When Takeshi Okada vowed to guide Japan into the semi-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, a vast majority felt it was misguided ambition. According to Keisuke Honda, however, the Samurai Blue have the tools to surpass their coach’s lofty target.
“I personally think it would be good to aim at winning the World Cup rather than settling for the semi-finals,” the CSKA Moscow playmaker said recently. “All of our opponents are better teams than us, but we still have a chances.”
Yasuhito Endo, the reigning AFC Asian Player of the Year and Honda’s partner in the engine room, is also in confident mood. “It is indeed a challenge for us, taken into account that our best result to date is reaching the last 16,” the Gamba Osaka man told FIFA.com in December. “But we have our own strengths and we will strive hard to achieve the best outcome.”
Creativity the key
Japan’s midfielders are likely to be central to their hopes of success. Shunsuke Nakamura, 31, has been in fine form for Yokohama Marinos after ending his seven-year European adventure earlier this year, while Junichi Inamoto, who scored twice for his country at Korea/Japan 2002, is another experienced, influential figure.
Endo and fellow J.League-based player Kengo Nakamura both proved instrumental during their qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010, while Honda is expected to add new impetus after inspiring CSKA into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League for the first time. With such talent at his disposal, Okada could even afford to exclude Shinji Ono and Borussia Dortmund-bound Shinji Kagawa from his 23-man provisional squad for the upcoming tournament.
Indeed, since their emergence in the early 1990s, Japan have made their name as Asia’s most creative side, a fact Kengo Nakamura was proud to point out. “Japanese are creative people and many youth players aspire to develop their creativity,” the Kawasaki Frontale midfielder explained. “As a result, we boast tremendous creativity and are capable of carving out good chances against even the world’s top teams.”
A lack of potency in attack, however, remains Japan’s biggest defect. In fact, five of their eight goals at the FIFA World Cup – scored at France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 – were posted by midfielders.
The Samurai Blue's lack of a prolific marksman was evident in the 3-0 defeat by the Netherlands in September, when they created chance after chance but failed to get on the scoresheet. Japan will re-encounter the Dutch in their second Group E game in South Africa, before taking on Denmark in their last first-phase outing.
Given their poor record against European sides, though, Okada believes their opening fixture against Cameroon will be the most crucial. “I haven’t changed my goal but to reach our target, we have to first get out of the group,” said the 53-year-old. “Therefore, the game against the Africans will be the most important for us.”