Japan Kit 1
Japan Kit 2
Under the leadership of Brazil legend Zico, Japan was the first team after host Germany to qualify for the World Cup. The Blues qualified in early June—but it was not always easy. In particular, away in Teheran, Japan looked overwhelmed.
The perennial problem of finding the net plagued Japan throughout the qualifiers. In six matches, Japan scored only nine times, though it won its division by beating out Iran, which qualified in second place.
Zico has experimented up front with Tatsuhiko Kubo, Naohiro Takahara, Masashi Oguro, and lately Seiichiro Maki.
Takahara is the most skilled of the bunch, but has been on the Hamburg bench for much of the spring. With the exception of friendly matches, he has seen little action; come June, he may not have had enough time on the field under his belt to be ready for Germany. Kubo has had back problems, and none of them can be relied on to score. This is Zico's most vexing and difficult decision.
Coach Zico could not be more different from his predecessor Philippe Troussier. The Frenchman was a controlling and obsessive figure who terrorized the Japanese press corps. His basic assumption was that Japanese players were not individually talented enough to compete against the best in the world. As a result, he instituted a system whereby every player was interchangeable. Japan played and thrived, lived and died, as a team of eleven rugged midfielders; there were no stars. Athletic hustlers filled out the roster. It wasn't a thing of beauty, but the team did well, nearly making it to the final eight in 2002.
In contrast, Zico's "philosophy" is to let the players figure things out themselves. (Cynics say that this laissez-faire style of "coaching has more to do with Zico's penchant for extended vacations back home in Brazil.) At times, this has created confusion, even chaos on the field. At other times, the team has performed well, especially in midfield. The quartet of Hidetoshi Nakata (Bolton), Shunsuke Nakamura (Celtic), Mitsuo Ogawasara (Kashima Antlers), and Shinji Ono (Urawa Reds) is tight and potentially dangerous. If Ono is fit, he is the most creative player on the team.
The backline is, with the exception of Yuji Nakazawa (Yokohama Marinos), weak in the air. In particular, the overrated Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (Gamba Osaka) is too small and too slow to handle what awaits him in Germany. Unless Nakazawa has the tournament of his life, look for Japan to give up goals on set pieces. Akira Kaji is quick and move forward a la Total Football, but this could expose Japan at the back.
As alluded to above, the main problem Japan faces is scoring. Japan still has yet to produce a Rooney, Henry, Ronaldinho—or Zico. There is no forward who has both the killer instinct and talent to terrorize opposing defenses.
Hide Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura are the best players on the team. Though Mitsuo Ogasawara may be the best player in the J.League, in Germany he will struggle with the physicality and speed of opposing teams.
Nakata is the leader of the team. He is cool-headed and makes few mistakes. He is a clutch player who though not a natural scorer does find the net at key times.
Shunsuke Nakamura is the more gifted of the two. After several years in Italy and a season at Celtic, he has learned to take a hit. His left foot is a thing of beauty to behold.
One to watch: Daisuke Matsui
The former Kyoto Purple Sanga showboat has matured in several years in France with Le Mans. He has picked up the physical side of his game while maintaining his tremendous skills on the ball.
He is all but assured a place on the team; whether Zico will let him on the field is another story.
1994: Did not qualify after conceding an extra-time goal during
a qualifier in Doha, which is universally known in Japan as the
"The Doha Tragedy"
1998: Knocked out of the first round with three straight losses
2002: Qualified as co-host, progressed to the best 16
Progression to the second phase from Group F will depend heavily on the match with Croatia, on June 18. It is safe to say that short of divine intervention, Japan will not get any points against Brazil. Australia, though much improved under the excellent Guus Hiddink, should provide Japan with three points. What remains is a tall, tough, and talented Croat side. In a spring friendly against Bosnia Herzegovina, a similar side to the Croats, Japan was outpaced and outgunned by a team much lower ranked. We are rooting for Nakata et al, but fear an early exit. If Japan beats Australia in its first match, gets a draw or win over Croatia, it could move on to the next round. For psychological reasons, Japan must win its match against Australia.
John Herbert thinks confidence will be key to Japan's chances
Goalkeepers Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (Jubilo Iwata), Yoichi
Doi (FC Tokyo), Seigo Narazaki (Nagoya Grampus Eight)
Defenders Makoto Tanaka (Jubilo Iwata), Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (Gamba Osaka), Alessandro Santos (Urawa Reds), Yuji Nakazawa (Yokohama F Marinos), Keisuke Tsuboi (Urawa Reds), Akira Kaji (Gamba Osaka), Yuichi Komano (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Koji Nakata (Basle, Switzerland)
Midfielders Takashi Fukunishi (Jubilo Iwata), Mitsuo Ogasawara (Kashima Antlers), Shinji Ono (Urawa Reds), Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Hidetoshi Nakata (Bolton, England), Shunsuke Nakamura (Celtic, Scotland), Junichi Inamoto (West Bromwich Albion, England)
Forwards Seiichiro Maki (JEF United Chiba), Keiji Tamada (Nagoya Grampus Eight), Atsushi Yanagisawa (Kashima Antlers), Masashi Oguro (Grenoble, France), Naohiro Takahara (Hamburg, Germany)
Japan World Cup 2006 Team Profile