National team manager Takeshi Okada was not impressed by the weakened squads Scotland and Togo rustled up for last month’s friendlies, but motivation is hardly likely to be an issue for this weekend’s opponent.
Japan plays World Cup host South Africa in Port Elizabeth on Saturday, with the “Bafana Bafana” desperate to start building some long-awaited momentum before the tournament begins next June.
South Africa looked set to become a continental powerhouse when it was readmitted to the international fold in 1992, but now faces an uphill struggle to avoid humiliation in the first World Cup on African soil.
A semifinal appearance at this summer’s Confederations Cup offered a rare moment of success amid years of poor results, but normal service has since been resumed with recent friendly losses against Norway and Iceland.
Saturday’s match marks the return of Brazilian World Cup-winner Carlos Alberto Parreira, who quit as manager last May to care for his sick wife, and star striker Benni McCarthy, who seems to have set aside his differences with the national federation for at least the time being.
But if that ups the ante, this time it could be Japan holding something back with only three games of the J. League season left to go.
Kawasaki Frontale’s Kengo Nakamura has pulled out to recover from a thigh injury, while Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto has also withdrawn.
But the game at the new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium should nonetheless offer a worthwhile test for Okada’s side, not least in getting a lay of the land before next summer.
Of course weather conditions will be different in June, but the trip does give the opportunity to check on training facilities, and sample the unique matchday atmosphere generated by the fans’ notorious “vuvuzela” plastic trumpets.
The instruments caused such a stir at the Confederations Cup that TV broadcasters complained their commentators were being drowned out by the noise, while Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso called them “a distraction” that did “nothing for the atmosphere.”
The cacophony can only add to the advantage South Africa holds as host nation next summer, but Okada will be hoping that Saturday’s fixture is not the last he sees of Parreira’s men.
South Africa automatically takes a place in the pot of seeded teams for next month’s World Cup draw, and any team paired with the host in the group stage avoids heavyweights such as Brazil and Spain. The importance of a negotiable draw cannot be overstated.
Often the best-prepared teams are the ones that miss the wave when the tournament starts for real, but Parreira must still be casting an envious eye over Okada’s comparative lack of complications.
The manager still has problems to overcome, but he should be thankful that from now on it is just a matter of fine tuning.