Despite winning the AFC U-17 Championship in 1994, Japan missed out on the last two editions of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Coming into this year's Asian Championship, the task for coach Hiroshi Jofuku was therefore to secure a top-four finish at all costs and claim a berth at next year's showpiece event in Korea Republic. In the end, his players did the job in style, bringing the U-17 continental crown back to Japan's shores once again.
Japan faced some arduous challenges en route to winning the 17th edition of the AFC U-17 Championship, hosted by Singapore. Yet even in the quarter-final against Iran, with a ticket to next year's FIFA U-17 World Cup riding on the outcome, Jofuku's squad stayed true to his vision of creative, attacking football with the emphasis on rapid ball and player movement. A Japanese brand of football became more distinct with each passing match, while the squad also showed remarkable progress in their mental approach and teamwork. Their ultimate reward on this occasion was Japan's second Asian U-17 crown, but they will be looking for even greater glory on the world stage.
Japan's group at the Asian U-17 Championship included Nepal, Korea Republic and hosts Singapore. Forced to settle for a point after some tenacious defending by Singapore after getting the better of Nepal in their opening game, victory over Korea Republic allowed them to advance to the last eight as group winners.
In the quarter-final, Japan came face to face with Iran, powerful opponents whose individual skills were rated by coach Jofuku as the best in the tournament. Knowing defeat would spell an end to their world championship hopes for another two years, Japan made a cautious start to the match and although they eventually took the lead, Jofuku's charges failed to close the game out and allowed the battling Iranians to equalise in the 83rd minute. In the end, penalties were needed to separate the sides and, after several misses from both sides, Japan finally prevailed with their 12th spot kick.
Brimming with confidence after toppling the formidable Iranians, Jofuku's side then dispatched Syria 2-0 in the last four. In the final itself, Japan found themselves 2-0 down to Korea DPR at half-time, but the belief the coach had instilled in his troops then shone through as they mounted a ferocious comeback in the second half. In the 56th minute, Yoichiro Kakitani pulled one back in style, then in the 77th minute, substitute Jin Hanato ran onto a through ball from Kakitani to level the score. That sent the match into extra time, during which Hiroki Kawano gave Japan the lead for the first time before Kawano put the result beyond doubt with his second to secure a dramatic 4-2 win and the Asian Championship.
Hiroshi Jofuku was appointed Japan U-17 coach in 2003. He took up a coaching position at FC Tokyo in the J-League's top flight in 1999, taking charge of the club's youth development programme the following year. It was at that time he also started working as a coach at Japan's national training centres, an experience that would give him a thorough grounding in managing youngsters. Jofuku was especially impressed and inspired by Ivica Osim, the current coach of the senior Japan team. When Osim was still in charge at JEF United Chiba, Jofuku saw his approach as the best possible fit for Japanese players. The coach then set about trying to create a team that would perform at a consistently high level regardless of the opposition, and his reward was Japan's first victory in 12 years at the AFC U-17 championship.
Yoichiro Kakitani, a Cerezo Osaka midfielder whose dazzling play won him the Most Valuable Player award at this year's AFC U-17 Championship, is the only member of Japan's U-17 national team to have a professional contract. He appeared in five of Japan's six matches in Singapore and was at the heart of the Japanese attack, scoring four goals.
* Quarter-finalists at Japan 1993
* Failed to progress beyond the group stage at Ecuador 1995
* Failed to progress beyond the group stage at Trinidad 2001
"I told my players never to give up and to play their own game. We just got better and better with each match. We aim to play the game the Japanese way, and we'll play our hearts out to make Japan and Asia proud at next year's FIFA U-17 World Cup." (Japan coach Hiroshi Jofuku, speaking after his team's victory against Korea DPR in the AFC U-17 Championship final in Singapore)