As part of their ongoing preparations for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 , Japan travelled to Mexico last month to compete in the 14th Copa Chivas. The tournament, held between 3-10 February, allowed the Asian champions to gauge their progress against a very tough field and learn some valuable lessons ahead of the showpiece event in August.
Facing Central and South American opposition for the first time, the youngsters journeyed to Guadalajara, Mexico, where they were grouped with Caracas of Venezuela, Mexico's San Luis, Tahuichi of Bolivia, Once Caldas of Columbia and hosts Chivas - all prestigious clubs who fielded players a year or two their senior.
With almost six months still to go before the finals of Korea 2007, you might expect national U-17 coach Hiroshi Jofuku to be taking his foot off the accelerator a little. On the contrary. Ever since guiding Japan to victory at the AFC U-17 Championship last September , Jofuku has been putting his squad through a systematic and intense preparatory program to ensure they continue their development ahead of the finals.
Last year's triumph in Singapore may have booked Japan's place in Korea and earned them their first Asian U-17 title in 12 years, but Jofuku knows he can take nothing for granted if his team are to impose themselves on the world stage and make up for the disappointment of missing out on the last two editions of the global event. Sandwiched in between rounds of practice held at camps and at the National Training Center, the Copa Chivas was therefore the perfect opportunity for the squad to fine-tune their game ahead of the August showpiece.
The Mexico tournament also gave many squad members the chance to shine, and intensified the battles for starting berths that Jofuku initiated when he invited a group of eight new recruits to train with the team late last year.
Although the AFC Championship-winning side, most of whom have been together for two years, are expected to make up the backbone of Japan's Korea 2007 squad, the arrival of talented youngsters like forward Yuya Osako and midfielder Takuji Yonemoto has enhanced competition further and given the coach a wealth of resources to choose from.
With so shortage of tactical options available, Jofuku also used the Copa Chivas to work on his team's intelligent, fast-paced brand of football. The coach will have been satisfied with the adeptness with his players' movement on the ball in Mexico - one of the cornerstones of his playing philosophy.
Another challenge, of course, was to see how the team would perform against sophisticated and more experienced opposition. In a fascinating clash of footballing styles, the tournament pitted Japan's collective strengths of positioning and teamwork against the more pronounced individual skills of their Central and South American rivals. Battling such physically and technically gifted opponents, the Asian players gained some invaluable experience ahead of Korea 2007.
Kakitani's club commitments
As for the action itself, Japan fared extremely well, finishing undefeated in their group's round-robin games with a record of two wins and three draws, before eventually losing to Mexican side Atlas in the semi-finals. Despite the long distance travelled and the difficulty of competing against older opponents, the squad played some exceptional football, even without the services of AFC Championship MVP Yoichiro Kakitani.
The star midfielder, still the only squad member to have appeared in the J. League, had to remain in Japan with club side Cerezo Osaka. And while the Mexican experience showed there is still plenty room for improvement in the side, the coach will have undoubtedly been encouraged by the performances of the newest arrivals and the overall depth and potential of his squad.
Jofuku showed he was not averse to experimenting in Guadalajara, sending out an experimental side built around these newcomers to face Caracas in the second match. In spite of the disappointment of letting slip an early two-goal lead in a 2-2 draw on that occasion, the youngsters showed they could learn from their mistakes by holding out for an impressive 2-0 win over Once Caldas in their fifth match.