Japan, led by bleach-blond haired Keisuke Honda, have a habit of making bold statements of intent ahead of a World Cup, and this year’s tournament in Brazil is no different.
Honda has declared “there is no reason Japan can’t win the World Cup” as they prepare to do battle with Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece in Group C.
At the 2010 finals in South Africa, then coach Takeshi Okada ambitiously targeted a semi-final spot, despite a miserable run of form in the build-up.
Against the odds, however, a Honda-powered Japan upset Cameroon and Denmark to reach the last 16, only to lose to Paraguay on penalties.
Honda, who joined AC Milan from CSKA Moscow in the January transfer window, is the heartbeat of the Japan side, giving the Blue Samurai thrust and added steel in midfield.
Much like Hidetoshi Nakata before him, the peroxide Honda is Japan’s superstar, both on and off the pitch, a prickly persona in aviator shades and leather jacket.
Honda’s aura, similar to the one Nakata carried at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, lifts his team-mates, but playmaker Shinji Kagawa, after enduring a frustrating season at Manchester United, could prove to be Japan’s X-factor.
A bench-warmer at the English Premier League club, Kagawa rarely disappoints for his country and enjoys the unwavering support of Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
The mercurial 25-year-old should be fresh and, perhaps significantly, will have a point to prove in Brazil as prospective suitors look on.
Japan’s rise from soccer make-weights to potential World Cup giant-killers since their finals debut in 1998 is little short of staggering.
As 2002 co-hosts, Japan also reached the last 16 under Philippe Troussier, who created the blueprint for the team’s attacking style.
Although overshadowed by South Korea’s astonishing run to the semi-finals, the Frenchman had put Japan on the footballing map.
Japan’s upward curve could have been even steeper but for a surprising blip after Troussier quit.
Brazilian Zico failed to build on his predecessor’s work, despite a so-called ‘golden generation’ of players, and Nakata tearfully announced his retirement after Japan’s flop at the 2006 World Cup.
This time around, Japan stormed through Asian qualifying to secure a fifth successive World Cup appearance, finishing four points clear of Australia at the top of their final-round group after winning five and losing just one of their eight games.
Three defeats at last year’s Confederations Cup raised concerns, but with a driving force of Honda, Kagawa and Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo, and a clinical finisher in Shinji Okazaki, Japan have the weapons to hurt their rivals in Brazil.
Zaccheroni, who faced an anxious wait over the fitness of captain Makoto Hasebe before naming him in his squad, may adopt a cautious approach in Japan’s opening match against a Didier Drogba-led Ivory Coast in Recife on June 14, but the Italian will view Colombia and Greece as winnable fixtures.
While admirable, the rhetoric of Honda appears fanciful, however, with one of the top two from a Group D including England, Italy and Uruguay potential last 16 opponents.