Tokyo - Japan has fired national football coach Vahid Halilhodzic just two months before the 2018 Soccer World Cup, after a series of disappointing performances by the Blue Samurai, local media reported Monday.
The dismissal has been months in the making, with Japan suffering several embarrassing losses and rumours swirling about tensions caused by Halilhodzic's infamously undiplomatic coaching style.
Kyodo news agency cited Japan Football Association president Kozo Tashima as saying a successor would be named later Monday at a press conference.
After being hired in March 2015, he steered the national team to qualification for the finals in Russia in June but has since been panned for the team's showing in a series of recent international friendlies.
He has regularly been forced to deny rumours he was close to being fired, and in September said he had no plans to step aside despite harsh criticism.
"To those who attacked me, I say: bad luck for you but I'm going to carry on doing my job - until when, we'll see."
Local media reported several Japanese coaching veterans were in the running to replace Halilhodzic, including Akira Nishino, 63, the current technical director of the Japan Football Association.
Nishino was at the helm for one of Japanese football's greatest triumphs: a 1-0 group stage win at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics over a Brazil side containing Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos.
Other candidates reportedly include Hajime Moriyasu, current coach of Japan's under-21 team, and Makoto Teguramori, who is on Halilhodzic's coaching staff.
'Growing sense of crisis'
The straight-talking Halilhodzic has made few concessions in Japan's famously polite society, and his style reportedly stirred tensions between the coach and the dressing room.
The Sports Hochi daily said Monday "a sense of unity was lacking" between him and the team.
In 2016, as Japan struggled to qualify for the World Cup, he told AFP he felt his players were too respectful.
"Sometimes I'd really like them to be more aggressive, more street-smart, more vicious," said the former Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain striker.
He once reportedly banned his players from smiling, and he found himself in trouble with authorities on two separate occasions after traffic accidents in 2015 and 2017.
Halilhodzic, who recovered from being wounded in 1992 during the Bosnian war, insisted he was no "dictator" - but acknowledged his frank approach was capable of "wounding" some people in Japan.
Despite qualifying for the World Cup, Japan has struggled in recent international fixtures, with local sports media fuming after the team tasted defeat in March against Ukraine and scraped a draw with Mali with the last kick of the game.
"No progress, no hope, lots of worries over the World Cup," blared a headline in the Sports Nippon last month, raising the prospect that Japan might lose all its group games in June.
The Nikkan Sports daily said Monday "the association made the decision as it has a growing sense of crisis over the team's performance, which has shown no sign of improvement with fewer than 70 days until the World Cup".
Japan faces a tough group in June, with opening matches against Colombia and Senegal before it faces off against Poland.
It will be the sixth successive World Cup appearance by the Blue Samurai, who made it to the last 16 in 2002 when Japan co-hosted the tournament with South Korea and again in 2010.
Before moving to Japan, Halilhodzic took Algeria to the last 16 at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
But he missed out on leading Ivory Coast during the tournament in 2010 when he was fired as national coach just months before the finals following the team's disappointing performance in the African Cup of Nations.