Japanese soccer stars shocked by encounters with outside world

by Alastair Himmer

First the good news: Five Japan internationals now play abroad. With Naohiro Takahara playing for Boca Juniors and Hidetoshi Nakata, Junichi Inamoto, Shinji Ono and Akinori Nishizawa all employed in Europe, Japan coach Philippe Troussier has good reason to be optimistic ahead of next year’s World Cup.

Obviously, the Frenchman would like to see another half-a-dozen Japan players follow the recent trend, but beggars can’t be choosers.

It won’t be long now before every Harry Redknapp lookalike in a sheepskin coat will be rubbing his hands at the prospect of picking up “some Japanese player on the cheap” and marking up the prices of their club’s replica shirts.

Now for the bad news: The Dutch and English leagues have yet to kick off their seasons and the signs from Rotterdam and Bolton, in particular, already point to bumpy times ahead for Ono and Nishizawa.

Ono, who joined Dutch first-division club Feyenoord last month, got an earful from manager Bert van Marwijk after making his home debut in a preseason match against Southampton last week.

After the match at De Kuip Stadium, van Marwijk was asked, for the umpteenth time, to comment on Ono by one of a busload of Japanese reporters assigned to follow the Japan midfielder’s every move.

“I’m fed up with answering questions about Ono every day,” the Dutchman snapped.

He added: “He might be a genius, but his attitude is poor, he has no concept of teamwork and is arrogant to the point of thinking he is something special.”

The Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad also quoted the coach as saying Ono has little chance of forcing his way into Feyenoord’s starting lineup.

“I’m not intending to give him a first-team place. I can’t even guarantee what position he’ll play,” said van Marwijk. “Just because he’s come from Japan and might have jetlag is no excuse for playing like he did today.

“I’m not going to make a fuss over him if he can’t even communicate with his teammates.”

To his credit, Ono shrugged off his manager’s remarks.

“I’m learning the lingo and I’ll just keep plugging away until I get more playing time,” the former Red Diamond said after coming on as an 87th-minute substitute in a 2-1 defeat at Benfica last Friday.

The cream, as they say, always rises and as one of Japan’s brightest young talents Ono will undoubtedly bounce back, but he might want to consider an Ichiro-style boycott of the Japanese media in the meantime. When will they ever learn?

As for Nishizawa, it was a case of deja-vu last week when the Japanese dailies went overboard about his hat trick in a meaningless preseason match.

Nishizawa, who is currently on loan from Cerezo Osaka, scored three goals as Bolton Wanderers edged non-league club Boston United 4-3. Cue hysteria in the Japanese press.

Where have we heard this before? Remember the “Nishizawa Hits Six” headlines after the Japan striker had enjoyed a good day in practice at Espanyol last year?

Nishizawa then failed to score a goal in six league and cup games before the Spanish club pulled the plug on their six-month loan deal.

Now, as soon as the Espanyol reject scores three against a team of plasterers and shelf-stackers from the Dr. Martens League, the Sankei Sports leads with: “Starting spot earmarked for Nishizawa.” This despite the Japan striker twisting an ankle in training last Thursday.

According to our intrepid Sanspo reporter, Bolton manager Sam Allardyce had Nishizawa practicing on his own over the weekend to “save him” for the team’s Premier League opener at Leicester on Aug. 18.

“The injury is not that bad. I’ll play against Alaves on Aug. 7,” insisted Nishizawa, looking ahead to the midweek friendly with last season’s UEFA Cup runnerup.

Presumably, the Japanese press will be up in arms if Allardyce chooses to teach Nishizawa a lesson in humility and keep him on the bench.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been the target of “Inamoto Benchwarmer Scandal” headlines in the Japanese press for his hugely controversial decision to play French star Patrick Vieira ahead of the Japan midfielder during a recent tour of Austria.

Wenger has so far managed to avoid punching any Japanese reporters and has played a straight bat to being asked, “Why isn’t Inamoto in the starting lineup?”

The Frenchman, who signed Inamoto for $5.6 million from Gamba Osaka last month, replied diplomatically: “He has shown his quality in practice and of course there will be times when we’ll need him to play the full 90 minutes.”

(Wenger did not say if he was referring to midweek Worthington Cup ties.)

In contrast to Nishizawa, whose mood swings make Nakata look like the life of the party, Inamoto has the mental resilience to play by the rules at Arsenal.

He is not arrogant enough to assume he can simply walk into the starting lineup at a club that finished second behind Manchester United in the Premiership last season.

Just as well really with Dutch international Giovanni van Bronckhorst, a preseason signing from Rangers, and Frenchman Gilles Grimandi also bidding for a place alongside Vieira in central midfield.

Wenger has hinted that the 21-year-old Inamoto needs to show more of a mean streak on the practice ground.

“He is still playing as if he is afraid to make a mistake. We have not seen the real Inamoto yet,” the Frenchman noted.

Sensitive to the situation, Troussier has left Inamoto as well as Nakata, Ono and Nishizawa out of Japan’s squad for next week’s Asia-Oceania Challenge Cup match against Australia in Shizuoka.

Wenger has repeatedly said he intends to “make the best choices for Inamoto.” Expect Inamoto to repay his manager’s faith and make the most of his opportunity at Arsenal.

The other summer Japanese exports would do well to keep their mouths shut, work hard, stay humble and follow his example.

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