Soccer | THE BALD TRUTH

Japan owes Troussier a 'Merci'

by Alastair Himmer

Poor South Korea. Get blitzed 5-0 by France in the Confederations Cup opener, making Japan feel a whole lot better about life after Philippe Troussier’s boys lost by the same score in Paris on March 25. Go out of the tournament on goal difference, while Japan finish top of Group B following wins over Canada and Cameroon and a 0-0 draw with Brazil.

To make matters worse, Japan went on to defeat Australia 1-0 in the semifinals before losing 1-0 (yawn) to France in last Sunday’s final at International Stadium Yokohama. And just when the South Koreans thought things couldn’t possibly deteriorate further, along comes whinge-bag Frank Leboeuf, moaning about everything from traffic jams to kimchi-flavored sports drinks (OK, I made that bit up).

“We had a nightmare with the traffic in South Korea. Before the Brazil (semifinal), we were stuck on the team bus for nearly two hours. They’ll have to fix that before next year,” said the Chelsea defender. Food for thought for South Korea before the country cohosts the 2002 World Cup with Japan.

For Japan, meanwhile, the Confederations Cup fizzled to a halt in a final which was so one-sided it was almost embarrassing — but not after the cohosts had stormed through their first four games without conceding a single goal.

Japan’s “Ultra Nippon” fans, a few onigiri short of a picnic at the best of times, comforted themselves with the thought that things would have been different if Hidetoshi Nakata had not decided to return to AS Roma hours after scoring the winner in the semifinals.

Two points here, if I may: a) Nakata PLAYED in the 5-0 debacle at the Stade de France, and b) France contested the Confederations Cup without the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Emmanuel Petit.

Plainly, the Nakata saga cast a shadow over Japan’s Confederations Cup campaign, but, for the most part, Troussier and the Japan Football Association led reporters on a wild goose chase by not clarifying the situation quicker. Nakata did not “let the country down,” as some headline makers accused.

Troussier and Roma manager Fabio Capello had come to a verbal agreement before the tournament about allowing Nakata to return for last Sunday’s crucial Serie A match with Napoli. In the event, Nakata watched from the bench as table-topping Roma could only draw 2-2 to prolong the Italian title race, but the fact remains that Troussier knew he would lose Nakata at some point.

On the eve of the semifinals, Troussier confused what was, in reality, a simple issue, by telling the Japanese media that the tug-of-war over Nakata was “pure fiction.” Nakata, meanwhile, was writing “I’m off” messages on his official Web site. Cue lots of head-scratching among reporters covering the Confederations Cup.

The upshot was that Nakata’s departure was simply the result of Troussier keeping a promise to Capello. The Frenchman had wanted to make it clear, however, that Nakata was going nowhere without his official blessing, and rightly so, since Japan’s Boy Wonder has become a little too big for his boots since moving to Italy after the 1998 World Cup.

If World Cup winners like Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu can chat to English journalists for 10 minutes after the final, then Nakata should stop in the mixed zone for a few moments instead of strolling through with headphones on and a smug grin on his face. As Troussier said after the final: “Football is business to Nakata.”

Obviously Troussier was upset at having to face the world and European champions in the final without his best player, but the fact that he chose to replace him with Teruyoshi Ito — who is fast approaching Tsuyoshi Kitazawa-like levels of uselessness — was a shock.

Shinji Ono, tracked by scouts from Borussia Dortmund through the 12-day tournament, was stuck on the left wing until the start of the second half, when Troussier sent on Atsuhiro Miura for Junichi Inamoto and gave Ono carte blanche to orchestrate things in central midfield.

Until, that is, Troussier decided to substitute the Urawa Reds star in the 60th minute and send on Hiroshima striker Tatsuhiko Kubo, who had spent Japan’s previous four matches buried deep on the end of the bench relaying messages to a distant galaxy. No surprise then, that Kubo hardly got a sniff against Desailly and Leboeuf.

Forget the final, though. In effect, it was little more than a “love-in” between Troussier and Roger Lemerre, his former manager when Troussier played for Red Star of Paris in 1977. There were hugs and kisses all around after the final whistle among the Frenchmen on the pitch, while Japan captain Ryuzo Morioka and goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi looked on in amazement.

For Kawaguchi, the Confederations Cup was a rollercoaster ride, establishing him as Japan’s undisputed No. 1, before fate decided to vomit on his eiderdown in the final.

Outstanding in Japan’s 3-0 win over Canada and the 2-0 victory against Cameroon, Kawaguchi also made three vital stops against Australia despite monsoon-like conditions in Yokohama.

In the final, however, the Kawaguchi we all know and love returned in the 29th minute when the Yokohama keeper inexplicably failed to cut out a long ball from Leboeuf, allowing Vieira to loop a header into the empty net and silence the crowd of over 65,000.

What’s the French for “gutted”? It’s what Troussier — Fuji TV camera pointed up his nose — looked at that moment. His post-match chat with Kawaguchi went along these lines (probably): “Yoshi, a word in your shell-like, me old son. Either come for the bloody cross or don’t come. You’ll give me a bleedin’ heart attack one of these days.”

His clanger in the final notwithstanding, Kawaguchi had a fine tournament. Morioka, too, was magnificent. Against France, significantly, he was Japan’s best player despite suffering from a thigh injury sustained in the semifinals. While Troussier rotated the captain’s armband between Kawaguchi, Nakata, Toshihiro Hattori and Morioka, the smart money says Morioka will skipper the side at the World Cup if fit.

However, it was Ono who made the biggest impression for Japan at the Confederations Cup, despite tiring in the last two matches. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, in Japan working as a television analyst during the Confederations Cup, told one domestic paper that he is trying to buy Nakata from Roma. But after watching Ono’s Man-of-the-Match display against Canada in Niigata, Wenger was soon thinking: “Bargain!”

Of course, Borussia Dortmund will have had mixed feelings about THAT free-kick, which could have added a few extra deutsche marks to Ono’s transfer fee. Canada goalkeeper Craig Forrest, who plays for Premier League side West Ham, admitted afterward that only David Beckham and Gianfranco Zola have beaten him direct from a free-kick before — pretty illustrious company Ono is keeping these days then.

At the other end of the scale is Takayuki Suzuki. The Kashima striker scored both goals against Cameroon, but then reverted to type against Australia, when he was sent off for lashing out at Tony Popovic in an off-the-ball incident 10 minutes into the second half. To call Suzuki stupid would be an insult to stupid people. Even foreign reporters, who had never seen the player before, were calling him an “animal.” There is a difference between being aggressive and being Lee Bowyer.

All in all, though, Troussier’s Japan delivered — again. “To come top of our group ahead of Cameroon and Brazil proves we can live with the top teams in the world. To reach the final was a fantastic achievement, which will give us huge confidence for the World Cup,” said Troussier.

Japan’s over-reliance on Nakata and the unwillingness of Japanese players to leave the “comfort zone” of the J. League and play abroad still bug Troussier, but the Japanese national team is unrecognizable now from the bunch of kick-and-rush merchants who played three and lost three at the 1998 World Cup. Japan owes Troussier a big “Merci, monsieur.”

Now if Troussier can just persuade Masashi Nakayama to stop sneaking onto the team bus . . .

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