With the likes of stars Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa — and a seemingly benign Group C — Japan has never had a better chance to make an impact at the World Cup. And the Asian champions did show touches of class in their failed Brazil campaign.
But they learned the hard way that nifty playmaking isn't enough to cut it on the world's greatest stage: Winners have an unquenchable thirst for goal — and Japan just didn't have it.
"We couldn't give it our all — in the end that's it," said Manchester United midfielder Kagawa, who was playing in his first World Cup. "I really felt deeply what it takes to win in a tournament like this."
Japan lost 2-1 to Ivory Coast, drew 0-0 with Greece and lost 4-1 to "Los Cafeteros" of Colombia. In each match Japan controlled play for vast stretches and created a wealth of tantalizing chances but failed in front of the net. Playing the fast, attacking style that is the signature of Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan exposed itself to counterattacks — and the holes it left in defense as it desperately pressed forward against Colombia partly explain the lopsided result in that match.
But a quality deficit is also clearly at play — as Japan was unable to advance in a group that included no footballing heavyweights. AC Milan attacker Honda summed up the bottom line: Japan and Asia as a whole simply have not yet reached the big leagues of global football. No team from the continent has yet to make it through to the knockout stages in this World Cup.
"There's a difference in ability," Honda said bluntly. "I do feel that."
Honda was one of the bright spots for Japan in Brazil. He scored a stunning goal against Ivory Coast to get Japan off to a bright start, and orchestrated the best Blue Samurai attacks. He was all over the pitch, scraping for the ball, imposing himself both in defense and attack — above all using his imaginative flair to create chances. He will hope the fine performances will carry into his next season with Milan, where he made a disappointing debut following a January transfer. .
In contrast, Kagawa flopped at this World Cup, and he admitted that the pressure got to him. After an anemic performance against Ivory Coast, Zaccheroni dropped him from the starting lineup for Greece. He returned for Colombia, and while he had a few good chances at goal, he never showed the spark that made him a star at Borussia Dortmund, where he won the Bundesliga twice.
One additional worry for Japan's footballing future: There were no breakout stars to pin hopes on for the next time. Zaccheroni relied largely on veterans and his core unit from the last World Cup. Honda made a name for himself four years ago in South Africa. In Brazil, there were no new talents to catch the eye of European scouts — and Japanese players need exposure to Europe's top leagues if there's any hope they will one day become world-class contenders.
After the Colombia match, Zaccheroni refused to comment on his future. But the valedictory tone of his World Cup summation may offer an insight into his fate.
"These four years have given me a whole lot, a lot more than I have given them," the Italian said, eyes moistening up. "It was an incredible experience."