Japan was the first nation to qualify for the World Cup – the Samurai Blue barely broke a sweat in the final round of qualifying to book their flight to Brazil. Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni deserves a lot of the credit, building the team up since he took over the reins in 2010. An Asian Cup title was won in 2011, and World Cup qualification was secured for the fifth time in the country’s history. But while they may be top dogs in Asia, Japan has historically struggled against opponents from outside the continent, as evidenced by its poor showing at last summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Reds), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)
Defenders: Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata), Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart)
Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Makoto Hasebe (Nuremberg), Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka)
Forwards: Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki Frontale), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nuremberg), Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka), Manabu Saito (Yokohama F Marinos), Yuya Osako (1860 Munich)
Alberto Zaccaroni. Yes, he’s Italian, but no he’s not a catenaccio specialist. The former Milan, Juventus and Inter manager is attack minded and has shaped Japan to think offence-first.
4-2-3-1: (GK) Kawashima – (D) Uchida, Yoshida, Konno, Nagatomo – (M) Endo, Hasebe, Okazaki, Honda, Kagawa – (F) Osako
Group C schedule
June 14: vs. Ivory Coast in Recfie
June 19: vs. Greece in Natal
June 24: vs. Colombia in Cuiaba
How they qualified
Japan looked far from convincing in the semifinal round of the Asian qualifiers, losing to Uzbekistan and North Korea, and finished second behind the Uzbekistanis. But they did enough to advance to the final round. Once there, the Japanese became far more ruthless, losing only once in eight matches and winning the group comfortably ahead of Australia.
Japan has a powerful attack. They scored 30 goals in 14 games through Asian qualifying, through 11 different goal scorers. Fun to watch, the Japanese will flood the box and drive hard to overwhelm defences.
All-out attack means leaving yourself open at the back, and if Japan’s midfielders get caught, the defenders are exposed and vulnerable. What’s more, they’ve mostly been tested in the relatively weak Asian zone, where they can get away with being defensively lax. At the level they’ll be playing at, any laziness or hint of weakness will be seized upon immediately.
Players to watch
Shinji Kagawa: Didn’t get much play in David Moyes’s Manchester United, but the ex–Borussia Dortmund man is a talent. He’s got vision, daring and great movement off the ball. The kind of player who can unlock a defence.
Keisuke Honda: A dead-ball specialist, the Milan midfielder’s dipping, swerving free-kick goal against Denmark in the 2010 World Cup will have opponents fearing fouls around the box.
Shinji Ozakazi: The leading scorer in AFC qualifying, Ozakazi is the tip of the Japanese spear. A composed finisher, he’s the beneficiary of Kagawa’s creative genius.
Can Japan find consistency? With as many wins as losses in qualifying, Japan ain’t exactly the bookies’ favourite in a relatively weak Group C. Sure they have attacking threat about them, but they also lost to Jordan. Any team that doesn’t come out of the weak Asian confederation looking dominant is likely in for trouble. Japan may have great moments, but they won’t have a great tournament.
Prospects in Brazil
They could hardly have done better with their draw, but it won’t help. The Ivory Coast and Colombia have bigger guns in attack, and Greece’s famous stinginess at the back should fend off Japan’s assault; all three will be able to score on the Blue Samurai. They’ll be fun to watch, but we won’t see them out of the group stage.
World Cup history
It took Japan 68 years to reach the World Cup, but they haven’t missed one since that first showing in 1998. They finished ninth in 2010 and in 2002, when they co-hosted with South Korea.
• 1930 to 1938 – Did not enter
• 1950 – Banned
• 1954 to 1994 – Did not qualify
• 1998 – First round
• 2002 – Second round
• 2006 – First round
• 2010 – Second round
Algeria || Argentina || Australia || Belgium || Bosnia and Herzegovina || Brazil || Cameroon || Chile || Colombia || Costa Rica || Croatia || Ecuador || England || France || Germany || Ghana || Greece || Holland || Honduras || Iran || Italy || Ivory Coast || Japan || Mexico || Nigeria || Portugal || Russia || South Korea || Spain || Switzerland || Uruguay || United States