Population: 126,700,000
Area: 377,835 km²
Capital: Tokyo
Language: Japanese

Japan qualified automatically as host nation.

Participations: (1) 1998
Best placing: First round 1998
Topscorer: Nakayama, 1 goal

Jun 04 - JPN v BEL  in Saitama
Jun 09 - JPN v RUS  in Yokohama
Jun 14 - JPN v TUN  in Osaka

Hidetoshi Nakata enjoys superstar status in Japan and is by far the co-hosts' most popular player. He is a skillful, lightfooted and elegant playmaker with abilities to open up the tightest defences. European-based for several years already, his experience will count a lot.

WCA VERDICT: Through to KO stage
Japan couldn't have hoped for a better draw. Two of the least glamorous European sides and arguably the weakest African entry give the Japanese a once-in-a-lifetime chance of a successful World Cup run. We think the enthusiastic home crowd will lift this team past at least two other teams in the group and secure a place in the knock-out stages.


by Paul Marcuccitti

    Hosting the World Cup finals can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, every match is a home match; on the other, the burden of expectation can be overwhelming.

    Automatic qualification also has its advantages and disadvantages. Though a place in the 32 team tournament is guaranteed, there's a void of truly competitive matches in the lead up.

    Irrespective of those pros and cons, there should be no excuses for the Japanese if they make a First Round exit. Fears that they might become the first ever hosts (or co-hosts) to fall at the first hurdle receded when Belgium, Russia and Tunisia were drawn to join them in Group H. It won't be an easy group but it's fair to say that the draw didn't deal Japan the cruelest of hands.

    I was fortunate enough to see Japan play the United States in Adelaide, Australia when the two nations met in the quarter-finals of the men's soccer tournament of the 2000 Olympics. The USA won on penalties after the game finished 2-2 but Japan's play - particularly in midfield - was exceptional. With better finishing, the Japanese would have advanced. A number of the players that were in that promising Olympic team will be in the World Cup squad.

    The senior team has had even more encouraging results since its disappointing performance at the 1998 World Cup finals. Under French coach Philippe Troussier, the Japanese won the 2000 Asian Nations Cup and, last year, they were runners-up to France in the Confederations Cup.

    Come June, there will inevitably be a lot of pressure on Parma midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata but, although he is Japan's most famous player, he certainly has talent around him. Shinji Ono - picked up by Dutch club Feyenoord after some sterling performances in the Confederations Cup - is just 22 years old and a rising star. Many observers believe he is as gifted as Nakata.

    Another midfielder to look out for will be Shunsuke Nakamura who plays for Yokohama in the J-League. Nakamura can play in the middle or on the left and he is highly rated - he might even find himself in a Real Madrid shirt after the finals.

    The experienced Hiroshi Nanami, who was named Player of the Tournament in the Asian Nations Cup two years ago, is also likely to start in midfield. And there will be a lot of interest in Junichi Inamoto, who has struggled to get into the Arsenal first team, and Brazilian-born Alessandro Santos - another left-sided playmaker.

    Though Japan has depth in its midfield, Troussier might have a few headaches finding the right combination up forward. Naohiro Takahara and Akinori Nishizawa have both completed frustrating loan spells overseas - Takahara in Argentina with Boca Juniors and Nishizawa with both Bolton in the English Premiership and Espanyol in Spain. Other options include the Kashima Antlers pair of Atsushi Yanagisawa and Takayuki Suzuki. Yanagisawa is the more likely to find a place in the starting line up.

    Japan's defence looks sound and it will be built around Ryuzo Morioka who captained the team to its Asian triumph two years ago. He is likely to be joined at the back by the versatile Toshihiro Hattori of Jubilo Iwata. Kashima's Koji Nakata and Yokohama's Naoki Matsuda are, perhaps, the most likely defenders to fill the other positions at the back but, in truth, there is a large group of players competing for those places.

    In goals, Troussier might use either Seigo Narazaki - Japan's first choice 'keeper at the 2000 Olympics - or Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi who, despite his undoubted ability, has found it difficult to adapt to life in the English First Division since signing for Portsmouth.

    Whatever combinations the French coach uses, fans are guaranteed a youthful and energetic Japanese team with an abundance of talent in midfield. Japan's ball movement should be fluent and a delight to watch.

    At the time of writing, the Japanese had made an impressive start to their long list of pre-tournament Friendlies and this scribe, at least, will be surprised if they don't make it to the Second Round. Unfortunately, Japan is in the more difficult half of the draw and would need to produce a real upset (or two) to progress beyond the quarter-finals.


by Jan Alsos

    Japan have a short World Cup history with only one previous finals appearance - four years ago in France. The tournament ended with three straight losses and an early flight home, but their performances against Argentina and bronze winners Croatia were creditable, losing only by 1-0.



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