• Kyodo

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Japan begins its preparations for next month’s politically charged Asian zone World Cup qualifier against North Korea when it meets Kazakstan in a friendly match in Yokohama on Saturday evening.

Japan’s first meeting with the Kazaks since 1997 will provide the majority of Zico’s domestic players with the opportunity to regain match fitness after the Christmas break, while giving others a chance to stake their claim for a place in the first team.

None of Japan’s European-based stars such as midfielders Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto, Hidetoshi Nakata and striker Naohiro Takahara are available for the first match of 2005 or the Feb. 2 friendly against Syria at Saitama Stadium 2002.

And players such as Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo and Yokohama F. Marinos defender Naoki Matsuda are viewing both matches as more than just warmups ahead of the North Korea clash on Feb. 9.

Matsuda started in all four of Japan’s matches at the 2002 World Cup but has made only three starts since Brazilian coach Zico took over from Philippe Troussier, who stepped down after guiding Japan to the second round for the first time at the 2002 finals.

“For me this is not just a buildup match for the North Korea game. I have to make sure that when I come off that pitch I have absolutely no regrets,” Matsuda told reporters.

Endo, meanwhile, said he thinks the J. League players that served Zico well last year by winning the Asian Cup and securing a spot in the final round of World Cup qualifiers for the 2006 finals in Germany should be at the heart of the team.

“It’s not the European-based players but the domestic players that should be forming the core of the team. That’s the way it should be,” said Endo.

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