KAZAN, RUSSIA - Japan players on Friday acknowledged criticism of the tactics that saw them settle for a 1-0 loss against Poland the previous day, but said they were simply doing what was needed to secure the Samurai Blue’s first World Cup knockout-stage berth since 2010.
The squad returned from Volgograd by charter Thursday night to their World Cup base in the southwestern city of Kazan after becoming the first side to reach the round of 16 thanks to the “fair play” tie-breaker introduced this year.
Down 1-0 late in sweltering conditions at Volgograd Arena, Japan opted to hold onto the ball and avoid any attacking forays that might risk a booking or another Poland goal after learning that Senegal was also trailing 1-0 against Colombia in the other Group H match being played simultaneously.
The tactic elicited loud jeers from the stands, as well as criticism from some Japanese fans afterward. However, the decision to hold on for the 1-0 loss proved the right one under the circumstances, right-back Hiroki Sakai said Friday.
“I think (the criticism) is normal. Anyone in any profession can expect the same. But those who are adamant that (holding on for a 1-0 loss) is unacceptable would understand better if they were in our position,” the Marseille defender said.
“Although we were all in it together, there were probably some differing opinions (among the team). But that’s irrelevant now and looking back isn’t going to change the result.”
Sakai said he was not surprised when Japan coach Akira Nishino sent captain Makoto Hasebe into the game in the 82nd minute with instructions to “stick with 1-0 and don’t pick up any yellow cards.”
Attacking midfielder Takashi Usami, who made his first start of the tournament against Poland, said although it was hard for some players to accept settling for the loss, it was necessary to avoid jeopardizing Japan’s path to the round of 16.
“It was a difficult situation for us to (play for the 1-0 loss). But that’s just the way it ended up,” Usami said.
“I’ve never experienced anything like the last 10 or 15 minutes of that game. I think it could only happen at the World Cup.”
Japan will face Belgium in the round of 16 on Monday, with the winner progressing to a quarterfinal against either Brazil or Mexico.