Japan’s coach has his eyes on a semi-final spot at the World Cup finals.

By Mike Plastow in Tokyo
And the first team to qualify for the 2010 World Cup is…Japan. OK, it was purely a matter of time zones on a day when Australia, South Korea and Holland also made it past the finishing post, but Japan’s qualification was still a remarkably straightforward affair for
a team that has not impressed all that much in competitive games.

The friendlies have been fantastic. Since February, Japan have beaten Finland (5-1), Chile (4-0) and Belgium (4-0), and in each of those games the score could have been even greater as agile midfield and wing play produced a series of well-worked goals that were finished with style. It proved that European and South American countries can no longer expect to play Japan with second-string sides and escape without damage. Given the space, Japan will score goals.

A second noteworthy point from those friendlies is that Japan do have the back-up players. While this is something you might expect from a country of 120million people, it has taken some time in coming. Today, whoever is injured, national team manager Takeshi Okada knows he can call on somebody else to step in and perform at the same high level.

Franky Vercauteren, Belgium’s caretaker manager, made that point directly after their drubbing in May, admitting: “It’s not easy for a small country like Belgium. We’re not like Japan. We don’t have 50 national team players to draw on.”

However, when you look at the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers you find a different story. This year, Japan have beaten Yemen 2-1 and lost 1-0 to Bahrain in the Asian Cup, while in the World Cup they have lost and drawn with Australia, drawn with Qatar, and beaten both Bahrain and Uzbekistan 1-0 in matches that were as close as the scores suggest.

That has all been fine, of course, as far as qualifying for South Africa goes, but where does this leave Japan’s prospects for next year?

Okada says: “Our aim is to reach the last four. We have to believe in ourselves and aim for that with all our heart. Then it will happen.”

Okada has said that many times already but shows no sign of backtracking. To be fair, his team do have the look of a side that will keep getting better over the next 12 months. Okada has cleared out most of Zico’s squad from the 2006 World Cup, he has a good set of players in their mid-to-late twenties and has brought in some fast-improving youngsters.

The ones who remain are centre-back Yuji Nakazawa, full-back Yuichi Komano (who only played against Australia in Germany), Shunsuke Nakamura in midfield and striker Keiji Tamada, who scored that superb goal against Brazil. Keeper Seigo Narazaki and midfielder Yasuhito Endo were both on the bench in 2006.

In the second group, Kengo Nakamura in midfield, Tulio in defence, and utility players Yuki Abe and Yasuyuki Konno provide excellent football intelligence. The most effective young additions have been speedy full-backs Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida, and forward Shinji Okazaki, who has scored seven goals in his first 12 games and netted the winner in Uzbekistan that sealed qualification for South Africa.

Endo ‘the heart’
Okada describes Endo, last year’s Asian Champions League player of the tournament, as “the heart of the team”, using him as a rear-midfield linchpin in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Endo also has strong attacking instincts, as does his first-choice partner, Makoto Hasebe, of German champions Wolfsburg. With three attacking midfielders-cum-strikers ranged in front of them, plus a lone striker, Okada is certainly packing his players forward.

As for the year ahead, there is much to look forward to. Teenage Urawa Reds midfielder Naoki Yamada impressed on his national team debut against Chile – at 18 years and 327 days, he became Japan’s fourth-youngest player of all time – making Japan’s fourth goal for 22-year-old Keisuke Honda, who plays for Venlo in Holland and has added real punch on the right of midfield. Shinji Kagawa, 20, has already reached double figures in caps, while other excellent young players are waiting in the wings.

So can Japan make the last four? Vercauteren says: “It’s a very good thing to say but then you have to do it. It’s putting the bar very high. It’s possible, but you have to do it against teams that have the same ambition.”

Okada, on the other hand, has not a shadow of doubt.