Michael Church in South Africa

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 June, 2010, 12:00am

Twelve years in the making, Japan finally earned their first World Cup win on foreign soil, in the process capping a remarkable three days for Asian football.

While South Korea travelled to South Africa confident of success - and duly delivered with a 2-0 win in their opening game against a poor Greece team - the same could not be said of Takeshi Okada's Blue Samurai.

A raft of disappointing results and even more dismal performances prior to and following their arrival in South Africa suggested Japan would be one of the first teams to be booking flights out of Johannesburg at the end of the group stages.

However, Monday's win over Cameroon in Bloemfontein - achieved via Keisuke Honda's close-range strike in what was unquestionably the worst game of the tournament so far - means the three-time Asian champions now retain hopes of progressing to the last 16 no matter what the result is in their next encounter.

That comes against the Netherlands on Saturday, but the fate of the Japanese most likely rests on the outcome of their game with Denmark in Rustenburg on June 24. Victory over Morten Olsen's side will ensure progress for Japan and keep alive their chances of a semi-finals place - Okada's oft-stated target, which has been roundly ridiculed throughout the build-up to the World Cup.

Of course, it's too early for Okada to be having anything like the last laugh. But he can at least feel vindicated by virtue of the win over Cameroon, if not by the nature of the performance. The victory will also lift a major millstone that has hung around the neck of the Japanese and, in particular, Okada. While Japan won twice in the group stages of the 2002 tournament, those successes were achieved on home soil under the guidance of enigmatic French coach Philippe Troussier.

Okada had, four years earlier, taken Japan to their first ever World Cup in France and, despite promising to deliver a win and a draw in the group stages against Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica, the Japanese returned home with nothing other than a solitary goal to show for their efforts.

The Japan of 1998 were naive and their inexperience showed, with a lack of quality in the final third of the field proving vital. The fact that the matches against Argentina and Croatia were lost to a single goal from strikers of the calibre of Gabriel Batistuta and Davor Suker underlined exactly where the Japanese fell short.

Eight years later, in Germany in 2006, the tactical ineptitude of then-coach Zico hurt Japan tremendously as the nation again fell at the end of the group stage - with Brazil handing one of the country's favourite sons and his adopted homeland a painful lesson in their final group game. That 4-1 defeat in Dortmund - and Japan were fortunate it was not even heavier - ended a campaign that also saw Australia beat Japan 3-1 before Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi's penalty save salvaged a point in their meeting with Croatia.

Kawaguchi, who was also in goal for Japan when the country made their debut at the World Cup in France in 1998, is one of only two players to have been included in all four of the country's squads for the finals. He said Monday's win was 12 long, hard years in the making. 'It's not easy to win at the World Cup,' said the former Portsmouth goalkeeper. 'It's a culmination of all the work you put in that leads to victory. It's been a process from way back in France, and to win at a World Cup away is a huge step for us. We can't bask in the win forever, though. We won this game as a team, and we celebrated as a team. I think we've earned the right to enjoy this for tonight. But we've got to start thinking about the Dutch game from tomorrow. The second game will be crucial.'

Japan's victory capped an stunning three days for Asian football. With the first round of group matches barely complete, the continent has matched its previous best at a tournament away from home soil; in the United States in 1994, Saudi Arabia won twice - against Belgium and Morocco - in the group stages.

The victories by the South Koreans and Japanese were achieved in very different fashion; while Japan laboured, South Korea soared, inspired by the dynamism of Park Ji-sung against a leaden-footed Greece. In the past 18 months, Huh Jung-moo's side have established themselves as the region's best team, combining the experience of the squad that reached the 2002 semi-finals on home soil with a new generation that boasts genuine quality.

Throughout their preparations, South Korea have had the air of a squad that believes in themselves. Since securing their place in the finals they have notched up stylish wins against sides such as Ivory Coast and Paraguay.

Difficult clashes against Argentina and Nigeria await the Koreans but, with their confidence given a massive boost, Huh and his team will be confident of picking up the points they need to make it into the second round.

Australia have been the only blot on the continent's copy book so far; they looked tired and well past their sell-by date against a vibrant, youthful and ruthless German side, who look destined for greater things than trouncing Pim Verbeek's team.

Playing in their first World Cup after qualifying for the finals as a member of the Asian Football Confederation, the squad contains many of the players who joined together with Guus Hiddink to reach the second round in Germany.

Four years on, however, the likes of Craig Moore, Lucas Neill and Scott Chipperfield look well short of the standard required to challenge the game's best. Their next meeting, with Ghana on Sunday, is crucial to their hopes.

It's too early to be talking seriously about booking berths in the last 16 for either the Japanese or the South Koreans. But neither side could have had a better start to a campaign that has realistic hopes of being the continent's finest ever on foreign soil.

 

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