Japan's National Team: 2002-06
When Phillipe Troussier departed as Japan's head coach following the 2002 World Cup, the JFA was very specific about its priorities in choosing the next coach; to wit, he must be (1) familiar with Japanese players, (2) be well-known worldwide, and most importantly (3) popular with the Japanese fans.
These stipulations seem to have been driven by the desire to wash away the bad taste of the Troussier era. The prickly and arrogant attitude of Mad Phillippe left fans dissatisfied, and the JFA relieved, following the World Cup. Although everyone was pleased that their team had made it to the round of 16, many felt that Troussier had ridden to success on the back of what most people would agree was a marvelous pool of talent, and then squandered the chance for further glory with a self-serving lineup change in the match against Turkey. Given the long-running war between Troussier and the media, one of the key qualities in a new coach will be a less abrasive attitude towards fans and the media, and a certain amount of telegenic charm.
Thus, the response from the press was extremely enthusiastic when the league selected Zico to be the next head coach of team Japan. An extremely charismatic and world-famous player, Zico is soft-spoken, yet determined, well-liked by his players at Kashima, and wildly popular with fans. Indeed, Antlers fans have long referred to Zico as Kashima no kami-sama ("the god-king of Kashima").
Zico enjoyed a wealth of good will as he took over the job of head coach. In addition to his godlike status among Antlers fans, he was well regarded throughout the country, both for his playing abilities, his knowledge of the game, and his easygoing yet proud demeanour. Unfortunately, in its efforts to choose someone as "unTrousserian" as possible, the JFA may have neglected to consider Zico's actual coaching talents. Despite his vast knowledge of the game, he had never held the position of head coach himself, apart from breif stints as the caretaker, when the Antlers were in the process of hiring a new coach.
In the end, Zico turned out to be very similar to Troussier in many ways, despite the vast disparity in temperament, coaching style and approach to the game. He started out well, and for two years was able to make useful contributions to the national team's progress especially in terms of teaching players to think for themselves, take responsibility, and handle adversity without falling apart. At the end of his second year at the helm, Zico led Japan to an Asian Cup title in China, where the team was subjected to some of the most brutal adversity imaginable and still managed to claim victory (after which, they had to hide in the locker room for three hours as an angry mob tried to "get even" for China's loss in the final match).
Unfortunately, though, that proved to be the pinnacle of the Zico era, and everything thereafter was anticlimax. While he may have taught his players alot about overcoming to adversity, he eventually allowed it to destroy his own legacy. In the final two years of his reign, he responded to even justified criticisms by becoming even more inflexible and unwilling to consider any players other than the small group he had nurtured from the start of his tenure.
Perhaps it is understandable that he stuck with the players who had come through for him in the cauldron of pressure they faced in 2004. The China experience left every player of that era changed, and the ties between members of that squad are still unshakable today.
But four years is a long time in the sport of football, and by the start of 2006, many of the players he had committed himself to, with unflinching loyalty, were no longer good enough to justify such treatment. While nobody would question the quality of players like Makoto Tanaka, Takashi Fukunishi or Atsushi Yanagisawa when they were at the peak of their careers, by 2006 that peak had passed. Despite the signs of looming disaster, Zico steadfastly refused to even LOOK at players like Daiki Iwamasa or Tulio Tanaka, Hisato Sato or Takayuki Morimoto, and even those who did force their way into the roster once or twice were unable to displace Zico's favourites.
By the time that Japan actually arrived in Germany, in 2006, it was already apparent to many people -- and certainly to the Rising Sun News -- that the team was too old, too complacent, and too lacking in commitment to progress from the pool round. Sure enough, a late collapse in their first match against Australia doomed them to drop out after just three matches.
Even so, it would be a mistake to claim that the Zico Era was a complete waste. Oddly enough, those who have been harshest in their comments on Zico after his era ended were the same ones who remained resolutely optimistic in early 2006, despite the obvious signs of an impentind collapse. Perhaps the fact that we never had any illusions about any success in Germany 2006 is one reason why we do not see any need to trample Zico's legacy now that he is gone. In truth, he was always a bit shortsighted in his player selection, and lacked the tactical skill to make good use of substitutions. But he did understand the game very well, and he knew that Japan will only advance to the next level if its players can learn to think for themselves, and make their own adjustments to an opposing team's play. There are signs that he did manage to instil this ability into at least some of the players who will continue to play a part in the Japan national team in the Osim Era.
At the end of the day, it is hard to describe the Zico Era as a "success", but it certainly was not the utter failure that some have tried to make it out to be, in retrospect. It may seem that Japan failed to advance much, over the four years from 2002 to 2006. But we think history will show that football in Japan reached maturity during the Zico era. Sometimes transitions can be difficult and painful. But they are still essential, and they lay the groundwork on which the next phase of development can begin. Zico established this sort of a "solid base", and though the final results at the 2006 World Cup failed to match the promise that the team displayed earlier in Zico's reign, that base has remained an abiding legacy of the contributions of "football no Kami-sama".