Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

Mood turns against Halilhodzic after East Asian Cup debacle

by Andrew McKirdy

If a scoreless draw with Singapore in Japan’s opening World Cup qualifier in May marked the end of manager Vahid Halilhodzic’s honeymoon period, last week’s East Asian Cup has had critics wishing for a divorce already.

Japan began the four-team competition in China by throwing away an early lead in a defeat to North Korea before coming from behind to claim draws against both South Korea and the host country. The East Asian Cup’s place in the international pecking order meant Halilhodzic was denied his Europe-based players for the tournament, but local media were in no mood for excuses after watching Japan finish last for the first time since the competition began in 2003.

“Halilhodzic kept stressing throughout the tournament that there wasn’t enough time to prepare, but the most unprepared person at this tournament was the manager himself,” wrote former Japan defender Yutaka Akita in Tuesday’s Nikkan Sports. “He was negligent in researching the opponents’ strengths and tactics.”

The list of complaints laid at the manager’s door did not stop there. Halilhodzic was accused, among other things, of shirking responsibility onto his players, tactical ineptitude, fielding players out of position, and abandoning his duties by holidaying in France for two weeks in June while the J. League was in full swing.

Much was made of the fact that the Bosnian has yet to win a competitive game in four attempts, and concerns are now being raised over his ability to steer the team safely through to the next round of World Cup qualifiers.

“I don’t understand a lot of his selection choices, and for sure some of the players don’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing,” wrote Nikkan Sports columnist Sergio Echigo on Monday. “More than anything else, I doubt that the manager himself properly understands his own players.”

How things have changed since Halilhodzic breezed into Japan to start work five months ago. Then, the former Algeria manager immediately won the media over with his easy charm and grand vision. Now, his confidence is being perceived as arrogance, and his words are being used as ammunition against him.

“Previously, he used such fine words as: ‘Even against the strongest team in the world, I will try to win,’ ” ran an editorial in Monday’s Nikkan Sports, referring to a claim Halilhodzic made in his first press conference. “Now he’s doubling down on defense and saying: ‘There is some embarrassment, but I have to be a realist.’ ”

Halilhodzic has undoubtedly made mistakes in both word and deed since taking over — his claim to have “drastically changed the way that Japan does things” after just three games looked especially unwise — and the Japan Football Association can certainly expect more for its money than last week’s debacle.

But in choosing another foreign manager with no prior knowledge of the Japanese game, the JFA can hardly complain if results are not instantly forthcoming.

Halilhodzic will now have to learn the lie of the land in a hostile environment where the mood has turned against him, and for a combustible manager with a well-documented history of spiky relations with the press, sparks are guaranteed to fly.

Japan may have played only one game on the road to the 2018 World Cup, but the ride from here on is likely to be anything but smooth.