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JFA Website Special

    Japan opened 2011 with success at the AFC Asian Cup in January and went on to have a successful year under the guidance of Alberto Zaccheroni. Although their unbeaten record ended at 16 games, Japan got through the third-round qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup with two matches to spare and advanced to the final round, which is set to start in June.
    After a tough year, how does Japan's Italian boss feel about the development of his side and players? What are Japan's prospects and the manager's hopes for 2012?

Q: Japan started 2011 with victory in the AFC Asian Cup, but overall how do you feel about the past year?
    We had some uncertainties in the run-up to the Asian Cup. I coached the team in two friendly matches [in autumn 2010] and we were heading to the tournament with a new group, while many of our players had injury problems. On top of that, Gotoku Sakai, [Tomoaki] Makino, [Daisuke] Matsui and [Shinji] Kagawa had to leave the squad during the tournament because of injuries. So we started off slowly but improved our performances during the tournament, although that dipped slightly because of fatigue at the end of the tournament.

    After the Asian Cup, we were meant to move on to our next target, the Copa America. However, we had to skip that after the East Japan earthquake hit the country on March 11. The disaster affected the J. League calendar as well, and that made the season probably the most stressful one ever. On the other hand, we have seen quite a few Japanese players opting to move overseas.
    Under such circumstances, we had matches against Peru and the Czech Republic in the Kirin Cup and I set our focus on developing the fundamentals aspects of our team in terms of tactics and squad members. I told our players to give 100 percent in the friendly match against Korea Republic in Sapporo in August.
In the games where we needed to produce a result, I think we achieved what we set out to do. The only exception was the [World Cup] qualifying game in Uzbekistan.

    We actually got through the third-round qualifiers for the World Cup with two matches remaining in the round; When I saw the draw for the qualifiers, I thought we would have to fight until the end before we could book our place in the next round. But we managed it without [Yuto] Nagatomo and [Keisuke] Honda in most of the qualifiers, which was a positive point for us.
    Now our major target has shifted to the final-round qualifiers and I hope we can maintain our good momentum from the third round and qualify for the World Cup. There's a lot of talent and potential in Japanese football, and we had a good number of youngsters join the senior side in the latter half of the 2011 season. I hope we can maintain this trend and I am ready to give a chance to the youngsters.

Q: We will start 2012 with the remaining match of the third-round qualifiers before heading into the final round. What is your plan for these games?
    In friendly matches, I would like to get as much information as possible on my players and the team, and assess where we stand. When I attended the AFC conference in Kuala Lumpur in November, I had a strong feeling that Japan is being targeted by other countries and they are studying us, so we must add more variation to our game.
    I am also hoping to play friendly matches away against strong teams to check the maturity of our team. That may not be easy to arrange because of the tight international calendar. However, if we can do it – and it doesn't matter whether we do it in Europe or South America – it would be good for us. By giving ourselves as many opportunities as possible, we can make further growth.

Q: How do you feel about the final-round qualifiers for the World Cup?
    The final-round qualifiers will begin in June and we will have three games in a row, which could be tough. I have started talking to our people about how we are going to deal with the situation.
    It will be at the end of the long season in Europe and our Europe-based players will probably be tired, which means conditioning will be important. We also have to consider the time lapse between our game against Uzbekistan [in February] and the final-round qualifiers. To make a good start to our final-round campaign, we have to deal with those things.

    We will probably be up against many teams from the Middle East, and they have different types of players and a different culture and environment. It won't be easy. I hope our players will make progress in the coming months and then we can develop as a team. By doing so, we can increase the number of regular-class players within our squad.
    I feel that I have good players to call on. I can't call up everybody because of the limit to the number of players in the squad, which is 23. We have some good, experienced players – including those who did well in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa – although I haven't been able to call them up lately. I see the Olympic players flourishing as well. I would like to strengthen our team to make it competitive – more physical, more stamina, more running -- in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup.

Q: What do you want your players work on to improve their game?
    We have many younger players with good quality; I want them to work hard on becoming more mature. To those who are little older, I want them to pay attention to maintaining their physical condition. Because I have a good number of options in selecting our squad, I will go with those who are in good shape on each occasion.
    One thing that is a little disappointing for me is that some talented players have gone to play in Europe but haven't had many playing opportunities. So I'll be looking for them to raise their game.

Q: How do you view the creativity and finishing ability of Japanese players? Sometimes it seems Japan's players create many chances but fail to convert them, whereas in Europe the players are far more efficient at going for goal.
    In Italy or Europe, the players know where they are heading as they build up their attacks and often score on counterattacks or short counters. Japanese football seems to have the DNA of Brazilian football, where you play with many passes, especially lateral passes.
    That makes their playing tempo somewhat slower, but they play technical football. In fact, there are many players who are skillful on the ball. I am trying to add my ideas and football philosophy to their football, and this is what I decided when I took this job with Japan.

    However, you play against different types of opponents in international matches and when they play us they aim to shut down our space and prevent us from creating chances. When we qualify for the World Cup, we will play teams like that. But also you cannot expect to have 15 or 20 chances in a game at international level, so you must score on the limited chances you have.
    If we look at the teams from the Middle East, they generally try to shut us down and play physically, but don't do much beyond that. I want to see us win against those kinds of teams.

Q: This is an Olympic year, and the Japanese people in general are fascinated with the Olympic Games, but some national team activities may clash with those of the Olympic team, so how do you view the Olympics?
    I appreciate that Japan see the Olympics as an important competition and I share that view. It is an important opportunity for the players to play competitively and see how they stand on the international scene. The Olympics are a sports festival with plenty of sportsmanship, so it is good to be a part of that.
    In February, the Under-23 team will have their final qualifying matches for the Olympics. Since the senior team has already made it through the third-round qualifiers, if coach [Takashi] Sekizuka needs those who also play on the senior team, he can have them for his side. I would like to offer as much assistance as possible.

Note: The interview was conducted in Italian and Japanese and was translated into English by sports journalist KINOHARA Kumi.