TOKYO (AP) — When hiring Alberto Zaccheroni, the Japan Football Association was convinced the Italian coach's calm demeanor and European know-how was the perfect combination to take the national team to the next level at the World Cup.
Under coach Takeshi Okada, Japan advanced beyond most expectations in 2010 with wins over Cameroon and Denmark before losing on penalties to Paraguay in the knockout stage. Japan also reached the second stage when it co-hosted the World Cup in 2002.
To take Japan a step further, the JFA sought out a coach with a proven track record at the highest level and so now they're relying on 60-year-old Zaccheroni, who guided AC Milan to the Serie A title in 1998-99.
Japan is ranked lower than group rivals Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia heading into the World Cup, but that will mean very little to the Asian champions once they get to Brazil.
"I've been doing this for 30 years," Zaccheroni said, explaining his confidence despite a lack of World Cup experience as a coach. "I was a coach in the Italian league, which is the hardest league in the world. This has helped me."
Zaccheroni's coaching career started after injury forced his retirement as a player at age 30. His managerial career took off during the 1997-98 season when he guided Udinese to third place in the league and qualification for the UEFA Cup.
His success at Udinese earned him a job at AC Milan and Zaccheroni delivered instantly, winning the Serie A title in his first season with the Italian giants. His subsequent stints at Juventus, Torino and Lazio never matched his early success, but Zaccheroni's reputation as an astute tactician remains firmly intact.
Hired in 2010, Zaccheroni's tenure in Japan got off to a spectacular start just two months after he was appointed when his team had a 1-0 win over an Argentina team containing Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Diego Milito. They followed that up with victory at the 2011 Asian Cup.
A comfortable World Cup qualifying campaign was capped when Japan became the first team to qualify for Brazil, securing the spot with a 1-1 draw against Australia last June.
But it hasn't been an entirely smooth run for Zaccheroni. An erratic performance at the 2013 Confederations Cup, where Japan lost all three group games, was followed by losses to Serbia and Belarus that cast doubts over his tenure as coach.
Zaccheroni never panicked, though, and the concerns were quickly put to rest when Japan held the Netherlands to a draw and had a convincing win over a strong Belgium lineup to finish 2013.
Japan has turned to foreign managers in the past. Philippe Troussier was at the helm when Japan advanced to the knockout stage in 2002 before being eliminated by Turkey. Brazilian great Zico was in charge during a disappointing showing at the 2006 World Cup in Germany when Japan failed to reach the knockout stage.
Anything less than what Japan achieved in South Africa four years ago will be viewed as a disappointment.
As skilled as he is at managing Japan's young players, Zaccheroni knows quite a bit about handling expectations, too.
"I have enough experience to know that we have to deal with other factors, such as the strength of the other teams, the heat and humidity and the traveling," Zaccheroni said. "There will be a lot of strong teams at the World Cup, but this is our chance to show how strong we are."