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By Jay Mwamba
Philippe Troussier’s coaching exploits in Africa, where he was a successful club coach and qualified Nigeria to France ’98, earned the debonair Frenchman the nickname the “white witchdoctor.”
The well-traveled coach has spent the last four years spinning his magic in the Far East, prepping a nation that less than 10 years ago had no professional league, for success on football’s biggest stage.
There have been some bumps along the way, the most recent being last week’s 3-0 pasting by Norway. But two weeks before it welcomes humanity to its half of the World Cup finals, Japan appear ready to give a decent account of themselves.
With a draw kinder than that burdened on co-hosts and great Pacific rim rivals South Korea, the Japanese have left no stone unturned in their build-up for what will be their second appearance in the finals, following a disappointing debut at France ’98.
It’s a meticulous path that Troussier has trod in his quest to lead his latest adoptive country to glory.
After taking over from Takeshi Okada four years ago, Troussier began laying the seeds for his 2002 squad by taking the Under-20 side to the World Youth Cup final in Nigeria.
They lost 4-0 to Spain in the final, but from that heady group emerged some exciting young talent, led by bustling midfielder Shinji Ono, who is arguably Japan’s most consistent overseas professional.
Other members of that silver medal-winning group that have graduated to Troussier’s first team are defender Koji Nakata, and midfielders Mituso Ogasawara and Junichi Inamoto.
Troussier also guided his senior squad to victory in the 2000 Asian Cup and the runners-up position in the Confederations Cup, co-hosted by Japan and Korea last year as a dry run for the 2002 World Cup.
As they could be in the forthcoming finals, Japan, were the surprise package of the FIFA tournament that features continental champions. They stormed into the final against France, undefeated and without conceding a goal following scraps with Canada, Cameroon, Australia and Brazil.
Even without Italian-based playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata, who had to rush back to Europe to help in Roma’s Serie A title fight, the co-hosts gave France a fight before capitulating to a Marcel Desailly header in a 1-0 loss.
If there were any doubts about Japanese ability to excel in a major tournament, they were surely erased then.
Troussier’s enthusiastic charges played with uncanny organization, zest and the technique only associated with the most seasoned of continental sides.
Despite frequent absences by the highly touted Nakata, wins over quality opposition like Poland and the Ukraine have since proven that Japan’s Confederations Cup run was no fluke.
Nakata, now with Parma, is back. He was named in Troussier’s squad last week as part of a solid midfield that also features the 22-year-old Ono from Dutch club Feyernoord; Junichi Inamoto, a little used Arsenal reserve, and the Brazilian-born Alessandro Santos, a naturalized Japanese.
Although overshadowed by the enormously popular Nakata, it is Ono, a busy linkman between defense and attack, who could be Japan’s trump card on home soil.
Unlike the streaky, 25-year-old Nakata, a delightful player when at his best, Ono is a consistent performer who has carved out a niche for himself at Feyernoord, with whom he won the UEFA Cup earlier this month.
To give his relatively youthful 23-man selection some semblance of experience, Troussier has included eight survivors from France ’98.
One of the veterans is 34-year-old forward Masashi Nakayama, who was Japan’s only goal scorer at France ’98, where the future Asian champs fell 1-0 to both Argentina and Croatia, and 2-1 to Jamaica.
Defensively, skipper Ryuzo Morioka, who’s back after being sidelined by hamstring problems, will be counted on to hold the fort, with the well-tested Yutaka Akita, capped for the 38th and last time in 1999, providing cover.
Goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi of English First Division side Portsmouth is expected to be the final piece of Troussier’s squad on the ground.
Kawaguchi’s shot-stopping skills in Japan’s Asian Cup success persuaded Portsmouth to part with some $2.5 million for his signature two years ago. An encore performance on home turf could extend his team’s campaign past the first round.
At any rate, of the two co-hosts, Japan have the better odds of surviving the first round.
For Troussier, the trick may be in the schedule.
A very winnable match against the depleted Belgians in Saitama on June 4, followed by the inscrutable Russians in Yokohama (June 9), and the probable whipping boys of Group H, Tunisia, in Osaka on June 14, may well embellish the Frenchman’s “White Witchdoctor” moniker.
Depleted but dangerous
A rush of cruel injuries has left perennial World Cup participants Belgium suddenly depleted and vulnerable as they head for the Far East this week for their sixth consecutive finals appearance.
The biggest blow to Belgium’s prospects of emerging unscathed from Group H, where the main challenge will come from Japan and Russia, is the loss of top striker Emile Mpenza.
Dubbed the “Black Pearl,” the 24-year-old German-based scion of Congolese immigrants, succumbed to a chronic groin injury two weeks ago, sharply lowering his country’s World Cup expectations in the process.
Quick, strong in the air and good with both feet, the goal-hungry Mpenza, who played at France ’98 as a 20-year-old, was expected to be Belgium’s talisman in Japan/Korea.
For Robert Waseige, the three-time Belgian Coach of the Year, who turned the national team’s flagging fortunes around after his appointment in August 1999, Mpenza’s withdrawal adds to the migraine caused by the losses of midfield stalwarts Walter Baseggio and Philippe Clement, defender Joos Valg’ren and forward Bob Peeters.
It also shifts most of the expectations onto the veteran shoulders of skipper Marc Wilmots, Emile’s Schalke 04 clubmate in Germany.
The comforting news is that Wilmots, whose eight goals in the qualifiers eased Belgium’s passage to their 10th finals, may be up to the task. He got the winner in a shock 2-1 victory over France last weekend.
A strong runner and tackler who likes to take a crack at goal from long range, Wilmots inherited the central midfield role previously occupied by the classy Enzo Scifo with some success. He is headed for his third straight finals after appearing at USA ’94 and France ’98.
Belgian fans will also be looking at Emile’s brother Mbo for inspiration in Japan. The elder Mpenza is likely to play alongside Wilmots in midfield, where Waseige will hope the 26-year-old will consistently reproduce the pace and energetic effort he displayed in a goalless tie with Algeria in Brussels last week.
Up front, Wesley Sonck, a 23-year-old talent from Racing Genk who was the revelation of the 2001-2002 Belgian season, will be vying to fill the void left by Emile. Critics, however, note Sonck’s lack of top-flight experience, which may not entirely be a factor in Group H.
Belgium’s best showing in nine previous World Cup trips was their fourth place finish in Mexico ’86.