Two months before the World Cup, there are countless things that participating football associations should be busy with. There’s ensuring that base camps are properly outfitted; triple-checking passport expiration dates and visa applications; arranging last-minute sponsorship campaigns and public viewing events. Maybe even getting in a Russian lesson here and there.
Nowhere in that list is “fire the head coach who brought you to your sixth straight World Cup appearance.” Yet that’s what the Japan Football Association did on Monday by sacking Vahid Halilhodzic.
The Bosnian coach, himself a replacement for Javier Aguirre – who ignominiously departed in the wake of match fixing allegations in Spain and Japan’s disappointing exit from the 2015 AFC Asian Cup – was brought in to shake up a stagnant program. Here was a coach who delivered African minnows Algeria to Brazil’s knockout stage from a difficult group on paper, taking eventual champions Germany to extra time before an honourable 2-1 defeat in the Round of 16.
Halilhodzic’s methods turned heads from the start: his introductory press conference featured the first of many half-hour (or longer) tactical sermons he would deliver in his three years in charge, each a window into his tactical philosophy and methodology. His declaration that several players called up to his first squad in March 2015 were overweight caused a commotion.
In retrospect, it was his attempt to end pre-match press interactions between players and media which set the stage for his tenure. Japan’s football media rely heavily on coverage of the national team’s stars, and the loss of daily access to players such as Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda would have been fatal for the small army of writers who follow the Samurai Blue’s every move. While a compromise was reached after mediation by JFA officials, the relationship between Halilhodzic and the media remained an uneasy one.
Despite a qualifying campaign that suffered few hiccups – a tepid scoreless draw against Singapore and a fall-from-ahead loss to UAE the only significant missteps – there were always whispers in the bushes that Halilhodzic was a result or two away from the axe.
This came to a head before last August’s crucial match against rivals Australia, when rumours that he would step down flowed even after Japan’s emphatic 2-0 win. In an unusual move, Halilhodzic cancelled the traditional post-match Q&A, citing a personal matter. The following day, he again stood before the media, explaining that it was a family issue and then mounting his own defence in a press conference that was half-victory lap and half-Airing of Grievances.
“I’ve always been criticised even when we were in first place,” Halilhodzic said on September 1. “Even when we had the most points and the best goal difference, people wrote that my job was riding on the result against Australia, and I take that as an attack. But before the match, I talked to (Japan Football Association chairman) Kozo Tashima, and he told me that the JFA’s support had not changed.
“I’ll resign if the JFA asks me to resign, but I’m not going to quit.”
It was Tashima who made the final decision to cancel Halilhodzic’s contract, flying to France to share the news in person this past weekend before making a formal announcement at JFA headquarters on Monday afternoon.
“During and after the recent international friendlies in march there was a loss of communication and trust with the players,” Tashima said. “I believed we needed to do something, even if it only increases our chances at the World Cup by one or two percent.”
To say the decision was not received well is somewhat of an understatement, as Halilhodzic angrily denied the claims to journalists who approached him at his residence in Lille.
“How can you explain reasons for my dismissal that don’t exist? I won’t accept these fabrications,” he said according to Sports Hochi. “I will go to Japan to explain [my side of the story]. The media and supporters deserve an explanation.”
The decision has generally been met with criticism, as even some of Halilhodzic’s staunchest critics have questioned the logic behind the JFA’s timing. Fans, meanwhile, are more distrustful of the association than ever, citing the outsized influence of equipment suppliers Adidas, drink manufacturers and main sponsors Kirin Beverage, and marketing mega-agency Dentsu, on major aspects of the national team including player and friendly opponent selections.
Perhaps the most touching Twitter tribute came from Kumamon, the beloved mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture whose lapel pin Halilhodzic has regularly worn since the region suffered a deadly earthquake in April 2016.
— くまモン【公式】 (@55_kumamon) April 9, 2018
“I was always so happy when you encouraged Kumamoto. I’ll always support you,” wrote the bear, whose recollection of Halilhodzic’s love for Japan stood in sharp contrast to the rancorous debate in the wake of his departure.
Halilhodzic’s near-term plans are a mystery. One can only imagine what’s going through his head, as this is the second pre-World Cup firing he has experienced following his 2010 exit from Côte d’Ivoire. But one thing is clear thus far: he’s mad as hell, he’s not going to take it, and he’s not alone.
For now, Japanese supporters must rest their hopes on Akira Nishino, who is most well-known by international fans for overseeing Japan’s famous 1-0 win over Brazil at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The man behind the ‘Miracle of Miami’ went on to have a productive club management career, winning every trophy that could be won at Gamba Osaka between 2002 and 2011.
But whatever preparations Nishino can pull off in the next two months, they will surely be overshadowed by the escalating feud between Halilhodzic and his detractors; players, JFA officials, and some of Japanese football’s most prominent stakeholders are likely to find themselves dragged into the mess before all is said and done.
Spring has arrived in much of the world, and fans are eagerly awaiting summer. But for Japan’s storied football program, 16 years since the promise of the 2002 World Cup and seven years removed from their last continental trophy, the cold winds of winter seem nearer than ever.