If the JFA was stung by criticism over its appointment of national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni in August, vindication was not long in coming.
Having won the Asian Cup at the first time of asking, negotiating a series of injury and suspension problems and showcasing his depth of tactical knowhow in the process, the Italian emphatically demonstrated why his employers were prepared to wait so long for the right man to succeed Takeshi Okada after last year’s World Cup.
That search, which lasted two months, tested the patience of many who felt the team was in danger of losing momentum after a second-round finish in South Africa, but the JFA was determined to hire an experienced overseas candidate and did not rest until Zaccheroni put pen to paper.
But if the former Milan manager’s appointment was greeted with a general sense of anticlimax amid speculation that more illustrious names were in the frame, no one is doubting him now.
Zaccheroni’s substitution of Daiki Iwamasa for Jungo Fujimoto was widely hailed as the moment the tide turned for Japan in Saturday’s final against Australia, but it was not the only call that paid off. Masahiko Inoha came into the side to score the winner in the quarterfinal against Qatar, Hajime Hosogai came off the bench to put Japan ahead against South Korea in the semifinal, and Tadanari Lee capped it all off with his spectacular volley in the final just 11 minutes after coming on for his second international cap.
Just as importantly, Zaccheroni kept faith in the core members of his team despite individual mistakes that threatened to derail the campaign. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima’s red card against Syria and dreadful error against Qatar were eclipsed by his semifinal and final heroics, while striker Ryoichi Maeda repaid his manager’s faith with three well-taken goals after some anonymous early performances.
That Lee, who looked well out of his depth in his previous appearance against Jordan, scored the winner against Australia said it all about Zaccheroni’s approach. Here is a manager who does not simply preach the importance of the collective unit, but lives or dies by it.
That was crucial given the huge variety of situations Japan faced throughout the competition. From the wild peaks and troughs against Syria and Qatar to the tense war of attrition against Australia, Zaccheroni needed all his years of Serie A experience to steer a safe path to the title.
Of course not everything went according to plan, and the Italian’s decision to sit back and protect his lead against the Koreans backfired when Hwang Jae Won lashed in a last-minute equalizer.
But with an indomitable spirit such as this Japan team possesses, defeat is never a foregone conclusion. In previous years, glorious failure may well have been the outcome from such knife-edge encounters, but the image of Makoto Hasebe lifting the trophy should serve as a permanent reminder that this is a new era.
For Zaccheroni and the JFA, it could not have started any better.