Troussier Showed the Way
Lionel Piguet spoke to Philippe Troussier about his time as manager of Japan, the 2002 World Cup, and much more! This article originally featured in JSoccer Magazine issue 20. (Available in PDF form or on real, actual glossy paper on this very web site!)
JSoccer Magazine: How did you end up as manager of the national team of Japan?
Philippe Troussier: After the 1998 World Cup in France, Japan was looking for a coach for their national team. In Japan, the choices always seemed to be related to current events, and the current sports news was that France was the world cham- pion, so a French coach was on the cards, and I had just finished the World Cup with South Africa. Also, I am a friend of Arsene Wenger who was highly respected at the time in Japan, so a number of cir- cumstances put my name in the hat. A little similar to current Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic, who, when Japan ended up having to find a head coach in an emergency ,was a French coach who just had a good World Cup with Algeria, which made Vahid one of the favorites to get the job. I benefited from these conditions too.
JS: How were your first days in Japan?
PT: I met the people in charge of the national team on the day of the World Cup Final in Paris and then we reconvened in early September in Japan where I met a number of people, among them the vice president, the general secretary, and the technical director of the JFA. It all moved very quickly after that, with press conferences and a first friendly match, against Egypt in Osaka. I had a week of two sessions with various players - one with the Under 23 squad and with one with the “A” team - in Fukushima and that gave me a quick idea of the squad. Adding this to watching many videos and I was straight in to the Egypt match, which allowed me to get an idea of the potential of the current players, and I then continued with mini camps to get to know the players of all ages (with the Olympics coming, too).
I was fortunate to have all three categories to coach: the “top team”, who were destined to play in the World Cup four years later; the Under 23 squad who were looking to qualify for the 2000 Olympics; and the Under 20 lads, who had just been crowned Asian champions, subsequently qualifying to play the U20 World Cup in Nigeria, a country I knew well as I had been Nigeria's national team coach. So I found myself in charge of these three categories, and I must admit that this process helped me a lot, as, if you consider the 2002 selectees for the World Cup you will see that over 80% of the players were from the under 23 and under 20 selections.
PT: Since I was the coach of all three categories I assembled a staff that was “mobile”, a combined staff that comprised of my assistants, physical train- ers, goalkeeping coaches, my video engineer, and more. All of them came together to represent one entity and I was lucky there that were no confusion at this time, because the various tournaments were organised in a way that the games did not overlap. All of the players were subject to the same manage- ment, the same exercises, the same communication and the same discipline, with no difference between the Under 20 and the top team's players. The best U20 players integrated into the U23 squad, and, in turn the best of the U23s made their way into the first team. Usually there are three different groups of staff for the three categories, which is also the case in Japan now, of course, and if you ask Halilhodzic to go take care of the U23s these days he will probably say that it's not his problem. He will take the best U23 players for himself in the Samurai Blue squad, but the educational process is not his concern, whereas I really managed all of these categories, so, when you say “impose the same systems”, I did not impose anything as such, as I was the coach, but the methods were the same.
JS: Which players made the biggest impression on you in Japan?
PT: When I started my stint Masashi Nakayama was the striker and what a great personality! Nakayama scored the first goal under my era against Egypt with a penalty (see picture below). Nakayama had been around the national team for a long time, the symbol of longevity and in 2002 he was the “Guardian of the Temple”. I took him not to play but to be part of the group and to continue the symbol of Japanese tradition. I wanted someone with combative values. I called him the Guardian of the Temple because, with him there was a kind of symbiosis. There were important on-field values but above those he had off the field values that were more important in my eye. He was, of course, a football player and at any time I could use him in that capacity but his first work for me was that he preserved the serenity of the group. Nakayama made such an impression on me and I can tell you that he also made that same impression on the entire sphere of Japanese football.
Kazu (Kazuyoshi Miura) also made an impres- sion on me because he was a star in Japan, although I selected him only two or three times. But you could feel that respect around him, just as with Nakayama, but in a more calm and discreet way. I met him on several occasions, and the press always put a lot of pressure on me to involve him and I won’t say that I was influenced by them, but there came a period where I felt I had to meet him. He is someone who is always present in football and someone I like to see when I come to Japan.
Then there is Hidetoshi Nakata, of course, who was an important man in my group as he was the only one at the time who was playing at a big European club and of course he was living the dream of what a young footballer could do. He was an ambassador of success, quality, and showed the potential of the Japanese footballer. There had to be players proving it on European soil and he showed it every day in the Italian League, which at the time was considered the best in the world.
And then there was this generation of young players that have marked what some have called “The Troussier Era”. Players like Shunsuke Nakamura - even though I could not take him to a World Cup as he was not match fit – who marked the whole Olympic generation with me. Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto, Atsushi Yanagisawa, Naohiro Takahara ... all players who were part of“my story”. Don't forget that Inamoto scored two goals in the World Cup when he was only 20 years old. I am probably unin- tentionally ignoring some other players but let's say that Nakata is the one player who represents the best of “Troussier's Generation”, and then Kazu and Nakayama are characters who were important during my four years in Japan.
JS: How would you characterise your management?
PT: I feel I am characterized by my tactic of using a “flat three” defence, and very aggressive pressing, which was new at the time. Defense on the ball and not the man, for which we had to change the way of playing. But as soon I started with the youngsters, I understood right away that they were much more malleable, which explained why I basically ruled out the team that had just played the World Cup in France and started afresh. I only retained four or five of players from that squad for the 2002 tournament. If you look at Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, for example, no managers would have selected him if we were judging on criteria that are usually related to the high level game: height, aggression or strength in one-on-one duels. When you look at my players they were smart and mastered the Troussier system to perfection and Miyamoto was the leader of the three central defenders, he is the one who responded the best to my requirements. I told my players that they won't ever play for Arsenal, Real Madrid or Juventus (although Inamoto DID go on to play for Arsenal – editor’s note!) but they, my Japanese team, was capable of beating England, Spain or Italy. It was necessary to build a strategy to face the world, a world that didn’t play fair.
The Japanese side played with respect, did not foul indiscriminately or argue with the referee, but we soon discovered a completely different world. The Japanese players were spit upon, and elbowed. They were stamped on, and opponents dived in the box to earn a penalty. The Japanese league was too soft in my opinion, and had no dirty play, while the fans seemed to be lots of girls in mini skirts, throwing teddy bears at you. All of this “darker side” they had to learn, so I was this teacher who prepared a commando squad capable of getting results. Today it is much easier to select players. There are perhaps 21 players out of 23 who play in Europe with foreign coaches and are surrounded by great players, while in my time there was only one. I do not want to compare but it would not be pretentious of me to claim to have started to write Japan's football history in the World Cup. The first point was won during the Troussier era, the first victory and the first qualification for the second round, also.
JS: David Camhi (see separate teaser article), your former assistant, told me that you had a paternal relationship with your players. Would that be the best way to describe it?
PT: Yes, paternal is a good word to use in the sense that I'm not interested in just the technical side and what happens on the field, but I am also interested in my players’ lives, their living style, to what happens before and after workouts, to help them show professional conduct in the exercise of their profession. I am demanding when it comes to their performances at work, in training, in the translation of what should be done on the pitch, how to get the ball, to control it or to pass it. I give them targets and expect them to play to their best ability possible. I am also paternal in that a handshake or a look in the eye is enough for me to understand that I am in harmony with my players. And personally I need to have that contact with them, I need to feel them, talk to them, or tease them. It is my way.
JS: Do you still follow Japanese football?
PT: Yes of course, although, while I can't tell you what was, for example, Vissel Kobe's exact score last week, I wouldn't be too far from the right result.
JS: What do you think of Japanese football now?
PT: If I had to judge now, this team will be the favourite to qualify for the World Cup from the final qualifying. This team is among the top three in Asia, which is somewhat different from my day, because we were part of the top two, or even the top. Period. Then, we shared the leadership with South Korea, but today Australia has arrived and Iran has also made great progress. So we can say that there are now four or five teams that can claim the title of champion of Asia and that Japan must accept to share this ambition, although Japan has a very well- organised team and is very well-armed. The success of a national team is effectively linked to the work done with the youth foundations and, in Japan, that foundation is excellent. Clubs are very well organised, coaches' training policies are great, the players and the referees are the best you can find, as well as the education in this system being top notch. Those conditions make players disciplined and respectful. But the advantage of the national team today compared to my time is that 90% of the national team consists of footballers playing in top European clubs. I remember a question that I was asked on many occasions, "Mr. Troussier what should we do to be stronger?"
I answered, "You will be stronger the day you will be recognised by the world of football, the day your players play overseas." That is now the case.
JS: Among the current crop of Japanese players, are there one or two players that you would like to have in your team now, if you were manager?
PT: Certainly, without singling out anyone too much, but Shinji Okazaki at Leicester City has made enormous progress at this stage in his career, his maturity, his posture ... I know Ranieri likes to coach this kind of player as he is always available for the ball, and combative. If you ask me, as a coach if I'd like to have him, I would say yes right away, but let’s not only speak about the stars. When I was in China, I would look for Japanese players, I always looked for Japanese players. I would always advise all French clubs to bring a Japanese player into their squad. Almost immediately after moving to a new club, a young Japanese player will be completely adapted to the requirement of his team, to the highest level. Will he culturally adapt to life abroad? This is another question because some succeed while others fail because they do not have the ability to change their behaviour and their attitude, perhaps due to the hyper protection they enjoy in their home country. It's true you have to be a bit like a cowboy to go abroad. But if one were to judge them with a pen and a paper and say, you're going on this side, you run with the ball, you dribble and cross, or you run and shoot, we would find that among the top twenty in the world there would be maybe ten Japanese technically good enough to fill the requirements.
JS: What is the difference – football-wise – between Japan and China?
PT: The main question would be how is the youth foundation in China? China is very, very late in working with its youth. China is a little bit like the French model, the guy who goes to school doesn't do sport or football and if sport is forced upon him, he will try to get a medical certificate to escape from having to do it. Also, China lacks infrastructure and football clubs. So if you want to play football in China, you must live in, or close to a city with a football infrastructure. Even though there are millions of kids, perhaps only 200,000 want to play football and among those 200,000 only 50,000 can find somewhere to practice football in a normal footballing environment. They have players with good physical qualities, they are strong and they have the will. They have everything needed to play football, but to catch up to the Japanese, it will take a lot of time.
JS: How was your time in China?
PT: I wanted to go to China and I had several oppor- tunities to lead the Chinese national team but I did not want to do that because, at the time I had just left Japan and, frankly I couldn't see myself coach- ing another nation. Japan brought me to the peak of my career and the experience I gained with this organisation, with the process that led me to four years of managing all three age categories, with a team at the Olympics, even the involvement in the construction project of stadiums, was vast. In short, I really was the “Minister of Football. So, honestly, I did not feel I was not ready to face this challenge again, especially with China, where I knew the work I would be expected to do. So I was not motivated. And then, eventually, I arrived via the back door, at a small second division club, and I do not regret that, since I discovered a club in need, who were lacking everything. I arrived at a club that wanted to build itself, that needed to start from the basics. Going to a club so urgently in need did not bother me, in fact it was the opposite. It allowed me to discover things anew, and it allowed me to immerse myself in those principles of approach that I had forgot- ten. It's like if you asked the manager of a bank to restart his career by working at the service counters. I did four years there, and I do not regret it at all. It's an experience that enriched me and helped me discover China.
JS: And China is where you met David Camhi, who was originally your translator?
PT: Yes, David was in Taiwan, a friend of Tom Byer, who introduced us, and he happened to be available immediately. Having no family he was able to join me right away, not only as translator, but also to create around me an environment related to my needs. When you coach you need a number of services in order to get the best out of your players, such as hotel and aircraft reservations, equipment, workout schedules, and much more. We needed to coordinate all these services and this is what I always try to establish when I arrive somewhere. David became that person. In addition he has great football knowledge which was helpful to to sit around a table to talk about football and analyse a match. David was the one with who made sure that all was well in place, that the training session was going to be the next morning, that we were going to play with the right equipment and that the balls were all pumped up, so that I could concentrate on other things. I needed a dedicated person, especially in a Chinese club without a clubhouse or a training ground... a club, in short, with nothing. Club Shenzhen Ruby was a bus, a circus that moved to a training ground here one day and there the next. In addition,
Chinese players do not go home. We had to feed them and get them a place to live and it was, in some way, like a military organisation. For that, David was a very, very valuable assistant.
Gradually, his status changed for me. since I could talk football with him. and he was also doing an excellent video
montage job. He had a very good way of making technical reports about our opponents and as he was in total harmony with my way of being, I have to confess that the first person I would consult to debrief or prepare a game, was David. We were together 24 hours-a-day so it was easy to talk football with him because he was an integral part of my life.
JS: In your opinion, does David have what it takes to be a good coach?
PT: He already has the passion and the will. What is being a good coach? It's to have the assurance of mastering your subject, as well as ensuring your players are in optimal condition for them to give their maximum on matchdays, and it's especially to make the most of your theoretical potential. A good coach is one who uses 80% of his potential, while a bad coach is unable to use his potential opti- mally. If you are in the first division of the district, a good coach is not the one who will be asked to be European Champion with that team but he will be the one who is asked to use his average potential, a medium potential, but he uses 80% while another trainer with a higher potential would not know how to use it, and uses only 20% of his potential.
JS: You have coached in Europe, in Africa and in Asia. Is there a big difference in any way?
PT: The difference is in how the players receive your message. A European will translate it on the ground with superior skills. since he probably has a higher education. He has knowledge, he has the culture, so he will be better at replicating your exercises on the field, and his technical execution will be greater. The unit will be greater in Asia, and here I am talking about the disciplinary side. They respect the coach. An Asian player will be more disciplined collectively and will modify his behaviour to adapt to your
expectations. In Asia you only need to raise the tone of your voice for things to change, in Europe you will be obliged to communicate longer and more personally with individuals. In Asia we speak to a group, while in Europe we talk to an individual. A European will be sensitive to the way you talk to him individually.
JS: You imported the first Taiwanese footballer to play in China, Chen Po-Liang? Was it difficult for him at first?
PT: My requirements are always quite exceptional, as David or Po-Liang would tell you. I have a rather unusual approach when it comes to requirements... some players will adapt and will be responsive while some others won’t adapt. Then, there are two ways to react, one will continue to fade away because he lacks the ability or he will not make the effort to correct his errors, while the other will make the effort to take it on and respond. Po-Liang is the latter.
JS: What kind of player is Po-Liang?
PT: He is an explosive player with exceptional physical qualities, able to do things very, very fast, which allows him to dribble quickly, and to project himself relatively quickly in a new situation. He is a very versatile player, who can play in defence or in attack, in the middle from left to right, and up and down, which is important. And then he has the mentality of a very friendly person: always available, always cheerful and smiling which, for me, makes him a key player. He followed me to Hangzhou and today he is in full bloom. During all those years of good and bad experiences he acquired the maturity that today makes him a player of a very, very high calibre.
JS: Can you tell us about your future?
PT: Firstly, I have a certain lifestyle. I choose what I want to do. Do I have the motivation to go on adventures as I would have done before? No, I do not! Primarily because of my age. I’m 61 years-old now. I had the opportunity and privilege to work at two World Cups, I led national team selections, I worked for eight different federations, and coached over 200 international matches, World Cups, Asian Cups and African Cups. In summary, it has been 25 years since I started coaching in football. My motiva- tion today is to share my experiences with projects that I select. I get plenty of offers but I did not want to do any of those because they concern either clubs or national teams that have I would have to build from scratch, or they are projects without the human and financial resources that are essential keys to the success of projects especially in football.
So here I am trying to develop another project, a project that I like a lot: I own a vineyard in Bor- deaux, Saint Emilion, and I am trying to develop it. I take great pleasure in doing this and my goal is for it to be productive, and to develop a high qual- ity wine. My father was a butcher and I find these values of the land and handicrafts important. For the record, it is a wine that will be 99% marketed in Japan. So today, do not give the image of a Philippe Troussier who stopped being involved in football. Rather than that, I am in position to choose my projects, quality projects, that allow me to share my experience. At the same time have I reached an age that allows me to develop a post-football activity, and choose now to be the development of my vineyard.
JS: Thank you VERY much!