CAPE TOWN – National team coach Takeshi Okada insisted Japan’s bold target of making the semifinals of next year’s World Cup in South Africa remains unchanged after the Blue Samurai were drawn against the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark in first-round Group E in Friday’s draw in Cape Town.
The three-time Asian champions, who have never made it past the second round of the finals in three attempts, will kick off their campaign against Cameroon on June 14 in Bloemfontein and then face the Netherlands on June 19 in Durban. Okada’s men wrap up the group stage against Denmark on June 24 in Rustenburg.
“All of our opponents are a bit stronger than us but are in a range we can deal with.” said Okada. “We are aiming for a place in the semifinals and don’t intend to change that.”
“It’s never easy whoever you play. This might sound strange but I don’t think it’s a bad group to be in. We are not up against teams that we have absolutely no chance of beating,” added the 53-year-old.
Japan is appearing in its fourth consecutive World Cup finals and second under Okada.
It lost all three group-stage games under Okada in its World Cup debut in France in 1998, but made it to the second round with Frenchman Philippe Troussier at the helm in the 2002 finals the country cohosted with South Korea.
Under Brazilian coach Zico, Japan made a swift exit after failing to win a single game at the 2006 finals in Germany.
Okada, criticized for lacking ambition when he set a goal of one win, a draw and a defeat after Japan was grouped with Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica at France 98, avoided setting a target for the first round in South Africa.
“People will start getting on my case again if I do that but I have got a feeling there are going to be some surprises at this World Cup.”
Japan was outclassed 3-0 by the Netherlands, the Group E favorite, in a friendly in September but Dutch national team coach Bert van Marwijk said the Oranje would not be taking anything for granted against any of their first-round opponents.
“A lot of people will probably think that we will make it to the next round without too much trouble. However, our opponents shouldn’t be underestimated,” van Marwijk said.
“We recently beat Japan 3-0 in a friendly, but that doesn’t mean that we’ll beat them again. Our win wasn’t as comfortable as the scoreline suggests and Japan are a dangerous side.”
Japan has never lost to Cameroon in three meetings against the Indomitable Lions.
Cameroon coach Paul Le Guen said of the draw, “I suppose Denmark and Japan are clearly not as competitive as the Dutch but they all have potential and worth.”
“With two European teams in our group we have a tough program of matches. We must now get together to prepare.”
Denmark coach Morten Olsen said his side face a stern challenge to reach the knockout stage but was simply happy to be at the World Cup.
“God knows that’s not an easy group but we’re simply happy to be at the World Cup,” he said. “As always, it will be extremely difficult against the Dutch, Japan are the best team in Asia while Cameroon have an awful lot of World Cup experience.”
Japan lost 3-2 to Denmark in their only previous meeting in 1971.
“I haven’t done any research on Denmark. But once I am back home I’ll start working on that with my staff,” said Okada.