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Dangerous Japan poised to bolster Asia's standing at World Cup

The continent's top side are undoubtedly on the right track to breaking Asia's World Cup duck. With a strong domestic league setup to boast, the Bundesliga is also proving to be a common pathway for Japan's star players.

The Japan national team can almost certainly count on some Bundesliga support during the World Cup. With no fewer than eight internationals in the top-flight, the Japanese influx in recent seasons has been a resounding success.

Alberto Zaccheroni's side cruised through the Asian qualifying section with eight victories from 14 matches to secure their fifth consecutive passage to the finals. Japan were one of the first teams to book their flights to Brazil and since last summer have been preparing with a string of competitive friendlies and minor regional competitions.

They have beaten Australia, South Korea, Ghana, Belgium, New Zealand and drawn with the Netherlands, while playing in a handful of challenging matches on mainland Europe.

Confidence in the Japanese camp is high ahead of the World Cup - they are seen as one of the dark outsiders for the latter phases of the competition, but will need to show their credentials against an equally-dangerous Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece in the group stages.

Zaccheroni's final squad will be bolstered by several German-based players, including Shinji Okazaki - now the highest scoring Japanese player in a single Bundesliga season - Gotoku Sakai and Hiroshi Kiyotake of Nuremberg. The more Japan stars holding their own in Europe, the greater the expectation on the Samurai Blues.

"I think - under circumstances as I'm not there yet - Japan can succeed in progressing to the knockout stages top of the group," Kiyotake told DW. "The goal is to improve on our end position at the last World Cup and then go as far as possible."

Success of the J. League

Japan's domestic system is only 22 years old and this season is the first to include a third-tier within the professional league setup. The benefits of adding another league to the pyramid will be felt in decades to come – but long-term planning is not something new to the Japanese Football Association.

Upon their inception in 1992, the new J. League governing body set out a "One Hundred Year Vision" to promote traditional community values, which, in turn, would increase attendances and improve participation levels. It's the aim of the J. League to have an established club in each major city or town to act as a community hub.

By 2010, the league was setting targets to attract 11 million spectators to J. League matches through the "11 Million Project". Despite only eight million coming through the turnstiles in 2010, that figure has been sustained over several seasons with the development of the second division propping up the numbers.

The J-League's supporters are full of colour and noise like in South America.

The J. League's supporters are full of color and noise often associated with South America.

"The J. League clubs must lay and develop invincible foundations as custodians of sporting culture," J. League Chairman Kazumi Ohigashi said."We must once more carry on taking up new challenges without being satisfied by what we have achieved so far."

"You can't find any other league in the world which has developed so much in just 20 years," The league's inaugural chairman Saburo Kawabuchi added.

At the heart of the J. League's growth has been a strong development and identification of homegrown players. One of the best academies in the setup is at Cerezo Osaka where many of the household Bundesliga names passed through back home.

Cerezo have had a hand in the development of Takashi Inui (Eintracht Frankfurt), Shinji Kagawa (ex-Borussia Dortmund), Kiyotake (Nuremberg) and nearly two dozen more Japanese internationals.

Leading The Way

Japan midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi.

Hotaru Yamaguchi (left) in action for Cerezo Osaka.

While domestic-based players still feature regularly in the national team fold, the importance of those plying their trade in Europe's top divisions can't be understated. The experience passed to the likes of Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka) and Manabu Saito (Yokohama F. Marinos) will feed through the national team cycle for years to come.

Both Kakitani and Saito, among others, have been linked with moves to Europe, but still remain in the J-League without any fears over a possible place at the World Cup. Kakitani and his Cerezo team-mate Hotaru Yamaguchi have held their own on the international stage and are appreciated as crucial to the next influx of talent to the Samurai Blues.

"I find that J-League players can learn from the European legion and vice versa," Kiyotake said. "We add some quality to our national team and I think this mix creates a good effect that we can all benefit from."

Kiyotake's former team-mate Yamaguchi is likely to be part of the final Japan squad and is one player the Nuremberg star reserves special praise for. "Of all the players still active in Japan, I like Hotaru Yamaguchi. I have played with him at Cerezo Osaka and we understand each other very well," he said.

Asia has yet to provide a solid World Cup challenger, but the signs bode well. South Korea's 2002 run has proven to be the catalyst for a strong improvement in Asian football. The addition of Australia to the qualifying, among other nations like Iran and China, is sure to keep Japan and South Korea on their toes.

But the next step for Asia - and in all likelihood it will be the Samurai Blues flying the flag - is to be in contention to take the world's greatest sporting prize.

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