Soccer

Vahid Halilhodzic says firing was a ‘shock’

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Former national team manager Vahid Halilhodzic insisted Friday that he still had not “found out the truth” as to why he was fired two months before he was set to lead Japan at the World Cup.

“This has been the most difficult time of my life,” Halilhodzic said at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, where he launched an impassioned defense of his record in front of over 300 reporters and 30 TV crews.

“Maybe I was a little naive, but everything I did was to make the team successful. I feel there has been a lack of respect.”

Halilhodzic was fired by the Japan Football Association on April 7 and replaced with former JFA technical director Akira Nishino for the June 14-July 15 World Cup in Russia, where Japan has been drawn in a first-round group with Colombia, Senegal and Poland.

JFA president Kozo Tashima cited a “breakdown in trust and communication” for Halilhodzic’s dismissal, but the Bosnian insisted Friday that the JFA hierarchy had given him no prior warning.

“I haven’t found out the truth,” said Halilhodzic, who was also fired by Cote d’Ivoire just months ahead of the 2010 World Cup, despite leading the West African nation to qualification. “I wish the president had told me that there was a problem, and that goes for Nishino too. I wish he had given me some information. Why didn’t they tell me or my staff? I am in shock. No one told me anything.”

Halilhodzic, who was fired along with assistants Jacky Bonnevay and Cyril Moine and goalkeeping coach Enver Lugusic, insisted that he had received messages of support from his former players but suggested that two unnamed players may have been responsible for his downfall.

“I never had any problem with anyone I worked with in the three years I was in the job, especially the players,” he said. “I stayed in touch with all the players, both those who play overseas and those who play in Japan. I was in constant contact with them. I never criticized any of my players in public in the three years I was in the job. I always said that I would take the brunt of the criticism myself.

“After we qualified for the World Cup after beating Australia, there were two players who didn’t play who were disappointed. But they had played in a lot of the previous games.”

Local media have speculated that Halilhodzic’s refusal to choose star players like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki for big games may have contributed to his dismissal. Honda and Kagawa were both unused substitutes for Japan’s 2-0 win over Australia at Saitama Stadium on Aug. 31, 2017, a win that clinched Japan’s place at the World Cup.

Results since then have been disappointing, however, with Tashima pinpointing a 1-1 draw with Mali and a 2-1 defeat to Ukraine in friendly matches in Belgium last month as another reason for Halilhodzic’s dismissal.

“I was building a team for the World Cup,” said Halilhodzic. “I was looking for solutions in midfield and attack. I wanted the players to find a new level of performance at the World Cup, better than they had ever played before. I wasn’t really thinking about the results (in friendly matches). I wasn’t satisfied with the results but there were lots of positives things to come out of those games.”

Tashima told Halilhodzic of his dismissal in person at a hotel in Paris, and the Bosnian said Friday that he had not seen it coming.

“At first I thought it was a joke,” he said. “After a minute I asked him why he was saying these things. He told me it was because of a breakdown in trust and communication. I was in shock.”