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Nishino wants Thailand to rise to the challenge


Bangkok: Akira Nishino knows what it takes to deliver when the pressure is on, but as he prepares to lead hosts Thailand into the AFC U23 Championship 2020, the former Japan head coach is under no illusions over the size of the task facing him and his players.

The 64-year-old has one of the most illustrious resumes in Asian football, having broken his home nation’s Olympic qualification drought in 1996, won the AFC Champions League with Gamba Osaka in 2008 and led the Samurai Blue to the knockout rounds at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Now, six months after being appointed head coach of Thailand’s U23 and senior national sides, Nishino enters the Finals of his first continental competition leading his new charges knowing the odds are stacked against him.

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“We feel under a certain amount of pressure because, normally, if we’re not the host then we can't play in this competition because we finished second in the qualification round,” Nishino said to the-AFC.com.

“For this competition we come in as hosts and that means if we want to make this competition more exciting we must perform well and play more aggressively.

“This tournament is very meaningful for every team that has entered because it has tickets to go to the Olympics, so this is a good opportunity for us to challenge ourselves. It will be a good experience for players to grow for the future.”

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Nishino has had a mixed experience since arriving in Thailand in July, when he took over as the long-term replacement for Milovan Rajevac.

While he has guided the senior side to wins over Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates in the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, he also oversaw a disappointing campaign from the U23 side at the SEA Games in the Philippines in November.

Thailand were eliminated from the group phase of the regional tournament for the first time since 2011 and Nishino hopes that outcome will spur his players – and Thai football in general – towards better performances in the future.

“The results in the SEA Games mean we did not prepare well enough,” he said. “Those results have an effect on the mentality of the players and many of the players lacked experience. I want to see our players go abroad so they can gain more experience.

“In the SEA Games I think everyone tried their best but we lacked experience. Many teams in Asean have more motivation when they play against Thailand and now we have to accept that we are not so far ahead of the other teams in the region. We must try to develop further in order to make the others teams in Asean follow us again.”

The AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020, which doubles up as the continent’s final qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, is the next event on the schedule for Nishino and his team, with the Thais drawn in Group A alongside Iraq, Australia and Bahrain.

With the top two teams advancing to the knockout rounds, where the battle for one of the three tickets for Tokyo will reach its climax, Nishino knows the hosts face a serious challenge in their quest to make an impact on the competition.

“If we look at the number of teams who can qualify for the Olympics we have to admit that we only have a small chance,” he said. “But we will try our best because, even if there is a small chance, we still have a chance.

“Every team in our group is better than us, so we must try to play our own style. We must try to fight, work hard and prove ourselves and show everyone what we can do.”

Photos: AFP, Football Association of Thailand

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