The only Frenchman on the Japanese bench (1998-2002), Philippe Troussier maintains a very strong link with the Asian archipelago. Last June, he was invited by the Japanese Federation for the Japan – Brazil match (0-1), which celebrated the 20e anniversary of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, during which he led the selection in 8e finals, for the first time in its history.
“They gave me a big reception before the game”, explains the 67-year-old Frenchman, inducted into the Japan Football Hall of Fame. At the end of the meeting, Troussier had even been invited to make a speech in the locker room of the Japanese players. Proof of the link that unites him to the land of the Rising Sun, whose course he assiduously follows at the World Cup. Before 8e final against Croatia, this Monday, December 5 (4 p.m.), the one who sometimes officiates in the Japanese media gives his view on the Blue Samurai, whom he sees as capable of continuing their adventure in Qatar.
Are you surprised by this team from Japan to Qatar?
If you had asked me before the tournament if Japan would qualify in this group, along with Germany and Spain, in theory I would have said no. Even though Japan have many internationals abroad, along with seven locals, which gives them experience… Yes, I’m surprised. But after the second victory, against Spain (2-1)I tell myself that it is not a coincidence.
“Japan realizes its value”
What were Japan’s strengths during this group stage?
It is simply the result of know-how. With coaching, talent and a bit of luck. They have a rather interesting bench, capable of bringing more, especially in the offensive phase. Several players have explosion abilities, are fast. We will say that they had very little the ball (26% against Germany, 17% against Spain), but the objective is not to make passes, it is to score goals. Failing to possess the ball, they destroyed the opponents’ circuits. That is, European comfort, with predictable play. They destroyed it all. I even saw the panic of coaching foreigners, with a Luis Enrique (Spanish coach) who no longer knew what to do. He didn’t have the ingredients to answer!
In 2002, you were the first coach to qualify Japan in 8e finals (eliminated by Turkey 0-1). How had it happened?
It was considered a feat. We scored Japan’s first points in the World Cup (0 points during his first participation in 1998). We finished first in the group, with 7 points. And it was with a team made up almost exclusively of local players, most of whom had taken part in the 2000 Olympics. (eliminated in quarter). So a very young squad, which had reached the final of the U20 World Cup in 1999. All of this was a great laboratory that I had set up in 1998, and we managed to reach the second round. Unfortunately, we were less good against Turkey, a bit like Japan this year against Costa Rica (0-1). It is on this kind of opponent that we miss.
Since then, Japan has once again reached 8are finals of the World Cup in 2010, 2018 and therefore 2022. Has the selection definitely settled in the top 16 in the world?
Japan is a team that can indeed climb into the top 15-20 in the world. We must not forget that in 2018, they had exploded Belgium, leading 2-0 after an hour. The management of the last thirty minutes had perhaps been done a little naively (3-2 victory for the Belgians). The players lacked experience in relation to this type of big meeting. This year, it’s almost witchcraft. Against Spain and Germany, it’s a carbon copy. The coach replaces Mitoma and Doan in the second half, then they score two goals in five minutes… It’s not coaching, it’s witchcraft! This is a team that realizes its value.
“Japan is not a country with a football culture”
Has there been a growing Japanese interest in football since 2002?
No, it’s the same. The true European supporter represents a fairly small percentage. It remains a popular sport for children. But those who love football, they love the stars. Of course, they have more knowledge of football, because the media produce more specific articles. During the 2002 World Cup, there was enormous enthusiasm, with many people at the stadium. When it ended, everyone went home, we kept the real supporters. Today, the enthusiasm comes from performances like against Spain and Germany. And Japan is fond of media events where the flag is at stake. But it’s not a country that has a football culture, they are more baseball. On TV, there is more baseball than football.
Is this the right year to break the glass ceiling of the 8are of final?
Yes. They beat two world champions, and not just anyhow. It wasn’t an ‘accidental victory’, like Saudi Arabia beating over-stressed Argentines (2-1), even if it achieved a great World Cup. Japan has a head start, because it has a lot of players playing abroad.
In your opinion, does Japan suffer from playing in Asia, thus meeting less frequently with major world nations?
Sure. We progress through competition. It is obvious that if Japan was in Europe, it would allow it to grow even more. What does it take for Japan to progress? If we take into account the technical programs, training of coaches and players, there is nothing to add in Japan. The players must be recognized internationally. This is now the case, many are evolving in Europe. And what more do you need? These players must evolve in the best European clubs, in the Champions League. The Japanese overseas are in minor clubs. If ten played in PSG, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, that would be a plus. We still have to wait for that to happen.
How do you judge this upcoming match against Croatia?
I say 50-50, because these are cutthroat matches. Afterwards, Japan has an advantage because it has the ingredients to respond to the Croatian attacking game, but above all to push them back and disrupt them. He gained confidence against Germany and Spain. And it should be noted that it would be more than a feat if Japan climbed into the quarter. But I wouldn’t be surprised.
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MAINTENANCE. Philippe Troussier: “Japan is destroying the comfort and predictable game of Europeans”
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