Meet the Teams: Nippon
Although overshadowed by the performance of the Nadeshiko Japan and the glorious play of Homare Sawa in the last few years, the Samurai Blues look to make an impact on their fifth consecutive World Cup. With a middle of the pack draw in Group C, Japan looks to make it two tournaments in a row getting to the knock out stage. While western expectations remain low (hell, half the press pundits have us finishing below Greece), the team’s under the brilliantly eccentric Alberto Zaccheroni for this moment. We’re ready to show the world that 2010 (and our women’s teams) aren’t a fluke: They’re a sign of Asian progress.
The growth of soccer is still a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, with the first professional league (the J-League) starting in 1993. As recently as 1994 we suffered exits in the qualifying stage, the most memorable being the “Tragedy at Doha” where an Iraqi goal in the 90th minute scuttled our first chance at an appearance.
Since then the national team and the sport have grown. The J-League now is a multi-division system with relegation and promotion. 3 AFC Asia Cups, two knockout stage appearances at the World Cup, and some victories against traditionally difficult European sides have helped increase confidence in the lead-up to 2014. While winless in last year’s Confederation Cup, we fought Italy to a near stand-still in a 4-3 match.
Players to Watch
The two most interesting players are undoubtedly Keisuke Honda (of AC Milan) and Shinji Kagawa (of Manchester United). While both players struggled this season in their league fixtures, the two play a sublime, high pace, technical football as good as any attacking pair in the game. There are few players worth changing your entire team’s tactics around, but Honda has shown to be that sort of player, orchestrating a great attack as a classic number 10 or in the false-nine role.
Perhaps the most likely to surprise, though, are the Bundesliga duo of Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nurnberg) and Shinji Okazaki (FSV Mainz). Kiyotake is a technical attacking midfielder that we keep producing in large numbers (who knows why, maybe it’s the water?), looking to make his first real impact on the national team stage. Okazaki, an attacker who overtook Kagawa this past season as a the highest scoring Japanese player in the Bundesliga looks to prove the conventional wisdom wrong about the lack of talent up front.
Group C is a good draw in terms of overall strength. While Cote d’Ivoire as the opener will likely be tough, their best players are past their prime. I think we have a good chance of beating them 2-1 in the opener. Against Greece we’re likely to struggle simply on the basis of physicality. Technically we’re the better side, but this will be a match of technical attack vs. physical defense. In the end I’m expecting grinding out a 1-0 win. Finally, Colombia, which is likely to be our early tournament stumbling block, is going to be the toughest match. Japan does not do well against South American teams in general, and I don’t think this will be any exception. My prediction for this one will be a 2-1 loss to Colombia. Whether we get out of the group, I feel will likely be a matter of goal differential.
Finally, as an added bet, once again if Japan make the knockout stage, I will be bleaching my hair like I did in 2010. In fact I think I will be making it lighter for each additional stage we get into at that point.