Japan's footballers returned home from the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ to a hero's welcome on Thursday, greeted by about 4,000 screaming fans. Coach Takeshi Okada and his players thanked fans for their support during the tournament, apologised for their exit after reaching the last 16, and expressed their gratitude for being part of the team.

"I was disappointed because we had to come back earlier than we had planned," said Okada. "I wanted my players to play one more game. I am truly proud of these players. They played with self-respect as representatives of Japan."

Okada defied pre-tournament criticism and targeted a semi-final spot, but Japan's dream ended in the last 16 with defeat on penalties to Paraguay. The Samurai Blue's strong showing stunned many at home, where fans and media had vented harsh frustration at Okada and his team, who had lacked firepower and offered tame showings on the international stage.

In South Africa, Japan defeated Cameroon 1-0 and Denmark 3-1, and lost to the Netherlands 1-0 to survive the Group E opening round, advancing to the knockout stages for the first time on foreign soil.

I am truly proud of these players. They played with self-respect as representatives of Japan.

Takeshi Okada, Japan coach

The performance silenced critics and prompted a fickle public to heap praise on Okada, who has gone from much-maligned zero to hero over the course of four football matches. Attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda, who scored two goals, echoed Okada's words. "I wanted to play more with this team. So rather than a sense of accomplishment, I feel strong sense of regret," the CSKA Moscow player said.

In an electrifying show of enthusiasm, screaming fans wearing Japan's blue jerseys waved banners to greet the players at the Kansai airport. Countless arms with mobile-phone cameras were raised to snap pictures as players walked before them. "Our Hero Okada Japan," one banner read. "Okada Japan, Pride of Japan," said another.

Okada, who took Japan to a winless FIFA World Cup finals debut in France in 1998 in his first stint as national coach, indicated that he would step down from the post he returned to more than two years ago.

"I was happy and am truly grateful for the opportunity to work with wonderful players and staff," Okada said. "I think this is my last job. I gave my body and soul to the work. But I don't have energy any more to work another four years from now on. Our World Cup has ended, but my players must move on and continue to improve. I may not work with them any more, but I will always cheer for them and wish their successes and happiness."