Japan's iron ladies show struggling male footballers the way

Alastair HIMMER
Japan's women are showing the men the way forward

As Japan's women return home with the Asian Cup and bold plans for world domination, their crisis-hit male counterparts have serious work to do to avoid an early World Cup exit.

The Japanese "Nadeshiko" came to embody the iron-willed spirit of a country recovering from a deadly tsunami and nuclear crisis when they pulled off an astonishing World Cup triumph in 2011.

They followed that by claiming silver at the 2012 London Olympics, winning the 2014 Asian Cup and reaching another World Cup final a year later.

That consistency continued when they retained their continental crown after a 1-0 win over Australia in Friday's final.

Despite their success, Japan coach Asako Takakura wants more from her players looking ahead to the next year's World Cup in France.

"We weren't able to play like Nadeshiko in the final," she told Japan's Nikkan Sports on Monday after winning her first major title since taking over from Norio Sasaki in 2016.

"At the World Cup we want to take the initiative more and show our tough competitiveness. We are still a work in progress."

But as the Nadeshiko -- who are named after a frilly pink carnation -- chase silverware, Japan's men have become shrinking violets, bereft of strong leadership and lacking an identity.

They head to this summer's World Cup in disarray after coach Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked just two months before the start of the tournament.

The Japan Football Association (JFA) turned to former technical director Akira Nishino to help the team's fragile confidence and plaster over the cracks after damaging rifts appeared between key players and Halilhodzic.

More fallout is expected later this week when the firebrand Franco-Bosnian holds a news conference in Tokyo, having already accused his former employers of keeping him in the dark about his firing.

"I've come to find out the truth," Halilhodzic said on arriving in Tokyo at the weekend. "It's like they've thrown me in the garbage."

With more sparks set to fly, it does little to help Japan's preparations for a tough World Cup group in Russia, where they face Colombia, Poland and Senegal.

The Blue Samurai will be appearing in their sixth successive World Cup finals, having reached the knockout stage only twice before -- at the 2002 finals they co-hosted with South Korea, and again in 2010.

However, they made heavy work of getting to Russia.

Halilhodzic came under fire after defeats by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in the final round of qualifiers, before further toothless displays in recent months finally convinced the JFA to pull the plug.