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 World Cup ' 98

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Japan Has the Fever but Needs Confidence

By Yuri Kageyama
Associated Press
Monday, April 27, 1988; 4:01 p.m. EDT

TOKYO — Echoes of "Ole, ole, ole, ole," soccer's singsong cheer, have become the music of choice at shopping malls.

Tours to France and Footix dolls, the rooster mascot for this year's World Cup, are sellouts. And sake now comes in an official World Cup version.

If there was ever any doubt, Japan has World Cup fever.

But what Japan really needs for its World Cup debut — where it will face Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica in the first round — is probably not more jittery excitement, but a solid dose of quiet confidence.

"First of all, the important thing is not to be intimidated," national team defender Naoki Soma said.

Other players also say the tendency to crumble under pressure is the team's biggest weakness.

"It's all mental," said striker Kazuyoshi Miura, the only Japanese to have played in Serie A in Italy. "When things start going bad, they end up bad. They don't know how to switch the tempo."

It's not surprising, then, that Pele, during a recent visit, had these words of advice: "What they need is to have confidence."

Wagner Lopes, a Brazilian-born forward who joined the squad after becoming a Japanese citizen last year, thinks his teammates are not far behind two-time World Cup winner Argentina in technical finesse.

What's lacking is the mental toughness that comes with experience.

"They haven't yet come to terms with their true potential," Lopes said. "If the players start believing in themselves more, they can play so much better."

To make up for the relative small size of most of the players, Japan's strategy requires intensive training and constant running, hounding the ball all over the field. Once they gain possession, they pass quickly up the side.

The key player is orange-haired midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata as famous for his aversion to vegetables as for his dazzling through-passes.

Japan's disciplined defense is dominated by players from the professional J-League club, the Kashima Antlers, who have been trained by Zico, now Brazil's technical coordinator.

At the World Cup, the Japanese will need to tighten their defense against powerful players like Gabriel Batistuta of Argentina and Croatia's Alen Boksic.

"Japan doesn't have the decisive skill to take advantage of the few opportunities that arise," said Yasuhiko Okudera, a former J-League coach. "It'd take a lot of luck for Japan to manage even one win."

Okudera believes the difference between the Argentine and Japanese soccer teams is like what separates the U.S. "Dream Team" from the Japanese men's basketball team. That's a world of a difference.

Still, the World Cup should be a valuable learning experience for the players, especially the two teen-age stars — 18-year-old midfielder Shinji Ono and defender Daisuke Ichikawa, at 17 the youngest national-team member ever.

Fans clearly have their eyes on the 2002 World Cup, for which Japan will play co-host with South Korea. By then, they hope the new generation of players will be ready to take on the world.

"I'm going for the win," said defender Yutaka Akita whose sharp heading is a major team asset. "We're a lot better than people think. I don't worry about it. Soccer isn't about size. The Brazilian team isn't all 6½ feet tall. That's what's great about soccer."

Coach Takeshi Okada is aiming for a 1-1-1 first-round record. As common wisdom has it, the best Japan can hope for is a win against Jamaica, a tie with Croatia and a loss to Argentina. Even that's considered a long shot.

"I'm hoping our opponents underestimate us," Okada said with a mischievous smile. "It's going to be tough to win. But it's not going to be impossible."

Known here as "Miracle Nippon," Japan's climactic 3-2 win against Iran on Masayuki Okano's goal in extra time last November clinched its first World Cup berth.

"Win or lose, I want them to play their best and not be afraid," 14-year-old soccer fan Yumi Goto said. "I know there aren't as many stars on the Japanese team as the Argentine team. But they already proved once that miracles do happen."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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