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JFA Website Special

    Japan started their Olympic qualifying campaign last June, moving on to the final round without any problem and winning their first three matches.
    They will get back to work in their quest for an Olympic place with a training camp in Guam from mid-January to prepare for away matches against Syria in Amman and Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur in February before meeting Bahrain at home in March.
    Despite his team's success, not everything has gone smoothly for coach SEKIZUKA Takashi. He had to release some of his players to the senior team, while others went to play in Europe. While this shows the progress his players are making, it creates problems for calling up players. There is no FIFA-sanctioned automatic release for Olympic players.
    Sekizuka, who also assists senior team coach Alberto Zaccheroni, has his eyes set on the Summer Games in London in July and is asking his players to raise their game in 2012. So what are his thoughts going into this crucial year and what expectations does he have?

Q: How did you find things in 2011?
    We are still halfway through the final-round qualifiers for the Olympics, but we are leading our group with three straight wins from the first three matches, which I am very satisfied with. We had a good start to the final-round campaign with a win against Malaysia in Tosu thanks to good preparation there and assistance from Tosu.
    We had two months between that game and our next qualifiers, but the senior team was also playing the World Cup qualifiers during that period. That meant two squads were being selected and I had a hard time finding out which players I would be able to call up. But we collected three points from Bahrain in our second game and that came about because we had good solidarity within our team and the players were determined to get points even when playing away. We also did good work on our physical conditioning.

    We had to return home after that game to prepare for our third game with Syria, and I found it hard to work on our physical conditioning at the time. Some of our players had sleeping problems because of jet lag, while our opponents, Syria, came to Japan after playing in Malaysia.
    We were concerned if our players would be fit enough to play, but all of them had good self-awareness. We – the players and staff – got together and did a good job to win the game. We also had powerful back-up from our supporters at the National Stadium, which I believe helped encourage our players to produce the winning goal.

Q: Your objective is to qualify for the Olympics but at the same time have a role to produce players for the senior team. What was your reaction when you saw some of your regular players promoted to the senior team halfway through the qualifying series?
    It was harder than I had thought it would be, although I knew such a thing could happen. But playing without someone can give you an opportunity to test your strengths and our players said they didn't want to use it as an excuse. If you have a strong belief that you can achieve your objective whoever takes the pitch, you can cope with such situations. And our players learned that they have a path to the senior side if they play well.

    I had a similar situation at Kashima when I was coach of their satellite team. When a player reached a certain level, he would be called up by the first team. So I wasn't able to have the same squad throughout a single season. When I was Kawasaki manager, I selected players from the second team. You have to bring up players like that at clubs and national teams.
    That is why you should work together with your coaching staff to have a clear view on each of your players. I also was able to see what was going on with the senior team as I was attending meetings with them as assistant coach.
    It would be better if I could form our team around certain players, but that is not the case with me and with our team. So, you need to share your playing ideas with a large number of players so that they can play whatever the situation is.

Q: You are expected to produce results even you are having difficulties like that. Is that a problem or a kind of motivation?
    It's like at the 2010 Asian Games [when the team won the tournament although many players were not available]; we have to play with the players who are available and produce a result. That is the fate and responsibility of this team. I feel the responsibility and weight of qualifying for the London Olympics in every single game we play. However, that gives me motivation, too.
    At this level, you don't get as much information on your opponents as you can for the senior team; you just have to play to see your opposition. It's hard to read their moves. Plus, playing away is really hard in Asia.
    I experienced that through the ACL when I was with Kawasaki, but we are seeing more players who have experienced away games in the ACL, which is a positive thing. Also, they play in the J. League at weekends and play a different type of opponent from the rest of Asia in midweek. That can help them develop their game.

Q: Have you had any difficulties since you started with this team?
    I have – how should I raise the level of the team by adding players and playing more games? When we resumed our training ahead of the Middle East tour last February, the physical condition of our players varied so much that I thought we wouldn't be able to play football. I knew that was always a possibility, but we still have to produce a result. I really felt this was tough, but I tried to be positive.
    Last August, we suddenly had more players going to play in Europe, and the media started making a fuss about should we call these players up. However, there is no FIFA regulation for clubs to release their players for under-23 games. I determined that these overseas players should be regarded as options for our side. We managed to call up Yuki Otsu [of Borussia Monchengladbach] for the second and third games in the final-round qualifiers – thanks to the JFA's negotiation with his club – and he really showed that he wasn't a player who could be ignored.
    There's no magic in team making. It is important to keep your eyes open and find the players who can give you the type of performance you are looking for. To do so, you just have to visit games and training sessions at clubs as often as you can. That is the same for coach Zaccheroni and other national team coaches.

Q: There is not much time between the end of the final-round qualifiers and the start of the Olympics; have you already got some image of the Olympics?
    Right now, I am too busy trying to get through the qualification. However, every time we play, I am analyzing what we need to raise the level of our players and their game for the tournament in the Olympics. Your opponents get tougher as you move on from the third-round qualifiers to the final round and then to the Olympics. All our players can do is work on their training at their clubs and remain focused on producing results. I always ask them to develop their game individually and for the team.
    I am not considering bringing in overage players at the moment. My main focus is to qualify for the Olympics and to see the development of our players. I am hoping to see them grow further.

    Our women's national team won their Olympic qualification soon after they won the World Cup. I am impressed that they are strong-minded and I am delighted to see their achievements. That has made me feel again that I really want to work hard with our team to make it to the Olympics together with our women's side.
    Our players are working hard to qualify and they have strong determination. It is my job to make it happen.

Note: The interview was conducted in Japanese and translated into English by sports journalist KINOHARA Kumi for the JFA web.