One of the surprising things about the Bundesliga is the high number of Japanese players plying their trade in it. A raft of players from the Far East turn out for Bundesliga clubs every week, and one of many Japanese stars to make their home in Germany is the national team captain, Makoto Hasebe. The central midfielder spent six years at Wolfsburg, winning a league title in that time, before switching to Nürnberg last summer. Starting 13 Hinrunde matches for his new club, Hasebe has not yet had the best of times in Bavaria, as Der Club struggled to a winless first half of the season.
Of course, just a few weeks into the second half of the season everything looks different for Der Club. Four wins from five games have dragged them out of the relegation zone, and turned them into a much more dangerous prospect, but Hasebe has not been a part of this transformation. He picked up a knee injury in a friendly in January, meaning the lack of hair on Gertjan Verbeek’s chin has nothing to do with him. No doubt when he returns the atmosphere among his team mates will have changed completely, but Hasebe, 30, should not have too much trouble getting back into the team. As Adrian Sertl pointed out recently, Nürnberg have a small squad, and Verbeek likes to set his side up with a defensive-minded midfielder. The Japanese veteran also brings the experience of almost 150 Bundesliga games, 150 J-League matches with Urawa Red Diamonds and 70 international matches to the table.
Hasebe will certainly be hoping that he gets significant game time, to finally record a win with his new club and to get the match-practice he needs in the months leading up to the World Cup. Japan are part of what looks to be a fairly even group, with Colombia, Greece and the Ivory Coast. Colombia are up there with Belgium as the hipster team of choice at the moment, with talented players like Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez. However, the media’s attention is focused on a player who might not make the tournament. Monaco striker Falcao’s chances of being fit in time for the World Cup have been rated at 50/50, after he suffered cruciate ligament damage in January. If he does make it in time, Colombia will be a significantly more dangerous proposition for Japan.
The other two sides in Group C have never made it out of the group before. Greece have been unable to reproduce their recent success at the European Championships on the world stage, and similarly Ivory Coast have failed to deliver despite reaching at least the Quarter-Final in each of the last five Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. To dismiss either of them would be a foolish move though, not least because that is what just about everyone did when Greece became European champions in 2004. In terms of the current squads, this could well be Didier Drogba’s last hurrah for the Ivory Coast, who he has served so well over almost 100 games. His performances for Galatasaray this season prove that, even at 35, he is still a force to be reckoned with.
But Japan have recent history on their side. They have reached the Round of 16 twice in the last four tournaments, in South Africa in 2010 and when they were co-hosts back in 2002. Their hopes of getting to the second round, or even further, in Brazil rest heavily on the shoulders of their Bundesliga contingent. Including captain Hasebe, there were nine German-based players in the last Japan squad. Among them is top scorer Shinji Okazaki, currently having an impressive season at Mainz. Okazaki has 36 goals for Japan, and considering his good form at club level, now seems like the perfect time for him to make a statement at international football’s showpiece event. If he can fire Japan to their best ever performance at a World Cup, bigger clubs may yet come calling for the 27-year-old.
Schalke right-back Atsuto Uchida will be another key figure for Japan. With more than 60 caps, he has an incredible amount of experience at just 25 years of age. Elsewhere Hertha Berlin’s Hajime Hosogai may feature in midfield alongside Hasebe, while the skipper’s Nürnberg team-mate Hiroshi Kiyotake will be hoping to add to his lone international goal at the tournament. One of the stars of the team, who no longer plays in the Bundesliga but is still remembered fondly by German fans, is Shinji Kagawa. The attacking midfielder’s performances at Dortmund made him a household name, and there have been rumours that he may be on his way back to Germany in the summer.
With so many Bundesliga clubs represented in the Japanese squad, many German fans will be keeping a close eye on their progress. If they catch the eye in Brazil, even more Samurai Blues could be making the trip to Germany in time for next season
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