Takeshi Okada is popularly considered one of his country’s all-time greatest coaches. In his second spell in the Japan hot-seat since 2007, the 53-year-old’s achievements include winning back-to-back J.League titles with Yokohama Marinos and easing the Samurai Blue through South Africa 2010 qualifying.
Okada was a versatile defender during his playing days, renowned more for his clever reading of the game than his ferocity in the tackle. He represented Furukawa Electric - now known as JEF United - for ten years from 1980, and won 24 caps for Japan, representing them in their fruitless mission to reach Mexico 1986.
When Okada hung up his boots in 1990, he became part of his only club’s backroom staff. He spent a year in Germany, studying coaching methods in a nation that has produced a plethora of brilliant tacticians, before retuning to his homeland.
There, he became assistant to Japan coach Shu Kamo in 1995, but when the latter was sacked two years later in the midst of their France 1998 qualifying campaign, Okada was handed the reins. He responded by guiding them to a place at the FIFA World Cup for the very first time, via a 3-2 play-off victory over Iran in Malaysia.
Japan suffered three single-goal defeats, by Argentina, eventual bronze medalists Croatia and Jamaica at the global finals, and Okada quit following the tournament.
Okada’s next assignment was with Consadole Sapporo, whose promotion into the Japanese top flight he masterminded in 2000. His progress alerted a number of prestigious clubs and, despite the pressure he knew he’d be under, he assumed the controls at Yokohama Marinos, one of Asia’s biggest clubs, in 2003.
Okada’s time in Japan’s largest incorporated city was an overwhelming success. He led Yokohama to successive J.League titles in 2003 and 2004, and was named the tournament’s best coach at the end of both seasons. He left the Marinos in 2006.
When a sudden illness forced Japan coach Ivica Osim to resign the following year, the Japanese Football Association didn’t hesitate to court Okada. He accepted the post once again.
Grouped with Australia, Bahrain, Qatar and Uzbekistan in the final round of Asian Zone qualifying for South Africa 2010, Okada decided to use a defensive approach. After beating Bahrain in their opener, however, consecutive home draws with Uzbekistan and Australia prompted the press to question the Osaka native’s tactics.
Okada took the criticism on the chin and let subsequent results do his talking. And on 6 June 2009, a 1-0 reverse of Bahrain made Japan the first team to qualify for the 19th edition of the FIFA World Cup.
Rather than play down Japan’s chances of success in South Africa, as is perennially the norm, Okada has repeatedly stated the same towering ambition. "Our target is to reach the last four," he declared.
"We have a tough group but we will not change our target. I said I wanted to shock the world. If South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002, then why can’t we this year?"