Japan’s soccer bosses went back to the future when they turned to Takeshi Okada to steer the national soccer team into this month’s World Cup.
Despite a relatively smooth qualifying campaign, Okada, who led Japan to its first-ever World Cup in 1998, has come under fire in recent months for a string of lackluster performances. Yet the former Yokohama F Marinos coach can find an unlikely ally, perhaps, in Philippe Troussier, Japan’s outspoken coach at the 2002 World Cup.
Okada, who oversaw three narrow defeats in France 12 years ago, was reappointed in December 2007 after the coach at the time, Ivica Osim, suffered a stroke. For this year’s tournament in South Africa, the 53-year-old announced an ambitious semifinal target, a goal many have dismissed as unrealistic.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult, but not impossible,” says Okada. “All we can do is our utmost to win every game.”
Troussier, meanwhile, does not dismiss Okada’s objective. “If you remember 2002, South Korea got fourth and Turkey got third position. France came 28th. Does this mean that France is worse than South Korea? No. It’s just the result of special circumstances,” he says, “So, [a semifinal] spot is possible. Sixty percent of football is down to the mechanics of the game, but 40 percent is something you cannot imagine, something irrational.”
The only coach to have guided Japan into the knockout stages of the World Cup (Japan failed to win any of its group games four years ago in Germany), Troussier is now the general manager at FC Ryukyu, a third-tier, semiprofessional outfit in Okinawa.
Both coaches agree that Japan have been drawn in an exacting group that includes the Netherlands, a highly fancied team that strolled to a 3-0 victory over Japan last fall, Denmark, a determined and well-drilled outfit, and Cameroon, Africa’s World Cup veterans.
“I see Denmark and Cameroon as tough opponents, but Holland as a class above,” says Okada. “We’re going to have to work very hard to pick up points in this group.”
To progress to the next round, Troussier says that Japan’s opening game against the Indomitable Lions is crucial. “I think Japan can challenge for second position [in the group], but [they] must get points against Cameroon and Denmark,” he says, sitting in FC Ryukyu’s Shibuya office. “Japan will meet Cameroon in [their] opening match. [They have] already played and beaten Cameroon twice before, a psychological advantage. Japan’s World Cup final is the match against Cameroon. It’ll be impossible if they cannot beat Cameroon.”
While the Japanese squad contains several players with World Cup pedigree, including Shunsuke Nakamura (who Troussier believes has one of the best left foots in world soccer), midfielders Yasuhito Endo and Junichi Inamoto and captain Yuji Nakazawa, Okada and Troussier highlight Keisuke Honda as a player to watch in South Africa.
“Honda’s a strong individual who scores goals,” says Okada. Troussier is even more complimentary of the CSKA Moscow midfielder. “He knows what he wants, he knows where he wants to go and he knows what he wants to do,” says the 55-year-old Frenchman. “He could be a new symbol [for Japanese soccer].”
Whereas Troussier concurs with Okada’s assessment that organization and player stamina are Japan’s strengths, he also sounds a warning about the team’s tenacious approach.
“I don’t know if it’s a clever investment,” he says. “[Japan] moves the ball forward quickly and supports the ball with many players. This is fine against teams like Malaysia, against whom they will have 80 percent of possession. In such situations, Japan can destroy anyone, but against teams like Cameroon, Denmark and the Netherlands, I think they will only have 30 or 40 percent possession and may struggle.”
This players’ overzealousness, says Troussier, highlights their naiveté. “Experience is playing every day in a big league, talking another language, learning a different attitude,” he says. “[The players] try to play quickly, but when you play quickly, you automatically make mistakes and miss opportunities. You have to play to your optimum; this doesn’t always mean perspiration. I’m sure the Japanese players wear helmets when they start the match because they think football is war!”
Acknowledging his side’s weaknesses, Okada says that the key to improvement lies abroad. “I hope more players go overseas to play at a higher level and, in turn, help raise the level of Japanese soccer,” he says. “I also think we need to play tough opponents away from home more often.”
So if Japan don’t yet have what it takes to be crowned world champions, who will be lifting the trophy on July 11 in Johannesburg?
Okada fancies five-time winners Brazil. “As well as being physically and technically strong as an attacking force,” he says, “they have really tightened their defense.”
Troussier, however, believes that soccer’s greatest prize will remain in Europe. “Frankly,” he says, “it’s the year of Spain.”
iNTOUCH - June 2010