Have you already got your squad for the FIFA Confederations Cup sorted out in your mind?
Yes, including some options. I have to keep it flexible in order to come up with the best possible team for us and I still have to consider some possible situations.
Japan will play New Zealand in their first game of the tournament and it is often said the first game is very important. Do you think so too?
That’s right. It could turn out to be a key game for us, because if we get a good result, it will help us get going in the other two (group) games. Our players might be a little nervous or excited as it’s the first match, but I want them to control the mental aspects of the game as well. That will be important to get through the tournament, as we have to play every two days.
These days you can get as much information on your opponent as you want and it allows you to predict how they are likely to play. Also, the playing standards in African and Asian countries have improved as they have been able to procure the services of good coaches from more advanced footballing countries on a longer-term basis than before. If you want to win under such circumstances, you’ve got to have something extra - mental strength.
How do you plan to approach the FIFA Confederations Cup? Are you going to use it to experiment with players or tactics?
I don’t use any tournament as an experiment. To me, all tournaments are important. If we do well in the Confederations Cup, it will help us get going beyond that. If you take it easy, it won’t.
When you say a good result, do you mean winning the tournament?
Yes, of course. We’ll go for the title and I will make sure all the players have the same idea before starting the tournament.
We’ve been drawn in the same group as France, New Zealand and Colombia and we just have to find a way, any way, of getting through the first round. We may be the underdogs against France, but I believe we are better than New Zealand and Colombia.
This will be the first major international tournament since the FIFA World Cup. Many people will be interested in seeing if Japan’s performance then was a fluke.
This will be a good opportunity for us to show the world what we can do. Personally, I believe in Japan’s ability, but we have to prove ourselves in a world showcase event like this to convince people around the world. As the tournament will be held outside Japan, it will also be a good opportunity for us to check how far we can go in such circumstances.
If Japan does well, they could face Brazil later on in the tournament. If that happens, would that put you in a quandary?
There have been a number of similar cases when a Brazilian coach working for another country faces his own country. For me, it would be the very first time to be in such a situation. Although Brazil represents my home country, I would just look on it as our next opponent because I’m the coach of Japan now. I don’t think it would be a problem.
Which Japanese players should fans watch out for in the tournament?
It’s too soon to say at the moment; I don’t know who is going to start for us. But I am thinking of forming our team around the one that played against Uruguay (on 29 March), probably fielding many of our European-based players. On the other hand, in the game against Korea (on April 16), the J. League-based players put on a pretty good performance.
The players based in Europe are not guaranteed a place just because they play in the top leagues. Those on the bench should be aware that they could get their chance at any time and must be ready for it. When they do get it, I want them to convince me to keep them in the first team.
With several players based in Europe, has it been difficult to get your players together?
Actually the biggest problem is how to give then time off. After a tough season, they definitely need time to rest. But I need them too, so I can prepare properly. We have to find a compromise on this at some point.
Because of the successful development of the J. League, Japanese players now have more chances of playing abroad than their predecessors had. When they get their opportunity, I want them to remember that no matter where they play they represent Japan, and I hope they can bring what they learn overseas back to their own country. It will be immensely valuable.
Japan were scheduled to play three games in the East Asian Championship from late May to early June but the tournament was postponed because of SARS. How did that affect your preparations?
It’s a shame as they were important matches for us. But we can take advantage of the postponement and use that period for training instead. We’ve played a few games together, but we haven’t had much chance to train together.