JEF United Chiba’s Seiichiro Maki was Japan’s surprise pick for the 2006 World Cup, Jubilo Iwata’s Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi for 2010.
Alberto Zaccheroni has been largely conservative in his squad selection since taking over for Takeshi Okada four years ago but now, with six months to go to Brazil, the Japan manager is suddenly hinting he may have a few surprises of his own for the big announcement in May.
“I think there’s every possibility,” Zaccheroni said in a recent interview with the Tokyo Sportswriters Club, when asked if his 23 for the June 12-July 13 World Cup could include some new faces.
“I’ve said this before, but there are 63 candidates for the national team in my eyes, and they are the ones we are tracking for the most part.
“But over the next six months, if someone is performing well, keeps himself fit, he will make the list and will have every chance of being in the final 23.”
“And there are those who haven’t been called up recently, but have contributed to the side in the last three years. I need to make it clear that I haven’t forgotten about them, that I am checking on them, too.”
Zaccheroni further revealed the aforementioned 63 includes players the Italian has not called up yet, and when pressed specifically about Yokohama F. Marinos’ J. League MVP Shunsuke Nakamura and the league’s golden boot winner Yoshito Okubo of Kawasaki Frontale, he didn’t rule them out either.
“Yes, there are players on the list who I haven’t selected before. I won’t name names. But the players who are getting the job done are among the 63, so maybe (Nakamura and Okubo),” the former AC Milan and Juventus boss said.
“I’ve been actively changing my lineup recently as everyone knows, and if change makes us a better side, then I won’t be afraid to make them. I consider myself coach of the country’s entire football population, not just the national team.”
Zaccheroni’s Asian champions have been drawn with Cote d’Ivoire, Greece and Colombia for what will be Japan’s fifth consecutive World Cup appearance.
While the 60-year-old came under fire last year after his team’s early exit at the Confederations Cup and a string of lackluster performances in the fall, Zaccheroni’s side is generally regarded as the most talented Japan team to be heading to the finals.
Some of his troops, like new AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda and Inter Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo, have boldly said Japan should be aiming to win the World Cup — this summer.
Zaccheroni has steadfastly refused to set a specific target for the tournament — he will only say the Japan Football Association has asked him to build on the success of the last World Cup — but acknowledges the Blue Samurai can hold their own against the giants of the game on their best days.
“Like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Colombia, Uruguay or Germany, the strongest teams know how to win even when they’re at 60 percent,” he said. “We’re not there yet, so we must try to be near 100 percent as often as possible.
“For better or worse, the managers in the world now know about Japan and we’re no longer considered surprise packages. At the World Cup draw, a lot of the coaches said they didn’t want to play Japan, which says that people know how good we are.”
Japan wrapped up 2013 with an impressive 2-2 draw away to the Netherlands and a 3-2 victory at Belgium, which is emerging as a dark horse for the World Cup.
Following the two friendlies, Zaccheroni said his team was 75 percent complete and how it fills out the remaining 25 percent will come down to good, thorough preparation with an emphasis on fitness.
“What we have to be able to do is sustain our performance over the course of 90 minutes, and that’s the 25 percent we’re missing. We can beat the likes of Oman and Jordan if we play well for 60 minutes, but that won’t be good enough at the finals against Cote d’Ivoire, Greece and Colombia.”
“What I’ve come to understand is that when we continuously move the ball around, when we play with intensity, we tend to play well. The key for us is ball movement.”
Should Japan advance to the second round from Group C, it will face the top two teams from Group D including Uruguay, England, Costa Rica and Zaccheroni’s native Italy, which Japan overwhelmed at the Confederations Cup but still came out on the losing end to.
Zaccheroni said the prospect of playing against his home country doesn’t mean as much as people make it out to be, but Japan’s performance in the 4-3 defeat to the Azzurri back in June does.
“If we get out of the group, we will almost certainly face Italy,” he said. “People say playing your own country takes on a different meaning but having just played them at the Confederations Cup, I can tell you it was just another game for Japan.
“That game ate me up because we lost after dominating them. I’ve seen, more or less, every game Italy have played in the last 50 years but I can’t recall Italy being outplayed like the way we outplayed them.
“But our goal is to go as far as we can in the tournament, not beating Italy or the likes of Brazil, and that’s what we need to focus on.”