When the draw for the Confederations Cup was made, Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni believed it was his fate to be included in the same group as Italy. As it happened that’s exactly how it turned out. “I felt no emotion,” he told Sky Italia. “I expected it.”
Like all coaches working for a nation other than their own, Zaccheroni faces the dilemma of what to do on coming face to face with his homeland at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife on Wednesday.
“I am definitely not an enemy, but a rival in sport, yes,” he said. “I will not sing [the Inno di Mameli, Italy’s national anthem]. I won’t sing the Japanese one either. But I will listen with great attention and feeling.”
Since taking the call of Hiromi Hara, the technical director of the Japanese Football Federation, and accepting his offer to replace Takeshi Okada who had resigned after Japan were knocked out at the last 16 stage of the World Cup in South Africa on penalties by Paraguay, Zaccheroni has really thrown himself into his first national team job.
He perhaps felt he had done everything he could at club level in Italy. One of only three coaches to have sat on the bench at AC Milan, Inter and Juventus [the others being József Violak and Giovanni Trapattoni], there was only one way to go in Serie A after those positions and that was down.
While he had worked for each of the Big Three, a matter of some prestige, Zaccheroni, it must be said, was still treated by many with scepticism. His achievements – the fifth and third place finishes with Udinese and the Scudetto at Milan – weren’t granted the recognition they deserved.
Silvio Berlusconi, who had long taken to mockingly referring to him as a Communist, sacked him live on TV after a 1-1 draw with Deportivo in the Champions League. Zaccheroni’s reputation suffered. It also didn’t help that the three-man defence on which he’d established his reputation came to be thought of as a thing of the past and, as such, for a long time he was viewed as out of touch.
Incidentally, until Zaccheroni took charge of Japan, the last season that he actually started as coach was the 2000-01 campaign at Milan. All the rest in the meantime were cases of him stepping into the breach as an interim appointment after in-season dismissals at Lazio, Inter, Torino and finally Juventus.
So Japan’s offer was essentially something Zaccheroni had waited nearly a decade for. “I didn’t need a moment to think about it,” he revealed to Il Corriere della Sera. “I immediately told Hara yes. The reason? To get back into the game. After having coached the most important teams in Italy, the possibility of an experience at the helm of a national team aroused my curiosity.”
And particularly with it being Japan. “This is a country that intrigues me,” Zaccheroni added, “for its history, for the culture. And then there’s also the sea. It’s just a shame that it’s a little far from Italy.”
Like anyone he missed home. “I’m used to tagliatelle.” But Zaccheroni wasn’t about to be one of those national team managers who commute between their native country and the one they’re coaching whenever there’s a game on. No, he doesn’t do things by half. Zaccheroni moved to Tokyo. “I live eight or nine months of the year in Japan but every month and a half I make a trip to Europe or one around Japan for scouting purposes.”
He immersed himself in his new surroundings. The country got under his skin. “It’s wonderful and dynamic,” he told La Repubblica. “You have Tokyo’s 80,000 restaurants but there’s also the retro appeal of Kyoto where time has stopped or the memory of Hiroshima. There are skyscrapers that seem to spring up overnight, cars polished like baubles. I feel like I’m inside a videogame.”
Communicating through a “very good interpreter,” Zaccheroni hasn’t avoided the odd gaffe. “At the first dinner with the Japanese football federation I said: ‘Cin Cin’: the equivalent of the [Italian] swear word with the two Zs [‘Cazzo’ which can, among other things, mean ‘Cock’].” Fortunately, a serious faux pas hasn’t been made on the pitch. Far from it, as Zaccheroni immediately got off on the right foot, presiding over a historic win against Argentina.
Unbeaten heading into the 2011 Asian Cup, Japan were admittedly almost embarrassed in their opening game, requiring a 92nd minute equaliser from Maya Yoshida to avoid defeat to Jordan. They went on to top their group, though, edged out South Korea on penalties in the semi-final and then got the better of Australia in extra-time of the final to claim a fourth Asian Cup and their first since 2004.
Asked in jest if Berlusconi had called to congratulate him, Zaccheroni replied wryly: “I haven’t heard from him in five years. I don’t want to bother him.” Hailed as a hero in Japan and already popular, he became “popolarissimo.” “People stop me in the street to shake my hand and ask for photos and autographs,” a bashful Zaccheroni explained. “They’re very respectful and well-mannered.”
Not too long after the triumph in the Asian Cup, an earthquake, the fifth most powerful since records began, struck off the coast of Japan causing a tsunami. There was widespread devastation. Three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant also went into meltdown.
“I was at home writing up my work on my computer,” Zaccheroni recalled to Sky Italia, “when there were two very strong shocks. The house appeared to be made of rubber. It bent as if it were a toy. I live on the fourth floor of an apartment block in the centre of Tokyo. I followed the instructions. They explain to you that immediately during the shocks you need to get yourself under a table or protected by the frame of the door. Then there’s the survival kit: a helmet, a blanket, water and crackers. As soon as the shocks finished I went out with the other residents using the emergency stairwell and we found ourselves in a little garden in front of the skyscraper.”
Zaccheroni was struck by the composure of those around him and the acts of kindness of ordinary people as they tried to cope with the crisis and help the country recover.
From a football perspective, the J-League was suspended for two months. Friendlies against Montenegro and New Zealand had to be cancelled. Zaccheroni had wanted to to use them “as my first step to assist the affected people in their reconstruction drive.” He felt “football can give the country a hand, a moral support at least.”
Qualifying for the World Cup was one way of doing that and Japan became the first country to book their place in Brazil at the beginning of this month. An injury-time penalty scored by Keisuke Honda, which secured a 1-1 draw with Australia on June 4 meant the lead they had at the top of their group was unassailable. In the meantime Japan also beat France for the first time in their history in a friendly in Le Harve.
It was a fine moment in Japanese football. The J-League celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Since its inception the number of registered clubs has increased from 10 to 40. J-League Division 3 is due to start. The game has developed a lot. An indicator of this is the number of first class players produced by Japan. “When I won the Asian Cup,” Zaccheroni said, “there were only three or four players abroad. Now there are more than 25… And everyone is watching them. Italian clubs should follow them more. There are deals to be had. The beauty is they’re all young.”
Never has Japan had a group of players so experienced in playing in Europe. Eiji Kawashima, the goalkeeper who made two penalty saves in the Asian Cup semi-final and received the Man of the Match award in the final, is at Standard Liege. Atsuto Uchida, the right-back, is one of eight members of Zaccheroni’s Confederations Cup squad including captain Makoto Hasebe to play in the Bundesliga. He also became the first Japanese player to feature in a Champions League semi-final.
On the other side of the defence there’s Inter’s Yuto Nagatomo. Between them, Maya Yoshida, a regular in the Premier League at Southampton, partners Yasayuki Konno at centre-back. In midfield, the evergreen Yashuito Endo continues to add to HIS 131 caps. Then of course there’s Honda, the CSKA Moscow playmaker, and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa, “one of the best players in the world,” according to his former coach at Borussia Dortmund Jürgen Klopp. They allow Japan to play neat and intricate football. “We play the ball without fear,” Zaccheroni said. “We try to play against anybody.”
If only they had a striker, though. That was one of the refrains after Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Brazil, a scoreline that flattered the hosts a little. It was a disappointing result. “I think that today we haven’t show what we are capable of. We were only at about 50% of our potential,” Zaccheroni said.
If Japan play closer to it on Wednesday they could well cause Italy problems. Don’t write them off. Zaccheroni-san, as he’s referred to, will presumably break from speaking through the interpreter in his teamtalk to use one of the phrases he has learned in Japanese: Ganbare – Go for it!