World Rankings: 45
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2002)
Previous Appearances: 3 (1998, 2002, 2006)
Coach: Takeshi Okada
Shunsuke Nakamura: The undisputed star of the team, at least by name. The 31 year-old halfback leads a strong midfield—Japan’s greatest asset. He is one of the greatest Asian players in the history of the game, but his play has dropped off in recent years. Injuries and inconsistent play has tarnished his last two years, and if Japan is to have any major success, Nakamura finding his game will go a long way in helping their World Cup chances
Keisuke Honda: Fortunately for Japan, if Nakamura falters, they can turn to this rising 24-year-old star to pick up the midfield himself. Despite never playing in a World Cup before, he has proven on international levels already he’s ready for prime-time. Most importantly, he has goal-scoring ability, something the team desperately needs.
Yuji Nakazawa: Japan’s captain and most experienced player on the squad. His leadership on defence is crucial for a team projected not to score many goals. Japan will be facing more offensive talent then they’re used to in qualifying rounds, and so must be perfect on the back end to have any chance of advancing past the first round.
If the Blue Samurai were to make any kind of splash this year, it would be because of the strength of their greatest asset: their midfield.
Nakamura, Honda, and several other solid halfbacks will dictate how well Japan will do. If Japan can control the flow of the game with their halfbacks, and their defence can back them up, Japan has the ability to grind out some wins
Scoring will be a major issue for Japan. The team does not boast a bonafide scoring threat up front, so they must scratch and claw their way to get the breaks they need.
Past World Cup appearances do not help Japan much if they hope to draw from experience. Though Japan has qualified for its fourth straight World Cup, they have yet to win a game away from home soil. Only in 2002 when they hosted the World Cup did they have any success.
When you think soccer, Japan does not spring to mind as a powerhouse nation, but don’t tell that to head coach Takeshi Okada.
Japan’s National team—affectionately nicknamed the Blue Samurai at this World Cup—has never made it past the round of 16 on soccer’s biggest stage, but Okada believes his team can go beyond the second act this time around.
“All of our opponents are a bit stronger than us but are in a range we can deal with,” said Okada back in January when expressing his thoughts on Japan’s Group for the World Cup. “We are aiming for a place in the semi-finals and don’t intend to change that.”
Group E comprises of some solid teams—Cameroon, Netherlands, and Denmark—that Japan will have trouble matching up against. Advancing out of the first round, let alone all the way to the semi-finals, will be a hard enough task as it is.
Japan is not used to the level of talent in their group. The Blue Samurai finished second to Australia in Asian qualifications, having only needed to finish ahead of Bahrain, Qatar, and Uzbekistan in their group to advance to the World Cup.
Coming in as one of the lowest ranked teams in the World Cup, it would be a huge surprise if Japan makes it anywhere near the semi’s.