BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa: Keisuke Honda scored in the first half Monday to lead Japan to a 1-0 win over an uninspired Cameroon in Group E of the World Cup.
The win is Japan’s first at the World Cup on foreign soil, and puts the Japanese at the top of Group E along with the Netherlands, which beat Denmark 2-0 earlier Monday.
After a sloppy opening 30 minutes at the Free State Stadium, Japan broke the deadlock in the 39th when Daisuke Matsui’s curling cross from the right drifted over Cameroon defenders Nicolas Nkoulou and Stephane Mbia and fell to Honda at the back post. The striker neatly controlled the ball and slotted it past goalkeeper Hamidou Souleymanou.
"I found a good position and the ball was very good," Honda said of the cross from Matsui. "I just told myself to be calm to make it because recently we have missed good chances, so I wanted to make it absolute today."
"Our strength is in our collective effort. To the very end we believed in our strength and we defended our goal," said Honda, who was voted man of the match.
Despite an attack led by Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon never really challenged Japan keeper Eiji Kawashima. The Africans struggled to control the ball and generate any rhythm up front, and even when they managed to put a few passes together, the buildup was usually wasted by poor crosses.
"We were too nervous in the first half. We lost many, many balls because we were nervous and that is why I am disappointed tonight," Cameroon coach Paul Le Guen said.
"They were not playing to their best of their ability and we were not able to release our potential this evening and that is really disappointing."
Cameroon’s first shot on goal came in the 37th minute, when Eric Choupo-Moting dropped the ball at the top of the box for Eyong Enoh, but Kawashima easily handled the midfielder’s low drive.
Japan’s well-organized defense frustrated Cameroon and kept Eto’o in check. Cameroon looked lost in the midfield, and clearly missed the creativity of Arsenal midfielder Alex Song, who Le Guen opted to keep on the bench.
"The biggest problem for us was that we had a good team opposite us," Cameroon midfielder Jean Makoun said.
Le Guen decided to play Eto’o on the right wing instead of up top as a central striker, and the Cameroon star never seemed to settle in on the flank.
"I chose the position for him and I take responsibility for that," Le Guen said. "You make the choice with what you have, and I wanted to do the best, but it didn’t work tonight."
Eto’o tried to play a more active role in the second half. Just after the break, the Inter Milan striker deftly skipped through three defenders near the touch line before drawing the ball back for Choupo-Moting.
But Choupo-Moting’s right-footed shot drifted past the left post.
Le Guen brought on two strikers — Achille Emana and Mohamadou Idrissou — midway into the second half, but to little effect.
Cameroon only began to push forward in search of an equalizer in the closing minutes, and they nearly got it in the 87th when defender Stephane Mbia’s powerful left-footed drive struck the crossbar.
"When the game was over I felt great relief," Japan ‘keeper Kawashima said.
"Cameroon has powerful players and we managed to hold them off.
In the last 20 minutes I knew I would be under tremendous pressure. Something was going to happen."
The Japanese win comes eight years to the day since its last victory at the World Cup, when it beat Tunisia 2-0 in Osaka. Japan also beat Russia at the 2002 World Cup.
Asked about how he felt coaching his nation to its first World Cup win on foreign soil, Okada said: "Tired, to be honest."
"Today our players have done a good job and won but my immediate thought was what we have to do against the Netherlands," he added.
Japan plays the Dutch on Saturday in Durban, while Cameroon takes on Denmark in Pretoria.
"We have to go out and look for a win on the 19th (Saturday), even if it’s going to be difficult," Eto’o said. "We showed today that we have some possibilities."