Under-23s to Zico's national squad.

So where is he now?

Well, geographically he's in Macau, the former Portuguese enclave on the southern tip of China. Famous as a 24-7 gambling paradise to serve neighboring Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, Macau is trying to put itself on the sporting map by staging the fourth edition of the East Asian Games, a mini-Olympics featuring nine National Olympic Committees.

Hence the appearance of Tokunaga as captain of Japan's youthful soccer team.

But where is Tokunaga from a career point of view?

He's just turned 22 and is still at Waseda University. There's talk of a training stint with Valencia in Spain in December, and then a possible move to Kashima Antlers in time for next season.

Regarding the national team, though, he's nowhere, as Zico, quite rightly, refuses to even consider him for a callup while still a student and not with a professional club.

Zico's thinking is simple. If a talented young player is serious enough about the game and serious about reaching the top, then what's he doing in university at 22 rather than the J. League?

Jo Venglos, the former Celtic and Aston Villa manager, said during his time with JEF United that turning professional at 22 is about six years too late.

He was referring to his bright and industrious playmaker Naotake Hanyu, who was in his first season with JEF out of Tsukuba University.

Venglos marveled at Hanyu's natural talent and his willingness to work and learn, and wondered how good he could have been if he had turned professional after high school instead of going to university.

While Tokunaga is not quite in the same situation as Hanyu, as his talent has been identified and rewarded already with Olympic selection, he is still suffering from his wasted years at Waseda.

In Japan's 6-1 thrashing of Taiwan in Macau on Saturday, Tokunaga looked several levels above the modest competition.

To put it simply, what's a player like him doing in a place like this?

It wasn't that long ago when he was playing right-back for FC Tokyo, and his form was so good that Akira Kaji had to settle for a place on the bench. Since then, Kaji has gone on to play for Japan, and is one of Zico's most consistent performers, while Tokunaga is still messing about with Waseda and leading Japan in a competition that is several notches down from the standards he set himself last year.

He has the physique, the mobility and the technique to play in many different positions: right-back, central defense, central midfield, right midfield . . . you name it, Tokunaga will play it.

He can hardly be described as an excitable or emotional captain, as he remains cool and calculating during a game, but his resolute character and commitment to the cause command respect from his teammates.

Instead of thinking about the gold medal at the East Asian Games, he should be thinking about Germany and the 2006 World Cup, but his chances of being there seem remote.

Unless, of course, he goes on a university trip.

It's not often that Japanese fans are outnumbered by rival supporters at an international match at a neutral venue, but it happened at the East Asian Games in Macau on Saturday afternoon.

At first, the small band of fans in blue T-shirts, one with a drum and another leading the cheering, appeared to be Japanese, occupying the best seats in the house at the sports field of the Macau University of Science and Technology.

But on closer inspection they were supporting Chinese-Taipei, holding blue scarves saying "Taiwan" and with a slogan "Soul? Just" on the back of their T-shirts.

Chants of "dee-fense" when Japan won a corner, or "nice 'keeper" when the Taiwan goalie collected a back-pass also marked them out as "non-Ultra Nippon" fans.

Not that the Japanese were absent.

When the game was over, with Japan a 6-1 winner, the players had no problems finding their own, even smaller group of fans, as the loyal supporters held plastic cherry blossoms over the railing to attract their attention.

"Only the strong will survive" read one banner, while another was "Hyodo -- The pride of WMW." This was the personal fan club of midfielder Shingo Hyodo, Japan's captain at the FIFA World Youth Championship in the Netherlands in the summer.

And the letters?

They stood for "Waseda, Maroon and White" -- Hyodo's university in Tokyo -- and the banner had followed the player all the way to Turkey in August for the Universiade Games, before coming to Macau.

With such passionate support, the least Hyodo could do was blast one into the top corner from 35 meters.

Player of the Week: Frank Lampard, who scored his 100th career goal in Chelsea's 4-2 victory over Blackburn Rovers at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho rates Lampard the best player in the world at the moment.

Quote of the Week: "You can't be a saint and still be successful in football. It's a tough, physical game and nobody gives you anything for free."

-- Diego Maradona, talking about England's talented but temperamental striker, Wayne Rooney.



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