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Samurai Blue’s gritty play raises hopes Japan will advance in World Cup

Reuters

Japanese soccer fans did not get the win they wanted but took heart from their team’s grit as the Samurai Blue came from behind twice to draw 2-2 with Senegal, keeping their hopes of an improbable place in the World Cup’s last 16 on track.

Japan looked on the verge of defeat in their second Group H match until veteran Keisuke Honda fired home the equalizer 12 minutes from time, sending supporters into a frenzy in the stadium in Ekaterinburg and at sports bars across Tokyo.

“They’ve been great. I want them to keep playing hard,” Shintaro Sakamichi, a 23-year-old civil servant, said above the raucous cheers at the M-Spo pub in Shibuya, where some people brought drums, horns and giant flags to re-create a stadium atmosphere.

“I thought the best they’d do against Colombia would be a draw but now I have higher expectations,” he said, referring to Japan’s 2-1 victory in their opening game.

The 61st-ranked Samurai Blue had been given little chance of advancing from a tough group after a poor run of form and the firing of head coach Vahid Halilhodzic just two months before the World Cup, hosted this time by Russia, began.

But their shock win over Colombia sparked expectations among supporters that the team — which had failed to score a single win at the tournament four years ago — is ready to make an impact.

“I think we can make it to the quarter-finals,” said a beaming Yuki Isoda, a 24-year-old chiropractor wearing a blue Japan jersey.

If that happens, that will be a first for Japan. The farthest Japan has ever advanced at a World Cup was the last 16 in 2002 and 2010.

Japan and Senegal go into their final group matches four points ahead of Colombia, which has three after eliminating Poland with a 3-0 win Sunday. Japan will face Poland on Thursday.

The Japan-Senegal match kicked off at midnight Japan time, meaning many fans spent a bleary-eyed Monday in their offices, especially those who got stranded downtown after public transport service shut down for the night.

Takamichi Masui, a 50-year-old hairdresser, said the lively atmosphere made it worthwhile.

“I got a lot of sleep today so I’ll make it through Monday, just at a lower gear. I’ll be back in high gear on Tuesday,” he said.