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Sunday, March 23, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

JFA gives cold shoulder to Premier League proposal to play games overseas


From a soccer perspective, the upcoming Major League Baseball season-opening series between the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics at Tokyo Dome feels like a glimpse into a parallel universe.

Andrew McKirdy

Two teams from a glamorous overseas sports league duke it out in a competitive, meaningful contest in front of an entranced Tokyo audience with money to burn.

If things had been different, this could have been the English Premier League.

In January, the Premier League announced plans for a "39th round," where English teams would jet off to different locations around the world to play an extra game in the regular league season.

After a barrage of opposition from fans, FIFA and the U.K. government, the idea now looks dead in the water.

When the plans surfaced, the Premier League initially earmarked cities in the soccer-starved gold mines of Southeast Asia, India, China and the United States to host the games.

But when talk turns toward selling brand-name sports events to an overseas market, you can be sure that Tokyo will be mentioned somewhere down the line.

Unfortunately for the Premier League, the Japan Football Association headed the idea off at the pass.

"It sounds problematic," said JFA vice president Junji Ogura.

"We are, in principle, opposed to having Premier League games in Japan as we have to protect our league and clubs.

"In Japan, we don't allow anyone to play a match that involves only foreign clubs and no Japanese clubs."

The Premier League's problem is that it does not hold a monopoly over soccer.

The NFL successfully staged a game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants at London's Wembley Stadium last year, but there is no one else to compete with the NFL when it comes to American football.

The Premier League claims to be the strongest soccer league in the world, but Spain and Italy might well disagree.

That is before even considering the fact that almost every country in the world has a domestic soccer league of some kind, most of which are fervently supported by local fans.

That is certainly the case in Japan, where the J. League draws crowds seriously approaching parity with some of Europe's bigger leagues.

A total of 446,808 turned up to watch the first two weekends of games in J1, but how many of those would have attended had Manchester United been taking on Tottenham in Yokohama at the same time?

That is the situation facing Japanese baseball as its new season gets under way.

The Pacific League started on Thursday, just one day before the Red Sox arrived in Tokyo.

PL games are even scheduled for March 25 and 26, the days that Boston and Oakland will take center stage in the Japanese baseball public's imagination.

Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, for one, was not impressed.

"I hope the Red Sox and A's have a great time here," he said, "but it's ludicrous that our games will be going on at the same time.

"The timing is a mistake and I guess that's something that slipped through the cracks when they were planning the schedules."

The J. League has done well to avoid such a mess.

As long as the English F.A. continues to cozy up to FIFA for hosting rights to the 2018 World Cup, the Premier League's plan for the 39th round looks impossible for the time being.

But you can guarantee it will come back in one form or another.

If Japanese soccer is to continue to grow, it will need a firm hand from the people nurturing it to make sure no one muscles in on its turf.

* * * * *

National team manager Takeshi Okada's decision to call up Keiji Tamada and Junichi Inamoto made the headlines when he announced his squad for the World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain last week, but one name missing from his list raised further eyebrows.

Shunsuke Nakamura was left off the squad despite his return to full fitness, apparently to appease his club side Celtic, which plays a league game against Gretna three days before the match in Manama.

The schedule would be hectic, but Nakamura would still have sufficient time to prepare for the Japan game and three days to recover before Celtic's next match against Rangers.

Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers' players arrived in Bahrain later than the other squad members, due to Wednesday night's Asian Champions League games, so why not Nakamura?

Okada looks to be currying favor with Celtic to avoid problems when he needs the playmaker most, but Bahrain is not as far from Scotland as most other Asian countries, and if Inamoto can make the trip from Germany, Nakamura can too.

FIFA's rules forbid any club from preventing a player to honor an international callup, so the option is there if Okada wishes to exercise it.

And if the team comes home from the Middle East with no points, Okada can't say he wasn't warned.



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