TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese football officials maintained a stony silence over their search for a new national team coach on Thursday, as former Roma boss Luciano Spalletti was strongly linked to the job.
The 55-year-old Italian, who led Zenit St Petersburg to two Russian titles in his last managerial post, emerged as the leading candidate to replace Mexican Javier Aguirre, who was sacked earlier this month over his alleged involvement in a match-fixing scandal dating back to a previous tenure in Spain.
Official word over the identity of the new coach remains shrouded in secrecy, however, despite rife speculation in local media, and with the Japan Football Association (JFA) under pressure to appoint Aguirre's successor before the four-times Asian champions begin their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign in June.
"The issue of the next coach has yet to be decided and we are not making any comment at this point," said a JFA spokesman.
"Ideally we would like to make a decision before the friendly matches in March but the issue is still under consideration."
Japan face Tunisia on March 27 and another game against as-yet-unnamed opponents on March 31.
The JFA will be anxious to have the new coach in place before June to allow him time to cast his eye over the domestic J-League, following their recent Asian Cup flop where they lost to the United Arab Emirates in the quarter-finals.
Spalletti's picture was splashed over the front page of Thursday's Nikkan Sports daily, which reported that the JFA had been in touch with the Italian's agent and terms would be discussed in the coming days.
Former Barcelona and Real Madrid star Michael Laudrup, whose two-year spell in charge of English Premier League side Swansea City ended with the Dane's sacking a year ago, has also been linked to the vacant post, along with former England coach Glenn Hoddle and German Felix Magath.
Laudrup, also a target for Queens Park Rangers and currently managing Qatari side Lekhwiya, had a brief spell in the J-League as a player with Vissel Kobe from 1996-97.
JFA officials are wary of the need to hire the right man after the debacle with Aguirre, who arguably left the Blue Samurai in worse shape than he found them following their meek exit from last year's World Cup.
Spalletti was axed by Zenit last year despite leading them to two league titles, as well as the Russian Cup and Russian Super Cup, since joining the club from Roma in 2009.
He was the first coach to lead Zenit to the knockout stages of the European Champions League during the 2011-12 competition but a slump in form last year prompted the club, owned by state-controlled gas company Gazprom, to terminate his contract.