Japan's new dawn under Aguirre
It is a long flight from Brazil to Japan and that gave the national team plenty of time to contemplate what had gone wrong at the World Cup; to come with myriad dreams, only to return with a solitary point. The warm welcome given by waiting fans at Tokyo's Narita Airport was better than the hail of candy and other insults that met South Korea's squad not that far away in Seoul but still, the players didn't really know to where to look.
Even before Japan arrived in Brazil in June with Keisuke Honda talking of victory, others targeting the last eight and (ahem), this writer predicting that a good time was in store, the country's Football Association had been thinking about the next coach. Alberto Zaccheroni was coming to the end of a four-year cycle and was always likely to return to Europe after the tournament finished. After what transpired, "likely" became definite.
Following the 2010 World Cup, Japan wanted a Spanish or at least a Spanish-speaking coach in the hope of being sprinkled with some of the magic dust that had taken the 2008 European champions to the trophy in South Africa. In the end, they went Italian. But four years ago, Javier Aguirre had been on the list and met with Japan FA officials in Spain. Family reasons, according to the man himself, prevented a move east.
Earlier this year, the Japan Football Association carried out extensive research into who was best suited to take them to the next level -- or at the very least ensure the current level was more accurately reflected on the world stage.
The studies concluded that of all the major football nations around the world, Mexico had more similarities with the way of Japan's play than most in terms of technique, physique and playing style. This, coupled with his availability, meant that Aguirre was then always going to be in with a great chance and this time, he was happy to be Tokyo-bound.
Unlike Zaccheroni, Aguirre has managed outside his home country and continent and -- crucially -- has World Cup experience. A crude look at Japan's five previous appearances shows three first round exits (1998, 2006 and 2014) all coming under coaches that had never set foot on the global stage while the two times the team progressed (2002 and 2010) came under those who had the requisite experience.
This wouldn't have been seen as important had 2014 not gone so badly. Preparation had been excellent. A solid showing in 2010 was quickly followed by the appointment of a well-regarded coach with success in one of the world's big leagues, an Asian Cup win followed by smooth qualification for Brazil, peppered all the way with friendly games against top class teams from around the world. Add an increasing number of players active in Europe and a challenging but negotiable group and expectations were naturally high.
There's no need to go over it again but suffice to say it went badly. Japan arrived so determined to show the world their game that when they couldn't, there was nothing else. Zaccheroni had developed the team to a certain extent over the preceding years and a delight to watch at times.
It turned out doing the business in Asia or in friendly games is a lot different than playing such a way when the pressure is really on against talented, determined and resourceful opposition. Zaccheroni struggled to change things around in Brazil when the situation was grim. When the pressure was off, the Italian looked good. When it was on, well, not so much.
Aguirre has two tournaments under his belt, taking El Tri to the round of 16 in 2002 and 2010. Japan did exactly the same at the same time. Both are searching for that quarterfinal spot. On the face of it, his record in Spain is not great but bears a closer look. "El Vasco" took Atletico Madrid to the Champions League in 2008 but was fired after a midseason blip at the start of 2009 saw the team sink to seventh. A 13th place with Espanyol in 2013 seems mediocre but as he took the job when the club was bottom with nine points from the first 13 games of the season, such a finish was welcomed. The football wasn't pretty but there was fight and determination in spades.
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This is what Aguirre has already said that Japan lacked in Brazil; fighting spirit. The JFA's hope is that under him, Japan will be tougher, more street-wise and a little nastier. As well as the World Cup experience, this is what appeals. According to the situation, he has shown that he can do what is necessary to win. He can give the players a kick up the backside or an arm around the shoulder. When push came to shove, Zaccheroni's men didn't impress. Some unfancied countries at the World Cup managed to squeeze more out of less than Japan had and just seemed more able to get a result no matter how they are playing. Aguirre's side should be made of sterner stuff.
Still, the challenge in Japan will be different to his Mexico experience. His two spells in charge of his homeland came as a short-term steady pair of hands, ideal for his pragmatic streak. The question is whether a man who has a knack for a short-term fix can build a team to challenge in 2018.
He does not need to start from the beginning. Despite the results in June, the foundation in Japan is strong. There is a need for some fresh blood, though, especially as Zaccheroni was accused of being overly loyal to the players who lifted the Asian Cup in 2011.
Aguirre will get his chance to check out some new faces at the same tournament in January. Winning in Australia would be great, especially in terms of redemption after Brazil, but failure won't be judged too harshly, especially as the past two continental successes were followed by serious global failure.
For Japan, it is about the World Cup. Aguirre has taken Mexico to the second round twice, Japan have been to the same stage twice. The country is hoping that they can reach new heights together.