The Japanese national team recently nicknamed “Samurai blue” is one of the most successful national teams in Asia, being a three-time winner of the Asian Cup and having qualified for the last four consecutive World Cup finals.
Japan's first major achievement in international football came in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where the team won the bronze medal. Although this result earned the sport increased recognition in Japan, the absence of a professional domestic league hindered its growth and Japan would not qualify for the FIFA World Cup until 30 years later. In Japan’s first attempt to qualify with professional players, it narrowly missed a ticket to the 1994 FIFA World Cup after failing to beat Iraq in the final match of the qualification round, remembered by fans as the Agony of Doha. The nation's first FIFA World Cup appearance was in 1998, where they lost all three matches. Japan's first two fixtures went 1-0 in favour of Argentina and Croatia, despite playing well in both games. Their campaign ended with an unexpected 2-1 defeat to rank outsiders Jamaica.
Four years later, Japan co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup with South Korea. Despite being held to a 2-2 draw by Belgium in their opening game, the Japanese team advanced to the second round with a 1-0 win over Russia and a 2-0 victory against Tunisia. However, they subsequently exited the tournament during the Round of 16, after losing 1-0 to eventual third-place finishers Turkey.
On June 8, 2005, Japan qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, its third consecutive World Cup, by beating North Korea 2-0 in Bangkok, Thailand. However, Japan failed to advance to the Round of 16 after finishing group play without a win, losing to Australia 1-3, drawing Croatia 0-0 and losing to Brazil 1-4. Japan has had considerably more success in the Asian Cup, taking home the winner's trophy in three of the last four finals, in 1992, 2000 and 2004. Their principal continental rivals are South Korea, followed by Saudi Arabia, and most recently Australia. Japan is the only team from outside the Americas to participate in the Copa América, having been invited in 1999 and 2011. In August 2006, incoming head coach Ivica Osim gave the captaincy to Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, as he felt that the extra responsibilities detracted from former captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto's contributions to his club team.
During the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification, in the fourth round of the Asian Qualifiers, Japan became the first team other than the host South Africa to qualify after defeating Uzbekistan 1-0, in Tashkent. Japan is in Group E along with the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon.
COACH: Takeshi Okada, in his second spell after taking Japan to their first finals in 1998. Took charge again in December 2007 after Bosnian Ivica Osim suffered a life-threatening stroke. He came under early criticism after some indifferent performances before securing World Cup qualification.
Shunsuke Nakamura (Espanyol): Aged 31 and plays in the midfield. Japan's most recognisable player since Hidetoshi Nakata's retirement after the 2006 World Cup, Nakamura is a former Scottish footballer of the year and a real threat from set pieces.
Former coach Philippe Troussier's decision to drop him from his 2002 World Cup squad triggered a national outcry but he was unable to help a poor Japan side at the 2006 finals in Germany under Brazilian Zico.
Shinji Okazaki (Shimizu S-Pulse): Aged 23 and is a striker. The diminutive forward could do no wrong in 2009, establishing himself as Japan's frontline striker with 15 goals in 20 internationals. An instinctive finisher with quick feet, he could be a handful for defenders at the World Cup if his confidence is high.
Yuji Nakazawa (Yokohama F-Marinos): Aged 31 and plays in the defence line. The Japan captain was persuaded out of international retirement after Japan's quick exit from the 2006 World Cup. A no-nonsense centre-back, strong in the air and a danger from set pieces.
Japan is 40th as of FIFA World ranking in November 2009. Despite the relative comfort of their qualification, Japan coach Okada's stated goal of a semi-final place looks fanciful. Given a kind draw, Japan could force their way into the last 16, but they are still some way short of the 2002 side coached by enigmatic Frenchman Troussier.