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Japan focus

Land of the rising expectations

April 1, 2010
By Matthias Krug

With the World Cup creeping ominously closer, looming now like a football-shaped hot air balloon on the South African horizon, it is time to take a closer look at one of the self-proclaimed favourites for the tournament: Japan.

Takeshi Okada
GettyImagesTakeshi Okada returned to manage Japan in December 2007

You might smile wryly at this statement. You might also chuckle wildly. Historically speaking, Asian teams have never really been among the favourites at any World Cup finals. But the fact is that Japan coach Takeshi Okada has named the semi-finals as the lofty target for his side this summer.

Never mind that critics would call getting out of a group containing nifty Netherlands, dangerous Denmark and confident Cameroon a real success. Okada remains stoic, and the goal of a top-four finish would certainly seem to suggest that the coach sees his side as one of the favourites for the title. After all, ask the likes of Germany, Spain or Brazil what they are aiming for in South Africa and you'll likely hear the semi-finals mentioned a lot. Aiming for the final itself might sound just a little pompous, although the Spanish are already dreaming of a final against Brazil.

So is Okada unnecessarily piling pressure on his players - or even on himself?

When I met the former Japan international during the country's initially difficult and then quite comfortable World Cup qualification campaign, Okada responded with a shrug of the shoulders, proclaiming: "The pressure is no problem for me."

Indeed, Okada's second reign at the helm of the Japan team - the first included the 1998 World Cup finals in France - got off to a rather stuttering start and he was criticised at home for lacking an attacking strategy. This came after he promised to deliver Total Football after taking over the post in December 2007. Total Football? Cryuff beware.

But when I asked Okada about the Japanese desire to play in the historic style of their opponents in South Africa this summer, he was adamant that his Japan team is creating a new style altogether. "We have a team concept: attacking football," Okada said. "Of course we must also defend. I would not call it Total Football - I would call it Japan football."

Now you may ask yourself: Is Okada's goal realistic? Maybe not entirely, especially considering the strength in depth of some of the other top contenders, but what the coach is doing is showing his side that an inferiority complex is not desirable at the World Cup this summer. Instead, top class football is expected.

With Asian teams often taken for exotic weaklings on the international stage, Japan could be forgiven for looking meekly for the second spot in their group behind the all-powerful Dutch.

But that is just the kind of thinking Okada is trying to root out, with gifted playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura telling FIFA: "Everybody thinks the Netherlands are going to take first place in the group and that the other three teams will have to fight it out for second, but we've got to look further ahead than that. Our coach, Takeshi Okada, thinks we can reach the semi-finals and the team has to be able to live up to those expectations and achieve that goal, which would clearly be a huge success for us and our country."

Indeed, from Nakamura's comments ("our coach thinks", as opposed to we think) you might deduce that the Japanese team is still struggling internally with the new expectations placed on their frail shoulders. But Okada, in best Jose Mourinho fashion, seems to be playing with media expectations, and he has certainly lined up a World Cup warm-up schedule to back his big words.

The Japanese will take on Serbia, South Korea, England and Ivory Coast in the months leading up to South Africa, with the May 30 date against Fabio Capello's boys looking a particularly testing affair. Should Japan spring an unlikely surprise in that warm-up game in Austria, some people may take Okada a little more seriously, although former Netherlands international Ronald de Boer already has the Blue Samurai in the reckoning for this summer.

"The Japanese are a very strong side, I saw them play as a very strong unit during qualifying and I really think they can pose some problems to the top sides," De Boer, who now lives and commentates on football in Qatar, told ESPN.

Keisuke Honda
GettyImagesKeisuke Honda is one of the players guaranteed a World Cup place if he stays fit

Just how many problems Japan can cause this summer remains to be seen, but the excitement and expectation in the country is certainly rising. Nakamura aside, the Japanese are now also pinning their hopes on Keisuke Honda, the speedy CSKA Moscow forward who shot his team into the Champions League quarter-finals at Sevilla's expense.

Even if Japan don't quite reach their goal, they will still have added something unique to world football: an Asian team with a self-appointed status as one of the favourites for the World Cup.