Alberto Zaccheroni is not a man to shirk a challenge. Three years ago the Italian coach, who can list managerial stints with AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus on his impressive CV, decided to set off on a new adventure in the Far East. Without speaking a word of the language and possessing only a general knowledge of the culture, he landed in Japan determined to help their national side make a splash on the international scene.
Up to now, the experience has proved a fruitful one, with the Blue Samurai qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ with a minimum of fuss and being tipped by some as dark horses for the tournament.
Discussing the world finals and more in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Zaccheroni spoke of Japan’s huge potential and how much he is enjoying the culture and way of life there, so much so that he will find it hard to leave the country when the time eventually comes.
FIFA.com: How would you sum up your time in Japan so far?
Alberto Zaccheroni: It’s been a fantastic experience. Though I arrived in a country with a culture that’s very different to the rest of the world, I haven’t found it hard to settle in. The standard of living is very high, and everything is very clean and organised. The people are polite and friendly too. I have to say I’ll be very sad to leave Japan.
How did you go about adapting to the Japanese game?
In footballing terms, my aim was to respect Japanese culture and try to introduce my ideas in line with that, to strike a balance between attack and defence. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to curb the natural creativity of my players. The Japanese are born dreamers. That’s the way they are and I don’t want to go against that. To be honest, I can identify with it as well, which is why we’re all dreaming of having a great World Cup.
Given the language barrier, do you find it hard to communicate with your players?
Fortunately I have an excellent interpreter, which is essential for any coach working abroad. I’m one of those coaches who does a lot of work on the pitch, though, and I like to actually go through training drills rather than just explain them, which obviously helps.
The Japanese really admire Brazilian football and we all want to create a good impression.
Let’s talk about how Japan are faring under you. The team made it to Brazil 2014 easily enough, but there’s still the feeling that they struggle under pressure, which seemed to be the case at the recent FIFA Confederations Cup. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely. That’s why I asked the Japanese FA to arrange friendlies in Europe, so that we can get a better feel for the type of football that’s played in other parts of the world. I’m aware that the Japanese game is very different, though in recent times and in the last year especially, we’ve seen a lot of Japanese players move to the Bundesliga, Serie A and the Premier League. That’s helped our team prepare better for matches against stronger sides.
Your team showed a lot of potential against Italy in the Confederations Cup, but when you rang the changes for the Mexico game some of the replacements failed to match the performance of the first-teamers.
That’s right. I’m looking very closely at that problem. I don’t think anyone is indispensable and that’s why I used different formations in our last two friendlies, against the Netherlands and Belgium. I wanted to try out different players and the response was very positive. It seemed to me as if the team understood what I wanted. They know the type of football we have to play and how strong we need to be. As a result, we’ve got a bigger squad than we had at the Confederations Cup, though we need everyone to be in peak form at the World Cup. That will be crucial.
Do you think the experience you gained in the Confederations Cup will come in useful when you go back to Brazil this coming June?
No question. It gave us a chance to see the distances involved, the climate and humidity, and to see where we are in footballing terms, the things we need to work on. As for the World Cup itself, it will be a great experience for Japan to play in Brazil. The Japanese really admire Brazilian football and we all want to create a good impression.
A lot of pundits are tipping Japan as the possible surprise package of the tournament. Does that put extra pressure on you?
Not really. Most of the pressure on us comes from the Japan fans, who expect a lot of the team. What it does is just motivate us even more. We know people have big expectations of this team and we don’t want to let our fans down.
Lastly, having spent quite a bit of time in Japan now, do you feel the country is on the way to becoming a footballing power in the near future?
Japanese culture is developing, not just in terms of football but in all aspects of life, and my feeling is that Japan will soon be a major force at world level. What with the discipline here, the cultural developments and the very talented young players coming through, the future looks very bright indeed.