Boasting one of the strongest squads in Asian football, Japan, winners of three of the last five editions of the AFC Asian Cup, have high hopes for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ - their fourth appearance at the global showpiece.
First on the agenda is an improvement on the disappointing showing at Germany 2006, when the Samurai Blue exited at the first hurdle after a 3-1 reverse against Australia, a 0-0 draw with Croatia and a resounding 4-1 defeat by Brazil. Japan will also be facing their first finals without iconic midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata. The former Roma schemer featured in each of the national side's games at France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 before hanging up his boots after the latter event aged just 29.
The road to South Africa
Having comfortably reached the fourth and final stage of Asian Zone qualifying for South Africa 2010, Japan won four, drew three and lost just one of their eight matches in Group 1. A 2-1 reverse in Australia and a frustrating 0-0 at home against the same opponents were the lowlights of this final phase, though coach Takeshi Okada's charges still finished well clear of Bahrain, Qatar and Uzbekistan in the five-team section.
The star players
Japan's biggest star is former Celtic playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura, who in the summer 2009 made the switch from Glasgow to La Liga with Espanyol. Another European-based performer is young midfielder Keisuke Honda, at Eredivisie outfit VVV Venlo and like Nakamura a gifted left-footer. Leading from the back is 31-year-old defensive rock and captain Yuji Nakazawa, who with over 90 senior caps to his name is Japan's third-most capped player of all time.
National supremo Okada is widely considered to be one of the finest Japanese strategists around. He was at the helm during the Samurai Blue's first FIFA World Cup appearance at France 1998, having successfully negotiated a tricky play-off meeting with Iran, and later enjoyed spells at club level with Consadole Sapporo and Yokohama F Marinos.
The 53-year-old former international defender's time in Sapporo included taking the team from the second division into the top flight, while the tactician led Marinos to successive J.League titles in 2003 and 2004. Having stepped away from his role in Yokohama in 2006, he picked up the reins of the national team for a second time a year later - following the stroke suffered by previous incumbent Ivica Osim.
Previous FIFA World Cups
South Africa 2010 will be Japan's fourth FIFA World Cup finals, and their fourth in a row. Their best finish came as hosts at Korea/Japan 2002, when they topped Group H ahead of Belgium, Russia and Tunisia to advance to the knockout stages for the first and so far only time. Once in the Round of 16 they put in a brave fight only to go down 1-0 against eventual third-place finishers Turkey, the goal coming after 12 minutes from Umit Davala.
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