Japan became the first team to join hosts Brazil at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, completing their qualifying mission in style with a 1-1 draw against Australia in Saitama. Despite missing out in March with a 2-1 reverse in Jordan, the Samurai Blue sealed their fifth consecutive appearance at the global showpiece with a game to spare.
Even more impressively, a new-look Japan have grown as Alberto Zaccheroni's side have maintained their superb form during the 19-month qualifying period. In a sense, the Italian tactician has prepared a squad ready to make history in this month's FIFA Confederation Cup and the next year's FIFA World Cup.
The upcoming trip to the Festival of Champions will see them open the tournament against the hosts Brazil, pairing together the only confirmed entrants to the global finals so far. At the final whistle, Brazilian sports minister Aldo Rebelo was quick to congratulate the 2011 AFC Asian Cup-winners on securing their place.
"Japan’s qualification for the FIFA World Cup is a guarantee that we’ll have a great opening game for the Confederations Cup," he said. "A four-time continental champion, Japanese football has been evolving year after year.”
Japan began their bid in Asia's third qualifying round for Brazil 2014 on the back of a series of brilliant results under new boss Zaccheroni, who took up the reins in the wake of their successful 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ campaign. Notably, the east Asians edged both Paraguay and Argentina by the same 1-0 scoreline in friendlies, before claiming their fourth continental title in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.
Strongly favoured as Japan were, Zaccheroni's transitional side struggled to live up to the expectations in their opening round, with the influential Keisuke Honda missing all six matches through injury. They were made to sweat in the opener against Korea DPR at home, with only Maya Yoshida saving their blushes with a stoppage-time winner. And in the second outing they were indebted to Shinji Okazaki, who struck late to cancel out Server Djeparov's early opener as Japan stole a point in Uzbekistan.
But the Japanese sprang to life in the next back-to-back meetings with Tajikistan, winning both legs in comfortable fashion to seal early progression alongside the Uzbeks. With a place in the final qualifying round already sealed, though, they lost the last two games 1-0 against both Korea DPR and Uzbekistan.
It was, however, a different story as Japan headed into the current phase, with the team beginning to gel and with Honda back to drive the team from the middle of the field. They opened brightly with a 3-0 home defeat of Oman, before firing six unanswered goals past a visiting Jordan side against whom they had drawn 1-1 during the AFC Asian Cup 17 months earlier.
Next came the 1-1 draw in Australia, an epic re-match of the last AFC Asian Cup final with Luke Wilkshire equalising in the second half to seal a point for the hosts. Ryoichi Maeda then scored the only goal as they overcame Zico's resilient Iraq side, before they earned a hard-fought 2-1 victory in Oman to lay the solid foundation for their early qualification.
They went to Amman in March knowing a point against Jordan would secure qualification, but a shock 2-1 defeat saw them have to wait until June's match against Australia in Saitama. Despite Tommy Oar's deflected effort putting the Socceroos 1-0 up with less than ten minutes remaining, Honda's late penalty secured qualification. The late equaliser ensured that Japan won through to the FIFA World Cup in front of their adoring home fans for the first time, in this, their fifth qualification.
A promising side
It remains to be seen if this is Japan's strongest ever team, as hailed by the many media and fans alike. But the progress they have made in qualification is evident, with Zaccheroni's charges putting in much-improved displays game after game.
Forming the team's experienced core are several seasoned campaigners who featured for Japan at South Africa, spearheaded by Honda. Pushed further forward by former coach Takeshi Okada during the last FIFA World Cup, the CSKA Moscow playmaker has been thriving since his return to his attacking midfielder role under Zaccheroni. Aside from bossing the attack from midfield, he has managed to score five times, including an impressive hat-trick against Jordan.
Representing the emerging generation is Manchester United man Shinji Kagawa, who has provided the team with drive and thrust from his left wing role. Ryoichi Maeda is deployed as the lone striker in Zaccheroni's 4-2-3-1 formation, racking up four goals so far to be second in the team's goal-scoring chart behind Honda. With the team hitting a perfect balance between old and new, Zaccheroni has spoken of his optimism that this new Japanese generation will reach fresh frontiers.