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JFA Website Special

 January 1, 2014, signaled the start of a big year for Japanese football, with the FIFA World Cup being staged in Brazil in June and July. The quadrennial tournament will test Alberto Zaccheroni’s Japan team on what they have learned over the past four years. In December, Japan found out who they will play in the group stage at the World Cup – Cote d’Ivoire, Greece and Colombia – and what they will need to do to progress to the knockout round.
 With six months left to go to the World Cup, the Italian coach spoke to JFA Web to outline his hopes and plans for this big year.

Q: There’s about six months to go before the World Cup – how are you feeling now?
 I am feeling positive because I know our team has developed over the last three and a half years and certain elements – team capability, team personality and our performances as a team – have improved dramatically. After our European tour in November, some people seem to think we can beat anyone in the world, but the reality is somewhat different.
 Of course, I am expecting a lot from my team. If Japan can go into the games with 100 percent fitness, it’s possible we can match or even beat some of the world’s top 10 teams. However, when our fitness is only at around 60 percent, that’s not something we can do. That’s why our objective for the next six months is to improve our team’s fitness to get as close to 100 percent as possible before the tournament.

Q: At the end of Japan’s European tour in November, you said that your team’s readiness or maturity was around 75 percent. What is required to make up the other 25 percent?
 We have to be able to keep playing well over 90 minutes as we did against Korea Republic in Sapporo in 2011, against Oman, Jordan and Australia in the World Cup final-round qualifiers [in June 2012] and also in the games against the Netherlands and Belgium on the November tour.
  We were able to beat Oman and Jordan even playing at 60 percent of our capability, but in the World Cup you can’t expect to do well against Cote d’Ivoire, Greece and Colombia at only 60 percent.
 When we play well, we can keep moving the ball around and display some intensity in our game. The efficiency of our game depends on how much intensity we have, so it is important for us to keep moving the ball.

Q: When and in what areas have you been able to see growth from your team?
 I can assess their growth whenever they work or train together. Their development tends accelerate in tandem with their fitness.
 I noticed the first signs in the friendly against Korea Republic in Sapporo. We were particularly good in the first half, but after taking a 3-0 lead at halftime our players seemed to be satisfied and sat back in the second half. I remember criticizing them about that.
 After training together intensely ahead of the World Cup final-round qualifiers, we had good form going into the three-game series against Oman, Jordan and Australia. We performed well and with good speed. When we play with good speed, we can produce good results.
 In November, when we had two games in Europe, the players were also in good shape and they had a great attitude in their approach to playing for the team, and that helped us produce those good results.

Q: What about the team’s growth in terms of their winning mentality?
 I think the players are developing that, too, but it’s not fixed yet. When you play against football’s world powerhouses, you should never play with a passive attitude like we did against Brazil at the FIFA Confederations Cup. You must respect every opponent, but what you should never do is be afraid of your opposition because of their name. It doesn’t matter who we are playing, we should always think about how we want to play.
 In terms of having a winning mentality, some countries have created that over a period of 60 or 70 years. Japan are progressing rapidly in world football, but you cannot expect the team to acquire this winning mentality completely before the World Cup. I will continue to work hard and do as much as I can to help our players have that mentality, but it’s something that every single player on the team should have, not just one or two.
 Teams like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Uruguay, Colombia and Germany have that and the capability of winning games even with their fitness level at 60 percent. But we are not at that stage yet and need to continue to do more.

Q: Some say that Japanese football doesn’t have malizia or deviousness. What do you think about that?
 Well, I don’t think Japanese culture has the concept of malizia. I ask my players to be smart rather than concerning themselves with malizia. We care about fair play, but sometimes you have opponents who don’t play fair and you need to be prepared for such opponents.

Q: What are the chances of introducing new players in your World Cup squad?
 I have listed 63 players as candidates and am monitoring their performances. Those who are not on my list still have a chance to make it and even get into the final squad if they play really well. A few months ago, many thought that the squad was already fixed, but we have used some new players in the last few months and they are doing well with us now.
 In the upcoming World Cup, we will have to travel a lot for each game and play in high heat and humidity, so I would like to have players with really good fitness.

Q: What elements do you check on those 63 candidates?
 If they can do well at the World Cup. The 63 players include those who haven’t been called up for training camps or games. I have also been checking those who used to be with us but haven’t been selected recently. If they can get better both mentally and physically, they will have a possibility of returning to the national team.

Q: There were some surprises when World Cup squads were unveiled in the past; what about this time?
 That is down to the players. It is perfectly possible to have a new player on the squad, but it depends on their position. In some positions, you need a lot of practice and some shared rules, or dos and don’ts to play there.

Q: Before the 1990 FIFA World Cup, Salvatore Schillaci was called up at the last minute. What does a player in a situation like him provide to the rest of the squad?
 I think it’s effective to have an in-form player on the squad.

Q: What is your impression on Japan’s group-stage opponents at the World Cup?
 Well, Colombia are a very strong side. You can put them among the title contenders as this World Cup will be held in South America. I won’t be surprised if we see them playing later in the tournament.
 They are a bit like Spain from a few years ago. Colombia are not so well-known internationally but are a hard-working side and have good young players. They won last year’s U-20 South American Championship with some good, talented players. I heard that some of them may make it to the World Cup squad.
 Many of the Colombia players play in Europe. Radamel Falcao (AS Monaco) is a very strong center forward and Jackson Martinez (FC Porto) is a player every team wants to have. Coach Jose Pekerman is good at developing players and has tactical flexibility. He has various types of players and plays them according to the situation in the game. They are a very capable team.

Q: What about Greece?
 Greece don’t have flamboyance or famous players but do have good unity and are solid performers. They attack the mistakes of their opponents and nullify the good parts of opposing teams. What we shouldn’t do is underestimate them just because they don’t have any big names. Their players play in strong teams in Europe, understand the game and are consistent performers. They are not an easy side to play.

Q: What do you think of Cote d’Ivoire?
 Cote d’Ivoire are the opposite of Greece. They have high individual quality and are used to playing in the heat, which means they will have an advantage in Brazil. They are one of the best teams in Africa and have good talent as well as physical strength. However, they sometimes lack unity.
 Forward [Didier] Drogba of Galatasaray is 35 years old now but has experience of winning the UEFA Champions League at Chelsea. He has experience, physique, technique and personality. When I watched the game between Galatasaray and Juventus last month, I had the impression that Juventus were the better side, but at the end of the day Drogba put on a decisive performance to help Galatasaray win. Cote d’Ivoire also have Yaya Toure, who does well as a link man between the midfielders and the attackers at Manchester City. These two players are very high in quality.

Q: What is your plan for getting your team to peak at the World Cup?
 We must be in top condition to play the first game against Cote d’Ivoire. On the other hand, we also have to think about the post-group stage. But first, we want to go into our first game in good condition.
 In our group, we don’t have any big names like Germany or Argentina, but all the teams are tough sides to play when they are in good shape and have good preparation. Therefore, if we’re not ready mentally and physically, we will be in trouble.
 I want to see us stay in the tournament as long as we can, and we need to have good training and eat well at our base camp in Brazil. As we will have a long flight for each game, the recovery will be important for us. With regard to preparations for the heat, our team staff and coaches are discussing the matter to try and find the best possible solution.

Q: Now you are in your fourth year with Japan; have these four years gone quickly?
 Yes, I feel it’s gone too fast, but it’s probably because I have been having a very good time here. When you struggle, you tend to feel like time drags. Because the experience here has been so wonderful and one of the best I’ve had, I want us to play well and get good results at the World Cup. I want us to focus on being strong and producing good results to wrap up my time here in a positive way.

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