Soccer : Coach Turns Losing U - 23s Into Olympians

Soccer : Coach turns losing U-23s into Olympians“Before developing as a player, you must develop as a human being.”
This is the phrase Japan under-23 manager Makoto Teguramori kept repeating to his team after taking over the post in January 2014.

Last week, the players met his expectations, showing their development by winning the U-23 Asian title in the unfamiliar environment of Doha. The team, which had been dubbed “the losing generation,” beat archrival South Korea 3-2 in the final of the AFC U-23 Championship on Saturday, finishing the tournament with a 6-0 record. Along with the title, the team gained qualification to this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Facing a 2-0 deficit in the final, the young Samurai Blue came back with three second-half goals.

“It was so dramatic. What we needed was to make up our minds and just attack,” the 48-year-old coach said.

“I told my players, ‘Let’s give our country courage and excitement once again.’”

The group has a track record of losing in big matches. In 2012, the team was beaten by Iraq in the quarterfinals of the AFC U-19 Championship, missing out a ticket to the FIFA U-20 World Cup. In 2014, the team lost again in the quarterfinals, this time at the AFC U-22 Championship and at the Asian Games.

For a team with a “mild” demeanor, Teguramori brought in one principle: competition.

During the recent U-23 tournament, Teguramori played almost all 23 members, except goalkeeper Ayumi Niekawa.

Teguramori’s idea of using competition to spur on his players could be seen in the starting lineup for the semifinal against Iraq, in which the winner qualified for Rio. Tatsuki Nara, a benchwarmer for FC Tokyo in the J.League last season, was one of the two starting center backs for the crucial match. Partnering Nara in central defense was Naomichi Ueda, meaning that Takuya Iwanami, a mainstay defender who appeared in 30 matches for Vissel Kobe last season, was sitting on the bench.

“The three had been pushing each other to develop, so I thought it would be a good experience for them,” Teguramori said later.

“I didn’t want to make an arbitrary decision on who was the best from a group of players who are still developing,” he added. “If all members of the group have the chance to start, they can help each other develop.”

Tohoku spirit shapes coaching style

Born in 1967 in Gonohe, Aomori Prefecture, Teguramori enjoyed playing soccer with a soft plastic ball before classes started during primary school.

At Gonohe High School, the soccer team he was on made it to the quarterfinals of the national high school championships. At that time, however, it was difficult to earn one’s living by playing soccer. He joined the corporate Sumitomo Metal Industries team, the predecessor of Kashima Antlers, working at a factory in the morning before heading to practice.

“It was an era in which a soccer player couldn’t survive without having fighting spirit,” he said.

Teguramori began coaching after his playing career ended in 1995 with NEC Yamagata, now second-division Montedio Yamagata. He later led Vegalta Sendai for six seasons, leading the club to promotion from the second division to the top division. Vegalta finished second in the top division in 2012.

Teguramori’s ability to unite the Tohoku team after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake became a major factor in his being chosen as the manager of the young Samurai Blue. The experience at Vegalta helped set the foundation for his principles.

After taking over the national team, he has emphasized activities off the field such as having the young players experience zen meditation at a temple to foster discipline and a sense of unity. In October 2015, the team visited a pediatric ward of a hospital to interact with children.

“Those who are blessed with healthy bodies and become members of a national team should serve to create purpose of life for people,” he told his team.

“I’ve learned that the more the players — including the substitutes — think about serving the team, the more the results will become better,” said midfielder Riki Harakawa, who scored the winning goal in the semifinal against Iraq.

Teguramori is also known for often joking to get closer to his players. Even after being tossed into the air by players after the victory on Saturday, Teguramori did not get swept away by the moment, using his physique as the butt of a joke: “I believe it was good physical training for the players.”

When the team arrived at Haneda Airport on Sunday night, Teguramori praised the players.

“The growth of the players enabled us to achieve the goal of winning a ticket to Rio as the Asian champion, winning all our games.”

He went on to express his eagerness for a medal at the Rio Olympics.

“I want to do my utmost to change the path of Japan’s soccer history.”