Japan's National Team: 2010-14
Alberto Zaccheroni took over as the head coach of Japan's National Team at a time of great anticipation. The Samurai Blue had just completed their most successful Word Cup campaign ever, and though some of the players who had been central to its success under Takeshi Okada were nearing the end of their careers, there was a lot of young talent waiting in the wings. Zaccheroni had a reputation as a keen tactician with a willingness to try new things and consider new ideas. When he led the team to the Asian Cup title in early 2011, just months after taking the helm, it seemed to be a sign that the Samurai Blue was on its way to even greater successes.
When Zaccheroni stepped in front of the cameras in late June, 2014, to announce his resignation, those expectations had been so thoroughly shattered that only a handful of faithful fans bothered to even show up at Narita Airport to welcome him back from Brazil and say their farewells. Japan's winless exit from the 2014 World Cup was a letdown for those who only follow the team closely about once every four years. The hardcore supporters, however, were neither surprised not particularly distressed. Most were just happy to see the Zaccheroni era end, and a new one begin.
How could an era that began with so much promise end on such a gloomy and unmemorable note? It is always easy to point out problems in retrospect, but in this case, the mistakes and missed opportunities were apparent to anyone who looked closely. Even some of the players seemed to have expected the collapse. Immediately after the Colombia match, two of Japan's best players - Atsuto Uchida (26 years old at the time) and Yuto Nagatomo (27) - shocked fans by announcing their retirement from international play! Both would later recant, and return to the Samurai Blue squad, but their emotional "retirement" speeches were an obvious indication that players were under heavy pressure, and unhappy with the personal friction within the squad and the lack of a steady hand at the steering wheel.
The problems that emerged under Zaccheroni were so obvious that the author of this history actually predicted the Samurai Blue's collapse more than 18 months before it happened. As noted in an article that appeared in ONE World Sports , during the World Cup, I felt a bit like Cassandra watching the Greeks sack and burn the city of Troy. Everything unfolded exactly as I had anticipated, and the only question was how Zaccheroni, his coaching staff, and the JFA could have ignored the obvious signs of doom? But then, self-deception has been a problem for Japan in the past. In fact, the problems that led to disaster in the 2014 World Cup seem endemic to the Japan national team. As Mark Twain once observed, "History may not repeat itself, but it does have a tendency to rhyme." Where the Samurai Blue are concerned, the rhyming pattern is more repetitive than 16-bar Mississippi Blues.
In particular, there are some remarkable similarities between the fate of two coaches with very similar names. "Zack Japan" played out as a nearly identical repetition of "Zico Japan”. Both coaches developed an unhealthy dependence on a very small number of "favorites," and refused to even look at alternatives despite disappointing results in the period immediately prior to the World Cup. In both cases, the coaches were placed in situations early in their careers (during the Asian Cup) where they faced intense pressure to deliver results. In these emotionally charged circumstances, the coach forged powerful bonds of reliance with the players who ccame through for him, in the high-pressure environment of the regional tournament. As a result, both Zico and Zaccheroni had (more or less) finalized their squad for the World Cup that will not take place for another more than two years before that tournament took place. Once installed as "regulars", they could do no wrong in his eyes. Even as new players emerged with more talent and greater physical stamina, they were not allowed to force their way into the team.
Zico Japan never reached the same level it had in 2004, at the Asian Cup. By the time the World Cup in Germany kicked off, they were a shadow of the team that Zico had built at the start of his reign. The aging veterans and their lack of stamina were cruelly exposed in the final ten minutes against Australia. Similarly, Zaccheroni's team hit its peak in the year following their Asian Cup triumph, posting victories over Argentina and France, and consistently proving their status as the top team in Asia. But over the next two years, key players like Yasuhito Endo and Yasuyuki Konno -- already in their thirties -- began to lose the stamina and sharpness that is needed to succeed at the top international level. By the time the Brazil World Cup kicked off, they were a year past their "use by" date. The results were predictable . . . and predicted.
This is not to say that the Zaccheroni era was a total failure. His overall record was as good as that of any predecessor, and he probably can claim to have coached the "best Japan National Team ever" (at least up to that point in history), during the first year of his tenure. Zack was a good organizer, and he put pressure on the JFA to make some changes that will benefit his successors -- in particular, the focus on tactical awareness, and the insistence on holding regular training camps even during international breaks when Japan did not have a competitive match scheduled.
Nevertheless, the disappointment felt by fans of the Samurai Blue at the end of Zaccheroni's reign was justified. He had a wealth of raw material to work with, yet he repeatedly declined to call up, or attempt to develop younger, less polished players. The strongest criticism one can make of Zaccheroni is that he did little or nothing that might benefit his successor(s). As impressive as his successes in 2010 and 2011 might have been, there was nothing left in 2014 to bequeath to the next generation.