Soccer | THE BALD TRUTH

God and Japan try to copy Latvian recipe

by Alastair Himmer

What with France relying on a Japanese referee to beat South Korea 3-2 and plucky Latvia winning the Eurovision Song Contest, it was a truly controversial weekend.

England tried to revive memories of Bucks Fizz but fell flat with a performance that would guarantee Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side approximately null points at the World Cup in a lucky 2-2 draw with Cameroon in Kobe.

This after a 1-1 draw with South Korea in which England looked more like Halifax Town and the latest metatarsal crisis, which saw Danny Murphy hobble home and Trevor Sinclair ordered to the Far East for the second time inside a week.

Knock Bucks Fizz all you like, but the pop legends were clearly on the ball. “Making Your Mind Up” and “The Land of Make Believe” were just two of a string of hits in the early 1980s that suggested they knew a thing or two about international management.

Speaking of making stuff up, Japan coach Philippe Troussier attempted over the weekend to pass off veteran striker Masashi Nakayama as the reincarnation of Christ.

“We have God on our side. So what if he hasn’t scored in six months? His presence in the side will help us score goals,” said the Frenchman, apparently unaware of any contradiction.

Unfortunately for Japan, God was busy performing other miracles and the World Cup cohosts had to rely on Celtic defender Johan Mjallby to score the equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Sweden in Tokyo on Saturday.

If Nakayama, who came on as a second-half substitute, is God, then why the headless chicken routine?

Surely, God would have made the most of his chance when called on by Troussier. God would have struck up a telepathic understanding with Parma midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata and snatched a dramatic winner in injury time, probably.

If Nakayama is God, then why did he not do something for poor Shinji Ono when the Feyenoord player complained of stomach pains after the Sweden match.

Was Nakayama otherwise engaged trying to turn the dirty kit into a post-match feast for the Japan squad?

God is supposed to work in mysterious ways. There is nothing remotely mysterious about Nakayama. He runs into the back of defenders a lot and prides himself on covering every blade of grass (although he has little choice with his first touch being so awful).

South Korea, meanwhile, could also have done with a bit of divine intervention on Sunday. Japanese ref Masayoshi Okada did little to improve relations between the two World Cup cohosting countries by repeatedly allowing French defenders to commit grievous bodily harm without fear of punishment.

“Does this referee need glasses?” asked one commentator on SBS, a Seoul-based television station. Losing 3-2 to the World Cup holder is no disgrace but a draw would have been a snorting result for South Korea.

With the kind of fanatical support the South Korean team has been getting in recent games, Guus Hiddink’s side could surprise a few people at the World Cup. Worth a bet to advance from Group D, despite the presence of Poland, Portugal and the United States.

Of course, with Belgium beating France 2-1 in Paris recently, the tabloids here have all but written off Japan’s chances of reaching the second round.

Lose against Belgium in the Group H opener on June 4 and Troussier will need more than God on his side. Tunisia might struggle to beat a Vauxhall Conference side but that becomes academic unless Japan get a result against Russia in Yokohama on June 9.

In fairness to Troussier, his World Cup squad was not entirely bonkers, despite the inclusion of Nakayama.

Left with a straight choice between Shunsuke Nakamura and Mitsuo Ogasawara, Troussier chose the more combative Ogasawara, much to the obvious dismay of the Japanese sports dailies (whose reaction proved, if more proof was needed, that the domestic tabloids have gone potty).

The decision, which has ruined Yokohama’s hopes of selling Nakamura to Real Madrid, was based on common sense, regardless of all those “Shunsuke Shocker” headlines. Troussier simply had no room for a Japanese Matt Le Tissier.

For Japan now, the immediate question would appear to be how to persuade Belgian and Russian defenders to do what Mjallby did on Saturday, when the Swedish captain volleyed in a left-wing cross from Alessandro Santos to give Troussier’s side a share of the spoils.

I mean, who else is going to score for Japan? The forwards have been toddling around as if they are auditioning for a “Carry On” movie for the past six months. Judge for yourselves:

Takayuki Suzuki has scored just three times in 17 games for Japan, Akinori Nishizawa has just had his appendix out, Atsushi Yanagisawa has got a broken hand (and a very stroppy girlfriend) and Nakayama is masquerading as God. An odd bag indeed.

With all due respect, Troussier would have been better served calling up all four members of Bucks Fizz.

Group H prediction: Russia, Belgium, Japan, Tunisia.