Cooling expectations is, to a majority of 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™-bound coaches, part and parcel of their job. Not Takeshi Okada.
Indeed, as soon had his Japan side qualified for the competition, the 53-year-old raised the bar by targeting a place in the semi-finals – depths the country have never reached. And although he and his side have come in for criticism in the seven months thereafter, Okada is standing by his words.
“I said I wanted to shock the world,” he said recently. “If South Korea reached the semi-finals, [Korea Republic reached the last four in 2002], then why can’t we?”
The man who made history by guiding Japan to their FIFA World Cup debut at France 1998, and who inspired Yokohama F Marinos to the Japanese title in 2003 and 2004, is confident he has the key to success in South Africa.
“Motivation is the key for the players who want to make it to our World Cup squad,” Okada said. “We will only pick players who are serious about giving it their best shot and trying to reach the semi-finals.”
I said I wanted to shock the world. If South Korea reached the semi-finals, then why can’t we?
Okada cut a determined figure during December’s Final Draw in Cape Town, where Japan were pitted against African giants Cameroon, 1992 European champions Denmark and the Netherlands, who boast an unblemished record against Asian opponents. That was not enough to dilute the former defender’s confidence.
“We will never change our last-four target, regardless of the opponents,” he told FIFA.com. “Our ambition does not just come from me but from all the players and staff. We have prepared against European teams for a long time and we are determined to defeat them. So this is not too bad a draw and it provides with us a chance to realise our goal.”
Okada nevertheless realises that his charges must improve in order to make the semi-finals in South Africa, and he revealed he is incessantly on their backs during training. “If a player passes too slowly I tell him: 'Do you think we can get to the semi-finals with passing like that?’”
Kengo Nakamura, who set up Shinji Okazaki for the only goal against Uzbekistan that sealed Japan’s qualification, echoed his coach’s optimism. “A last-four finish is no mission impossible,” the Kawasaki Frontale midfielder told FIFA.com. “Japan have the creative talents needed to accomplish the objective.”
Nakamura believes Japan can draw heart from a 3-0 defeat by the Netherlands in a friendly in September. “Despite the result, we showed we could hold our own and produce more chances than our rivals, only for our forwards to miss the target. We have to improve our finishing quickly,” he said.
Japan will open their South Africa 2010 account against Cameroon on 14 June. First, Okada is preparing his charges for a friendly against Venezuela on 2 February, before they embark on the EAFF Championship, which kicks off four days later.
“We can succeed in South Africa by outrunning our opponents, outdoing them in one-on-one battles. We have to improve, raise the accuracy of our passes, but we still have time. We’ll be ready to make it through the group.”