A period of uncertainty for Japanese football today came to an end as Takeshi Okada was officially appointed coach of the country's national team at a Japan Football Association press conference.
The 51-year-old, who successfully guided Japan to their first-ever FIFA World Cup™ finals at France 1998, is now aiming to secure Japan a fourth consecutive appearance at the global showpiece in this, his second period in charge.
"Life is unpredictable," Okada admitted as he reflected on returning to his country's top job. "I'd never thought about this a week before."
There was, of course, an element of sadness to the appointment, with Japan's search for a new coach necessitated by the stroke that Okada's predecessor, Bosnian Ivica Osim, suffered on 16 November. With their 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign kicking off in two months' time, Japan were left with little time to arrange a replacement and Okada's acceptance of the challenge has come as a major relief to the nation's football authorities.
"I feel pain in my heart when I think of his disappointment," Okada said of Osim. "But I can't do Osim's soccer. I want to create my own team little by little throughout the qualifiers by making use of what we have now."
The appointment of the former Yokohama Marinos coach also brings to an end to Japan's nine-year foreign coach era, during which three world-renowned coaches took charge of the boys in blue.
Frenchmen Philippe Troussier was the pioneer in this respect, taking over from Okada in the wake of Japan's 1998 FIFA World Cup campaign, laying the foundation of the golden generation that went on to win the 2000 AFC Asian Cup title before making history by reaching the second round at Korea/Japan 2002.
Former Brazilian star Zico then assumed control but his four-year tenure was less successful: despite Japan retaining the continental title at 2004 Asian Cup and going on to book qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the team disappointed in Germany, failing to progress beyond the group stage.
Then there was Ivica Osim, who undertook a bold process of transformation by injecting fresh blood in the shape of a new generation of youngsters. However, the Bosnian's ambitious rebuilding plan was not helped by their results at the recent Asian Cup, where Japan suffered a 2-1 semi-final defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia.
Now it's Okada's turn to take this generation on to new challenges, and the former national team defender has certainly proved that he is as at least as qualified as his foreign predecessors for the task ahead.
The 51-year-old left his first mark in coaching a decade ago, when he led Japan to France 1998 with a breathtaking 3-2 play-off victory over Iran. After stepping down from national team, he embarked on a club career, reaching the pinnacle with Yokohama F Marinos, whom he guided to successive J. League titles in 2003 and 2004, achievements which saw him twice named Manager of the Year.
Regarded by many as the best of Japan's native coaches, Okada's return to the national fold comes as no great surprise. However, question marks remains as to whether he will carry forward Osim's reform plan with team or revert to Japan's established veterans. Regardless of his decision in this respect, Okada has certainly been given precious little time to mould the team as he would like ahead of their opening South African 2010 preliminary against Thailand on 6 February, where they will play at home.
The next qualifying fixtures see Okada's charges pitted against Bahrain and Oman, against whom Japan only managed four narrow 1-0 victories in qualifying in previous FIFA World Cup preliminaries. Yet despite the difficulties facing him, Okada believes that his new spell with Japan will be just as successful as his period in charge.
"I want to stake all I have in bringing Japan to the World Cup," he vowed. "I am determined to rise to the top of this steep slope."