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Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2005

J. WALKING

Kawabuchi should rule out Wenger as Zico's successor


You have to admire the ambition of Japan Football Association president Saburo Kawabuchi for including Arsene Wenger on his shortlist of coaches to succeed Zico after the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Jeremy Walker

It's like going from one extreme to the other, from a great player with no coaching credentials to a world-class coach with no playing credentials.

But the chances of the JFA luring Wenger anytime in the near future are remote, if non-existent, as he is one of the best in the business and could choose from virtually any top club or country when he decides it's time to leave Arsenal.

Wenger has said in the past that he thinks the job of a national coach is for semi-retirement. In other words, when you've had enough of the pressure and the demands of life at the top, especially in the English Premiership circus, then take a part-time job and run a national team.

This is Wenger's thinking, and, as much as he respects Japan and would, one day, like to return to coach the national team, it's just not the right time.

During a chat with him at St. James's Park last December, after Arsenal had just beaten Newcastle United 1-0 with a first-half goal from Patrick Vieira, he said his first priority was to oversee the Gunners' move from their old, small Highbury home to a new, big stadium nearby.

After that, he said, he'd see what happened.

But clearly Wenger is not ready to give up the big-time and come to Japan.

His main target is to win the UEFA Champions League with Arsenal, and Japan will be the furthest thing from his mind when he's out on the training pitch at London Colney.

Who knows, if more and more Japanese players leave the J. League and play in Europe, the JFA might consider "doing a Hiddink."

Just as Australia did with Dutchman Guus Hiddink, and let him coach the Socceroos on a part-time basis while keeping his job with PSV Eindhoven, maybe the JFA could strike a similar deal with Wenger, and let him be a long-distance coach, like the California-based Jurgen Klinsmann with Germany.

Wenger could monitor the Japanese players in Europe, and have an assistant in Japan, and return to Japan for home qualifiers and friendlies.

After all, it must be lonely for him at London Colney in an international week, with all his players returning to their respective countries, so why shouldn't he join them on a plane out of Heathrow?

No, it all looks too complicated for the JFA and for Wenger, and Kawabuchi should look elsewhere.

The JFA chief says the next national coach will be a foreigner who knows Japan, and must also coach the Olympic team on the road to Beijing 2008.

The obvious candidate is right here, the JEF United coach Ivica Osim, but Kawabuchi appears to have ruled him out because of his age, 64. But this is around the age Wenger says a national coach should be, a job for semi-retirement.

With the Under-23 team to look after, too, imagine the kind of squad Osim could assemble, and the fast and fluid game he would have the youngsters playing.

Kawabuchi says he will not be rushed into naming a successor to Zico, as he will have many choices and deep pockets from which to pay them.

A lot can happen between now and next summer. Some candidates now may become committed elsewhere, and coaches deemed to be unavailable now may become available.

But not Arsene Wenger.

* * *

On the subject of Zico, he was a high-profile spectator at the men's volleyball World Grand Champions Cup at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium on Sunday afternoon.

After watching Brazil beat Egypt to clinch the first prize of $300,000 in the intercontinental championship, Zico went behind the scenes to congratulate the head coach, Bernardo Rezende, and the players.

After the photo sessions had ended and Rezende went off to the press conference, it seemed a good opportunity to ask Zico about a more somber subject, the late, great George Best, who died on Friday evening (Japan time) in a London hospital.

"I was young during his playing career and only saw him on television," said Zico.

"But he was one of the best players in the world. He had intelligence and great ability with the ball at his feet.

"I met him on many occasions and respect him, and it's sad because of what happened with him.

"It shows that outside the field, if you do not take care of your career you can have big problems. This applies to all footballers."

Manchester United and Northern Ireland fans would put Best right up there with the best of all time, but Zico disagreed.

"He was a great player but there is no comparison with Pele or Maradona because they were doing it at a better level."

Zico means, of course, the World Cup, which Best never played in because Northern Ireland couldn't qualify.

* * *

The draw for the 2006 World Cup will take place in Leipzig on Dec. 9, and Zico says he's ready for anyone -- even Brazil.

"We played Brazil at the Confederations Cup in the summer and drew 2-2, and that was a mini-World Cup," he said.

"If we ever play Brazil in the World Cup it will be difficult, but not impossible."

Zico likes the look of England.

"We played them last year at Manchester and drew 1-1," he said. "England is a very strong team, a great team with a lot of great players. They have a chance. I like Wayne Rooney. He is quick and intelligent and very fast with the ball."

Zico said some 17 of his 20 outfield players were decided -- the three 'keepers are a gimme, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Seigo Narazaki and Yoichi Doi -- but, with seven months to go, his plans could change.

"We have to go to the World Cup with the strongest team possible, physically, and we could have some injured players, so no one is guaranteed a place until after all the friendly matches next year," he said.

* * *

Player of the Week: Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Hisato Sato.

His hat trick against Vissel Kobe made him the highest scoring Japanese player in J1 this season, with 17, ahead of national team star Masashi Oguro.

Quote of the Week: "Everyone has their own opinion about football and their favorite players. But, in terms of British players, you would find it difficult to think of anyone better."

-- Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, talking about George Best, who died Friday at age 59 after a long battle with alcoholism.



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