By Bryan Armen Graham, SI.com
Shunsuke Nakamura, a World Cup vet with experience at several European clubs, creates for Japan from the midfield.
Akihiro I/Getty Images
Through April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Japan. Click here for the full archive.
Japan's most recognizable player is Shunsuke Nakamura, the talismanic midfielder who scored 29 goals during a five-year stint with Celtic from 2005-09. A holdover from the 2002 and '06 World Cup teams, Nakamura is one of the side's most experienced players -- but the 31-year-old is fighting the perception of a superstar on the wane. Despite that, the deadly free-kick taker provides important creative influence on the right flank.
The central playmaker is Yasuhito Endo, the reigning Asian Footballer of the Year, who pulls the strings from the midfield. The latest in a proud line of versatile Japanese midfielders, the Gamba Osaka veteran is a box-to-box player who can destroy and create with equal aptitude. Endo's chemistry with midfield partners like Makoto Hasebe, who helped Wolfsburg to a Bundesliga title in 2009, is the foundation of Japan's short-passing game.
Squad captain Yuki Nakazawa, meanwhile, is the anchor of the Japanese defense. One of just three players to earn 100 caps in national team history, the center back is an occasional goal-scorer who is excellent in the air. He forged an effective partnership during qualifying with Marcus Tulio Tanaka in central defense.
What to watch for
If the Blue Samurai fail to progress from the group stage, it won't be for lack of ambition. Since taking over the team, Japan coach Takeshi Okada's pronounced goal has been earning a place in the semifinals -- borderline quixotic expectations for a country that's never won a World Cup match off Asian soil.
Japan was the first country to book a place in South Africa with a hard-fought victory over Uzbekistan last June. But the team's breezy qualification did little to assuage concerns over its punchless offense -- a historical shortcoming for the island nation. Japan scored just two goals in three matches at Germany 2006, and its qualifying results read like binary code: Japan scored more than once in just four of 14 matches -- against minnows Bahrain, Oman and Thailand (twice).
One of the many theories to explain Japan's inability to bang in goals against quality opponents is a lack of consistency in the squad. Okada has dialed up no less than 21 different strikers over the past two years. Optimists point to rising star Shinji Okazaki, who netted 15 goals in 16 international appearances last year. But just one of those came in World Cup qualifying, with the rest coming against the likes of Togo, Hong Kong and Yemen in friendly matches or Asian Cup prelims. Other forwards who could see significant minutes up top include Yoshito Okubo, Sota Hirayama and Takayuki Morimoto.
In general, Okada, who replaced Ivaca Osim as manager after the popular Bosnian coach suffered a stroke in November 2007, continues to be a frequent target of criticism from Japan's vigilant sports media, who have blistered everything from his favored Japanese-style passing game to the team's lack of physicality. Okada's seat got even hotter in February when Japan suffered a humbling 3-1 defeat to rivals South Korea in the final match of the East Asian Championship.
Overall, Japan will have a difficult time getting past the group stage. With Holland an obvious favorite to finish atop Group E, the Blue Samurai will likely face a three-way battle for second place with homestanding Cameroon and a Denmark side that always seems to overperform in World Cup play.
Key match in group stage
June 14 vs. Cameroon. Three points in Japan's opening game against the Indomitable Lions could prove essential with heavyweight Holland waiting in the wings -- but that will require an inspired performance. If anyone knows the value of home-region advantage at the World Cup, it's a Japan team that overachieved with a second-round appearance while playing host in 2002.
Celebrity scouting report: Kamui Kobayashi*
Our 2010 "Samurai Blue" has various talented players for the upcoming World Cup. There are only a few players who played at World Cup 2006. Nevertheless, most of players have played at several international matches, learning and experiencing what might not be the best and what is the real backbone of the team. Because of the physical disadvantage of the players, the team does face some difficulties during the matches. Knowing these disadvantages and keeping up until the end might not be something that they can easily prepare for.The key player would be Shunsuke Nakamura, from his experience and skills he has learned from the European league. His presence and leadership should bring good potential and help the team. This person is always needed in a team for all kinds of sports. Our matches are not going to be a peace of cake. On the other hand I do not believe in "No win scenarios" when it comes to sports. With the right support and right action coming in at right time, the team can bring a big win or wins.
* The F1 driver is from Amagasaki, Japan. As told to Noah Davis.