29 June ~ Anybody who gave any attention to Japan before the start of the World Cup finals will have gathered that the team came to South Africa in what could perhaps best be described as a right bloody state. The results in pre-tournament friendlies were poor, the performances were even worse; nobody seemed able to score and coach Takeshi Okada was perceived to be an incompetent. Expectation, then, stood at not much more than zero. On Tuesday, however, the Japanese take on Paraguay knowing that they have a chance of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in the country's history. So what's happened to turn things around?
After a slow start against Cameroon, the improvement shown in the group stage highlights the fact that, in the nick of time, Okada found a tactical solution to the problem of the team's lack of balance. Japan have been playing a formation that deploys Yuki Abe in a role just in front of the centre-back pairing of Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, which has given added protection to the defence and relieved the immediate pressure on the more withdrawn midfielders, Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe. Abe, Tulio and Nakazawa are among the players who have caught the eye in a side that looks good in possession and is resilient when they have to defend.
As well as the team's increased solidity, forward Keisuke Honda has emerged as a potential star via a couple of goals, plus a brilliant assist that enabled Shinji Okazaki to score arguably one of the goals of the tournament so far against Denmark. Immediately after the defeat of the Danes, the super-ambitious Honda, now with CSKA Moscow after first being noticed in Holland at VVV Venlo, commented: "I'm not as jubilant as I'd expected to be, because we haven't finished the competition... I'm glad we won, but I'm not satisfied... I want to show the Japanese that nothing is impossible."
That degree of confidence and determination to succeed is not something that has ever really sat very comfortably within the context of the Japan squad. Indeed, neighbours South Korea are often envied for what is regarded as their ferocious level of commitment. The team spirit and mentality under Okada, however, seem far stronger than has been the case in the past, as exemplified in Rustenberg by goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima pummelling the ground in frustrated rage after conceding Jon Dahl Tomasson's goal for Denmark. But the absence of expectation has up to now given Japan the opportunity to play without pressure. As the team seek to move into the unknown territory of the last eight, being underdogs against Paraguay will suit Okada just fine. Mike Innes