Been there. Done that. Got the gray hair to prove it.
Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo.
Yokohama F. Marinos coach Takeshi Okada has already gone through the wringer as Japan’s national soccer team manager. And it’s a job that he would much rather leave to Zico.
“It’s more fun coaching at club team level,” Okada told the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo recently when asked whether he would be interested in taking the reins from the Brazilian.
Okada, 48, led Japan to the 1998 France World Cup — the country’s first finals appearance. But the team’s failure to make any sort of impression there meant he became the scapegoat on his return to Japan. He resigned soon after.
“National coach was a lot of pressure for me,” Okada says.
How he coped was much the same way Zico does and Philippe Troussier did before that. Okada pretended not to know the language and didn’t read what the Japanese media wrote.
Ignorance may have been bliss, but in his darkest hours as national team boss Okada thought about moving his family overseas. He didn’t.
“I wouldn’t have been able to bear the pressure if my family wasn’t there for me,” he says.
Okada’s insights into the intense scrutiny the national team coach is subjected to explains a lot.
Zico’s perpetual haunted appearance, for starters.
A 2-0 win over North Korea in Bangkok on June 8 saw the weight of an expectant nation lifted from the shoulders of a visibly relieved Zico as Japan qualified for the 2006 World Cup finals.
And Japan performed admirably at the current Confederations Cup in Germany before its elimination.
This period, however, is a temporary respite for the Brazilian. Question marks continue to loom large over his technical abilities as a coach.
Okada has respect for Zico’s willingness to take responsibility for the way his team performs, and is at pains to point out that he is not saying whether Zico is right or wrong in his approach.
But his coaching methods clearly are not Okada’s cup of ocha.
“I spoke to Zico and I’ve found out the way he and I coach is very different. I cannot coach the way he does. He is trying another coaching method.”
Okada believes Zico’s main headache, however, is not caused by his tactical tinkering.
“Zico’s biggest problem with the national team is the players are complaining about the way Zico is coaching. The coach must manage this complaining.
“What bothers me is that Zico either doesn’t realize his players are complaining or he just needs to manage this more.”
Maybe that’s one of the reasons Okada prefers the day-to-day interaction with players at club level.
Yes, he can spend more time working on team systems with them. But he also can keep his players on a tighter leash when it comes to the media.
However Okada runs the team, his methods are working. The Marinos are two-time defending J. League champions (in 2003 the team won both stages of the league, in 2004 the first stage, with second-stage champs Urawa Reds defeated in the championship playoff).
This year the J. League has dispensed with the two-stage system and playoff.
From now on it’s what the traditionalists would see as the correct league format: teams play each other home and away and the top team at the end of the season is the champion.
“I like it,” says Okada. “Tournaments have many flaws — but in the league the best side wins.”
But while leagues in Europe, for example, throw up do-or-die games up to the last minute (battles to avoid relegation, to get into the UEFA Cup/Champions League) the worry in Japan is that the fans’ interest may not hold if a team romps home in the league.
“I do recognize there was a different type of system and it keeps the interest of the fans.
“There has been 12 years of the J. League and entertainment has been a huge part of it — and there has been a strong following.
“But I think it shouldn’t be just about entertainment and amusement. We need to ingrain the sport into Japanese culture.”
For the Marinos, the season’s results so far have been mixed. The club is ninth in the league with 12 out of 34 games played.
But Okada believes the team’s performance in its 1-0 loss to Urawa Reds on May 15, before the mid-season break, belies its position in the league.
“I wasn’t ashamed. We performed much better than the other team,” he says. “I am very confident that Marinos can be the leading team again.”
What won’t get in the way of the team achieving this objective is the Asian Champions League. The Marinos were turfed out of the competition in the opening group stage in May.
Okada is disillusioned with a competition he initially had high hopes for.
“I want to play the best teams and best players and go to the Asian Champions League.
“But the schedule has two games in one week for six continuous weeks . . . for example on Wednesday we played in Thailand and on Saturday we had a game in the J. League.”
The schedule is not his only gripe with the fledgling tournament.
In the two years his side has been involved in the Asian Champions League he has been unimpressed with the level of refereeing and also the organizing and managing of the tournament.
“For example in China, they didn’t bring out the stretcher, the ball boy didn’t throw the ball back fast enough.
“Therefore, I don’t see the glory in the Asian Champions League.”
Which is bad news for the rest of the J. League. Without the extra games and travel, the Marinos can fully concentrate on what is most important for Okada — defending the title.
The team will have to cope, though, without South Korean striker Ahn Jung Hwan. He will leave the club when his contract expires at the end of June.
Yokohama’s first game back in the league is away to Oita Trinita on July 2. The following match is against league leader Kashima Antlers at home four days later.
It is after these two games that Okada may better gauge his team’s chances of lifting a third straight J. League crown.
“I am looking forward to the second term. Maybe we can be champions,” he said.
If the team completes a title treble, and with the Asian Champions League not up to scratch in his eyes, Okada’s work may soon be complete.
The question would then arise of what would be his next career move?
He may well have a different answer to the question about replacing Zico come Summer 2006.
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