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The Roar

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Japan's heartbreaking World Cup exit is a case of opportunity lost for the Samurai Blue

Japan midfielder Shinji Kagawa. (Kyodo via AP Images)
Expert
3rd July, 2018
9

Before the World Cup, Hyundai, in their infinite wisdom, invited Australians to “have a fling with football”. A “fling” – no emotion, just four weeks of fun and frivolity.

Perhaps they were on to something, because after the emotional torment of Tuesday morning, football has left me heartbroken. And not for the first time this World Cup either.

I had the same feeling after Iran came up just short against Portugal. The footage of their players, tears streaming down their faces, crestfallen on the turf, was like a knife through the heart.

Seeing the same with the Japanese players was too much.

Maybe having no emotional investment would be easier, but then where is the fun in that? As raw as the emotions are just hours after the final whistle, it’s these emotions that keep drawing us back, and it’s these emotions that make the good times even better.

But right now there is only one emotion – disappointment. This was an opportunity lost.

It was a herculean performance from the Samurai Blue. No one gave them a chance against a high-flying Belgium side that won all three matches in the group stage. Of all the Round of 16 matches, this was the one most looked at as a foregone conclusion, especially after the way Japan only scraped through ahead of Senegal on the fair play ruling.

They lost a lot of admirers after their tactics in the Poland game, but they sure won them back with the effort against the Belgians.

Akira Nishino reverted to his usual starting XI, so many of them with fresh legs after sitting out the last group stage match against Poland in the oppressive heat of Volgograd.

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After 60 minutes he was looking like a genius, with two wonderful strikes from Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui giving Japan a 2-0 lead against a Belgium side that looked fresh out of ideas. Another boilover looked on the cards in a World Cup that just keeps on delivering.

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But how often have you heard over the years that 2-0 is a dangerous scoreline? So dangerous is this Belgium team that you got the sense that if they got one, the scoring wouldn’t end there.

And so it proved.

Some clutch defending from Belgium kept them in the game as the Japanese pushed for a third, with Inui, Yuya Osako and Keisuke Honda all denied in the final half hour, and ultimately a litany of defensive mistakes from Japan cost them an historic win.

Perhaps they were too naïve as well. With just 30 seconds to play, Japan earned a corner after Thibaut Courtois saved Honda’s goal-bound free kick.

But in search of a last-minute winner, Japan sent numbers forward, leaving themselves hopelessly exposed at the back, which Belgium ruthlessly exposed with the perfect counter-attack to win the match with the final kick of the game.

It was a heartbreaking way to lose, but one that fans of the Samurai Blue will be all too familiar with. The Japanese have won admirers over many years for the way they play football, but time and again they have shown a soft underbelly. It’s not the first time they’ve conceded late in crucial matches.

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Perhaps Japan are too nice, but they need to develop a harder edge and develop it quickly. They need to learn how to close these matches out. Never before have Japan been beyond the Round of 16 at a World Cup, and with one foot in the quarter-finals midway through the second half, they will arguably never get a better chance.

They now have four years to stew on this result. Perhaps the heartbreak will spur them on to bigger and better things, perhaps it won’t.

Still, as heartbroken as fans of the Samurai Blue are, we can look back on the World Cup as an unqualified success. Given where they were just two months ago, when they sacked Vahid Halilhodzic, this has been a remarkable turnaround and the Japan we know and love have started to return.

As the disappointment subsides over the coming days, another emotion will be left to linger – pride.

Ah football, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. But would you have it any other way?