It has long been an ambition of Abel Braga to visit Japan. The 54-year-old Brazilian was twice on the verge of discovering the Land of the Rising Sun while playing for Botafogo, but twice he had to unpack his bags after being struck down with untimely injuries.
Now, however, as coach of the recently crowned Copa Libertadores champions, Braga will finally get to see a country he has long admired. In fact, he could not have wished for a better reason to visit the Far East as he sets about trying to guide Inter to victory at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006.
With just over a month until the biggest challenge in his club's history, the affable Brazilian spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his side's final preparations, the importance of their Copa Libertadores triumph and the principal figures that make his team genuine title contenders.
FIFA.com: Senor Braga, you have coached a host of top sides and now guided Inter to victory in the Copa Libertadores. Has it sunk in yet how much this title means to the club?
Abel Braga: Yes, definitely. It was as if Inter had been waiting all of their 97 years to be crowned continental champions. Now, by dint of sheer hard work, the club is one of the top three in Brazil alongside Sao Paulo and Cruzeiro. I'd go as far as to say we have the best working conditions of any outfit here. Over the last five years, the club has improved remarkably at every level, from the quality of the stadium to the facilities available to the players. Naturally, being part of that process and of the title-winning campaign is a source of great pride.
Now that the celebrations have died down, you have to get the team ready for the FIFA Club World Cup. What are your expectations going into this tournament?
Expectations are high and we're very hopeful. It's true that the current squad is markedly different from the one that lifted the Copa Libertadores, with four key players having moved on and several others out with injuries. Nonetheless, it's important to highlight one of the main characteristics of this Inter team: the more obstacles put in front of us and the more difficult our opponents, the stronger we become. These players have a winning mentality and an enormous commitment to the club. They're also happy to be playing here, which is why they're willing to work so hard. You can see that out on the pitch.
In the final of this year's Copa Libertadores, you saw off the reigning FIFA Club World Cup champions Sao Paulo. What has been the key to keeping your players motivated after such a victory?
The biggest motivation is the fact that we work and play for Inter. As I said earlier, we have a great relationship with the club, and that special feeling binds us together. I'd even say it's a like a family here. When training is over, the players return to the dressing rooms and often stay chatting among themselves for longer than they were out on the pitch. That's also due to the comforts laid on for them here, from the restaurants to the recreational facilities. What's really significant is that is makes them stronger as a group. Everyone here is happy, and that's fundamental.
How important is Fernandao in your set-up?
He's currently the best player in Brazil. I'm certain the public would agree with me if they were polled on it today. His time in Spain has given him a real tactical versatility, and that allows me to change our formation without changing the side. He can operate in a holding position, take on a freer role and even carry out playmaking duties. He's the most versatile player I've got and a key component of the side.
Apart from footballing ones, what other challenges are you expecting to face in Japan?
We're analysing everything very carefully, and to this end we've spoken to Paulo Autuori, who led Sao Paulo to victory there last year. It's vital that you prepare with the utmost precision, just as he did twelve months ago. That means dealing with problems ranging from time differences to climate adaption. You need to take into consideration that we'll be going from the heat of summer, when it could be as warm as 40 degrees, to a place where temperatures could be below zero.
But we're prepared for that and are even considering breaking up our journey with a stopover in Europe to help us acclimatise. As far as the football is concerned, we're obviously studying all our possible opponents in detail.
So who is your favourite to take the title?
Barcelona, obviously(laughs), though we should always remember that games are won on the field of play not off it. We recognise Barca's tag as favourites, given that they are an excellent side, but our team will not be easily beaten.
It has been said a few times that you have a kind of paternalistic relationship with your players. Would you go along with that?
No, I wouldn't go as far as to say that. Yes, it's true that I am very friendly with them, but that's because I spent 20 years playing for top sides and I know how I liked my coaches to treat me. At the same time, I am extremely demanding with my players and insist they show the utmost professionalism. Of course, having been a player makes it easier for me to manage the dressing room.
Finally, Corinthians were crowned club world champions in 2000, then Sao Paulo in 2005. Care to make a prediction for 2006?
Hopefully, it can be Inter. That's what we're working towards. We have everything we need to achieve it - a wonderful infrastructure, superb facilities and a great set of players.