Sasaki: Japan are stronger than four years ago

Japan coach Norio Sasaki earned worldwide fame in 2011 when he led the Nadeshiko to unexpected glory at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™. Playing with tactical finesse and technical sophistication, Japan cast aside a modest historical record to see off heavyweights Germany, Sweden and USA in the knockout stage to achieve breakthrough success. Sasaki was named FIFA Women’s Coach of the Year, and Japan have since won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and been crowned Asian queens for the first time.

Japan’s new found status leaves them among the elite contenders heading into Canada 2015. And caught up with Sasaki to ask about his coaching methods, the culture which helped Japan achieve success, and expectations for Canada 2015. Mr Sasaki, the world of football admires you as a coach who is usually undemonstrative, disciplined and analytical. But how would you describe yourself both as a coach and as a person? Norio Sasaki: Well, I’m pretty honest and simple. I’m not flashy, I’m not very charismatic. I’m a coach who is like a dad to the players.

Are there situations in football when you get emotional or impulsive, maybe in the dressing room? During training, I can be very strict at times. But in the dressing room on match day, I don’t get too wound up, because we have put in all the preparation leading up to the game. I rely on the players to take care of 70 per cent of what happens on the field, while I can control only the other 30 per cent by offering advice and instructions. I am convinced that preparing thoroughly before the game is all I can do. When I’m in the technical area, I might sometimes make gestures that would suggest we’re ready to fight. This is just a performance to show that my team and I are up for the battle, and perhaps to put some pressure on the referee.

The Nadeshiko are the current world champions and won the silver medal at London 2012, yet until last year Japan had never won the Asian Cup. Can you describe what finally conquering Asia means for the team, and for Japanese women’s football? We had never shown that Japan was the best team in Asia. We had been to the final of this international tournament, but we always seemed to lack that extra something we needed to win. Now we have clearly shown that Japan can be the best team in Asian football, so we have gained significant status from that. That gives us a lot of confidence. In the years ahead, we want to continue making advances in Asia and globally. This victory undoubtedly was a turning point in that process.

Would you say being head coach of Japan is more pressure or more pleasure? There is a good pressure that comes with this position, but I really enjoy being coach of this team, it excites me. I’m also excited about how the players will develop and then perform at this tournament. In terms of results, we are striving to win successive World Cups. I’m extremely excited about what this team could achieve at the tournament.

I think I have a better team now than I did in 2011. But the truth is that many other international teams have also greatly improved the level of their football.

What are the differences if you compare the team you had at Germany 2011 and the team that you will have at Canada 2015? The players gained some excellent experience during the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 London Olympics, and I believe that individually they have really developed over the past four years. I think I have a better team now than I did in 2011. But the truth is that many other international teams have also greatly improved the level of their football. I believe the Nadeshiko is continuing to develop, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we perform against these other teams. Furthermore, in 2011, our team aimed to win the World Cup. But since we triumphed in that tournament, the whole of Japan is watching us and there is a feeling of expectation that we should win this time. With this extra motivation, this tournament will be a major opportunity for further growth of the team at the top level.

Who is your next Homare Sawa? Well, she is still playing football and working hard. I feel that there are several players who could become the new Sawa and become players who step up at important moments in a game.

Which countries are Japan’s rivals for the title? There are many countries that will be our rivals at the tournament. We have a good chance of defending the title, although it will depend on our preparation in the final months. Provided I can form a clear picture of what we have to do, I believe it will be possible to defend our title.

You were named women’s football coach of the year in 2012. What does winning such an award mean to a coach? Is it motivation for the future? Yes, it is extremely encouraging, and it also motivates me to try even harder as a coach in the future. But in saying that, this award is essentially not only recognition for my own performance alone. It comes from the process of putting the players first as I and the other staff members all build a team. I think the award will also motivate the other coaching staff, rather than just me individually.

Some coaches believe that tactics must adapt to the players available, and other coaches believe the players have to adapt to the tactics and the system. What’s your opinion? It is clear to see that Japanese players tend to be smaller than players from other countries. So these physical attributes and the skills female Japanese players possess are our first consideration, and the tactics we employ and our style of football will be shaped by these elements. I think this is particularly important for Japanese football.

Are you superstitious? If so, are there things you will do ahead of Canada 2015 that you also did ahead of Germany 2011? There is one thing I do. For me, Lake Kawaguchi is a ‘power spot ’ . It offers a wonderful view of Mt. Fuji, and it is a beautiful lake. I like to go there and pray to the gods of Mt. Fuji before I go to a tournament.