The momentum of those calling for Zico’s head increases exponentially with every defeat the Japan coach adds to the dismal record he has accumulated since taking over the fortunes of the Japan national side.
In his first serious foray into the brutal world of professional coaching, Zico is learning the hard way that, in the eyes of the impatient public, it is not how you play the game but the results that you achieve that determine your fate. The period allocated in order to achieve results is a lot shorter on the international stage than it is in domestic soccer.
It matters little if you play well and are unlucky to lose 2-1 to European champion France (albeit its second side) or whether you play poorly and need a last-minute deflected goal to beat South Korea.
It doesn’t help either to blame the referee (“I can only imagine what the result would have been had we had a fair referee,” as Zico lamented after the France defeat), the bounce of the ball, or the fact that key players are injured. National pride is a beast that has little sympathy for excuses.
Not so long ago regarded as the god of Japanese soccer, having guided J. League side Kashima Antlers to the top as director of soccer, Zico now finds himself in the unenviable position of being a few steps from the edge of the proverbial plank.
It has not taken long, since being appointed captain of the ship after the World Cup last year, to find himself in this position. In that period of time he has accrued a record of two wins, three draws and five losses with a significant number of those games played with the advantage of home turf.
To add insult to injury, previous coach Philippe Troussier — in the tactless manner that only he knows how — suggested that his side would have beaten the New Zealand team (that Japan, under Zico, defeated 3-0) in the Confederations Cup by a margin of 8-0 and incorrectly predicted that France would whip Japan 6-0 in the same tournament.
Japan came within a whisker of taking points off France and Troussier, perhaps suffering from a dose of temporary amnesia, will do well to recall his team’s 5-0 hiding suffered at the hands of his native France in March 2001.
Troussier’s comments were at best unhelpful and it may be better for him to concentrate on his new role as technical director of mighty Qatar.
Ironically the man who Troussier dumped before the World Cup, Shunsuke Nakamura, has been leading the show for Japan of late since being given a license to thrill by Zico.
One of Zico’s first moves after taking charge was to change the playing formation from Troussier’s preferred 3-5-2 to 4-4-2. His second major alteration to the side was to allow creative players such as Nakamura the freedom to express themselves on the pitch.
Troussier limited individual creativity to the confines of the roles that he mapped out for players within the context of a preconceived game plan.
While the 4-4-2 formation has yet to prove a successful one for Japan — many, with good cause, argue that the 3-5-2 better suits Japan’s style — it is the second change that has had the most impact on the Japan national team.
Zico is trying to model his team in a similar style to the 1982 Brazilian World Cup side — which he starred on — that was flair extraordinaire. However, attaining a balanced mix of skill and creativity that can produce positive results inevitably takes time.
Just ask Sir Alex Ferguson, who for the first year of his reign as boss of Manchester United, narrowly avoided relegation. Granted he already had an immaculate record as manager of Scottish side Aberdeen, whereas Zico can’t divert his detractors with any such record.
Time was grudgingly given to Troussier when he needed it. Troussier did make progress with the Japan national team and Zico needs to be given more time to take that progress to a new level.
Talk among respected soccer writers of late seems to have reached a consensus that this is a Japanese team which is not being coached and the players appear lost and disorganized.
Certainly this looked the case in the home version of Japan vs. South Korea and also in the first half of Japan’s Kirin Cup game against Argentina.
In the Japan vs. South Korea game, Japan fielded a midfield lacking any of its regular starters. Unfortunately none of the players called up to fill the void left by captain Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto (started but was injured in the first half) and Nakamura, stepped up to the plate.
The result was a disaster — one of the poorest displays of soccer put on by Japan in a long time and against Japan’s fiercest rival no less. It was at this juncture that the egg-timer was turned on its head for Zico.
The timing of the next match could not have been worse. Still missing a few key players and coming up against as classy a side as Argentina, with confidence at a low, was a nightmare waiting to happen for Zico.
Predictably Argentina ripped into Japan and the media’s daggers once again sharpened.
Japan played reasonably well in its following games against Paraguay and New Zealand, was unfortunate not to get something out of the game against France and was extremely unlucky to lose to Colombia, but once again the results are plain to see in black and white.
A solitary win out of these four games is not going to get any manager in the world out of a time-bomb of criticism waiting to explode, although Zico himself claims to be above this.
“I have played in Italy and Brazil where the pressure is unbelievable, but I felt no stress then. I don’t feel any now,” he boldly explained recently.
To his credit, Zico has unearthed some talent in striker Yoshito Okubo and Keisuke Tsuboi in defense, and has managed to get the best out of quality players like Alessandro Santos (although at left-back his defensive ability has been called into question) and Nakamura.
Opponents have also praised some of Japan’s performances: France’s midfield star Robert Pires said that he was “pleasantly surprised” by Japan’s play against his side and French coach Jacques Santini claimed that “Japan is a very well prepared side.”
Assuming the obvious, that Japan’s soccer public is unlikely ever to take a step back and realize that Japan is not a soccer powerhouse in world terms, and therefore lower its inflated expectations of the national team, what Zico needs to save his skin, are some marks in the win column. Soon.
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