KAZAN, RUSSIA – Japan head coach Akira Nishino revealed Saturday that he apologized to his players for making them hold onto the ball and avoid attacking late in their final World Cup group game against Poland, in a tactical move which saw them loudly jeered by spectators.
In a brief exchange with reporters at Japan’s World Cup base in Kazan, the 63-year-old coach said he had told players the previous day at a team meeting that “I am the one responsible” for the decision and any subsequent criticism.
With Senegal trailing Colombia 1-0 late in the other final Group H game being played simultaneously, Japan was losing 1-0 to Poland and knew that those results would see it advance to the knockout stage under the “fair play” tiebreaker, due to having accumulated fewer bookings than the African side.
In the final stages of the match in Volgograd, the Samurai Blue players simply tapped the ball among themselves without any attacking movement in order to avoid the risks of bookings or another Poland goal.
“The way I made them play was out of character (for the team), and as a result, they were out there getting booed,” Nishino said.
Nishino said he apologized to the players for putting them in a difficult situation, but added he had made what he believed was the correct decision.
“In that moment, I had to make a decision on our tactical direction,” he said.
With Japan set to face Belgium in the round of 16 on Monday as underdogs, Nishino said he wanted to give fans a memorable performance to make up for the anticlimactic ending in Volgograd.
“(Spectators) were shortchanged 10 minutes, and they probably got a little less mileage than usual out of the first 80 minutes. So I want to pay people back (against Belgium),” he said.
The former Japan Football Association technical director did not discuss his likely team selection for the match against Belgium in Rostov-on-Don, but he could be without forward Shinji Okazaki, who trained separately from the team Saturday due to a sore right ankle.
The 32-year-old Leicester City forward played 47 minutes against Poland after making his first start of the tournament.