Although Japan have no major honours to their name, they remain one of the powerhouses of their qualifying region. One of their finest moments to date came at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where they won bronze. However, Japan failed to qualify for the World Cup until 1998, due to a lack of domestic club football. When Japanese club football became professional, standards improved, although the national narrowly missed out on a spot at the 1994 World Cup. Japan at long last qualified for a major finals, the 1998 World Cup in France. However, despite brave showings, they were defeated in all three group games to Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica, respectively.
One of Japan’s proudest achievements was co-hosting the 2002 tournament with South Korea, giving them automatic qualification. Victories over Russia and Tunisia, which followed a draw with Belgium, sent Japan through to the knockout round for the first time, although they were eliminated by Turkey. They managed to qualify for their third consecutive finals in Germany in 2006, but they exited at the group stage after picking up just one point from nine. They reached the last 16 in the 2010 South Africa tournament but suffered heartbreak on penalties against Paraguay.
Japan also have four Asian Cup titles to their name, in 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011.
Road to Brazil
Japan achieved qualification for the Brazil finals with relative ease. A busy qualification campaign, which started early, proved comfortable for the Japanese, with just two losses against Jordan and Uzbekistan. They also became the first nation outside of hosts Brazil to qualify following a 1-1 draw with Australia in June 2013. In the summer of 2013 they competed in the Confederations Cup. They lost all three of their games to Brazil, Italy and Mexico, although their positive style and creativity received praise.
Japan have a reputation for industrious football and open, fast-paced play. One of their most outstanding assets is Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa. Although Kagawa failed to reach the heights at Old Trafford that he scaled so often previously at Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa maintains his intelligent passing game, along with technical ability and skill. He can also spot a pass which can penetrate any defence and when given the space and cut open any team. He also contributes his fair share of goals, and has netted 17 times in 54 appearances for his country.
AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda also offers a creative flair. Another player who is skilled in possession and offers an expansive style of play, Honda is best known for his free kick and set piece ability, which he proved at the last World Cup. He earned a big money move to AC Milan in January from CSKA Moscow, and has scored twice since the move. Honda will be vital to Japan’s threat.
Japanese faithful have every reason to believe their team could qualify for the knockout stages once again. Although the group is by no means a breeze, Japan have the resources to match all three in attack, and with the right approach, can snatch a knockout place.
Colombia are a strong outfit, however, their success could depend on the fitness of main goalscorer Radamel Falcao. If Falcao struggles, then Japan could capitalise.
Greece are difficult to break down but offer little in the way of creativity and offensive zeal. Japan are perfectly capable of earning a result against the Greeks, although they must use caution.
Ivory Coast could prove to be the toughest of opponents. Their energetic and powerful side can wear down a lot of opposition. Japan may be bullied by the daunting Ivory Coast midfield and front men, such as Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure. A draw against the Elephants would be a positive result.
The Japanese must be aiming for qualification from their group, and there is every chance they could progress. Defending is a weakness and fast, pacey styles of play could end their hopes. But there is enough about their forward play and positive brand of football that can challenge their group opponents. However, they are likely to come up against superior forces in the knockout rounds, which should prove too much for them. Second place in Group C should be the realistic target, initially.