Troubling signs for Zaccheroni's Japan ahead of 2014 qualification
Could wasabi be the secret of Alberto Zaccheroni's success? The Italian has become almost addicted to the spicy green condiment since arriving in Japan in September 2010 but last November, his personal stash was snatched by North Korean customs. His diet for three days in Pyongyang consisted of little more than bread while at the same time Samurai Blue's performances also started to become a little bland especially in comparison to an opening 12 months that really stimulated the appetite.
For the first time since the 59 year-old Italian landed in Tokyo to tell the waiting media to "call me Zac," questions are being asked after successive defeats to North Korea and Uzbekistan. Perhaps the road to Brazil in 2014 will not be as smooth as previously imagined.
It started so well for the former boss of both Milan and Turin clubs who settled in his first job outside Italy with a minimum of fuss. An early win over Argentina went down well and then came a deserved triumph at the Asian Cup in January 2011. After progressing past South Korea in the semifinal, a spectacular Tadanari Lee volley did for Australia in the final. Attractive soccer, a solid defense with talented midfielders, Japan was the best team in Asia and full of confidence.
Zaccheroni could do no wrong. He continued to lead the team undefeated through friendlies, which included a very well-received 3-0 win over Korea in August, a game that, along with the Australia victory, was showing on a continuous loop on television screens in the lobby of the Japan Football Association (JFA) the last time I visited. By then, the likes of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe were well-versed in the 4-2-3-1 formation favored by the boss. There was even time to experiment with 3-4-3, a plan B for use against more defensive opposition.
In September 2011, a year after Zaccheroni arrived and not much less than three years away from Brazil, the team looked ready. You could have predicted the lineup for the final round of the World Cup qualifiers that kick off in June with some confidence and, give or take a couple of players, have done the same for the tournament itself. In the sometimes weird and wonderful world of Asian soccer, Japan was an island of sanity and stability and Zac's methodical form of magic was admired both at home and overseas.
Japan's first steps on the road to Brazil came in the third round of qualification and a group with Uzbekistan, North Korea and Tajikistan. A top two finish is enough for a place in the final phase and while it was not the easiest of draws, 10 points from the first four matches booked a spot in the final stage with two games to spare.
It didn't quite tell the whole story however. Two comfortable wins came against group-whipping boys Tajikistan but the home victory over a 10-man DPRK was thanks to a 94th-minute header from defender Maya Yoshida. In the away match in Uzbekistan, Japan was outplayed for much of the match and fortunate to come away with a 1-1 tie. Still, no Asian team goes to Tashkent and has an easy time against a talented Uzbekistan desperate to finally appear on the global stage.
However, it would have been forgotten had Japan not lost the final two games. The first came in North Korea and was not entirely unexpected. Officially, it was a dead-rubber but realistically, it was anything but as midfielder An Yong Hak told me afterward. "It didn't matter that we were out and Japan had already qualified for the final round," he said. "This was not a friendly game." It was never going to be. Not that South Korea ever plays in Pyongyang but the relationship between the teams from both sides of the 38th Parallel is a complex one. There is nothing complex about how DPRK sees Japan, the brutal occupier of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. "We were under lots of pressure to win this game mentally," added An. "We kept going and gave everything." 80,000 fans helped as, perhaps, did the four hours that the Japanese party spent in customs. With only 150 traveling supporters allowed, it was a hostile an environment as you get in soccer. A loss was always on the cards.
It was the following game that concerned. After the tie in Tashkent, Uzbek players had been making confident noises about the trip to Saitama and the local press talked of a Japan that obviously kept possession well but one that was getting slower and growing more susceptible to pace and pressure. But when it became clear that the Uzbeks, also already-qualified, were taking not much more than its U-23 team to Toyota City in order to prepare for vital Olympic qualifiers, few back in Central Asia gave them a chance against a strong Japanese lineup. Yet Uzbekistan won 1-0. In midfield, usually the Samurai Blue's strength, the visitors outran and at times overran the ponderous host.
It bears repeating that Japan had already booked its place in the final round but the successive losses cost Samurai Blue lost its place in the top tier of seeds ahead of the draw for the final round of qualification. In the end, it could have been worse. Japan was lumped with Australia but was lucky to avoid more games against the third seed that nobody wanted, Uzbekistan. Even so, Iraq coached by former Japan boss Zico will not be much easier.
The Brazilian is currently under fire in Baghdad for living in South America while trying to lead Iraq to the World Cup and there have been mutterings in Tokyo about Zaccheroni's trips home. Such comments are common all over Asia when there is a foreign coach at the national helm. Of more consequence is the feeling that the Italian seems to have a cool relationship with J-League coaches. Before the start of the 2012 season, he met his domestic counterparts to outline qualification plans and request cooperation. That he will get, but it won't be especially warm from a group that had previously felt ignored. He may have told media and fans to call him Zac but he didn't call the J-league coaches.
Again, there are similarities with Zico that Zaccheroni should keep in mind. The legendary midfielder led Japan to the 2004 Asian Cup and was criticized for keeping faith with the same bunch of players regardless of form and condition for the hugely disappointing World Cup two years later. He peaked two years too early.
Zaccheroni's predecessor Takashi Okada did nothing of the sort. He presided over a terrible build up to the 2010 World Cup before changing personnel, tactics and formation just days before it all started. He was rewarded with a first-ever overseas win and then a first-ever overseas appearance in the second-round and had that Pretoria penalty shootout with Paraguay ended differently, it would have been a first last eight appearance anywhere.
Okada showed that sometimes when the heat is on, a last minute gamble can take a dish that had looked to be going nowhere to unexpected and delicious heights. Zaccheroni had found the recipe for success by 2011 but keeping it fresh until 2014 for is a different challenge. The wasabi could come in handy.