The past
After successive failures to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, Japan made their first appearance in 1993 when the tournament was held on their home soil. Thanks in large part to the celebrated playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata, Japan's U-17 squad finished second in their group and were able to advance to the quarter-finals. At the FIFA U-17 World Cup Ecuador 1995, Japan's team included talents such as Junichi Inamoto, Naohiro Takahara and Shinji Ono, all of whom went on to play abroad in ensuing years.

In spite of this, they were unable to advance beyond the first stage of the competition. While Japan's senior side participated in the FIFA World Cup™ in 1998, 2002 and 2006, the U-17 "Samurai Blue" were not able to progress beyond the group stages in their last two outings, finishing third in their group at both Trinidad and Tobago 2001 and Korea 2007. On both occasions, the squads failed to effectively implement the trademark Japanese attacking style that might have earned them better results.

The present
The Japanese U-17 squad features a number of players with great potential that will likely turn some heads at Nigeria 2009. Striker Takashi Usami, who plays his club football with AFC champions Gamba Osaka, can be used effectively as either a midfielder or as an attacking playmaker. Takumi Miyayoshi's speed and skills up front are reflective of a modern Japanese attacking style that features a deadly combination of technique, quickness and creativity.

That said, the greatest strength of Japan's current U-17 team is defence, as was demonstrated at the AFC U-16 Championship in Uzbekistan last October. In that competition, victories over Malaysia (4-0) and UAE (6-1) enabled Japan's U-17 squad to finish at the top of their group. And their ensuing quarter-final victory over Saudi Arabia (2-0) was enough to qualify the young Samurai Blue for Nigeria 2009.

The future
Coach Yutaka Ikeuchi is looking forward to the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 and anticipates a better result than Japan has been able to attain in previous competitions. "Our semi-final match against Korea Republic in the AFC U-16 Championship was the starting point for Nigeria 2009, but after the defeat, there came several things to be solved for us. We could not play our usual style. We have to create goal chances in every possible situation, otherwise we will not be able to make it in the world's top scene," said the 47-year-old Ikeuchi.

As noted above, Usami is the key figure up front and can cause a lot of trouble for defenders when he is in synch with those around him, such as Gaku Shibasaki, the quintessential Japanese midfielder who demonstrates passing skill and field vision evocative of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura. Young Samurai Blue's 4-4-2 formation can be effective at Nigeria 2009 if Usami and Shibasaki are able to collaborate effectively and if their team-mates can sustain high energy levels throughout their matches.

Facts and figures
Former stars
Hidetoshi Nakata (1993), Junichi Inamoto (1995), Shinji Ono (1995), Naohiro Takahara (1995), Mitsuo Ogasawara (1995), Kisho Yano (2001),

Key players
Takashi Usami (forward), Gaku Shibasaki (midfielder), Tatsuya Uchida (defender)

Qualifying statistics
3 wins and 1 defeat, 14 scored and 3 conceded.

The numbers game
3 - Young Samurai Blue's solid defence conceded only 3 goals in the qualifying campaign for Nigeria 2009.