Courage is something which you will never find lacking in Takeshi Okada as he raised quite a few eyebrows in the build-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ when he vowed to take Japan through to the last four. Okada has again made headlines, this time in China, after announcing his latest ambition to propel Hangzhou Greentown to the top of the Chinese Super League in his first season in charge.
"My goal is to win this year's Chinese Super League title with Hangzhou," the 55-year-old Okada told FIFA.com during a pre-season training camp at Kunming.
Indeed, this is something beyond the expectations of the paymasters at a side like Hangzhou, who finished a humble eighth place in the 16-strong Chinese championship last season. And not surprisingly, question marks remain over whether Okada can defy the odds by lifting Hangzhou to their first-ever domestic title. However, if anyone has the credentials to pull off such a feat, it is Okada, who coached Japan in their first-ever FIFA World Cup at France 1998, before making history at South Africa 2010 as the Blue Samurai reached the Round of 16 for the first time on foreign soil.
"There is nothing special for me as I have coached a couple of Japanese clubs before," Okada said, reminding of his spells with Consadole Sapporo and Yokohama F Marinos before replacing Ivica Osim as Japan coach in 2007. "Besides, I want a change in my coaching career so I’ve come to China. This country is becoming increasingly important in the world in many fields like economy and I think this can create facilities for the football development."
A fearless philosophy
Okada is no stranger to Chinese football, having overseen Japan against China in the last East Asian Football Federation Championship two years ago where Gao Hongbo's side emerged the tournament winners. "For me China are always tough and difficult to play against," Okada said. "Their players are strong and also skilful, but mentality seems to be a problem for them as they usually collapse when the game reaches the most critical stage."
In a sense, what Okada identified as weaknesses for China are strengths for Japan, with the coach singling out unity and a fighting spirit as the national side’s best qualities prior to South Africa 2010. However, the ambitious tactician has ruled out trying to mirror Japan’s traits at Hangzhou.
"Of course teamwork and spirit are key elements in building any team," said Okada, who became the first Japanese coach to take the reins at a Chinese club when he signed with Hangzhou last December. "But every team is different and my job is to watch the team and come up with the strategy which fits Hangzhou in the best way."
Igniting change within a squad is nothing new to Okada, who notably defied status quo and criticism from the media in Japan by pushing CSKA Moscow playmaker Keisuke Honda from the midfield up to the front at South Africa 2010 - a tactic which later proved out to be vital to Japan’s success as the newly-converted striker struck the only goal in their opening victory over Cameroon, before opening the scoring in their 3-1 defeat of Denmark. “We (Japan) have a strong midfield because we boast a plethora of creative players. But to enhance the potency upfront we must find a goal-getter and in my eyes Honda is the first choice among the team.”
New challenges await
Okada stepped down as Japan coach after the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, but the team has continued on their road to new-found success under Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni, winning gold in last year’s AFC Asian Cup and reaching Asia’s final qualifying round for Brazil 2014 with two games to spare.
Having witnessed his country’s consistent progress over the past decade, Okada has no doubt in Japan’s ability to continue to break new ground on the global stage. “Given our second-round performance two years ago, Japan should be capable of going one better in Brazil,” Okada said firmly.
Asked to comment on their achievement in South Africa, Okada shook his head. “I never look back as the previous success is already gone. Now I focus on my job in China and I want new success with Hangzhou.”