In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, Brazilian soccer legend and newly appointed Japan national team coach Zico aired his views on his philosophy and plans for the future of Japanese soccer.
Ever since he came out of retirement to play in Japan in 1991, Zico has made a great contribution to Japanese soccer.
It was a challenge for him to join a second-division team, Sumitomo Metal, the predecessor of the J. League’s powerhouse Kashima Antlers, and set the foundation for the Antlers as a professional club. His arrival helped launch the Antlers and the J. League in 1993. Even after hanging up his boots in 1994, Zico kept an eye on the Antlers by serving as the club’s technical director.
During his spell with the Antlers, he showed his teammates what it means to be a professional player and gave them sound technical advice on and off the pitch. It is mainly his influence that has helped the Ibaraki Prefecture-based club grow into what it is now.
Although Zico’s coaching experience has been rather limited — serving as caretaker coach at Kashima and CFZ, the club he owns in Brazil, for a short period and as Brazil’s technical coordinator in the 1998 World Cup — he is well respected by Japan’s players and coaching staff.
The 49-year-old Rio de Janeiro native intends to use his insight on players and the game to coach Japan’s Boys in Blue.
“My primary objective is to keep Japanese soccer developing and to help Japan qualify for the 2006 World Cup,” the former Flamengo and Udinese player said at his first news conference since taking over as Japan coach in late July.
Zico, who used to spend a lot of his time analyzing the Antlers’ opponents, now pays more attention to the skills, discipline and positioning of each of his potential national team players. He has attended J. League games every weekend for his first two months here and picked the squad for his debut match as Japan coach, against Jamaica. The Oct. 16 game ended in a 1-1 draw at Tokyo’s National Stadium. His next game with Japan will be against Argentina on Nov. 20 at Saitama Stadium 2002.
The Japan Times: You had a very successful career as a player, but you hadn’t coached on a full-time basis at any club or national team before. Is there any reason for that?
Zico: Honestly speaking, I was not really interested in a managerial job when my playing career ended. When I thought about what I wanted to do after I hung up my boots, I thought being a manager would be a sort of extension of being a player.
This would force me to live with the many restrictions that are imposed at clubs, such as following schedules for example.
I also had a career which was demanding and full of pressure. If I took a coaching job, I felt that this would give me a similar lifestyle of constant pressure.
I wanted to start a new life after my soccer career. I traveled to many countries when I played. But wherever I went, it was a journey between an airport, a hotel, a stadium and a railway station or a bus terminal and I didn’t have a chance to experience these places properly.
I wanted to work with the sport but from a different angle. When I retired from playing, I received offers to coach various clubs. But I didn’t take them for the aforementioned reasons.
JT: In the Jamaica game, you remained quiet on the bench and hardly showed any emotion except when Japan scored a goal. But when you were a player, you would often show your emotions and determination to win. What has made you change?
I suppose I’ve grown up as a man. In other words, I’m getting old. I’ve learned that showing your emotions can work against you and that you need to have a business-like attitude to observe things with a cool head. I thought I would have a better chance of achieving good results if I could control my emotions and calmly make an analysis of what’s going on. I think I have started watching soccer from a different perspective.
Being a soccer coach is just like being a general who has the responsibility of guiding his troops into battle. If a coach acts too emotionally on the bench, his players cannot focus on their game on the field.
On top of that, you can hardly do anything about the game from the bench. The view from the bench is the worst. I cannot believe that a coach can give instructions from there and win a game. That seems impossible.
You cannot expect too much from making changes to your team during 90 minutes of play. The results reflect the performance of your players and that has been groomed through careful preparation. It’s a matter of how much the players understand their roles and how they put into practice what they have worked on in training. I would prefer to watch the game from the stands and come down to the dressing room at halftime and ask our players, “What on earth are you doing?” if I have to.
It would be far more practical to have someone you can trust sit in the stands and provide you with the information you need at halftime. He can tell you whether your team is giving away open spaces and if so in which part of the field. That’s something you can spot by watching from a higher angle.
When I was at the Antlers, I actually watched the game from the stands and passed on messages to the bench. But in Japan, you cannot bring a radio to the bench. I don’t know why not. It is a very common practice in Brazil and in Europe. I personally think that we should be allowed this (to use a radio on the bench) in Japan, too.
Do you have anyone who can check your team from the stands now?
My brother (Edu) does that for me as an observer.
In the Jamaica game, you gave your players freedom to play their game. Is that because you wanted to assess their capabilities?
That’s right. Since we had only two days to prepare for the game, I gave them minimum instructions to see how they could perform under the circumstances. I was very satisfied with the outcome.
Our players have a high level of understanding and once you give them instructions, they get it. Although we hadn’t played with this particular combination of players before, I could see some unity within the team and could see what each of them was trying to do.
After the game, you said you would like to improve the team’s defense. What part of the team’s game did you feel most satisfied with?
I like the way they pressed their opponents (in midfield). Before the game, I told them “When you press your opponent, do it in numbers and do not let one player do it alone. This is the best way to corner opponents.” The players performed this task well and that led to our goal.
In the first half, this tactic worked well and our opposition could hardly pass the ball around. But after around 20 minutes of the second half, they started sending long balls up front. We then should have dropped back into our own half and kept our play compact. But we failed to do this and eventually let our opponents create chances.
Would you like to keep that playing style?
We can improve our game if we have more practice sessions. I think we can play better and I have no intention of changing that playing style.
What about giving freedom to your players during the game?
I will give them freedom. But before that, we need to practice our positioning within our formation. When the players can master that, they can naturally find freedom. If they can move around more smoothly, they can use the space more effectively and become more free.
In our last game, we lost our composure on the field from time to time as more than two players were in the same position and consequently allowed space on the other side. On one occasion, (Shinji) Ono and (Junichi) Inamoto were in the same position and another time (Shunsuke) Nakamura and (Hidetoshi) Nakata were coming in from the same side of the pitch.
We only played one practice game two days before the match against Jamaica and then concentrated on set plays the day before. After that, I let them do as they wanted. I knew they could do it. But if we get more time to train, we’ll work on various things and solve some problems.
Since we have good communication among our players, once we get the idea of what to do in each situation of the game, we won’t repeat mistakes.
In other words, you intend to call up your players for a longer period than just two days ahead of a game in the future?
Yes. For example, ahead of the East Asian Championship (from late May to early June), the Kirin Cup and the Confederations Cup (both in June) next year. I will have about 40 days or so to spend together with our players. We’ll have a tough match schedule during these tournaments, sometimes playing one game every two days or so, but we can take advantage of the time in between.
If we can have a week to prepare on one occasion, then we’ll be all right even with a two-day session for later games. Once will be enough for our players to understand what I’m trying to do with them and what they have to do from now on — in defense in particular.
As our team is familiar with attacking, the players tend to focus less on defense. But we need to have the right balance within the team defensively and offensively and should work on how to cut out leaving open spaces.
I’m convinced that everyone within our team is capable of attacking. But I have to make them aware of their defensive responsibilities.
Giving players freedom is making them responsible and letting them make decisions in the game. Are you also trying to train their thinking and decision-making abilities, something which is still lacking in Japanese soccer?
That’s right. You’ve got to think and make decisions in the game.
When I came to Japan (to play for Sumitomo Metal in 1991), all the players came to a meeting with a note pad in their hands and took notes from what their manager said. They then went to the dressing room and checked their notes again to make sure they remembered them before going out onto the field. I said to them, “No, stop it. Soccer is not like that.”
You see, the game changes according to the flow of the play, not exactly in the way that your manager told you beforehand. Soccer is not a simple equation like say, two plus two equals four.
That’s why you need to train hard over a week for a game. By game time, the players should know what to do and should be ready for anything that may happen in the game. Players need to make decisions on the field by themselves, not by trying to do only what the manager told them.
In my opinion, Japanese players are quite capable of doing things at a certain level. They can execute things well if you instruct them what to do. So, I’d like to see what they can do by themselves.
But one thing I want them to remove from their game is the fear of making mistakes. They seem to be obsessed with the idea that they shouldn’t make a mistake. But I want them to understand that if they try things and make a mistake, they can try again and try to do better the next time.
The other day at Jubilo (Iwata)’s game (against the Yokohama F. Marinos), (Jubilo forward Naohiro) Takahara set the ball up fantastically for (Masashi) Nakayama’s goal. This proved that the players have the ability to do things if they are not afraid to try. They should be prepared to try more things such as volleys or overhead bicycle kicks whenever they have a chance. If they miss that’s all right. The important thing is that they take on challenges. I want them to be more positive and creative like Rivaldo (the Brazilian star in the World Cup final) against Germany, letting a pass run between his legs to surprise his opponents. I think Japanese players can do more as they are naturally very skillful, but they seem to be so afraid of making mistakes.
Is that the part that hasn’t changed much in Japanese soccer over the last 10 years or so?
I think they’ve changed a lot. Now we have players like Nakata, Ono, (Kashima midfielder Mitsuo) Ogasawara and (Kashima forward Masashi) Motoyama, who have been brought up in a different soccer environment and have adopted an attitude and playing style of their own. I think that’s good. Naturally they still need support. I know some coaches are against these kinds of ideas and force their players to play strictly according to their instructions. I’m afraid that that is not helping Japanese soccer.
You opted for a 4-4-2 system for the Jamaica game but when you picked the players, you said you had a hard time finding fullbacks as most of the J. League teams play in 3-5-2 system. If you still have trouble finding the right players for your team, will you change the formation or will you assign players and train them as fullbacks to fit into your system?
That’ll depend on time. If given enough time, a player can adapt himself into the position. But if that becomes a burden to him, I won’t stick to the 4-4-2 system. I would rather opt for a different system that would be easier for the players to play in.
I’ve decided to go with 4-4-2 because I believe that is the best way to maintain the right composure for a team. If I give it up and use another system, that will also require time to function well. So, I’d like to have time to work with a 4-4-2 for a while and select players who are suited to each position.
I picked (Toshihiro) Hattori at left fullback as he used to play well in that position at Jubilo and also he is an experienced player. This has led me to believe that he is capable of dealing with things that I ask him to do. But if that doesn’t work in the future, I may pick someone who may not be as good as Hattori but who can execute a defensive role thoroughly. I could then play Hattori in defensive midfield, where he has played for his club recently.
What I expect most from the fullbacks is defense and Hattori doesn’t have to spend too much time on offense as we have other players who can take care of that.
You said earlier that you don’t see any point in playing in a 3-5-2 formation?
I haven’t seen any teams playing in a 3-5-2 that have convinced me with their performance. They tend to give up more space to their opponents and tend to lose the balance of the team.
People say Brazil played well with a 3-5-2 in this past World Cup. But it wasn’t a 3-5-2. Cafu and Roberto Carlos always come back into defense to make it four at the back.
If you play with three men back, you cannot help giving up space on the wings so you need to make sure you build a defensively solid team. That means I have to select more players for defense and have to cut some of the squad I have now. It doesn’t make sense to employ such a system (3-5-2) for an attacking team like ours.
I think 4-4-2 is the best way to fully utilize the characteristics of our players. A system is for players and I make a system for the players. I do not rigidly adhere to a specific system.
As long as we have a certain number of players when we go forward in attack and a certain number of players when we have to defend, I’m happy. We need at least five men for defense and the 4-4-2 is the best system to fully use these men. In Brazil, we often say that a good team is the one that can attack like a powerhouse and defend like a weak side.
It’s important for a team to have a good preparation period. You often say you’d like to have cooperation from J. League clubs. How would you like to do that? Also, the Japan Football Association is arranging one match a month for the national team. Will it help you to strengthen your side?
I think the next two years are very important for us. Next year we won’t have a match per month. The schedule is more irregular and looks tough. We’ll have games in March first but have a break before playing our next one in June. We’ll then have about eight games in June. That may give us one match a month on average, though.
In 2004, we’ll have to consider qualifying games, and that, I hope, will make J. League clubs become more flexible with our activities. The clubs are more cooperative now than before and they have already shown an understanding of next year’s schedule, which is helpful.
Have you given any homework to your players to work on at their club teams?
Not particularly. I told them I want to see them maintain their fitness levels and to play well not only when we are together at national team level but also for their clubs every week. Being picked for the national team brings about new responsibility. They will get attention and pressure from the people around them, but they should work hard to win their next callup.
People still fondly remember the midfielders of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup team as the “Golden Quartet” and when you named Nakata, Ono, Inamoto and Nakamura in Japan’s midfield for the Jamaica game, some called them the “Japanese Golden Quartet.” What are your thoughts on that?
I think it puts too much pressure on the players if you compare them with our “Golden Quartet.” They have different characteristics and I don’t want them to feel such pressure. I’d like them to show their own character in games. I’m happy with the fact that I worked with such a talented midfield in the Jamaica game, with players who have earned contracts with top clubs around Europe. They are the center of attention but I hope they take good care of themselves and do well not to betray the expectations of the Japanese public.
Of course, I have a certain priority toward my starting team but it’s nice to see players on the bench and know that they can play at the same level as the starting team. I know it will be hard for me to decide who to start and who to leave out at times.
Are you enjoying being Japan coach?
For sure, I am. I really love soccer and I feel happy with the fact that I’m still involved in this field. But honestly speaking, I wish I could spend more time on the pitch. Recently I have attended a lot of (J. League) games. I hope I can help in different areas if possible. Maybe hold a soccer clinic. When I had two days with our players to prepare for the Jamaica game, I really enjoyed coaching them on the pitch.
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