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Yoshida looking ahead to tough but fruitful World Cup in Canada

The Japan Under-20 side will make their seventh straight and eighth overall appearance in the upcoming FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Canada, slated for June 30-July 22. Ahead of their group-stage games with Scotland (on July 1), Costa Rica (July 4) and Nigeria (July 7) in Victoria, British Colombia, the young Boys in Blue have been preparing for the biannual world championship since qualifying with a silver-medal finish at the AFC Youth Championship last November in India. How does Yoshida, who has plenty of experience in coaching young players, feel about the readiness of his team, their prospects in the tournament and the trend of world soccer? Yoshida talked to JFA Web.

Q: Since qualifying for the World Cup last November, what aspects of the game have you worked on with your players?

I knew that we wouldn't win in the World Cup if we remained at the same standard as we were at the AFC Youth Championship. For instance, I have been aware of the need to improve our defense, at one-on-one situations in particular, or we will suffer against world-class opponents.
However, we didn't have much time to work with our players as they started playing for their clubs in the J. League. So, I've called up players like Masaki Yanagawa and Kosuke Ota, who are good at one-on-ones, in an attempt to add strength to our team.

Q: You have had a training camp once a month so far this year. Is that what you arranged as part of your preparation?

Yes. Soon after the Asian Youth tournament, I made plans to call up the players to start our training as soon as the J. League season started in early March. By then, I wanted the players to work with their clubs and win a place on their team.
Then, some of our players started playing for their clubs; ironically, this has made it hard to call them up for our sessions. But the more they can grow by playing for their clubs, the more we can get benefit out of that. I didn't worry about it too much.
Soon after gathering in March, we went to Portugal to take part in an international tournament there, as I wanted our players to experience what the world standard is like. But we bowed out of the tournament and realized we had to work more. We then trained in Hiroshima and Chiba and raised our level of play. I'm convinced that we have improved compared to how we were at the Asian youth tournament.

Q: Any improvement in the one-on-one situations?

We are much better than we were last November. But the rest of the world are also improving. There are many great strikers around the world, and our players will have to face such players on the world stage for the first time. How much they can handle that situation, we'll have to see.

Q: What about offense of your team?

We still need to improve our buildup. We cannot pass the ball around well enough to make it count. We still rely on a certain players from time to time to move the ball and receive the ball. We have to make a move as a unit. We are getting better, but still some work has to be done.

Q: Is there any specific points of Japanese football that you would like to show the rest of the world?

We have come to play with lots of movement with the ball and the players themselves in order to increase the number of players in attack. Since there aren't any players who can break through opponents on their own in Japan, we've got to do that as a unit in order to find the net. We had some good moments and scored a goal during our game against Germany in the Toulon International Tournament in France. So, I'm sure we are getting more time playing our brand of football.

Q: Did you give any homework to your players following the Toulon tournament?

No, no homework. I just told our players to focus on their work for their clubs. That helps the players develop, and it is an important point for us.
J. League clubs have coaches with good experience in a good environment to bring up youngsters. If the players can focus on what they have to do there, they will be able to bring something to help our national team grow when we get together. It's like the wheels of a vehicle. On the national team, you can play for your country against your counterparts from around the world, which also helps the players grow, and you can work on your strong points and weak points every day at your club.

Q: Anything you'd like to work on during your final tune-up sessions for the World Cup?

To keep our backline high, even when playing against fast players. We've got to do that, or we won't be able to gain the upper hand in the game. You might say that you could opt for a defensive game and launch counter-attacks. Well, you might still be able to win like that, but the possibility would be lower. If you can keep the line high and win the ball in midfield, you will have more chance to attack and finish as you play closer to the goal. On top of that, we'd like to work on set pieces. They will be important as I think all our games will be close ones.

Q: Are you looking forward to going into the World Cup?

Yes, but with some uneasiness too. Our preparations have gone alright, more or less, but there are still some parts that didn't go as we hoped.
In Toulon, it would have been better if we could have played a couple more games. But never mind. We are now focusing on improving our team within the time left to us.
During the Toulon tournament, we showed some videos of our World Cup opponents and played the games imagining our opponents in the World Cup ? for instance, Germany as Scotland and Ivory Coast as Nigeria. Our players were aware of that.
We've also learned the significance of goal difference from the game against France (a 5-1 loss). We shouldn't give up big scores so that we can stay alive even finishing third in our group. We will do whatever we can do with tenacity in order to get through the group stage.
A young team can have ups and downs. When they are good, they can play well. But when they are not, they can play poorly. That's a characteristic of the players in this generation ? also because they don't have experience. But that can happen to all the teams. It'll be a matter of how long we can extend our good moments and avoid giving up a goal during bad moments.

Q: Can the players with J. League experience, such as your fullbacks Atsuto Uchida or Michihiro Yasuda, be a big help to your team then?

Yes, that's right. I'd like to use their experience for our team.
You can tell the players are getting better with their playing experience in the J. League. If they can show that to our team, our team will get better. I actually believe that our team has improved.

Q: What was your first impression of the World Cup draw?

Well, I initially thought it wasn't too bad for us. But after watching games of Scotland and Costa Rica, I changed my view. They are very strong. So is Nigeria. We would like collect four points from our first two games before taking on Nigeria.

Q: From that point, is the match order ideal for Japan?

I don't know if it is good or bad. All I know is that the first two games will be deciders for us.

Q: The first game against Scotland will be important to you?

Yes. The first game will be very important to us. A tumble at the first one can affect the mental side of the players, and that's a characteristic of a team with young players. The first game will matter to our success in the tournament by more than 50 percent.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your opponents?

Scotland is very well organized, playing either 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, pressing hard from upfront, winning the ball and quickly delivering the ball to their forwards. They are physically big and fast. A very good team. When I watched their game in Canada and against Austria in Scotland, I was convinced that it was not a fluke at all that they took second place in qualification for the World Cup.
Costa Rica is more capable of doing things like the Brazilians or Argentina. They are good in offense, with good quality players up front. But they also displayed tight defense against Mexico in their qualifying match.
Nigeria has good athletic abilities and talent. They can be a tricky side for us to play. But they don't play as a unit sometimes.

Q: Having been involved with youth coaching so long, what do you think is the trend of world football?

It is getting tougher offensively and defensively, and you cannot compete well internationally without having a high standard in both offense and defense. A hard-working player on both sides is worth a lot, but at the same time, talented players like Messi, Ronaldinho and Eto'o are also out there. To reach the top group in the world, a team needs to play high quality football, which requires those talented players to work hard and play as a unit.

Q: Japan are aiming to follow that track: working hard with good thinking ? right?

Yes. Basically, Japanese players need to move the ball around and the players themselves need to move around to compete at the international level as they are physically inferior. We don't have a forward like Eto'o or Drogba. We cannot create talents but can create an environment that can help to create them. That's also an important thing in aiming to reach the world's top level.

Q: In the previous tournament, you worked as an assistant to help Japan reach the Round of 16. Are you hoping to guide your team to a higher finish than that?

We had a tough group stage last time but managed to get through with two draws and one loss. In the game against the Netherlands, we were overwhelmed by them but played patiently for a 2-1 loss, which eventually helped us get through the group stage.
I think the tournament this time will also require hard work and patience. I am expecting close games, and those two points can be the key issues for us to win close games. I'm focusing on our three games in the group stage. If we can advance, then you will be in the knock-out stage, and you never know what will happen there.

Q: Is there anything that you are hoping to see as a sign of success apart from the results?

We'd like to show our brand of aggressive football rather than adjusting to the play of our opponents, and get good results and play more games at a high standard. Players can feel something by playing against strong sides. By feeling something, they can set their own goals high and they will work hard to reach them.
That will guide our players to move up to the next level and will become an asset to them. That's the most important thing in this generation. We as coaches want to lay the path to make them grow further. That's why we've got to reach the knock-out stage and get something out of the tournament.
It is our players who actually play on the pitch, but I have faith in the players I've picked. With them, we'll make our final tune-up to get ready for our first game against Scotland.

Profile: Yasushi Yoshida

Yasushi Yoshida was born in Tokyo on August 9, 1960. He graduated from Waseda University and played for Mitsubishi Motors, predecessors of the J. League's Urawa Reds, in the old Japan Soccer League. He played in 146 games and scored 26 goals. He turned to coaching in 1992 at Urawa, became a JFA National Training Center coach in 1994, and started working as assistant coach of the Japan Under-15, Under-17 and Under-18 teams in 1995. He guided the Japan Under-20 side as assistant coach to the quarterfinals at the World Youth Championship in 1997 and 2003, and a Last-16 place in 2005. With Urawa Reds, Yoshida was promoted from assistant (to Dutch coach Aad De Mos) to take care of the J. League club in the Emperor's Cup in 1999.