Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

Halilhodzic gets to work as Japan starts from scratch again

by Andrew McKirdy

The short, unhappy reign of former national team manager Javier Aguirre has cast a long shadow over Japanese soccer, but replacement Vahid Halilhodzic will care for nothing but the future when he leads the team out for the first time on Friday.

Japan takes on Tunisia in a friendly in Oita just over two weeks after the Japan Football Association named Halilhodzic as Aguirre’s successor, having fired the Mexican due to his involvement in a match-fixing investigation in Spain. The circumstances of Halilhodzic’s appointment are far from ideal, but the Bosnian is unlikely to give it a second thought as he sets about getting to grips with a new team in a new country with World Cup qualifiers looming in June.

Halilhodzic’s first squad, featuring 31 players and a further 12 on stand-by, should give him a useful crash course in the personnel at his disposal. Only two players have been dropped from the squad that lost to the United Arab Emirates in the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup in January, while there are enough new faces to freshen things up with another friendly against Uzbekistan still to come next Tuesday.

Halilhodzic has pleaded for patience as he seeks to impose his ideas, but the 62-year-old gives the impression that he will leave no stone unturned in doing so. Halilhodzic has wasted little time in immersing himself in every facet of the job, and those who know him best see nothing out of character.

“Japan have chosen a good manager,” former Cote d’Ivoire goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, who Halilhodzic managed during his time in charge of the African side from 2008-10, told Sunday’s Nikkan Sports. “He always works hard and is very positive. His mentality is to always tackle things head on. I think he will have a positive impact on Japan.”

With less than three months to go before World Cup qualifiers begin, however, Halilhodzic does not have much time to settle in. Aguirre’s scattergun approach to squad selection meant it took several games before he decided on his best team, but Halilhodzic does not have the luxury of a string of friendlies to test the water.

“The hardest thing about taking over midway through (a four-year cycle) is that you don’t have much time to familiarize yourself with the players,” former national team manager Takeshi Okada, who took over midway through Japan’s 1998 World Cup qualifying program when Shu Kamo was fired, and again when Ivica Osim suffered a stroke shortly before 2010 World Cup qualifying began, told Saturday’s Nikkan Sports.

“I was a coach with the national team the first time, so I knew the situation. But the second time, Osim was revered like a god and I had been out of football for about a year and hadn’t been watching the J. League, so I didn’t know the players.”

In the end, Okada successfully guided Japan to both World Cups, and in reality the first opponents on the road to Russia 2018 are unlikely to pose too much of a problem regardless of the team’s progress under Halilhodzic.

But the double blow of the Asian Cup exit and Aguirre’s dismissal has hit Japanese soccer hard in recent months, and Halilhodzic’s first task will be to try to restore a sense of optimism among players and supporters alike.

For better or for worse, another new era has begun.