SAITAMA — Tuesday was a historic day for Japanese soccer as the boys in blue earned the first-ever World Cup point for the cohosting nation after fighting to a 2-2 draw with Belgium.
Meanwhile, South Korea made a bit of history as well by recording its first victory in a World Cup match in its sixth trip to the finals. South Korea beat Poland 2-0 in Pusan.
Second-half goals from Takayuki Suzuki and Man-of-the-Match Junichi Inamoto got Japan off to a good start as its Group H campaign kicked off at Saitama Stadium.
Belgium forward and captain Marc Wilmots and defender Peter van der Heyden replied for the Red Devils.
“It was a great game for us and for Japan,” Inamoto said after the match.
Japan coach Philippe Troussier said: “I am satisfied with our first point from a historical point of view in the World Cup. I was a little bit frustrated because we had to settle for a draw after taking the lead.”
Japan, playing in its second World Cup following the 1998 competition in France, in which the lads from the Land of the Rising Sun bowed out after three straight losses, fought hard against the Belgians.
But the home team, under tight pressure from its opponent, couldn’t find its usual form and the striking duo of Atsushi Yanagisawa and Suzuki struggled early against the taller, solid Belgian defense.
Belgium, making its sixth straight appearance in the World Cup finals, played some steady soccer and nearly got on the board in the 29th minute when midfielder Bart Goor’s cross from the left found the head of Wilmots at the far post. But Japan goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki, the understudy to first-choice ‘keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi at France ’98, came up with a great reaction save.
The Red Devils threatened again from the left flank in the 37th minute when Wilmots took a cross from dangerous forward Gert Verheyen and passed off to Goor, who fired a shot just a few inches wide of the post.
But the real battle came in the second half, with Belgium breaking the scoreless deadlock in the 57th minute.
Johan Walem lobbed in a free-kick from the left, which Suzuki attempted to clear out of the area with a header. But his clearance came up short, only to be collected by defender Eric van Meir, who curled in a ball to Wilmots. Wilmots blasted it into the net with an overhead bicycle kick.
“I thought we had nothing to worry about at the time,” Verheyen said later. But the Belgian celebration didn’t last long.
Two minutes later, Feyenoord midfielder Shinji Ono delivered a brilliant long feed from the left side to Suzuki. The Kashima Antlers striker cut through the middle of the field, beat two Belgian defenders with a clever run and poked a nice toe-kick past advancing goalkeeper Geert de Vlieger into the left corner of the net.
The equalizer quickly boosted the spirits of the home team, drawing rousing cheers from the 55,256 fans in the stands. Parma midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, Inamoto and Ono combined well after the break to spark their team’s attack.
“I thought our reaction was wonderful after being down 1-0, considering the situation (playing in the World Cup),” Troussier said. “We reacted in a mature, intelligent manner, and our offensive qualities came through.”
Ono nearly found the net in the 63rd minute with a free-kick from the left flank, which Willem II goalkeeper De Vlieger barely got a hand on.
In the 67th minute, Inamoto proved his physical strength and his attacking sense in combining with Yanagisawa.
After Yanagisawa maintained possession against a Belgium player in the middle of the field, the Antlers forward fed a pass to Inamoto. The Arsenal midfielder drove up the field at top speed, beating a Belgium defender to cut into the box and face De Vlieger one-on-one. Inamoto then calmly struck with his left foot to give Japan a 2-1 lead.
“Suddenly Japan was leading 2-1,” Belgium coach Robert Waseige said. “No one expected that.”
Belgium midfielder Danny Boffin, who missed Tuesday’s game due to an injury, had earlier said, “Japan is a very good team and you may find some surprises in each of their games.”
Substitute midfielder Alessandro “Alex” Santos of Shimizu S-Pulse, who came on for Ono in the 64th minute, created some chances with his superb dribbling and passing to give a new dimension to Japan’s attack.
On the negative side, Japan defender Ryuzo Morioka was stretchered off after hurting his left foot in the 71st minute and did not return.
Three minutes later, while the Japanese side was still sorting out its backline with the arrival of Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, the Red Devils replied. Van Meir of Standard Liege delivered a neat offside beater to Van der Heyden, who was dashing into space behind the Japan backline. Van der Heyden’s shot sailed just above the outstretched hands of Narazaki to find the net, silencing the Japanese fans.
But the home players never gave up and Inamoto appeared to score what could have been the tiebreaker in the 85th minute. The former Gamba Osaka player neatly beat a couple of Belgian players in the box to slot home a shot, but the goal was denied by referee William Mattus of Costa Rica, who whistled a foul shortly before the shot.
“We knew we had to come out better in the second half, and we did,” Inamoto said. “I was very excited to score my first goal (in the World Cup). It was a huge point for us. It gives us a chance to make the second round, but we are not there yet.”
Nakata added: “I’m not over-excited with this result. But considering it’s our first game, we did very well, especially since the last time (in 1998) we didn’t get any points at all. We are a very young team. Even though it was only a draw, it’s good for our confidence.”
Suzuki noted: “We played up to our own expectations. We are happy but we’ve got to think about our next game.”
Japan will next play Russia on June 9 in Yokohama before meeting Tunisia on June 14 in Osaka.
“My team showed good spirit and came back. The goal by our captain was spectacular,” Waseige said. “But I have to say Japan really deserved a point with the way they came back.”
The match was attended by Belgian Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde. Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako as well as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also were at the game.
“That was a good game and the most moving one I have ever seen,” Koizumi excitedly told reporters back at his official residence Tuesday night.
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