Javier Aguirre wants to talk Asian Cup; everybody else is asking about match-fixing

Winning an Asian Cup with Japan would be one of the greatest achievements of Javier Aguirre’s coaching career, but just over two weeks before the competition begins in Australia on Jan. 9, the Samurai Blue head coach is having to answer questions about another job. With a court in Valencia due to decide if Aguirre and 40 others will stand trial for fixing a La Liga match three years ago, the timing couldn’t be worse.

“I want to ask the fans to be calm,” Aguirre said today, in the face of a controversy that’s built since the middle of the month. “[W]e will need their help to win the Asian Cup.”

As head coach of Real Zaragoza in 2011, Aguirre helped keep los Maños survive a relegation challenge, but a complaint before a Spanish court claims survival came with a price. Zaragoza officials, by way of its players and staff, including Aguirre, are alleged to have paid off Levante in order to win the 2010-11 season’s final game. After entering the final round in 18th place, Zaragoza survived with 45 points, two more than relegated Deportivo La Coruña.

If a judge in Valencia finds the evidence persuasive, the former Atlante, Pachuca, Mexico, Osasuna, Atlético, Zaragoza and Espanyol boss will stand trial, potentially leading to a ban, if convicted. According to reports, this is the first case of match-fixing brought before a Spanish court.

“I worked in Spain for 12 years and I have never done anything unethical or unprofessional,” Aguirre said today from Japan Football Association’s headquarters in Tokyo. Still, the 56-year-old’s troubles are casting a cloud over one of Asia’s strongest teams heading into its confederation championship.

Japan won the last Asian Cup in Qatar and is among the favorites to win this year’s competition, but days before the team assembles to begin training for its Jan. 12 opener, the focus was on Aguirre, who has faced calls to resign from his post.

“The players involved in the (Zaragoza-Levante) match are still playing every weekend, and the Zaragoza directors are still doing their jobs,” Aguirre explained. “The referee from that match is still blowing his whistle. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to carry on with my job? I am innocent until proven guilty, and I have the right to work.”

“In all my career … I have never once quit a job when I am under contract.”

The controversy has also ensnared two prominent players, Manchester United’s Ander Herrera and Atlético Madrid’s Gabi, both of whom were with Real Zaragoza at the time. Each are alleged to have handed cash to Levante players after money was transferred from Zaragoza into their bank accounts.

“In executing [an] agreement, on May 17 and May 19, 2011 the adviser of Zaragoza and financial director of the club, Francisco Javier Porquera, ordered the transfer from the account of Zaragoza the amounts of money to the accounts of Antonio Prieto, Javier Aguirre and these players: Lanzaro, Ander Herrera, Toni Doblas, Paulo da Silva, Braulio, Ponzio, Gabi, Jorge Lopez and Diogo,” Spanish prosecutor Alejandro Luzon alleges. The final amount Levante and its players are alleged to have taken home: $1.2 million.

With Japan, Aguirre’s been on the job for less than five months. He’s six matches into what’s supposed to be a four-year job, one that’s intended to culminate with another appearance in a World Cup. In an increasingly competitive region, that’s not a given, but with the most talent in Asia, Japan should get through. Aguirre’s job is to build a contender, not a qualifier.

Next month’s Asian Cup could have been his first proving ground. A title at a tournament hosted by another World Cup qualifier would send a clear message — that Japan, firmly in charge of its region, is ready to make more ambitious goals.

Instead, the tournament may be a distraction from Japan’s growing concern. Will the man its tabbed to build a contender for Russia 2018 be around much longer? As Aguirre noted, a trial is unlikely to start until after the Asian Cup, though it could last years. While Japan’s fighting for a spot in 2018, Aguirre could be fighting to preserve his reputation.