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Why was Japan soccer coach Halilhodzic sacked right before World Cup?

Japan Football Association President Kozo Tashima speaks at a press conference in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, on April 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Japan's national soccer team head coach Vahid Halilhodzic has been dismissed from his role with just two months left until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, prompting many people to ask why.

"It's because we want to increase Japan's odds of winning the World Cup, even if it's by 1 or 2 percent," Japan Football Association (JFA) President Kozo Tashima explained during a press conference in Tokyo on April 9 -- at which he confirmed Halilhodzic's dismissal.

The sudden announcement surprised many. Japan successfully managed to qualify for the World Cup following a 2-0 win against Australia in August 2017, but morale within the Japan camp subsequently worsened and the relationship between the 65-year-old Bosnian and his players apparently deteriorated.

"We took the decision (to sack Halilhodzic) because we thought he'd become unable to forge a relationship of trust or communicate with his players," Tashima disclosed.

The JFA chief told Halilhodzic about his fate directly at a hotel on April 7 in Paris, where the Bosnian had spent time as a player in the 1980s. Halilhodzic was apparently taken aback by the news, and apparently expressed his surprise while in a state of anger. He also commented on the strange timing of the decision, so close to soccer's premier global contest.

Some would argue that a manager who ensures qualification for a World Cup does not deserve to be sacked immediately before the tournament. However, a string of unfavorable results after the 2-0 victory against the Socceroos, including a 4-1 defeat against South Korea in December 2017, then a 1-1 draw versus Mali, and a 2-1 loss to Ukraine, both in international friendlies in Belgium this past March, put added pressure on Halilhodzic.

The team's poor performances in international friendlies ultimately became the straw that broke the camel's back. Some players expressed dissatisfaction with his tactics and the way he led the team.

Tashima explained that the team's tour of the North European country was essentially an attempt to overcome the discord in the Japan camp.

"It was the last major tour (before the World Cup), so we tried to turn it into an opportunity where the team would overcome all the problems," the JFA head stated. "However, we failed to bridge the divide."

To the general public, Halilhodzic's sacking was unexpected, but a handful of people within Tashima's inner circle were aware that the JFA chief was thinking about dismissing the Bosnian as early as December 2017.

On the day after Japan's heavy defeat to South Korea, Tashima held an emergency meeting with his two right-hand men, then JFA Vice President and ex-national team coach Takeshi Okada and JFA technical director Akira Nishino. Nishino, who used to manage teams such as Gamba Osaka, was confirmed as Halilhodzic's successor at the press conference on April 9.

At the meeting in December, Tashima proposed Halilhodzic's sacking, suggesting that either Okada or Nishino could take over. However the timing was tricky. An announcement on the Japan national team's 2018 schedule was due to be released that day, and there was not enough time to make a decision on the sacking of Halilhodzic. On other occasions, there were no conclusive reasons for dismissing him as he often led the team to win important games, and it was decided to stick with him.

In addition to poor results, the Japan team was also becoming less popular. As a JFA senior manager points out, "When Keisuke Honda was dropped from the team in autumn 2017, things started to get strange. The results got worse, TV ratings dropped, and national expectations lowered. There has never been as low a point as this until now."

There was also criticism concerning Halilhodzic's management style and handling of players. His overbearing attitude, and refusal to listen to the opinions of his players and staff led to a backlash. Complaints such as, "He needs to show more consideration toward other people," and, "He talks sense but he is bad at praising people when credit is due," have been made by JFA officials close to Halilhodzic.

However, other staff members were more positive about the former coach: "The look he gives when talking about his players is one of warmth," and, "He's taking this strict stance in order to improve the players' mental strength." But, over time, Halilhodzic's supporters dwindled within the JFA setup, as they were forced to leave due to a factional struggle within the association.

In terms of playing style, Halilhodzic tried to instill fast attacking soccer, but Tashima was not so keen. "I don't completely oppose his style, but it's important to maintain some of the values of 'Japanese soccer.' To pass the ball around (rather than sprint toward goal)."

The shock sacking has split opinions across the country. "I stopped watching the national team because famous players such as Shinji Kagawa were dropped (by Halilhodzic). I think it was a good decision to dismiss him," said a 20-year-old kindergarten teacher from Sapporo. Meanwhile, a 71-year-old man from the city of Saitama said, "He tried hard to improve the team. A manager who qualifies for the World Cup should be supported." (By Shohei Oshima, Sports News Department and Asako Takeuchi, City News Department)

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