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Akira Nishino reflects on Japan’s wild World Cup ride

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Former national team manager Akira Nishino admits he still has regrets about Japan’s exit from this summer’s World Cup in Russia, but he believes the team has a bright future under successor Hajime Moriyasu.

“Moriyasu hasn’t been a manager for a great deal of time but he won the J. League title three times in four years with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and brought young players through,” Nishino, who made way for Moriyasu at the end of July, told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview earlier this week.

“He also has experience of nurturing young players from when he coached the Japan Under-19 team. He’s young and he doesn’t have a huge amount of experience, but he does have a lot of quality. He’s very good at bringing through young players.”

Nishino suddenly found himself thrust into the public spotlight in early April when his employer, the Japan Football Association, decided to fire national team manager Vahid Halilhodzic just two months before the World Cup. The 63-year-old Nishino, who had enjoyed a long and successful career as a manager in the J. League but had spent the previous two years working as the JFA’s technical director, was chosen to replace him until the end of the tournament.

The decision marked a seismic shift from the JFA’s usual conservative approach, but with the team performing badly since clinching its place at a sixth straight World Cup seven months previously, and Halilhodzic at odds with his players, Nishino was parachuted into the hot seat.

After a difficult build-up to the tournament, the Samurai Blue hit the ground running in Russia. A 2-1 win over Colombia and a 2-2 draw with Senegal put Japan on the brink of a place in the knockout stage for the third time in its history, and the team advanced to a round-of-16 clash against Belgium despite losing its final group game 1-0 to Poland.

Japan then shocked the world by taking a 2-0 lead early in the second half against the much-fancied Belgians, but eventually succumbed as the European side hit back to win the game 3-2 and advance to the quarterfinals.

Almost two months later, Nishino cannot help but think about what he could have done better.

“We got two chances straight away in the second half and scored from them both,” he said of the game in Rostov-on-Don, where goals by Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui four minutes apart put Japan 2-0 ahead in the 52nd minute. “I never imagined we would go 2-0 up against Belgium. I thought 1-0 would be enough. When we scored the second goal, the players ran over to me and all I could tell them was: ‘Keep going like this.’ But when I think about it now, I wonder why I gave them such half-hearted instructions.

“It was a great time to score, but it was also the most delicate time to score,” he continued. “I should have given them more precise instructions, and that’s a regret. We could have either thrown everyone forward in search of a third goal to make sure, or we could have tried to defend and hit them on the counterattack. They needed more specific instructions, but all I could say was: ‘Keep going like this.’ And sure enough, Belgium scored to make it 2-1 and then the pace of the game totally got away from us.”

The nature of the defeat may still gnaw at Nishino, but then few people predicted Japan would go so far when he was unveiled as Halilhodzic’s replacement.

Results had been poor under the Bosnian and Nishino had only one friendly game to cast his eye over the players before he had to choose his 23-man squad for the World Cup. That ended in a dispiriting 2-0 defeat to Ghana in Yokohama, before a 2-0 away loss to Switzerland after he had named his final squad further deepened the gloom.

Then came a 4-2 win over Paraguay just seven days before the team’s World Cup opener against Colombia, and Nishino began to sense something positive stirring.

“The third friendly game, against Paraguay, was the turning point,” he said. “I changed the entire team. For the first two friendlies I had kept the team the same to a certain degree, but then in the third game I changed everyone. It was a good performance and the team really came together in that game.

“The fact that we won gave us motivation, and it also stimulated the competition between players. Everyone went into the World Cup in the same position. From that game on, our belief started to grow.”

An opening win over Colombia, helped in large part by a sixth-minute penalty and a red card for Colombian midfielder Carlos Sanchez, got Japan off to a flying start, before the team salvaged a point against Senegal thanks to a late Keisuke Honda equalizer.

The results put Japan in a strong position to reach the second round going into its final group game against Poland, but there was also the risk of an early exit depending on the score of the match being played simultaneously between Colombia and Senegal.

A 59th-minute goal from Poland’s Jan Bednarek looked set to put Japan out of the competition, until Colombia took the lead against Senegal 15 minutes later. That gave Japan the advantage over third-place Senegal by virtue of having picked up fewer yellow cards throughout the competition, although further goals for Poland or Senegal would still have sent Japan crashing out.

With the situation on a knife-edge, Nishino gave the order for his players to pass the ball around with no intention of going forward in search of an equalizer. That prompted fierce boos from the Volgograd Arena crowd and criticism from the watching world, and Nishino admits the episode still leaves a sour taste in his mouth.

“That was something that I had never done before in my career,” he said. “I’ve always been an attacking coach. If my team is winning 2-0 or 3-0, I never try to be defensive. I always go for more goals. But in that 10 minutes, for some reason I did the opposite.

“It was a very high-risk strategy, but I thought there was a strong probability of us going 2-0 down. We had to either attack or defend. It was all or nothing. If we had attacked half-heartedly, there was a good chance we would have lost the game 2-0. The Colombians were in the same situation as us so I was sure they would hold on to their 1-0 lead. It was a long 10 minutes and I didn’t want to subject the players to the atmosphere in the stadium, with the crowd booing us, but still we didn’t attack. It wasn’t something that I felt with my heart.

“Every one of our players was completely certain that we had done the right thing,” he continued. “They thought there was no need at all to be negative about it. We had played three games and deserved our place in the knockout round.”

Nishino redeemed himself with a brave, attacking performance against Belgium in a game that was hailed as one of the best of the tournament, but it was still not enough to save Japan from elimination. Now, having left the JFA at the end of July and taken time out to recharge his batteries, he is considering his options.

His job in charge of the national team has already been filled, with Moriyasu signing a contract last month to combine the role with his position as Japan’s Under-23 Olympic team manager, which he took up last October. Nishino revealed that he personally sounded out the 50-year-old Moriyasu for both jobs last year in his role as technical director.

“I made Moriyasu an offer last October to take over as both Olympic team and national team manager after the World Cup, regardless of whether Halilhodzic achieved good results in Russia,” he said. “Of course he was a little conflicted. But with the long-term vision for the JFA, the idea was for him to take charge of both teams and bring through young players, and the system would be the same for both teams which would make it smoother.

“He said he had no experience and he wanted to concentrate on making sure the Olympic team would be successful on home soil. I felt that he was a little uncomfortable with it, but he said yes to doing both. He didn’t sign a contract but we established the foundation.”

Nishino also took Moriyasu to the World Cup as an assistant coach, and much was made of the fact that Japan’s coaching staff in Russia was exclusively home-grown. Nishino does not agree with the notion that Japan’s national team must always have a Japanese manager, but he does believe it makes things easier.

“There are good foreign coaches who know Japanese football, its players, its history and the strength of the national team,” he said. “If you have foreign coaches like that, I don’t think you necessarily have to have a Japanese coach in charge.

“But if you are talking about the essence of the Japanese style, bringing that out of the players and communicating with them, make no mistake, it is smoother to have a Japanese manager. That isn’t everything when it comes to getting results, but it’s a fact that no team has ever won the World Cup with a manager not from that country. I think in order to have Japanese players in the right mental state to perform at their best, it’s better to have a Japanese manager.”

Nishino says that he would now like to make use of his experience in Russia by passing that knowledge on to others. His chance to make history by leading Japan to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time may have passed, but he is satisfied with what he achieved.

“The players and I were very determined to show what the Japanese style of football is all about at the World Cup,” he said. “The players couldn’t see that happening in the period before March. I knew that if we were aggressive and played with feeling, something good could happen.

“Little by little over the course of the month, the positivity and cohesion of the team that had previously been suppressed began to come out. We didn’t want to wait and react to the other team — we wanted to take the initiative ourselves. We wanted to show what we had built as a group, and I think we were able to do that.”