South Korea's Park Ji-sung is as diplomatic as they come but could not hide his surprise back in May 2010 when asked by Japanese journalists what he thought of the semifinal target set for the upcoming World Cup by Japan coach Takeshi Okada. Park scored the opening goal at Saitama Stadium the next day as South Korea deservedly defeated rivals Japan 2-0 to pile more misery on the hosts, who had endured a terrible build-up period to South Africa.
“Semifinals?” asked the Korean, eyes wide, obviously unaware of what had become a major talking point in the Japanese media and the ridicule that it increasingly attracted. His message to the Samurai Blue was to take each game as it came, but the media's message to Okada was that playing against Park, who had reached the semifinals in 2002, was as close as this Japanese team was going to get to the last four in South Africa. Yet as the then-Manchester United man fired home from the edge of the area, he helped Okada to perform a last-ditch desperate shake-up just days before the big event kicked off.
When in Africa, the mild-mannered manager changed his team and system, swapping goalkeepers and putting Yuki Abe in the middle and Keisuke Honda up top. It was a success as Japan won their first World Cup game on foreign soil, then a second, and then came within a penalty shootout of reaching the last eight. Not bad for a team that had left the Land of the Rising Sun under the cloudiest of skies.
As soon as the tournament finished, then Japan FA chief Motoaki Inukai was talking about 2014: "The task of the team is not just to get through to the next World Cup, that goes without saying, but to aim to make it to the quarter or semifinals.” Perhaps Okada was just a little ahead of his time.
Now is the time for the country to catch up. The 2014 World Cup is about Japan showing the world that they are a genuine football power. There are some who seriously rate the Asian champs, but this has yet to filter through the global general football public. A quick look at betting sites shows that while bookmakers don't regard Japan as donkeys, neither are they seen as dark horses.
Talk to Tokyoites and the second round is a reasonable target, and as forward Shinji Okazaki said last week, the quarterfinals would be seen, rightly, as success. Anything more could be a game-changer. South Korea remain the only Asian team to have reached the last four, but that was back in 2002 and on home soil. It’s time for a repeat, and Japan offer the best chance in Brazil.
There are reasons for optimism. This is a stronger and more experienced team than the one which did pretty well four years ago. In South Africa, the back four and goalkeeper were all Japan-based. Now, the full-backs play for Schalke and Inter Milan, the No. 1 is at one of Belgium’s top clubs and the leading centre-back is a member of an impressive Southampton side. Even backup members such as Hiroshi Kiyotake and Hiroki Sakai are getting game time in the big leagues.
And there is also Okazaki. In attack, he is the George Harrison compared to the more glamorous John and Paul partnership of Honda and Shinji Kagawa. The 28-year-old doesn’t get the same attention -- he plays in Mainz, not Manchester or Milan -- but is just as crucial to the balance of the group. He is in danger of becoming a star, however, after recently breaking Kagawa’s record for the most goals scored by a Japanese player in a Bundesliga season with his 14th of the campaign. His more famous teammates have had stop-start seasons, but Okazaki’s has been anything but.
The path to the last 16 in South Africa led to the 2011 Asian Cup title through qualification for Brazil in the smoothest of fashion. Japan were, for the third time running, the first team to book a berth at the World Cup. Coach Alberto Zaccheroni has used the time to play around, though it should be said, not as much as some pundits would have liked. The favoured 4-2-3-1 formation has been experimented with a little against weaker opposition, but the Italian has always sought stronger tests as often as possible.
Such an attitude doesn’t always receive the praise it deserves. Zaccheroni has taken his team out of Asia to play France, Brazil, Netherlands and Belgium with two wins, a draw and a single defeat to show for it. Results don’t matter too much -- though good ones increase confidence that the Samurai Blue can mix it with the best -- but are all part of the grand design.
Despite three defeats, the Confederations Cup a year ago was another valuable experience, even if much of it came from a sense of what still needed to be done. How that tournament is viewed in the long term will depend on what happens this June. Success will be seen as a turning point. Failure will be a warning that went unheeded.
Overall, preparation has been smooth and stress-free compared to four years ago, when it was anything but. If you were superstitious, that may be a worry. A disastrous buildup resulted in a pretty good World Cup, so what happens when the buildup is pretty good? Perhaps disaster will ensue, but triumph is a likelier visitor.
There are issues, of course, not least a defence that concedes too many goals. This Japan team is more Liverpool in outlook than Chelsea, but in Brazil, the question should not be whether the Samurai Blue can defeat a big team on the world stage. That would not be a shock. Rather, it is whether they can manage it twice in the space of three or four days, something that will have to be done if they are going to start reaching quarterfinals and beyond. Belief and mental strength are what Japan need to take that next step.
When Okada set a target of a last-four finish in 2010, people in Japan and outside laughed. Nobody would, or at least should, laugh now. This Japan team can go far.