Japan have vowed to move mountains in the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ finals after becoming the first country to qualify for South Africa 2010 with a narrow 1-0 win in Uzbekistan.
"We will surprise the world! Hip, Hip, Hurrah!" the Blue Samurai chanted before spraying champaign over manager Takeshi Okada and themselves on the pitch in Tashkent. "At last, we stand on the start line of our challenge," said Okada, who has targeted a semi-final spot in South Africa after taking over from Ivica Osim in late 2007 when the Bosnian suffered a stroke.
"I feel thrilled and thankful now that we have this chance," he told Japanese media, although his goal has been widely dismissed as unrealistic. "I want to let the players experience many things in the year ahead at the world's top level."
Striker Shinji Okazaki scored on nine minutes but the former Asian champions failed to covert more chances and survived a flurry of Uzbek attacks. "We want to raise our level higher as we are aiming for the World Cup last four," added Okada, whose side have scored seven goals in his eight internationals.
We want to raise our level higher as we are aiming for the World Cup last four.
Veteran centre-half Yuji Nakazawa called Okada's semi-final goal a "huge flag for one person alone to bear". "I think I can be one of the persons up front to support it," he said.
Front pages on Sunday's Japanese newspapers were full of headlines praising Japan's qualification for a fourth straight FIFA World Cup finals. "Okada-ism in place. Now aim for last four," the daily Sankei Shimbun wrote.
Okada piloted Japan to a winless FIFA World Cup debut at France 1998 in his first stint as national coach. Japan reached the last-16 round in 2002 at home under French coach Philippe Troussier but faded with two losses and one draw under Brazilian legend Zico at the group stage in 2006 in Germany.
"Japan have acquired the toughness unmatched in Asia," the influential daily Asahi Shimbun wrote, adding that Okada has picked up where Osim left off and honed the players' talents.
Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, the key man in Japan's qualifying campaign, said: "We will improve the quality of what we have been doing. We also want to play much stronger countries," added Nakamura, reported to be on the verge of returning to his old J-League club Yokohama Marinos.
The business daily Nikkei recalled that all four Asian countries in the 2006 finals - Japan, Korea Republic, Iran and Saudi Arabia - bowed out at the group stage at Germany 2006. Australia qualified then through Oceania.
Asia lacks leader countries that have definite prospects of reaching the last 16 such as USA and Mexico in their continent, Nikkei claimed, adding: "It is about time Japan played such a role."