Since emerging champions at the 1992 Asian Cup, Japan have gone from strength to strength. During the intervening years the East Asians added two more continental titles and played in three FIFA World Cups™.
Also a clutch of talented players known throughout the world has also emerged, chief among them being Hidetoshi Nakata the two-time Asian Player of the Year and former Perugia, Roma and Bolton midfielder.
Having long established themselves as one of Asia's top teams, the Japanese are now aiming at making an impact on the international stage. However, their disappointing performances at Germany 2006, where they failed to make it out of the group under Brazilian coach Zico, proved they still have work to do if they want to be among the best in the global arena.
The fact that they merely managed a goalless draw against Croatia, sandwiched between two defeats at the hands of Australia and Brazil, made the football powers that be back home take notice. Zico was sacked shortly after the team returned home from Germany.
Former Yugoslavia coach Ivica Osim was immediately handed the task of rejuvenating the team further discouraged by the departure of the retired Nakata. Despite the difficulties, Osim, who had spent a successful three-year stint in charge of J-league side JEF United Chiba, had not only the necessary international pedigree but essential knowledge of Japanese football.
The Bosnian coach injected new blood into the team like Urawa Reds' trio Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Keita Suzuki and Yuki Abe. He kept the team's experienced core of midfield fulcrum Shunsuke Nakamura, defensive key man Yuji Nakazawa, goal-getter Naohiro Takahara and reliable custodian Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.
With a mixture of experience and youth hitting the perfect balance, it was no surprise that Osim's men fared so well in the 2007 Asian Cup in July until the defending champions were narrowly edged out 3-2 by Saudi Arabia in their semi-final.
The Asian Cup saw the new-look Japan team continue to dominate the continental competition with their brand of fluid play. Boasting one of Asia's most creative midfields, the Japanese always managed to produce more chances than their rivals. However, their lack of a finishing touch cost them dearly against the Saudis, who, by contrast, were able to convert the three chances they produced.
While initially successful in moulding Japan into a strong unit, Osim suffered a serious stroke in November. As a result the Japanese FA turned back to Takeshi Okada, who guided them to their debut FIFA World Cup finals in 1998.
The former Yokohama F Marinos boss got his second spell as Japan coach off to a blistering start as his charges made light work of Asia's third qualifying round, topping a group also featuring Bahrain, Oman and Thailand to reach the last ten. The final round saw Japan pitted against Australia, Bahrain, Uzbekistan and Qatar, but despite the tough assignment the Blue Samurais continued to dominate and sealed qualification with two games to spare.
Booking their fourth consecutive appearance at the global showpiece provided more food for thought for Okada, who was quick to announce his goal of a semi-final place at South Africa 2010. Despite the emergence of young striker Shinji Okazaki, a proven goal-scorer is still a missing component with Japan and Okada fully aware that they have to shore up their attacking and improve their finishing if they are to achieve the lofty goal the boss has set.