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The FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup will kick off on September 5 in Trinidad and Tobago, and Japan – who reached the quarterfinals in 2008 – will be making their second straight appearance. In the group stage, they will face Spain on September 6, Venezuela on September 9 and New Zealand on September 13, and the Japanese girls will be aiming to reach the final on September 25.
What are the expectations of Japan coach Hiroshi Yoshida? JFA Web talked to Yoshida during his team’s final tune-up camp in Japan.

Q: How do you see your team’s condition at this point?
In our previous camp, there were too many variations in the players’ level of fitness, but they are getting better and the atmosphere is pretty good.

Q: Was there anything special you had to take into consideration in selecting your squad?
We have 18 outfield players in addition to three goalkeepers, so I looked at their ability to play in more than one position in the event of injuries or suspensions. Then, I looked at the characteristics of the players, such as speed and height.
We don’t have a player like Mana Iwabuchi or Chinatsu Kira, who both scored goals for us in the previous tournament. But I believe that our overall standard is higher than that squad.
Japanese girls often used to find it difficult to find a place where they could join in and play when they became junior high school age. But these days they have more opportunities than before – at junior high school, local clubs or with an academy – which I think makes my team selection easier.

Q: You had a tough time qualifying for this World Cup.
I was not expecting to lose to Korea Republic in the semifinals, and I still think it was a game we could have won. But in terms of the future of our players, I think it was probably a good experience for them.
Whenever we play, we always play to win. That’s for sure. At the same time, I always hope to see some development in our players. To that extent, we can say that to have played a tough do-or-die playoff in our quest for a World Cup berth gave our players a valuable experience.
We qualified for this World Cup by coming in third in the Asian qualifiers, but Japan should really be leading Asia at all levels. So, this coming World Cup will be a good opportunity for us to show our talents to the rest of the world.

Q: Japan will play Spain, Venezuela and New Zealand in Group C; what is Japan’s objective in this tournament?
First, we want to qualify for the quarterfinals. Among our opponents, our first game against Spain looks to be the toughest; we do not want to lose to them. If we can at least draw against them, that will help us move on to our next game.
I have to focus on getting through the group stage, but at the same time I would like to play as many players as possible, so that they can have a chance to experience something on the world stage. So, I need to be flexible when tackling situations. But I hope we can learn from each game, move on and reach the final on September 25, and have a good experience there.

Q: How do you look at the tournament overall?
Every country is our rival, but among them Germany have been solid at all age levels in recent competitions. We want to study all of our opponents well to find out their characteristics, but that doesn’t mean we must change our style of play when we face them.
In a world competition, you can find yourself playing against teams from South America, Europe and Africa, in addition to Asian teams who we often play. I am interested in seeing how our players respond when we face such teams. Playing against different types of teams is the real pleasure of taking part in the World Cup. I hope our players will enjoy facing their opponents and challenge them with a strong spirit.

Q: What else are you expecting from your players in the tournament?
I would like to see what they can do in tense matches. The technique of Japan’s players is among the best in the world. However, they are not good enough when it comes to having a strong mentality or basic determination, which tend to be important at decisive moments.
I am convinced that we can compete against the top teams in the world and I don’t think winning the tournament is out of our reach. Last time, we fell short, as we were missing something from our game.
Japanese players do have strong determination but tend to rely on the others. You could call this “organizational” power, which is a positive thing. But it’s something we need to address and that is why I tell my players they should express themselves more during games.

Q: What kind of advantages do the Japanese have when they play in top international competitions?
For the Japanese, including men’s players, it is difficult to compete against the top teams in the world in terms of physique or power. But, we do have stamina and the ability to run for 90 minutes with strong levels of concentration. Japan’s female players are at a high level technically – even more so when they are younger. If we can figure out how to maintain that advantage as they rise from the youth levels to the seniors, I think we can find a way to compete against the top teams in the world.

(text by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)

Fixtures:
Group stage – Group C
Sept. 6 Japan vs. Spain
Sept. 9 Japan vs. Venezuela
Sept. 13 Japan vs. New Zealand

Quarterfinals
Sept. 17 Group C1 vs. Group D2, and Group C2 vs. Group D1
Semifinals
Sept. 21
Final/Third-place playoff
Sept. 25


<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.