Soccer | THE BALD TRUTH

Japan's soccer prima donnas need a slice of wa

by Alastair Himmer

My girlfriend snores very loudly and dribbles on her pillow when she sleeps. By day, she transmogrifies from monster to model and is professional enough to keep both the dribbling and the chainsaw impersonation away from the catwalk.

In contrast, Kashima and Japan striker Takayuki Suzuki has enough “issues” to provide Slim Shady with a whole CD’s worth of lyrics about deranged fan behavior.

Different occupations, same objective: professionalism.

Maybe Suzuki was picked on at school. Perhaps he wet his bed until his late teens. Regardless, Suzuki remains a fruitcake on the pitch.

His red card in the Confederations Cup was staggeringly dumb, but it was hardly out of character for the blond bomber.

Apologists point out that Suzuki is not afraid to “get stuck in” and that the Japanese national side needs a bit of muscle up front.

Let’s be serious. What is the point in being a Japanese Alan Smith if you’re going to be as daft as Alan Smith? Just like the Leeds United striker, Suzuki has an uncanny knack for winding up the opposition.

His off-the-ball tangle with Tony Popovic left Japan with 10 men for over 35 minutes against Australia. Not exactly professional, especially since Suzuki had been told to cool it by the referee just a few minutes after the semifinal had kicked off.

In hindsight, Japan coach Philippe Troussier should have cut a deal with FIFA to allow Suzuki to play in the final against France. Five minutes in the company of Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf might have sorted Suzuki out for good.

While the flying elbows and triple-pike dives make Suzuki an easy target, the point is that Japanese soccer still has too many prima donnas prancing around earning too much money for very little work.

Watch the Japan national side or a J. League match and you will see players going down as if they have been shot by a rooftop sniper after the most innocuous of challenges. Does Japan have to mimic South America to this extent?

Troussier has done a remarkable job in making Japan a more professional side in terms of tactical awareness, but he knows he is close to hitting the wall as far as acclimatizing his players to big matches.

Hallelujah, Shinji Ono is set to join Feyenoord. Junichi Inamoto could be off to Atletico Madrid. The problem is Troussier needs more players to show the same kind of professional drive as Ono and Inamoto.

A case in point is striker Atsushi Yanagisawa of Kashima Antlers (do we see a pattern developing here?). Once a target for Feyenoord himself, Yanagisawa has bags of talent but has never shown the slightest desire to leave the comfort zone of the J. League.

With Kashima throwing cash at him — and girls throwing their underwear in the same direction — I can understand his reluctance, but we are talking about professionalism here, are we not?

At last year’s Asian Cup in Lebanon, Jubilo Iwata midfielder Hiroshi Nanami inadvertently let slip the reason why Troussier quickly lost patience with Yanagisawa.

“Yanagi doesn’t like the food,” Nanami joked when asked why his teammate had missed training with a bout of “Beirut Belly.”

Troussier, who barred his players from eating in the team hotel in an attempt to get them to go into town to experience some Middle Eastern culture, immediately marked Yanagisawa down as a softie, a tag he has found hard to shake off.

On the plus side, Steve Perryman arrived back in Japan last Friday to begin his new job as assistant manager to Akira Nishino at Kashiwa Reysol, which can only be good news for Japanese soccer.

Fresh from a highly successful rescue mission at Exeter City, Perryman was responsible for producing one of the most professional, not to mention entertaining, sides in Japan during his two years as manager of Shimizu S-Pulse from 1998 to 2000.

Not only did the former Spurs man guide S-Pulse to the second-stage title in 1999 and the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup title in 2000. He also installed a code of fair play at the club, whose disciplinary record was second to none.

It is no coincidence that Shimizu players Ryuzo Morioka and Kazuyuki Toda, who made his international debut at the Confederations Cup, have emerged as two of Japan’s leading lights with less than a year left before the Korea-Japan World Cup finals.

Both are no-nonsense professionals who are not afraid to jump in where the studs are flying and who play through the pain barrier, as Morioka proved in the Confederations Cup final, when he played the full 90 minutes with a thigh injury.

Perryman will have his work cut out for him at Kashiwa, however, where James Bond lookalike Nishino (Pierce Brosnan, not Sean Connery) has been powerless to stop his highly fancied side slipping toward mid-table obscurity this season.

Nishino might have a Bond-like suaveness, but he also has a reputation for being a bit lightweight in his coaching style and a bit indecisive on the touchline.

Perryman, on the other hand, can wail like a banshee when he’s encouraging his team, but even when the chips are down he doesn’t want anything but honest football from his players.

Japan’s prima donnas please note: You need Kashiwa, not Kashima.

Any fool knows, if you want to play decent football, you’ve got to have