THESSALONIKI, Greece – Japan’s hopes of claiming its first Olympic soccer medal in 36 years was dealt an early blow Thursday after a 4-3 defeat to Paraguay in their Group B opener in the men’s competition at the Athens Games.
Greece, on Thursday. Paraguay won 4-3.
Shinji Ono converted two controversial penalties and Yoshito Okubo also found the net late on, but Paraguay held on to take all three points and leave Japan facing an uphill task to reach the quarterfinals.
Japan, which reached the last eight in Sydney four years ago, plays its next match on Sunday against European Under-21 champion Italy, which had to come from two goals down to hold Ghana to a 2-2 draw in a game in Volos.
Paraguay, which eliminated mighty Brazil in the South American qualifiers, took just five minutes to go in front thanks to some careless defending from Japan captain Daisuke Nasu, who had an evening to forget.
Pablo Gimenez punished Nasu for dithering in the penalty area and lashed the ball high into the net past Hitoshi Sogahata.
Japan woke up and gradually started to find its rhythm and, in the 22nd minute, it was awarded a dubious penalty by Egyptian referee Esam Abd El Fatah, who booked Paraguay captain Carlos Gamarra for an innocuous challenge on Daiki Takamatsu.
“Over-age” midfielder Shinji Ono made no mistake from the spot, but justice was done moments later when Jose Cardozo deflected an Edgar Barreto free-kick past Sogahata to restore Paraguay’s lead.
Gimenez ensured Nasu a few sleepless nights when he again dispossessed the Yokohama F. Marinos defender and his miscued shot found Cardozo, who tapped home from close range to extend Paraguay’s lead eight minutes before the break.
Japan came out with renewed purpose in the second half and Abd El Fatah incredibly awarded it a second penalty after Takamatsu had fallen over Jose Devaca. Ono again stepped up to finish with aplomb.
Aureliano Torres gave Paraguay a two-goal cushion for a second time with a well-taken strike in the 62nd minute, before a clinical finish from Okubo set up a tense final nine minutes.