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Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2005

J. WALKING

Verdy should be allowed into Champions League, even in J2


After losing 1-0 at home to Cerezo Osaka and tumbling nearer relegation, the last thing on your mind is next season's Asian Champions League.

Jeremy Walker

This was the scenario for Tokyo Verdy officials at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday, shortly after Cerezo's Tatsuya Furuhahsi had planted an 89th-minute free-kick into the bottom corner to secure a 1-0 victory.

But the issue of who will, and who should, represent Japan in the 2006 edition of the Asian Champions League must be addressed soon, and addressed once and for all.

As things stand, Verdy qualified for next year's Champions League by winning the Emperor's Cup at the end of the 2004 season, on New Year's Day 2005 to be precise.

Japan's second spot in the 32-team Champions League will be filled by the winner of this season's J. League championship.

But with Verdy in grave danger of being relegated to J2 this season, voices have been raised suggesting that Verdy should be stripped of the right, as the once-proud Yomiuri club will no longer be in the top flight.

With four matches to go in the first-division season, Verdy can still escape relegation, hence the reason why officials would not comment on the situation after Saturday's defeat to Cerezo.

But surely the position is quite clear.

Verdy guaranteed one of Japan's two places in the 2006 Champions League by winning last season's Emperor's Cup, the annual knockout competition organized by the Japan Football Association, the governing body of the sport, as opposed to the professional J. League.

The fact that Verdy might be in J2 next season is irrelevant.

Those were the rules at the time, and the rules cannot be changed now, should Verdy still want to compete in the Champions League, despite a 44-match J2 season.

The decision should be entirely Verdy's, not the JFA's, as the club has earned the right to play among Asia's elite.

What needs to be changed is the qualifying format for the 2007 Asian Champions League, as there is too much time between winning the Emperor's Cup in 2004 and competing in the Asian Champions League in 2006.

The best solution, and one which JEF United manager Ivica Osim hinted at recently, was that the winner of the J. League's Nabisco Cup should earn the right to compete in the Champions League the following season, along with the league champion.

This would make more sense, as the Nabisco Cup has eclipsed the Emperor's Cup as the most prestigious knockout competition in Japan.

Japanese soccer has outgrown the Emperor's Cup, which still involves high schools, universities and amateur teams.

This format represents "Old Japan" in the same way as an 18-year-old player opting to go to university for four years rather than joining a J. League team if the chance is there, and then turning pro at 22.

The fault is not Verdy's, it is Japan's qualifying system for the Asian Champions League.

And should the Greens still want to compete in the Champions League next year as a J2 team, they should be allowed to do so -- unless, of course, the powers that be offer Verdy financial compensation.

From 2006, the qualifying format should be changed for the 2007 Champions League . . . before a high school wins the Emperor's Cup.

* * *

Passion and emotion, or cockroaches and Spiderman?

FIFA president Sepp "50 new ideas a day" Blatter says it's all about the first, but some Brazilians think it's all about the latter.

We're talking about goal celebrations here, and what crosses the line between the euphoria of seeing the net bulge and a goal celebration which shows disrespect to the opposition and can provoke an angry reaction from players and supporters alike.

In Spain, Real Madrid's Brazilian contingent attracted a lot of attention recently by lying on the deck on their backs, and shaking their arms and legs in the air in the "cockroach dance."

While it may have amused some, it was clearly way over the top, and the players could not have complained if they had received a painful blow from a rival player later in the game or even in the season.

In Japan, Brazilian forward Rodrigo Gral once annoyed JEF United fans by donning a Spiderman mask and gloating in front of them after scoring for Jubilo Iwata at Yamaha Stadium.

Now playing for Yokohama F. Marinos, Gral's celebrations were less provocative Saturday when netting the only goal of the game at Shimizu S-Pulse, as he waved a handkerchief-sized Marinos flag in front of his own fans.

Elsewhere, Gamba Osaka striker Araujo was retrieving a "hachimaki" from his nether regions to tie around his head after scoring against Urawa, and Yuki Abe was not celebrating at all after his fine header for JEF United against Jubilo.

At first it looked Abe's goal had been disallowed, as he showed no emotion whatsoever, but this is more the Japanese style. Better that than a cockroach dance, which should be stamped on immediately by the authorities.

The perfect celebration on Saturday came from another Brazilian, Gamba's Fernandinho.

After twisting and turning Urawa defender Keisuke Tsuboi into the Banpaku turf and finding the far corner with a left-foot daisy cutter, his face simply lit up and he raced toward the dugout and disappeared in an ecstatic bench clearance.

Araujo, with his hachimaki still in his shorts, was close to Fernandinho when he scored his goal, but made no attempt to stop him and embrace him. Araujo understood that his teammate needed that moment to release the passion and the emotion of the occasion.

No kicking cockroaches, no silly Spiderman.

Sepp Blatter would have been proud of him.

* * *

The J. League will say another fond farewell to a former national team stalwart at the end of the season.

Naoki Soma, who was a key member of the Kashima Antlers' glory years and of Japan's team at the 1998 World Cup in France, has announced his retirement.

Currently with Kawasaki Frontale, Soma has decided enough is enough, and he will not attempt to continue his career in J2 next season, even though some clubs would surely have sought his experience and influence.

A dynamic and aggressive left-back in Kashima's 4-4-2 lineup, and left wing-back in Takeshi Okada's 3-5-2 World Cup formation in 1998, Soma will be remembered as one of Japan's all-time great defenders.

But the name and the number lives on in the J. League, with Verdy's Takahito Soma also wearing the No. 7 shirt favored by former Waseda University student Naoki.

He's given wonderful service to club and country, and deserves every accolade coming his way.

* * *

Player of the Week: Gamba Osaka goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya, for his acrobatic display to earn his team a vital 2-1 victory over Urawa Reds on Saturday. Some of his saves were beyond the call of duty.

Quote of the Week: "He is no Diego Maradona just yet, but he has got everything. Pace, power, strength, creativity, goals. It is so unusual to see that in a player."

-- BBC expert, and former Liverpool and Scotland star Alan Hansen, commenting on Wayne Rooney after England's victory over Argentina.



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