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JFA Website Special

   Japan wrapped up their 2012 activities with an away win in Oman in their fifth match of the Asian final-round qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The win meant they maintained their comfortable lead in Group B after four victories and one draw and means they are just one win away from qualifying for next year’s finals in Brazil. Once they secure their place there, the Samurai Blue Japan will be able to concentrate on preparing for football’s most prestigious tournament. In June, Alberto Zaccheroni’s side is scheduled to play hosts Brazil, Italy and Mexico in the FIFA Confederations Cup, which serves as a rehearsal for next year’s World Cup. The Italian coach talked about 2012 and his team’s prospects for 2013.

Q: How was 2012? What were positives?
    Firstly, we have earned many points in the final-round qualifiers for the World Cup, which gives us momentum for 2013. Our team made great development from 2011 to 2012 and has been better in terms of both results and performance in 2012. The challenges became tougher last year after we started the final-round qualifiers but still we have produced good results and that is a good indicator as to the growth of our team.

Q: Have you found anything new or unexpected from your side?
   I don’t see anything particularly negative, but on the positive side I did see something I hadn’t expected. The condition of the team tends to be different every time we get together, and we were not in great shape when we got together in late February for the qualifying tie with Uzbekistan. However, when we had a longer period of time together, things were good.
   Basically, I have avoided making big changes to the backbone of the team – I mean the center “spine” of the team from the goalkeeper to the forwards – except in the case of injuries. I have stuck to that policy ever since I started managing. If you don’t secure that central core, your team will likely lose its balance and fall apart. That’s why the changes I make are often to those players on the sides. When I had to bring in new players due to injuries or for technical reasons, they played very well, and we have had more players of that kind, which has made me think that we have added depth to our team overall.

Q: Japan midfielder Endo Yasuhito and defender Konno Yasuyuki are part of that central spine, but they will be in Division Two in the 2013 season if they stay with Gamba Osaka. Is that a concern for you?
   I don’t see any problems for the national team if they are playing in Division Two as long as they have the right capabilities. I will call them up for our squad as long as they are fit. I just need to add Division Two matches to the list of games I have to take in. When I think about their personalities, they will probably work harder to get their club promoted to Division One, so I am not really very concerned about them.

Q:What do you think your team did better in 2012?
   Their performance on the pitch. In the final round qualifiers for the World Cup, we have collected 13 points from four wins and a draw, scored 13 goals and only given up two. And the two goals we gave away came from a penalty and a restart. I think this shows our team concept has spread throughout the squad. They’ve learned how to keep good distance from each other and have better precision in what they do. We are also good at not letting our opponents read what we’re going to do when we attack.
   However, I expect more from our players and we will continue to work hard to improve our quality. As we are scheduled to play against tougher opponents in 2013, we need to develop our game more, so I would like to see our players grow more. I also want those who haven’t had many playing opportunities to threaten the places of the regular players.

Q:What’s needed to improve quality?
    We have many younger players on our national team and they have big potential. They can develop a lot more. I hope they can gain experience and show their capabilities with consistent accuracy and aggressiveness. I give them a lot of attention as they are the ones who can support the development of Japanese football in the future. I am interested in their growth. When I started this Japan job, I set three objectives: to qualify for the World Cup and to play well there, and to leave some kind of legacy for the future of Japanese football.
   On our national team, we need to make sure the team concept is thoroughly absorbed by the players and we need to improve our combination work, speed of play and accuracy in order to show the good parts of our game more. We need to keep the right distance between the players and improve the speed of our transitions. The stronger our opposition, the fewer scoring chances we’ll get in games. And we need to make sure we score on the limited chances we get. That, I think, will help us move up to the next level.

Q: How do you evaluate Japan’s games against France and Brazil on the European tour in October?
    I asked the JFA to arrange the European tour because I wanted our players to think about taking the initiative in games against strong opposition. I think the personality of our team and the reliability within the team were raised through that experience.
   We played better in the second half against France and our players continued to try and score even though they were in the lead. To me that was a confirmation that our players understood the thinking I want them to have. In the Brazil game, they showed the same thing again without me having to tell them.
   Performance-wise, we couldn’t really do what we wanted to against Brazil, but our players showed good personality in terms of mentality and their approach to the game. That’s why I liked the Brazil game more than the France game. It was good for their growth.
   On top of that, we lost 4-0 to Brazil but still pressed hard on their four strikers – who are all really top-level players – and that was an indication that our team defense has improved.
   I always want Japan to capitalize on their strong points and style against every opponent. The good part of our Japan national team is their high quality in basic skills.
   When you go out and play strong opponents, they are often able to utilize their physical strength against us, but Japan can counter them with speed and solid basic skills, and that’s important for us. We should always have a series of passing moves available to lose our markers and move toward the goal – kind of like a chameleon, changing our pattern of play when we attack.

Q:Japan are scheduled to play in the Confederations Cup in Brazil in June. How does that fit with your schedule for the World Cup?
    This year, we first want to qualify for the World Cup as soon as we can – hopefully in March against Jordan. That’s the major objective for us. After that, we can move on to our preparations for the 2014 World Cup, and for that we want to make the most of our activities this year as we may not have much time to work together in 2014. To that extent, it is good for us to play in a tough group at the Confederations Cup, but it would be better if we could have a couple of extra days before moving to Brazil after finishing our World Cup qualifiers.
   The Confederations Cup is a high-quality competition with strong teams and it will be a good opportunity for us to raise the level of our game ahead of the World Cup. I don’t know how many days we’ll have to prepare for the Confederations Cup, but the tournament will be a good occasion for us to learn what is missing in relation to where we want to be in the following year.

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