RENNES, FRANCE – Tears were still flowing from Saki Kumagai’s eyes more than 30 minutes later.
With victorious Dutch rivals passing her on the way out of the stadium, Japan’s captain seemed to find solace in speaking about the penalty long after it cost her team a place in the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup.
With Tuesday night’s game entering the 90th minute locked at 1-1, Kumagai’s outstretched left arm blocked the shot Vivianne Miedema had aimed into the right side of the net.
“It hit my hand for sure,” Kumagai said. “It’s difficult to accept but it’s also sad. I know that is football.”
Referee Melissa Borjas pointed to the penalty spot and Lieke Martens netted her second goal of the game in the 90th minute to seal a 2-1 victory that sent the Netherlands into the quarterfinals for the first time.
“We have made history,” Martens said. “I’m not usually taking the penalties but I felt really good this game. I asked Sherida Spitse if I could take it and she gave it directly to me and I felt quite relaxed about it.”
The reigning European champions will need to maintain that composure as they prepare for a meeting with Italy on Saturday after going one stage further than their Women’s World Cup debut four years ago.
“We were standing in the circle after the match and we were so happy, yelling at each other,” Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman said. “We were saying, ‘Let’s continue writing history.'”
It is journey’s end for Japan, which won the 2011 tournament and was the runner-up four years later.
As befitting a meeting of the Asian and European champions, the game produced some of the slickest action of the World Cup. A backheel flick set up Martens to send the Dutch in front in the 17th minute and Yui Hasegawa equalized in the 43rd to complete a slick passing move.
But the post, crossbar and goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal thwarted Japan’s pursuit of a winning goal.
“I think we lacked the clinical edge,” Japan coach Asako Takakura said. “We have to accept the result, we’re defeated, we’re very disappointed and for all the players I feel very sorry for them and frustrated.”
A frustrated Takakura said she hoped her team, which included 17 players at their first World Cup, would learn from the experience as they shifted their focus to winning Olympic gold on home soil at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“We weren’t strong enough to win. It’s really disappointing. I hope the players will continue to grow as we aim toward the Olympics a year from now,” Takakura said.
The 51-year-old manager, who took the reins in 2016, blamed her own “lack of ability” for Japan’s tournament exit.
“We certainly weren’t the worse team in every aspect.
“VAR exists. Sometimes cruel decisions have been taken in other matches. Today it went against us. We need to look forward and accept the decision.”
With the last Asian team eliminated, the Women’s World Cup will have a record seven European teams in the quarterfinals. Norway and England meet in Le Havre on Thursday and France takes on the United States the following night. After the Netherlands plays Italy on Saturday, Germany and Sweden will meet.
“It’s really tough to be here,” Netherlands forward Miedema said. “Sometimes it kind of feels like a Euros.”
That is a title already won by this team, thanks to Miedema’s goals in the final two years ago on home soil.
The fans won’t have far to travel for the World Cup quarterfinal, with Valenciennes around two hours’ drive from the Netherlands.
It will be another chance for the orange-clad fans who danced and sang their way in a convoy to the stadium on Tuesday to stamp their mark on this tournament.
They were certainly given a game to savor, and an audacious opening goal.
Martens flicked in the opener after evading her marker to meet a corner and send the ball through the legs of Yuika Sugasawa into the net.
Sugasawa had a quick chance to tie, only to hit the post. But Japan did equalize by completing an intricate move.
Hina Sugita squared across the penalty area to Yuika Sugasawa, who passed back to Mana Iwabuchi on the edge of the penalty area. After holding off Jackie Groenen on the turn, Iwabuchi slipped the ball through to Hasegawa, who was free to delicately dink a shot over Van Veenendaal into the corner of the net.
It was some way to make the most of a first shot on target for a team that failed to score in two of its three group stage games.
But parity nearly didn’t last long.
Miedema received the ball from Shanice van de Sanden but with only Ayaka Yamashita to beat struck straight at the Japan goalkeeper.
Van Veenendaal came to the rescue of the Dutch in the second half by denying Emi Nakajima as Japan chased the winner, later preventing substitute Yuka Momiki scoring with another excellent stop in the 80th minute.
“Japan is a world class team and you saw that today,” Miedema said. “In the second half you can see they have loads of quality on the pitch.”
The strength of Japan’s second-half display counted for nothing, despite Wiegman’s praise of her defeated opponents.
“We were really struggling in the second half. A lot of that had to with Japan’s qualities,” Wiegman said. “I can start seeing things we did badly, but it was definitely Japan playing well too.”
Momiki, part of the new generation who hoped to emulate the 2011 World Cup-winning Japan team, said much work was needed to reach the heights of their predecessors.
“The rest of the world is improving quickly, and we’re not keeping up,” the 23-year-old Nippon TV Beleza midfielder said.
Her thoughts were echoed by her captain Kumagai, who has been a key part of Nadeshiko’s squad since 2010 and participated in all of its glories since, including a silver-medal finish at the 2012 London Olympics and last year’s Asian Cup.
“Our team is not the same as in 2011 or in 2015. Now we have a lot of young players but we need to progress more,” said Kumagai.
Italy 2, China 0
Italy made its case to be considered a contender in the Women’s World Cup after a convincing win over China on Tuesday night in Montpellier, France.
Coach Milena Bertolini believes Italy is set to play in its first quarterfinal since 1991 because her players are striving for a goal that goes beyond the final result.
“They have a mission. Their mission is to try and have the Italian public to discover and appreciate the women’s game,” Bertolini said. “This aspect helps you because it allows you to find that extra energy and motivation. I really believe this side has allowed the women’s game to break new ground back home.”
Italian viewers have had good reason to tune in. While the men’s team failed to qualify for last summer’s World Cup in Russia, the women are proving to be a revelation in France.
China had only allowed one goal in its three group stage games but the talented Italian attack broke down the vaunted defense.
Valentina Giacinti scored in the 15th minute. Aurora Galli’s long strike put the result beyond doubt four minutes after halftime at the stiflingly hot Stade de la Mosson.
China coach Jia Xiuquan seemed to put his future in doubt after his team exited with just one goal scored in the tournament, saying “maybe it is time to take a break.”
“I believe the World Cup is a big stage and it makes us realize our shortcomings,” Jia said through a translator. “To improve Chinese football it requires generations. It can’t only depend on myself.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5