The fact that when he joined AC Milan last January he was immediately handed the number 10 jersey probably tells the whole story. Or it at least signified how highly the Italians thought of Honda. And rightly so, as a multifunctional central midfielder, his passing and long shots make the difference. When combined with another ball virtuoso in Shinji Kagawa in Japan’s midfield, they become deadly on the ball.
Getty ImagesHiroki Watanabe
Amazingly, Japan didn’t introduce a professional soccer league until 1993, and consequently, it’s hardly surprising that they didn’t qualify for a World Cup until 1998. In 2002 and 2010, however, the Japanese reached the second round, quietly tracing a rather remarkable growth curve.
AFP/Getty ImagesTOSHIFUMI KITAMURA
The case of Kagawa is a curious one. He is, by the accounts of all those who have played with him, one of the finest technicians in the game, who will scatter difference-making passes for 90 minutes. But in the last two seasons at Manchester United, he has hardly been given the chance to show off all that skill, in spite of his steep transfer fee. He'd stepped right out of Borussia Dortmund’s impressive midfield machinery and was expected to be the logical heir to Paul Scholes at United. But Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t use him a ton. David Moyes used him even less, inexplicably pushing him out to the wing when he did field him. What United have needed these past few years is a player exactly like Kagawa, who can position the strikers to score and free up Wayne Rooney to focus on making runs. Yet time and again, Kagawa has been overlooked. This summer, he’ll have a chance to prove that he belongs. And perhaps to earn a transfer to a club where is appreciated for the gem that he is.
Getty ImagesAdam Pretty
How they got here
Qualifying out of Asia has never been terribly hard for a half-decent national side, and Japan certainly proved to be that. Cruising through a group with Australia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq, the Japanese racked up points as easily as they did air miles.
Getty ImagesAdam Pretty
Favorable. Group C will pit them against Colombia, the Ivory Coast and Greece. Assuming that Colombia take this group and Greece really stand no chance, that leaves it to the Japanese and Ivoirians to duke it out for the final spot in the round of 16. And Japan certainly have a chance there
AFP/Getty ImagesCHRISTOPHE SIMON
Round of 16 prospects
Tricky. Group C crosses over with Group D, one of the tournament’s deadliest groups. Assuming Costa Rica are dead on arrival, that would pit Japan against England, Italy or Uruguay in the next round. And while they could conceivably pull off an upset, the task looms tall.
Action Images / ReutersMARCOS BRINDICCI
Japan enter the tournament as perhaps its biggest enigma. Losing all three of their games at the 2013 Confederations Cup, the Samurai Blue looked like a lot of Asian delegates have in recent decades: good enough to reach the World Cup, not good enough to compete there. But a funny thing happened in their November friendlies. In two games on Belgian soil, Japan largely outplayed but tied the Netherlands 2-2 and then convincingly beat Belgium 3-2. Startling results both, against much more reputable sides. More stupefying still was the quality of the possession soccer the Japanese were playing, considering that only Honda, Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo truly belong at the international level. Look to Japan, then, as one of the potential Cinderella stories of this World Cup – if they can get through the round of 16, that is.