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JFA Website Special

Three months after guiding the Nadeshiko Japan women’s team to their best ever Olympic finish, when they reached the semifinals in Beijing, coach Norio Sasaki is moving on to his next challenge: coaching the next generation of Nadeshiko players in the FIFA Women’s Under-20 World Cup in Chile. Japan will play CONCACAF champions Canada, European champions Germany and African representatives Congo in the group stage. Coach Sasaki talked to JFA Web about his thoughts on his team and the tournament.

Q: You’ve had a double role this year: the Beijing Olympics in August and now the Under-20 World Cup. Hasn’t it been hard for you to prepare for this latest tournament while taking care of the Nadeshiko Japan team?

I’ve been with the Under-19 side [now the Under-20 side] since I was assistant coach of the Nadeshiko Japan, and some of the tactics and strategies I employed for the Nadeshiko came from my work with the Under-19 side. There’s feedback between the two sides. When I found something that might be needed or something that could prove to be a Japanese strong point during my work with Nadeshiko, I brought that knowledge to the younger side. If things worked out there, I then would bring it back to the Nadeshiko team.
              The Under-20 side did well on our Swedish tour, picking up three wins and a draw against no defeats. I tried to make full use of Japanese characteristics such as their skill level, the ability to use the ball in attacking situations and negating the good parts of our opponents’ game. I keep telling our Under-20 players that we can produce good football if we continue working on stuff like this.

Q: Soon after the Beijing Olympics, you started with the Under-20 side at a camp in Okayama. Did you have something that you wanted to bring from your experience at the Olympics?

I had some things, but I knew I should be careful not to overload the players with too many tasks and assignments. That could have destroyed the things we used to build up our team. So I kept it to a minimum, taking into consideration their condition and our target in the tournament. Most of the tasks should be worked on every day, not only during the sessions with the national team.

Q: Could you tell us more about those points?

We need to improve our offense and defense in the box, but that involves not only drills in training sessions, but also physical workouts and diet. The Japanese players in general should eat more to build up their bodies and endurance so they are strong in the box.
You also need to improve individual qualities and get the skills to deal with pressure situations. The West is still superior to us in terms of individual ability. If they are at Level 5, we are at Level 4. But if we can combine well, then we can increase it to Level 5 or 6.
We did that to some extent in the games against Norway and the United States at the Olympics. But we should be capable of doing that for the full 90 minutes under a tough match schedule.

Q: Did you give the under-20 players “homework” to help them work out their problems?

We have limited time for working together with the national team, so, I asked them to work on small things at home that would help us carry out our team tactics.
We want to play football that suits Japanese characteristics. But before that, we should have the basics – protecting your goal and scoring against your opponents. I’m always asking them to keep this in mind.

Q: In the Olympics with Nadeshiko Japan, you wanted your players to win the ball and defend with good combination work. Have you applied that concept to the Under-20 side?

Yes, they are working in the same way. The players on this Under-20 team are a group of would-be Nadeshiko players.

Q: The Under-20 World Cup will be held in the southern hemisphere. Do you have any worries about your players being able to adapt to the environment?

We’ll have a time difference and a temperature gap because of the climate difference between here and there. But you’ve got to adjust to that. At our camp, the players were in good shape, so I am happy about that. I hope they will show good self-discipline to prepare for the tournament.

Q: Japan will play Canada, Germany and Congo in the group stage. What do you think about your opponents?

The Canadian players have good physical size and a solid backline. Even when they give up the ball, they don’t lose their shape defensively. If you take too much time to pass the ball around, they will steal the ball from you and counter-attack. We must be quick in our transitions from offense to defense.
Japan had a hard time against them previously. They are not an easy side to play. It will be important for us to go into the game with positive pressure and a strong determination to win. As it’s our opening match in the tournament, our players may feel nervous, but dealing with it could be a good lesson for them.

Q: What about the second match against Germany?

The timing is good as we will be able to study them during the tournament. They have good physical size, power and organizational skills, and some of them have good dead-ball skills and strength in the air.
But we have some understanding of playing against such players from our experience on our Swedish and French tours, and I don’t think the Japanese players will be afraid of playing against them. I want us to show the good parts of our football.

Q: Do you have any information about Congo?

Well, I don’t really know what they are like. But fortunately we will play them in the third match, which means we will have time to see them in the tournament.

Q: What is your objective in the tournament?

Our players are saying that they would like to make it to the last four. But my coaching staff and I are looking to reach the final. We would like to see how far we can go in the tournament with what we’ve worked on.

Q: What do you think will be key factors to go all the way in the tournament?

The first match. Then we will be able to see our chances of reaching the knockout stage in the second match. The third match will be a test, when they will be tired from travel and the first two matches. It’ll be a matter of how determined they are to realize their objective. That kind of experience will be significant for them to become better players.

Q: What do you expect from your players?

There are many players who have good playing skills, but that doesn’t mean they will make a difference at crucial, game-deciding moments. I would like our players to challenge themselves to see if they can make a difference at the crucial moments in a big competition like the World Cup. I would also like them to apply what they have learned at such moments in order to realize their goal. That’s something they have to learn.

(Text and interview by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)