World Cup: Promised land for rising son

Andrew Longmore examines the learning curve which can benefit Japan's football education
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JAPAN left it late to qualify and, after a traumatic week, their supporters have left it late to arrive. Some 20,000 were reputedly stranded at the airport when their tickets failed to arrive at all. Quite what the rate of exchange, French franc to the yen, will be on the streets of Toulouse this afternoon remains to be seen. Japan were due to command one of the largest band of followers in the tournament, but perhaps some of them might now choose to wait for another four years when the World Cup comes to their doorstep.

For the Japanese team, as for their South Korean co-hosts in 2002, qualification for France 98 was a matter of honour, proof that the decision to hold the first Asian World Cup was based on an ability to play football as well as to do deals. Ironically, as the Far Eastern economies falter, Japanese football is starting to flourish. And if their opening fixture should puncture the belief in the growing egalite of world football - debutants against Argentina, twice champions - the experience will be stored away, Sanyo fashion, and put to good use in the intervening period of development. The Japanese, after all, are masters of the art of copying and miniaturising foreign technology.

Most of Japan's hopes here and for the future rest on the marketable figure of Hidetoshi Nakata, not so much the Paul Gascoigne as the David Beckham of Japanese football. At the age of 21, he already has the Porsche and the Armani suits and a penchant for dyeing his hair a fetching streak of red. Judging from his predominantly female postbag, he could have the pick of Tokyo's Posh Spices too.

His biography was modestly sub-titled "The man who brought Japan to France" and doubtless came as news to Masayuki Okano, whose sudden-death goal in the play-offs carried Japan into the World Cup after 44 years of trying and 15 games of their qualifying campaign. Nakata has been chosen to launch Japanese football towards the new millennium; his face appeared alongside Ronaldo's on posters advertising the Confederation Cup in December. He was the Japanese representative at the draw in Marseilles. "Nakata is the only world-class player in the side," Kenji Yuasa, a football writer and coach, says. "He's the only one who has the personality to succeed."

The coach Takeshi Okada, a member of the 1984 Olympic side, has picked a young side for this campaign. Only three players - Nobuyuki Kojima, Masami Ihara and Masashi Nakayama - are over 30, and Shinji Ono, an attacking midfielder, is only 18. Kazi Miura, the one Japanese player to make an impact in Europe, with Genoa, was controversially omitted after scoring 15 goals in qualifying. Instead Okada has drafted in Wagner Lopes, a Brazilian who plays in the J-League and only qualified for Japanese citizenship late last year. Lopes is likely to partner Nakayama in attack, with Nakata playing just behind in a formation designed, says Okada, to defend in numbers and counter-attack at pace.

"Our priority has to be to stop the other sides scoring," he says. "Physically, the gap between us and the Argentinians, for example, cannot be helped, but we are well organised and play to a system." Survival, not losing face and gaining valuable experience will be the measure of success this time, not just for the team but for Okada, who wants to take the side through to the next World Cup. Group H is a good classroom. No other group can boast such a diversity of culture and style, from the masters of Argentina, to the cheeky chappies of Jamaica and the tough guys of Croatia. Europe, South America, the Caribbean and Asia, a whistle-stop tour of world football in 10 days. "We don't play like other countries," Okada says. "But the most important thing of all is that we play without fear."

The way is still open for one of the minnows to surprise and enthrall just as the North Koreans did in 1966. Surprise was the main weapon then and it could be still again because, of all the 32 teams in the tournament, Japan are one of the few to rely solely on home-based players. Japan's hopes of success today depend on their ability to unsettle Argentina, both physically and mentally. "Argentina may be cautious and that could benefit us," as Kenji Yuasa says.

Homogeneity of style has been one of the overriding themes during the first week. If France played like club Juventus, pressing high up the field and hustling the South Africans mercilessly in midfield, it was down to the influence of Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane, who have been orchestrating Juventus's midfield for two seasons. Wisely, the coach Aime Jacquet has taken the lead from his most experienced players and grafted on a side willing to work hard around them, including Bixente Lizarazu, an Atom Ant of a left wing-back in the mould of the gifted Amoros. If Glenn Hoddle is pondering the possibility of reverting to a 4-4-2 formation at some point in the tournament, he will be the first that I have seen to do so.

Though no one has yet ventured, as the Brazilians did for long spells, to play with just two dedicated defenders - Junior Baiano and Aldair, augmented in times of crisis by Cesar Sampaio - the ability of sides to attack down the flanks through what used to be called overlapping full- backs has been a feature of the opening matches. Rojas for Chile, Nyathi for South Africa, Solaimani for Saudi Arabia and Lizarazu have set down the marker for Graeme Le Saux.

Poor Di Livio, now 31, found the role too demanding against Chile and, just as he was in the European Cup final, was substituted midway through the game. This is a young man's position and, as midfield becomes gridlocked, one of the main centres of creativity. Brazil, with Roberto Carlos and the impressive Cafu, proved that beyond doubt in the opening match. Christian Dailly, regarded as a fair mover in the Premiership, was several beats short of the right tempo. France have pace and power. Whether they can sustain it for seven matches and five weeks is another matter. The regal entrance of the hosts has injected life into this World Cup. There were even a few celebratory fanfares on the car horn in sleepy Chaumont.