Japan’s exit from the World Cup on Monday was soccer at its cruelest, but once the dust has settled the team will be able to look back on its campaign with pride and satisfaction.
Japan was denied a first-ever place in the quarterfinals after a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Belgium, taking a 2-0 lead early in the second half only for the Belgians to fight back and win the game with 15 seconds remaining. Japan barely had time to kick off after Nacer Chadli’s winning goal before referee Malang Diedhiou blew the final whistle, ending the team’s World Cup adventure in the round of 16.
The Samurai Blue played with vibrancy and courage against the much-fancied Belgians, holding them scoreless until halftime and then going straight for the jugular after the interval. Genki Haraguchi drew first blood with a superbly taken goal in the 48th minute, before Takashi Inui added another four minutes later.
Belgium hit back twice to leave the game heading toward extra time, but Japan’s desire to settle it inside the 90 minutes ultimately cost it a quarterfinal place. Keisuke Honda swung an injury-time corner into the box only to see Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois catch it and launch a counterattack, ending seconds later with substitute Chadli putting the ball in the Japanese net.
“As Belgium rejoiced, the Japan players collapsed,” Stuart James wrote in The Guardian. “Some were in tears; others beat the floor in frustration. They had played superbly and contributed so much to a pulsating second half of football, giving Belgium the fright of their lives in the process, yet ultimately Akira Nishino and his players had nothing to show for it.”
Japan captain Makoto Hasebe branded his team “naive,” while former Real Madrid and England manager Fabio Capello was scathing of Japan’s failure to safely run out the clock.
“Honda should have kept the ball until the final whistle,” Capello said on Italian broadcaster Mediaset. “That was irresponsible. If I were his manager, I would have grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.”
But with Japan fading and a chance to win the game there for the taking, it is difficult to be too critical of Honda’s attacking instincts. A quarterfinal against Brazil in Kazan on Friday may have eluded the Samurai Blue, but they can draw huge satisfaction from the way they performed on the biggest stage.
Global opinion of the Japan team had taken a hit with fierce criticism of its negative, mean-spirited tactics in last week’s 1-0 loss to Poland, but the dynamism and flair that it showed against Belgium was enough to swing it back in its favor.
“Against Poland, they were willing to just keep the ball and Poland weren’t willing to attack them, and that’s how they got through,” former England striker Alan Shearer said on the BBC’s coverage of the game. “But on the other side tonight, you just saw belief, you saw a willingness, you saw incredible effort, and everyone knew the system and what they were doing. And they just went for it. They provided incredible entertainment.”
The game also helped to exorcise World Cup memories of four years ago, where a Japan team featuring largely the same group of players failed to make any positive impact in Brazil. Veterans such as Honda, Hasebe, Yuto Nagatomo and Shinji Kagawa had been written off as “Old Man Japan” heading into this year’s tournament, but a string of assured performances justified Nishino’s decision to take one of the oldest squads of the 32 teams to Russia.
Japan will now have to groom a new generation to take it forward toward Qatar in 2022, however, and it remains to be seen if Nishino will still be around to lead the charge. The manager’s future will be decided when the team returns from Russia, but even if his contract is not extended he can be satisfied with his work after taking over two months before the start of the tournament.
“I cannot really call it a success,” Nishino said after Monday’s game. “But whether we can build on this for the next tournament is very important for the Japanese people, so four years from now we’d like to look back on this tournament and call it a success.”
Would Vahid Halilhodzic have done any better had the Japan Football Association not fired him in April? Would the team have played better with Honda on from the start? And did Nishino’s decision to keep faith with Eiji Kawashima despite the goalkeeper’s blunders ultimately cost the team a place in the quarterfinals?
These are questions that no one can answer. Better instead to focus on the positives from a World Cup campaign that promised little but ended with Japan leaving Russia with its head held high.