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May 24, 2006

Rising sons with higher hopes

History

Japan have steadily improved since the inception of the J-League in 1993 and after qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 1998 - when they lost all three matches against Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica under coach Takeshi Okada - the Blues now make their third consecutive appearance at Germany 2006.

As co-hosts, with Korea, Japan qualified automatically for the 2002 tournament and after turning to a foreign coach, Frenchman Phillipe Troussier (now named Omar after converting to Islam in 2006), the Blues proved to be one of the surprise packages.

Under Troussier, and with the benefit of home advantage, memorable victories over Russia and Tunisia helped Japan top their group ahead of Belgium, although they narrowly missed out on the quarter-finals following a 1-0 defeat to eventual semi-finalists Turkey in the last 16.

Under new Brazilian manager Zico, a buoyant Japan lifted the AFC Asian Cup in 2004 to claim the continental title for the third time. A subsequent run of below-par performances attracted media criticism, but the Blues responded with a draw against Brazil and victory against Euro 2004 champions Greece at the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup.

The Asian champions became the first team to qualify for Germany 2006 after securing six straight wins in the 2004 preliminary round and five wins and one loss in their final qualifying group with Iran, Bahrain and Korea DPR.

Zico's men had made a poor start to the final qualifying round, needing an injury-time winner to beat Korea DPR before suffering a 2-1 defeat in Iran. But back-to-back wins over Bahrain kept Japan on course and a 2-0 win over Korea DPR booked their place at the finals with a game to spare.

The recent success of the national team has coincided with more and more players plying their trade in the European leagues and currently more players than ever are at foreign teams, bringing more experience to the national squad.

Japan have arguably Asia's most formidable midfield line-up, with the Europe-based trio of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono, and Kashima Antlers' set-piece specialist Mitsuo Ogasawara.

Japan are currently the highest-ranked Asian team in the official FIFA World Rankings and will be aiming to make the last sixteen again at the World Cup.

The gaffer

Arthur Antunes Coimbra, aka 'Zico', took over from Frenchman Phillipe Troussier in 2002 after Japan reached the knockout stage of the World Cup finals they co-hosted.

Former Brazil international Zico is more famous for his exploits with the Samba Boys during his playing days than for his coaching achievements, but he has already delivered the Asian Cup for Japan, beating hosts China 3-1 in the 2004 final, and he has high hopes for the 2006 World Cup.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1953 Zico made his debut for local club Flamengo as a 20-year-old and was given the sobriquet 'Galinho de Quintino', or Rooster, in his early career. He helped Flamengo win the CONMEBOL Copa Libertadores and Toyota Cup in 1981, eventually leaving the club - after winning three league titles - to join Udinese in Italy.

On the international stage Zico acquired yet another nickname: 'The White Pele', because of his scintillating displays in the yellow shirt of the Seleção. He represented his country at three World Cup Finals but despite scoring 48 goals in 71 appearances for his country, and collecting the South American Footballer of the Year award three times, he never got his hands on the Jules Rimmet Trophy.

Following a short stint as Brazilian sports secretary in early 1991, Zico moved to Japan to resurrect his playing career with Sumitomo Metal Industries, a club that later became Kashima Antlers when the J-League began. When Zico eventually hung up his boots he returned to the club as technical director in 1995 and a statue was later erected in his honour outside the club's stadium.

Zico left Kashima in 2002 to coach the Japan national team and adopted a 3-5-2 system to incorporate the country's wealth of midfield talent. The Brazilian encouraged a brand of patient, possession football that served them well in during qualification for Germany 2006.

Zico has since experimented with a 4-4-2 line-up, with mixed results, but will revert to his established tactics in Germany as Japan look to progress ahead of Group F rivals Croatia, Australia and his homeland Brazil.

One to watch

Hidetoshi Nakata is THE icon of Japanese football, although the 29-year-old's status as the national team's key player is under threat from midfield sensation Shunsuke Nakamura.

Nakamura was left out of Phillipe Troussier's Japan squad for the 2002 finals, but the 27-year-old has worked hard to prove his old boss wrong and under Zico the play-maker has become consistently impressive.

He was the only overseas-based player in the Japan squad that successfully defended the 2004 Asian Cup and his deadball skills and quality in the final third helped him stand out at the 2005 FIFA Confederation's Cup in Germany. During the Blues' famous 2-2 draw with Brazil, Nakamura found the net and struck a free-kick against the post from which Japan scored the equalizer.

He began his club career with Yokohama Marinos in 1997 and only three years later he was named the J League's Most Valuable Player.

Nakamura won his first cap in a friendly against Australia in 1998 and also played a part in the Asian Cup triumph in 2000 before being dumped by Troussier.

Reeling from that disappointment Nakamura headed to Italy in 2002 to join Reggina, where he scored seven goals to help the club survive relegation in his first season. But his number of first team starts diminished in the following seasons and in the summer of 2005 he headed to Scotland to join Glasgow Celtic.

Celtic manager Gordon Strachan hailed his debut against Dundee United as one of the best he had seen and his creative craft was thoroughly enjoyed by the Hoops support, who adopted 'Oh, it's so Japaneasy' as his terrace chant.

The rough and tumble of the Scottish Premier League Nakamura has improved his physique and Zico is hoping this added strength can help his playmaker shrug off the attentions of his markers at the World Cup.


  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.