Sunday, 03 March 2024


 

Japan's National Team: 2018

Nishino's World Cup

In 2015, the JFA faced one of the most difficult, and ultimately consequential decisions in decades. Despite leading the Samurai Blue to World Cup qualification, Vahid Halilhodzic had done little to inspire either the National Team fanbsase or the players themselves. The press had been salivating for Halilhodzic's ouster throughout his tenure, so firing the Bosnian gaffer would be the easy part. The more difficult decision was who to appoint in his place.

As noted in our Halil-history section, there was plenty of talent in the squad. Players like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui and Shinji Okazaki were in the prime of their careers, while recent additions such as Yuya Osako and Gaku Shibasaki showed a lot of promise. But it took a late goal from Honda in their final match against Australia to secure the World Cup berth. The team seemed to have no real chemistry, and most thought that the Samurai Blue would make an early exit from Russia 2018. Whoever took over would have just a few months to

Obviously, no top-rated international coach had enough familiarity with the Japanese players to accomplish much, within that time frame. But the majority of J.League coaches could see what a poisoned chalice the Japan NT Coaching spot could be. An aging coach who was nearing retirement might accept it as a final act, though it was likely to be a disappointing one. Those who had future ambitions, though, could see how a poor performance at the World Cup could derail their careers

Akira Nishino would be the man take over the helm, and lead the Samurai Blue to the 2018 World Cup. Nishino had already enjoyed a long and successful J.League career including silverware and critical acclaim at Kashiwa Reysol and Gamba Osaka. He had just recently entered the NT coaching ranks, but if a poor performance in Russia did damage his image, he was in a good position to retire with honors and start doing TV commentary (a job Nishino held on several occasions between coaching jobs).

As it turned out, the appointment of Nishino was an unlikely stroke of genius. Halilhodzic had been building a dull, defensive team that could win tough contests at the World Cup level - a philosophy that endeared him to absolutely nobody. Nishino, by contrast, has at times been criticised for "overly" offensive tactics (Gamba fans can recall him playing with four or even five nominal strikers in the lineup). Forced to adapt his tactics to a defense-oriented team, Nishino managed to strike just the right balance.

Japan's group round performance, in retrospect, was nowhere near as impressive as those in 2002 or 2010, much less 2022. But the Samurai Blue did do enough to reach the knockout rounds. The opening match against Colombia was the highlight, and though a deserved win, Japan was certainly helped by indisciplined defending and an early red card to Colombia. This was followed by a creditable 2-2 draw with Senegal. But the final match with Poland earned the ire of some fans, when the Samurai Blue seemed to calculate their path to the knockouts and play for a 1-0 loss, rather than seek an equaliser and take the risk of conceding another (which woould have eliminated them on goal difference).

But Nishino Japan would close out the era with the finest match of all. Japan raced out to a 2-0 lead against one of the best Belgium sides in that country's history, and despite a ferocious Belgian comeback, as the clock moved into injury time the Samurai Blue had a chance to make the quarterfinals on a late set play. Of course, everyone recalls the Belgian counterattack that ended that dream, and sent Japan to a 3-2 defeat. But the flair that the Samurai Blue demonstrated throughout that contest - pushing Belgium to the absolute limit - earned Japan respect and exposure as never seen before.

Though his was one of the shortest national team careers ever, for a Samurai Blue coach, Akira Nishino managed to make it one of the most memorable chapters in Japan NT history


Japan Nat'l Team 2018

Date Venue Score Opponent Goals by . . .
Dec 9, 2017 North Korea 1–0 Ajinomoto Stadium Yosuke Ideguchi
Dec 12, 2017 China 2–1 Ajinomoto Stadium Yu Kobayashi, Gen Shoji
Dec 16, 2017 South Korea 1–4 Ajinomoto Stadium Yu Kobayashi
Mar 23, 2018 Mali 1–1 Liège, Belgium Shoya Nakajima
Mar 27, 2018 Ukraine 1–2 Liège, Belgium Tomoaki Makino
May 30, 2018 Ghana 0–2 Yokohama Int'l Stadium --
June 8, 2018 Switzerland 0–2 Lugano, Switz. --
June 12, 2018 Paraguay 4–2 Innsbruck, Austria Takashi Inui (2), Shinji Kagawa, OG
June 19, 2018 World Cup Russia2018 2 - 1 Colombia Shinji Kagawa (PK), Yuya Osako
June 25, 2018 World Cup Russia2018 2 - 2 Senegal Takashi Inui, Keisuke Honda
June 28, 2018 World Cup Russia2018 0 - 1 Poland --
Jul 3, 2018 World Cup Russia2018 2 - 3 Belgium Genki Haraguchi, Takashi Inui