SINGAPORE: When he held his first training session with the Singapore national team shortly after being appointed in June 2019, Japanese head coach Tatsuma Yoshida felt a key quality was lacking.
“It's very important to play with confidence and play with pride. The boys seemed (like they) didn’t have confidence. That was my first session, first impression,” Yoshida said. “The decision making was a bit late, and I didn't understand why the players (would) hesitate.”
He could also feel a sense of "fear" and "worry". But this wasn't down to a lack of ability, stressed Yoshida, who recently signed a contract extension to keep him with the Lions until December 2022.
“(I don’t want them) to think about any other things. If we lose or if they cannot play well ... That’s my job. If we lost the game, lost the match, it is on me,” he explained.
And fast forward almost two years, and Yoshida, seen by some as an unknown entity when he was appointed, has brought a measure of confidence back to the Lions.
Yoshida’s reign began with a 4-3 friendly win over the Solomon Islands, before a 2-1 loss to Myanmar.
But, Singapore has punched above its weight during its World Cup qualification campaign.
Under his charge, Singapore, who are the lowest ranked team in their group, are third in the five-team group with seven points from five games, two points behind leaders Uzbekistan and one behind Saudi Arabia.
Up against four sides who had all qualified for the previous edition of the Asian Cup, the Lions went toe to toe for most of the matches, notching wins against Yemen and Palestine.
The 2-1 victory against Yemen in particular was notable as it was Singapore’s first away win against Middle Eastern opponents in more than 10 years.
“Our football, so far, I think (it is) good but not enough,” reflected Yoshida. “I think the players can do more, but they showed good performance.”
CONVERSING THROUGH THE BALL
When first approached about the Singapore coaching opportunity two years ago, Yoshida’s first instinct was to turn it down.
“I didn’t know the details but the JFA (Japan Football Association) called me. ‘Do you have interest in coaching in Singapore?’ Actually, I said, No,” recalled the 46-year-old, who was thinking of staying in the Japanese League.
“But I was really considering this opportunity to take Singapore, it’s very rare ... hard to get,” he said. “I consulted the coaches in Japan … asked them what they thought about it. All of them said you have to try, you should try.”
Yoshida was no stranger to Singapore football, having signed a month-long contract in 2002 for the now-defunct Jurong FC.
“The players’ knowledge is much better now, of the game, how to play, tactical side (of things). Because they have watched many games, overseas games,” said the former midfielder.
But Yoshida’s appointment to succeed interim coach Fandi Ahmad came somewhat out of left-field, as he had never managed overseas or outside the Japanese domestic league.
“It doesn't matter, for me (whether people knew me or not). I understood that the public .... didn't know me. sure, I’m not famous in the whole wide world, in Japan, most people do know me.” he said.
“Of course I have experience ... But I (want) to prove my ability, to show my personality. Because I always believe in myself. Of course, as a coach, I was excited to get this opportunity, this (excitement) was more than my fear or worry.”
‘WE NEED TO PLAY FORWARD’
One of the things which Yoshida has tried to instil within the team is competition for spots. He has not been shy to call up fresh faces, and throw them into the fray when the need arises.
Take Hami Syahin, who earned only his fourth cap when he started in the 1-3 World Cup qualifier loss to Uzbekistan. Defender Darren Teh also earned his first cap in a 0-0 friendly draw with Jordan.
“(During that first training session) I thought: ‘Oh, okay I have to call up new talent to join us.’,” Yoshida recalled. “Some players ... their attitude is good but they don’t have competition.”
And the players have responded well, said Yoshida. “I’m really satisfied with their attitude,” he added.
The Japanese tactician has also tried to get his team playing the way he wants them to. This means possession football, pressing, and getting on the front foot, he noted.
“I want them to play forward ... attacking. That means playing more aggressively. Always we want to have the ball, play with the ball,” he explained.
“If the opponent has the ball, we have to win the ball, press them. If we have the ball, we have to play forward.”
This philosophy was best exemplified during Singapore’s first goal against Palestine at the Jalan Besar Stadium in 2019, where pressure from striker Ikhsan Fandi forced a centre-back into an error, before marauding defender Shakir Hamzah slammed the ball home.
“The match in Jalan Besar (stadium) against Palestine (was our best performance so far),” said Yoshida.
“The game’s tactical level was not our best. but the passion, the energy, it was fantastic. It moved me.”
This will be a big year for the men’s national team. The Lions are slated to resume their World Cup qualification campaign in June and will also compete in the AFF Suzuki Cup at the end of the year.
Both have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Suzuki Cup postponed twice - pushed back from November 2020 to April this year, before another announcement pushed back the tournament further to the year end.
As a result, the Lions did not play any international games in 2020.
“We have to focus on the World Cup qualifiers,” said Yoshida, who said it was too early to set targets for the Suzuki Cup. “Hopefully, we want to keep third place, and also I want us to put in good performances.”
The first-placed teams in the World Cup qualifying groups and top four second-placed teams will move on to the next round of the qualifiers and confirm their spot in the 2023 Asian Cup.
However, teams that do not make this cut can continue in the next round of Asian Cup qualification and still make the tournament.
While things in Singapore are “comfortable”, Yoshida said, being away from his wife and two daughters is a challenge.
“It’s difficult for us, I intended to bring the family (here) but it is not possible because of COVID-19. Just this thing is hard for me, other things are okay,” he said.
His family are used to the demands of the job, explained Yoshida. He previously stayed apart from them during his coaching stints at Albirex Niigata and Ventforet Kofu.
“They (my daughters) understand what dad’s job is … Now it's better because at end of last year I went back to Japan for two months. I spent time with my family … my wife asked - 'When are you going back to Singapore?”
While he could not speak much English as a player in Singapore, it wasn’t an issue, noted Yoshida.
“Back then, I couldn't speak English, (it was) just playing,” he recalled. “We can converse through the ball. Football is football, it’s not so difficult.”
But with the need to dish out tactical instructions as a head coach, Yoshida has been taking English lessons in earnest ever since he arrived.
“Now I understand more things, but (when it comes to) my listening, sometimes I don’t understand (because Singaporeans speak too fast),” explained Yoshida, who now operates without a translator.
“(Speaking) is okay. I always tell my players before the training session - you have to understand my English!”