Norio Sasaki has led Japan through a period of massive growth culminating in the Nadeshiko last year claiming a breakthrough triumph at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™. It capped a meteoric rise for Japan who went into Germany 2011 with a modest record across five previous FIFA Women’s World Cup appearances.
Within months of taking the reins Sasaki helped Japan reach the semi-finals of the 2008 Olympic Women’s Football Tournament, and this year the Nadeshiko, displaying their trademark passing game, were narrowly edged out of a maiden gold medal by USA in the Olympic final at Wembley.
Sasaki, the 2011 FIFA's Women's Coach of the Year, has again been shortlisted for the 2012 award to be announced in Zurich on 7 January.
Now, having last week announced he will be staying on as Japan coach, Sasaki tells FIFA.com of his thoughts on London 2012, the reasons behind the Nadeshiko’s rapid growth and the prospects for even further development.
FIFA.com: With a silver medal at London 2012 did you feel Japan continued their momentum from Germany 2011 in terms of playing style?
Norio Sasaki: I really wanted to have the team playing much better than in Germany last year. Our performance in the final match was really brilliant, but it was a big pity that we didn’t score the first goal like we did against France [in the semi-final]. The players felt they wanted to win so much, they got nervous after the first goal. As a coach, that remains a problem for us. The players could somehow manage to overcome such difficulties, but there are some things that need to be improved upon. I really wanted to improve the mentality of things but what we achieved in the final was fantastic considering we conceded the first goal. There was a good mental factor in the final match. If the Nadeshiko scores the first goal, their mentality went to a ‘we have to defend’ mindset, which meant we could not play our passing style anymore. So those kind of things we must analyse for future development. We must learn something from the experience.
Did the team play the way you wanted at London 2012?
We set our goal as the gold medal in London, but we lost the final against USA so we had to be satisfied with silver. However, I found my players were becoming better players and improving as a team, so while we could not achieve our goal, I am, in that sense, satisfied with the results.
How did you enjoy the overall experience of the London Olympics?
It was really wonderful tournament indeed. We played at Wembley, which is England’s best football stadium, which was also a wonderful experience. I was impressed by the British people, who showed they have a deep understanding of football. That is why even in the women’s final, the crowd was so big; 80,000. We played in Germany at the Women’s World Cup and this year the Olympic tournament in the UK, so with those two major European nations, we found true football hospitality.
Can Japan women’s football grow even stronger?
Especially in the last two years, the Japan Football Association (JFA) and coaches all over the nation have helped each other to make a strong development system, meaning Japan’s football fans have quickly raised expectations. Now is the right time to stabilise and grow the system in Japan and make the national teams stronger.
What specifically can Japan do to advance to an even higher level?
Japan needs to constantly develop our football, not just possession style, but also individual tactics and skill. Sometimes if we concentrate too much on moving the ball around, we can lose focus on our skills or positional awareness. What youth players must learn is to deliver an accurate pass, and also to find and work within narrow spaces. From now on, such skills are a key factor for the Young Nadeshiko, and also the senior team. It is very difficult for players over say 25 to obtain such skills, but the current young generation in Japan are rapidly improving their individual techniques.
Did the team develop faster than you expected in being crowned world champions?
I have seven years experience of coaching in women’s football. I led the U-17 team in an international tournament and the U-20 team at the Women’s World Cup twice. So my background is in development of young players. Through those experiences I realised that Japan has the potential to be one of the top teams in the world. That is what I felt in the first two years, but five years ago I never expected us to be crowned world champions. So the most important thing is to constantly produce talented youth to maintain this level and to become a better team.
Japan seem to have a certain resilience and an ability to come from behind, most famously against USA in the Germany 2011 final. Is that a typical trait of Japan women’s football?
If it is true it is a bad thing [laughs]. Sometimes our mentality gets weaker when we concede a goal, so we still need to find a much stronger mentality in the match. Of course when you are behind, it is normal to fight back. But even when you are leading in a match, the most important thing is to play your style of football. Even some senior national team players struggle to ignore the scoreline and continue playing the right way.