Yoshida: Substance over style
© Foto-net

Technical but toothless; lithe but lightweight. This has been the epitaph for generations of Japanese teams, male and female, at major tournaments.

Certainly, when the Asian giants followed up their first round exit at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ by beating a similarly hasty retreat from the 2007 women's equivalent, there were those who claimed their slight physique and lack of killer instinct would prevent them from ever challenging for a world title. Here in New Zealand, however, we are witnessing the emergence of a Japan side that, as well as proving themselves to be genuine contenders for the title, are threatening to smash the stereotypes about their nation's game.

The Young Nadeshiko have certainly been the revelation of the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup thus far, and while it was the style with which they disposed of USA and France that thrilled the crowd, it is substance - in the shape of results - that evidently takes precedence for coach Hiroshi Yoshida.

"I always tell my players that, no matter how beautiful the football is, the purpose of their play must always be to score," he said. "The final outcome - goals - is everything. [Against France], because we played good football and scored a lot of goals, it was an ideal performance."

Given that the French and Americans numbered among the pre-tournament favourites, Japan arrived in New Zealand to predictions that they would struggle to survive the group stage. As it is, of course, they have booked their place in the quarter-finals with a game to spare, and done so with such panache that many now view Yoshida's side as the competition's team to beat.

Yet their coach is frank in his admission that he didn't consider the title a realistic ambition prior to the tournament, while his captain, Natsuki Kishikawa, is still doing all she can to avoid entertaining thoughts of glory. As she told FIFA.com: "Although I am inclined to think we can win this tournament, I don't want to think that way because it might affect our performance. Perhaps later in the tournament... "

Japan may still harbour misgivings but, already, they have succeeded in electrifying this fledgling competition with a brand of football exemplified in their talismanic No10, Mana Iwabuchi. In full flow, the 15-year-old is quite simply a joy to watch, and it was no surprise that Japan's attacking play lost much of its spark when she was withdrawn along with hat-trick hero Chinatsu Kira in the second half of their 7-1 win over France. Yoshida, for his part, certainly makes no attempt to downplay the duo's importance.

"When Kira and Iwabuchi are on the pitch together, they are a very dangerous combination," he acknowledged. "They are key players for us and when they are not together, we are not the same team."

It said everything for Iwabuchi and Kira's importance to Japan, and for the way they took the game to France, that both were withdrawn in the second half to, in Yoshida's own words, "give the defence some practice". The pair are also likely to be rested tomorrow, with the Japan coach set to field a second string in the Young Nadeshiko's final group match against the eliminated Paraguayans.

Already, in fact, Japan are looking to the latter stages, with midfielder Chiaki Shimada naming Germany as the team she would prefer to avoid - at least until the final. "They would come at us physically," she said. "But we would just need to use our skills to counteract that."

That simple tactic has certainly worked a treat so far.