When Shinji Kagawa fired a penalty kick into the net to open Japan's scoring in the sixth minute of its first match of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, head coach Akira Nishino clenched his fists in a show of delight. After the Samurai Blue went on to claim a 2-1 victory over Colombia, he hugged the players.
"This is the result of the team playing tough," he said, celebrating the win.
In his days as a player, Nishino represented Waseda University and then Hitachi Ltd. in the Japan Soccer League (now the J-League first division). He retired at the age of 35 and coached for a year, then was suddenly asked by an acquaintance to coach Japan's under-20 side.
While diving into the managing role "as a person with no experience," he made steady progress as he learned how to teach the players. It was at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games that Nishino entered the spotlight, as thorough analysis led the Japanese team to victory over Brazil in a match that was dubbed the "Miracle of Miami."
In the J-League, Nishino coached Kashiwa Reysol, Gamba Osaka, Vissel Kobe, and Nagoya Grampus, and he lead the teams to a total of 270 first-division wins, a record for a coach. Nishino has had a history of rising to the challenge in tough times.
After Nishino was selected as an emergency replacement for Vahid Halilhodzic, who was sacked in April, just two months before the World Cup, many of his comments were inarticulate. But on the day before Japan's match against Colombia, things were different.
"We're going to maintain control of the ball and attack," he declared. "Let's share what we're going to do," he added as he sent the players out onto the field.
Determined to secure the upper hand in the middle of the match, the coach used Kagawa and Gaku Shibasaki, who plays for Spanish club Getafe C.F., and instructed them to pass the ball between the center and the side of the pitch to wear out their opponents. He then sent Keisuke Honda, who plays for Mexico's C.F. Pachuca, onto the field. This also turned out successful, as Honda assisted in Japan's second and winning goal.
Rather than reacting nervously, Nishino acted with presence of mind -- and that stance appears to have had a good effect on the players.
"Nishino is boldly unwavering, and that gets passed on to the players," said Yuto Nagatomo, who currently plays for Turkish club Galatasaray.
In a news conference after the match, Nishino was his usual calm self. When he was asked, "The luck of a coach is also important. Do you think you got that?' he replied with a smile, "Not only luck but also being blessed with good players." When the questions had ended, the head coach turned on the microphone, as he had done the previous day, and closed with a thank you in Russian: "Spasibo."
(Japanese original by Shohei Oshima, Sports News Department)