World Cup manager has an ego to match

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World Cup manager has an ego to match

There’s confidence, and then there’s Takeshi Okada confidence.

The Japanese national football team manager announced earlier this week that he intends to take his team to the World Cup semifinals.

Followers of Asian football might know that this is not the first time Okada has gone on record with his gaudy ambition to take his men where only one Asian team has gone before.

But while Okada and his players have been talking about winning for months, this time Okada specifically referred to Korea’s final four appearance at the 2002 World Cup.

“I said I wanted to shock the world,” Okada was quoted as saying in an online interview with the International Federation of Football, commonly known as FIFA. “If South Korea reached the semifinals, then why can’t we?”

Not one to rain on anyone’s parade, but I see three big reasons why they can’t: the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark.

The Netherlands is ranked third in FIFA’s world rankings and Cameroon, 11th overall, is the top African squad. As for Denmark, don’t let the 28th FIFA ranking fool you. The team finished ahead of fifth-ranked Portugal and Sweden, No. 42, in its World Cup qualifying group (Japan is ranked 43rd).

Planning ahead and setting lofty goals is one way to motivate a team. But first there’s this little East Asian Football Championship featuring Korea, Japan, China and Hong Kong playing Feb. 6 to 14 in Tokyo. Okada should win this before he starts discussing the late rounds of the World Cup.

Contrast attitudes. Huh Jung-moo led Korea to the only unbeaten record in the World Cup qualifying rounds to secure Korea’s seventh consecutive World Cup appearance, in the process nailing down the AFC Team of the Year honor. Huh is preparing to gather his players at the Mokpo International Football Center in South Jeolla this weekend to prepare for the East Asian Football Championships, and here’s what he had to say to the local media:

“It’s true that our offense was lagging at the recent overseas training camp. We plan on working on our positioning and ways to maximize goal-scoring opportunities among our players.”

Huh said yesterday he is open to the idea of giving 2002 and 2006 World Cup members Ahn Jung-hwan and Lee Chun-soo another shot when he calls in overseas-based players from Europe and the Middle East for friendly matches starting in March. Ahn was an integral part of the 2002 squad and is best known for scoring the game-tying goal against the United States in the group phase, as well as the game-winning goal against Italy in the round of 16.

Although Huh did mention in some interviews immediately following Korea’s qualification that his goal is to manage Korea to the round of 16 in South Africa, he has otherwise stayed focused on improving Korea’s attack and evaluating players to trim down the current pool of players to the 23-man roster he’ll take to the March 3 friendly match against Cote d’Ivoire.

So why is Okada fixated on what seems like an improbable goal?

To understand where he’s coming from, we need to look no further than his previous managerial stint with the Japanese national team in 1997-98. Japan qualified for the 1998 World Cup, the country’s first, and was grouped with Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica. Okada predicted that his team would win one, draw one and lose one in the group phase.

But Japan went on to lose all three of its games, coming under heavy criticism from the country’s media.

It seems the wily Japanese manager has learned a valuable lesson. Lack of confidence invites attacks and criticisms.

We all know - I think Okada better than anyone else - that a final four finish for Japan is out of reach. Whatever the reason for Okada’s obsession, his approach merely comes across as a reflection of his fear of failure and the ensuing criticism.

The Feb. 14 match between a Korean squad at half-strength and Japan at the East Asian Football Championships should give football fans a preview of how the approach and style of the two managers match up. But the determining match can come on either May 24 or 25 when Korea plays one of its final tune-up matches against Japan.


By Jason Kim [jason@joongang.co.kr]
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