Zaccheronis on-off love affair with Japan
Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni believes his "love affair" with Japan will bear fruit at the World Cup after four roller-coaster years which has seen Asian Cup success but also intense criticism for reverses.
The 61-year-old has been in charge of a dozen Italian clubs. The highlight was the 1999 Serie A crown with AC Milan but Zaccheroni has also managed Inter Milan and Juventus.
However, nothing would give Zaccheroni greater pleasure than to emulate the Japan teams of 2002 and 2010 in taking them into the knockout stages of the World Cup finals. And he can have realistic hopes looking at Group C in which Japan wlll take on Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast.
Zaccheroni, whose contract ends at the end of the World Cup, is convinced that his players can finish in the top two in their group.
"I believe Japanese players can overcome bigger, physically superior and wily European and South American sides by demonstrating the subtle techniques peculiar to the Japanese," he said.
Japan and Inter-Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo was effusive about Zaccheroni's time with the national side. "He hasn't learned Japanese, but he has learned to love my country," he told the Inter Milan website.
"Our team has grown a lot since he arrived."
Zaccheroni once said in Italy: "I consider myself half-Japanese. I am in love with Japan."
Off the pitch, the Italian has honoured his words in becoming a fan of Japanese culture.
Born into the family of hoteliers and restauranteurs, the bon viveur carries with him a tube of wasabi, the mustard-like condiment used to spice up sashimi.
Nicknamed "Zac", he took over the Blue Samurai from Takeshi Okada after Japan reached the last 16 in South Africa in 2010, their best performance in a World Cup outside of Japan.
Despite some pundits believing he was past his best when he took the job -- his first as a national team coach -- he was largely welcomed by the brand-conscious nation as the first Italian to coach any side in Japan.
"When my adventure ends, I want to leave a lot of good memories to show Zaccheroni's samurai have played well," he said in his inaugural news conference.
His first match in charge backed up his words as Japan stunned a Lionel Messi-led Argentina 1-0 in a home friendly. However, doubts resurfaced as they struggled to claim a record fourth Asian Cup in January 2011.
Despite this, Zaccheroni's experience of European football has paid off with other memorable friendly wins over top level nations, upsetting former world champions France in 2012 and the highly-regarded World Cup seeds Belgium 3-2 last November.
However, where they may be found out is despite possessing several creative players they lack a clinical finisher.
The World Cup dress rehearsal in Brazil last year, the Confederations Cup, also proved a chastening experience
Japan lost all three group matches, to the hosts, Italy and Mexico.
Zaccheroni was criticised for being reluctant to test young talent and relying too much on the established Europe-based stars including AC Milan's Keisuke Honda and Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa.
The knives were sharpened again when Japan were beaten by Belarus and Serbia last October, but once again he staved off critics with the shock win over Belgium and a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands.
Zaccheroni's challenge will be to translate those excellent results into wins in the cauldron of the wold's greatest football competition.
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