National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni on Monday refused to put a limit on Japan’s ambitions at next summer’s World Cup, but stopped short of claiming his team can win the trophy.
Japan became the first side to qualify for the 32-team tournament in Brazil after drawing 1-1 with Australia in June, and was handed a favorable first-round group earlier this month with Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire and Greece the Group C opposition.
Second-round appearances on home soil in 2002 and in South Africa eight years later represent the high-water mark in Japan’s four World Cup appearances so far, but Zaccheroni declined to be tied to a specific target when asked how far his team could progress next year.
“As a coach, I always aim to win,” Zaccheroni told an audience at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo. “Of course at the same time I have enough experience to know that we have to deal with other factors, such as the strength of the other teams, the heat and humidity and the traveling.
“There will be a lot of strong teams at the World Cup, but this is our chance to show how strong we are. Not only in football or in sport, but in life you should always aim high. The moment you think it is enough is the moment you stop growing.”
Japan opens its campaign against Cote d’Ivoire on June 14 in steamy Recife, before making the short trip up the coast to Natal to take on Greece five days later. Zaccheroni’s side then travels to the Amazon city of Cuiaba to round off the group against Colombia on June 24, and the Italian is leaving nothing to chance in his preparations.
“Now we know where we are playing, what the temperature will be like and when the team has to move,” said Zaccheroni. “All these things will influence our performance and we have to think about that. Brazil is so big that it is more like traveling around a continent than a country.
“I like the group we are in because all four teams come from different continents. Each team has a different style.”
Japan has a lower world ranking than all three of its first-round opponents, with No. 4-ranked Colombia the seeded team having finished second behind Argentina in South American qualification.
Zaccheroni is wary of the threat posed by prolific Colombian strikers Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martinez, and the 60-year-old believes the South Americans have the potential to go all the way.
“It wouldn’t be strange to see Colombia still involved at the very end of the tournament,” said Zaccheroni. “I think they are a little bit like Spain 15 years ago — not so competitive but then they worked hard and won two European Championships and a World Cup.
“The other teams don’t have such talented players, but Cote d’Ivoire are very strong with physical players, and they are probably the best team in Africa. Greece don’t have so many big-name players but they are very good at making other teams play badly.”
Japan’s own chances will depend heavily on the form of playmaker Keisuke Honda, who will leave Russian club CSKA Moscow to join Italian powerhouse AC Milan in January. Doubts have been raised over the wisdom of switching clubs so close to the World Cup, but Zaccheroni believes the 27-year-old will have no problems making an immediate impact at the seven-time European champions.
“I think it’s a good moment to go to Milan,” said Zaccheroni, who led the Rossoneri to the Serie A title in 1999. “There are still six months to go before the World Cup so there is plenty of time to adapt to his new team. I know Honda very well and I think this is a good move for him. He will be very motivated and I’m sure he will do well.”
Japan has enjoyed mixed fortunes in recent matches, with timid away defeats against Serbia and Belarus offset by a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands and an impressive 3-2 win over Belgium in Europe last month.
Zaccheroni insists the experience of playing established teams will stand his side in good stead regardless of the result, and says his skin is thick enough to handle criticism when things do not go according to plan.
“Japan hadn’t had so many chances to play abroad so I asked to do that,” said Zaccheroni. “We have played a lot of teams overseas and we have done well. To keep growing we need to play against strong teams, not weak teams.
“To be a coach you need to have good self-esteem. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I was a coach in the Italian league, which is the hardest league in the world. This has helped me as a coach.”