How they qualified
The mammoth, two-year qualifying campaign saw Japan progress game-by-game under Alberto Zaccheroni, who took over in the wake of the team’s impressive run at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The new-look Japan were struggling to fit into the Italian’s strategy as they began their qualifying bid in lacklustre style, losing to Uzbekistan and Korea DPR before seeing their progression into the fourth round secured.
Their transition proved successful, inspired by talisman Keisuke Honda and spearheaded by the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, the Japanese began to gel in the fourth round. Two emphatic opening victories over Oman (3-0) and Jordan (6-0) saw the Samurai Blue as the group’s runaway leaders and although they were held by Australia to a 1-1 draw, Oman and Iraq’s losses put Zaccheroni’s side on the cusp of qualification.
An unexpected 2-1 loss in Jordan may have briefly delayed their celebration party, but they battled back to draw Australia 1-1, providing Japan with the requisite point to seal their fifth successive FIFA World Cup appearance.
FIFA World Cup finals history
They failed to live up to the expectations in their debut FIFA World Cup, losing three straight games to bow out. However, 2002 Korea/Japan saw them make history on home soil in Asia's first FIFA World Cup, winning a group that also featured Russia, Belgium and Tunisia to storm into the second round, only to lose out to eventual third-place finishers Turkey by a solitary goal. They were brought back down to earth at Germany 2006, salvaging merely a point from three group games to dump out.
They more than redeemed themselves at South Africa 2010 though, progressing to the second stage at the expense of the likes of Denmark and Cameroon. They came close to stunning Paraguay in the consequent round-of-16 clash, with the South Americans only advancing through a penalty shootout victory after regular and extra time finished goalless.
The key players
Having excelled during the last FIFA World Cup and the recent AFC Asian Cup, AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda has quickly established his place as the team's new leader, filling the void left by Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura.
Spearheading the attacking-line are Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, who finished the continental finals as the team's top-scorer with three goals. Driving the central field alongside Honda is set-piece specialist Yasuhito Endo while Schalke defender Atsuto Uchida is the key man at the rearguard.
Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni
Best performances in a FIFA competition: Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Mexico City 1968 (Third place), FIFA U-20 World Cup Nigeria 1999 (Runners-up), FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 (Quarter-finals)
Former stars: Kazuyoshi Miura, Shunsuke Nakamura, Hidetoshi Nakata