Soccer / World Cup

Nishino to pass torch as manager

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

National team manager Akira Nishino predicted Thursday that Japan will improve on its 2018 World Cup performance by reaching the quarterfinals in 2022, but he will not be around to lead the charge after the Japan Football Association announced it would not extend his contract past the end of this month.

“It’s disappointing to be coming home while the World Cup is still going on,” Nishino said at a news conference at a hotel near Narita airport, where the team returned from Russia on Thursday following its heartbreaking elimination by Belgium in the round of 16 on Monday.

“Four years from now we want to reach the quarterfinals. I feel the players will be able to achieve that after what we have accomplished with this result. I want people to believe that the players can do it.”

Nishino was parachuted into the manager’s job in April and handed a short-term contract running until the end of July after predecessor Vahid Halilhodzic was fired just two months before the start of the World Cup.

Japan exceeded expectations in Russia under Nishino’s leadership, beating Colombia in its opening game before drawing with Senegal and losing to Poland to claim a place in the knockout round for the third time in team history. Once there, the Samurai Blue took a 2-0 lead against highly favored Belgium, only to concede three goals and exit the tournament following a 3-2 defeat.

JFA President Kozo Tashima told reporters Thursday that the federation would “not persuade Nishino to stay in the job,” and that the search for a new manager will begin with “a blank slate.”

“My contract runs until the end of this month and I have worked from when I was appointed until the end of the World Cup with only that in mind,” Nishino said. “I want to see my contract through.”

Around 800 fans welcomed the team home at Narita airport, in contrast to the gloomy mood that saw the team depart for the tournament last month with expectations low following a string of poor results.

“We really felt the support of everyone in Japan and everyone who made to trip to Russia to support us,” said Japan captain Makoto Hasebe, who announced his international retirement following the loss to Belgium. “A lot of people came to the airport to welcome us home today and we want to say thank you to everyone for their support.

“The players talked about a lot of things, but we knew that people didn’t expect us to do much at the tournament and we were determined to turn the situation around. We were able to change people’s perception of us. People had harsh words to say about us  and that made us stronger.”

Nishino had been in the job for less than 10 weeks when the World Cup kicked off on June 14, but the manager won plaudits for getting the best out of a team that went into the tournament having won only one game this year.

“The previous manager left me great materials to work with and we tried to find ways to add something to that,” said Nishino. “I think we were able to produce some excellent performances. We were only able to claim one win (at the World Cup) and I really felt how difficult it is to take just one point, score one goal or come out on top on one play at the World Cup. It really hit home how difficult it is to get out of the group stage and win in the knockout round at the World Cup.

“It has been 64 days since I took over as manager, but the players have been working toward this over the four years since the last World Cup in Brazil. They went into this competition with a lot of memories.”

Hasebe announced his international retirement in an Instagram post on Tuesday, ending a Samurai Blue career that began in February 2006 and totaled 114 appearances and two goals.

“I’ve been playing for the national team for 12 or 13 years, and once this news conference is over my official duties as a national team player are over,” said the 34-year-old Hasebe, who played for Japan at three World Cups. “I feel a big sense of loss. It feels obvious to say that when you’ve been there for so long. I was sitting looking out the window on the plane coming back to Japan, feeling very sentimental.

“Now I feel 99 percent satisfied and the other 1 percent is regrets. I hope that 1 percent of regrets can help me in my life from now on.”