When Zico joined Japanese club Kashima Antlers in 1991, at the ripe old age of 38, he was approaching the end of a glorious playing career in which he had excelled for Brazil, Flamengo and Udinese. As it turned out, however, that adventure in the Far East proved to be much more than a footnote. Such was the empathy and depth of feeling between the No10 and country that it transformed his life and marked a new beginning for Japanese football.
As a key player in the professionalisation of the J.League, and then as Samurai Blue coach, Zico built up a very close relationship with Japan. He showed his deep affection for the country once more last Friday, in helping to organise O Jogo da Solidariedade (The Solidarity Match) in Curitiba, the proceeds of which went to the victims of both the natural disasters which devastated Japan last month and the recent floods in the Brazilian state of Parana.
The fund-raising match between the Friends of Japan, featuring the likes of Dunga, Careca and Romario, and the Friends of Parana, represented by Zetti, Rai and Paulo Rink to name but a few, ended in an entertaining 5-5 draw. Just before kick-off, FIFA.com got the chance to speak to Zico about the charity initiative and his special bond with Japan.
FIFA.com: Zico, the football community is rallying behind the people of Parana and Japan. Do you think the sport can really help the victims of tragedies like these?
Zico: Yes, of course I do. It’s a way for the players to repay all the support and affection they’ve received during the season and over the course of their careers. It’s great to be able to help at tough times like this. Kashima has just invited me to promote a match in June between their star players and a J.League All-Star team. All the gate money from that match will also be going to the victims.
Have you been in touch with any football people in Japan since the disaster, and have you been impressed by the country’s reaction to events?
Yes, I’m regularly in touch with the people at Kashima, especially my interpreter. Everyone knows about the powers of recovery of the Japanese people, and once again they’re showing that strength and discipline of theirs. We know it’s going to take time, but what else can you do? They’re going to recover from this.
You have very strong ties with Japanese football, going all the way back to the 1990s, when you helped pioneer the sport’s revival there and the move towards professionalism, becoming a hero in the process. How did all that come about?
My aim when I went there was to help them make the change from amateurism to professionalism. That was why I went. But there was something in my character that identified with Japanese culture, with their sense of discipline, the desire to succeed and their determination, and I think all that contributed to the connection that there was. I earned people’s trust and doors started opening, which allowed me to do my job.
The initial idea was for you to promote the game in Japan, so how did they persuade you to start playing again?
I knew when I went to sign that they wanted me to play, but I made it clear during the negotiations that I wanted to stop playing and that I was set on being a coach or something like that. And when I got there I saw that the difference in class was so big that I could play even at 60 per cent of my ability. So that's what made my mind up, and in the end I didn't have any problems with my knees. It all worked out fine. I was the leading scorer in the second division, we finished runners-up and won promotion to the professional league. It was a very positive experience. They could see how committed I was and the hard work we were putting in.
How did Kashima develop from that point on?
We outlined a structure for them and they put it in place, and things went on from there. Kashima have since become a big club, winning more titles and matches than anyone else, and I feel very proud to have helped start all that.
In 2002 you assumed the Japan reins in what was your first coaching job. What was that like?
It was a very rewarding experience and marked the start of my coaching career. I took it on because I knew Japanese football pretty much inside out. They were very grateful to me and that’s why I accepted the job. I did it for them and it was something I just couldn’t turn down. You experience things on a day-to-day basis when you’re not playing. You get to experience the culture and that stood me in very good stead.
During your tenure Japan won the AFC Asian Cup in 2004 and reached the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. How would you assess your time in the post?
I think the results were pretty good, apart from the World Cup, when we lost our opening game to Australia. That proved to be a turning point. We had a disastrous eight-minute spell against them and I’m sure we would have got through if we’d held on in that game (Japan lost 3-1 after leading 1-0 with six minutes remaining, and they eventually finished bottom of their group). A lot of the players in the team I put together were in the starting XI in 2010, and I’m happy to have made that contribution. They’ve just won the Asian Cup again, with the skipper Makoto Hasebe lifting the trophy. He was one of the players I brought into the team.
Finally, do you have a message of support for the people of Japan?
My message is for them to keep on showing that togetherness, that solidarity and that strength. Sadly, it’s a country where nature tends to cause a lot of problems, and it’s important that they stay on their guard and are ready to tackle situations like this.