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The Japan Under-23 side will be making their fourth straight appearance in the Olympics at the upcoming Beijing Summer Games and will be hoping to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Japan will face the United States, Nigeria and Netherlands in Group B.
Men's Olympic team coach Yasuharu Sorimachi is working hard to prepare his 18-man squad, having tried out a total of 83 players over the last two years.
With the clock winding down for the start of the Beijing Olympics, how does Sorimachi see his team's prospects and outlook for the tournament?

Q: Are you feeling relieved after finalizing the Olympic squad?

Well, picking the squad really is an energy-consuming process, but now I've done that and created a group with a common purpose I can move on to devoting my energies toward the Olympics themselves.

Q: Not all your preparations went smoothly. Looking back, what are your thoughts on this?

It's true that we have had some twists and turns. However, I'm pleased that I've done my work with conviction - that basically was to form a good team with good individuals for the Olympics and to qualify for the finals. I never swerved from my convictions and now I just have to shift towards making a good team for the finals. The important phase is in front of us and I'd like to achieve something good to wrap up our efforts.

Q: What was the most difficult part of making your team?

Since most of what we've done has taken place while the J. League is ongoing and the senior team has their own matches on international days, we couldn't call up all the players we wanted, which resulted in time restrictions for us. I understand that is how things are when you are in charge of a national team. But I still think we have had more preparation time than other countries. China is probably the only team to have had good preparation time because, as hosts, they qualified automatically. I've heard they've trained with over-age players for the last two years.

Q: When you started two years ago, you were also concerned with the game fitness of the players, which varied according to their club.

In the beginning, we had only handful of players who were being given playing opportunities in the J. League. Now, we have a good number of players who play regularly for their club, and also have a case where three or four players have come from the same club. I knew they would have a chance to get playing opportunities eventually, but it is nice to actually see those who I selected become leading players for their clubs.

Q: You have some Europe-based players in the side, unlike past Olympic teams. Has that affected your side positively or negatively, as sometimes it is not always convenient to call them up for matches?

It was a new development for us, but I always believed that playing overseas could provide positive feedback for the team. You could also take it as a sign that Japanese football is developing.
I can tell they have been inspired by playing for their clubs [overseas], and when I call them up, they provide us with something extra, and that is the reason why I've selected them.
[Takayuki]Morimoto had a hard time as he suffered an injury that prevented him from joining us, and also his club was facing relegation late in the season. But he helped them avoid that and was able to join us in the Toulon tournament [in May], which helped us build up our team.

Q: What particular aspects of the game have you worked on in particular with your players in the last two years?

Whether or not they had a strong mental approach, which is something we needed to reflect on after the 2006 World Cup. You cannot take it for granted that you will be named to the squad or show negative reactions if you are not called up. That kind of attitude isn't good for the squad. You've got to have passion and responsibility, and understand the significance and pride of playing for your country. That's what I always tell our players in meetings. If you don't have a strong mentality, you might wilt in the dying minutes of a game in hot weather, and that final minute could be the crucial moment in deciding the game.

Q: Do you feel that your team has moved up a level in the post-qualifying phase?

Yes. I had thought about starting all over again this year, but I've got a feeling that the team has moved up a level this year. While they were making that step, we played in the Toulon tournament, which helped us improve our maturity.
I've been telling our players how we'd like to play, and they seem to have a strong ambition and can now take in what I tell them and blend that with their playing strengths. That's something new that we've seen.

Q: While you were taking care of the under-23 side, you also worked as assistant coach of the senior team under Ivica Osim. Did that experience help you with your under-23 work?

When I was with him on the senior team, I was focusing on working hard to help the team win. But I now realize that I learned many things from him, such as attitude to the sport and ideas on offense and training methods, and I was able to renew my understanding that it's all about training in football and that training never lies.
When the time you have for team activities is limited, it's important to get everything together in a space of short time while taking into account your opponents and your style of play. It's a lot better if you can combine the various things in one session, and that's what I always think about - even in bed at night where I take notes when something comes to mind.
With the Under-23 players, I always explain to them what we are doing in a session before we start, so that they can see the point. That's partly because we don't have much time to do what we want to do.

Q: What is the strength of this team?

Everybody can connect well, both defensively and offensively. That's probably because I've selected hard-working players.

Q: You said you will work on defense again ahead of the tournament?

Yes, that's something I've overlooked and I know we have to work on. We don't have a lot of time before the tournament but still have some time to do something about it. I can show stuff on video to point out their problems.

Q: It must be hard to play three matches in the space of one week in the group stage?

Yes, and we have to play them in the heat, with only 18 players. It could be very hard.

Q: What do you think will be the key factor to get through the competition?

To share the same ideas among all the players in the team and to make it possible to play our game whichever players are on the pitch. We did that in the Toulon International Tournament so I don't think it will be a problem for us.

Q: As to the over-age issue, was there a miscalculation there?

Well, I have to admit that, as it was me who said I would like to use them. But I hope this will turn out to be something good for us at the end of the day.
FIFA allows teams to have over-age players but don't have any regulations concerning the release of players to the national team. I understand that European clubs have strong control over the release of their players, but I thought that wouldn't apply to Japanese clubs so much. But the reality is different. You could say that Japanese football has developed in a way.
Basically, I am not in favor of over-aged players. It would be better to play without them so that you can see where this generation is in its development and the problems you have to fix. Also, you might see your team change with the arrival of over-aged players, and this may have a negative effect on your side. So, when I decided to use them, I was planning on choosing those who wouldn't involve too much of a change.
Some think I'm unlucky in not being able to call them up. The standard of our international experience may have gone down without them, but the level of what we've accumulated with this unit has gone up. We have many players who have very perceptive minds, so that could be a plus for our side.

Q: What is your impression of your group-stage opponents - the United States, Nigeria and the Netherlands?

I have a vague overall image but still don't have a clear picture of them. That's what I have to work on from now.

Q: Do you think they are tough sides?

It's better to have tough opponents. With the opposition we played in Asia, it was taken for granted that we would beat them, but it's hard to play such opponents. Now our opponents will come out to pressure us and I think that will help us play our own brand of football. I'm looking forward to playing them.

Q: Will Japan have any advantage playing in China?

We have some advantages, for sure. We have the same type of climate and a one-hour time difference, similar food and limited travel from Japan. As we've been to China several times, we know the area and have little to worry about. We don't have to go there early to adjust to the environment, which helps us avoid risks. It's a matter of how well we can fully use such advantages in our game. I believe only Korea Republic and Japan are capable of playing three matches in a week.

(Interview and text by Kumi Kinohara)

Profile: Yasuharu Sorimachi

Yasuharu Sorimachi was born in Saitama on June 8, 1964. He helped Shimizu Higashi High School in Shizuoka Prefecture capture the National High School Soccer Championship, graduated from Keio University and joined the All Nippon Airways team in the Japan Soccer League. He played for their professional outfit, the Yokohama Flugels, and Bellmare Hiratsuka in the J. League before retiring in 1997. He turned coach at then J. League Division Two side Albirex Niigata in 2001 and guided them to Division One in 2003 before leaving at the end of 2005. He was appointed Japan Under-21 coach in August 2006 and helped the team qualify for the 2008 Olympics in November 2007. He also worked as an assistant to senior team coach Ivica Osim from 2006 to August 2007. He played for Japan four times in 1990-91.