Ever since the introduction of a professional football league in Japan, the country’s fortunes in qualifying for major tournaments has improved dramatically. Japan had never qualified for the World Cup before 1998. However, since then then they have participated in the last four World Cups including their own co-hosted tournament in 2002 where they qualified for the knock out stages for the only time in their history.
As one of the largest Asian nations, Japan received a bye from the first two qualification rounds which pitted the minnows against eachother. They were introduced into the competition in the third round where they were placed in a simple looking four team group alongside Bahrain, Thailand and Oman. With the top two qualifying after playing each team twice, Japan’s path to the final qualification stage looked simple.
The Nippon got their campaign off to a great start with a 4-1 home victory over Thailand. However, a disappointing 1-0 defeat away to Bahrain prevented them from easing away to the top of the group. A comfortable 3-0 victory at home to Oman saw them back on track although a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture ensured that qualification was not a certainty. However, a further 3-0 victory away to Thailand meant that Japan would be one of the ten teams progressing through to the final qualification round. A last minute 1-0 victory over Bahrain secured top spot for the 2002 hosts.
The final qualification round saw Japan pitted in a five team group alongside Australia, Qatar, Bahrain and Uzbekistan. The draw was certainly favourable as rivals South Korea and tricky opponents Iran and Saudi Arabia were placed in the other group.
With only the top two teams from each group qualifying automatically, the pressure was on for no slip ups. The first match saw Japan travel to Bahrain where they suffered their only defeat in the third round. A fantastic performance saw them 3-0 up after 85 minutes. Nevertheless, a goal in the 87th and 88th minute gave the Japanese a very nervy ending before they managed to hold out for a 3-2 victory.
The first slip up came in the very next game as Uzbekistan managed to hold the Nippon to a disappointing 1-1 home draw. However, a 3-0 victory away to Qatar saw them back on track. An impressive performance at home to Australia resulted in a 0-0 draw before another victory, this time 1-0, against Bahrain. With qualification almost assured, the team embarked on a tricky trip to Uzbekistan. A single goal from Shinji Okazaki saw Japan run out 1-0 winners and confirm their place at South Africa 2010. The final two matches saw the team draw 1-1 at home to Qatar before suffering a 2-1 away in Australia to leave them 2nd at the conclusion of the group.
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