WORLD CUP : Team profile – Japan (group f)

Despite some inconsistent performances along the way, Japan ultimately showed their class as Asian champions when becoming the first team to book their passage to the 2006 FIFA World Cup aside from hosts Germany.

Having sailed safely through to the last eight of Asian qualifying with six straight wins in the 2004 preliminary round, Zico’s men made a poor start to the final round in February 2005 as they needed an injury-time winner to beat Korea DPR before suffering a 2-1 defeat in Iran in their second Group B game on 25 March. Back-to-back victories over Bahrain (the first courtesy of a fortuitous own goal) kept Japan on course and in neutral Bangkok on June 8, goals from Atsushi Yanagisawa and Masashi Oguro secured a 2-0 win over Korea DPR and, with it, their ticket to the finals with a game to spare. For good measure, they won that remaining game too, at home to Iran, to finish top of their section with 15 points from a possible 18.

Germany 2006 will be Japan’s third successive WC finals. Since the inception of the professional J-League in 1993, they have progressed steadily and won consecutive Asian titles in 2000 and 2004. On the world stage, they missed out on USA 94 through a dramatic last-minute Iraqi equaliser in Doha, before finally making their FIFA World Cup finals debut at France 98. Eliminated in the first round there, they reached the second round on home soil in 2002 after Frenchman Philippe Troussier had led them to memorable victories over Russia and Tunisia.

After replacing Troussier in 2002, Zico guided an under-strength Japan side to the AFC Asian Cup in 2004, beating hosts China 3-1 in the final. Although some below-par performances subsequently prompted some criticism of the Brazilian, Japan’s qualification for Germany and their encouraging displays at the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup has restored confidence in the national team.

Japan have arguably Asia’s most formidable midfield line-up in the Europe-based trio of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono, and Kashima Antlers’ set-piece specialist Mitsuo Ogasawara.

Two-time Asian Player of the Year Nakata is arguably the best footballer Japan have ever produced, but Nakamura is now considered the player to pull the strings. By comparison with their midfield options, Japan have limited power in attack although Gamba Osaka marksman Oguro emerged in 2005 to score some vital goals in qualifying and at the FIFA Confederations Cup.

WC participations: 2 (1998, 2002)

WC honours: Last sixteen (2002)

Continental titles: Asian Cup three times (1992, 2000, 2004)

Slogan: Light up your Samurai spirit!