The task facing the Japanese in their FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003 quarter-final clash with Brazil will be far from a simple one. Yasuyuki Konno, captain of the Asian outfit, knows that the match will be no stroll in the park, but courtesy of their last-gasp victory over their Korean cousins in the previous round, the Consadole Sapporo defensive midfielder and his cohorts have procured the kind of confidence that moves mountains. They are sure to need all of it and more...
Beating Korea Republic has always held particular resonance for Japan. Eternal rivals from the Asian continent, the two teams are consistently locked in a tussle not only for regional supremacy but also to become the first Asian side to enter the pantheon of the world’s footballing elite. In winning 2-1 at the last sixteen stage after chasing the game, the Japanese are now the sole Far Eastern representative left in the Emirates. “The Koreans played really well in the first half, but we were the better side overall, so it was us who won,” is Konno’s matter-of-fact assessment.
He also readily admits that the humiliating memory of defeat in the final of the AFC Championship in October 2002 (1:0) has now been assuaged. “We’ve been out for revenge since that final. It certainly helped us, as we were desperate to show that it was nothing more than a hiccup.”
The Japanese squad touched down in the Emirates with their confidence sky-high, only to receive an ice-cold shower in the form of a drubbing dished out by Colombia (4-1). “Our hopes were high coming into this World Championship, but at the start of the tournament, we experienced a few problems, down to nerves mainly. As a result, we’re already over the moon to have reached the quarter-finals, but we’ll still be looking to go as far as we possibly can,” explains Konno.
But if they are to progress farther in the finals, the small hurdle of Brazil must first be overcome, a Seleçao whose record against Asian teams at the World Youth Championship makes impressive reading: nine wins in 10 attempts, with an average goals per game ratio of 4.3… “Brazil are a very big team, so if we beat them, we will be thrust into the limelight. It gives us added motivation to win the match,” reasons the positive-minded midfielder.
Hit them on the counter
He is, however, aware that Japan will be very much the outsiders - a fact which does not necessarily faze him due to the tactical possibilities presented. “We will probably have to do more defending than in previous matches, so we’ll need to be more patient and rely on the counter-attack. The solution will be to play fast,” he underlines. But the adoption of these restrained tactics notwithstanding, the Japanese will truly need to play out of their skins if they are to pull off an unlikely victory. It is precisely this stark message that the captain has been hammering into his teammates in the build-up to the clash: “I keep telling the players to maintain the discipline instilled in us by our coach, which has served us so well since the start of the event. But I’m also emphasising that every man must give 100%.”
Lining up against him will be attacking midfielder Daniel Carvalho, one of the revelations of the tournament, about whom all observers have been fulsome in their praise. In his capacity as defensive midfielder, this admirer of Claude Makelele will be called upon to stifle the light of this South American will o’ the wisp. “He is an excellent player, so I’ll be concentrating on defensive duties, trying to stop him expressing himself,” he declares with a steely determination.
This young man, who came into football almost by chance when he half-heartedly accompanied his best friend to a training session, is starting to show considerable maturity. He certainly has one eye fixed firmly on the future. “My ultimate aim is to play in the next World Cup. I want to keep on improving, thereby attracting the attention of the big foreign clubs,” he dreams out loud.
But more pressing concerns quickly drag him back down to earth, to the United Arab Emirates to be precise, where he not unreasonably hopes to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors, who journeyed all the way to the Final in 1999. “What the youth team achieved in 1999 was truly remarkable, but I believe we can do even better than them,” he declares with no shortage of youthful optimism. It is his own special way of letting his ambitions for the tournament be known: victory in the Final, no less.