Japan headed in right direction
"Gallant Japan out of Cup despite draw with Brazil." So ran the headline in The Japan Times in the wake of Zico's team's elimination from the FIFA Confederations Cup at the hands of Brazil.
It seemed a fair analysis of a showing which should give Zico and his players real encouragement as they begin planning for their return to Germany in 12 months' time. As Japan's Brazilian coach said in his press conference after the 2-2 draw with the Seleção, "My team experienced what it meant to play against a very strong team and to match them."
For Zico, there must have been real satisfaction from the manner of his players' performance, not only against Brazil but also in beating Greece in their second Group B game. Although Japan had become the first team to qualify for next summer's FIFA World Cup with two qualifying wins at the beginning of the month, their displays over the previous year had done little to placate the demanding Japanese press, with whom he has a difficult relationship.
Here in Germany, however, Japan produced what many considered their most impressive displays since their previous visit to Europe in May 2004, where their results included a victory in the Czech Republic and draw with England. Francisco Maturana, the former Colombia coach and a member of FIFA's Technical Study Group here in Germany, was generous in his praise of the Japanese after watching them come close to a first victory over Brazil in Cologne.
"Zico must be pleased with the way the tournament has gone for his side," he told FIFAworldcup.com. "Japan have showed that, on top of being great athletes, they know how to play football. They are a team headed in the right direction."
The Japanese press were in full agreement. Nikkan Sports described the draw with Brazil as a "warning to the world". Hochi Shimbun declared excitedly that "Shunsuke's left foot shakes Brazil" as it reflected on the national team's finest effort against the country they have so long looked up to.
Where Japan showed real quality was in their midfield ranks. Shunsuke Nakamura caught the eye with his wonder goal against Brazil and two Anheuser Busch Man of the Match performances, but Hidetoshi Nakata, Takashi Fukunishi and Mitsuo Ogasawara all contributed as well. Their passing and combination play ensured they created chances against both Greece and Brazil and in the latter match they were just a whisker away from winning.
Akira Kaji's early goal was ruled out for offside while, in the dying seconds, Marcos' save denied Oguro a dramatic winner. Still, Oguro's knack of coming off the bench and scoring important goals has to be good news given Japan's traditional shortage of striking options.
The key now is to build on these displays. Japan are next in action in the East Asian Championship where they will face Korea DPR, China and Korea Republic in late July and early August. Later that month comes their final Germany 2006 qualifier at home to Iran before they embark on a programme of friendlies ahead of the FIFA World Cup finals.
There is talk of another trip to Europe in October and further experience against opponents from other continents can only benefit them. Goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi concurred when he said: "We played high-quality teams at this tournament but we need to get more games under our belt against sides like Germany and Argentina." Being the best in Asia is one thing, beating the world's best another thing entirely. But the Japanese appear to be on the right track.