Japan were just incredible!
It all happened in the dying minutes of a spill-thrill game. A 2-0 lead was reduced in last 20 minutes to 2-1, then to 2-2 before likely winners became losers 40 seconds from the long whistle. An epic harakiri that will be remembered for a long time by football pundits and fans.
What a surprise Japan had saved for their match against Belgium after qualifying for the third time into the knockout phase of a World Cup! It was supposed to be a contest between underdogs and hot favourites. But in reality, it was Japan who played like hot favourites and almost knocked fancied Belgium out of the World Cup.
Japan eventually lost the match but won millions of hearts.
Like any Asian country competing against the world's superpowers from Europe, America or Africa, Japan had all the odds stacked against them. They fell short in size, stamina, skill, experience and footballing culture. But they were no less than their opponents in two areas -- intelligence and desire to excel.
In terms of physical stature, the Japanese were the Davids and the Belgians Goliaths. Goliaths had the distinct edge in aerial football, with two of their goals coming from headers. But the Blue Samurai more than made it up by giving the imposing Romelu Lukaku and Co. no space to operate in their defence, at least not in the first 70 minutes of play.
To overcome the odds, Japan's footballers moved in a group on the ball like a well-oiled machine. While defending or attacking, a group of 3-4 players were always on the ball. And that's why Japan looked so intensely fluent in their counter-attacks that produced two goals.
The first half was barren, with Japan busy thwarting Belgian attacks with moves in a small group. But it was a pulsating, raucous, tense and brilliant second half, with Japan going more onto the offensive right from the start. High quality stuff was demonstrated at both ends of the pitch. But the first 25 minutes belonged to Japan, with Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui striking a goal apiece within a span of four minutes. You have to love those moves that resulted in two spectacular goals.
In my view, a bold tactical decision by Belgium coach Roberto Martinez threw a spanner into Japan's works and put the match on a reverse course. His double substitution in the 65th minute proved to be decisive, and Belgium instantly came back firing. Within four minutes, the nation of less than 12 million people scored the first goal from a lofted header through Jan Vertonghen from just inside the box and the second one, also off a headed-strike five minutes later, from substitute Marouane Fellaini. And the other substitute Nacer Chadli drove the last nail into Japan's coffin in the final minute following a substitution by Japan.
In came veteran celebrity footballer Keisuke Honda as a substitute 10 minutes from the end of regulation time, and he nearly shot Japan into the quarterfinals from a perfect free-kick in the last minute of play. Ironically, within seconds of that free-kick, the Red Devils hit back on the counter with the last kick of the game. It happened in less than 10 seconds: a diagonal pass to Thomas Meunier, then a low cross left by Lukaku following a perfect dummy and finally a jab into net by Chadli.
And, with that Belgium became the second team after Portugal to come back from 2-0 down and win a World Cup knockout round match. In 1966, Portuguese legend Eusebio starred in a dramatic 5-3 win over North Korea, with his four breath-taking goals helping Portugal come back from 3-0 down. Well done, Belgium!
Japan, however, emerged as the lighthouse of hope for Asian lightweights. They can head home as champions, with their footballers being winners in fair play and fans being model spectators.
Salute to Japan!
The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star
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