Japan left singing the blues
"Our aim is a place in the semi-finals," said an ambitious Zico before the curtain rose on the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany.
With Japan appearing at their third consecutive FIFA World Cup finals and with memories of reaching the second round in 2002 still fresh, the national coach must have felt justified in setting such a tough target for his side. In the end, however, Japan never even made it to the knockout stage, gleaning just a solitary point from three games and finishing bottom of Group F.
No one could say the team did not have sufficient time to get ready, with preparations beginning in earnest back in June 2005, when Zico's men secured their place at Germany 2006. They played a friendly almost every month, and even before the Final Draw was held in December, Japan were getting into the swing of things by taking on teams as varied as Angola, Ukraine and Honduras in a bid to familiarise themselves with as many different regional playing styles as possible.
At the end of February, Japan began to fine-tune their preparations, taking on Bosnia-Herzegovina in what was intended as a dry run for their meeting with Group F rivals Croatia. The decision to stage the game at Dortmund's Westfalenstadion was also significant, as it gave Japan the chance to get to know the venue where they would face Brazil in their third match at Germany 2006.
"It wasn't just a matter of getting a feel for the pitch," explained Japan Football Association chairman Saburo Kawabuchi. "There was significant merit in having the team get to know its base in Bonn and even in having them make the trip to the stadium."
So far so good, but preparations suffered their first setback at the end of May when Japan played Germany. Naohiro Takahara scored twice, but then Japan wilted in the face of the host nation's unrelenting pressure and the game ended 2-2. While Japan played well, they had failed to find it within themselves to hold out for victory a realisation that was tough to come to terms with. To make matters worse, attacking right-back Akira Kaji was stretchered off and ruled out of Japan's opening game against Australia.
When they finally went head-to-head with the Socceroos on 12 June, Japan led for much of the game thanks to Shunsuke Nakamura's strike. However, one goal was to prove insufficient and, with no Kaji to help kick-start the team's counterattacks down the flanks, Australia's relentless pressure was eventually rewarded with three goals in the last eight minutes.
"That's what happens if you don't take your chances," Nakamura lamented. "Australia's second hit the post, but the point is it went in," added the midfielder. Zico, for his part, was also unimpressed, saying: "There were far too many sloppy mistakes. Japan simply must learn how to control a game they're winning."
The Australia result was a massive blow to confidence. But Hidetoshi Nakata was determined to get his team-mates back on track. Asked by a reporter if it was feasible for Japan to get four points from their last two games, the experienced midfielder replied bullishly: "Six points are available, and that's what we intend to get."
Although Japan could do no better than a 0-0 draw against Croatia , they enjoyed 56 per cent of the possession and controlled the flow of the game for significant periods. Goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi saved a penalty and the team as a whole showed plenty of spirit.
Then came Brazil . Japan had to win by at least two goals, and even then their fate would be determined by the result of the Croatia-Australia game. Hardly grounds for optimism, but Japan's players, coach, team staff and fans all believed in the possibility of a miraculous feat. For half an hour Japan withstood the combined efforts of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Kaka, before shocking the world champions by taking a 34th-minute lead through Keiji Tamada. But just 11 minutes later, right on the stroke of half-time, Ronaldo scored an equaliser and broke Japan's spirit.
The second half was then reminiscent of the last eight minutes of the Australia game. Brazil took the lead in the 53rd minute, extended it further in the 59th, before netting a fourth ten minutes from time to emphatically end Japan's interest in Germany 2006.
One striking feature of Japan's 2006 campaign was their inability to stop the floodgates opening once they had conceded the first goal a fact all the more frustrating given the stiff resolve they had shown in holding Croatia to a scoreless draw in their second game. Other factors undermining the team's performance included the loss through injury of Keisuke Tsuboi (whose inclusion came courtesy of Kaji's unavailability) in the Australia game and the suspension of captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto for the Brazil match.
In both cases, Japan failed to rise to the challenge. "This is such a depressing outcome," Zico said in summing up his team's performance. "It's all the more disappointing because I believed we had what it takes. These players need a truly professional mentality. They need to play more tournaments and more games, full stop.
"Only a few of them play outside Japan even now, and even some of those players are not used very much. That's one reason why we had problems in the regional qualifiers. An Asian team will never succeed at the FIFA World Cup unless it can transcend the current standard of Asian football."
Of the 23 members of Japan's squad for Germany 2006, 17 play for clubs in Japan. Coach Zlatko Kranjcar of group rivals Croatia echoed Zico's opinion on the issue when he said: "It just underlines that Japan have a way to go before becoming a world-class team."
With Germany 2006 now over for Japan, Zico will soon step down as coach. The Japan Football Association is already busy looking for a successor. Yet every failure sows seeds for future success. Once again, Japan must learn from their mistakes and rebuild. The campaign for South Africa 2010 has already begun.