On Oct. 29 last year, Philippe Troussier sat, drenched in champagne, at his post-match press conference after Japan’s nail-biting 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup final. The oversized fruit bowl of a trophy beside him, the Frenchman grinned like a Cheshire cat while he tried to collect his thoughts on what it meant to deliver Asia’s top prize to Japan.

When, finally, he spoke, Troussier hammered home the point that Japan had simply “crossed the Asian line” and only by playing what he called “serious friendlies” against the cream of European soccer would his young side be ready for the 2002 World Cup finals. To cope with the extra pressure of being cohosts, Troussier argued, his players would need to experience playing the top teams away from home.

The Japan Football Association, already on the back foot after Troussier’s “stop interfering or I’m off” blast earlier in the Lebanon tournament, got the hint and Japan arranged friendly internationals against France in March and Spain last month. If the results — a 5-0 spanking in Paris and a 1-0 defeat in Cordoba — proved to be something of an anti-climax, the matches provided Troussier with some invaluable data ahead of the Confederations Cup, which kicks off in South Korea tomorrow.

Japan will expect to pick up three points against Canada in Niigata on Thursday, before locking horns with African champion Cameroon at the same venue on Saturday and Brazil, in Kashima, two days later. Much of the physical conditioning Troussier has put the Japan squad through in recent weeks has been geared toward meeting the demands of playing against bigger, stronger sides.

At the Olympics last September, Japan’s Under-23s outclassed the United States in Adelaide, but, after Tomoyuki Sakai’s contender for “Stupidest Foul of the Millennium” handed the U.S. side a lifeline, the Japanese barely had the energy to take their penalty kicks and failed to make the semifinals. To his credit, Troussier acted quickly to eradicate “lack of stamina” from the national team’s lexicon.

Four weeks later, Japan, with at least half-a-dozen Olympic players in the first 11, blitzed through the Asian Cup, winning six of seven matches and scoring 24 goals in the process. Winning the final in front of a hostile crowd of 50,000 at Beirut Sports City Stadium was proof that Japan had, indeed, left Asia behind and that Troussier’s post-match comments were bang on the money.

Consider the facts. In 28 matches since taking charge in October 1998, Troussier has led Japan to a record of 12 wins, nine draws and seven defeats, which sounds like a “B-minus” until you look at Japan’s progress over the past 12 months: Played 14, won eight, drawn four, lost two (against France and Spain). We could be looking at Japan’s most successful coach ever.

He tells the JFA to eat his shorts, he gets into rows with cameramen and calls British reporters the “Roast Beef Mafia,” but Troussier has done his job in preparing the Japan team for big tournaments. The Confederations Cup will be no different, although he will have to do without Jubilo Iwata midfielder Hiroshi Nanami, who will miss the tournament with a knee injury.

Ultimately, though, it is up to the players to perform on the day. If goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi had not pulled off a string of superb saves in the Asian Cup final, nobody could have blamed Troussier for the defeat. Alex Ferguson became “Sir Alex” after Manchester United scored two injury-time goals to snatch the 1999 European Cup away from a thoroughly deserving Bayern Munich. Luck plays a huge part and Japan will need a slice to advance to the semifinals of the Confederations Cup.

Troussier has gone some way to reducing the risk factor, however, by dropping Yokohama’s Shunsuke Nakamura — the closest Japan has to a Matt Le Tissier — from the Japan squad, while the return of Cerezo Osaka spark plug Hiroaki Morishima will add an extra dimension to Japan’s midfield. Hidetoshi Nakata, released for Japan’s Group B fixtures by AS Roma, will again carry much of the burden for Japan and has seen his chances of winning the captain’s armband improve after Hiroshima striker Tatsuhiko Kubo was left out of the squad due to a prior engagement back on the mother planet.

After Canada, Cameroon, coming off a 0-0 draw with South Korea in Suwon at the weekend, will be a tough nut to crack for Japan. Meanwhile, Brazil, missing a number of big-name stars, looked sluggish in a 2-0 win over Tokyo Verdy last Saturday, but Japan will struggle to find a way past the formidable central defensive pairing of Edmilson and Claudio Cacapa, who both play for French side Olympique Lyonnais.

Brazil manager Emerson Leao, under fire after Brazil’s poor run of form in the South American World Cup qualifiers, has targeted Cameroon as his team’s main rival in the group stage, but doffed his cap to the improvements Japan has made under Troussier.

“Japan has come on in leaps and bounds in the past couple of years. It will be a difficult game for us,” said Leao, who coached Shimizu S-Pulse and Verdy Kawasaki, now Tokyo Verdy 1969, in the early 1990s.

Who would be a manager though? Well, at the risk of upsetting Monsieur Troussier, who has pointed out to me on a number of occasions that “the French don’t need any football lessons from the English” (no argument, there), here’s my preferred Japan lineup:

Goalkeeper — Ryota Tsuzuki. With Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi a liability under crosses and Seigo Narazaki not the same since he was caught with his pants down (allegedly!) in a Nagoya karaoke box last autumn, Troussier could give Tsuzuki his chance. He won’t, of course.

Defenders — Yuji Nakazawa. Quick, good in the air, dependable. Deserves to start on the right if only because of his funky afro.

Ryuzo Morioka. Should stay put at his best position in the center of Japan’s back three.

Toshihiro Hattori. Brick hard on the left.

Midfielders — Junichi Inamoto. Should get the nod over Kazuyuki Toda (just) to anchor the midfield. Tomokazu Myojin. Kashiwa terrier my vote to start on the right. Atsuhiro Miura. Always dangerous on the left for Japan. Hiroaki Morishima. Candidate to play “in the hole” behind the forwards. Hidetoshi Nakata. Japan’s best player likely to play central role in absence of Nanami.

Forwards — Naohiro Takahara, Akinori Nishizawa. The options are the uncapped Yoshiteru Yamashita and Masashi Nakayama. Nuff said.

Egg-on-face predictions: Japan 3, Canada 0; Japan 1, Cameroon 1; Japan 0, Brazil 2

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