Through late April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Japan. Click here for the full archive.
FIFA world ranking: No. 18.
How they qualified for Germany: Won their preliminary-stage group in Asia with a 6-0-0 record, then finished first in their second-stage Group B with a 5-0-1 record. Other than the host, Japan was the first nation to qualify for Germany.
Previous World Cups: Two appearances (1998, 2002). Reached second round in '02.
Manager: Zico, fourth year with team.
Not only is Hidetoshi Nakata Japan's most important player, he's the guy who wrested the title of national soccer idol from Kazu Miura over the past 10 years and is responsible for the increasing respect towards his country's team. Thanks to Nakata's leadership, Japan won the Asia Cup in 2000 and '04 and pulled off a giant upset of Brazil at the '96 Atlanta Summer Games. Through his stints with three Italian Serie A clubs, Nakata amassed a career's worth of world-class experience: skill, intelligence, but above all, vision -- a very unique quality among Japanese players. But at age 29, he has found his way to Bolton in his 12th season as a pro and knows this could be his last World Cup.
Japan's other main midfielder, Shunsuke Nakamura, is another player seasoned by Europe. His physical style also defies the Japanese mold and it earned him a roster spot with Celtic in the brutal Scottish Premier League after a stint in Italy. At the age of 27, he earned Zico's trust mainly for his brilliant performances at last summer's Confederations Cup. Up front, Masashi Oguro is a strong, talented striker. At 5-foot-10, he might look short for a forward, but his sense of smell for the goal is acute. With Gamba Osaka, he led the J-League in scoring with 20 goals in 30 matches in 2004 and guided his club to the title last season. Japan relies on him for his timely scoring touch.
What to watch for
There aren't many coaches in the World Cup field who are more renowned than their team, but Zico is one of them. The Brazilian legend played in three straight World Cups ('78, '82 and '86) on some of the most talented teams ever to grace a pitch. He also became an icon in Japan while playing for the Kashima Antlers and later became their manager, transforming the club into one of the strongest in all of Asia.
But Zico's fame aside, the squad he leads into Germany is no slouch. The Japanese are Asia's best team and boast a midfield to match. The three-man attack of Nakata, Nakamura and Shinji Ono is perfectly complemented by free-kick expert Mitsuo Ogasawara. This team also counters with a fierce defensive unit and excellent tactical discipline. Scoring is another thing, however, as the strike force is limited to the talents of one man: Oguro. Japan often has trouble scoring more than one goal per match, which doesn't bode well when the Osaka forward has one of his bad days.
Another headache for Zico is the emotional aspect of his squad: When the Japanese trail in any given match, they tend to get frustrated and lose control. That's not enough to deter the Brazilian from reaching his team, however. He has an excellent rapport with his players, and when this group gets its act together, it can be the team that changes the balance at any match in Germany. Brazil in particular should watch its back, as Zico obviously knows the team well and would love to take a point (or more) off his compatriots when they meet in each team's final group-stage match.
Group: F (Brazil, Croatia, Australia).
Key match in group stage: June 12 vs. Australia. Zico wants his troops to win or at least draw in their first match. With a positive result against Croatia, the pressure is off against Brazil, and they're more likely reach the second stage.