Recent results should give Japan cause for confidence as they embark on their fourth FIFA Confederations Cup campaign against Mexico on Thursday.
Japan became the first team to qualify for next summer's FIFA World Cup finals when they beat Korea DPR 2-0 in Bangkok last week. That victory followed a 1-0 win in Bahrain as Japan produced a spirited response to two friendly defeats in May and ensured they flew to Germany with a creditable record of six wins from nine matches this year.
Captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto was sufficiently buoyed by the team's qualifying success to set a target of a semi-final place here in Germany. "Japan qualified for the World Cup thanks to everyone in the squad and in this tournament we want to reach the semi-finals," he said.
This is one of the few pronouncements to have come out of the camp in recent days as prior to Wednesday coach Zico had not addressed the press since arriving in Germany for an event which for Japan will now serve as an important dress rehearsal for Germany 2006. If Japan could advance from a group that also includes Brazil and Greece, its psychological impact would be significant as a good showing on European soil would give real grounds for optimism looking ahead to next year.
Yet if they are to impress in Germany they will have to improve on previous competitive showings outside of Asia. All of Japan's successes in the last decade or so have come within the confines of their own continent. Since collecting their first AFC Asian Cup in 1992, they have repeated that feat twice since, in 2000 and 2004. They reached the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup final as co-hosts and progressed to the second round of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, again on home soil.
Away from home, though, Japan's footballers have fared less well. Their U-20 side were runners-up at the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship in Nigeria but Japan's record in their three senior FIFA tournaments played on other continents reads as one win and seven defeats from eight matches. A losing start against Group B rivals Mexico could play on some old doubts then, although any sensible assessment of their chances here cannot, of course, be restricted to their record on the road.
Zico will probably be more concerned about their lack of firepower (although the absence of a world-class striker is an obvious factor in their struggle to match the very best). Japan do not concede many goals but nor do they score them - they have managed only five in their last six games - and the Brazilian coach's shortage of effective strike options prompted him to try out a 3-4-2-1 system in Bahrain on 3 June, with midfielders Shunsuke Nakamura and Mitsuo Ogaswara attacking from deep behind striker Atsushi Yanagisawa.
It worked that day, as Ogasawara got the goal, and there is a strong suspicion among Japanese observers that Zico will replicate that approach against Mexico, despite a goalscoring appearance from promising striker Masashi Oguro in the next match against the North Koreans.
This would mean Hidetoshi Nakata, Japan's most experienced player, staying in the deeper-lying midfield role beside Takashi Fukunishi that he filled successfully in Bahrain. Both Nakata and Miyamoto have spoken of the need for improvements in the squad and with Japan's pool of midfielders arguably their strongest point, experimenting with this system against high-class opposition here may help Zico's planning for their next big visit to Germany in 12 months' time.