Soccer | THE BALD TRUTH

DON'T TRY ME, TRY HIM

Who will stand up to captain Japan?

by Alastair Himmer

My friend Dave’s grandfather once did a nude scene with Brad Pitt in the movie “Johnny Suede.” This was doubtless extremely nerve-wracking and almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A little bit like captaining Japan. OK, a slight exaggeration perhaps, but Japan coach Philippe Troussier has yet to decide on a regular skipper since taking over the reins in October 1998.

Just when Shimizu S-Pulse defender Ryuzo Morioka appeared to have staked his claim after captaining Japan to victory at the Asian Cup last October, Troussier handed the armband to Naoki Matsuda in March for the 5-0 mauling by France in Paris.

To add insult to injury, Troussier then kicked Morioka out of a practice in Yokohama prior to last month’s friendly against Spain in Cordoba following a sensational training ground bustup.

Meanwhile, Matsuda — about as watertight as a haddock’s bathing costume against France — promptly lost the captaincy to Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi for the 1-0 defeat to Spain, but the Yokohama goalkeeper is not even guaranteed a starting place ahead of Nagoya’s Seigo Narazaki.

Confused? Troussier has repeatedly said he wants all his players to “act like captains” on the pitch and the Frenchman’s hard-line stance with Japan’s prima donnas has undoubtedly toughened up the national side.

But with the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea just over a year away, one or two questions remain:

After France and Spain, who will be next on Troussier’s conveyor belt? And will he retain the captaincy — or even his place in the side — for more than one match?

Here are my top 10 candidates to lead Japan to glory at next summer’s World Cup finals.

1) Hidetoshi Nakata

Reasons for: Favorite to take over as captain at the World Cup for two simple reasons. Nakata has experience of playing at the top level of the game with AS Roma and he is admired and respected by the world’s best players.

Already the man the Japanese players look to for inspiration on the pitch, Nakata appears the most logical choice. The fact that he is worth more than the rest of the Japan team put together also helps his case.

Reasons against: Nakata hasn’t shown he wants the captain’s armband and the extra responsibility and pressure that goes with it.

2) Ryuzo Morioka

For: A safe choice. Morioka led Japan’s back line with authority during the Asian Cup despite reservations expressed about his leadership qualities by former Shimizu S-Pulse manager Steve Perryman.

From his position at the back, Morioka can see the whole field and he demonstrated he could handle the pressure in Lebanon as he was also voted the tournament’s best defender.

Against: None, although Japan will face much tougher opposition than Uzbekistan and Iraq at the World Cup. Can Morioka make the step up? For my money, yes.

3) Hiroshi Nanami

For: Once labeled a “wimp” by Troussier, Nanami has emerged as a team leader since returning to Jubilo Iwata after an unsuccessful spell in Italy. After realizing he was not the big shot he thought he was, he won Player of the Tournament honors at the Asian Cup.

His Roy Keane-like tongue-lashing of teammate Keiji Kaimoto in the 1-1 draw with Qatar could be heard way up in the press seats at Beirut Sports City Stadium. Describes himself as the Japan squad’s “agony aunt.”

Against: Nanami has yet to fully shake off a reputation for choking under pressure. The World Cup cauldron might not be the place to put Jubilo’s Prodigal Son to the test.

4) Toshihiro Hattori

For: Hard as nails and Japan’s Mr. Reliable, Jubilo’s Hattori is an outside bet for captain as one of a handful of players who can confidently expect to be in the starting lineup.

“I’m good at bringing the boys together,” the defender said recently.

Against: “Toshihiro who?” Has about as much charisma as former England captain Alan Shearer.

5) Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi

For: Never one to worry about the odd dropped cross, Yokohama F. Marinos keeper Kawaguchi patently wants to be captain. Or Peter Schmeichel. Or both. Enjoys barking orders, not bothered that nobody listens.

Replied with a modest, “Me, I suppose,” when asked who should be captain.

Against: Drops a lot of crosses, so in and out of the Japan side as often as cup noodle.

6) Naoki Matsuda

For: Like Hattori, the Marinos man is not easily intimidated by big, physical opponents and has the respect of the Japanese players.

Against: Paris.

7) Junichi Inamoto

For: Unspectacular but solid, Gamba Osaka’s midfield enforcer leads by example on the pitch and has grown in stature since stamping his quality all over the Asian Cup.

Against: Next year’s World Cup could be four years too early for the 21-year-old.

8) Tatsuhiko Kubo

For: One half of what my colleague Fred Varcoe memorably described as Japan’s “Double Loon offense” in a friendly last year (Akinori Nishizawa was the other half), Kubo could be the team’s secret weapon at the World Cup as the Sanfrecce Hiroshima forward would frighten opponents to death.

Described by former Hiroshima manager Eddie Thomson as a “lovely lad, but a bit of a space cadet,” Kubo is Japan’s answer to Stan Collymore. Sometimes brilliant, usually rubbish, always barking mad.

Against: “Mork calling Orson. Come in, Orson . . .”

9) Masashi Nakayama

For: Errr, recalled to the Japan squad for the trip to Spain, Nakayama has World Cup experience on his side if Troussier has another rush of blood and asks the 33-year-old Iwata striker to dust off his Zimmer frame for next year’s tournament.

Against: As a professional goal-hanger for British Football Club Tokyo, I can vouch for the fact that strikers do not make for the best captains. Nakayama, more to the point, is simply not an international grade striker.

10) Tsuyoshi Kitazawa

For: Assume the North Koreans have dropped the bomb on Japan and managed to miss Tokyo Verdy 1969’s training ground entirely, etc. (Armageddon couldn’t get much worse than this, could it?).

Against: Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluuuuuck (repeat headless chicken impression until fade . . .)

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