Norio Sasaki delivered unprecedented success for Japanese football, and the outgoing Nadeshiko manager really deserved a better send-off than the one he received… (日本語版はこちらです)
A win over China in their third match and it could all have been very different, but in the end Nadeshiko Japan missed out on the Rio Olympics, signalling the end of Norio Sasaki’s outstanding reign in charge of the side.
Regardless of whether he should have taken the decision to step down after the team finished as runners-up at the 2015 World Cup or not, the manner of Sasaki’s departure leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth. Bearing in mind all the 57-year-old achieved for Japanese football, he deserved a better send-off.
Instead of a fond farewell, however, the man who guided Japan to the 2011 World Cup title was forced to shuffle offstage with rumours of dressing room unrest and more swirling around the team, provoking the former Omiya Ardija boss to hit out at the media his final press conference.
“We always talk about the ‘football family’,” Sasaki said after his last match in charge ended with a 1-0 win over North Korea. “The football family doesn’t just mean the team and the fans and the JFA, but it includes the media, too. When we win everything’s great, but when we lose the coverage becomes like gossip. That’s not the job of sports newspapers.
“In the first and second games we couldn’t take three points. I think if we had been able to do that we would have had a chance. I think you can see that looking at the game today and the way we played. If we could have had our rhythm then it may have been different.”
Indeed, losing their opening game 3-1 to Australia was not an ideal start for the reigning Asian champions, and following that with a 1-1 draw against South Korea left them with an uphill battle to secure one of the two qualification berths to Rio.
It was ultimately the third game which made a difficult task nigh-on impossible, however, as a dispirited and visibly fatigued Nadeshiko side slumped to a 2-1 loss to China.
After that game China coach Bruno Bini picked up on the at tensions between the Japanese team and sections of the media, and delivered a message in support of his fellow coach Sasaki.
“Tonight I cannot stop myself from thinking about my colleague, from the team of Japan,” the former France boss said. “He has won many things in the past five years, achieved the best results in the world, and I hope the people here do not have a short memory. He deserves respect from everyone.”
The 61-year-old also pointed out the impact the ludicrous schedule of the qualifiers – five games in 10 days with just a 20-woman squad – had on Japan’s high-tempo style.
“They didn’t play as they usually do today. I think this is natural. You have three games in so few days so it is very difficult to play as they usually do – meaning lots of passing and combination play.”
As well as the physical strain on the players, as hosts Sasaki and the Nadeshiko players had to deal with the expectations – and then scorn – being heaped upon them, too.
“There is always a lot of pressure around this team,” Sasaki said. “First of all it was pressure to win, to take a ticket to Rio. Then, once we couldn’t qualify, it became a different kind of pressure.
“It takes a lot of mental strength to cope with that, but the players have a very good spirit. I said to them before this last game that everyone’s still supporting so let’s show them that spirit.”
They did that by delivering their best performance of the competition and winning 1-0, and their coach exited in as optimistic a manner as he could, given the circumstances.
“This isn’t the last chance to qualify for this kind of competition,” he concluded. “In this past year [Kumi] Yokoyama and [Emi] Nakajima have really developed and grown in confidence, and more players like that will appear. I expect big things at the future.”
As one of the few – perhaps, in fact, only – Japanese coaches sought after around the world, it will be interesting to see what Sasaki does next, too. Whatever it is, though, as Bini so rightly pointed out, he deserves nothing but respect.