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JFA Website Special

Japan boss Alberto Zaccheroni brought success to the Samurai Blue only four months into the job, guiding them to victory in the AFC Asian Cup. The Italian coach praised the efforts of his players, saying he was “proud of being the coach of the Japan national team.” Zaccheroni, who has managed top Italian clubs such as AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, reflected on his first tournament as Japan coach.

Q: What did you think about the Asian Cup final?
I knew the final would be different from our previous matches in terms of how we would have to play, and this turned out to be the case. The final needs to be looked at on its own. It would have been better if we had been able to play better and create more scoring chances, as we had done in the previous rounds. Simply, our players were suffering from fatigue, especially three midfielders who couldn’t train as much as they wanted.

Q: Your substitutions worked well. When you sent Tadanari Lee onto the pitch in the final was that a logical decision or one of intuition?
It was both. I had seen how Lee was in training and on other occasions, and could tell he was well-focused. I knew he would do something if he got the chance. I actually nearly brought him on in the Korea match but couldn’t do that as we’d had an unexpected event earlier. At the same time, I had to weigh the risk of taking out [Ryoichi] Maeda who was marking the No. 15. But I decided to take the risk and make the substitution following our basic concept: Be courageous.

Q:  What else can you say about Lee?
He scored in all the games he played, which is great. He is a good talent and a typical center-forward in modern football. He can attack the space behind defenders at the right moment, and he is not easy to mark as it’s hard to figure out how he moves. He often scores with difficult shots, but it would be good if he could score with simple ones as well.

Q: How important was it to have Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo on your squad?
I don’t believe there are any players who cannot be replaced by someone else. The selection standards I applied for the squad in this tournament were: talent, cooperativeness in maintaining harmony within the group, a desire to improve and physical condition. Endo and Hasebe quickly showed a good understanding of how this group should be and conveyed that to the other players. They were important to that extent. The two players worked well on and off the pitch, including in the dressing room. They have good experience, which was good for our team as the average age was quite young.

Q: How are you going to build your team after this tournament? Are you going to keep a 4-2-3-1 system?
This team produced a result, but the objective of this group was not to win the Asian Cup or the Copa America. This time, we took part in the Asian Cup to develop our game. We are going to have many matches in 2011.
At dinner [on January 29], I told our players how we competed in the tournament and how well they did. I raised the names of [Shuichi] Gonda and [Ryota] Moriwaki, who didn’t get to play but still made a great contribution to the team, just like the players who did play. I don’t recall any match or tournament where the substitutes were able to produce the results we got. That makes me feel really proud of being the coach of these players. But this is just a start for us, and that’s what I told my players.
Regarding the system, Japan has many utility players. They are capable of playing in at least two positions because of their great technique. If you have many utility players, you can play with a variety of systems. But one thing always remains the same: We play to win. I like to have courage and balance. When we played against Argentina, we took risks. If Japan are keen on just getting a result, then we could choose another way to play. But, if we look at the characteristics of the Japanese players, we have attack-minded players, and if that is the case, I think we must capitalize on these characteristics.

Q: Why did you play Shinji Kagawa in left midfield instead of behind the strikers as he does for Borussia Dortmund?
I’m fully aware of how he plays behind the strikers at Dortmund, but depending on the situation, he can do better when he starts from left midfield. I had a similar case with an Italian player who has similar characteristics to Kagawa – [Alessandro] Del Piero. I can see a strong similarity in their playing roles. I told Kagawa this and he looked skeptical at first. Then, he started playing better with more moves in off-the-ball situations. I think he now understands my intention.

Q: You seem to communicate with your players well. Is that part of your psychological approach?
Well, I like talking to players as I want to know them better and I want them to know me well. I think I should communicate with them more. I always try to be clear and precise because I give the players a role and you cannot do that without knowing who they are. To use a player, I also sometimes use my intuition or feelings, and that is based on my experience. So, it is not always a matter of logic, but also intuition.

Q: What did you do to keep the motivation of your substitutes high?
I don’t think I did anything special. I sometimes talked to the players about it, but the biggest thing was that those who didn’t get to play also took part in teamwork. The players who have been on the national team longer, such as [Keisuke] Honda, Hasebe and Endo, showed their leadership qualities, too.
To form our squad for this tournament, I chose younger players with potential in order to give them a chance [of playing in a tournament] and left many of the experienced players back in Japan. I told the players: “Football is similar to life. A footballer’s career is not so long, and you have a chance to win a title, so you should grab that chance.”

Q: You started your coaching career at a small club and moved on to bigger ones. Do you think that experience has helped you in some way?
Well, I try to use the experience I have gained in my career. There are no two players who are exactly the same. I started scouting youth players and climbed up from the bottom. In Serie A, I coached a promoted club and big clubs as well. I think I am a rarity in Italy. One was eager to surprise the world, while the other got used to winning and I had to work on motivation. Working with different kinds of clubs has been an asset for me. I think I have tried every playing system, but I am always looking for something new and system variations. I pay close attention to details.

Q: Japan’s next major tournament is the Copa America in July. What is Japan’s objective in that tournament?
The same as we had in the Asian Cup, which is to develop our game to prepare for the World Cup qualifiers. But the fundamentals are the same: courage and balance. Based on that, I am going to make plans in accordance with our opponents, as I did in the Asian Cup against the Middle Eastern teams, Korea Republic and Australia. To play against them, I needed to make some kind of adjustment each time.
In the Copa America, we will play a different type of opponent, but playing different opponents will raise the experience level of our players, and that will be an asset for the national team.
From now, I am going to assess the players, but Japanese players are going through an interesting phase. They are getting offers from major leagues such as Germany, Italy and Spain, and three players have gone during the winter transfer window. This is fantastic.
I believe that Japanese football has developed more than any other in recent years. There’s no limit as to how far we can go, and that tells me that we should not stop in our quest to develop.

Note: The interview was conducted in Italian and Japanese and was translated into English.

(English translation by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)