Riddled with doubts as they set up camp in South Africa, Japan have succeeded in forging a new identity for themselves as the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ has unfolded. Now, having marched impressively through the group stage, they will be fuelled by ambition and belief when they take on Paraguay in the Round of 16 on Tuesday.
In short, the Samurai Blue have kept their warrior spirit and cast aside the blues. The new blade in their armoury is tactical discipline, and though it is a quality usually associated with European and South American sides, Japan have banished any previous naivety to become as solid at the back as they are exciting going forward, when they delight neutrals with their short passing game and constant movement.
“My team has a strength that the others don’t have,” said coach Takeshi Okada. “All 23 players are united, as are the staff. We want to show that football is a team sport.” The 53-year-old is right to feel proud of how far his team have come in a short space of time. Just one month ago, in fact, the talk was principally of lowering expectations for the finals and his side's perceived shortcomings.
Okada has not forgotten Japan’s pre-tournament travails, his charges having failed to clinch a single victory in 2010 before the start of the tournament. “Coming into the World Cup, the players weren’t at their best,” he said. “They’re finding form at the perfect time. Quite a lot of things weren’t going well after the turn of the year, with the players’ lack of form the key issue. I wanted to reverse the downward spiral, so I made some radical changes. They’ve worked.”
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, midfielder Daisuke Matsui confirmed his coach’s analysis. “It was tough for the team during our preparations,” he explained. “We weren’t good, but then the coach changed some players and tinkered with positioning. That said, the most important thing is our tremendous solidarity. This team really is 11 guys who play together. That’s been the key to our good run, because for me that’s the most important thing in football.”
The Grenoble midfielder also stressed the significance of Japan’s opening encounter, a 1-0 victory over Cameroon that helped consolidate the growing mood of togetherness while confirming the side’s defensive solidity. “Our defence was very good against Cameroon,” he said. “That match was crucial because it was the one which gave us confidence.” Okada concurred, adding: “I think that our first match was the most important. If we hadn’t beaten Cameroon, that would have changed everything.
“We’re still a bit short of the very highest international level,” added the former Yokohama F Marinos coach, similarly lucid about his side’s global standing. “We’ve only played the big teams in friendlies. We know our limits – but we also have our qualities.” That final note of defiance was then taken up by forward Yoshito Okubo. “We’ve learnt from our mistakes during our preparatory phase, especially in our defeat by England. After that match, we understood what we had to do to be competitive at the highest level.”
Los Guaraníes can consider themselves warned.