Legendary Japanese striker Kunishige Kamamoto played a vital role in Japan's bronze medal-winning performance at the 1968 Olympic Games, one of the country's proudest footballing moments, and remains the Samurai Blue's all-time leading scorer with 73 goals to his name. For many Japanese football fans, Kamamoto is the best striker the East Asian nation has ever produced. Now serving as vice-president of the Japan Football Association (JFA), Kamamoto was head of the Japanese delegation at Germany 2006.
In an exclusive interview with FIFAworldcup.com, Kamamoto discusses the factors behind Japan's disappointing showing on German soil. He also summarises the challenges and prospects for Japanese and Asian football in general, and gives his personal verdict on the tournament so far..
FIFAworldcup.com: Let's start with Germany 2006. Japan were knocked out at the group stage. Looking back, how would you rate their performance?
They were in a tough group, it's true, but it's such a shame that they weren't able to perform to their full potential and ended up with just one point from their three games. We need to investigate the causes carefully and bear them in mind in the future.
Upon stepping down as Japan coach, Zico said: 'The problem with Japan is that even if they have the ability, they can't reproduce it consistently. And at Germany 2006, I could really see the difference in physique. Something has to be done about that before Japan can hope to compete on equal terms with the best in the game.' A number of reasons have been put forward as factors that contributed to Japan's failure. What is your opinion on the matter?
There are indeed differences in physique, although it's not just about that. My impression was that the Japanese players lacked physical strength, and there's a link between that and the failure of individual players to display their technique. So I think Zico was right with his comments. We've spent years plotting ways to strengthen Japanese football and one of the constant themes has been the need to consider the difference in physique. Yet in spite of that, in terms of physique the Japanese team is clearly no closer to coping than it was four years ago. We need to analyse this failure and come up with appropriate steps to address the matter from now on.
At Germany 2006, the Japanese forwards and their poor finishing skills were subjected to close scrutiny by media in Japan and around the world. This has been an issue in Japan for years now. As the country's all-time top scorer, how do you feel about these opinions and the subject they address?
As a forward your job is to spearhead the attack and score goals. That's the unique role of a striker. For at least ten years people in Japan have been debating why we don't seem to be able to nurture players who can perform that role. One problem may be a failure to fully explain to players how they should practise. This isn't simply a problem for the team coach. We have a lot of good players in midfield. To make it as a midfielder the skills you need include smart ball control and solid passing, and now midfield has become the most popular position in Japan. But to win a game you have to score goals. The success of the midfield depends on who's up front, and we don't have any true battlers in the front line. I regard that as possibly the biggest problem confronting Japan right now.
It looks as if Ivica Osim may succeed Zico as coach of the national team. What are your hopes for Japan from now on?
The situation regarding the next coach is still unclear. I don't have any specific expectations of the national team or the new coach. Instead, my hope is that players who want to represent Japan in the future will take a good look at what happened at Germany 2006 and think about how they need to improve in order to succeed at this level and in this environment. They've got to understand just how fierce, tough and fast the best football is. I want players to discover for themselves what they have to do in order to be able to fight and succeed in those conditions.
Tell me what you thought of the Asian teams' showing this time around.
Everyone battled through difficulties and learned a lot in their matches on the road to Germany 2006, but that was strictly in the Asian context and at the Asian level. Unless Asian teams can raise their game a notch above that level, then they're simply not going to be able to defeat teams from Europe. The other three Asian teams all had players with outstanding technical ability but I came away with the feeling that they're still not quite there. You don't see eleven Asian players transformed into a daunting fighting unit. They should feel they must win. They should insist on winning. But something's lacking.