WORLD CUP: Japan’s fate in balance: Buchwald

Tokyo, May 30:

World Cup winner Guido Buchwald, now coaching J-League side Urawa Reds, warned that Japan’s fate at Germany 2006 hangs in the balance in a tough first round against Australia, Croatia and holders Brazil.

“It is a really, really strong group for Japan,” the former Germany defender said ahead of the Asian champions’ June 12 opening match against the Socceroos.

“When they get points in this group, it will be one step forward, a success for Japan. If Japan can start very well with a success against Australia, they can win against Croatia,” said Buchwald, credited with stopping Diego Maradona in Germany’s 1-0 victory over Argentina in the 1990 World Cup final. “And they can also play very well against Brazil,” he added.

Zico, a star of three World Cup campaigns for Brazil, is guiding Japan’s campaign after taking over from French firebrand Philippe Troussier as Japan coach following the 2002 finals. Troussier led Japan, who made a winless debut in France 1998, into the group of 16 on home soil.

Australia are rated a “little bit” below Japan and Croatia with Brazil at the top of Group F, said Buchwald, who was also part of Germany’s dismal 1994 World Cup campaign.

But he admitted Australia coach Guus Hiddink was “always successful.” The Dutchman led the Netherlands to the 1998 semi-finals and South Korea to the last four in 2002. Buchwald also pointed to Japan’s perennial lack of firepower despite a talented midfield including Europe-based Hidetoshi Nakata of Bolton, Shunsuke Nakamura of Celtic and Urawa’s own Shinji Ono, a former Feyernoord player.

“They have no goal-getter,” he said. “In Japan, the players want to keep the ball. But they must learn to shoot the goal. They cannot finish the play.” Buchwald, 45, a former Stuttgard defender who played for Urawa from 1994-97, has been head coach of the J-League club since 2004. Urawa are currently ranked second in the league.

The level of Japanese football has been going up and “closer to the best leagues of Europe” such as Germany’s Bundesliga and the Italian Serie A, he said.