The World Cup has an endearing habit for throwing up surprises and for hurling new and unexpected stars into our living rooms and into the communal global footballing psyche.
It could well be that Japanese frontman Shinji Okazaki is the relative unknown that can make a surprise impact at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, adding his name to a list that includes the likes of Pele, Francois Omam-Biyik and Michael Owen.
Expectations are high for Japan as they head into this, their fifth consecutive World Cup. Their qualification route was not a foregone conclusion, but after a handful of professional, rather than outstanding, performances, they became the first team—after hosts Brazil—to book their place at the international high table.
As soon as progression was ensured, the nation began looking forward to the tournament itself and to the prospect of presenting Japanese football to the wider, global audience. This is an operation that was successful on home soil in 2002, and in South Africa three years ago, but which ended unhappily in France in 1998 and then in Germany eight years later.
The current crop have enough about them, enough class and competency, that their vintage should replicate their predecessors that escaped the group stage, rather than those that fell at the first hurdle.
Coach Alberto Zaccheroni is an experienced boss who will relish the chance of leading such a force to such a grand stage. The Italian has forged an accomplished outfit out of the Blue Samurai’s various impressive players, and the team demonstrated at the Confederations Cup—despite a smidgen of naivety—that they are a team on the up.
Skipper Makoto Hasebe is the crucial figure in the side’s 4-2-3-1 formation. With boundless energy and a genuine desire to work hard in order to allow the team’s artists to do their thing, the skipper’s form—usually so unwavering—will be key next summer.
Hasebe embodies the grit and determination that have underpinned Japan’s successful few years. During the 2011 Asian Cup they demonstrated character to win some painfully close match-ups, and the Wolfsburg man and his midfield partner, the veteran Yasuhito Endo, will need to be the team’s driving force again next year.
Two other key figures are attacking full-backs Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida. The duo are competent defenders and also offer a terrifically potent weapon from wide positions, attacking in unison to stretch an opposition backline and bewilder the enemy with their expert movement.
However, while the midfield and the full-back positions inspire confidence, there remain unanswered questions concerning the defence—which proved to be very porous at the Confederations Cup—and the striker.
Ahead of them, the nation’s two star individuals, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, have the creative nous, the superb movement and the firepower to trouble the world’s finest defences next summer.
Kagawa has stuttered slightly since arriving at Manchester United last summer, he has had injury problems, and has been underused and played out of position by both Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes. For Japan, however, he remains a central figure and a key component of their attacking make-up.
Kagawa, like Honda, is an accomplished passer with excellent vision, an ideal combination for any potential forward playing ahead of them.
As the 4-3 defeat to Italy at the Confederations Cup showed, Japan have a vibrant, positive attack, and with the right man at the pinnacle of that line-up, they could be truly devastating.
This game, at least, provided a window into what the world can expect from Japan next summer with Shinji Okazaki spearheading the side.
The striker is certainly in pole position to lead the Blue Samurai out next summer. He played 1,223 minutes during Japan’s Qualifying Campaign, more than anyone else and as the only player to feature in all 14 clashes.
He also top-scored during the Asian programme, although his tally of eight was happily supplemented by goal-scoring midfielders Honda and Kagawa, who bagged six and four respectively. In the Summer 2013 edition of World Soccer magazine, it was suggested that one of the key questions facing the Blue Samurai ahead of the World Cup is “Do they have a centre forward who can score goals?”
I suggest, in Ozakazi, they do.
The former Stuttgart man is adept at playing his part in the fluid, menacing attacking quadrant alongside Honda, Kagawa and Ryoichi Maeda. Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel, upon signing Okazaki earlier in the summer, speaking to Bundesliga.com described him thus; “He’s a player with attributes which are very important for the way we play football. He’s an absolute team player and is a very versatile attacker, and always very dangerous and potent in front of goal.”
Despite leaving some unanswered questions, his international scoring record of 35 goals in 66 games is encouraging.
Only 5’9", Okazaki offers an aerial threat traditionally lacking in Japanese teams. This was evidenced by his bold, brave equaliser to level the Italy match 3-3 during the Confederations Cup. While this would not be the natural approach for the likes of Honda and Kagawa, anything that gives the Japanese attack more diversity has to be considered advantageous by Zaccheroni.
I believe, as well, that the tournament atmosphere and the big games that come with the World Cup will be to Okazaki’s benefit. He managed two goals at the Confederations Cup against the accomplished defences of Brazil, Italy and…er…Mexico, and made the Asian Cup Team of the Tournament in 2011, suggesting that he is a striker that thrives in the rarefied atmosphere of cup competition.
His goal on his Mainz debut, against former club Stuttgart, is another indicator that he is a player that relishes the big occasion and is capable of flourishing under pressure.
I suspect that if Japan can organise their defence, they could be a big success and perhaps even the dark horses at next summer’s World Cup. If Honda and Kagawa can enjoy strong seasons, and if Hasebe and Endo can stay fit, then the stage will be set for Okazaki to put his wide array of talents to good use as the side’s spearhead.
If it clicks, he could be set for a sterling tournament come next summer.