Japan may be perched at the top of its second-round group in Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, but coach Vahid Halilhodzic has branded his team a “third-division” outfit and says he fears for the future of the J. League.
In an end-of-year interview, the Bosnian delivered a bleak assessment of the state of the Japanese game after his first nine months in charge, saying that reaching the finals in Russia is not a foregone conclusion because of a lack of creativity and natural-born strikers.
“Japan are 53rd in the FIFA rankings, so say if 1 through 20 is the first division then ability-wise, that puts us in the world’s third division,” Halilhodzic said. “We have to improve in every department — technically, tactically, physically and mentally.”
After being held to an embarrassing 0-0 draw at home to Asian minnow Singapore in its opening qualifier, Japan has recovered to move atop a weak Group E that also includes Syria, Cambodia and Afghanistan.
The Blue Samurai have scored 17 goals and conceded none in six matches played so far, but Halilhodzic warned of a far tougher road ahead.
“Our opponents in the final round of qualifiers will be at a whole different level than the ones we have faced in the second round, teams like Iran, South Korea and Australia. Even China are improving,” said the former Algeria coach.
“A lot of people think Japan are at an advantage but if you compare player for player there are better teams than Japan. The finals are still way off in the distance.”
Like so many of Japan’s foreign coaches before him, Halilhodzic points to the absence of a killer instinct in front of goal as a pressing concern.
The 63-year-old cites Japan’s highly structured society as a reason for his players’ lack of creativity and ability to take the initiative on the pitch.
“In attack, goals have been harder to come by than I imagined,” he said. “We need a proper goal scorer. The stronger our opponents are, the fewer chances we are going to get. That is when you need goals. Why are there no Japanese players leading the scoring charts in the world’s top leagues?
“Japanese society is wonderfully organized but there are few opportunities for individuals to take the initiative, which leads to a lack of creativity. And that shows in matches.
“The Japanese disposition comes to the fore when you look at defensive organization, but in attack you have to be willing to take matters into your own hands.”
Halilhodzic said the fact that a new generation of players has not come through to supplant the likes of AC Milan attacker Keisuke Honda also presents a sense of crisis.
“There aren’t any players to replace Honda or (Dortmund midfielder Shinji) Kagawa and the future is uncertain. The style of football in the J. League and Europe is completely different, especially when it comes to the competitiveness,” Halilhodzic said.
“You have to think of ways to improve the J. League. Japan has to find its own identity and not just copy Brazil or Germany. In my mind, I have a way of building a unique team that draws on the strengths of each and every player.”