Just two months ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Akira Nishino has his hands full after being named as the new Japan coach on a Monday that will live long in the memory of football fans in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Dawn brought rumours that Vahid Halilhodzic, appointed in 2015, had been fired. The morning continued with reports that confirmed the Bosnian’s exit and the afternoon ended with a Tokyo press conference that explained the thinking behind it. It was also used to announce that Nishino will take charge until the end of the World Cup. The results of those Group H games against Colombia, Senegal and Poland will determine whether he lasts into July.
As outlined last week on ESPN FC, Halilhodzic’s future was questioned even during the successful qualification campaign. Results since have been poor, with the three wins in nine games coming against relatively weak opposition. Japan Football Association (JFA) president Kozo Tashima told reporters in Tokyo that discussions were held after a 4-1 loss at home to South Korea in December.
The decision was made to stick with the man who led Algeria to the second round of the 2014 World Cup, a tournament that had seen a confident Japan collect just one point. With performances not improving up to and including March friendlies against Mali and Ukraine — leading media and fans to despair of the team’s chances in Russia — the issue was raised again. That led the genial Tashima to talk to some of the members of the Samurai Blue. What he discovered led to events on Monday.
“It’s not only based on winning or losing games,” Tashima said. “We listened to the opinion of the players and other people, but that was not the only basis for this decision. In the Mali and Ukraine games, communication and trust with the players had slipped a little and we looked at all that and made our decision.”
Tashima flew to Europe this weekend to give the Bosnian the news in person. He admitted that it had shocked and angered the tactician, who was fired just four months ahead of the 2010 World Cup by the Ivory Coast and replaced by Sven Goran Eriksson.
There is time for sympathy at how history has repeated itself, but not much. Now it is all about whether Nishino, in charge of the JFA’s technical committee, can deal with the challenge of taking the team through what seems to be an open group with just a few weeks to prepare.
While the timing seems late in terms of the World Cup, it is also a little late in terms of the career of 63-year-old Nishino. A decade ago, he would have been the overwhelming and exciting choice.
Nishino was in charge for the “Miracle of Miami” in 1996, when Japan’s Olympic team defeated Brazil — Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and all — 1-0. He then took over Gamba Osaka from 2002 and stayed until 2011. In that time, he established the Kansai club as a real force in Japanese and Asian football.
Gamba won a first league title in 2005 in the last minute of the season. In 2008, he delivered the AFC Champions League and lost 5-3 to Manchester United in the semifinal of the FIFA Club World Cup. However, by the end things had unsurprisingly become a little stale, with Nishino increasingly seen as becoming overly conservative.
But that conservatism is a part of his appeal due to the lack of preparation time.
“If we had done this earlier, we might not have chosen Nishino. But with only two months left, in this situation, we came to this decision,” Tashima said.
Japan know what they are going to get with the new man, who offers the old values of safety and comfort. While the choice is not exactly exciting, it is understandable given the short time remaining.
“Of course each manager will have a way that he wants his team to play,” Tashima said. “But it will likely be a style of football that is Japanese.”
That means a move away from Halilhodzic’s attempts to make Japan more of a counter-attacking team and his desire for a tougher, more fierce approach to the game. Japan will return to what they know best: a fluid passing game that is built on having as much possession as possible. There is not much time to do anything else but return to the DNA of the Samurai Blue and hope that despite the poor preparation results, it all comes good on June 19.
The big names of the team will likely be relieved. Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda (who tweeted ‘it’s never too late’ on Monday) and Shinji Okazaki have all been dropped at times by Halilhodzic. Their chances of starting in Russia have probably just increased.
It remains to be seen if Japan’s chances of getting out of the group and into the second round for the third time ever have also risen after the events of the past 48 hours. Time, what is left of it, will tell.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.