By Trevor Kew

In the months leading up to this summer’s World Cup in South Africa, few neutrals would have liked Japan’s chances.  Faced with Eto’o’s physical Cameroon, Holland’s A-list of superstars and Denmark’s experienced (and tall) squad, there seemed little chance of the Samurai Blue progressing out of Group E to the knockout stage.

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Many of their own supporters were equally pessimistic.  “Nihon wa yowai yo (Japan is weak),” said a Japanese teammate of mine from Yokohama as we discussed the tournament in May.  “Zero point-o, to omou.”

The warm-up games were less than encouraging.  Park Ji-Sung’s South Korea dismantled the Japanese team 2-0 and then Japan scored two own goals in a 2-1 loss to England.  Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Japan’s half-Brazilian defender who is also their tallest player, scored against England and Japan in that match.  In their next match, a friendly against the Ivory Coast, Tulio managed to slip another one past his own goalkeeper.

Tulio wa spy!” shouted someone at the Tokyo bar where I watched the match.  The clumsy central defender also managed to break the arm of Africa’s talismanic Didier Drogba arm with a flying horror tackle early in the first half.

Japan capped off their warm-up run with a 0-0 draw against world soccer minnows Zimbabwe.  Things weren’t looking promising.

But something changed during the tournament.  A scrappy 1-0 win against Cameroon in the opening match gave the Samurai Blue much-needed confidence and they were unlucky not to snatch a draw against Holland in their second game.  But it was in their final group match against Denmark that the Japanese finally showed their potential.  With two stunning first-half free kicks, Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo sent the notoriously uncontrollable Jabulani ball curling around the wall and into the Danish net.   In the second half, the excellent Eji Kawashima was unlucky to see his penalty save rebound straight to Jon Dahl Tomasson, who slammed it home.  After some nervy moments, a spectacular run from Keisuke Honda iced the victory, when he set up Shinji Okazaki for an un-missable close finish.  At the back, Tulio even managed not to screw up too badly.

For even the most die-hard Japanese fans, this victory against the towering Danes was something of a shock, but even more surprising was the success of Japan’s attack and ability to keep possession.  Unfortunately, against Paraguay in the Round of Sixteen, they reverted largely to conservative, negative tactics and ended up losing on penalties in one of the most stale and uninteresting contests of the World Cup.

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For Japanese fans and foreign soccer fans living in this country, it is old news that Japanese soccer’s biggest problem is scoring goals.  And this frustration is not unique to the national team.  As anyone who has played on a Japanese team or even on a team with Japanese strikers knows, finishing is an issue right from youth soccer up to the Samurai Blue.

Why?  Well, that is the ten-million yen, question, really.  Everyone, especially foreigners living in Japan, seems to have an opinion.  Some fall back on the usual stereotypes about Japan—that individuality and creativity are crushed by group conformity, that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” that nobody wants to shoulder the responsibility of being a game-breaker.

I don’t buy it.  Japanese players want to score goals just as much as any players in the world.  But there is a small measure of truth in the stereotypes, in that Japanese youth teams tend to focus their selection quite narrowly.  They don’t choose the tall, lanky, clumsy thirteen-year-olds who may later blossom into aerial threats or powerful, physical strikers.  They focus on small, quick players who already have strong ball control and passing skills.  While anyone who has seen such players in action will agree that their balls skills and fitness are among the best in the world, Japanese soccer definitely seems to be missing something by largely limiting itself to developing this type of player.

Japan is not unique in this respect.  West African soccer coaches and federations have recently spoken about the tendency of their countries to focus on developing powerful, bruising strikers over talented, creative players.  A lack of diversity within African teams seemed to be one of their downfalls in South Africa, without a doubt.  Canada and the United States also seem to produce strong goalkeepers with ease, but struggle to fill other positions as effectively.

If you’ve only got one real option tactically, you’re easier to shut down and easier to dismantle defensively.  During the World Cup, Japan showed flashes of change.  Personalities like Honda and Morimoto and yes, even Tulio, seemed to show hints that they could drive the team towards more exciting, dynamic, varied soccer.  The Paraguay match made us wonder, however, if this was all just a flash in the pan.

Last week, I was at the Nissan Stadium in Yokohama to watch the Samurai play a rematch with Paraguay.  While it was only a friendly, Japan seemed like a new team, combining their typically hard-working defense and strong goalkeeping with moments of good attacking play.  They were rewarded in the second half when Shinji Kagawa smashed home after a string of quick passes.  Three days later, exciting young striker Takayuki Morimoto scored two goals in Osaka against Guatemala, lifting Japan to a 2-1 win.

In the stands at both games, no doubt watching carefully, was Japan’s new coach Alberto Zaccheroni (who, bizarrely, could not be on the bench because he hadn’t yet received a working visa!).  One can only hope that he encourages change and development in the Japanese game, rather than simply putting everyone back behind the ball and hoping for the best.  There is far too much depth in this country’s talent pool to let it go to waste.

Japan plays next in a marquee home friendly against Argentina on October 8th as part of their preparations for the 2011 Asian Cup next year.