New national team manager Vahid Halilhodzic believes he is the man to revive Japan’s flagging fortunes, but warns the transformation from Asian Cup flops to World Cup hopefuls will not happen overnight.
Bosnian Halilhodzic arrived in Japan on Friday, a day after being named as the Japan Football Association’s replacement for Javier Aguirre, who was fired in February after a match-fixing case naming him as a defendant was accepted by a Spanish court.
Halilhodzic, who led Algeria to a place in the last 16 at last summer’s World Cup, comes to the job with Japan at a low ebb having crashed out of January’s Asian Cup with a quarterfinal defeat to the United Arab Emirates.
But Halilhodzic believes the Samurai Blue have the potential to turn things around, and the 62-year-old has already targeted a place in the knockout round at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“Japan’s results have not been so good since the World Cup, but they have plenty of quality,” Halilhodzic told a press conference attended by almost 250 reporters at a Tokyo hotel, hours after arriving in the country. “Japan are 55th (currently 53rd) in the FIFA rankings but in previous years they were much higher. In the three years that I was Algeria manager, we went from 52nd to 17th, and I believe Japan can do the same.
“The main objective is to qualify for the World Cup, but we don’t just want to take part, we want to do well. We want to get through the first round and into the knockout stage. I think Japan have the quality to achieve this.”
Halilhodzic has a history of frosty relations with the press during his 18-year managerial career, but the former Yugoslavia striker was in a gregarious mood as he introduced himself to his new audience.
Japan’s players can expect a rougher ride from the renowned disciplinarian when he gets down to work, however, and Halilhodzic is eager to begin with World Cup qualification starting in June.
“I had offers from associations other than Japan, and from clubs too,” he said. “But the reason I accepted the JFA’s offer is because we share the same mentality — discipline, order, respect, seriousness.
“I would like to ask everyone for a little time. It is not possible to achieve success straight away, but if you stay patient and allow me some time, I’m sure we will achieve something.”
Halilhodzic, who also has a French passport and lives in Paris, has spent most of his managerial career in France and Africa, leading Paris Saint-Germain to the 2004 French Cup and qualifying both Cote d’Ivoire and Algeria for the World Cup.
Halilhodzic’s first games in charge of Japan will be friendlies against Tunisia and Uzbekistan on March 27 and 31, respectively, and the new manager insists winning is the only thing on his mind.
“Even if we are playing against the strongest team in the world, I want to win,” said Halilhodzic. “The worst thing is to lose without trying. I have come here with the will to win. We have two friendlies coming up, and we have to win them both. I don’t think about negative things.
“I’ve watched a lot of videos over the past two weeks and I’ve analyzed all the games from the World Cup and Asian Cup. The results were not good but the players have quality. They are just lacking confidence. Some things are easy to fix and some are difficult, and it will take time.”
Halilhodzic is the second Bosnian to take charge of the Japan team following Ivica Osim, who was appointed after the 2006 World Cup but was forced to step down after suffering a stroke in November 2007.
JFA technical director Masahiro Shimoda on Thursday denied that Osim had played a part in Halilhodzic’s appointment, but the new manager paid tribute to his countryman nonetheless.
“He’s a great person,” Halilhodzic said of the 73-year-old Osim. “He has done great things in football and he’s a big figure in Bosnia. He goes beyond football. He is someone I trust.
“I would love it if he could come to Japan to watch a match. That would make me very happen. Osim loves Japan and he has told me a lot about it.”