• Halilhodzic led Côte d’Ivoire to South Africa 2010 but was sacked before the competition
  • The Bosnian coach then took Algeria to the last 16 at Brazil 2014, a first in the country’s history
  • He now has designs on qualifying for a third consecutive FIFA World Cup™ with a different team each time

Japan have enjoyed great success on the Asian stage in recent years, regularly getting the better of their continental opponents in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying competitions. Their performances at the world finals have been increasingly less impressive of late, however. Knocked out in the last 16 at South Africa 2010, the Japanese were eliminated in the first round at Brazil 2014, finishing last in Group C, behind Colombia, Greece and Côte d’Ivoire.

With a view to restoring the national team’s fortunes, the Japanese Football Association called on the services of Vahid Halilhodzic, the man who took Algeria to the Round of 16 in 2014. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the Bosnian coach about his tenure with the Samurai Blue so far.

“Japan have had some bad results in recent times, not least in the World Cup,” began Halilhodzic. “They’ve brought me to change that, and I hope to take the team to Russia.

“Unfortunately for us, we started the qualifiers with a home defeat against the United Arab Emirates, a game in which there were some contentious decisions. The atmosphere in the stadium was great and the stands were packed. Naturally, everyone was very disappointed with the defeat, though the team has made up for it since then. We’ve managed to lift morale and we’ve got our cohesion back, despite the problems we’ve had. Things are back to normal now and we’re in a good position in the qualifiers.”

Though Japan look well placed to reach Russia 2018 following wins over UAE and Thailand in March, Halilhodzic is refusing to get carried away: “We’re in a very tight group and there are four teams who can make the World Cup. Our remaining matches will be very tough and we need to prepare as well as we can.”

Japan and Saudi Arabia are tied at the top of the group on 16 points, three clear of Australia, and Halilhodzic believes anything can still happen: “We haven’t made sure of our place yet. We’re three points ahead of Australia and we’ve got three very hard matches to come. We’ve got to go to Saudi Arabia, who are joint top with us and have a very fine team. We’re in a good position but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We have to keep on going till the end.”

Play it again, Vahid
The 64-year-old Halilhodzic coached two national teams in Africa before heading to Asia for a totally different challenge, one he is enjoying: “The Japanese are respectful, serious people who like to see a job well done. That attitude has really helped me with my work and with implementing my coaching methods.

“Though I’ve come across a few hurdles at a regional and national level in general, I try to get them to do more tactical and fitness work to offset that. The skill levels are high but I want more in terms of fitness. If we’re going to reach the 2018 World Cup, Japanese football as a whole has to progress.”

Comparing the African teams he has worked with to Japan, the former Yugoslavia forward said: “I’ve coached in Africa, where the players are physically strong, which allows them to impose themselves on the pitch. North African players are extremely good on an individual, technical level, but when it comes to discipline, Japan has the edge. I’ve not had any problems with the players here, in that respect. Every country and every region has its strong and weak points, or their own unique approach to the game, to be more exact.”

Halilhodzic is looking to reach the World Cup for a third consecutive time after steering Côte d’Ivoire to South Africa 2010 and Algeria to the Round of 16 four years later in 2014: “My main objective is to get to Russia 2018. It’s not an easy task and no one will be making it easy for us. I’m trying to take a different team to the world finals for the third time in a row. If we do get to Russia, I hope to go further than I did with Algeria in Brazil. I had an amazing experience with Les Fennecs in the home of samba.”