Kuala Lumpur: Eighteen years to the day when Japan historically qualified for the 2002 FIFA World Cup knockout stage for the first time, the-AFC.com exclusively speaks to then Samurai Blue team coach Philippe Troussier to reflect on a moment in time for the East Asian powerhouse.
Now working in youth development within Vietnam's U-19 side, the tactician originally replaced Takeshi Okada in 1998 at the helm of the Japan national side, with a mission to improve upon the nation's previous results in their FIFA World Cup debut in his native France.
Troussier recalls the time leading up to Asia's first FIFA World Cup and the four historic matches that he oversaw as head coach.
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It was a four-year process to get ready for the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan and Korea Republic.
There was a lot of preparation and organisation going on within the country both on and off the pitch for this big tournament, the first in Asia – I was even helping to choose the grass for the pitches!
I was overseeing three different categories of the team: the U-19 side, the Olympic/U-23 side, and the senior team. There were perhaps over 150 players I was managing in my evaluations, in what I like to call my 'laboratory'.
We achieved a lot of success with these three sides in the build up to the World Cup.
With the U-19 side we finished runners-up at the 1999 FIFA U-19 World Cup, the Olympic side finished in the top five at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, while we won the 2000 AFC Asian Cup and were runners-up in the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup with the senior side.
Ahead of the match with Belgium, we had some friendly matches with Italy, Ukraine, Poland and Sweden, and the four matches went successfully for us and gave us confidence.
Japan 2-2 Belgium
Saitama Stadium, Saitama
June 4, 2002
I don't know if I would say we felt pressure ahead of the opener. It was the first World Cup game for many of them, but things had gone well in the four years preparation and we felt confident. The preparation was done, the job was done, we were ready for anything.
It was an important match, but it wasn't one we were looking at as a must-win. Our target was to qualify for the knockout round and so we took this game as one within the context of all three games. We speculated that we could qualify with four points.
The match itself was the first match for everyone. No one really knew anything about each other. So it was a like the early rounds of a boxing match as the two opponents try to study each other and so the first half was very balanced between the two.
I set us up in an attacking outlook, deny them more than three passes in a row and put them under pressure, and when we have the ball to attack quickly. It was an aggressive strategy in the first half.
We conceded first, unfortunately, and it could have then gone very badly for us. We were among the youngest teams at the tournament and inexperienced, so when you play at home and you concede first it can undo all the good work.
But just two minutes later, we equalised. It was an amazing moment for us to get back into the race. To level things up so quickly gave us a big boost of energy and morale.
We put a lot of pressure on Belgium and scored a beautiful second goal. Ultimately the match ended 2-2, though, and maybe that was a fair reflection of the game.
To be honest, we were delighted with the point - our first in Japan's World Cup history. We were in the race and on target to achieve our goal.
Japan 1-0 Russia
Yokohama International Stadium, Yokohama
June 9, 2002
We knew the second match against Russia was extremely crucial and the result could go a long way to determining our goal or not. I thought if we could get at least a point, our dream would remain alive. So, of course, we did set up a bit more defensively compared to the Belgium game.
Meanwhile, having beaten Tunisia in their opener, we knew that Russia could themselves qualify with victory against us.They perhaps came into the match with a little bit of arrogance, maybe they did not think we were a tough opponent.
In the match, our defence was excellent, so strong, although we didn't have a lot of chances going forward. But the few we had we were very efficient about and, of course, we scored from one of those.
Having taken the lead our defensive strategy then allowed us to control the game. This showed our maturity as a team to see out a game in this manner.
The win against Russia was amazing, just amazing. The first World Cup win in the history of Japanese football. We led the group as Belgium drew with Tunisia. It was an amazing moment for us and the whole country. It was a symbol of the rise of football in the country.
I remember the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. [Junichiro] Koizumi came to the dressing room after the match and celebrated the victory with us. He was dancing and singing with the players, it was an amazing moment for everybody at that time.
Japan 2-0 Tunisia
Nagai Stadium, Osaka
June 14, 2002
The last group stage match against Tunisia was, of course, a special game. It was a chance to achieve our dream, our target: to qualify for the knockout stage of the World Cup.
But it was not an easy game. Tunisia, having drawn their game with Belgium, mathematically could still qualify themselves! Japan four points, Russia three points, Belgium two points, Tunisia one point – and everyone still in contention and with the same target.
Of course, our destiny was in our hands: a draw was enough and even a slim defeat would have been okay. But in some ways, it was the match we had the most pressure in because unlike the other two games we were expected to win.
So, I didn't want to play conservatively or with control, I wanted to win it with a K.O. like in boxing. So we played with an attacking strategy and at half-time when it was still goalless, I made two attacking substitutes and brought on [Hiroaki] Morishima and [Daisuke] Ichikawa.
And after just three minutes, Morishima scored. It was a fantastic moment, it liberated the energy of my team, the stadium was completely crazy and we felt we were going to qualify. Then we got our second and we knew we were going to finish top of the group – amazing.
The country was completely overjoyed by this result, to reach the knockout stages, and obviously, personally, I was very satisfied because we had achieved our dream of four years work and preparation.
Japan 0-1 Turkey
Miyagi Stadium, Miyagi June 18, 2002
The match vs Turkey was quite different. I remember when we were preparing for the game, I spoke to my players and I said: 'Look, we achieved our dream and we're in the last 16. This match against Turkey is for you.'
Everybody knew that I was stepping down after the conclusion of the World Cup, it was a one-shot deal for me.
I said to the players: 'This match is your first match in the preparation for the 2006 World Cup. You have to show more. More responsibility, more confidence, more experience.'
Perhaps I made a mistake, perhaps I gave the players too much responsibility to win the game. I wanted the players to take their responsibility. The coach is an important guide but he cannot do everything. I was still involved, of course, but I prepared for this match differently as compared to the group stage.
It was, in truth, a strange match. We played at three o'clock in the afternoon in a large stadium, raining a lot, all the fans wearing white ponchos – it was not a Samurai Blue atmosphere, it was a Samurai White atmosphere!
In a strange way, I can say I regret winning the group. If we had finished second we'd have played Brazil in Kobe at 8PM. If I had a choice, with hindsight, I think I'd have preferred to face the Brazilians under the floodlights with that kind of atmosphere and opponent, I'm sure we'd have put on a great performance.
I only realised the extent of the pressure and intensity on the team years later. I came back in 2006 as pundit on Japanese TV and it was then I realised how much the expectation was.
There were millions and millions watching on TV and expecting victory and for me to help deliver it. But at the time, when you're on the pitch, you're only focusing on your team and block out everything else.
You only realise later when you re-watch the match again years later, or just walking on the street then you can feel the people are happy, the people are proud of that team. That it was a crazy and an amazing time to be a part of the team. Only after do you hear the stories of people dancing, singing in the street, and jumping in the river after we made the knockout stage!
I am so proud to be part of the story of Japan's World Cup history. The Japanese people didn't forget what we achieved together.
Whenever I come back to Japan I feel every day that when I meet people they haven't forgotten Philippe Troussier, they haven't forgotten the Japanese national team of 2002 and I am so happy and so proud that we are in the hearts of the Japanese people.
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