Japan's National Team: 1998-2002
Phillipe Troussier took over as Japan's national team coach in the fall of 1998. Although he had no previous experience in Asia, and no knowledge of Japan, he had succeeded in helping several African countries to develop their national team, and he came highly recommended by Arsene Wenger, who had coached in Japan for several years and was actually the first choice for the position. Troussier's lack of knowledge and "sensibility" vis-a-vis Japan, coupled with his tendency to speak flamboyantly at press conferences yet provide only limited information to the JFA officials created a great deal of unnecessary friction during his early years. Particularly during 1999, when his record was less than impressive, the combination of personal friction with the JFA and sniping from the press nearly cost him his job on several occasions.
Fortunately for Troussier, he inherited a team that was slowly progressing towards respectability on a world level. The generation of young players coming up were better than any who had come before. To Troussier's credit, he recognised early on that there were only 3-5 members from the team which went to France in 1998 who might still be prospects for the 2002. For that reason, he insisted on managing the Under-23 team as well as the full national team, and used the 1999 World Youth Championships in Nigeria as the venue for laying the foundation for his national team.
Unfortunately, while the youth team went all the way to the final match in Nigeria, the full national team continued to struggle. It is unclear whether Troussier himself was hesitant about committing to his younger players too soon, or whether pressure from the back office forced him to continue naming the fading stars of yesteryear to his squad. Regardless of the reason, his performance during the first year as manager was terrible. Only the victory of his youth team in Nigeria saved Troussier from the axe at the end of the year. It wasn't until 2000, partly as a result of preparation for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, that Troussier finally began fielding a team composed primarily of players in their early 20s. Once the generational shift had been completed, though, the results were apparent for all to see. Japan rumbled to victory in Lebanon, taking the Asian Championship in stellar fashion. Japan's dominance was so complete that many forgot to notice that the team was missing Japan's top two "international" players (Hidetoshi Nakata and Shoji Jo). The only player on the team who had seen any international play -- former Venezia midfielder Hiroshi Nanami -- came out of the tournament as the MVP.
Japan followed their Asian Cup success with a fine performance in the 2001 Confederations Cup. Victories over Canada, Cameroon and Australia confirmed that the team was competitive on a world level, and Japan went all the way to the final match, where they lost 1-0 to the best team in the world, France. Although the team had a few substandard performances in early 2002, this can be partly attributed to Troussier's attempts to try out new players. Several new stars emerged during this period, such as striker Takayuki Suzuki, defensive midfielder Kazuyuki Toda and left wing Daisuke Ichikawa. The naturalization of Alessandro Santos as a Japanese citizen added a speedy new face on the left wing. As Japan approached the 2002 World Cup, they made a strong claim to being the top team in Asia, and a competitive opponent for even the best teams in the world.
However, the team struggled a bit immediately prior to the World Cup, as Troussier showed continuing signs of arrogance and poor judgement in the run-up to the big event. His excessive experimentation and lack of a clear starting lineup prevented the starters from developing any solidity, fluidity and confidence. Nevertheless, the team showed that they have become a force to be reckoned with, winning their group and progressing to the round of 16. At that point, though, Troussier's failings finally caught up with him, as the use of an awkward, almost "experimental" lineup against Turkey cost them the match and a chance to achieve even greater results.
Troussier bade farewell to Japan following the world cup, leaving a mixed legacy. He presided over the team's maturation to an up-and-coming outsider to a true contender, but because of his own deficiencies, as will as his failure to address the lingering weaknesses of the team, he failed to take Japan as many would have hoped. All in all, his stint must be seen as a success, but due to the unnecessary failure against Turkey, it will always be seen as just a qualified success.