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Japan dare to dream

TOKYO, June 29 – High hopes trounced pessimism as Japan's long-suffering football fans dared to dream of a historic World Cup advance when the Blue Samurai battle Paraguay later Tuesday.Supporters in Tokyo were united in hoping that the only Asian side remaining in the tournament would reach the quarter-finals to become Japan’s most successful World Cup side ever.

Bars across the nation were preparing to show the second-round clash kicking off at 11:00 pm in Japan, and tickets for a big-screen viewing in Tokyo’s hip Omotesando district were all sold out.

"From the very beginning, I’ve believed in (Takeshi) Okada," said Ryoichi Fukuoka, a 32-year-old bar manager in Tokyo, lending his support to the Japan coach who faced harsh criticism before the event in South Africa.

"I thought Japan would survive the first round, and now I really want them to give us a victory in the second stage."

Koichi Ogata, 31, hoisted Japan football flags and a sign announcing half-price beers outside his Japanese-style inn.

"I will watch the entire game here," he said. "Japan will win 2-0. I believe in (Keisuke) Honda’s shots and (Yasuhito) Endo’s free-kicks," he said.

Bleached-blond goal ace Honda dominated the front pages of Japanese sports newspapers, with the striker looking to continue his hot streak to carry the team beyond their first appearance in the second round on foreign soil.

"Honda, make history tonight," the Nikkan Sports implored, chiming with the Sports Nippon’s headline: "Make history! Honda shoots for last eight."

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The striker’s haircut has been a major talking point during the tournament and Japanese media interpreted Honda’s even shorter coiffure ahead of the Paraguay game as an embodiment of his fighting spirit and national pride.

"Honda showed up in the field with his vaunted blond locks shining even brighter and his eyebrows also coloured in gold," the Nikkan Sports swooned following the team’s practice session Monday in Pretoria, South Africa.

"Honda will face the historic battle, with Japan’s hopes and dreams on his back."

The striker, who helped CSKA Moscow reach the Champions League quarter-finals after moving from Dutch side Venlo in January, scored two goals and set up another as underdogs Japan upset Cameroon and Denmark and went down fighting 1-0 to the Dutch.

Japanese TV stations were also upbeat about the Samurais, who many in the country had forecast to drop out of the first round before their unexpected victory against Cameroon in their opening match.

TV Asahi interviewed midfielder Nozomi Hiroyama, who played in Paraguay’s league and said: "I think Japan can win.

"If Japan can bring out (Paraguay’s) impatience and exploit defensive weaknesses, that would be an ideal scenario" for victory, he said.

Japan had never won a World Cup game outside their own country prior to this year’s finals, making their only second-round appearance in 2002 when they co-hosted the tournament with South Korea.

Paraguay signalled their strength by coming within a point of top spot in the gruelling South American qualifying programme.

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Paraguay drew with Italy, beat Slovakia and drew with New Zealand to reach the last 16 for the fourth time.

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