Japan

Population: 126.4 million

Area: 377,873 sq km

Capital: Tokyo

Currency: Yen

Federation: Japan Football Association, founded in 1921, affiliated to FIFA in 1929

Registered players: 1,045,150

Kit colours: Blue jersey, white shorts, blue socks

Team nickname: Blue Samurai

World Cup record: Second round (2002, 2010), first round (1998, 2006)

Asian Nations Cup: winner (1992, 2002, 2004, 2011), 4th place (2007)

How they qualified for FIFA World Cup 2014: 3rd round Asia zone 2nd in group C with 10pts behind Uzbekistan (16), ahead of North Korea (7) and Tadjikistan (1), 3 wins, 1 draw, 2 defeats, 14 goals for and 3 against; 4th round Asia zone: won group B with 17pts, ahead of Australia (13), Jordan (10), Oman (9) and Iraq (5), 5 wins, 2 draws, 1 defeat, 16 goals for and 5 against.

Top clubs: Kashima Antlers, Yokohama Marinos, Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Asian champions Japan became the first team other than the hosts to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, which is impressively their fifth straight qualification. But the challenge this time will be to get past the last-16.

When Japan co-hosted the tournament in 2002 and in South Africa four years ago, the Blue Samurai made it out of the group phase, but fell at the first knock-out stage. Not a bad achievement, but as Asian champions again in 2011 (beating Australia in the final) they need to lift the continent higher.

Japan had Asian newcomers and fellow big shots Australia to deal with in their group and a 1-1 draw in June 2013 with the Socceroos was something to celebrate, booking their tickets to Brazil and evetually sealing their top place in the group.

Japan are led by Alberto Zaccheroni, winner of Serie A in Italy with AC Milan in 1999. The Italian was recruited in August 2010 and set up a 3-4-3 system that led to their 1-0 extra-time win over Australia for their fourth Asian Cup win. He banks on fast passing, lots of link up between the lines and efficient finishing, with the system seemingly paying dividends.

But while Japan are something of a reference in Asia their reputation hardly strikes fear elsewhere, with only midfielders Shinji Kagawa of Manchester United and AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda, who scored the winner in the qualifier versus Australia, earning true respect overseas.

In Honda’s absence Japan lost their previous two games, a qualifier with Jordan (2-1) and a friendly with Bulgaria (2-0), and during the Confederations Cup in June 2013 they were beaten by Mexico, Italy and Brazil.

But that short trip to Brazil gave Japan a crucial lesson and in their 4-3 defeat by Italy, where they surrendered a 2-0 lead, the team will have understood that if it gets things right they can compete with the big boys.

Zaccheroni said after that defeat “this tournament has been useful for us to become a more mature and internationally experienced team.

The Italian calls upon a whole string of European based players in Shinji Kagawa, struggling for a place in the Manchester United midfield after excelling at Borussia Dortmund and three defenders Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke 04) and Gotoku Sakaï (Stuttgart). The midfielder and national captain Makoto Hasebe (Frankfurt), is equally precious.

The speedy striker Shinji Okazaki scored twice out in Brazil and eight times during the qualifiers and the Mainz forward is by far their top man in attack.

AFP

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