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JFA Website Special

    Japan won the FIFA Women's World Cup last summer and kicked off a new era in women's football in the country. Shortly after their success in Germany, the Nadeshiko Japan players won an Olympic qualifying tournament in China and booked their ticket to the 2012 Summer Games in London.
    At their second Olympics under SASAKI Norio this summer – and fourth overall for the country – the world champions will be gunning for gold after failing to gain a medal at the Beijing Olympics four years ago.
    How does the 53-year-old SASAKI look at the transformation of his players, his team's maturity following their international success and Japanese women's football in general? SASAKI revealed his thoughts ahead of the start of his side's new season.

Q: How was 2011 overall?
    We set two objectives for last year: To win the World Cup and to compete well in the Olympic qualifiers in order to reach the Olympic tournament in London and win the gold medal there. We have been working on improving our integrity in offense and defense, and I have been emphasizing the players' independence. I gave them the initiative to compete through the World Cup and they were able to clear that hurdle and produce the desired result. So, it was a wonderful year.
    However, the Olympic qualifying tournament was hard for us. We had little time to prepare and had to win one of the two berths in our tightest ever tournament schedule. We were under pressure as well after receiving many awards due to the positive response of the Japanese people after our World Cup success. But we were still able to qualify. The tournament had different aspects from the World Cup and this helped us develop as a team.
    We also had a rare strength, which came from the March 11 East Japan disaster. When we thought about those who were – and still are – having a hard time because of the disaster, we thought our hardships were nothing and that spurred us to hold on and make further efforts. We also wanted to encourage and move the people through our football. I really think that all of those aspects came together to help us produce the results we achieved.

Q: What hardships did you have?
    During the preparation camp in Mimasaka for the Olympic qualifiers, I found the physical condition of our players varied greatly and was much worse than I had expected. On top of that, our Asian opponents in the qualifiers were tough; we expected to have some close games. You would normally need three weeks of preparation to play a tournament with such a tight schedule, but we only had a week.
    So, I figured that we would have to go into the tournament with a different approach from the one we had for the World Cup. I told my players and coaching staff: “Forget our ideal football. We'll secure our defense first and attack when we can.”
    It was hard to make game plans even during the tournament as we were not playing to the standard of world champions. So, in comparison, I found it less hard in the World Cup, although I had some hard moments after we lost to England and before we turned things around for our next game. But you cannot do much in the space of two days, so we focused on fixing our defensive problems to try to be able to play our brand of interconnected football. You tend to generate too much negativity when you lose a game, so I tried to make things simple to prevent our players from getting confused. The fact that our opponents were Germany worked in our favour, I think.

Q: With your team's success at the World Cup, your team's playing style and abilities are no longer secrets from the rest of the world. How do you cope with that?
    I have already taken that into consideration for our next move. I had a similar experience when I coached Japan at the Under-20 World Cup and played Mexico, who had been studying us. It is a cat-and-mouse game, but I want to deal with the situation by improving our quality. We also remain flexible and capable of playing a defensive game if necessary.

Q: What is your impression on the teams who have qualified for the Olympics? What is your plan for forming your Olympic squad?
    We still have to wait and see who all the qualifiers are. So far, all the teams look formidable with a good foundation to their game.     The Olympic squad will be formed around the World Cup squad as we play interconnected football, which requires some details to be shared within the team. But we also have to consider the number of players in the squad, which will be 18, smaller than the World Cup.

Q: What do you think of your team's maturity?
    It's about 70 percent of what I want to see from them. It has improved dramatically thanks to our recent good experiences. You cannot expect to have 100 percent, but I feel that we have reached a good point. It will be down to the remaining 30 percent and how much we can work on that.

Q: What aspects do you need to work on to fill in that 30 percent gap?
    Physical conditioning and accuracy of skills to execute our game. If you can build up your physical condition and skill accuracy, you can improve your reaction and agility even by split seconds.
    Based on what we have, we just have to raise the standard of our own brand of football by improving these elements. Thankfully, we've had many offers to play friendly matches since the World Cup, which will help me to plan things in the run-up to the Olympics, and I am hoping to give our players opportunities to gain more experience.
    I am also planning to test our younger players. I would like to call them up for our senior team training sessions at our first camp this year and see how the under-20 players and those who are close to getting a breakthrough will do. That will help these youngsters develop their game, and if we see some of them breaking through, that will also motivate the senior players.

Q:This year, Japan Under-20s and Under-17s will also play in their respective World Cups. How do you coordinate with those teams?
    I think we have a good system between our women's national teams, and I have a good relationship of mutual trust with Under-20 coach [Hiroshi] Yoshida. We work mainly on skills with the Under-17 players and add passing movements and group tactics to that with the Under-20 players, trying to improve the quality of their game.

Q: Following your successful World Cup, you and your players are now the center of attention. How do you view this change?
    After we finished fourth at the Beijing Olympics, I thought women's football was not regarded highly by people in Japan, but now everybody recognizes that “Nadeshiko Japan” means women's football and they even know the names of our players, which is surprising to me.
    I think it's great. However, we won the World Cup without taking the initiative in our games; with the London Olympics coming this year, we still have a lot to work to do on in our game.
    When I attend Nadeshiko League matches, I notice there aren't so many supporters travelling to away games, although you can see many who do that in the J. League. The fans of the women's league are not really at the same level.
    In order to make women's football successful, it is important to increase the number of real supporters who will also follow their team away. Those of us involved in football should analyze the situation and invite more fans and companies to support our league and establish a solid foundation.

Q: Is 2012 different from how you thought things would be?
    Things have gone more or less as I expected, but we came up with the World Cup result before the Olympics. Although that was one of our objectives, I didn't think we could actually do it and that was not something I had imagined. I didn't expect we would have all our World Cup games televised, either.
    Right now, I see myself as a “businessman” supporting women's football. It is important to spread the word about women's football. We have 37,000 players registered at the JFA and we want to be the ones that people dream about, particularly by children who are thinking of becoming footballers.
    Also, there are still many people who are suffering as a result of the East Japan disaster, and I am hoping our performances will give them hope and incentive to fight on.
    No team has won the World Cup and the Olympics back-to-back. It is such a tough thing to achieve, but that is our challenge for this year.

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