Clowns at the circus of soccer

by Alastair Himmer

I was buttering my muffins the other morning when my Australian mate Nezbo called. So obviously I had to tell him how crap the Aussies are at soccer, didn’t I?

Japan’s 3-0 win in the Asia-Oceania Challenge Cup last Wednesday was proof that, while Australia rules cricket, rugby and . . . er . . . Aussie Rules, the Socceroos couldn’t score at a Soap Land.

The Japanese, on the other hand, can be satisfied with a job well done and some more silverware for the trophy cabinet after a workmanlike performance at Shizuoka Ecopa Stadium, one of the 10 domestic venues for next year’s Korea-Japan World Cup.

But while the match itself was as absorbing as the toilet paper in a JR station, there were one or two interesting footnotes:

YANAGI GOES BANANAS — Kashima Antlers striker Atsushi Yanagisawa had a hand in all three goals, scoring Japan’s opener, and must now find a bigger playground than the J. League.

Where did I put Gerard Houllier’s number? If Liverpool’s French manager is stupid enough to push England’s premier finisher Robbie Fowler out of the door at Anfield, he could get a cheap replacement in Yanagisawa if he hasn’t already been lynched by the Liverpool fans, of course.

TROUSSIER ‘NON’ TO NAKAMURA — There is now a huge doubt over Shunsuke Nakamura’s World Cup chances after the Yokohama midfielder spent the entire 90 minutes on the bench.

Japan coach Philippe Troussier had said Nakamura was in bad shape before the match and made the right choice playing Japan’s Mr. Reliable, Toshihiro Hattori, at left wing-back instead.

Hattori promptly scored only his second goal in 32 internationals, which will have cheered Nakamura up no end.

Shinji Ono, Hiroshi Nanami and Alex (once his Japanese citizenship comes through this autumn) are also lining up to play left midfield for Japan. Perhaps Nakamura should apply for North Korean citizenship.

WHEN HARRY MET YOSHI — Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi could be on his way to England, despite official denials from Yokohama.

Harry Redknapp, the director of football for first division side Portsmouth, was among the Ecopa crowd to watch Kawaguchi keep a clean sheet on his 26th birthday and spoke to the player after the match.

The former West Ham manager wants a replacement for Aaron Flahavan, who died in a traffic accident earlier this month, and Kawaguchi fancies a move to England.

Remember, Gamba Osaka also insisted Junichi Inamoto was going nowhere and look where he ended up!

CIRCUS CLOWN GON — Troussier said during last month’s Kirin Cup that he was not running a circus.

However, seconds after Yanagisawa had earned a penalty for Japan and just as he stepped up to take the kick himself, Troussier inexplicably replaced him with veteran Masashi Nakayama, who then converted from the spot with his first kick of the game.

If Nakayama’s farewell tour wasn’t already a circus, the penalty incident made everyone involved look like clowns and was a slap in the face for Yanagisawa.

JAWOC IN PAINT-JOB SHOCKER — Are officials at the Japanese World Cup Organizing Committee (JAWOC) color blind?

There can be no other explanation for the shocking green and orange color scheme at Ecopa Stadium. Yes, I know the seats are painted in those colors because Shizuoka is famous for its tea and tangerines, but the whole ground looks like it has been modeled on Japan Times sports editor Fred Varcoe’s wardrobe.

GIVE THAT MAN SOME POMPOMS — The best thing about watching games from the press seats is that you don’t have to listen to Japanese television commentators.

There are too many of them to mention here, but I’d like to give a special mention to the unbelievably annoying Jay Kabira, who crops up on just about every terrestrial and satellite channel available in Japan.

You know who I mean. He’s the chap who has made a living out of shouting ganbare Nippon accompanied by that smug grin.

As I said, I was in the press seats, so I didn’t get to see the hatchet job he did on the game for Asahi TV. I was, however, lucky enough to catch him working for TBS at the recent World Track and Field Championships in Edmonton.

It was during the heats for the men’s 200 meters and who should pop into the TBS studio but Maurice Greene, who had injured himself in winning the 100 meters a few days earlier and just happened to have five minutes to kill (or an easy $50,000 to earn, depending on your point of view).

Just as well because five minutes was all I could handle. I watched cringing behind my sofa. It was the most embarrassing five minutes of television I have seen in nine years in Japan (which is saying something).

First, Kabira asked a clearly bemused Greene to comment on some Japanese runner who had just taken about 25 seconds to complete his heat. Cue awkward silence before Greene finally says, “Yeah, it’s always difficult to wait to learn if you’ve qualified.”

Kabira then attempted an interview.

J.K.: So, what are your plans now? M.G.: I’m going to rest up and get ready for the Goodwill Games.

(J.K. has no idea what the Goodwill Games are and translates this into Japanese as, “He’s going to prepare for the next big tournament.”)

After Greene is forced to watch more Japanese runners finishing last, the interview continues:

J.K.: So, uh, what are your plans now? (I kid you not.) M.G. (puzzled): Like I said, I’ve got no real plans. I’m just going to rest and make sure I’m ready for the Goodwill Games.

(J.K. still doesn’t know what the Goodwill Games are and translates this into Japanese as, “He says he’s going to prepare for the next big tournament.”)

Remember, we are talking about an exclusive interview with the Olympic champion and world record holder over 100 meters, so if you are TBS you wouldn’t want to drop the ball here. So what does Kabira ask next?

J.K.: So, are you running in the relay? (At this point I was chewing the carpet and had tears rolling down my cheeks.) M.G. (seriously confused): No. I’m just focusing on . . . (you get the picture).

Are TBS and Asahi TV stark raving mad? How much do you think it costs to send a reporter overseas to cover a two-week event? Hotel bills, taxis, drinks at the Pink Pussy Club. The expense list is endless.

Sorry and all that, but if Kabira’s brand of mindless cheerleading represents value for money for these venerable broadcasting companies, then I’m the next Pope.

Five minutes before Greene arrived in the TBS studio in Edmonton, Kabira actually said LIVE ON AIR: “Let’s all support the whites.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the sort of comment that regularly gets Japanese politicians into trouble?

And this is one of Japan’s top TV soccer pundits!?!

You have to laugh, don’t you? Otherwise you’d cry.

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