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JFA Website Special

It has been three years since the summer Beijing Olympics, where the Nadeshiko Japan finished fourth just outside the medals. Since then, they have retained their East Asian Championship title and won the gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games. Their next challenge is the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Japan will be making their sixth straight appearance in the quadrennial tournament and their ambition is high; they are aiming to win the tournament.
They will face New Zealand on June 27, Mexico on July 1 and England on July 5 in Group B.
Nadeshiko Japan boss Norio Sasaki talked to JFA Web ahead of the 2011 finals in Germany.

Q: Has the long-term preparation for the World Cup since the 2008 Olympics gone according to plan?
I think so. I myself have been with the team and we have developed our game. We – the players and the coaching staff – are eager to show what we have done and produce a better result than we had at the Beijing Olympics.
Finishing fourth at the Olympics brought self-confidence to the players and myself as we were able to confirm our direction with the results in Beijing. We are working hard to pursue our brand of Nadeshiko football.

Q: What have you worked on in particular in developing the Nadeshiko game?
Teamwork to solve situations and the ability to assess situations and change tactical aspects according to how the game develops. In other words, the ability of the players to feel and respond to each situation before the bench makes a move. We couldn’t do that well at the Beijing Olympics.

Q: While you were working on that part, the Nadeshiko won the Asian Games...
Yes, as we got a result and that gave our team confidence. We still need to develop our game in terms of perceiving and coping with situations accurately. However, our players responded well to each situation in the Asian Games and produced the result under difficult circumstances. That was a step forward for our team.

Q: Having played in the Asian Games, how much has the team matured?
Well, you can’t always expect an improvement by doing the same things all the time, because you have different players on the team and you also have other aspects to work on to improve the standard of your side.
I am still not content in the area of giving up too much freedom to our opponents.
The other thing is that our playing style has been studied by our opponents more than before. To cope with that, we need to have more options defensively. It’s like a cat-and-mouse game. We also need to develop our offensive combination work in the final 35 meters. Otherwise, we won’t be able to get past strong sides, find the target and get a good result. We should be ready with our game whoever is playing.

Q: Are you satisfied with the transition from one generation to the next since the Beijing Olympics?
I think I was fortunate as I take care of both the Nadeshiko team and the Under-20 team, which has made it easier to move youngsters up to the senior side.
We have certain players who make up the backbone of our team and players tend to feel more at ease when they play alongside the same players. But the risk there is that your side can fall apart when the one generation needs replacing. If I can put together a mixture of experienced players, semi-experienced players and younger ones, then our game can be passed on by the experienced players to the younger ones. It’s important to have a good result. But this is also an important issue.

Q: You have more overseas-based players than before. What have they brought to the team?
They are stronger in competing against opponents, and it is a good indication of fighting attitude. It is a good asset for our national team to have players who have to fight hard for the ball in Germany and the United States.
Since they started playing in the United States, [Aya] Miyama and [Homare] Sawa have changed the physical part of their game and their reactions in crucial moments. We now have [Kozue] Ando and [Yuki] Nagasato in the German league and [Rumi] Utsugi in France. I think we can expect a similar change in their game from now on. But I have already seen some changes in the way they play in training in terms of what is required when it comes to scoring and winning games.

Q: We had the East Japan disaster in March and that caused a delay to the start of the domestic women’s league. Has that affected the national team?
The delay to the start of the season cut the number of matches that were played ahead of the World Cup, and some teams couldn’t train properly because of the rotating power cuts. However, we have been able to play some official matches, and sometimes situations like this give you something different. Our Nadeshiko players have got good self-confidence now, so I am not too worried about this.

Q: How do you look at your opponents in the group stage? Japan played New Zealand in the opening match of the Beijing Olympics, too.
New Zealand are strong in their physical aspects and the way they utilize their height and power in games. They seem to have added self-confidence lately and I overheard their coach saying, “It may be difficult for us to beat Japan in football but we have a good chance in power and fighting.” We played them in friendly matches and they would sometimes surprise us with a sign play at corners. You cannot take them for granted. At the Beijing Olympics, our players were overeager to collect three points and that put them off their usual game. This time I want to take care of the mental part and make sure we won’t repeat what happened in Beijing.

Q: How about Mexico?
Mexico play at a different tempo. They have four or five players who have good technique and play very aggressively. They are not so strong in defending, but we need to keep our cool to cope with their aggressive offense. In last year's Under-20 World Cup, we had a hard time with the Mexicans, so I want to have good preparation to play them this time.

Q: What do you think of England?
We played them in the previous World Cup. Each of their players has good quality. In my personal view, they play ideal football.
Mexico and New Zealand seem to be studying our game well and will play according to what we do. That means we need to be able to respond according to how the game develops, and we have worked on that in our preparation.
That is something we couldn’t do well in the Olympics against the United States in the semifinals and Germany in the bronze-medal match. So, I look forward to seeing how much our players have developed their game over the last three years and can respond in games.

Q: What will be an ideal outcome for the Nadeshiko Japan in this World Cup?
I’m really looking forward to seeing if the way we’ve trained over the last three years will produce results. We aimed to reach the semifinals in the Beijing Olympics and finished fourth. But the medal winners all aimed at winning the tournament and we thought that difference reflected in the results. That is why we talked with our players and decided to set our objective at winning the tournament this time. I am convinced that winning a medal is possible for us if we can play our brand of football.
Japan have been seeded in the group stage as we were fourth in the world rankings [in March]. I am hoping that we can have a good experience at the World Cup – win or lose – and, backed up with that experience, move on to the 2012 London Olympics. To do so, we need to get through the group stage and get to the elimination stage. But we will take things a game at a time and focus on playing our brand of football.

(Interview and text by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)