In the group stages of this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE, just two teams accrued maximum points by winning all three of their matches: Brazil and Japan. While the former achieved this feat with a whirlwind of attacking football, the latter went about their business in a more understated, yet equally effective manner.
And while football is first and foremost a show, it is also by definition a team game and Japan coach Hirofumi Yoshitake has taken this part of the sport to new heights. The Asian side are the only team to have used every member of their squad and still successfully reach the second stage of the competition.
Furthermore, it was not simply a case of their coach waiting until qualification was guaranteed to rotate his charges. “It’s been my policy for many years,” Yoshitake explained, speaking to FIFA.com in a lengthy interview. “Rotation is part of my system: personally I think it’s more risky to always play the same players than it is to swap them often.
"I prepare my teams so that everybody can play together and I don’t have a designated captain - every player could wear the armband,” he went on, his final point demonstrated in Japan’s previous match against Tunisia, where he readily handed the captaincy to third-choice goalkeeper Mizuki Hayashi.
Teacher and students
By implementing these methods, the former math teacher gives entirely equal opportunities to his young charges. Yet despite this generosity the coach always demands more from his players even when things are going well. “We have made a lot of errors," he said. "But football is a sport of errors and my job is to limit the number we make. My methodology is to prepare each of my players in an identical manner and then select those who are in the best condition. Ultimately, I prioritise current form over other factors.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Yoshitake’s previous teaching experience has ensured that he knows his group extremely well: “My former students were teens aged 14 to 16. That experience helped me to better understand this generation – to appreciate their mentality, to know how they think, what they want and what they like,” he continued.
Initially the squad of 21 present in the United Arab Emirates were all part of a group of 200 young players observed over the course of their side’s path to qualification and filtered according to precise criteria: “Of course, physical and technical qualities were key deciding factors,” Yoshitake revealed.
“What I look for above all, however, are strong mental attributes. I chose players that I can rely upon, players with the right mentality and a real team spirit. I put a lot of stock into the importance of discipline. I want each of my players to be able to count on their team-mates, to show a willingness to give their life for each other if necessary,” he added with a laugh.
When it came to developing his footballing philosophy, Yoshitake has several mentors of his own: “The team that inspired me the most was Johan Cryuff’s Netherlands in the 1970s. I’ve also learned a lot from watching Barcelona. They’re a reference point for many people but it’s their educational system that really interests me - the way they instil their style of play in all age groups.”
Learning from the past
Having also coached Japan at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011, the tactician aimed to draw lessons from that previous experience: “The biggest lesson for me was that our level of football wasn’t yet strong enough to rival the world-class teams,” he admitted.
“That’s perhaps still the case today but now I know that no matter how strong the top teams are, they always have a weakness. They try to hide it and implement strategies which will highlight their strengths. And that’s also what we’re trying to do.”
This time around, the coach has also spent plenty of time meticulously studying their potential adversaries: “I’ve been impressed by the African teams with their quick, powerful players. It’d be interesting to see how our style of play would function against Nigeria or Côte d'Ivoire,” he pondered aloud, before considering another would-be opponent.
“Brazil are a strong, skillful side. Having lost 3-2 against them in the quarter-finals two years ago it would be very interesting to face them to see what progress we have made since.”
In order to set up another encounter with the South American side, Yoshitake and his players would have to fulfill their ambition of reaching the tournament’s final. To do that, however, they will first have to see off Sweden in the Round of 16 in Sharjah this coming Monday 28 October.