Japan made a historic breakthrough at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ by winning their way into the Round of 16 for the first time on foreign soil. The success of South Africa 2010 helping the east Asians soar thirteen places up to 32 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Japan began their fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup campaign as the lowest ranked side in a tough group that also featured eventual tournament runners-up Netherlands, plus Denmark and Cameroon. Despite this Samurai Blue got off to a flying start by stunning their African opponents with an impressive 1-0 victory in their Group E opener. After narrowly losing to the Dutch by the same scoreline, they saw off Denmark 3-1 to progress to the last 16.
The tenacious Japanese went on to demonstrate both discipline and spirit against Paraguay only to bow out via the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. Yuichi Komano’s missed spot-kick gifting their rivals the precious win and a place in the quarter-finals. “The team represented not only Japan but also Asia and they played hard until the end,” stated coach Takeshi Okada, who recently stepped down after three years at the helm, “I’m proud of them.”
New guard promises bright future
Despite a run of poor results prior to arriving in South Africa, Okada and his charges rose from the ashes to reach the knockout phase, and achieve a new high watermark for Japanese football on the world’s greatest stage. A host of promising stars nurtured by Okada during his tenure excelled throughout Japan’s surprise campaign. Capturing the most attention was midfielder-turned striker Keisuke Honda, who scored the only goal against Cameroon before then opening the scoring against Denmark. VFL Wolfsburg play-maker Makoto Hasebe inherited the captain's armband from veteran Yuji Nakazawa, while at the back young Yuto Nagatomo was unyielding.
Japan’s impressive defensive form was partly due to the form of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima who proved one of the tournament's biggest revelations between the sticks, conceding a mere two goals in four games. With this new-found core being heralded as the team’s backbone for the coming years, Okada can proudly reflect on a successful changing of the guard.
It is little more than a month since Japan's memorable campaign concluded but the success has already bred its own rewards, with three players completing European moves. Leading the trio is Atsuto Uchida who transferred to German side Schalke, while Yuto Nagatomo inked a deal with newly-promoted Italian Serie A side Cesena. Kawashima's shot-stopping talents didn't go unnoticed either as he secured a move to Belgium’s Lierse from Kawasaki Frontale.
With the Japanese fans still basking in the afterglow of their 2010 FIFA World Cup success, the country’s footballing authorities have began the search for Okada’s replacement, with the first test to be January’s AFC Asian Cup 2011 in Qatar, where Japan will have to battle it out against the likes of Jordan, Syria and long-time nemesis Saudi Arabia. Three high-profile friendlies have been scheduled for the build-up, with September’s re-match against Paraguay the most significant.
“We hope the search for a new coach will be completed by the 15 August,” Junji Ogura, the Japanese Football Association’s newly elected President said recently. “For the game (against Paraguay) we plan to call up our overseas players to repay our supporters.”