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FIFA World Cup countdown: Top 10 Japanese footballers of all time

As part of the countdown to the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Sports Mole takes a look at the top 10 players in the history of Japan.

Since 1998, Japan have been World Cup ever-presents. The Samurai Blue have advanced beyond the group stages on two occasions, which included them topping their group in 2002.

What's more, they've enjoyed a large amount of success in the Asian Cup, having won four of the previous six tournaments.

In recent years, Japanese footballers have joined European clubs, which has resulted in the game growing increasingly popular throughout the country.

Here, to continue our countdown to the 2014 tournament, Sports Mole looks at the top 10 players in the history of Japanese football.


10. Yuji Nakazawa (1999-2010, 110 caps, 17 goals)

Yuji Nakazawa celebrates scoring for Japan on August 07, 2005.© Getty Images

One of four Japanese footballers to have reached a century of international caps, Nakazawa is revered in his homeland. A tough-tackling defender, the 36-year-old also had a knack of weighing in with goals at important times.

He retired from international football after captaining the team at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa having found the net on 17 occasions - a haul which included braces in victories over India and Thailand. The centre-back also contributed a further three goals during the qualification phase to his final World Cup.

Still playing for Yokohama F Marinos, many regard Nakazawa to be one of the best ever J-League footballers. He has been included in the Team of the Season on five occasions, as well as being named Japanese Footballer of the Year in 2004.


9. Junichi Inamoto (2000-present, 83 caps, five goals)

Former Arsenal midfielder Junichi Inamoto celebrates scoring for Japan against Belgium on June 04, 2002.© Getty Images

With his bleached-blond hair, Inamoto was one of the first Japanese players to delve into European football. In his case the team was Arsenal, but he struggled to live up to the hype that met his arrival. Speaking recently, Arsene Wenger said: "Also at that time [Inamoto] lacked a little bit of belief in his qualities, because he was a very good footballer. He was still in a period when the Japanese players didn't feel they were at the level of the rest of the world."

A move to Fulham in 2002 appeared to have reinvigorated the midfielder, with goals being scored against the likes of Manchester United, but a broken leg ended his time in West London. Subsequent spells with West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City failed to reignite the fire and after a brief whistle stop tour of Europe, Inamoto returned home in 2010.

He often produced the goods for Japan, with his finest period coming at the 2002 World Cup. He ended the tournament as his nation's leading scorer courtesy of goals against Belgium and Russia. Such form saw him entered into the voting for that year's Ballon d'Or, although he didn't make the top 20.


8. Shinji Okazaki (2008-present, 73 caps, 38 goals)

Shinji Okazaki celebrates scoring for Japan on February 04, 2009.© Getty Images

At the age of 28, Okazaki still has time to work his way up the Japanese national side's goalscoring charts. He is currently tied for third with Hiromi Hara, but second-placed Kazuyoshi Miura, who has 55 goals to his name, appears to be reachable - selection and fitness permitting of course.

The attacker showed his credentials during a five-year spell with Shimizu S-Pulse, which earned him a 2010 switch to the Bundesliga with Stuttgart. He struggled to find the net consistently at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, but he has since rediscovered his clinical touch with Mainz.

Goals have also been easy to come by at international level. In 2009, he found the net 15 times in 16 matches - more than any other player, while he also scored the only goal of the game as Japan defeated Argentina in October 2010. It marked their first ever victory over the two-time world champions.



7. Keisuke Honda (2008-present, 53 caps, 20 goals)

Japan's Keisuke Honda in action against Australia on November 14, 2009.© Getty Images

Japan had never won a World Cup fixture off home soil until 2010, when Honda struck to seal a 1-0 victory over Cameroon in Bloemfontein. The attacking midfielder then backed that up by scoring during the final group match against Denmark, before turning provider for Okazaki to score with a neat piece of skill.

At that tournament, he was voted by FIFA as the Man of the Match in three of Japan's four matches, which also saw him named the Japanese Player of the Year.

His club career has taken him to Holland, Russia and now Italy, having joined Serie A giants AC Milan in January. Although he is still awaiting honours with the Rossoneri, he did win the Russian Premier League once and Russian Cup twice while with CSKA Moscow.


6. Shunsuke Nakamura (2000-2010, 98 caps, 24 goals)

Former Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura celebrates scoring for Japan on June 25, 2005.© Getty Images

Still a firm favourite among the Celtic faithful, Nakamura produced some memorable moments during his four years at Parkhead. He was linked with a host of clubs, including Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, prior to his move to Scotland in 2005, but he soon showed that the battle for his signature was worth the effort.

A year after his arrival, the set-piece specialist scored at Old Trafford in the Champions League in a 3-2 defeat. However, when Man United made the return trip to Glasgow, he scored the winner to help Celtic through to the knockout stages of the competition. In 2007, he would win numerous individual accolades, including the SPFA Players' Player of the Year and the SFWA Footballer of the Year awards, while also being nominated for the Ballon d'Or.

He was controversially omitted by Japan head coach Philippe Troussier for the 2002 World Cup, but following the Frenchman's departure, he flourished under the management of Zico. He particularly shone at the 2004 Asian Championships, where he was named the Most Valuable Player.



5. Yasuhito Endo (2002-present, 141 caps, 12 goals)

Midfielder Yasuhito Endo in action for Japan on November 14, 2009.© Getty Images

Unlike many of his international colleagues, Endo has never been tempted to test himself overseas. Following stints early in his career with Yokohama Flugels and Kyoto Purple Sanga, the 34-year-old has been with Gamba Osaka since 2001. Since joining Gamba, Endo has made the J-League Team of the Season 10 times.

His refusal to try his hand in Europe has not hampered his international career either, having turned out for the Samurai Blue more times than any other player.

A two-time winner of the Asian Cup in 2004 and 2007, Endo also scored one of the goals in the 3-1 win over Denmark at the 2010 World Cup.



4. Hidetoshi Nakata (1997-2006, 77 caps, 11 goals)

Hidetoshi Nakata in action for Japan against Ecuador on June 22, 2003.© Getty Images

It seemed a huge waste of talent with Nakata called time on his career at the age of 29. After all, he'd had a big impact in Italy, winning the Serie A title with AS Roma in 2001, before helping Parma to lift the Coppa Italia a year later at the expense of Juventus.

Yet, following spells with Fiorentina and Bolton Wanderers, the midfielder retired, later explaining to TMW: "Day after day I realised that football had just become a big business. I could feel that the team were playing just for money and not for the sake of having fun. I always felt that a team was like a big family, but it stopped being like that. I was sad, that's why I stopped at only 29."

He starred by scoring five times as Japan qualified for their first World Cup in 1998. Moreover, he was nominated for the Ballon d'Or that year and was put forward for the award a further two times.


3. Shinji Kagawa (2008-present, 54 caps, 17 goals)

Manchester United playmaker Shinji Kagawa celebrates scoring for Japan against South Korea on August 10, 2011.© Getty Images

Just 25 years old, there is every chance that by the time Kagawa brings an end to his career, he will be regarded as Japan's best ever footballer. Having impressed with Cerezo Osaka, Borussia Dortmund took the playmaker to the Bundesliga in 2010 for a mere £300,000.

He would end up making that price tag look like daylight robbery, helping Dortmund to win the Bundesliga twice during his two seasons with the club. Fittingly, on his last appearance before signing for Manchester United in 2012, he scored one goal and assisted another as Dortmund dismantled Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal final. The success continued last term with United as he got his hands on the Premier League trophy, with his highlight being a hat-trick against Norwich City.

His omission from the 2010 World Cup squad raised eyebrows, but he returned the following year to help Japan win the Asian Cup. Twelve months later, Kagawa was voted as Asia's International Player of the Year.


2. Kazuyoshi Miura (1990-2000, 89 caps, 55 goals)

Japan's Kazuyoshi Miura in action against Oman on January 01, 1994.© Getty Images

Born in 1967, Miura is remarkably still playing professional football at the ripe old age of 47. He currently leads the attack of J-League Second Division outfit Yokohama FC, whom he joined in 2005.

The goalscoring prowess that he displayed earlier in his career tempted Genoa to take him to Italy in 1994, which in turn made him the first Japanese football to ever appear in Serie A. He struggled to adapt to life in Europe, though, and soon returned to his homeland after a brief stint in Croatia with Dinamo Zagreb.

Even so, his problems in Italy shouldn't impact on his standing where Japanese football is concerned. He is their second leading goalscorer with 55 to his name. It's a haul that included 12 during the qualification stages for the 1998 World Cup, half of which were scored in a 10-0 victory over Macau in Tokyo.


1. Kunishige Kamamoto (1964-1977, 84 caps, 80 goals)

One-club man Kamamoto was the first real superstar that Japan produced, long before the inception of the J-League in 1993 and all the success and exposure that it has accompanied it.

Now 70 years of age, goals were Kamamoto's bread and butter - both for club and country. Over his 17-year association with Yanmar Diesel, the centre-forward fired in over 250 goals. Impressively, in only three campaigns did he not manage a double-figure return.

He was also prolific for Japan and remains their leading goalscorer with just four fewer goals than caps earned. His goals helped the Asian nation to win the bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.


Japan will face Colombia, Greece and the Ivory Coast in the group stages of this summer's World Cup, and you can follow every match live with Sports Mole.

Continuing our 50-day countdown to the tournament, we will be looking at the greatest players in Portugal's history tomorrow. You can also see all of the World Cup top 10 lists so far by clicking here.

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Olympic medal table header
CountryGold medalSilver MedalBronze MedalT
ChinaChina32221670
United StatesUnited States25312379
JapanJapan2171240
Great BritainGreat Britain15181548
AustraliaAustralia1541736
Today's Olympic highlights header

Thursday's key events


ATHLETICS
· The women's heptathlon continues with the long jump, javelin and 800m, with Katarina Johnson-Thompson now out of contention following an injury (1.10am-1.40pm)
· Andrew Pozzi pursues his dream of an Olympic medal in the men's 110m hurdles final (3.55am)
· Tom Bosworth and Callum Wilkinson are among the British hopes in the men's 20km race walk (8.30am)
· Holly Bradshaw aims to improve on fifth in Rio to challenge Greece's Katerina Stefanidi and Anzhelika Sidorova of Russia for an unlikely medal in the women's pole vault (11am)
· London 2012 champion Kirani James goes up against current world champion Steven Gardiner in the men's 400m final (1pm)

MARATHON SWIMMING
· One of the toughest Olympic events takes place in Tokyo Bay as GB's Hector Pardoe takes on the men's 20km marathon swim (10.30pm Wed)

BOXING
· Galal Yafai takes on takes on Kazakhstan's Saken Bibossinov for a spot in the gold medal bout of the fly (48kg-52kg) class (6.48am)

DIVING
· Lois Toulson and Andrea Spendolini-Sirieix (daughter of First Dates' Fred Sirieix) line up for the women's 10m platform (semi-final 2am; final 7am)

HOCKEY
· Australia face Belgium in the men's final (11am)

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