Japan set sights on World Cup quarter-finals
Japan's soccer chief told the Asian champions that the World Cup quarter-finals should be their minimum target as the players Sunday received a rock star-style send-off from thousands of screaming fans.
Japan, who play Cyprus in their final home warm-up game on Tuesday, strode into Tokyo's Olympic gymnasium in their World Cup strip to pounding music and a spectacular laser show as 9,000 fans waving blue fluorescent sticks screamed themselves hoarse.
Before the players arrived, Japan Football Association president Kuniya Daini declared the goal of the "Blue Samurai" was to improve on their performance at the 2010 World Cup when they reached the last 16.
"There are no easy games at the World Cup," said Daini. "But the very minimum requirement would be for us to do better than we did at the last World Cup (in South Africa)."
Japan, who face Ivory Coast in their opening match in Brazil on June 14 and are also drawn against Greece and Colombia in Group C, were knocked out on penalties by Paraguay in the last 16 four years ago.
Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda received the biggest cheers of the evening. Defender Maya Yoshida caused amusement when he said "It's always been my dream to win the World Cup" -- before quickly correcting his comment to "... to win (a game) at the World Cup".
Players took part in the event after arriving from a punishing four-day training camp on the southern island of Kagoshima, where the balmy temperatures helped them acclimatise for Brazil.
Fans unfurled a giant banner reading "Dreams into Power" in the arena as the players laughed and joked, although Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni looked somewhat bemused as a pop duo belted out a tune and gyrated in front of him.
Led in by children in replica Japan kit, a raucous evening took a tear-jerking twist with a speech from an elementary schoolboy from Fukushima prefecture, hit by the nuclear crisis triggered by the 2011 tsunami.
"My dream is for Fukushima to return to the way it was," said little Tomohiro Kitahara. "I want to go to festivals again and for Japan to train in Fukushima as they used to."
The football association's J-Village facility, where Japan used to practise regularly, became a base for troops and Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers to sleep as they battled to control a meltdown at the crippled nuclear power plant.
Italian Zaccheroni named a full-strength 23-man squad a week ago and has insisted that Japan, whose group looks negotiable on paper, need fear nobody at the World Cup.
After playing Cyprus in Saitama, Japan have further friendlies against Costa Rica (June 2) and Zambia (June 6) in Tampa before flying to Brazil.
Japan stormed through Asian qualifying to secure a fifth successive World Cup appearance, finishing four points clear of Australia at the top of their final-round group after winning five and losing just one of their eight games.
Three defeats at last year's Confederations Cup raised concerns, but with a driving force of Honda, Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo, Japan will be be disappointed not to reach the last 16.
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