The Asian battle |
When Japan coach Zico boldly declared recently that he was aiming to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, it struck a raw nerve.
His employers shifted uncomfortably in their seats and stifled nervous coughs as the Brazilian publicly stated what the Japanese secretly dream of -- upstaging South Korea.
Zico appeared deadly serious, despite the fact that Japan are drawn with holders Brazil, Croatia and Guus Hiddink's Australia in a tough Group F in Germany.
"The first step will obviously be to get through the first round," Zico told reporters. "If we do that then I will look to for us to go to the semi-finals."
That remark prompted a sharp intake of breath among Japan Football Association (JFA) officials four years after the country lost the battle of the 2002 World Cup co-hosts.
South Korea's astonishing run to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals was greeted with stony silence in Japan following their own second-round exit.
JFA officials put on a brave face and congratulated South Korea through forced grins but it was a chastening experience for Japan to be overshadowed by their fierce Asian rivals.
As Dutchman Hiddink became a national hero in South Korea after guiding them to the best finish by an Asian team at a World Cup, there was much soul-searching in Japan.
Zico replaced Frenchman Philippe Troussier following another failed bid by the JFA to lure Arsene Wenger away from Arsenal but four years later, Japan remain an enigma.
South Korea have hardly set the world alight over the last four years either, although their fortunes have improved markedly since Hiddink's countryman Dick Advocaat took over.
Few people would bet on Japan eclipsing South Korea's performance on home soil in 2002. Simply surviving the group phase would be seen as a major success by most.
Zico's public statements have often been confusing, oscillating between the pragmatic and the wildly optimistic.
"We can win all three of our group games or we can lose all three," he said. "If you get through the first round then it's a lottery. But I want to get to the last four."
South Korea's task of reaching the second round looks slightly easier on paper. Advocaat's side are drawn alongside 1998 winners France, Switzerland and Togo in Group G.
Zico will point to Japan's 2004 Asian Cup triumph as proof that his side can play -- and, when in the mood, they can, as they proved at last year's Confederations Cup.
Japan have quality midfielders among their ranks, including Bolton's Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, a Scottish title winner with Celtic. It is in attack where Japan struggle.
South Korea perhaps have the edge in terms of speed and physical toughness. Zico is wary of the inevitable comparisons that will be made with coaches such as Hiddink and Advocaat.
Zico has been increasingly tetchy during a frequently bumpy tenure as Japan's coach but his gallows humour, at least, appears intact in the run-in to the World Cup.
"If we lose our first game, I might get the sack," smiled Zico, who angrily walked out of a news conference last year after a journalist coughed while he was talking.
The pressure to be Asia's top performer in Germany will be intense.
Iran and Saudi Arabia will also be hoping to reach the knockout stages after avoiding the tournament's biggest teams in Groups D and H respectively.
Hiddink's Australia could also cause a surprise in their first tournament since the "Socceroos" left Oceania to join the Asian Football Confederation.
Japan and South Korea, however, will have eyes only for each other in the tussle for Asian bragging rights.