Asian power Japan suffer reality check on global stage
Japan's forward Shinji Kagawa walks on the pitch during an official training session at The Pantanal Arena in Cuiaba on June 23, 2014 - by Toshifumi Kitamura
The Blue Samurai were the first nation to qualify for Brazil and came into the tournament full of confidence after topping their Asian qualifying group ahead of fellow regional power Australia.
Alberto Zaccheroni's men also won their three friendly matches in the run-up to the World Cup, even if one of those was a narrow victory against lowly Cyprus.
But when the action started in earnest in Brazil they were found wanting, struggling to impose their passing game on their opponents and looking toothless in front of goal, finishing rock bottom of Group C.
After taking the lead against Ivory Coast in their opening match, Japan succumbed to a Didier Drogba-inspired recovery from the Africans.
A 0-0 stalemate followed against Euro 2004 champions Greece and a 4-1 defeat -- despite an encouraging first half -- against Colombia on Tuesday put the seal on a miserable competition that left coach Zaccheroni scratching his head.
The veteran Italian said Japan, 46th in the FIFA rankings, had not managed to play the type of possession and pressing game they had produced so often over the past four years.
But he remained adamant that despite the chastening experience in Brazil, his side's best football enabled them to compete with the top nations, even if they struggle to match up physically with more powerful opponents.
"As we showed today, especially in the first half, even against strong opposition I think we were able to show that when we play with intensity as we normally do, then we are able to generate opportunities to win," he said.
"This team could have done a lot, lot more. I'm certain that here in Brazil I brought a great squad," added the visibly emotional coach.
- Victory over Messi's Argentina -
"Zac" took over the Blue Samurai from Takeshi Okada after Japan reached the last 16 in South Africa in 2010.
In his first match in charge the team stunned Lionel Messi's Argentina 1-0 in a home friendly and went on to win a fourth Asian Cup in January 2011.
Other impressive victories came against 1998 world champions France and Belgium.
Yet despite being able to call on big-name players such as Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa and AC Milan's Keisuke Honda as well as several who ply their trade in the Bundesliga, Japan have come up short when exposed at the sharp end of international football.
The Confederations Cup -- the World Cup dress rehearsal in Brazil last year -- proved a chastening experience with three straight defeats.
Despite their improvement in recent years and their relatively high profile, the cold, hard fact is that they have only twice made it out of the group stage of the World Cup -- and one of those was on home soil in 2002.
The disappointed players admitted they have a lot of work to do to catch up with the top nations after their exit in Cuiaba on Tuesday.
"We still have a long way to go," said right-back Atsuto Uchida, hinting that he might not play again for the national side even though he is only 26.
"I've thought about (retiring) but I just hadn't told people about it," added the defender.
"I hope we see new heroes play for Japan in the future, kids who are at primary school now."
Talismanic midfielder Honda, who had declared defiantly that the Asian champions could win the World Cup, branded Japan's performance "embarrassing".
"After I'd said Japan would win the tournament, in the end it finished with just empty talk," said Honda.
"We simply weren't good enough at this World Cup," he added. "We've still got a lot to learn. I'm extremely sorry."
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