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Thursday, July 30, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Homegrown hit-men giving Okada plenty of ammunition


Japan's eternal weakness in producing strikers has long been reflected in the J. League top-scorer charts, but a strong homegrown challenge this season is proving to be a timely exception with the countdown to the World Cup under way.

Andrew McKirdy

No Japanese player has finished on top of the pile since Naohiro Takahara scored 26 for Jubilo Iwata in 2002, but several are pushing hard with just over half the current campaign gone.

Shimizu S-Pulse's Shinji Okazaki and FC Tokyo's Naohiro Ishikawa both have 10 — one behind Gamba Osaka's Brazilian pace-setter Leandro — while Sanfrecce Hiroshima's Hisato Sato has nine and Jubilo's Ryoichi Maeda eight.

Compared to the same point last season, where Urawa Reds' Marcus Tulio Tanaka was the only Japanese to feature in the top ten, the picture looks healthy for national team manager Takeshi Okada as he runs his eye over candidates to lead the line in South Africa.

Ishikawa's record is particularly impressive given that he is not an out-and-out striker, while Okazaki has backed up his prolific international haul with a series of well-taken goals.

News photo
Dazzling orange: Shimizu S-Pulse's Shinji Okazaki is one of a number of Japanese players among the leading pack of goalscorers in this season's J. League. KYODO PHOTO

Sato has re-established his credentials after a year in the second division, and Maeda should benefit from the return of strike partner Lee Keun Ho after the South Korean's transfer to France fell through.

Individual awards come a distant second to winning actual titles, but for a country that has produced many average strikers but few of genuine international caliber, having a Japanese winner this season would lay down an important marker.

Foreign players have dominated the goalscoring charts since the J. League began. Argentina's Ramon Diaz, Cameroon's Patrick Mboma and South Korea's Hwang Sun Hong all managed the feat in the league's early days, while the accolade has been won exclusively by Brazilians since Takahara last claimed it for his countrymen.

Of course having foreign top scorers is nothing unique to Japan. Such was the case in all four of Europe's biggest leagues this past season, and it has been nine years since an Englishman — Sunderland's Kevin Phillips — last claimed the golden boot in the Premier League.

But while European clubs are not limited by restrictions on foreign players, the J. League permits only three from outside Japan plus one from another Asian country.

This should, in theory, produce a higher percentage of Japanese goalscorers, but the tendency for clubs to use their quotas primarily to buy strikers complicates the issue. Almost all J. League sides feature at least one foreign attacker.

That should, however, be seen as a help rather than a hindrance. Players such as Kashima Antlers' Marquinhos and Urawa's Edmilson set a high standard of competition, and any Japanese who can surpass them will have to rise to that challenge.

That so many are in a good position to do so this season can only be good news for Okada. If the manager is serious about reaching the semifinals, he will need all the firepower he can get.



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