Italian soccer legend Roberto Baggio has paid tribute to the strides Japan has made under manager Alberto Zaccheroni, but the former FIFA World Player of the Year has warned his compatriot not to expect an easy ride at this month’s Confederations Cup.

Japan became the first team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after drawing 1-1 with Australia on Tuesday, with the Asian champions set to get a taste of what lies ahead when they travel to South America to face the host nation, Mexico and Italy in the first round of the June 15-30 Confederations Cup.

Baggio knows what it takes to compete at the highest level having played in three World Cups — including the glorious failure of missing the decisive penalty in the 1994 final shootout against Brazil — but the 46-year-old believes Japan can take heart from the improvements it has made since winning the Asian Cup just four months after Zaccheroni took charge in September 2010.

“It won’t be easy for Japan at the Confederations Cup,” Baggio said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on Saturday. “They still have a lot of things they need to work on. They have improved a lot since they won the Asian Cup, but they still have a lot of room to grow. The opposition at the Confederations Cup will be very strong, but Japan are moving in the right direction.

“I think it’s great that Japan have qualified for the World Cup. I’ve been following what Zaccheroni has been doing, and I’ve been very impressed. But I’m supporting the Japan team rather than just Zaccheroni, and I wish them all the best of luck.”

Baggio is in Japan to take part in an exhibition match at National Stadium on Sunday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the J.League, with former Italian greats Franco Baresi, Christian Vieri and Salvatore Schillaci among those lining up against Japanese counterparts including Ruy Ramos, Tetsuji Hashiratani and Tsuyoshi Kitazawa.

Baggio has bittersweet memories of Japan having missed out on a place on Italy’s 2002 World Cup squad for what would have been his fourth tournament appearance, but the former Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan forward revealed his association with the country could have taken a markedly different path.

“In 2000 I had an offer to come to the J. League,” he said. “At the time I decided against it, because my aim was to get into the Italian national team to come to Japan and South Korea and play in my fourth World Cup. I wanted that to be the time that I played in Japan, but looking back now maybe I should have taken the offer.”

For all his many successes on the pitch, however, Baggio is perhaps just as well known for his lifestyle off it. “The Divine Ponytail,” as he was known throughout his playing days, converted to Buddhism after suffering a serious injury early in his career, and his faith played a crucial role as he fought back to fulfill his ambitions before retiring in 2004 at the age of 37.

“I was told I would never play again,” said Baggio, who scored 27 goals in 56 appearances for Italy. “I saw a lot of doctors, and they all told me that I would never play again. If I had listened to them and hadn’t listened to how I felt inside, I wouldn’t be here now. For this reason I feel that Buddhism has made me understand that I have to believe what is inside me.

“I’ve been a Buddhist for 25 years, and my life has changed completely. It has been a very positive experience for me. Everyone should find their own philosophy and do whatever makes them happy.”

Baggio is currently a free agent after leaving his position as technical director of the Italian federation in January, but the U.N. goodwill ambassador and noted humanitarian is keeping an open mind with regards to his next move.

“At this moment in my life I have nothing particular in mind,” he said. “If someone was to hire me as a manager, I wouldn’t have any particular place I would like to go or anywhere that I wouldn’t like to go. It’s not something I’ve given any thought to.”


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