Jofuku: Japan ready for Korea

Japan head to the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 ready to take on the best youth teams in the world. Always well-prepared, committed and highly organised, the influence of head coach Hiroshi Jofuku, at the helm since January 2005, is there for all to see.

In guiding Japan to last year's AFC U-17 Championship title, the nation's first in 12 years, and with it an automatic berth at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007, coach Hiroshi Jofuku has shown tremendous vision and leadership to reverse the fortunes of a team that missed out on the previous two world finals. Once on Korean soil, his side must face France, Nigeria and Haiti in a very difficult opening round.

Clearly determined and eagerly awaiting the big kick-off, Jofuku sat down with to discuss his thoughts on the competition, his team's current form and his squad's preparations for Korea 2007. Having qualified for Japan's first FIFA U-17 World Cup since Trinidad and Tobago 2001, it sounds like you have a special group of youngsters on your hands. Besides being from a generation that has grown up watching the J. League, what else is different about these players?
Hiroshi Jofuku: The overall conditions for playing football in Japan have improved dramatically in recent years. From a very young age, this generation could take training on grass pitches for granted. This has allowed them to acquire certain skills at a much earlier age.

This group of players in particular are very determined and are extremely cool-headed. From the AFC U-17 Championship qualifiers onwards, they had to battle through many difficult ties. Even though there was always the pressure of being in a make-or-break situation, the squad's most influential players showed tremendous desire and carried the rest of the team on their shoulders. The side improved with every match and it was remarkable to see them stay so relaxed throughout the whole campaign. Their ability to keep cool at even the most crucial moments continues to impress me. Thanks in part to the experience of having come through some really tough matches, this team, unlike previous U-17 squads, stay calm under pressure and are able to produce their best football.

For the group stage, you have been drawn against both France and Nigeria - two powerful teams you came up against at the same stage of Trinidad and Tobago 2001. You also played Nigeria at June's Eight Nations International U-17 Tournament in Korea and were beaten 5-0. Do you think your players are intimidated by the task ahead?
We've definitely been placed in a very tough group. With the exception of France, our other group opponents finished first in their regional qualifiers. Even so, it can't hurt to have an attitude that says "let's just go for it!" Whether the players themselves are intimidated or not, I really don't know. As for the coaching staff, we all feel pretty grateful that the team received a drubbing like that in June. I can't see us ever losing by a five-goal margin again. Nobody knows for sure what's going to happen in Korea, but we should carry ourselves in a way that tells the world to "just wait and see!"

You have said before that the first match in each tournament is pivotal. Does that mean your training sessions over the next few days will be geared mostly towards Haiti, your first opponents at Korea 2007?
No, not really. We will continue with the same type of training we have used all along. Focusing too much on what the other team are doing would just undermine all of the positive things we have achieved up to this point. It is important to practice how to contend with certain opponents and we do include exercises to help the squad react better to the opposition. I think though, as a head coach, it's very difficult to decide how much training should be allocated to counter-measures like these. While we don't conduct any specific drills to counteract a given opponent, we do make positional changes as needed. Verbally, we also stress various points to the players.

Ever since the side first came together, you have used the same style of "quick-movement football" that is championed by senior head coach Ivica Osim. It is worth pointing out, though, that you adopted this style quite some time ago.
For many years, I have been a fan of "quick-movement football." Despite lacking in physical size, teams such as Argentina and Mexico have used it to completely control matches. When I was named head coach in January 2005, Osim was managing J. League club JEF United Chiba. At that time, JEF were playing a really impressive brand of football. Then, I received a big lift last year when Osim was appointed senior head coach after the FIFA World Cup. I felt more assured than ever that I was using the right style of play.

Speaking of the senior team, what was it like to watch them in last month's Asia Cup?
I put myself right into the action and thought about what I would do in various situations. I imagined I was standing at the side of the pitch calling the shots but, instead of considering what Osim should do, I wondered what my own players would do. I thought about which member of the U-17 team I would call on at certain times and what instructions I would give. I asked myself, for example, who could neutralise Saudi Arabia's powerful front two.

Then, at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, the Japan U-20 team played some really wonderful football. How did it feel to see them perform so well?
Our whole team were passionately cheering them on. The way they played had a significant effect on all of us. The U-20 team set out to make the tournament their own and they enjoyed every minute of it. Afterwards, I met with head coach Yasushi Yoshida and I could tell he was very pleased with how much his players achieved. It's a shame they lost on penalties in the Round of 16, but it was great to see them give everything to try to win. The members of my squad are now saying that they too will play with the same level of passion. Some of the lads have also vowed that we'll do even better than the U-20 team. I should probably tell them that such a feat cannot be accomplished quite as easily as they think.

Finally, can you share with us your goals for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007?
I hope all of my players make use of what they've learned up to now and give 110 per cent to the cause. With that level of commitment, I want to see just how far we can go when competing against the rest of the world. We must take control of our matches and look to advance past the group stage. It would be great to keep on winning after that too, so we could return to Japan with our heads held very high.