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JFA Website Special

Having worked for a year since he first coached the Samurai Blue in a friendly against Argentina last October, Japan boss Alberto Zaccheroni expressed confidence with the progress of his team and looks comfortable with his life in Japan. Under the Italian coach, Japan clinched the AFC Asian Cup in January – only four months after his arrival – and they have extended their unbeaten run to 13 games, a new Japan record. Japan started their World Cup qualifying campaign on a winning note, beating DPR Korea 1-0 in their first game of the third-round qualifiers on September 2 at home. They drew their second match 1-1 away to Uzbekistan on September 6. Zaccheroni's side will play Tajikistan on October 11 in Kobe before heading for the away fixture in Tajikistan on November 11. They will then play DPR Korea away on November 15. Japan will host Uzbekistan in February to complete the third-round ties. Zaccheroni, formerly boss at Italian Serie A clubs such as Udinese, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, looks back on his first year with Japan and talks about his hopes and prospects on the campaign to reach the 2014 finals in Brazil.

Q: How do you see the development of the Japan team over the past year?
The major development is confidence. They have gained confidence by getting positive results and have become a good group. The players have acquired the image of how we want to play and they share that within the team. That gives us good solidarity to work on defense and offense with 11 players and automatically shift to how we want to play as a unit. But I am not saying that we are a great team. We need to keep working on – and building up – the foundation of our team by adding those things that are still missing.

Q: Do you feel it is taking a long time to get the team to the level you want?
I am hoping that we can build up our team [to that level] soon, but in general it is a difficult process. You have certain moments when you make significant steps forward. We had that during the Asian Cup, the first few games in that tournament. That has helped us set the foundation of our team, and I want to keep this foundation and play to that basic philosophy whoever comes into the team.

Q: How did those matches affect your side?
The team at the time was a mixture of those who had experience with the national team and those who were new to the squad. Our squad was young; the average age was under 25. In the space of the first two to three games, they got the idea that I don't pick players according to their name or age, and they would all have a playing chance as long as they could show me in training that they could do something for the team.

Q: Under your guidance, Japan are unbeaten; what do you think about this?
Well, it would be good if we can keep going without any defeats. You tend to feel some worries when you lose, so I do not want to see us pick up a loss for as long as possible. As a coach, I would like to take a positive approach and have faith in our players to get them well prepared for each game. Even when the moment comes one day and we lose, I want to take as good a countermeasure as possible to deal with the situation. In Italy, we have the saying, "One swallow doesn't make a spring," which means you can't make a judgment on a single game.

Q: Which parts of the Japan game do you think need improving?
On the national team, you play opponents with different football cultures, and we need to get acclimatized to our opponents and play 90 minutes without losing our concentration. We also need more flexibility to change our playing system according to situations during games. Japanese players have good fundamental skills, so I would like to combine their skills and speed and demonstrate that on the pitch.

Q: What do you expect from your players in the World Cup qualifiers?
I would like them to have a strong belief that they can do it if they show their abilities, and I think we have many reasons to be convinced that we can qualify. However, we shouldn't sit back on our Asian Cup success. In fact, because we won the Asian Cup and are high in the FIFA World Rankings, our opponents will oppose us with full force. Every match is different, and we want to have different types of weapons for each game, along with good mental fitness. But we will take each game as it comes.

Q: This is your first direct involvement with World Cup qualifiers; what is your impression of the qualifiers?
Most of my images of World Cup qualifiers come from ones that Italy had, and I don't have the impression that they had a very hard time. What I remember well is from the 1992 European Championship when Denmark took part at short notice in place of sanctioned Yugoslavia and eventually won the tournament. That can happen in a short tournament, but you cannot expect that in a year-long league competition. This reminds us to make sure we work on preparation physically, mentally and tactically. In football, you shouldn't forget that small details can make the difference between the winners and the losers. It is important to make your objective clear and do everything to achieve that. That's what I want to tell my players.

Q: How do you find your daily life in Japan?
I experienced the earthquake on March 11, but I find my life here is very comfortable. I spend most of my time working, but when I get time to spare, I go shopping and dine out, taking the subway. The Japanese people treat me nicely. I'm quite impressed with the Japanese people's attitude in respecting others and behaving themselves without annoying others.

Q: What part of your job do you like the most?
I feel the responsibility of coaching the Japan team and want to spend as much time as I can attending games. What I enjoy about this job is that we get the full support from people all over the country and that we can play against various teams who have different football cultures. That's something you don't get working for a club.

Q: How do you rate the job you've done in the past year?
Well, the rating should be done by others, not myself. I feel that Japanese football is developing every day, and it is drawing more attention from the rest of the world. We are getting more players playing abroad, but I think this issue has to be handled carefully. The education system of Japanese football has impressed me very much, but there are many aspects of the game that Japanese players can work on and develop more. That said, I really think it's possible that Japan will win the World Cup in the future.

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

(Interview and text by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)