Whenever Brazil meet Japan, the legendary Zico knows there is every chance he will be called on to run the rule over both sides. As one of the greatest players Brazil has ever produced and a pioneering figure in the development of the Japanese game, his opinion matters more than most when it comes to previewing any meeting between the two nations.
On the eve of Saturday’s opening match of the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 in Brasilia, Zico spoke to FIFA.com about a Brazil side that is still taking shape and Alberto Zaccheroni’s Japan, who have already sealed their place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, thanks in no small part to an ever-growing band of players performing in the world’s most prestigious leagues.
The former Brazil star will be a very interested spectator at the all-new Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha this weekend. Here are his views on what he expects to see.
FIFA.com: What are you looking for in this latest meeting between Brazil and Japan?
Zico: There’s every chance of this game being one of the toughest ever between the two sides, and that’s for two reasons. Firstly, the Japanese are getting stronger all the time, with more and more players in leagues like Germany, Italy, England and Russia. Secondly, Brazil are still looking for their best starting XI and the right formation. Now that they’ve reached the World Cup, the Japanese should be more relaxed going into the game, though I think they still find it hard going against South American sides. All in all, it should be a fascinating game.
Why do they find it hard against South American teams?
The Japanese have real problems when they come up against teams with a bit of initiative and creativity. That’s something that catches them off guard much more than the quality and organisation you’d normally associate with big European sides. When a Japanese player prepares for one thing and something else happens, like a dribble or a piece of improvisation or individual skill, then it tends to throw them off their game. It’s that kind of initiative that Japan very often lack, the idea that you can make a mistake and take risks as a result. It’s a cultural thing and it was something I went on about all the time. But you won’t see them trying things very often because they’ve got it into their heads that they can’t make a mistake of any kind.
You mentioned the fact there are more Japanese players in Europe now. Do you think the fact that players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda are starring with big teams now is more a question of quality than quantity?
Listen, I don’t think for a minute that there’s any player in this Japan team who’s as good as [Hidetoshi] Nakata, [Naohiro] Takahara, [Shinji] Ono or [Shunsuke] Nakamura. What Japanese players find in Europe now are fewer obstacles. In the past coaches didn’t tend to trust them. They left them on the bench and rarely played them. That’s not the case today. There are more of them around and they’re in the starting line-ups too.
What kind of game are you expecting on Saturday?
From what I’ve seen Brazil are still a little too exposed for my liking and they allow teams too much space, especially for shots outside the box, which is what we saw in the games against England and France. We’re not compact enough. England didn’t score twice from outside the area by chance, you know. That’s dangerous against a team with players who can shoot from distance, like Honda, [Yasuhito] Endo and [Makoto] Hasebe.
Do you still get excited about matches involving Japan?
Yes, very much. A few months ago, when I was in charge of Iraq, we faced Japan in the World Cup qualifiers and I had to put my affection for the country to one side and focus on things I could use to our advantage, like how much I knew about [Alberto] Zaccheroni’s team and the Japanese character.
In terms of character, how do you think they will react to playing the opening match at a stadium packed with Brazil fans?
Well, most of the responsibility is on the Brazilians. They’re the favourites and the hosts, after all. When I played for Brazil I saw for myself just how much playing at home can spur teams on and how it can also put extra pressure on teams. During my time with Japan that’s something we were fortunate enough to handle really well. We never lost a game at home. The secret and the big challenge for Brazil is to turn the fact they’re playing at home into something positive.