Japan looking to close gap on football’s best

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Japan’s head coach Alberto Zaccheroni of Italy celebrates with his players after their 1-1 draw with Australia in their Asian zone Group B qualifying soccer match for the 2014 World Cup in Saitama, near Tokyo, Tuesday, June 4, 2013. Japan became the first team to reach 2014 World Cup. AP

BRASILIA, Brazil — In the minds of most football fans, Japan is essentially the “other team” in Saturday’s Confederations Cup opener.

And maybe in Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s mind, too.

Japan, which became the first team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup last week, will be the decided underdog against Brazil at the National Stadium in Brasilia, and Zaccheroni isn’t surprised.

“I don’t think the team is yet quite ready to play on a par with the strongest teams in the world. I think there is still a little gap between us and them,” Zaccheroni said Friday. “But this competition, and especially the World Cup next year, will tell us how distant we are from other teams.”

Japan and South Korea have been mainstays at the World Cup since co-hosting the event in 2002, and next year it is likely to be more of the same from the two Asian powers. But against the big boys of world football, Japan has struggled to prove itself.

In nine matches against Brazil, Japan has lost seven times and drawn twice. Their last meeting was a 4-0 Brazilian rout in October in Poland.

But Japan captain Makoto Hasebe, who plays in Germany for Wolfsburg, said he and his teammates learned something about Brazilian football in that latest loss.

“We realized that each Brazilian player had very competent skills and together they were very strong,” Hasebe said, “and we realized there was something different from the Asian teams.”

Japan will have the luxury of having relatively nothing to lose against Brazil. But Brazil will have plenty to lose, at least in terms of fan support, if it fails to get off to a winning start. So don’t expect the hosts to be taking their opponents too lightly.

“Japan was the first team to qualify for the World Cup, so they must have quality,” Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said, talking up what most consider to be a lesser opponent. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have made it.”

Zaccheroni, though, is mostly looking to gauge the progress of his team by playing competitive matches against the bigger and supposedly better teams. Besides Brazil, the Japanese will face Italy and Mexico in Group A.

Still, no matter what happens on Saturday or for the rest of next week, Japan will be safe in its position as the current top dog back home.

“In Asia,” Zaccheroni said, “Japan has certainly done very well and it has shown that it is superior to other teams in Asia, definitely.”

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