|Japan team for 2010 World Cup (Photo: AFP)|
TOKYO, Jan 1, 2010 (AFP) - Japan's national football coach Takeshi Okada says a growing number of his players share his ambitious goal of a semi-final spot in this year's World Cup.
"Honestly, I am surprised myself," he told reporters when asked if the number of his players, who are "seriously" aiming for a top-four finish in South Africa, had risen.
"The players have ups and downs and they can flinch when they hit the wall... So I can't say how many on a constant basis," Okada said in the interview embargoed for release on New Year's Day.
"But I have a feeling that the number was just a few this time last year and has since exceeded 10 and then 15," he said.
His target has been snubbed as unrealistic because Japan have not won a World Cup match on foreign soil since Okada guided them to their finals debut at France 1998 in his first stint as national coach.
They came home after three straight losses at the group stage.
Securing just one point at the group stage in South Africa is widely seen as a tall order for Japan, who are pitted against the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark -- all of them ranked above the three-time Asian champions.
Japan's best World Cup result was a last-round spot in the 2002 tournament, which they co-hosted with South Korea, who finished fourth.
At Germany 2006, Japan bowed out after losing to Brazil and Australia and drawing with Croatia.
Okada, who took over from Bosnian Ivica Osim in late 2007, said he had been asked in an interview with football's governing body FIFA about the source of his confidence.
"It is not only me but also my players and staff who feel that we can make it."
The bespectacled 53-year-old said that a tour of the Netherlands last September had boosted his "Blue Samurai" squad.
During the tour, Japan came out fighting in their first-ever encounter with world number-three the Netherlands but eventually lost 3-0. They also battled from behind to beat the highly physical Ghana 4-3.
"That tour has made clear to us what we need to do to survive the battles," Okada said.
Japan's squad features a midfield led by Shunsuke Nakamura, who has struggled to earn playing time at Espanyol after moving from Celtic last June.
Their firepower is expected to be fuelled by 21-year-old Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto, who made his international debut in October, and goal machine Keisuke Honda, who began to score for Japan last year.
Okada said Japan needed to improve in three areas to be reckoned with on the world stage.
"To outrun our opponents. To outdo them in one-on-one battles for the ball. To raise the accuracy of our skills, especially kicks," he said.