“I was amazed by South Korea's explosiveness of power, technique and control of the game,” Japan boss Vahid Halilhodzic told reporters after their East Asia Cup loss in December, as cited by the Japan Times. “South Korea dominated us in every way.”
It was a quote which came to haunt the Franco-Bosnian, who has been dismissed just two months ahead of the World Cup.
A hugely experienced tactician who possesses almost three decades of top-level management role it was his lack of understanding in relation to the culture of Japanese football which proved his greatest undoing.
The nation shares a fierce rivalry with South Korea and such an admission of underperformance – alongside the result itself, a 4-1 defeat – ensured he was hounded by the national press.
Ripping up the textbook
Halilhodzic was one of the few managers to emerge from the 2014 World Cup with his reputation enhanced due to his success with Algeria, whom he guided to the knockout stages.
Combining skilled counter attacking play with his in-game management and motivational abilities, the North African side shone in Brazil.
The 65-year-old, who was appointed boss of Japan in March, attempted to replicate this success in the Far East but he made few friends in his attempts to do so.
He ripped up the nation’s decades-long tradition of focusing on ball retention, short passes and fluid movement. Instead, he built a side to focus on playing ‘route one’ football, using the full width of the pitch, springing quick counter attacks and providing a threat at set pieces.
Halilhodzic was criticised for ostracising star players Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, for selecting players from Japan’s domestic second tier and falling out with a series of key cornerstones of the side.
This notwithstanding, qualification to Russia was guaranteed by topping a qualification group including Saudi Arabia and Australia, but little else went right.
Everything goes wrong
“To those who attacked me I say: bad luck for you because I'm going to carry on doing my job,” Halilhodzic is cited as saying by News Channel Asia in September, after progress to this summer’s tournament had been ensured.
The luck has turned for the manager: with just two wins in eight games which followed including some particularly damaging results.
The humiliation by South Korea was no doubt the low point, but a failure to defeat Haiti alongside a March defeat to Ukraine left the Japanese FA with no choice.
On Monday when the news of his departure was confirmed, the Nikkan Sports daily stated: “the association made the decision as it has a growing sense of crisis over the team's performance which has shown no sign of improvement with fewer than 70 days until the World Cup.”
The former Paris Saint-Germain boss now faces a summer without a World Cup, just as he did eight years ago when Ivory Coast fired him four months before the tournament began.
Japan have three friendly preparation matches remaining before taking on Colombia, Poland and Senegal in a testing group.
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