Japan's Keisuke Honda has turned South African township children into his ardent fans in George where the Samurai Blue trained on their way to making history.

After using this sunny and laid-back coastline resort as base camp for three weeks, the Japanese FIFA World Cup team move inland to Pretoria on Sunday for their first-ever last-16 match on foreign soil. "The players wanted to return to George as soon as they finished each match," coach Takeshi Okada said. "I always felt relieved when I returned here."

The CSKA Moscow player Honda has scored two goals and set up another as Japan defied their underdogs tag to upset Cameroon 1-0, go down 1-0 to the mighty Dutch and wrap up their group campaign with a 3-1 rout of Denmark on Friday. They face Paraguay on Tuesday and, if they win, go on to nearby Johannesburg for an historic quarter-final clash against Spain or Portugal.

The players wanted to return to George as soon as they finished each match. I always felt relieved when I returned here.

Takeshi Okada, Japan coach

The brief sojourn of the hard-working football squad may have inspired many of 200,000 residents in George. "Honda! Honda!" chants rose among several hundreds of residents who gathered at a new artificial football pitch in the township of Lawaai-kamp to welcome "home" the 23 Japanese players the day after the Denmark game in Rustenburg.

The 24-year-old Honda, who has spent most of his time in George with his team-mates, signed autographs on footballs and T-shirts for children. The event was organised by the city to thank the Japan Football Association for choosing George for their training camp.

But George mayor Mercia Draghoender was happy that her city has changed in the minds of Japanese from "just a spot on the map of South Africa."

"We cannot put a full value to the exposure that the Japanese media have given us and I'm sure we'll reap the benefits in the years to come through tourism, sport and economic development," she told the gathering. "Honda, you're the hero of the nation of South Africa!"