Saitama (Japan) (AFP) – Japan’s beleaguered head coach Vahid Halilhodzic will live to fight another day after his side qualified for their sixth straight World Cup with a 2-0 home win over Australia.
Defeat by the Asian Cup holders could have cost him his job, but the firebrand Franco-Bosnian dodged a bullet thanks to a dogged performance on Thursday that guaranteed Japan will finish top of their group.
After the game, the 65-year-old shocked journalists by revealing he had considered stepping down for “personal reasons” before Japanese officials insisted that he would continue.
Halilhodzic has come under fire since Japan began the final round of Asian qualifiers with a shock 2-1 home loss to the United Arab Emirates.
Wins over Thailand, Iraq and Saudi Arabia subsequently steadied the ship, although the manner of those victories failed to convince critics of his abrasive management style.
The dreaded vote of confidence from the Japan Football Association (JFA) in the run-up to Australia game will have done little to ease his mind but goals from Takuma Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi booked Japan’s place in Russia next year.
Halilhodzic called for his players to play like “Samurai warriors” against Australia in Saitama after a frustrating run of form over the past year.
A solid 1-1 draw in Melbourne last October proved Japan could grind out a result if necessary and they showed more stomach for a fight on Thursday, helped by the return of captain Makoto Hasebe from injury.
Whether it allows Halilhodzic to continue all the way to the 2018 World Cup remains to be seen, while a family crisis hinted at on Thursday could also prove a factor.
Halilhodzic, who invites ridicule by announcing his teams from a lectern, steered Algeria to the knockout stages of the 2014 finals in Brazil but stepped down despite a personal plea from the country’s president to stay.
His two and a half years in charge of Japan have often been turbulent, marked by run-ins with players and JFA officials that have polarised opinion about his suitability for the job.
– Disgruntled players –
A humiliating 0-0 World Cup qualifying draw with Singapore early in Halilhodzic’s tenure set the tone and senior players such as Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda have rarely fired under him.
Halilhodzic was given an assistant last year to help him communicate with disgruntled players after claims of a rift following that Emirates defeat last September, with Olympic coach Makoto Teguramori brought in to act as a go-between.
But Halilhodzic did little to mend fences by issuing a bizarre instruction to his players “not to smile” — apparently wanting them to show contrition for the shock result.
Halilhodzic, who previously worked in France where a satirical puppet show teased him with a character named “Coach Vahid”, has largely failed to live up to his own hype, despite billing himself as “Mr Fix-it” on his appointment.
Factions within the JFA and the local game are said to prefer a less confrontational style of management, with an eye on securing the services of a Japanese coach for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Halilhodzic reportedly still retains the support of JFA president Kozo Tashima, although defeat in his bid for re-election next March would potentially leave the coach in a vulnerable position.
Former coach Philippe Troussier similarly split opinion among his employers but at least could point to vastly improved performances, leading Japan to the last 16 as co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup.
The same cannot be said of Halilhodzic, who has reportedly ruffled feathers at J-League clubs who feel he ignores their wishes.
While he is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia for Japan’s final Group B match on Tuesday, Halilhodzic could still find the road to Russia a difficult one to navigate.
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