Saitama – Mexico dominated Japan in the men’s soccer bronze-medal game on Friday night, ending the host nation’s hope of a first Olympic medal in 53 years with a 3-1 win at Saitama Stadium.
Three days after both teams played 120 minutes in their respective semifinal losses, Japan languished against a sharper Mexico side, giving up its opening goal from the penalty spot and two more from set plays before Kaoru Mitoma’s consolation strike late in the match.
“We played to win a medal, and I’m sorry we couldn’t get a result for the fans who have been supporting us,” Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu said.
“I think that because of the hard schedule, both teams experienced a lot of fatigue and so we didn’t see as much sharp movement from our players as we did in other matches.”
Japan’s only medal in Olympic men’s soccer came at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, when the country defeated the host nation for bronze. This time, the outcome was reversed.
“We were quite strong, we took risks and we did what we had to do,” Mexico head coach Jaime Lozano said. “We didn’t achieve our goal of a gold but we knew we’d get a bronze medal, and not even the hosts could take third place from us.”
Moriyasu’s side beat Mexico in their second group game with an early two-goal assault, but this this time it was the team clad in green breaking a scoreless deadlock in the 13th minute, courtesy of a Sebastian Cordova penalty sent left as Japan goalkeeper Kosei Tani dived in the opposite direction.
Cordova earned the penalty after he was fouled from behind by midfielder Wataru Endo at the top of the area, close enough to the line to inspire a VAR review that eventually upheld referee Bamlaku Weyesa’s initial call.
“In our last match with Spain we had to play in high-pressure situations and keep the balls that we intercepted and transition from defense to attack,” Moriyasu said of the penalty, which began with a Ritsu Doan turnover.
“We had a lot of pressure and we could have played differently, but the players wanted to become stronger and I think that connected to what we saw tonight. The results are something we need to reflect on, but the players showed an attitude that they really wanted to challenge themselves.
Japan — seemingly unaware that the game had kicked off at 6 p.m. rather than its initially scheduled start of 8 p.m. — struggled to wake up against a confident Mexican attack.
Lozano’s squad easily created space it couldn’t find when the two teams first met last month and doubled its lead to 2-0 in the 23rd minute when Pumas defender Johan Vasquez headed in Cordova’s free kick past Tani.
The halftime break allowed Japan to reorganize somewhat, with Reo Hatate replacing Yuki Soma to start the second half. But despite some promising runs on goal, Mexico was by far the sharper of the two sides, scoring its third goal off a 58th-minute Cordoba corner kick duly heated in by Alexis Vega.
Substitute midfielder Mitoma, who is reportedly bound for the Premier League’s Brighton this summer on a full transfer from Kawasaki Frontale, spared Japan the embarrassment of a shutout when he slipped through the Mexican back line before steering his attempt past veteran goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in the 78th minute.
But Japan, still clearly fatigued from its defeat to Spain at the same venue, never seemed to have the heart it showed in the group stage, where it also downed South Africa and France.
“We were really working hard. I think all the players who experienced this will apply the experience to their careers,” Japan defender Ko Itakura said. “This is the end of the Olympics, but it isn’t the end for us. We hope more players will get into the senior national team so what happened tonight can make a positive impact.”
Originally scheduled for an 8 p.m. kickoff, the match was moved to 6 p.m. so as not to clash with the women’s final, which on Thursday was moved from a controversial 11 a.m. kickoff at Tokyo’s National Stadium to 9 p.m. at International Stadium Yokohama.
Despite high temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius outside Saitama Stadium, the sun retreated behind clouds in time for the new start time, with a steady breeze providing relief to both sides.
Moriyasu, who also coaches Japan’s senior Samurai Blue team, will now focus his attention on the third round of World Cup qualifying for Asia, which begins on Sept. 2 when Japan hosts Oman.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.