New Thailand coach ticks all the right boxes
Football Association of Thailand president Somyot Poompunmuang has finally got the man he wanted -- Japanese coach Akira Nishino.
The 64-year-old former Japan boss, who guided the Samurai Blue to the last 16 round at the 2018 World Cup, signed a contract to take charge of Thailand's senior and U23 sides during a ceremony in Tokyo on Friday.
Pol Gen Somyot is a big fan of Japanese football and close to bosses of that country's governing body of the sport.
A few years ago, Somyot restructured the domestic league using the Japanese league's model. He also introduced the Thai league's new logo which is quite similar to that of the Japanese league.
Thailand lost two coaches last month when Sirisak Yodyardthai quit as caretaker boss of the senior national team after they finished last in the King's Cup on home soil and Alexandre Gama left the U23 side to coach Thai League 1 club SCG Muang Thong United.
Somyot needs a good coach capable of reviving the fortunes of the senior and U23 teams ahead of upcoming important events.
The senior team will begin their 2020 World Cup qualifying campaign in September while the U23 team will defend their title at the 2019 SEA Games in the Philippines later this year and take part in the AFC U23 Championship on home soil in January.
Is Nishino the right man for the War Elephants?
He is, judging from his past achievements.
The 64-year-old is one of Japan's most successful coaches at both club and international levels.
A graduate from Waseda, one of Japan's top universities, midfielder Nishino had a decent playing career at Hitachi, now Kashiwa Reysol, and played 12 times for his country.
He began his coaching career as boss of Japan's U20 side and then U23 team.
As coach of the Japanese U23 team, he soon became famous thanks to the squad's performance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
In their opening game at Orange Bowl in Miami, Japan sealed a shock 1-0 win over star-studded Brazil. The match is known as the "Miracle of Miami" as Brazil featured the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto and Rivaldo.
Unfortunately, Japan were eliminated in the first round on goal difference after beating Hungary and losing to Nigeria who went on to win the gold medal.
During the qualifying round for the Atlanta Games, Japan hammered Thailand's so-called Dream Team, which featured the likes of Kiatisak Senamuang, Tawan (now Totchtawan) Sripan and Dusit Chalermsan, 5-0 in Suphan Buri.
Just months before the 2018 World Cup, the Japan Football Association sacked coach Vahid Halilhodzic and appointed Nishino, then the JFA's technical director, to take charge of the Samurai Blue.
At the World Cup finals in Russia, Japan qualified for the knockout rounds after beating Colombia, drawing with Senegal and losing to Poland in the group stage.
In the last 16 round, Japan raced to a 2-0 lead only for Belgium to score three unanswered goals including the winner in injury time.
Nishino has coached Japanese clubs Kasiwa Reysol, Gamba Osaka, Vissel Kobe and Nagoya Grampus and won every domestic title. He also guided Gamba Osaka to the AFC Champions League title in 2008.
However, past records may count for nothing when you start a new job.
Nishino says he wants to build a team that can become leaders in Southeast Asia and then can compete against Asia's top footballing nations including Japan.
"This is a challenge," he told a press conference in Tokyo on Friday.
His challenge will begin in Asia's second qualifying round for the 2002 World Cup where Thailand are grouped with the UAE, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
He will face a baptism of fire when Thailand host Vietnam in their opening game on Sept 5.
Reigning Southeast Asian champions Vietnam have fared much better than Thailand over the past few years.
The Vietnamese were narrowly defeated 1-0 by Japan in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE where Thailand lost to China in the last 16 round.
Last month, Vietnam beat Thailand in the King's Cup in Buri Ram.
"Exploring the country's football DNA, how the players grow and what their skills are is essential," Nishino said.
For many critics, Thailand's football DNA is that the players don't want to train hard.
It was reported that several Thailand coaches had to quit because the players did not try to play for them because of their training programmes.
Japanese coaches are renowned for their strict discipline and rigorous training methods.
A Japanese journalist told me that Nishino is "not very strict". However, "not very strict" by Japan's standard could be "very strict" by Thailand's standard.
He would first need to change the players' attitude that they can only become successful by working hard.
FAT vice-president Witthaya Laohakul knows well about Japan's culture thanks to his stint as a player and coach in that country.
"The Thai players must have faith in themselves, teammates, tactics and the new coach," said Witthaya, a former national team player and coach.
He warned the Thai players that they would never be in Nishino's squad if they lack fitness.
"I'll not be worried about our players' fitness levels under the guidance of Nishino," he said.
Good luck, Nishino.