We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.
Appearance: Fourth overall, fourth consecutive
Last time there: 2006, exited in first round
Best performance: Second round (2002)
For a country that didn't make a World Cup until 1998, the Japanese sure have built a nice program.
In that short time, they have blossomed into one of the top teams in Asia, and they proved it again by being the first nation to qualify for the World Cup this time around.
Of course, it's Asia, so it's not like Japan has to go through Croatia or Sweden to qualify. They get to play Bahrain and Australia, which is hardly a Murderers' Row of soccer teams.
2006 was considered a step back. As co-host in 2002, Japan kept alive the streak of host nations advancing past the first round. They were expected to match or exceed that four years ago, but failed. Now, they are trying to figure out how to get back.
It starts with 2009 Asia Player of the Year Yasuhito Endo, who can play as an attacking midfielder, but is also effective as a defender. Endo is the leader, and his playmaking touch is the key to this team's success. He has to set up Shinji Okazaki, the top striker on the squad.
There is a bit of a gap between the veteran players and the young core in Japan. This year should help bridge that gap, as there is a good chunk of young talent ready to emerge beyond 2010. Asking them to play well in the World Cup this time around is probably asking too much, especially when none of Japan's better young players have been able to hold a gig with a top club team yet.
If Japan is to surprise, they did get a favorable draw to make it happen. Cameroon and Denmark are not unbeatable, even though the Japanese will likely be underdogs in both matches. A finish second to Holland in Group E is not out of the question, but it is also not expected.
June 14 vs. Cameroon (Bloemfontein)
June 19 vs. Holland (Durban)
June 24 vs. Denmark (Rustenburg)