Just making the final was a triumph for cup co-host
YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) -- Japan surpassed all expectations just to gain a place in Sunday's Confederations Cup final against France and, when it was over, the partisan crowd knew that losing 1-0 to the world No. 1 wasn't that bad at all.
With a gaping hole in midfield due to the absence of AS Roma star Hidetoshi Nakata and its sharpest striker, Takayuki Suzuki, who was on suspension, Japan battled to limit the French to a single goal.
The Japanese even had one or two scoring chances in the second half when their passing game came together.
That was more than enough to keep the 70,000 fans who packed Yokohama stadium hopeful for next year, when Japan will co-host the World Cup with South Korea.
"Japan shows great fight to finish runner-up," said a headline in a prominent sports newspaper on Monday.
"Japan, Valiant Effort," blazed the headline in the daily Sports Hochi.
Instead of filing out Sunday immediately after the game, most of the supporters stuck around to watch Japan get the runner-up's consolation prize. The chants of "Nippon" -- Japan -- roared long after the final whistle.
The French added the Confederations Cup to its World Cup and Euro 2000 titles to complete a triple in international competition.
"I want to say to our players, 'You can play against the best in the world. We can build confidence and a new offense on that,'" Japan national team coach Philippe Troussier said after Sunday's final.
Japan showed surprising toughness against teams that were more physical, many that were simply more talented. It beat Canada and Olympic champion Cameroon and tied with Brazil to finish group play on top.
Japan then edged Australia in the semis and succumbed only to France in the final. Throughout the tournament, Japan conceded just one goal -- Patrick Vieira's header on 28 minutes in the final.
"This was a performance that was completely honorable against the champion of the world," said Troussier.
Japan found success in the Confederations Cup playing a simple game plan with precision. It made few defensive blunders and -- unlike superpower Brazil -- made the most of its few offensive chances.
The performance against France was particularly satisfying for Japan because it comes five months after a humiliating 5-0 rout to the world champions in Paris.
Although the Japanese must now nurture individual skills and a more complex offense in order to become a contender at the World Cup, the progress at the Confederations Cup was evident.
French national coach Roger Lemerre said Japan had shown amazing improvement since March.
"It's clear that the Japanese soccer team learns quick," Lemerre said. "Tonight was a tough match."
Japan exceeds expectations at Confederations Cup
YOKOHAMA -- Japan coach Philippe Troussier will have enjoyed his coffee and croissants on Monday morning, despite losing 1-0 to France in Sunday's Confederations Cup final.
Troussier's Japan more than accomplished their mission over the 12-day tournament, staged jointly by the Japanese and South Korea as a test-run for the 2002 World Cup.
Not only did Japan finish runner-up in a "feel-good" final that pitched Troussier against Roger Lemerre -- his former manager at Red Star -- they also limited the French, who thrashed Japan 5-0 in Paris on March 25, to a single goal despite being overrun at International Stadium Yokohama.
Japan had to make do without Nakata against the world and European champion.
Ironically, though, Roma manager Fabio Capello left Nakata on the bench as the Serie A leaders drew 2-2.
Troussier, who could not hide his frustration at losing the tug-of-war with Roma hours after Nakata scored the winner in Japan's 1-0 semifinal win over Australia, was left with few attacking options for the final.
Even with Nakata, who played in the Stade de France debacle, Japan would have struggled to contain a French side which could have won by a similar margin but for some excellent saves from Yokohama goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.
It was galling for Kawaguchi, who Troussier called Japan's "biggest success" during the competition, that it was his failure to deal with a Frank Leboeuf pass that led to Patrick Vieira's 29th-minute winner.
Kawaguchi, protected well for the most part by Japan's back three of Ryuzo Morioka, Naoki Matsuda and Koji Nakata, made a number of important stops as Japan beat Canada 3-0 and Cameroon 2-0, before drawing 0-0 with Brazil to finish top of Group B.
Troussier said that Shinji Ono's impressive return to the international fold had been a "bonus" for Japan after the Urawa Reds midfielder was instrumental in the first-round wins over Canada and Cameroon.
Ono, being chased by German club Borussia Dortmund, scored Japan's first goal of the tournament, curling a free-kick David Beckham would have been proud of over the Canadian wall and beyond the reach of West Ham goalkeeper Craig Forrest.
Troussier then banned his players from reading newspapers and warned Ono to keep his feet on the ground after Japan's Confederations Cup campaign gathered more momentum with a remarkable victory over African champions Cameroon.
The Japanese players, toughened by their Asian Cup winning exploits in Lebanon last October, responded with a another resilient display to shut out Brazil in Kashima and secure a semifinal spot.
With the 2002 World Cup less than a year away, however, Troussier's biggest concern is the reluctance of Japanese players to leave the comfort zone of the J-League and follow players such as Hidetoshi Nakata and Akinori Nishizawa abroad.
"They can't get any better technically or tactically. What they need now is experience, and they can't get that unless they go to Europe," said Troussier.
Japan proved during the Confederations Cup that they can, as Troussier said, "live the with the world's top teams" and the performances of Ono, Junichi Inamoto and Kazuyuki Toda in particular point to a bright future.
But an over-reliance on Hidetoshi Nakata and the relative inexperience of the rest of the squad are concerns which Troussier and the Japan Football Association are hoping to address in the coming months.
Reuters contributed to this report.