One of three Asian sides competing at the 2010 World Cup, Japan make their fourth appearance in South Africa.
In the heart of the Japanese midfield could be Keisuke Honda, a midfielder who is gradually making his mark in Europe.
After transferring from Nagoya Grampus to Dutch side VVV Venlo in January 2008, the 23-year-old has shone and proven he could make bigger strides in the near future.
Despite VVV Venlo being relegated in Honda’s first season at the club, his 21 goals from midfield in the following campaign helped to promote the team back to the Eredivisie.
Along the way Honda made his name as a free-kick specialist, powerful runner and a deadly passer. In January 2010 his performances in Holland gained interest from abroad, most notably from Premier League clubs Everton and Liverpool. But it was CSKA Moscow who eventually took the plunge and paid £5m for his services.
Honda made an instant impact in Russia, hitting the winner against Sevilla in the last 16 of the Champions League (albeit slightly fortuitously after a mistake from Spanish keeper Palop). In doing so Honda became the first-ever Japanese player to play in the quarter-finals of the European Cup.
“Perhaps I got a bit lucky but a goal is a goal,” Honda explained after the game. “I took a risk in the transfer to CSKA because there is always a risk in any move – but I think I made the right one.”
The left-footed playmaker earned the nickname of the ‘emperor’ while in Holland and is expected to become Asia’s next ‘pin-up’ boy in the coming years – taking over the mantle of Shunsuke Nakamura following a disappointing spell with Espanyol.
Honda, whose versatility means he is equally adept at full-back, will be a key man in Japan’s engine room this summer if they are to overcome Cameroon, Denmark and the Netherlands for a place in the knockout round.
1966 was not only a landmark in the history of English football, it was the only other time that North Korea qualified for a World Cup tournament. In fact they conjured up one of the greatest shocks in the international game when they beat Italy 1-0 to reach the quarter-finals.
It’s likely that whatever eleven players take to the field on 15 June against Brazil they will be complete unknowns to the common spectator. Only three members of their squad play outside of North Korea, two in Japan and one in Russia.
It is the captain, Hong Yong-Jo, the only based in Europe for Russian side Rostov, who will lead his team out in South Africa. An intelligent passer with boundless energy, Hong can also be deployed in midfield. A conundrum that manager Kim Jong Hun will face as he prepares his team this summer will be where to position his best and most experienced player.
The forward, boasting a record of 11 goals in 39 appearances for his national team will need to be in the form of his life if North Korea are to cause the mother of all upsets and qualify out of a group consisting of Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast.
Hong though, is quietly confident; “Of course, Brazil are a very strong team,” he said.
“But if we can get something from that match then it will boost our confidence and morale and put us in good shape to get good results from the following two games.”
The 28-year-old scored four goals in qualifying, including one against bitter rivals South Korea to secure a vital draw and help steer his team to the 2010 finals.
Of course if North Korea even manage a point in Group D they could become legends back home, despite the leader of the country banning footage of the tournament unless the Asians go on to win it.
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