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Thursday, June 8, 2006

Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Zico . . . the A to Z of Japan's national coach

Special to The Japan Times

World Cup legend Zico finished his illustrious playing career in rural Japan with Kashima Antlers, retiring in 1994. He remained with the club as technical director, and was appointed national coach in July 2002. Looking sun-tanned and dressed casually in light blue jeans and a dark blue sweater, which highlights the long silver chain round his neck, Zico gave up an hour of his time for a World Cup interview before leaving for Germany in a meeting room of a plush hotel in Shibuya, downtown Tokyo. As ever, his mood was serious, with rarely a glimmer of the beaming smile that lit up his goal celebrations as a player.

News photo
Japan national team coach Zico hopes he can make the Boys in Blue's dreams come true at the World Cup in Germany.

The Japan Times: How ready is the team?

Zico: The players are ready. They know what to do, whatever formation we use, because we have been doing these things for four years. They have the confidence and have repeated the things in training, and I know they can do it. This team has been evolving for four years. I have big options about who to combine with whom in which formation, and we have basically got everything ready during the last few games.

How has Japan changed as a team since 2002?

The big thing that has changed in the last four years is that however strong the opponents may be, whatever the color of their shirts and regardless of how much tradition they may have, how big their name is, the players now face them without fear. We have played a number of strong teams, and won some and drawn some, and I think that each of those games has given my players a big boost of confidence. This has become a team that doesn't give up till the end, extremely offensive and goal-oriented. This is a team that is confident that, if we play our own football, we can fight to our advantage against any opponent. I'd say that this is the biggest point that has changed since 2002.

How would you describe your own managerial style and philosophy?

The core of my philosophy is that nothing is decided until the final moment of the match. The fact that my team has turned so many games around shows that this philosophy has taken shape. The big questions are when to take the risks and attack, and not to disrupt the defense by all attacking at once. The balance has to be maintained in the players' heads, and the fighting spirit has to be maintained to the finish. If we are losing 1-0 we must aim to draw. A draw is often a very big result in football, but it's no good to all attack at once and lose 2-0 instead of 1-0. That used to happen but has become much rarer now. The first thing is the strong determination to win. The second is the strong determination not to lose. This isn't a question of individuals but of harmony among multiple people in the team. If we can't manage that, then the better our opponents are, the more likely they are just to score that extra goal. Japan couldn't do this before. This team can play as a team now with the same strong determination all through the match.

What aspects of Japanese football do you most want to show the world this summer?

We are not going to see anything like the Dutch team of '74, which was a revolution, a totally different kind of football. Japan won't do it, and it would be very hard for any other national team to do so either. But as for what kind of team this is, what I want to show is that this is a team that can fight. It has become a team that can aim for results and get them.

People talk a lot about our miraculous last-gasp wins, but it can't be a miracle if it happens so often. It is a team that can do that, against any opposition, and this is a first for Japan. That is the team that I want to show to the world.

Can you name three players that you want the world to see, and explain why?

First, there is Hidetoshi Nakata. His name always comes up at every event around the world. He has become a symbol because of what he has achieved as a Japanese around the world. He has the proven ability. Alongside him there's Shunsuke Nakamura. Japan has now raised the sort of player who can astonish the world. He is also playing in Europe and is now recognized as a symbol of Japanese football. Then Naohiro Takahara, who is playing in Germany but couldn't play in the last World Cup (because of illness). I think he has a burning determination inside him, and he'll be playing at home, and will make an almighty effort to do something for the team. I really hope it happens for him. I have named three, but I don't want any of my players to feel that they bear the whole responsibility for the team. Every player must be responsible.

What would you consider a satisfactory World Cup for Japan?

The important thing is for the players to take each match at a time, starting with Australia, fighting each game one by one with the same spirit that we saw at the Asian Cup in China (in 2004). We have to fight each game as if it's our last, as if it's the final. There are seven games altogether.

The first objective is to get through the group, but this is very difficult.

It gets easier after that, just single matches where the winner advances. I think we can get through the group, but not if we can't play seven "finals."

How do you view your group opponents, Australia, Croatia and Brazil?

I think we have been drawn in the strongest group. Common sense says Brazil will go through and Australia, Croatia and Japan all have about an equal chance, 33 percent each. But that's only theory and what actually happens on the pitch cannot be predicted by anyone. It's going to be a very tight battle in which we could go through and we could fail.

Could you talk about Croatia in particular?

It is a country with a great tradition. The players aren't so individually outstanding as in the past, like Zvonomir Boban, Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki, but the team is very strong. The wing backs are very dangerous, especially Srna on the right.

They have the same problem as Japan and Australia that their players are scattered around several countries, so they can't always come together. A team gets stronger the more often its players can be together. Organizationally, however, Croatia are an extremely strong team.

We used to say in Brazil that Yugoslavia played Brazilian football in Europe. The country then split up and, while that dispersed the star players, I also get the impression that it created the opportunity for many young players to come through, players who wouldn't have had the chance so early otherwise. I'm not judging, of course, whether it was a good or bad thing in the normal, broader sense, but the division of the country did give young players a great chance, they took it, and we can see the results in the strength of Croatia today. The overall quality has risen.

Young players such as Niko Kranjcar?

He is a real game-maker, the starting point of many attacks.

You attended the Argentina-Croatia friendly in Switzerland. How significant was Croatia's 3-2 victory?

I don't take the results of friendly matches so seriously. Managers want to try things out. I don't think it has affected anything. It is not the same as winning three points in a competitive game.

How do you feel about leading Japan against your own country, Brazil?

I thought this must eventually happen from the time I took the job but didn't think it would happen right from the start, in the groups, like this at both last year's Confederations Cup and now the World Cup as well. But I am the professional manager of Japan, and it makes no difference who the opponents happen to be. The aim is always to overcome the opponents I have in front of me. I can make that adjustment, and I'm not the first to have to do so. There was Didi, for example, who won the World Cup twice in 1958 and 1962 and then had to lead Peru against Brazil in 1970. I am sure he felt it just as strongly as I do but was able to make the adjustment.

What will you do after the World Cup?

I'd like to try managing in Europe if I get the chance. There isn't anything at the moment, but if the conditions were right, then I'd be very interested. The only definite thing I can say at the moment is that my relationship with the Japan Football Association will end after the World Cup. I have already spoken about this with JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi, and I am very grateful for everything that has happened. As for Japan, a new manager will be appointed, probably in August.

Do you have any recommendation regarding the next manager? A Japanese, South American or European?

This is for the JFA to decide, thinking of the future. They have used both Europeans and South Americans in the past. The important thing for me is that the progress of the past four years shouldn't be lost, so there needs to be a changeover period to explain what has been done so far.

Should it be someone who already knows Japanese football well?

I think managers around the world already have a pretty good idea of how Japan plays. They might not know the details and talent of individual players, but they know the general tendencies well enough. The information is there.

Diving and gamesmanship has taken over the modern game. Looking back on World Cups when you were a player, this rarely if ever happened. What are your views on this?

What worries me more than the diving is the difficulty of the decisions.

I know as a striker myself how easy it is to lose your balance at just the slightest touch when moving with speed in the penalty area. It doesn't need full-blooded contact. I see a lot of cards where the player is possibly blamed for something he didn't do. If it is deliberate, then he should be sent off. They have betrayed their team and the fans. Often, though, I think that they simply fall. It is a huge responsibility to be placed on the referees because it is very hard to judge.

So how can diving be stopped?

Essentially it is a question of what players can get away with.

Professional players will try to get away with whatever they can. The only way to stop such things is to send them straight off when they do it.

Players used to save the ball on the line with their hands a lot in the old days, but you hardly see that now because they know they'll be sent off straight away for doing it. The same needs to be done for deliberate diving as well. The other thing I'd like to have a straight red card for is holding from behind when the striker breaks away. Often it's the striker who gets punished because he seems to be using his elbows as he tries to shake the player off. The one who is holding should be sent off straight away. That would stop it.

How about holding at corners?

That's OK until the ball is in play. Once it's in play, however, off!

Another thing that annoys me is players going down at the start of a counter-attack and the referee stopping play, or indicating to the counter-attacking players that they should put the ball out of play, or the counter-attacking players putting it out on their own initiative. That breaks up the movement and lets the other team put the ball back in play at its own convenience. I always tell my players to play to the whistle.

World Cup Special:
Eyes on Germany as show time nears for soccer's greatest

Group-by-group analysis of World Cup teams
World Cup winner Guido Buchwald's views and predictions on all 32 World Cup finalists
Nakazawa foundation for Japan's success: Soma
Former Japan defender Naoki Soma's breakdown of Zico's squad

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