Japan feels sorry it could not come through for Australia against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, but the Socceroos’ minimal win over Thailand did not help matters, firing up the Saudis who saw an opportunity they did not let go of to qualify for their first World Cup finals since 2006.
Upon returning from Jeddah, where Vahid Halilhodzic’s men ended their qualifying campaign with a 1-0 defeat to the Saudis, Japan Football Association president Kozo Tashima said on Wednesday that as much as Japan would have liked to lend Australia a helping hand, Saudi Arabia was far too motivated to overcome after the Socceroos only squeezed past the Thais 2-1 at home several hours earlier.
Going into the last day of the Asian qualifiers for next year’s tournament in Russia, second-place Saudi Arabia was ahead of Australia on goal difference by two in Group B, which Japan won last week with a win at home over the Socceroos.
Australia could have cooked up the pressure on Saudi Arabia with a big win over last-place Thailand — which did not win a single game during the final round — but failed to step up.
That left the Saudis just needing a win of any kind against the Japanese — which they managed to produce — and sending the Australians into next month’s playoff against Syria from Group A.
“We are sorry for Australia, but it’s not like we could plan for the way things turned out,” Tashima said after touching down at Haneda airport along with Halilhodzic and the team’s J. League-based players. “It is a little disappointing we couldn’t win in the end, but it was difficult given the difference in the motivation of the two teams.
“I mean, Australia 2-1? If they had won 3-0, 4-0, Saudi’s motivation level may not have been as high. But they came at us full throttle in front of a stadium which was packed.
“The coach and the players, we were out to win it but it’s difficult as you might be able to imagine,” he continued. “It’s not as if we didn’t have chances, but it was always going to be tough to get up for it the way we did for the Australia game.
“You cannot fault the players one bit; they did everything they could to try and win the match. I’m just really glad we were able to qualify at home.”
Tashima said he spoke with Halilhodzic on the flight back to Japan about the buildup to the World Cup, and that preparations will start right away with a meeting joined by JFA technical director Akira Nishino on Friday.
Japan hosts New Zealand and Haiti in a pair of October friendlies, and is expected to tour Europe during the November international window, with big names like world champion Germany, France and Brazil being reported as potential opponents.
The World Cup draw is on Dec. 1.
“The qualifying is over at last, and we spoke about having a meeting looking ahead to the World Cup,” said FIFA Council member Tashima. “We spoke on broad terms so we’ll start going into the details.”
Nishino said while the October games are against lower-ranked sides — Japan is 44th in the FIFA rankings, Haiti 55th and New Zealand 123rd — Halilhodzic will find ways to get the most out of them.
“The manager said the Saudi game is our first step toward the World Cup, and the next games will be the second and third,” Nishino said.