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Japan will start their FIFA Women’s Under-17 World Cup campaign on October 30 in New Zealand, where they will face the United States, France and Paraguay. While the Japanese girls are aiming to reach the final on November 16 in Auckland, Japan women’s under-17 coach Hiroshi Yoshida, 50, is hoping that his players can learn from their experience in the FIFA tournament and become more accomplished international players. Yoshida talked to JFA Web about his thoughts on the upcoming tournament and the development of a new generation of young players.

Q: How have the preparations been going so far? Was it hard to call up players for training camps as they have to go to school?

Before the final camp that started on October 21, our players were busy with their local teams and matches, but we still were able to hold training camps in March, and from June to September, including a tour to Australia in August. I know that the national coaches in every category have difficulties in organizing their teams, but that’s just the way things are.

Q: Players in this generation have the potential to develop on a daily basis, but at the same time their performances are not always stable. What’s the hardest part about coaching players in this generation?

It’s the mental side – how to give them self-confidence. I’ve found that harder to take realise with girls more than boys; you have to be aware that you need to have a different approach with girls.
With boys, you can tell your players something strong and leave them figure it out for themselves, but not with girls. Some can take it, but others can’t. You have to give them some kind of follow-up advice, otherwise they may feel down. That’s the most difficult part, but as long as you really want to turn them into good players, you’ll find a way to solve such problems.
With this Under-17 side, we have basically been aiming to develop the individual standard of our players. I hope that while they are with us, they can learn everything they need to play for the senior team in the future.

Q: What is needed for these girls to become Nadeshiko Japan players in the future?

You’ve got to be competitive at the world level. The younger generation of Japanese boys, say from primary school age to junior high school age, are seen as being of a high standard in the world. That’s also true of girls with a higher skill level because Japanese girls in the lower grades at primary school often play alongside boys three or four times a week. They also get to know the sport when they are little by playing, or through a program like the JFA Kids Project.

Q: How about the mental part of the game?

I see some difference between the Japanese players and the foreign players in terms of their hunger and willingness to apply themselves. The Japanese players may have a vague desire to play for Japan, but many foreign players want to play for their country in order to obtain a better lifestyle. That kind of hunger and desire can affect the mental side of the game and produce crafty or tricky moves.
The Japanese in general are clever and smart and do well as a unit. That tendency can also be seen in Japanese society where people have a hard-working attitude and everybody can follow an order or instruction when they are told to do something. But that doesn’t apply to football if you want to compete against the world’s top teams.
You should have a strong attitude to become a highly competitive individual at the world level and show what you can do, but the Japanese players are not doing that enough. You can’t break through your opposition just by passing the ball around, so I am telling my players to attack when they get the chance and challenge their opponents. This is the kind of player I am trying to develop.

Q: Is that the concept of “Team Yoshida”?

Yes. If you cannot beat your opponent, you are not presenting any danger to the opposition. The Japanese players tend to rely on their teammates too much, which I think is a Japanese characteristic. So, I tell my players: “Don’t rely on them.” Each player should be capable of holding on to the ball and going on the attack. That should be the basis of their development and will help them become more threatening players as they develop.

Q: Do you think this has something to do with school education? In Japanese schools, pupils are usually scolded if they do something different from the others.

I’m afraid so. Their environment means they turn into people unable to speak out for themselves. I would like our players to be responsible as individuals and would like them to be capable of critiquing their own performances -- what they could do or couldn’t do and whether their choice of action was appropriate or not.
I hope they will be able to do this in the upcoming tournament, and that will help them develop their game. It’s very important for them to actually feel something in a do-or-die type of tournament.

Q: What is your impression of your team’s opponents? You will play the United States first and then France and Paraguay in the group stage.

Apart from the United States, they don’t look so technically skillful. In this generation, the Americans are more mature as a team than the Germans, and they can be difficult to play against. However, we can assess our level -- how far we can go -- by playing them in our first match. That will help us see what we have to do against France.
The Americans have a high level of maturity in this generation, but I think the Japanese players have better skills and that will help us gain greater possession and find a way to beat them.
Japan have often played against the United States in women’s football. To prove our standard, we have to be capable of beating them with good control. I think we have a chance. We want to prevent our opponents from using their physical advantages and for us to use our own strengths.

Q: What do you think about France?

I’ve watched their European qualifiers a little bit, and they have speedy players on the flanks. They also have a couple of big players at center-back. We should be careful about set plays, and not give them opportunities to go behind our backline.

Q: What about Paraguay?

It seems that they are good at controlling the ball, probably from their background of playing alongside boys. We’ll be able to get up-to-date information on them during the tournament as we’ll play them in our third match. We’ll see.
The foreign players in general have good physical abilities and won’t let us shoot so easily. Even if we can, it will still be hard to get through them. Teams like England and France also have good goalkeepers.
Nadeshiko Japan’s Yukari Fukumoto did well at the Beijing Olympics, but we are having problems developing good goalkeepers, and I think that may have something to do with the mentality or character of Japanese women. They may be too modest.

Q: Do you think their modest character affects their first move in goalkeeping?

Yes. Goalkeepers in other countries are often in a situation where they have to be alert and deal with long balls coming into the space behind their backline, and they can learn from this. But in Japan, the players pass the ball around all the time before sending a cross in, which gives the goalkeeper plenty of time to judge what to do. But that situation doesn’t happen so often.
When I was a child, boys and girls played around in the fields, climbing trees or playing baseball together, and this helped us learn movements. Girls who played baseball can react to a high ball by taking an oblique stance, but those who have no experience would move backwards with the body perpendicular to the trajectory of the ball. That kind of movement arises in games, especially when confronting an opponent. This is something they have to improve on.

Q: What is your objective for the World Cup?

We’d like to get to the final, but I think the more important thing is what our players can learn there and how we can use that in the future. I would like our players to show everything they can do and then we can see what we are missing from our game. That’s very important. If we can do that in every game, reach the final and win, that would be the best.

(Text and interview by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)

Profile: Hiroshi Yoshida

Hiroshi Yoshida was born in Shizuoka on February 11, 1958. After graduating from Hosei University, he joined Furukawa Electric in the Japan Soccer League in 1980, helping the predecessors of JEF United Chiba win the JSL in 1985 and the Asian Club Championship in 1986. An accomplished striker, he won the JSL’s Golden Boot award in 1981 and 1985, and played for Japan nine times. Yoshida started his coaching career with Shimizu S-Pulse in 1992, and has served as a JFA National Training Centre coach since 1995. He worked as assistant coach for the Japan women’s national team from 2003 to 2004, and has been the women’s under-16(current under-17) coach since 2007. He is also a football schoolmaster at Tokoha Gakuen Tachibana Junior High School in Shizuoka.