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Japan will open their FIFA Under-17 World Cup campaign with a match against three-time champions Brazil on October 24. They will then play World Cup debutants Switzerland on October 27, followed by 2005 winners Mexico on October 30. The Group B matches will be held in Lagos, Nigeria. As Japan tries to reach the knockout phase for the first time since 1993, what does Japan Under-17 coach Yutaka Ikeuchi expect from his players and the tournament, and how will Japan fare in their fifth appearance on the world stage? The 48-year-old Japanese coach shared his thoughts with JFA Web shortly before the start of his team’s world challenge.

Q: What do you think of your opponents in the group stage?
Every team in the World Cup – even those who don’t have a high profile – has good abilities, and all of our opponents are strong sides. They have good setups, including their coaching staff, and playing against teams like them raises our motivation. This will help us approach our first game with increased awareness, which is good for us.

Q: Is facing Brazil in your first match good for your team?
I think we should look at things from a positive point of view. There’s no such thing as a bad draw. As we’ve played against Brazil twice before and we drew both of them, they know us and we know them. Before that, we had an outsized image of Brazil, but from our experience of playing against them, we have learned that the distance between us is not so big. Since then, our players have started playing with more confidence, feeling that they are capable of matching their opponents. So, that’s a positive thing for our players.

Q: What about Switzerland? Do you have much information about them?
We have some. They seem to have an orthodox style. They defend hard and look for chances for counter-attacks, but if that doesn’t work, they fall back in order to try and build up their offense. They have two good forwards and one key man in midfield.
But we’ll try and get updated information during the tournament. I also have to be careful about providing our players with too much information on our opponents in order to avoid confusion. It’s more important for us to establish the foundation of our own game.

Q: Are you going to take the same approach ahead of the Mexico game?
Yes. We will also have to consider the situation at the time: How many points we will have gained by then. We have played Mexico twice before, too, and lost both times. They had different coaches on those occasions and also different playing styles. When we last met them in Niigata in July, they enjoyed good possession and had a good attacking balance. But our squad has changed since then and we have no negative feelings about facing them. It was a good opportunity to see Mexico.

Q: What do you think Japan will need to advance in the tournament?
To improve the accuracy of our game, to work on it as much as we can and pursue the football that we want to play. It is also necessary to apply all these things to each game and each team we face – in other words, not to adapt to our opponents’ game. It is important for us to stick to our game and make sure we see what works and what doesn’t, even if we lose.

Q: Players around this age can have ups and downs every day. How do you cope with that?
That’s why you need to have a concept that you can always go back to and remind yourself of in terms of what you should do. When a player is mature and has reached a certain level, he can show the strengths of his game while negating those of his opponents. But players at this age can’t do that yet.
I keep telling our players: You are the ones who have to do everything. I just give them the concept of our playing style and rough ideas of how to play, so that they can have flexibility in coping with each situation in a game. That also can help them show their strong points and make them go out with a sense of challenge.

Q: So players at this age tend to work better with a sense of purpose and unity?
Yes, that’s true and that’s why I put significance on clarifying what their roles are. But at the same time, you have to give them the feeling that they’re doing it by themselves, and give them room to use their imagination both in defense and offense. That will help them develop.

Q: What do you think of the characteristics of Japanese players?
They certainly include skill and technique. They also have agility, and their endurance and patience are among the best in the world. However, they don’t have enough experience in using their skills and techniques in an actual game.
They can make quick decisions, and have organizational skills and good understanding as well. So, if we can lead them up the right path [to utilize these assets], they will be able to show more of the positive aspects of the Japanese, which will work as weapons in games.

Q: Do you think local conditions might affect your players?
I don’t think so. Many of our players have overseas experience through activities with their club or team from about the age of 13 or so. They have experienced food problems, diarrhea and having to wait two or three hours before picking up their luggage at the airport. But they are not frustrated with that. Nothing rattles them.

Q: How far do you think your team can go in the tournament?
Well, I don’t know. Among the players, we are talking about going all the way. But you never know till you actually start playing. Also, I think it is far more important to see how they cope with each situation and fix problems when they’re playing. We want to aim high, but will take things a game at a time.

Q: Besides results, what do you want to get out of this tournament?
We believe that Japanese football is capable of competing against the world. We want to prove that by applying our own characteristics to the game. It will come from pursuing our own style and how much we can show that. Next, we must learn what is missing from our game. With that, we can move on to the next step.
The motivation of our players is getting higher, and with this they can play against the world and show the good aspects of Japanese football. That experience should be rooted in their body and mind.
In Japan and other countries, many say how important it is to think about winning with the younger generation. However, we live on an island and don’t have many opportunities to play against the top teams in the world. Therefore, this is an important experience for us to see what we can do and what we cannot do in the world championship. After this, we will be able to see how our players use their experience.

(Interview and text by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)


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Yutaka Ikeuchi
Yutaka Ikeuchi was born on August 25, 1961. After graduating from Aichi High School, he was recruited by Toyota Shokki before joining Fujita, helping the Japan Soccer League team win the JSL title. During this time, Fujita were also runners-up in the Emperor’s Cup three times. Ikeuchi was named the JSL’s Rookie of the Year in 1982. Between 1981 and 1985, he played for Japan eight times in international A matches, plus 21 non-A matches. He started his coaching career as head coach of Fujita Women’s Soccer Club (1994-95), before moving on to coach various youth teams at Nagoya Grampus Eight. He served as a JFA instructor from 2002 and was appointed Japan Under-15 coach in 2007, leading to his current position.