So Premier League side Bolton Wanderers finally saw the light and decided to give back Japan striker Akinori Nishizawa after just six months on loan from Cerezo Osaka. Anyone surprised?

Bolton manager Sam Allardyce could have asked to borrow a Spice Girls CD, a power drill, or even a cup of sugar.

All would have proved more useful to the northern English club than Nishizawa, who failed to get a look in on the pitch but is now unbeatable on his Nintendo, according to reports.

Still, at least Nishizawa will feel more at home against the likes of Ventforet Kofu and Mito Hollyhock as he attempts to force his way back into the international fold for the World Cup this summer.

And he can always look back with pride at that unforgettable hat trick he scored against non-league Boston United in a preseason game last August.

Remember the one? Yes, those Dr. Martens League defenders are as tough as nails, Aki, and you showed them no mercy. “Raul, Owen, Van Nistelrooy, Nishizawa,” screamed the Japanese tabloids the next day.

We had seen it before, in 2000, when you were on loan to Espanyol. “Nishizawa Hits Six,” the sports dailies trumpeted, only for the small print to inform us that it had been in practice with traffic cones used for goalposts and the ‘keepers wearing blindfolds.

You then failed to score in six league and cup games before the Spanish club sent the removal men around to your luxury villa.

If you are still firing blanks come June, Aki, give me a call. I know a couple of blokes who might give you a game. You will have to bring your own kit and it will cost you 1,000 yen per match, but it might help you reacclimatize to life on Planet Earth.

To be fair, though, Nishizawa is not the only Japan international whose current trajectory is giving the people at NASA cause for concern. The World Cup year has also started with a bump rather than a bang for Hidetoshi Nakata and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.

Nakata could soon be surplus to requirements at Italian club Parma just six months after his $26 million move from AS Roma, while Japan goalkeeper Kawaguchi is no longer flavor of the month at Portsmouth.

I have made it my New Year’s resolution not to give Nakata a hard time, at least up to and during the World Cup.

The reasons for this noble and magnanimous gesture are: a) Nakata is a delicate flower and his ego needs massaging during this difficult period, and b) I would quite like to see Japan progress to the knockout stages of the World Cup. A frolicking Nakata will help Japan more than a paranoid Nakata.

I have made no such promises about the rest of them, however, and Kawaguchi is bending over and BEGGING for six of the best after losing his place in the Portsmouth team to the geriatric Dave Beasant.

Now, to say Kawaguchi has suffered a dip in form would be like saying that Osama bin Laden doesn’t go out much.

But things went really pear-shaped for Kawaguchi after his errors contributed to Portsmouth’s humiliating 4-1 defeat at home to Third Division Leyton Orient in the F.A. Cup on Jan. 6.

I am reliably informed that the players engaged in a “frank exchange of opinions” in the Fratton Park dressing room after the match and that Kawaguchi joined in the fun by yelling back at his teammates in Japanese.

“Your weather is miserable and the food is crap,” said Pompey manager Graham Rix when asked what Kawaguchi had said.

According to my “mole,” Kawaguchi hadn’t been that angry since one of the youth team players pinched his hair gel.

Eight defeats in the last nine games have left Portsmouth eighth from bottom of Division One and left Kawaguchi pondering his future in England.

For all his undoubted ability as a shot-stopper, Kawaguchi has never shed his “Dracula” nickname (hates crosses, geddit?) and will continue to struggle, especially in the physical English game, unless he knuckles down and cures his phobia of high balls.

Despite his recent troubles, however, Kawaguchi should keep his place between the sticks for Japan’s logjam of eight friendly matches this spring, beginning with the visit of Ukraine on March 21.

World Cup teams Poland, Sweden and Costa Rica (OK, so CONCACAF teams don’t really count) should provide Japan coach Philippe Troussier with the sort of examination his side needs before the Group H opener against Belgium in Saitama on June 4.

My hunch is that Kawaguchi and Nakata will be back on song in time for the World Cup. As for Nishizawa? His best hope may be that Kashima striker Atsushi Yanagisawa goes AWOL again and opts for a dirty stopover with his girlfriend rather than a long-haul flight to Poland in March. (I know which I would choose.)

I was on the same flight back from Sydney as Yanagisawa (and his bird) last Thursday and he was definitely in “rub-rub” mode, so to speak. I did not see him come off the plane.

Either: a) he was engaged in dialogue with the JAL stewardesses as to the logic behind having to use plastic knives with stainless steel forks in the wake of Sept. 11, or b) he was still shagging up in first class.

The World Cup soap opera is only just beginning.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.