Norio Sasaki: “Factors to decide winners and losers lie inside us”

The Japanese Football Association have published a special interview by Kumi Kinohara (sports journalist), with Japan Women’s National Team head coach Norio Sasaki.

I have shared the interview below, which gives a great insight into how Nadeshiko Japan are taking up the challenge to retain their FIFA Women’s World Cup title.

Interview and text by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist via JFA:

Q: How do you look at the year 2014?

It was a highly productive year for us. When we played in the AFC Asian Cup in May, which was the Asian qualifiers for this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, I gave various young players an opportunity to play with us as I have been trying to merge them with our core players as part of our preparation for the World Cup. My intention is to play the world championship with the squad formed around a good mixture of our experienced players and younger ones. Obviously, we cannot have all the younger players I tested in our World Cup squad, but they could be in line for the next Olympics or the World Cup after this year.

Q: To that extent, it was a big success to win the AFC Asian Cup with your young players?

Yes, I used some of our younger players in that tournament, partly because this time the tournament was not on the FIFA international match days, but I thought that was a good occasion for me to see how far those youngsters who showed good performance in the domestic league would play. When you were aiming to win the Asian Cup, that situation was rather challenging for us. However, we achieved our aim, and the success brought encouragements and good experience to our players. I also had a similar assessing opportunity at the Asian Games in September.
When we played the Algarve Cup in March and the friendly matches away with in Canada in October, we had a team featuring many of our experienced players. So, I was able to assess our players making comparison in those tournaments, which helped me gather my thoughts on what I should do this year and onwards and look at the depth of our players. I think we have been in the right track to find out the situation with the depth of our players.
On top of that, I could see what our players can do and cannot do in the friendlies with Canada who had developed their game by playing a number of games with some other good opponents. Playing on the artificial turf was also a good experience for us to get some feelings and touches of what they are like ahead of this year’s Women’s World Cup.

Q: Can you tell us more on what your players could do and couldn’t do in Canada?

I could see that even when we play with those experienced players, they can be less impressive with less smooth combination work if they don’t play together long enough. When I consider the fact that we will need to play with more quality at the World Cup, we should work harder and intensively during the training camp at the Algarve Cup 2015 and before the World Cup.

I also confirmed that we also need to improve our stamina to enable us to implement our brand of total football, in which we attack and defend inseparably. But if you lose your stamina, you would lose your brain work, too. In addition, we can expect that our opponents will have leveled up their game, and we should level up our game more, too. If we take this coming World Cup with the same standard as we had four years ago or at the 2012 London Olympics, we would be in a huge trouble.

Q: Are you expecting different responses from your opponents this time then?

Yes. They would be able to get away from our pressure in a play that we were able to block them and win the ball, and they would play more compact so that we might not be able to weave through their offense easily.
The more you lose the ball, the harder you need to move around to win the ball back. Then you would waste so much energy in your game. So, we need more stamina and intelligence to play our game which we attack and defend inseparably. We also need to keep a good team balance and positioning in attack to prevent our opponents from going for short-counters.

Q: When you won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2011, you expected a tougher competition in the following World Cup as the teams will probably have worked to so level up their game in the following years. Now how do you see the changes in world football?

This is about the same level as I expected. For example, every team now seems to have a player who can break through the opponents with her individual skills. Teams can have better possession and team play, and you don’t see a long field as often as you saw before. They know that short-counters are effective, too.

You can also learn many from the men’s FIFA World Cup. When I watched the past World Cup, there were two groups of team — one was those who tried to make their team like then champions Spain, and the other was those who looked for a style to beat Spain. More teams from the latter case including Germany advanced to the knockout stage, and Spain got eliminated at the end of the group stage.

In this coming World Cup, we can expect more teams who will have developed their game such as New Zealand, so we should be more aware of who we play and how we play. We will have one game added as the tournament expanded this year. Our opponents may change their style just to beat us. So, all in all we should get ready to do more and better than our opponents will do against us.

Q: What do you think of the draw of the World Cup? Japan will play three World Cup newcomers.

You cannot take it easy just because they are newcomers. They can be more eager with nothing-to-lose attitude. If we play in a passive manner, then we can be in trouble. The first match of the tournament is particularly important, so we will look at Switzerland as a powerhouse.

People say that our group is quite easier than the others, but if we believe that we will be tripped off. The factors to decide the winners and the losers lie inside us. Therefore, we are improving our football quality as much as we can.

The expansion of the tournament is something has to come in a process to spread women’s football around more in the world. We as the world champions will make sure to prepare well and aim for winning the group first.

Q: What are your plans to work with your team to prepare for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in the remaining months?

The Algarve Cup will be the opportunity for us to work on our game intensively, apart from our final training camp for the World Cup. As we can play good teams from the rest of the world at Algarve, I would like to call up our best available players, play against them to find out what we are missing from our game and fix our game in the remaining months. I also want our players to work on their physical fitness and gain more stamina while playing for their club and return to the national team for the final tune-up sessions ahead of the World Cup.
We will have 23 players in the squad but need assistance from back-up players. I hope every player will have a strong awareness that they are a candidate for the World Cup squad so that they can be ready when we need them. I am going to deliver the information on what we will have worked at the Algarve Cup to share the thoughts and visions on our game with those back-up players, too.

Q: What is your objective for the year 2015?

That is to win the FIFA Women’s World Cup. When we played in the last World Cup, I think people in Japan didn’t really know that we were aiming for the championship. But this time, they know we will be fighting for defending the world title and we will play with their expectations on our back. On top of that, we know our opponents will set their focus on beating us. It will be a challenge for us to do well in such conditions at the World Cup.
I am quite positive that we will complete our team-making process if we work hard and positively on our game. It would be nice if we can win at Algarve too, as we only became the runners-up twice before.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup is the festival for women’s game held once in four years, and it is a great opportunity for us to attract the people’s expectations and try to meet them.
I hope that our men’s team will win the AFC Asian Cup in January and create a good passage for us as they did so in 2011. We earned good courage from their victory and went on to fight and win the World Cup in Germany a few months after that. I am hoping that things will develop the same as four years ago, so that we can pick up good momentum from them for our World Cup campaign.

Interview and text by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist


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