IF THE BLUE SAMURAI DON'T ADVANCE FROM THE GROUP STAGE, IT WON'T BE FOR LACK OF AMBITION. JAPAN COACH TAKESHI OKADA IS AIMING FOR THE SEMIS—A SEEMINGLY QUIXOTIC goal for a country that's never won a World Cup match off Asian soil.
With a hard-fought win over Uzbekistan last June, Japan was the first nation to earn a place in South Africa. But its breezy qualification did little to quell concerns over a punchless offense. The qualifying results read like binary code: The Blue Samurai scored more than one goal in only five of 14 games—against minnows Thailand (twice), Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.
Okada, the architect of Japan's first World Cup appearance, in 1998, has been relentlessly criticized since he began a second tour as manager, in November 2007. Japan's sports media have blistered everything from the team's passing game to its lack of physicality. The condemnation intensified in February when Japan lost to South Korea 3-1 in the final of the East Asian Championship. Fans decried Okada's tactics as conservative and predictable, and the clamor for his dismissal reached a fever pitch.
Japan's inability to score against top-flight opposition might be due to inconsistency in the lineup. Okada has played no fewer than 21 strikers over the past two years. Out of that mix, Yoshito Okubo and Shinji Okazaki are probable first choices in South Africa.
Yasuhito Endo, the Asian Footballer of the Year in 2009, is the central playmaker and the latest in a proud line of dynamic Japanese midfielders. Veteran playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura is creative on the flank and takes free kicks. Makoto Hasebe, a tireless worker, helps execute Japan's possession-based game at the base of the midfield.
The anchor of this unit is captain Yuji Nakazawa, an occasional goal scorer and only the third Japanese player to reach 100 caps. Excellent in the air, he's forged an effective partnership in central defense with Marcus Tulio Tanaka, another backliner with a nose for the net. Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo are probable starters on the outside, but Yuhei Tokunaga is capable of spelling either man.