According to Japan Football Association (JFA) Vice-President Kohzo Tashima, the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 will be a crucial barometer for Japan’s development programmes, as well as an eye-opening experience for young players with ambitions of playing for the senior Samurai Blue.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Tashima said the event would be a success, but stressed that winning was not the prime objective for the young Japanese: “I’m sure the UAE Football Association will host a superb tournament. Of course we want to win, but I don’t think we should focus excessively on the results.”
Japan’s U-17 squad completed their final domestic training camp this month. At the start of the camp, coach Hirofumi Yoshitake urged his charges to embrace the challenge that awaits them.
“This World Cup is not the end goal for you, it’s a chance to acquire some invaluable experience,” said the man who guided Japan to the quarter-finals in 2011. “Let’s work hard and prepare thoroughly so we go as far as we can at this tournament.”
Tashima has been at the forefront of efforts to nurture Japanese coaches and players since the 1990s and was in charge of the U-17 team at the 2001 tournament. He hopes the 2013 event could unearth the next star to follow in the footsteps of Manchester United attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa and Inter Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo.
He said: “The U-17 World Cup will be the first major tournament at which our players can gauge the level of players from other countries, so it’ll be an invaluable learning experience.
“It will have a huge influence on the players and the teams as a whole. Japan is a geographically isolated island nation, so we don’t get many chances to regularly play strong opponents at this age grade. This World Cup will show us where we stand on a global level, which is very important. Our players will find out what they need to do to be competitive, which will help their development immensely.
“Of course we want to win, but the most important thing is that the players perform as hard as they can and ascertain how they stack up against players from overseas. I don’t think we should focus excessively on the results. If we play to our strengths and show our excellent skills, that will help the players grow further and improve.”
This summer, the Japan U-17s participated in tournaments at home and abroad, including the International Youth Tournament of Vaclav Jezek in Czech Republic, where they finished sixth. After Japan’s final game, a 3-0 defeat to Turkey, Yoshitake demanded his players take the initiative more at UAE 2013. “I want you to impose our style of football on the game and work together as a team,” he stated at the time.
How much progress the team has made in this regard will be revealed at UAE 2013, where Japan have been grouped with Tunisia, Russia and Venezuela.
An eye to the future
For Tashima’s part, he believes Japan’s development programmes are producing players that will ensure the long-term success of football in this country. “We want to be a world-class football nation, so we have structures in place that can be tailored to nurture and strengthen individual players of different ages,” he said.
Rather than building completely separate teams at different age groups, these programmes aim to develop players that can slot in seamlessly at higher age levels and a brand of football that will remain constant, even if coaches are changed.
“A feature of Japanese football is retaining possession, and using quick passing and movement when attacking down the flanks and in front of goal,” explained Tashima. “I think we’ve established a style of football, and we’ve forged our basic skills based on a spirit of industriousness and never giving up. We can also be proud of our adherence to fair play.”
Most of Japan’s U-17 squad will likely have come through J.League academy programmes, which are the envy of clubs in Asia and around the world. Among the extended squad that attended a training camp this month were players from the youth teams of Urawa Reds, Gamba Osaka, Kashiwa Reysol and Sanfrecce Hiroshima – all clubs that have previously reached editions of the FIFA Club World Cup. Players selected for UAE 2013 will attend a training camp from 7 October in order to prepare for the opening game against Russia on 18 October.
What is more, it is worth remembering here that Japan’s professional league kicked off only 20 years ago. In the early 1990s, the JFA overhauled its youth development and coach-training programmes and the launch of the J.League marked a crucial turning point.
Tashima commented: “It meant young players could aspire to become professional footballers, and it completely changed their attitude toward the game.”
These efforts were complemented by moves to strengthen the national team ahead of 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. The opening of the JFA academy in Fukushima in 2006 was followed by similar institutes in Kumamoto and Osaka that are dedicated to grooming elite players.
Japan’s transformation from a footballing minnow to an Asian giant began in earnest in 1960, when West German Dettmar Cramer was brought in to be the national team coach. Since then, Japan has learned from footballing powers such as Germany, France and Spain about player development, training and establishing a professional league. Could the extensive resources poured into Japanese football development since the 1990s be about to bear further fruit on pitches of the Emirates?