World Cup 2014: Why Japan Can Make the Quarterfinals or Better
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Japan became the first team to qualify for Brazil 2014 with a 1-1 draw against Australia in Saitama on Tuesday, and now, the Blue Samurai will be looking to make a splash at next summer's tournament.
The reigning Asian champions have certainly mastered the qualifying process. This will be the fifth straight tournament they have earned the right to attend, having never made it prior to 1998. In the World Cup proper, however, the Japanese have so far failed to make it past the Round of 16.
This time around, Alberto Zaccheroni's side are primed for a tilt at the tournament's latter stages. A run to the quarterfinals or further would confirm their status as a rising power in world football.
It is not through luck or coincidence that Japan have developed into the undisputed strongest team in their continent, stacked with European-based players and demonstrating an effective, high-tempo style of football.
Fox Sports Australia journalist Simon Hill outlined in an excellent column prior to the Japan-Australia game how the introduction of the J-League 20 years ago was the catalyst for the current boom period for Japanese football.
Hill described how a carefully constructed league format which requires teams to develop strong ties to their local communities has given birth to a thriving football fanbase and production line of talent in a country that was previously a baseball stronghold.
Japanese football has a 100-year plan to lift its standards. Already its national men's team is Asian champion, its women world champions. It sells top players like Shinji Kagawa to clubs such as Manchester United.That's where the J-League has really earned its corn - as the bedrock foundation of a vibrant football culture, spawning unparalleled success.
Much has been made of the way German football very successfully reinvented itself after a horrendous showing at the European Championships in 2000, as explained by Thomas Dahlhaus on the BBC Sport web site, and many parallels can be drawn with the Japan Football Federation's decision to focus on youth development and promoting a strong, attractive league.
How far will Japan go in Brazil 2014?
Funnily enough, Japan's ever-growing talent pool has drawn the attention of Bundesliga clubs, with no less than eight of the Samurai Blue squad named to face Iraq on June 11, plying their trade in Germany.
Results over the past few years indicate that the 100-year plan is beginning to bear fruit already. Led by world-class talents like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okasaki, Japan took out the 2011 Asian Cup, knocked off some high-profile scalps in friendlies, including France and Argentina, and booked their spot in Brazil next year by dominating their qualifying group.
This is a seriously good team that will require some beating in 2014. A quarterfinal berth should be the least we expect of them.
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