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Soccer: Japan coach Zico has sights set on World Cup semifinals+
[April 27, 2006]

Soccer: Japan coach Zico has sights set on World Cup semifinals+

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)TOKYO, April 27_(Kyodo) _ Japan coach Zico has his sights set on a place in the semifinals of the upcoming World Cup finals in Germany but has admitted his chief priority is guiding the Asian champions through a tough first-round group that includes holders Brazil, Croatia and Guus Hiddink's Australia.

Japan open their World Cup campaign against Australia in Kaiserslautern on June 12 and Zico knows that a positive result against the Socceroos will be crucial to his team's chances of advancing beyond the group stage.

"The main goal right now is to move on to the second stage, but I hope we can make the best four," Zico told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Thursday. "I consider the first game against Australia very important."

"Australia have quality players that are playing in Europe like (Harry) Kewell and (Mark) Viduka. These are players that if you give them space can decide a match, so we have to take care and mark them so that they haven't got the space to play."

Hiddink, who will take over the head coach's job for the Russia national team after the World Cup, took South Korea on a surprise run to the 2002 World Cup semifinals and guided Australia to their first World Cup appearance in 32 years after beating Uruguay on penalties in a two-legged playoff.

Zico acknowledged that Australia will be a tough nut to crack but insisted that all would not be lost should Japan make a losing start.

"The Australian team has changed with Hiddink because with his experience and knowledge he knows very well how to build up a team, and he knows how to get the best out of his players," Zico said.

"If you saw Australia at the (2005) Confederations Cup they were very offensive, but they were also having problems in defense and were conceding too many goals. After he came in he changed that and you can see the proof of his competence."

"But Japan and Australia are on the same level concerning condition and chances. I don't think it is an abnormal result if Japan lose to Australia but anything can happen. If Japan lose and (Japan Football Association chief Saburo) Kawabuchi wants to fire me that's okay, but if he wants to go on with me that's fine because we still have two more games."

Brazil are widely expected to cruise through the group stage and Japan's fate could rest on their final group match against the five-time world champions in Dortmund on June 22.

But Zico, a legendary midfielder known as the "White Pele," does not expect any favors from his native country in that game should the Brazilians have already sealed a place in the next round.

"Absolutely not. That would be a disgrace and no team should make any deals with other teams at the expense of a third team."

Zico's team lacked flair but showed dogged determination to become the first team to qualify and join hosts Germany in the finals, and he believes his players have matured during his four years at the helm.

"We had to put up with earthquakes, blackouts and typhoons but we won 11 out of 12 games in the qualifiers. The players have matured and we will head to Germany with great confidence."

Japan will be making their third World Cup appearance in Germany. They lost all three of their matches on their debut at France '98 but reached the second round for the first time under Frenchman Philippe Troussier when they hosted the 2002 event together with South Korea.

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