As a man who carved a career out of the abstract science of numbers, quantity and space, Hirofumi Yoshitake seems to have discovered the perfect formula for football success.
A former maths teacher, the Japanese coach long ago traded the classroom for the training pitch, and his current crop of students have learnt fast, returning half-term reports at this Fifa Under 17 World Cup that would attract more than a little high-school envy.
Yet, it is hard to dislike these attentive students. In topping Group D, Japan not only registered victories from matches against Russia, Venezuela and Tunisia, but did so playing a brand of football that would not look out of place at Camp Nou, or the Amsterdam Arena. Coincidentally, it is no fluke.
“The team that inspired me the most was Johan Cryuff’s Netherlands in the 1970s,” Yoshitake says.
“I’ve also learnt a lot from watching Barcelona. They’re a reference point for many people, but it’s their educational system that really interests me – the way they instil their style of play in all age groups.”
The collective is key. In cruising toward Monday’s last-16 encounter with Sweden in Sharjah, Japan have given game time to all of their 21 players. Indeed, they are the only side to have adopted such an approach and still remain in the tournament.
That team ethic was emphasised in the final pool match with Tunisia, when Mizuki Hayashi featured as captain despite occupying a role as third-choice goalkeeper. There are no teacher’s pets here.
“It’s been my policy for many years,” Yoshitake says.
“Rotation is part of my system. I prepare my teams so that everybody can play together and I don’t have a designated captain – every player could wear the armband.”
It is a policy that works well. Having joined the Japanese youth development system in 2009, Yoshitake has routinely achieved top marks at U16 and U17 level. A quarter-final reverse to Brazil at the last World Cup in Mexico represents his last defeat in this category, with the coach spending years collecting the finest group he could.
Initially, 200 players were scouted and assessed during qualification – a process that included a friendly tournament in the UAE in January – with Yoshitake then tasked with crunching the numbers. For someone well-versed in the intricacies of managing and moulding teenagers, it was a relatively straightforward conundrum.
“My former students were ages 14 to 16,” Yoshitake says.
“That experience helped me to better understand this generation; to appreciate their mentality, to know how they think, what they want and what they like.
“What I look for above all, however, are strong mental attributes. I chose players that I can rely upon, players with the right mentality and a real team spirit. I put a lot of stock into the importance of discipline.
“I want each of my players to be able to count on their teammates, to show a willingness to give their life for each other if necessary.”
While that may seem a tad extreme, there is a strong sense of unity among the class of 2013. Married to the guile and gusto evident in performances thus far, Japan are right to set sights on a semi-final spot, at least.
However, that does not form their mentor’s sole focus. While the senior World Cup may come too soon next summer, there is Russia 2018 and then, of course, the Tokyo Olympics two years later. Yoshitake expects a number of graduates.
“This team is not just for the Olympics,” he says.
“I want these players to play all over the world so they can return to Japan with the experience that will help us advance. The world is before them; this is just the beginning for them.”
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