Soccer / World Cup

Japan names Akira Nishino to replace Vahid Halilhodzic just two months before World Cup

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Akira Nishino will lead Japan at this summer’s World Cup in Russia after the Japan Football Association confirmed Monday that it had fired manager Vahid Halilhodzic just two months before the tournament begins.

“There is always a risk when you change managers,” JFA President Kozo Tashima told reporters at a packed news conference in Tokyo, citing poor results and a lack of “communication and trust” with the players as the reasons for Halilhodzic’s dismissal.

“There is also a risk when you don’t change managers,” he said. “If it was guaranteed that just by changing managers you would magically make the team better, we would do that. But we have considered all the risks and listened to all points of view.”

Nishino, who served as the JFA’s technical director, has signed a contract that will take him to the end of the June 14-July 15 World Cup, where Japan has been drawn in a first-round group with Colombia, Senegal and Poland.

“It was my job as technical director to support the manager, and I feel a responsibility for this situation,” the 63-year-old Nishino said in a statement issued by the JFA.

“It’s very difficult to change managers at this time, but helping the team is more of a priority than my own personal situation so I decided to take the job.”

Nishino made his name as manager of Japan’s under-23 team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and oversaw a famous 1-0 victory over Brazil that was dubbed the “Miracle of Miami.” He then went on to forge a long and successful career as a club manager in Japan, winning both the J. League and Asian Champions League titles with Gamba Osaka.

“Even if it increases our chances of winning at the World Cup by only one or two percent, we had to act,” said Tashima. “We only have two months left until the World Cup, so the new manager had to come from within the organization. Nishino has seen the team more than anyone else and he will be our new manager.

“We chose Nishino because of the timing. If we had done this earlier, we might not have chosen Nishino. But with only two months left, in this situation, we came to this decision.”

Tashima confirmed that he personally dismissed Halilhodzic at a Paris hotel on Saturday despite the 65-year-old Bosnian having led Japan to qualification for its sixth straight World Cup, punching its ticket with a 2-0 home win over Australia last August.

Results and performances in friendly matches since then have been poor, however, with a 1-1 draw against Mali and a 2-1 defeat to Ukraine — neither of which has qualified for the World Cup — last month proving to be the final straw for the JFA.

“Halilhodzic came in and built a team in a very short time and got us to the World Cup,” said Tashima, who said Halilhodzic was “surprised” to be given the news. “He is a very serious character and very passionate about football, and he conveyed that passion to the players.

“But the games we have played since we qualified for the World Cup have led to this dismissal. It’s not only based on winning or losing games. We listened to the opinion of the players and other people but that was not the only basis for this decision. In the Mali and Ukraine games, communication and trust with the players had slipped a little and we looked at all that and made our decision.”

Halilhodzic’s spiky personality frequently ruffled feathers after arriving in Japan to take over from Javier Aguirre in March 2015, and rumors of his impending dismissal swirled throughout his three-year reign.

But Tashima denied that personality clashes within the JFA led to his dismissal, and insisted that Nishino, who was Halilhodzic’s immediate boss in his role as technical director, was anything other than supportive.

“After we had lost (4-1) to South Korea in the E-1 Football Championship in December, we met to discuss things,” said Tashima. “We discussed who would take over and decided to stick with Halilhodzic. Through all that, Nishino supported Halilhodzic until the end.

“I don’t think there was any friction within the JFA.”

Nishino becomes Japan’s third manager since Alberto Zaccheroni left the job following the team’s first-round exit from the 2014 World Cup. Mexican Aguirre was named as Zaccheroni’s replacement but was fired in March 2015 after a match-fixing case naming him as a defendant was accepted by a Spanish court.

“Most people would say that it’s not a good thing to change so frequently,” said Tashima. “But given the circumstances, I don’t think you can say it’s always bad not to stick to that rule.

“I wouldn’t be taking responsibility if I didn’t take this decision. It’s the responsibility of the president to take decisions to move Japanese football forward. I won’t make any statement about whether I should stay or quit. This is the choice I have taken to increase Japan’s chances of reaching the second round of the World Cup, even if it is only by one or two percent. That’s my responsibility.”

Halilhodzic’s assistant coaches, Jacky Bonnevay and Cyril Moine, as well as goalkeeping coach Enver Lugusic, also left their positions. Nishino did not appear before the media on Monday but is scheduled to speak on Thursday.

“Of course each manager will have a way that he wants his team to play, and he will explain that on Thursday,” said Tashima. “But it will likely be a style of football that is Japanese. That means keeping hold of the ball and passing it around.”

Japan begins its World Cup campaign against Colombia in Saransk on June 19, before taking on Senegal in Yekaterinburg on June 24 and Poland in Volgograd on June 28.