With a thriving population of 127m,
Around 5m Japanese partake in football and their attendance figure for the domestic season was 6m, with an average attendance per game hitting 19 000. In 1991 the Japanese semi-professional league disbanded and re-formed the professional J League – this would raise the profile of the sport and strengthen the national team program. It was only seven years after this that Japan qualified for their first World Cup. The Blues have played in every World Cup since, with their best finish a second round exit in 2002. FIFA have currently ranked Japan 45th – they hit a high in February 1998 when they were ninth in the world – a huge achievement for a country who are relatively new to football.
The J league is one of the most successful leagues in Asian club football and the attendances on matchday rival that of the English Premier League with top club Yokohama F. Marinos holding 72 370. Kashima Antlers have won the J League most however, attaining seven championships, three of these coming in the last three seasons. The Asian Champions League has seen Japanese clubs succeed with Urawa Red Diamonds going all the way in 2007 and Gamba Osaka also taking the trophy home in 2008. The J League also feeds the national team squad immensely as the current 23-man set-up is made up from 80% home based players. This could help the players gel quicker once full training begins, and helping this further is the fact that the European based players are hugely experienced and play for highly ranked European clubs.
The Blue Samurai finished second in their final qualification group behind Australia having only lost one game from eight. This will give them confidence going into South Africa and their fans will certainly expect at least qualification to the second round. The Japanese media certainly view their nation’s chances as hopeful and optimism is high and although the group seems tricky they will look to take the scalps of Cameroon and Denmark to progress. Captain Yuji Nakazawa of Yokohama F. Marinos has scored 17 goals in 102 appearances for Japan and has the third highest amount of caps in their history. ‘Bomber’ is a rock at the back and is an excellent organiser, he will certainly be the Blue and Whites driving force. The 32-year-old will however need help from the more attacking players in the team with Shinji Okazaki tipped to shine after the youngster netted 15 in his first 20 internationals – an achievement that led to him being named the World’s Top Goal Scorer for 2009. The attacker could well be the key to Japan finishing in the top two of the group stage as the Shimizu S-Pulse forward has excellent composure and brilliant creativity, while his ability to find space in the box and quick feet could be key to seeing off their opposition. He will link up with ex-Espanyol playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura who has hit 24 goals in 95 games from midfield and his European experience could help on the world stage. He is possibly Japan’s biggest threat, especially from deadball situations and has even lit up the Champions league with some wonderful free-kicks – most notably against Manchester United.
The Japanese national team are always nicknamed after their Head Coach and Takeshi Okada, who is in his second spell in charge, will guide ‘Okada Japan’ this summer. The 53-year-old also led Morinos to two successive J League titles in 2003 and 2004 and was also in charge of the national team leading up to and during France 98 and is known as a thinker and strategist. The former Yokohama Coach received much criticism at the start of the year due to a lack of foresight and rigid inflexibility in the team. A lack of variety in Japan’s attacking play at the East Asian Championship led to a third place finish, not good enough for a Coach who has publicly stated Japan’s goal is to reach the semi-finals in South Africa.
The Samurai Blue play their home games at the National Olympic Stadium in Kasumigaoka, Shinjuku, Tokyo – built in 1958 it holds 48 000 seated. The surface is always in pristine condition so the hard, sunsoaked pitches of South Africa may take some adapting to. Japan prefer a 4-4-2 formation, making good use of their wide players – Nakamura and Daisuke Matsui are pin-point accurate with their crossing techniques and like to start a lot of attacking moves. Japanese players have always shown a desire and commitment at major tournaments and although not always as gifted as the likes of Brazil and Argentina they have always been a hard team to beat. The current side is no different, with a teamwork-based ethic and closing down at every opportunity vital to their style. Goal-scoring may be the Blues’ biggest problem and playing against some of the strongest defenders in the world, Okada will need to find a solution before the summer begins.