Japanese soccer can be rightfully proud of the progress it has made as the national team prepares to begin its fifth straight World Cup campaign, but no one in the squad will be happy just to take part.
The 2014 World Cup kicks off on Thursday (Friday, Japan time) with five-time champions Brazil taking on Croatia in Sao Paulo and Japan getting its first taste of action against Cote d’Ivoire in Recife two days later. Manager Alberto Zaccheroni has remained deliberately tight-lipped when pressed to name his target for the tournament, but his players have been considerably more bullish.
“Obviously we all need to stay fit, but if we do the basics right 100 percent, no mistakes, we can get to the quarterfinals,” team talisman Keisuke Honda was quoted as saying earlier this week. “From there we can make miracles happen.”
Making no mistakes, however, is something that has eluded Honda and his teammates in recent weeks. Japan can take encouragement from the fact that it came from behind to beat both Costa Rica and Zambia in warmup friendlies last week, but Zaccheroni would surely rather his team did not have to dig itself out of a hole in the first place.
Escaping an extremely tight first-round group that also contains Cote d’Ivoire, Greece and Colombia is clearly anything but a done deal, but Japan has no reason to fear its opponents either. The Asian champions have achieved significant results during the four years of Zaccheroni’s stewardship, and the world’s heavy hitters are taking notice.
“Japan has excellent professionals like Honda and (Yuto) Nagatomo, and they can help Japan achieve excellent results,” Italy manager Cesare Prandelli told Tuesday’s Sankei Sports. “If you mix that in with the experience of my friend Alberto, Japan looks sure to have a successful World Cup.”
Prandelli will get a closer look at Zaccheroni’s side if a possible second-round meeting with Italy comes to pass, with Brazil, Spain and the Netherlands all potential quarterfinal opponents for Japan if the team reaches the last eight.
Such a daunting caliber of opposition shows how hard it will be to progress to the later stages of the competition, but the fact that Japan is being considered in those terms is proof of how things have changed since the team made its first World Cup appearance in 1998.
“Japan’s first World Cup challenge has brought a lot of different experiences but also a lot of things to work on,” ran an editorial in Nikkan Sports two days after Japan’s debut campaign ended with a loss to Jamaica, it’s third defeat from three games.
“Three defeats, and Japan’s first goal didn’t come until the final game. The team put up a good fight, but we were made to realize that the gap between us and the rest of the world is not small.”
Sixteen years on, there can be no denying that the gap has shrunk considerably. Japan’s results at the World Cup may not have taken a consistent upward curve, but the team’s continued presence on the world stage has raised the overall level unquestionably.
Results are not always the judge of everything, and if Japan fails to get past the first round in Brazil it does not necessarily mean that Japanese soccer has strayed from the right path.
If Zaccheroni’s side can fulfill its potential, however, who knows where it could end up.