Takeshi Okada took over the Japanese national team reins for a second time last December, replacing Ivica Osim who suffered a serious stroke. The 51-year-old former Japan international is best remembered for guiding his country to their first-ever FIFA World Cup™ finals at France 1998, and his new task is simple: guide the Japanese to their fourth successive appearance on the world stage at South Africa 2010.
In the run-up to their crucial qualifier with Bahrain on 26 March, FIFA.com caught up with the coach to talk about his first months back in the job, the team's recent form, and their chances of earning one of Asia's tickets to South Africa.
FIFA.com: Takeshi, you've had some good results in your
first games in charge, including a 4-0 win over Thailand.
What's your next goal?
Takeshi Okada: We are currently focusing on preparing the team fully for our next World Cup qualifier against Bahrain, where we will play away in Manama on March 26th. Our target is to obtain three points, of course.
How do your rate the team's performance in the recent
EAFF (East Asian Football Federation) Championship, where you
finished second behind Korea Republic?
The result was a bit disappointing because we traveled to Chongqing aiming to win the whole thing. But the players did their best and they worked very hard in the training camp before. We went undefeated in all three games, and that's a good sign suggesting that we have made progress and we can still improve.
What are your expectations for Atsuto Uchida and the other
young players who have impressed in recent matches?
I hope these young players will continue to work hard and make progress. As long as they perform actively and positively, they will be more than capable of making their mark in the team.
Koji Yamase played well in the EAFF Championship, finishing
joint top-scorer. Has he done enough to secure a regular place in
Yamase is unquestionably an excellent player and his recent performances underline his overall potential. However, every player must compete for a place in the team and he will be no exception. The place is there for the taking.
So far you have not had access to stars like Shunsuke
Nakamura and Naohiro Takahara. Will they be available for the
qualifier against Bahrain?
We judge a player only based on his form and fitness. So not only Nakamura and Takahara, but all the players who failed to feature in the team for the EAFF Championship have a chance to earn their place in the squad. It all depends on their situation, not their name.
After beating Thailand, which of your remaining rivals will
pose the biggest threat: Oman or Bahrain?
I think both Oman and Bahrain are formidable foes and we can't afford to underestimate them. Even Thailand will be strong when they play at home in the searing heat of Bangkok.
June will be a crucial month for your team. With four
matches in the space of 20 days, what is your strategy to cope with
the gruelling schedule?
Obviously we must get the team ready for the tough matches both mentally and physically. We also need to make adjustments to our tactical approach based on the specific rival we meet. But most of all we have to unite the team closely for one common cause: reaching the next stage.
With Australia involved for the first time, do you think
Japan can remain a dominant force in the Asian Zone preliminaries
and reach the finals?
Just as I don't think Japan are footballing superpowers in Asia, I never underestimate our team either. I believe what we are doing now is necessary and the team is on the right track, one which leads to South Africa.
How do you prepare the team for the next test in Bahrain?
The heat in Manama will be tough for us but we will make sure we are ready to deal with it. A training camp will be conducted in a country close to Bahrain, with a similar climate, so we will be fully adjusted before the game.