By Martin Lowe
What a difference a year makes. Last March, Japan were one of the most popular national sides around. Fresh off the back of an unbeaten tour of Europe against the Dutch and Belgium, the Samurai Blue, under the increasingly popular Alberto Zaccheroni, were finding a decent run of form that promised much of their subsequent World Cup appearance in Brazil. Fast forward 12 months, Japan are on to their third foreign coach in that time following back to back major tournament group exits in Brazil and Australia.
Back in April I forecasted a sunny outlook ahead for the Japanese. Aside from the niggling doubt over who would accommodate the number 9 position, Japan looked by far Asia’s most likely candidate to make it to the knockout stages of the World Cup and make a strong fist of retaining their Asian Cup crown. Ultimately I was proved to be overly generous with my assessment as the whole set up of the side, from goalkeeper through to attack, failed to live up to expectations. Japan looked a pale imitation of what had come before, lacking any real fight that was symbolic of their abilities in both of their meagre exits.
So now onto their new appointment, as they proved successful in tempting former Algeria boss Vahid Halilhodzic to the helm to replace the outgoing Javier Aguirre. The Mexican coach had a torrid time in Japan. While results were fine up until their disappointing quarter final Asian Cup exit to UAE, off-field relations were at an all-time low. The Japanese fan base and media surrounding the camp usually spare the national team from criticism but countless signs of disrespect were creeping into Aguirre’s actions, most notably in the run up to the friendly encounter in November with Honduras where the head coach flew back to his homeland mid-camp to collect a personal award.
Aguirre’s fate was all but sealed on the lead up to Australia, when reports started to surface regarding match fixing emerging from his previous post in Spain. Allegations of this nature are never likely to go down well in any nation, but for a country that holds itself in such high regard when it comes to honesty and fairplay, Japan were keen to get rid at the nearest juncture. Fortunately, for the Japanese FA at least, they didn’t have to make the decision themselves, as Aguirre’s side emulated his attitude to preparation before the tournament, resulting in his resignation.
In comes the highly rated Halilhodzic then, the Bosnian who’s at the top of his international game after safely leading Algeria through to the knockout stages in Brazil. After Aguirre’s limp appointment, which was introduced as a short term cost-cutting procedure, Halilhodzic’s signature illustrates the error in the JFA’s ways as they return to a well sought after name in the international footballing community. His presence isn’t necessarily pleasing on the eye, but Halilhodzic lets his teams do the talking, leaving Algeria as a footballing legend after reinvigorating an attacking side that had failed to deliver for generations previous.
What Halilhodzic has in mind has been rather vague thus far, generalising press friendly quotes of a “shake up” in the squad, adding that he wishes to introduce plenty “competition” for places.
In truth, he has plenty of time to rebuild, something his predecessor did not have. Aguirre was appointed six months off a tournament the public expected to go close to winning. Halilhodzic, on the other hand, has 3 and a half years until the next World Cup rolls back into town, the qualifying for which isn’t likely to heat up until the latter stages which begin in mid-2016.
In the meantime, two bedding in friendlies at the end of this month are followed by the second round of qualifying for the Asian and World Cups which will stretch for the rest of the calendar year. They’ll have to wait until next month for the final draw to fall into place, but from the pots being projected Japan will have a maximum of 1 real contender for direct progression to the next stage.
Plenty of time then to rearrange and freshen up as the international circuit slowly gears up for a new FIFA cycle. As Aguirre attempted to do at the beginning of his reign, Halilhodzic, with help from his JFA employers, has already thrown in some wildcards ahead of the friendly encounters with Tunisia and Uzbekistan next week. The likes of Nagoya’s Kensuke Nagai will add a new dimension to the squad, while the return of Yamaguchi, Aoyama and Osako sees Halilhodzic return to the Zaccheroni selection model last seen in Brazil, the latter of whom is in need of a real boost in form after stuttering somewhat since his move to FC Koln last summer.
While the glut of incomers has been mentioned, the exit of Yasuhito Endo has been given the greatest amount of column inches back in Japan. The talismanic midfielder to date hasn’t submitted his retirement, but Halilhodzic has already drawn a clear line in the sand offering little room for sentiment, given the ,35 year old legend is unlikely to be in contention when Russia comes around in 3 years’ time. While the midfield will likely include veterans Hasebe and Konno for the time being, the emergence of Gaku Shibasaki who impressed in his fleeting appearances in Australia could well take up the mantle in replacing Endo in the long term.
Another area of interest ahead of the March friendlies is the inclusion of Gamba Osaka winger Takashi Usami. Despite his young age, Usami has already been and returned from Europe after a short spell in Germany to star in Gamba’s treble-winning campaign last year, but has yet to earn himself a single cap for the Samurai Blue.
Many have put this down to a lack of respect shown some three years ago after a bust up in an under-23 match saw him seemingly blacklisted from being called up to the seniors. A sudden change of heart may have been finally forced given his spectacular performances in the J-League which Halilhodzic will be keen to harness when Japan kick off the new international cycle on Friday.