TOKYO (AP) — Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni says playing against tough opposition has given his team greater confidence as it prepares for a fifth straight World Cup appearance.
Since taking over after the 2010 World Cup, Zaccheroni says one of his main goals was to take Japan out of its comfort zone by playing against some of the world's stronger teams. Over the years, Japan has had a reputation for dominating in Asia but struggling against teams from Europe and South America.
"In the three and a half years since I've been here, I've asked that we play stronger teams away," Zaccheroni said on Monday at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. "In the past the team was a little shy when it had to confront the stronger teams but this isn't the case anymore. The team has more confidence now."
Japan has been drawn in Group C with Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia for next year's tournament in Brazil. While the Colombians are regarded as the favorite, the group is seen as relatively even. Losses against Belarus and Serbia in October put the Italian coach under fire but a 3-2 win over Belgium and 2-2 draw with the Netherlands in friendlies last month has eased the pressure.
When asked in Japan's players need to have more of an edge when playing tougher teams, Zaccheroni said he has tried to get the Japanese players to take advantage of their unique strengths. "Japanese culture is different," he said. "When we play teams from South America or Europe we understand those players play a different way, with an edge, so instead of asking my players to be meaner, I ask them to be smarter."
Japan surprised many at the 2010 World Cup by advancing past the group stage with wins over Cameroon and Denmark before losing on penalties to Paraguay in the knockout stage. Zaccheroni knows the expectations will be high for Brazil, but says it's important to keep things in perspective.
"We'll be in a place where there is 85 percent humidity and there will be a lot of travel," Zaccheroni said. "All we can do is to try to show other teams how good we are." One of Japan's best players, forward Keisuke Honda has signed a 3 1/2-year contract with Zaccheroni's former team, AC Milan, and will join the club before the end of the year. Some have suggested Honda's transfer to the Italian team will hinder his World Cup preparations, but Zaccheroni doesn't see it that way.
"I know Honda very well," he said. "I know his mental and physical qualities and his character so I am sure it will be good for him to go there. He will be highly motivated there and I am sure he will be fine when our team gets together in May."