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2 days to kick-off – Football Japan’s 2010 World Cup predictions (Part 1: Japan)

9 Jun 2010(Wed)

It is now just two days until the 2010 FIFA World Cup finally gets under way in South Africa on Friday evening. Throughout the tournament, the Football Japan Minutecast will be online several times each week with previews and reports of every single Japan game, plus a series of special features to be broadcast direct from Johannesburg in early July as the knockout stages unfold. Be sure not to miss it!


But while the hours and minutes before the opening game are still ticking down, the World Cup wouldn’t be the World Cup without a nice long list of predictions that we can all look back on in a month’s time to see how wrong we were. I chatted last week with legendary Japanese football writer Hiroshi Kagawa – a veteran of nine World Cups and, at 85, the oldest active sportswriter in the country – alongside SIX president Katsumi Honda and fellow Football Japan writer Izumi Nemoto about our hopes and expectations for South Africa 2010.


(Click here for Part 2: The rest)



1. Japan’s first match is on Sunday against Cameroon. How are things looking for Takeshi Okada and his players?


Honda: Well, unfortunately, you can’t really say it’s going too well...


Kagawa: Things have been pretty bad for a while, haven’t they? The biggest worry is that Japan haven’t made any progress since securing qualification last year. If anything, we’ve become a little worse. Yasuhito Endo looks tired and is clearly suffering from all his exertions over the past two seasons. Shunsuke Nakamura, meanwhile, is edging ever closer to his sell-by date. Of course, he is nearly 32 now, so it is only normal, but his age is really beginning to show – not least in the amount of injuries he is getting. These are the best two passers in the country, so for them both to be on the wane is a real problem.


Nemoto: I’m worried about Nakamura’s condition as well. At least Yuji Nakazawa seems to have recovered his form again somewhat after the Serbia game.


Mabley: After coming through Asian qualification more than a year ago, Okada’s side have often resembled a second division team who vowed to remain loyal to their attacking principles upon getting promoted, but came unstuck when up against the big boys. The manager is finally starting to make changes, but bizarrely, seems under great pressure not to from a somewhat naïve domestic media.


2. After Cameroon, Japan will also be facing Holland and Denmark in Group E. What will be the key to making it through to the knockout stages?


Kagawa: Obviously, Japan will want to beat Cameroon. But at the very least, it is important that they don’t lose, first of all. Like most of the African teams, Cameroon have a lot of highly gifted individuals, but even a side as good as them can make mistakes at the back. What we need to do is make sure that we’re positioned to take advantage of this.

In the recent friendly with England, Japan showed excellent rhythm in their play to force the corner kick that led to the opening goal. Endo then pulled the ball across quite cleverly, but even before he did so, Yuki Abe made a run to the near post to allow Marcus Tulio Tanaka to follow in behind. Tulio has great attacking sense, and it was this moment before the shot that created the chance to score.

Japan’s style is highly ‘rhythmical’ – both at corner kicks and in our general play as well. In this case, England’s defenders perhaps weren’t concentrating as well as they might have been, but that is something that can and does happen in every game of football. If it happens with Cameroon, and if Japan can take advantage, then we might just win 2-1 or 1-0. But at worst, if we can draw, then there is still a decent chance going onwards.


Honda: The Cameroon game is important, but whatever happens there, Japan need to ensure they go into the next game with plenty of confidence. Even if we lose, there is no need to get overly depressed about the whole situation.


Nemoto: I agree. The first game is always important. But we all – including the press – need to make sure that we don’t start thinking ‘well, that’s it then’ like we did in 2006 if, unfortunately, Japan do actually lose. The performances of our goalkeepers will be key as well.


Mabley: The physical nature of their three opponents makes this a far from ideal group for Japan, but ever since the draw was made, I’ve felt that the midfield battles will be vital. Okada simply has to convince himself that a 4-1-2-2-1 (with Abe or Junichi Inamoto) that keeps the ball is a far better option against stronger sides than a 4-2-3-1 that does not. Then, it’s a case of how best to exploit Keisuke Honda’s talents in attacking areas.


3. Okada has (in)famously set a target of reaching the last four. Is this at all realistic? If not, what would be a more sensible objective?


Kagawa: If you think about it logically, South Korea showed in our recent friendly that they are a stronger side than Japan, but even their odds of actually winning the World Cup are something like 200-1. And that’s a pretty fair assessment. But in football, sometimes even weaker sides have a chance of beating more fancied opponents. For sure, most people probably think the whole ‘last four’ idea is pretty ridiculous, but no manager will ever go into a tournament with the intention of losing. So I think this is a reasonably justified objective.

Once you reach the last four and it becomes a matter of determining the actual champions, I think at this point the true depth of football within each remaining country certainly does start to speak volumes. But until then, in a short knockout competition, even the South Koreans in 2002 and the Japan side at the 1968 Olympics managed to reach the semi-finals. It might look like wishful thinking, and obviously Japan would have no chance of competing if it were something like – say – the English Premier League, but then this is what makes sport so interesting. Of course, most Japanese pundits just want to criticise...


Honda: Japan have already won games at the World Cup and made it out of their group in the past, so as a next milestone, I don’t see anything wrong with targeting the semi-finals either. I’ll never forget how, in 2002, we just capitulated against Turkey in the last 16 once we’d achieved the ‘main target’ of qualifying from the group.


Nemoto: Well, I wouldn’t say there’s zero chance of it happening... but perhaps a more realistic possibility would be making it through the group?


Mabley: I don’t know whose fault this is, but I think the whole ‘last four’ thing has been allowed to get out of control to the point where it is now a real millstone around the players’ necks. It’s all well and good aiming high in private, but a little more discretion is required in public so that the supporters and media remain realistic and behind their team. It would be a terrific achievement to get past the group stage.


4. Ideals and objectives aside, how far will Japan really make it this year?


Kagawa: It would be a cause for true celebration if we could just make it past the first round, since even at the earliest stage, Japan will only be able to win or even draw these matches if we really play to our best. But unless Nakamura and Endo can recover some form, I’m not sure it will happen...


Honda: Looking at it objectively, we’ll probably be knocked out in the group phase. But each of our three opponents will likely be thinking that they absolutely have to beat Japan, and this mindset could prove to be our opportunity.


Nemoto: The last 16! I’m not giving up hope!


Mabley: Japan will need four points from the games with Cameroon and Denmark, and then a certain amount of luck to reach the second round. I don’t think they will disgrace themselves, but Okada’s tactical changes have probably come too late to get them through.



(Click here for Part 2: The rest)

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