It is unfair to tar Alberto Zaccheroni with the brush that brought him here, but the Japan Football Association’s search for a new national team manager has been a messy affair.
Former AC Milan and Juventus boss Zaccheroni was named on Monday as the man to replace Takeshi Okada, two months and a day after Japan’s World Cup second-round exit to Paraguay in Pretoria. Rushing such an important decision would unquestionably have been foolish, but the JFA’s handling of the situation has left much to be desired.
The World Cup marks a natural end for many international managers, and so it was for Okada, who gave ample notice before the tournament began that he would retire as soon as his work in South Africa was over.
That understanding gave the green light to begin the search for a replacement, and the JFA was shrewd enough to recognize that hiring someone from inside the Japanese game was not an essential requirement. The four-year World Cup cycle allows an outsider plenty of time to bed in, and reputed targets such as Jose Pekerman, Marcelo Bielsa and Manuel Pellegrini were certainly worth pursuing.
But if everything appeared rosy as Okada stepped down, the JFA was struggling to pass the baton. Technical director Hiromi Hara was dispatched overseas to try to secure a signature, but it soon became clear that attracting the desired standard of candidate in the foreign market would not be easy.
Hara returned empty-handed after a month unsuccessfully wooing a host of European and South American names — being knocked back by Pellegrini and Spaniard Ernesto Valverde in the process — and conceded that he would have to take charge of the team himself for friendlies against Paraguay and Guatemala in early September.
Hara’s determination to hire from outside Japan, however, remained undimmed. That refusal to look inward not only excluded accomplished Japanese managers like Gamba Osaka’s Akira Nishino, but also foreign J. League heavyweights such as Kashima Antlers’ Oswaldo Oliveira — a man who has won the title in each of his three full seasons in Japan and who explicitly stated he wanted the job.
But even from a diminishing list of overseas targets, Zaccheroni’s name still came as a surprise. The Italian has pedigree from his Serie A win with Milan back in 1999, but that was a long time ago and his three years without a club until January this year should have set the alarm bells ringing.
If the appointment felt underwhelming, however, it was hardly Zaccheroni’s fault. When a search takes as long as this, and feels confident enough to ignore the best of Japan’s domestic talent, it had better deliver something spectacular.
The fact that Hara — a former player and manager — was put in charge, rather than someone with greater negotiating experience, did not help. But neither, it must be said, did the expectations of the fans and media who demanded an unrealistically glamorous name.
Now we must hope the stigma does not follow Zaccheroni into his new job.