Japan hope to make World Cup semifinal

TOKYO - On June 6 this year, Japan became the first country to qualify for next year's World Cup finals in South Africa when they won 1-0 in Uzbekistan.

TOKYO - On June 6 this year, Japan became the first country to qualify for next year's World Cup finals in South Africa when they won 1-0 in Uzbekistan.

Fans are now hoping that it will not be a case of "first to come, first to leave" for Takeshi Okada's team in South Africa next year.

But if it progresses beyond the first round the Japanese team will make history, being the first at the World Cup finals to win a game away from home.

Though Japan have played at three finals and won two of the 10 games they played in total, both of those victories (1-0 against Russia and 2-0 against Tunisia) were achieved playing at home during the 2002 finals they co-hosted with South Korea.

Most of Okada's squad are based in Japan, with midfielders Shunsuke Nakamura (Espanyol), Junichi Inamoto (Rennes), Daisuke Matsui (Grenoble Foot 38), Makoto Hasebe (VfL Wolfsburg) and Keisuke Honda (VVV-Venlo), as well as Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto being the notable exceptions.

Other stalwarts in the side include captain Yuji Nakazawa, who marshals the defence and is looking forward to playing at his second World Cup finals.

Okada, who travelled to South Africa for a friendly against the hosts early this month and returned to Asia after a goalless draw, has set an ambitious goal for the team, saying he believes they can make the semifinals.

"We've got tougher as a team and moved forward little by little in the past year.

"We may not look brilliant but we have more stable strength," he said.

The one area that fans are worried about is the frontline, where the strikers have not managed to find the net with the regularity required from a team looking for a place in the semifinals of the World Cup.

They are now pinning their hopes on Serie A-based Morimoto.

But many believe the team will need more than a lucky omen to achieve their ambitious goals. - Sapa-DPA

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