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JFA Website Special

Three days after naming his squad for the Under-17 World Cup, Japan coach Hirofumi Yoshitake and his players flew to the highlands of Toluca, Mexico, for their final preparations for the competition, which gets under way on June 18. Japan will be making their third straight and sixth overall appearance in the World Cup. They will face Jamaica on June 18, France on June 21 and Argentina on June 24 in Group B and are setting their sights on making it to the final of the 24-team competition. How does Yoshitake regard the tournament and what does he expect from his players? The Japan Under-17 boss talked to the JFA Web shortly before his departure to Mexico.

Q: How have you prepared to play at altitude?
We have given each player a hypoxic mask to use for an hour a day for a week to get used to the lack of oxygen in the highlands of Mexico. Before going to the tournament site, we'll train for a week in Toluca, which sits at about 2,600 meters. We play our first two games at a normal altitude, but our third one is high up, and if we move into the elimination round the games will mostly be at altitude. So, if you are prepared, you don't have to worry about where you go.
We went to Mexico in April for a simulation of the World Cup, so our players have an idea about how the ball bounces there and how they get tired when they play at altitude. But as they are young, they adjusted in four or five days. Experience is important, and that's why we decided to train at altitude before heading to the venue. We also checked the data that the senior team had from the 2010 World Cup, which proved useful.

Q: What are your thoughts on your opponents in the group stage?
The first game is very important and our opponents, Jamaica, seem to be a typical Latin-American side. They can get into a groove if you give them a chance, so preventing them from finding their game will be important. We're not planning on doing anything new, but will cope with them by putting into practice the things we have been working on.
The French are known for their youth education, and we've had very disappointing experiences with them in previous under-17 tournaments [2001 and 2007], so our players and coaching staff are determined to pay them back this time. Like many other European teams, they play with a solid defense and attack as a unit. When we square off with them, I want to see how our players can respond and if what we have worked on for the past two years will be effective.

Q: What about Argentina?
We played Argentina in the Toyota International tournament last year and drew 0-0 before losing on penalties. Many of our players played in that game and I am interested in seeing how much we have grown since then.
That will be our third game, and our situation in the group could be anything depending on the results of the first two games. If we look at statistics from past tournaments, winning four points from three matches seems to be the qualifying line for the next stage, but I don't want to put too much store in such statistics and want to take the games one at a time and not look ahead too much.
It is more important to set our focus on the Jamaica game. The result of this game will determine our plan for the second game. We also need to consider the heat in the first two games, which could get as high as 40 C.
We, the coaching staff, want to make as good an environment as possible for our players so they can focus on the games.

Q: What have you paid the most attention to over the last two years?
As we don't have any technically outstanding players, we have built a team that can play as a unit. We have tried to make our players think of the best solution in each situation, so that each player can act in coordination with the actions of their teammates.
It's the players on the pitch who need to see what is happening in the game, not the people on the bench, and I want our players to identify the problems and solve them together during the game.
The 21 players on the squad all play at the same level and any of them might be in the starting lineup. I will check their physical and mental condition before deciding on my team, as Japanese players around this age are often not mature mentally. But I am hoping that our players will already be motivated enough by the time they get to the tournament site.

Q: Players in this generation can grow fast. How do you see the trends of the last two years, particularly for Japanese football?
I think football is becoming more about technique, especially with speed and accuracy, as well as team integration and the unification of offense and defense. That's what we have been working on with our players and I think we are on the right track in terms of that. Finding out how close we are quality-wise can only be done by playing in the World Cup. That's why I want our players to show all they have in the games, to find that out.
You have a winner and a loser in games and that's an important part of things. However, our players still have a long way ahead of them in their careers and this tournament is one of the steps they take along the way. I want them to not be afraid of making mistakes and to play without fear and to show their talents.

Q: What is Japan's objective in the tournament?
To get to the final; that's the target we set two years ago. Being a finalist means not only playing in the final, but also includes something more, namely becoming a senior team player, fulfilling their work and battling through the tournament for a month.
Since the players in this generation are quick to learn and grow, I hope we can play as many games as possible so they can gain as much experience as possible. If we can reach the final we will have seven games in all. That would be nice. Some people have said that we have set the bar too high as Japan have only previously reached the elimination stage once. I admit that we are not at a level where we can reach the final 90 times out of 100 attempts, but if we have a small possibility – 1 or 2 percent – then we want to try hard and make it 10 percent or 20, 30. That is why we've set our objective on making the final.

(Interview and text by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)