Three-time Asian champions Japan open up their AFC Asian Cup campaign against Jordan on Sunday and the continental finals will be the first real test for new coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who took over from Takeshi Okada in August. Considered to be one of the world’s most accomplished coaches, having been in charge of a host of clubs in Italy’s Serie A – including Inter Milan and Juventus - Zaccheroni is hopeful of guiding the east Asians to their fourth continental crown.
Although the Japan job marks his first as a national team coach, the Italian quickly got off to a brilliant start with a 1-0 friendly victory over a nearly full-strength Argentina side in October, before a goalless stalemate against Korea Republic. Therefore, Zaccheroni is confident of navigating his new-look team through the tournament, despite the high expectations facing them. Ahead of their opening fixture, FIFA.com caught up with the 57-year-old to hear his views on his new job, his favourites for the Asian Cup, and his ultimate goal with Japan.
FIFA.com: After spending more than two decades coaching a host of Serie A teams, why did you accept the job of coaching Japan? What were the major factors behind the decision?
Alberto Zaccheroni: Japanese football has grown so much over recent years that they are not only a major power in Asia, but also an emerging side in the world. It was Japan’s position on the football field which helped me make the decision.
How did you rate Japan’s performance during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, where they made history by reaching the second round for the first time on foreign soil?
Throughout their campaign the Japan team showed their trademark teamwork. The cohesion and harmony among the players is great and they showed they are so strong as a group.
Do you think this achievement is a pressure for you to take Japan to new heights?
No, for me it is an extra ounce of motivation rather than pressure.
Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura both played with Serie A clubs a decade ago so was that the first time that you were impressed by Japanese players?
Yes, they made me realise that Japan have good players. I’ve also noticed the progress they made in past World Cups. They function well as a team.
Is it a challenge to coach a national team for the first time? What goal have you set with Japan, either in the short or the long-term?
We will strive to achieve good results in every competition we participate in and our ultimate goal, of course, is to go to the next World Cup in Brazil.
How do you rate Japan’s chances to qualify for the next FIFA World Cup? Are you looking forward to trying to make history at Brazil 2014?
With the potential we boast in this team, we should have no problem to qualify for Brazil 2014. Our young players have improved so I am expecting, and I am confident, that in four years time we will be able to put up a good show at the World Cup.
As one of the most experienced tacticians in Italy, what can you offer Japan?
If I can pass my experience to this team, I believe that Japan will become a better team.
Are you going to employ your trademark 3-4-3 formation with Japan? As one of Asia's most creative sides, Japan have never been short of midfield talents so do you think you need to unearth more goalscorers?
To be honest, Japanese strikers are developing well. But to employ 3-4-3, we must have players who are capable of matching the job. Only when we have such players can we use this system. But this is only one of our options and I can say we have more than one card up our sleeve.
The AFC Asian Cup is your first real test. What are your hopes for the tournament?
We want to show we are a well-organised side with plenty of courage and bravery. Japan are among Asia’s top teams so we want to prove we are the continent’s best.
Besides Japan, which teams are the favourites to win the tournament?
I think Australia or a country from the Middle East will win this Asian Cup.