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Atsushi Hanita leads Brunei under-23 in their quest for Paris 2024

HANITA Atsushi as GK Coach for the Brunei Darussalam National Team (jfa.jp)
HANITA Atsushi as GK Coach for the Brunei Darussalam National Team (jfa.jp)

The 2023 ASEAN Football Federation U-23 Championship (AFF U-23 Championship) has brought back Atsushi Hanita as the head coach of Brunei Darussalam.

Previously, Atsushi Hanita served as the head coach of the senior national football team of Brunei from September 1, 2020, to March 31, 2022. Despite serving in this prestigious role for over 570 days, Brunei Darussalam only played one official FIFA match, an away friendly 2-3 loss against Laos. But, the story of Atsushi Hanita is not one of being a head coach, rather it is one of being a developer and a teacher.

Atsushi Hanita participates in the Japan Football Association’s and Japan Government’s foreign policy of sending football instructors overseas to countries where they need better coaching and development, as a way to form good-natured relations and to help partner countries achieve success.

From September 2016 to January 2019, Atsushi Hanita served as a goalkeeper coach for Bhutan, before transferring over to Brunei in February 2019. When Atsushi Hanita first arrived in Brunei, he served as a goalkeeper coach and development coach, but since then, his role has expanded. As a development coach, his role was to develop local Bruneian football players. This led him to quickly become a youth coach for Brunei by March. Continuing these previous roles mentioned, Atsushi Hanita expanded his roles again by becoming the under-18 goalkeeper coach in October, and then the under-18 manager in December. He also became the Director of the Youth Department.

These roles allowed him to take his coaching to those developing the most, the younger players. It allowed him to better see and understand the football infrastructure so that he could raise Brunei up from the grassroots. It quickly became apparent to those in the Islamic monarchy that Atsushi Hanita was a man of great football quality. Therefore, by January 2020, Atsushi Hanita took over as the assistant manager and chief instructor for the senior team. And, by September, he became the manager.

The lack of games following this was due to COVID. The Bruneian authorities felt it best to keep their football national teams at all age groups from competitions, which hurt football development in Brunei.

Brunei Darussalam Men’s National Team (jfa.jp)
Brunei Darussalam Men’s National Team (jfa.jp)

This led to the Football Association of Brunei Darussalam (FABD) getting rid of their then-head coach and assistant coach, and since Atsushi Hanita was still in Brunei for development, he was chosen as the senior national team head coach.

Following this brief stint, Atsushi Hanita became the Head of the National Teams Unit, a position that is basically the manager, without the head coach part, as Atsushi Hanita was responsible for “planning strategies, club visits, operations, budget, and inventory management.” He would also continue as a goalkeeper coach for the senior national team, and then for the under-23 team. In addition, Brunei’s senior head coach, Mario Rivera, would sometimes have Atsushi Hanita play on the Brunei National Team as a goalie in friendlies against club teams. Atsushi Hanita continues to be the goalkeeping coach for the senior team, but his main job since June of 2023 is as the caretaker manager for the under-23 team. 

This role saw him first go to Saudi Arabia to coach warm-up matches against club teams in June and July, all to prepare for the 2023 AFF U-23 Championship this August, which itself is used as a preparatory tournament for the 2024 AFC U-23 Asia Cup qualification this September. The 2024 AFC U-23 Asia Cup is very important because it is here that Asian nations achieve their 2024 Olympic qualification next April and May. But, in order to prepare, Brunei had to first try and conquer their region: ASEAN.

2023 AFF U-23 Championship

The 2023 AFF U-23 Championship began on 17 August and ended on 26 August. The Rayong and Chonburi provinces of Thailand hosted this tournament.

Brunei played in Group A with Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar. 

Their first match was a very disappointing 0-5 loss to Cambodia at PTT Stadium in Rayong on 17 August. This match displayed all the worrying signs Bruneians hoped would have been alleviated after their two months in Saudi Arabia. The worst part about this loss is the score was much closer than the match appeared; it should have been worse for Brunei as Brunei was outshot 0 (0) to 30 (9) and only held 19% of the possession. Furthermore, Brunei completed just 141 passes for a 55% passing rate, compared to Cambodia who passed the ball 564 times for an 88% completion rate.  

Brunei next played Thailand at PTT Stadium on 19 August. Presumably, this would be the stiffest of the tests as Thailand is usually the best in men’s football for the region. Yet, Brunei slightly improved, not in the shots or pass completion percentage against, but in the other major categories, most importantly the score. Brunei let in just 3 goals from Thailand’s 33 (9) shots. While Brunei still had 0 (0) shots, their possession went up to 22%, and Brunei was able to complete 160 passes for a 60% completion rate. Thailand completed their passes at a 90% rate for 536.

Brunei’s last group stage match was against Myanmar at Rayong Provincial Stadium on 21 August. This last match proved even better for the Abode of Peace as Brunei was able to get many shots off, 11 (2), and scored a goal! Unfortunately, Myanmar was up to the task and scored 4 goals from 31 (11) shots. The possession was more even in this match as Brunei held 34% possession, and completed 203 passes (53%). Myanmar had 353 passes (83%).

What is next for Atsushi Hanita and the Brunei under-23?

The Brunei under-23 has a quick turnaround as the 2024 AFC U-23 Asia Cup qualification begins on 6 September in Jordan, against Jordan. Following this, Brunei will play Syria (9 September), and Oman (12 September). To advance to the 2024 AFC Asia Cup next April and May, Brunei will either need to win their Group A or be one of the top four runners-up from 11 groups, a difficult task. Brunei will likely have the same roster as the AFF U-23 Football Championship, giving the Bruneians a chance to see how good Atsushi Hanita is as a head coach in improving his teams.

So far, we have seen vast improvements in the Brunei under-23’s June, July, and August matches. Brunei has gotten better through their many friendlies across Saudi Arabia and three competitive matches in Thailand, plus a 0-2 loss away to Laos

As for Atsushi Hanita, he is continuing to coach and learn more about Brunei.

To better connect with his players and his new nation, Atsushi Hanita has been learning some Brunei Malay and has been gaining a better understanding of the Islamic culture, both foreign to Japan. 

The results appear to show an improved connection and better coaching, as the previous tournament the under-23s participated in was the 2019 SEA Games. It is here where Brunei was eliminated with 5 losses from 5 matches, losing by a little more than an average of 6 goals a match, including 0-7 losses to Thailand and Singapore and a whopping 0-8 loss to Indonesia! Their 0-3 loss to Laos and 0-6 loss to Vietnam were not much better. So, despite the bad play in their AFF U-23 Championship this past week, Brunei did improve by quite a bit.  

Atsushi Hanita’s contract will run out in 2024, but if he and his team are able to pull off a qualification to the Asia Cup, we might get to continue to see the Japanese tactician in yellow and black on the sidelines. 

Article by Cole Kinder

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