Nagoya Grampus Eight walked off with what was probably the world’s first soccer title of the millennium after downing Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-0 in the final of the Emperor’s Cup at Tokyo’s National Stadium on a beautiful, sunny New Year’s Day.
Dragan “Pixy” Stojkovic made the first goal for Wagner Lopes and scored the second himself as he earned himself the MVP Award, a new Toyota sports car and the scorn of opposing manager Eddie Thomson for his referee-influencing theatrics on the pitch.
“I hope Stojkovic gives the referee back his whistle,” Thomson joked afterward.
Less funny for the Hiroshima boss was referee Masayoshi Okada’s refusal to give Sanfrecce a penalty after half an hour when inspirational captain Kenichi Uemura was blatantly shoved to the ground from behind by Nagoya defender Seiichi Ogawa. You couldn’t get a clearer penalty and the referee couldn’t have had a clearer view.
“If Stojkovic had been in a Sanfrecce jersey instead of Uemura, we would have had a penalty for sure,” Thomson commented. “It was a 100 percent penalty.”
In fact, by his standards, Stojkovic had one of his less theatrical games — he didn’t even come close to getting booked — and in the end proved to the 47,172 fans at the stadium that his skill is a much more valuable asset than his Dungarisms. His manager, Joao Carlos, agreed.
“He’s a fantastic player and everybody likes him,” Carlos said. “But I’ve told him that it is important that he plays every game and doesn’t get sent off and suspended.”
The appointment of Carlos as manager midway through the year has had a huge effect on Grampus Eight. Tipped to be the team of the year after picking up Japan players Lopes, Seigo Narazaki and Motohiro Yamaguchi in the off-season, the Nagoya team under-achieved in the first half of the year. Since Carlos’ arrival, however, Grampus Eight has lost only one game in 16, finishing second in the second stage of the J. League and picking up its first Emperor’s Cup since 1995, when it also beat Sanfrecce.
After an uneventful first half in which both teams canceled each other out and neither had a worthwhile shot on goal, play opened up in the second period. But with Sanfrecce suffering the loss of two more players to injury at halftime, the odds were well in Nagoya’s favor.
The loss of defender Tony Popovic (calf injury) and midfielder Kazuyuki Morisaki (back problem) further depleted a Hiroshima team that had to start without influential midfielders Kentaro Sawada and Hajime Moriyasu, as well as international forward Tatsuhiko Kubo.
The Hiroshima defense, which in the first half had ably contained Nagoya’s attacking stars — Stojkovic, Lopes, Takashi Hirano and Shigeyoshi Mochizuki — started to spring a few leaks after reorganizing in the second period. Uemura and Hayden Foxe were solid enough (Uemura earned a yellow card as he let Stojkovic know on several occasions he wouldn’t take any crap from the Yugoslav), but on the flanks, Hiroshima had to rely on midfielder Satoshi Koga and substitute Shinya Kawashima.
And it was a slip by Koga that let Grampus Eight in for the opening goal. As the ball ran free from a seemingly harmless position, Koga seemed to be in two minds as to what to do and dithered long enough to allow the ball to reach Stojkovic on the right.
Koga then compounded his error by backing too far off the Yugoslav, who curled in a crisp near-post ball that was met with a classic diving header from Lopes to put Nagoya 1-0 up just ahead of the hour mark.
“I knew Pixy would find me with a good ball,” Lopes stated. “And it was spot on. The goal was 90 percent his.”
Hiroshima was then left to chase the game and as it pushed forward, the Grampus Eight players found more space to exploit. Lopes had a sharp 15-meter shot pushed away by goalkeeper Takashi Shimoda and then, with seven minutes left on the clock, Stojkovic wrapped things up after a classic break out of defense.
Lopes broke away from the Nagoya penalty area and fed Tarik Oulida. The Dutchman found the unlikely figure of Torres — playing his final game for Nagoya before heading back to Brazil — running alongside him and the Brazilian unselfishly moved the ball on to Stojkovic in the Sanfrecce penalty area.
As Oulida offloaded to Torres, Stojkovic appeared to be offside and the linesman raised his flag before lowering it again, much to the annoyance of the Sanfrecce bench.”I thought he was a trainmaster at the station,” Thomson noted.
Unfortunately, the Nagoya Express kept running.
Stojkovic certainly wasn’t worried as he used some beautiful close control to beat Uemura, Koga and Shimoda before finishing off his move with a thumping 12-meter shot that made the score 2-0. He then had a chance to make it 3-0 in the dying seconds as he stroked a 20-meter free-kick against the crossbar.
“We were never in the game,” Foxe noted afterward.
Apart from a few flashes of skill from talented midfielder Chikara Fujimoto, Hiroshima never looked like troubling Grampus Eight’s international goalkeeper Narazaki. Thomson admitted they had wasted their 11 corners and their use of the ball in set plays was “woeful.”
“We really needed to have our best players on the park to match them in that last 25 minutes,” Thomson added. “In the end, they deserved to win.”
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