On a night when a positive result was more important than a positive performance, Japan emphatically delivered both.
Thursday’s 3-1 win over Denmark not only sent Takeshi Okada’s side into the second round of the World Cup, it also gave the nation arguably the greatest night in its soccer history.
The confidence, maturity and resilience that shone through Japan’s victory in Rustenburg paints a picture of a team looking ever more comfortable in its own skin. Paraguay will be no pushover in Tuesday’s last-16 clash in Pretoria, but the World Cup rewards those with the wind in their sails and Japan is going from strength to strength as the tournament progresses.
Thursday night’s game was a case in point. The knowledge that a draw would have been enough to progress seemed to weigh heavily as Japan made a tentative start, and Yasuhito Endo and Yuto Nagatomo were both booked for time wasting with the match less than 30 minutes old.
Once Okada’s demand to be bold and go looking for the win had sunk in, however, liberation followed.
The slick, fluid passing style that had thus far been suppressed in South Africa returned, and two free kicks of the highest quality put Japan firmly in the driver’s seat.
The world had seen only the destructive face of Okada’s side until that point, but the image of Shinji Okazaki’s razor-sharp third goal has now been indelibly burned on the tournament’s consciousness.
So, too, has the name of Keisuke Honda. The CSKA Moscow striker always threatened to establish himself as Japan’s leading man coming into the competition, but the impact he has made so far has been astonishing.
Honda’s 17th-minute free kick is unlikely to be bettered by anyone at this World Cup, and his vision, technique and refusal to accept second best has made him one of the stars of the tournament so far.
The fact that he is still only 24 also augurs well for the future, and Japan may have finally found a player capable of surpassing the marker laid down by Hidetoshi Nakata.
But while Honda is grabbing the headlines, his teammates are excelling too.
Captain Makoto Hasebe led by example with a number of well-timed tackles on Thursday, while Endo’s metronomic passing and Yuki Abe’s solid reliability were again to the fore in midfield. Add to this an attack that never stops running and a defense that has conceded only two goals, and the omens are looking good.
To even contemplate a place in the quarterfinals or beyond seemed utterly ludicrous after losing 2-0 to South Korea only a month ago, but the team’s transformation since then is a testament to its character. Okada’s men may not be as talented as the side that reached the second round on home soil in 2002, but they are proving to be tenacious competitors indeed.
Okada will need no reminding, however, that the 2002 campaign ended not with a bang but the whimper of a 1-0 defeat to Turkey.
Nakata accused his teammates of being satisfied with their lot after that limp capitulation in the Miyagi rain, and it was interesting to hear Honda set his sights higher in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s win.
Okada, of course, could never be found guilty of lacking ambition. For now, at least, his semifinal target remains a tantalizing possibility.