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Japan - Impressive progress

With the national team having reached the dizzying heights of ninth place in the FIFA World Rankings women's football in Japan has progressed greatly, with the senior squad being consistently impressive on both the continental and world stage.

Their star midfielder Homare Sawa has also added to the appeal of women's football by emerging as a national celebrity.

She has appeared for her country 118 times and scored 60 goals making her Japan's all-time leading goal scorer in 2005 and she is still only 28 years old!

Sawa is also admired for her technical prowess, physical toughness, vision and tireless commitment to the team. She is certain to be Japan's main driving force in the upcoming tournament.

However, it is not only Sawa who makes the Japanese side a force to be reckoned with; the head coach Hiroshi Ohashi has assembled a well-balanced squad whose strength is its selfless teamwork.

Every member of the squad is capable of playing good positional football and link-up play which enables the team to create space and pass their way through an opposition's defense.

With the 2006 AFC Women's Championship serving as qualifying tournament for the World Cup the process proved to be more difficult than expected for Japan.

They began by breezing through their group, containing China PR, Vietnam and Chinese Taipei, with a perfect record at last July's tournament in Australia before losing by 2-0 in the semi-final against Australia.

This resulted in a difficult fixture in the third-place play-off game against their fiercest rivals, Korea DPR. The Koreans lived up to their tough reputation by clinching a 3-2 win, a result which thereby relegated Japan to a tense play-off showdown against Mexico.

Fortunately enough for Japan they held onto a 3-2 aggregate win which booked their place in the World Cup.

Having appeared in every World Cup since their debut tournament in 1991 Japan hope to progress further than ever before; which would mean bettering their quarter-final showing in 1995, a target which many feel might be a slightly optimistic ambition.