At the Final Draw for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 in Toronto, Asian heavyweights Japan were handed a tough assignment when they were pooled in Group F with African powers Nigeria, European runners-up Scotland and Central American stalwarts Costa Rica.
Now, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Japan coach Yasushi Yoshida talks openly about his squad's progress, their chances of emerging from a difficult group and his own passion for FIFA's premier youth tournament.
In his time at the Japanese Football Association, the former winger has earned a reputation for spotting and bringing on talented youngsters. Many of the current stars of the Japan senior team, including Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Yoshida, an experienced, battle-hardened manager whose approach combines meticulous preparation and ambitious planning.
With the disappointment of losing to rivals Korea DPR in last year's AFC Youth Championship Final now firmly behind him, Yoshida is eagerly looking forward to guiding a new generation of Japanese youngsters into the country's seventh straight FIFA U-20 World Cup this summer.
FIFA.com: The current squad has been together for two
years. How ready are they for the FIFA U-20 World Cup?
Yasushi Yoshida: We're about 60 percent there. The next stage in our preparation takes us to Portugal in April, when we'll be taking part in an international tournament. Then comes the Toulon Tournament in France at the end of May, which will allow us to sharpen our play significantly before heading off to Canada.
In terms of preparation, is this where you expected to be
at this stage in proceedings?
If we measure ourselves against the current standards of world youth football, then I feel that we still have some way to go before we can compete evenly with the best teams. I judge our boys against the greatest young footballers from around the world, and I want them to develop so they can take hold of a game like, say, Alexandre Pato from Brazil.
Speaking of potential match-winners, it has been said that
this Japan team are short on impact players. Is that an opinion you
share, especially now that striker Sota Hirayama is playing for the
If you compare this side to previous U-20 ones, I'd say that there are just as many influential players. But it does make it difficult when players step up to the next level and we can no longer select them. Tsukasa Umesaki and Akihiro Hayashi have been called up to the senior squad, and Yohei Fukumoto, Yasuhito Morishima and Atsuto Uchida have been picked for the U-22 team. There are also players with commitments to clubs overseas. Other countries' sides do not always have this kind of situation, so I guess in that respect we're somewhat restricted.
Even so, Japan have traditionally done well at the FIFA
U-20 World Cup , advancing to the knockout stages at five of the
last six tournaments. In your opinion, does that make getting out
of the group the minimum requirement this year?
Advancing to the knockout rounds is, of course, our first target. After that, it's just a matter of taking each match as it comes. But looking at how we scraped through in 2003 and 2005, we definitely can't take the group stage for granted. Every side will be battling hard, and I'm expecting all of our opponents to be formidable. Going a long way in the tournament is not the only criteria, however. We must also remember we're here to provide young players with a very special experience - one which will hopefully benefit them well into the future.
How then do you find the right balance between winning
matches and developing players? In particular, how will you address
these two often-conflicting goals at this summer's
I think players must learn how to win matches in order for them to grow fully as footballers. However, I don't believe in changing our system because of our opponents. As a unit, we're very well organised, and I'm very interested to see how far we can go by sticking to the basics. If we play our own style of football, we can really try to reach our full potential. We'll still get a lot out of this summer's tournament, regardless of how many matches we win.
You have stuck with a 4-4-2 formation these last two years.
How do you respond to those who criticise the lack of variation in
I think it's best to keep a strict system in place for players in this age group. U-20s do not yet have the necessary practical skills and tactical awareness, so I prefer to simplify things and stress overall team play. Too much variation will just complicate things and cause confusion.
That said, you have shown a willingness to try out new
players. Can you tell us why you invited 40 youngsters to your
first training camp this year?
Players this age develop very rapidly. The J. League has just kicked off again, and this will enable many youngsters to take the next step forward. On top of that, for many different reasons, we'll field a very different side in Canada to the one we sent out last November at the AFC Youth Championship. The team we bring to the finals will be made up of whoever is playing the best football at that time.
What is different about this generation of
This is the first group of players in Japan to have grown up watching world football and the J. League from an early age. Most of the youngsters here have lofty ambitions for themselves and many dream of playing for clubs overseas. This is a real blessing since it motivates them to work extremely hard and helps them become more aware of the world around them.