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Asian Classics: Japan's 2004 triumph an unforgettable moment, says Zico

Kuala Lumpur: Sixteen years ago, Japan showed their resolve to overcome a partisan home crowd and a series of challenging opponents to lift the AFC Asian Cup for the third time. 

Their head coach, Brazilian legend Zico, talks exclusively to about one of the highlights of his illustrious career as he led the Japanese to an historic victory in China PR.

“To be able to lead a team like Japan at the Asian Cup in China was not only an honour, but a challenge and it’s a victory which I cherish and which I will keep with me forever. It was an unforgettable moment in my life.”

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Few figures during the last half century have been as iconic as Arthur Antunes Coimbra, the man the world knows as Zico and who, in 2004, led Japan to victory at the AFC Asian Cup title in challenging circumstances in China.

The former midfielder’s on-field career needs little introduction.

Lauded as one of the greats of the game, Zico was the creative fulcrum of a Brazil side that captured imaginations at the 1982 FIFA World Cup.

Prior to that, he led Flamengo to the Copa Libertadores and the Toyota Cup – when he ran English champions Liverpool ragged – a year earlier.

After hanging up his boots, the man from Rio de Janeiro worked as technical director at J.League side Kashima Antlers and had been technical coordinator with Brazil’s national team during the 1998 FIFA World Cup.

But little of that would prepare him for what lay ahead over three-and-a-half gruelling weeks as the Samurai Blue overcame the absence of key players, an intimidating atmosphere and a succession of determined opponents to win the AFC Asian Cup China 2004 in the most dramatic fashion.

Japan went into the tournament as defending champions having won the AFC Asian Cup in Lebanon in 2000 in style and, under Frenchman Philippe Troussier, had gone on to reach the knockout rounds of the FIFA World Cup for the first time two years later.

Troussier, however, departed at the end of his contract following Japan’s co-hosting of the FIFA World Cup and Zico, who had spent the final years of his playing career with Kashima, was appointed in his place as the country sought to build on the successes of the previous four years.

While the Frenchman had been meticulous in his tactical preparation, Zico brought a new, freer style to the team, encouraging his players to express themselves in a manner more in tune with his own football origins.

Nine of Japan’s World Cup squad players were picked for the China tournament, but several big names were unavailable.

Hidetoshi Nakata, the country’s talisman and someone Zico calls “the best player Japan ever brought to the world”, was ruled out due to injury, while club commitments meant the likes of Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto were not involved.

Japan did, however, have Shunsuke Nakamura at their disposal, with the Italy-based star keen to prove himself after his exclusion from the 2002 squad, and the Reggina midfielder was to make his influence known early in the tournament in spectacular fashion.

Drawn in a group that featured Oman, Thailand and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Japanese edged a nervous opener against Milan Macala’s Omanis 1-0 courtesy of a beautifully improvised strike from the future Celtic man that gave Zico the start he wanted.

“People who understand football will see that our win over Oman was the best moment of the group,” says Zico. “The win over Oman not only meant I had what I needed, but I also had an amazing player on the pitch that day in Nakamura, who scored one of the most beautiful goals I’ve seen. It was not only beautiful but it was fundamental. It was important.”

The importance of the goal – an exquisite strike with the outside of Nakamura’s wand-like left foot - lay in Zico’s desire to finish first in the group, with a winning start imperative to achieving that target.

A 4-1 victory over Thailand in their next game, despite going behind to an early Sutee Suksomkit goal that caused the Brazilian to “almost suffer a heart attack”, meant a 0-0 draw with the Iranians in their final group game was enough to seal top spot as desired.

The draw with Ali Daei and company was a drab affair, but it was to offer Zico and his team some brief respite from the drama that would ensue once the knockout rounds commenced as the Samurai Blue faced Jordan in a quarter-final that would go down as one of the most eventful matches of this – or any – AFC Asian Cup.

“Jordan had a team which surprised everyone, including me,” says Zico. “It was not only a difficult game, it was a game when I was scared for a moment. This was one of the two most difficult games in the Asian Cup.”

The Jordanians, coached by legendary Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary, took a surprise lead through Mahmoud Omar Shelbaieh only for Takayuki Suzuki to level the scores three minutes later.

By the end of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra time the teams remained locked together, taking proceedings into a penalty shoot-out.

“We drew and I was really surprised that we couldn’t beat them in the 90 minutes, but when we went to the penalty shoot-out it was a horror show,” says Zico. “What happened there was so unique and unexpected.”

It was also unprecedented. The Japanese missed both of their opening spot-kicks through Nakamura and Alex while Jordan’s Abdullah Abu Zema netted before referee Subkhiddin Mohd Salleh decided to switch the shoot-out from one end of the pitch to the other due to the poor condition of the turf around the penalty spot.

Initially the move seemed to mean little as Rateb Al Awadat converted to give Jordan a 2-0 lead before successful efforts from Takashi Fukunishi and Hatem Aqel took the score to 3-1. Going into the fourth round, the Japanese were staring elimination in the face.

“We were 2-0 down and then it was that my heart came out of my mouth and I can only say that God came down at that moment and helped us because they had scored their first two kicks, then we scored our third as the first goal,” says Zico.

“If they scored one more they would have eliminated the champions and I would have had to go home. But they missed three penalties in a row and we scored three instead which, until now when I see this video, it still amazes me.

“(In the end) they missed four penalties in a row and that was something I’ve never seen in all of my career. They needed just one goal to send us home, we would have been eliminated and on that day, when they kicked the seventh penalty out, I smelt the smell of the championship. We smelt like champions.”

Japan won the shoot-out 4-3 in the seventh round, with captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto scoring before Bashar Bai Yaseen’s miss ensured the champions pulled off a remarkable, improbable escape.

Zico may well have been growing in confidence but the drama was to continue into the semi-finals.

Japan travelled to Jinan to meet a buoyant Bahrain side that had been amongst the most impressive of the tournament, with striker Ala’a Hubail establishing himself as one of Asia’s most potent strikers.

It was to prove to be another thrilling game, with Hubail putting Bahrain ahead after seven minutes and Japan’s hopes suffering a second blow when Yasuhito Endo was sent off five minutes before half-time.

The champions, though, showed their mettle in the early phase of the second half, taking a 2-1 lead with goals from Nakata and Keiji Tamada, only for Hubail to level 19 minutes from the end and Duaij Naser to net what looked to be the winner for Bahrain in the 85th minute.

Deep into injury time, however, the 10 men of Japan salvaged the game when Yuji Nakazawa’s header earned his side a reprieve and a 3-3 draw that meant the match moved into extra time.

Three minutes after the start of the first period of additional time, Tamada hit the Bahrainis on the break to put Japan back in front and, once Bahrain’s Sayed Jalal was sent off two minutes into the second period of extra time, Zico’s team closed out another eventful clash.

“It was fair and it was deserved,” the Brazilian says of the 4-3 extra-time win. “I saw on that day a team that had a quality that I did not see or cherish before, which is courage. They showed the warriors that they were and they changed my perception of the team that they were.

“To win that game proved they were not just another national team and we had here the smell confirming itself. The smell of victory. All of our games in China had that extra factor, the emotion, the drama. Every game in China was like this.”

And so, on to the final where Japan were to meet hosts China at the imposing Workers’ Stadium in Beijing.

The team stood on the verge of delivering the country’s third AFC Asian Cup title in four attempts, but to clinch the title Zico and his team felt as if they were taking on China’s entire 1.4 billion population.

Japan had experienced difficulties throughout the tournament given the rivalry between the two teams and those tensions were ramped up ahead of the meeting on August 7.

“This was a final and they are traumatic,” says Zico. “As a player I have been through many of those and I told the players I was with them every inch of the way. I was in many finals and I wanted that title more than anything, and I won quite a few.

“Those 11 players I picked to represent Japan that day, they were chosen because they were able to beat any opponent in Asia. Whoever was in that final that day they could have beaten them. Asking them to give the maximum was the next thing I wanted to say, but I didn’t need to because it was clear already.

“They were looking for more motivation by listening to stories of finals I played in, but I said: ‘No, you must concentrate on this final because this is the one I want the most’. That was the message. Forget my finals, this is your final. This is our final, the one I want the most.”

Japan made a strong start and took the lead through midfielder Takashi Fukunishi only for the Workers’ Stadium to erupt in celebration when Li Ming equalised in the 31st minute.

Nakata, however, put the Japanese back in front 20 minutes into the second half with a close range effort that appeared to come off the Kashima Antlers midfielder’s hand, only for referee Mane Saad Kamil to wave away Chinese protests.

The Japanese continued to push and, in injury time, Tamada scored a decisive third to kill home hopes of a first title and ensure the AFC Asian Cup trophy went back to Tokyo.

“The match was hard to survive,” says Zico. “We scored first and they tied the game, surprising us. I knew my players had to find good news and they found it when they scored the second goal and I knew no one could beat us because suddenly I saw they were strong and we scored the third.

“But the number of opportunities surprised me. We had quite a few to increase the score and to silence the fans in the Workers’ Stadium, which was crowded like I have never seen.”

The success in China meant Japan equalled the record of three AFC Asian Cup titles shared by the Iranians and Saudi Arabia and lifting the trophy amid a febrile atmosphere made the victory all the more significant for Zico and his team.

“It made me happy beyond the normal,” says the Brazilian. “It was something unique that I as a player never felt because this tournament was filled with so much tension, emotion and drama that I considered that to be one of most important moments of my career.

“For me maybe it was, after my time as a player, the most important, certainly as a coach. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life as a whole, and I must say that unquestionably it was number one as a coach. But I lost 10 years of my life. I got older during that tournament!"

“What I can say was it was a pleasure to coach such a team, but please understand we had obstacles every day. Only those who were there by my side know what I mean and what I’m talking about.

“When we returned to Japan people talked about our posture and our behaviour and it was very important that we kept the Japanese tradition of respect.

"I was told I brought the most important title in Japan’s men’s football history by the Japan Football Association. The title was important because we overcame those obstacles and those difficulties.”

Photos: AFP, AFC

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