(Reuters) - Alberto Zaccheroni instilled flair, creativity and goals in his four years in charge of Japan but he could not find a cure for the mental flaws that prevented his side showcasing those talents on the grandest stage.
The Asian champions slumped meekly out of the World Cup at the group stage on Tuesday after a winless showing from a pool they had more than enough skill and talent to escape from.
Striker Yoshito Okubo said they were guilty of panicking in the opening Group C loss to Ivory Coast, fullback Yuto Nagatomo believed they “self destructed” in the goalless stalemate with 10-man Greece, while Colombia proved just a gulf in class too far.
“I have to say, surprisingly as far as I am concerned, that in this tournament we were unable to show what we had worked on previously,” Zaccheroni said prior to the group finale against the South Americans.
The dismal showing in Brazil fell way short of the Italian coach’s plans to take Japan to the quarter-finals for the first time, while Nagatomo and playmaker Keisuke Honda even spoke openly about winning the whole thing.
The confident pre-tournament talk belied a team that looked a shadow of the one who waltzed through qualifying against inferior opposition with a swagger that suggested they could finally bridge the gap to the top nations.
That had been Zaccheroni’s mandate upon succeeding Takeshi Okada, who led Japan to the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup before they exited after losing on penalties to Paraguay.
Okada’s defensive-minded side failed to grab the imagination but Zaccheroni quickly changed that with the emergence of Shinji Kagawa to compliment Honda, who switched back into a playmaking role after being used as the furthest man forward in South Africa.
The goals flowed but Zaccheroni’s side came unstuck when they encountered tougher opposition after he encouraged the Japanese FA to find sterner tests so his side could acclimatize to the challenges that would await in Brazil.
A win away to Belgium and a draw with the Netherlands halted the run last year but the scars from losses to high-profile sides never went away, with Zaccheroni tellingly, in hindsight, encouraging his side to “believe in themselves” before they played Ivory Coast in Recife.
For a 30 minute spell they did that, but then they wilted under the pressure with a slap-dash second half showing that revealed the lack of leadership when the going got tough.
Okubo said players were playing in the wrong positions and Zaccheroni was going unheard as their high tempo, intricate passing style was ditched in favor of bizarre long balls to out-of-form diminutive forwards, not seen before under Zaccheroni.
Kagawa revealed he was fighting psychological problems and was subsequently dumped to the bench against the defensive Greeks, who were reduced to 10-men early but still comfortably held the Japanese at bay.
By the time they faced Colombia needing a win to have any hope of qualifying, fan expectation of arguably their greatest ever squad of players - half of whom play club football in England, Germany and Italy - was shot. A 4-1 defeat completed the miserable anti-climax.
Regional powerhouses yes, capable of troubling the world’s elite? Not just yet.
“When we play against Asian teams or European and South American teams it’s completely different because normally Asian teams stay back and play defensively,” defender Maya Yoshida offered.
“That’s why we can take the initiative (in Asia) but when we play against other countries it’s more difficult for us.”
Editing by Justin Palmer