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Sasaki deserves a shot at coaching Samurai Blue

by Jack Gallagher

By guiding Nadeshiko Japan into the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup for a second consecutive time, coach Norio Sasaki has clearly established his acumen as both a motivator and strategist.

The teamwork displayed on the side’s second goal in a 2-1 victory over the Netherlands in the second round was as fine a display as you will see at any level of the game and brought back memories of Brazilian Ronaldo’s second goal in the 2002 World Cup Final against Germany in Yokohama.

Nadeshiko’s decisive goal against the Dutch on a curling rocket from the edge of the penalty area came after a nice back-heel pass from Yuki Ogimi to Aya Miyama, who then moved the ball toward Mana Iwabuchi, who let the ball go through her legs to Mizuho Sakaguchi, who smashed home the winner.

Analysts universally praised the goal and called it the best of the tournament to that point.

The improvisation and precision of the four players involved in the play in the late stages of the contest reflected poise and fortitude, something often seen lacking in Nadeshiko’s male counterparts, who played to a listless scoreless home draw against Singapore earlier in June.

Japan Football Association president Kuniya Daini said Saturday that the 57-year-old Sasaki, who in addition to leading Nadeshiko to victory in the 2011 Women’s World Cup also piloted Japan to the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, will be staying on as coach through the 2016 Rio Games.

That is all fine and well, but the feeling here is that Sasaki deserves a shot as the coach of the Samurai Blue. The string of foreign coaches the JFA has brought in to lead the men’s team has just not resonated in the long term.

While this could easily be put off on the players, the time has come for the Samurai Blue to have a Japanese coach again. Takeshi Okada got them to the World Cup twice, but his coaching days appear over.

Sasaki, a native of Yamagata Prefecture who has led Nadeshiko since 2008, is as qualified for the post as any other coach in the land and should receive serious consideration the next time the job comes open.

Some will say that because Sasaki has been coaching the women it’s not the same as leading the men. I think that is a bogus argument.

If you can motivate and lead a group it makes no difference if they are male or female. You can either do it or you can’t.

The real question is whether the Samurai Blue have the same aptitude as Nadeshiko. So far that has not been the case.

Tough break: Norichika Aoki, the leadoff batter for the San Francisco Giants, was hitting .317 for the World Series champions when he suffered a fractured leg on June 20 after being hit by a pitch from Carlos Frias of the Dodgers.

The injury likely cost Aoki a spot in the All-Star Game and will keep him out of action for at least a month. Aoki may lose more than that, however, as with the emergence of catcher Andrew Susac the Giants are playing All-Star Buster Posey at first base more often and putting Brandon Belt in left field.

There is a very real chance that Aoki will have to play off the bench frequently after he returns to the active roster in late July.

Gone too soon: Sad to see the premature passing recently of former ozeki Takanonami. The stablemate of yokozuna Takanohana and Wakanohana was just 43 years old.

Takanonami, a native of Aomori Prefecture, won two Emperor’s Cups (at the New Year’s tournament in 1996 and the Fukuoka Basho in 1997) during his career. He succumbed to heart problems that began during his days as an active wrestler.

I can still remember watching on TV when Takanonami was feted with a parade in Aomori after winning his first Emperor’s Cup. The bitter cold and falling snow did nothing to dampen his big smile.

Unprecedented: I’m not sure what is going on with American sprinter Justin Gatlin.

The 2004 Olympic 100-meter champion, who has been suspended twice for doping (most recently for four years starting in 2006), is running historically unprecedented times in the 100 and 200 meters at the age of 33. He just won the U.S. title in the latter in 19.57 seconds on Sunday.

The time was the fifth-fastest 200 meters in history.

Has Gatlin found the fountain of youth?

Or is something sinister going on again?

Those are fair questions.

Hard to believe: Japan’s men’s national basketball team, which has not made the Olympics since 1976, is ranked higher (47th) in the FIBA rankings than the men’s soccer team (52nd) is in FIFA’s.