For all the charges leveled at Takeshi Okada, no one could ever accuse him of lacking confidence.
Over the past 12 months, the national team manager has been telling anyone who will listen that Japan is targeting a semifinal appearance at next year’s World Cup, a claim many have dismissed as hopeful grandstanding at best and suicidal pressure at worst.
But still Okada continues to repeat his mantra. Having secured safe passage to South Africa with a 1-0 win in Uzbekistan in June, the time is approaching for the 53-year-old to put his money where his mouth is.
A tough first-round assignment against the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark has further upped the ante, but Okada is in no mood to back down six months ahead of the tournament.
“I was interviewed by FIFA and they asked me where my confidence was coming from,” he told reporters last month. “It’s not just coming from within me. Everyone, the staff, the players, feels that we can do it. It’s just a feeling, so I can’t really explain it.
“We have come pretty far, I’m sure, but we haven’t gone beyond a certain line. I feel that after we have had six months more to prepare we will be ready to make it through the group.
“If you look at the group, it’s obvious we’re perceived to be the weakest. If we played these teams 10 times, we would probably only win three. We have to improve to a level that we would win five, and we’re not there yet.”
Japan’s qualification campaign was not always pretty, but the team’s appearance at a fourth consecutive World Cup never seriously looked in doubt. With a berth in South Africa duly secured, Okada began preparing for the task ahead with two friendly matches in the Netherlands against the Dutch and Ghana.
A 3-0 defeat to the hosts before a spirited 4-3 win over the Africans showed how much work was still to be done, but for Okada the experience was priceless.
“It’s often said that Japan can’t perform away from home, so to play two top teams on the road was a big help for us,” he said. “I wanted to see if we were capable of doing it. We put the Dutch under pressure, but to win the game we could see we had to do more. That wasn’t just something that I saw, but something that the players learned from the experience.
“That was the biggest turning point. Now that our World Cup opponents have been decided we are at the second turning point. We don’t want to change the direction we are going in, but I want this to be the moment when the players begin to raise their level even further.”
But if Okada was hoping to follow up the Dutch tour with more big-game hunting on the road to South Africa, he was soon to be disappointed. A three-game home series in October, starting with an Asian Cup qualifier against Hong Kong before friendlies against Scotland and Togo, descended into farce when the Scots and Togolese arrived with shadow squads.
“My plan was to pick my best players to play Scotland and send out a B team against Hong Kong, but there’s a difference between official games and friendlies,” Okada said. “There’s something at stake in an official game.
“After that we wanted to play a friendly against Italy, but we couldn’t because we had another Asian Cup qualifier against Hong Kong scheduled for that day. But we knew the Italian players would be tired from playing in the middle of their season, so rather than facing a team just going through the motions for 90 minutes it was better to go up against a team with a lot of energy and will to win.”
Okada should have no problems finding strong opposition in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, however, with a friendly against England in Austria in the pipeline for the end of May. Japan’s 2-2 warmup draw with Germany stoked expectations ahead of the 2006 tournament, but the manager is under no illusions that one-off success counts for anything once the action gets under way for real.
“Warmup games and the World Cup itself are completely different things,” he said. “People said Japan got slack after doing well against Germany, and if that was the case then I would say it’s because we don’t play those kind of games enough.
“When I was in the Japanese League we played against high school teams as part of their preparations for the national high school championship. They played really hard against us and then got really excited if they did well because it was a special occasion for them. But those teams wouldn’t do well in the tournament itself.
“Strong teams like Teikyo play those kind of games every week, so it’s nothing special for them. If you don’t play strong teams regularly, you get excited if you do well. But if you play these teams all the time it becomes a natural environment.”
If Okada’s philosophy suggests there is no place for emotion in his squad, however, the manager recognizes his players are only human.
“They have their own individual characters,” he said. “Some are strong mentally but have limited technique, and some are not so strong but are important on the pitch. It would be ideal to have 23 players who have all these qualities but you won’t find that anywhere in the world.
“Of course players who don’t have the motivation needed to play in the World Cup won’t make the squad. We only want players who are serious about giving it their best shot and trying to reach the semifinals.”
And so Okada again returns to that same manifesto of reaching the semifinals. But having raised the bar so far beyond anything Japan has cleared in the past, why not aim to win the whole thing?
“Initially I said I wanted to shock the world, and that if South Korea could get to the semifinals then why couldn’t we?” he said. “I didn’t say specifically that we would get to the semis, but after that it was in all the headlines so I kept my mouth shut.
“But after we lost to Uruguay in a friendly last summer I thought that if we didn’t have a specific goal to strive for, the players would just go home after every game and forget about it. Raising the quality of the team takes a lot of time, but it helps if you have something to aim for. If a player passes too slowly in training I tell him, ‘Do you think you can get to the semifinals passing like that?’
“If I set a specific target to win the tournament, then the players wouldn’t buy it. I thought reaching the final four was an attainable target.”