4 June 2013

First to qualify!

"We've done it!" Japan are the first team through to Brazil 2014!
BREAKING NEWS: Japan have become the first team to book their place in the 2014 FIFA World Cup!

Keisuke Honda's injury-time penalty against Australia gave the Japanese a 1-1 draw in Saitama, and earned them the one point they needed to secure their tickets to Brazil. 12 months from now, they will grace the biggest stage in world football once again!

2014 will be Japan's fifth consecutive World Cup, having not made a single appearance since the start of that unbroken run in 1998.

The Samurai Blue were not seen as one of Asian football's leading lights until the mid-1990s, when the J-League was formed, and football in the land of the rising sun became professional.

In 1993, the year that the new league launched, Japan agonisingly failed to qualify for the following year's World Cup when Iraq scored a late equaliser in a decisive qualifying match. Japanese fans still refer to that day as the 'Agony of Doha', after the neutral Qatari capital where the game was held.

Doha was the turning point. Four years later, Japan finally made it to world football's big dance, courtesy of a 3-2 golden-goal win over Iran in Malaysia. Had they lost that match, they would have faced an inter-confederation play-off against Australia to decide the final place at France 1998.

Japan lost all three group matches in their first ever World Cup finals, but did significantly better when they co-hosted the 2002 tournament with South Korea. They got all the way to Round 2, where home interest was ended by Turkey.

2006 saw a group stage exit for Japan, but four years later in South Africa, they were better than ever. An excellent 3-1 win over Denmark saw them advance from their group into a Round 2 showdown with Paraguay. The Asian giants were the better team in a dull 120-minute contest which ended goalless, but Yuichi Komano missed a crucial penalty in the resulting shoot-out, and Paraguay made him pay to go through 5-3.

Japanese football has come on leaps and bounds over the past two decades. Indeed, their women's team (nicknamed the Nadeshiko) are world champions, having defeated the United States 3-1 to lift the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.

Nowadays, the Japanese men's team are a force to be reckoned with as well. They are coached by veteran Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni, and have a number of world-class players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. Therefore, you can't rule out the possibility that the first team to book their place in Brazil will also be one of the last to leave the 2014 World Cup.

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