Motoyama: The "Best" is yet to come from "Japan's Ryan Giggs"

By Jeremy Walker

  TOKYO (July 17)--Japan's national coach, Philippe Troussier, raised a few eyebrows when he described Kashima Antlers' Masashi Motoyama as "the Ryan Giggs of Japan."
  But maybe the outspoken Frenchman, for once, was a little conservative in his estimate because Motoyama's second goal in a 2-0 victory over Verdy Kawasaki last Saturday was more like the Manchester United master himself. It was vintage George Best! With two minutes to go, Antlers leading 1-0 thanks to Motoyama's 77th-minute opener and Verdy pressing for an equaliser, the 21-year-old winger settled the result with a candidate for Goal of the Season. Racing on to a through-ball, Motoyama displayed a sound first touch by bringing the ball under control with his right foot before heading for goal, still some 30 yards out.
   First he went round one defender, but a second Verdy player forced him wide on to his favoured left foot. From an acute angle, Motoyama somehow found enough space and power to arrow a low shot back across goal and into the far corner. Giggs would have loved that one, and so would Best, as it contained all the qualities of a natural born thriller: Technique, determination, confidence, the spirit of adventure and a ruthless, deadly finish. But when Saturday comes and Antlers entertain Vissel Kobe at Kashima Stadium, Motoyama will probably be back on the bench as his team-mates attempt to extend their winning streak to five at the start of the second stage. As Motoyama is finding, it's tough at the top.

  But he's not complaining because this is exactly why he joined the Antlers from high school in 1998. "It's a well-run club with a lot of good players, and I wanted to learn from the best," he said. "There are many national team players here, so I always knew it would be hard to break into the team. I've still got a long way to go to establish myself in the first team, so that's my first target."
  Motoyama, who weighs only 63 kilograms and is a nimble 1.75 meters, made his mark by winning the national high school championship with Higashi Fukuoka. He could have joined any club in Japan but chose Kashima, at the other end of the country in Ibaraki prefecture, making his league debut in July 1998. To date he has scored four goals in 28 league appearances, yet he has already broken into the national team squad and made his senior debut, as a substitute, against Bolivia on June 18. Troussier is the first to acknowledge Motoyama's exciting skills, but the Frenchman's football philosophy is based on team work, not individual flair. "A team is not a market," says Troussier. "Everyone can't do what he wants when he wants." This is why Motoyama's talents are often kept in reserve for club and country, even though he was named in the all-star team as Japan finished runners-up to Spain in the FIFA World Youth Under-20 Championship in Nigeria in April 1999. Troussier tells an amusing story of Motoyama, highlighting the often closeted existence of the Japanese footballer.

  A group of African journalists were interviewing Motoyama during the Nigeria tournament and one of them asked him to name his favourite player in the game. "They were expecting him to say Rivaldo or Beckham or Zidane, but he said it was Shinji Ono," says Troussier, referring to the larger-than-life captain of Japan's youth team at the time and already a World Cup player.
   Was Motoyama joking? Who knows, because when the team returned to Japan with their silver medals, to be greeted by an army of shrieking schoolgirls and a battery of photographers with the heavy artillery of cameras, Motoyama caught the media out once again. "Now you've done so well in the youth world cup, what are your next plans?" Motoyama was asked. "To clean my room," he replied, "I've been away for a month and it'll be dusty." The fans and media love this off-the-cuff attitude, and so does Troussier, who often gets frustrated with the reserved Japanese approach and lack of individual spark among the players. Motoyama's room, by the way, is in the Kashima Antlers' dormintory, which is far more luxurious than it sounds. The young players are well looked after by the staff, and in return they give their all for the club.

  After scoring his two goals last Saturday, as a 70th-minute substitute, Motoyama said modestly: "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Anyone could have scored them. "The most important thing is we won and stayed on top of the table." Even though Troussier is on holiday in Morocco, he'll be aware of Motoyama's display, and is sure to find room for him in the 18-strong squad for the Sydney Olympics, and also for the Asian Cup in Lebanon in October. Because Troussier knows he has a special talent in Motoyama, who can play either as an orthodox left-winger or through the middle off the main strikers.
   The Ryan Giggs of Japan? Who knows, maybe the "Best" is yet to come.