Former Japan coach Halilhodzic still baffled over firing

Former Japanese men's national soccer coach Vahid Halilhodzic speaks during his press conference in Tokyo Friday, April 27, 2018. Japan fired Halilhodzic two months before soccer World Cup in Russia and replaced him immediately with Japanese Akira Nishino. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Former Japanese men's national soccer coach Vahid Halilhodzic leaves the venue after his press conference in Tokyo Friday, April 27, 2018. Japan fired Halilhodzic two months before soccer World Cup in Russia and replaced him immediately with Japanese Akira Nishino. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Former Japanese men's national soccer coach Vahid Halilhodzic speaks during his press conference in Tokyo Friday, April 27, 2018. Japan fired Halilhodzic two months before soccer World Cup in Russia and replaced him immediately with Japanese Akira Nishino. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Former Japanese men's national soccer coach Vahid Halilhodzic speaks during his press conference in Tokyo Friday, April 27, 2018. Japan fired Halilhodzic two months before soccer World Cup in Russia and replaced him immediately with Japanese Akira Nishino. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Former Japanese men's national soccer coach Vahid Halilhodzic speaks during a press conference in Tokyo Friday, April 27, 2018. Japan fired Halilhodzic two months before soccer World Cup in Russia and replaced him immediately with Japanese Akira Nishino. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

TOKYO — Vahid Halilhodzic defended his ability to communicate with his players and said he still doesn't understand the real reason he was fired as coach of Japan only two months before the World Cup.

Japan fired Halilhodzic on April 7 and immediately replaced him with Akira Nishino, the technical director of the Japanese soccer association.

To explain the abrupt firing, association president Kozo Tashima cited "communication" problems and his players losing trust in the coach. But Halilhodzic said there were no such communication problems and no indication of a lack of trust.

"In my three years here, I never had a problem with anyone," Halilhodzic said Friday. "The lines of communication were always open. We had great communication with the players and staff."

The end for Halilhodzic came in two international friendlies last month in Europe against non-World Cup teams. Japan salvaged a 1-1 draw on the last kick of the game in a friendly against Mali, and days later lost to Ukraine 2-1.

"Those games were for preparation, I wasn't so concerned with the results," Halilhodzic said. "I was giving some younger players a chance but nothing was set. We were building toward the World Cup."

Halilhodzic did concede that he could be tough and was aware several players were unhappy about playing time but said that is part of sports and can happen on any team.

"We built a spirit like a family," Halilhodzic said. "The Japanese and foreign staff mixed well, we all went out to dinner several times together. When we booked our place to the World Cup it was like a gift from the players to me."

If anyone was guilty of a lack of communication, Halilhodzic said, it was the JFA.

"They came to me and all of a sudden said we're making a change, there was no advance discussion. It came as a total shock to me and my staff," Halilhodzic said.

As for a lack of trust, Halilhodzic said he got numerous messages from players telling him how much they appreciated his guidance and how he was like a "father figure" to some of them.

Japan will be playing in its sixth consecutive World Cup but has only twice reached the knockout round — losing both times in the last 16.

It reached the knockout stage in 2002 under French coach Philippe Troussier — it was the co-host that year with South Korea — and again in 2010 under Japanese coach Takeshi Okada.

Nishino is the former coach of Japanese club Gamba Osaka, and also coached Japan at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Japan opens the World Cup on June 19 against Colombia, and also faces Senegal and Poland in group play.

Halilhodzic guided Algeria to the last 16 at the 2014 World Cup, where they lost to Germany in extra time. And the JFA had been hoping he could create a similar breakthrough for Japan.

"I will always support Japan and wish them the best," Halilhodzic said.

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