2 giant killings send Japan into knockout stage

Japan challenged soccer powerhouses and advanced to the round of 16 with valiant performances. The world was surprised at the strength of coach Hajime Moriyasu’s side, which produced two stunning come-from-behind victories.

Japan defeated Spain 2-1 in Qatar to advance to the knockout stage of the World Cup for the second consecutive tournament, and for the fourth time overall. With Japan also securing a victory over Germany in the first game, the team ended the group stage as leaders of Group E.

Japan is ranked No. 24 in the world. Spain and Germany are ranked No. 7 and No. 11, respectively, and both have won World Cup tournaments. Defeating two of the world soccer’s major powers is nothing short of astonishing.

In both matches, Japan gave up the initial goal in the first half but did not concede after that, thanks to a solid defense. In the second half, the team utilized the few chances it had, snatching two goals in each game to turn the scores around.

These were historic victories realized by sending fresh players onto the pitch one after another in the second half, and speedy performances by the Japan players.

The game-winning goal against Spain came from a subtle play and went to video assistant referee review. In the end, the goal was awarded, but many fans likely waited with bated breath until the official decision was announced.

Japan has focused on developing young players since losing all of the group-stage matches at its first World Cup in France in 1998. Many players in the current national squad belong to clubs in Germany, Spain and other European countries, and have acquired the ability to compete on equal terms with overseas teams.

Japan lost against Costa Rica in its second game, and at one point was in danger of not advancing to the knockout stage. Social media was filled with posts blasting the players, but the team converted the criticism into strength. The team’s mental toughness is worthy of mention.

Aiming to move up to the quarterfinals for the first time, Japan will next face Croatia, the runner-up in the last tournament in Russia. Advancing to the last eight has been a long-held dream for Japan, and Moriyasu set this as the target for the Qatar tournament.

It is hoped that the team will find a way to score goals against Croatia and secure a victory, using the strengths demonstrated in the games against Germany and Spain — tenacious defense and organizational skills.

It is not only the Japanese team that is drawing the world’s attention. The efforts of fans from Japan who have been picking up trash at the venues after matches have been shared via social media. And supporters from other countries are said to have started copying the custom.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue. In the next game, it is hoped that Japan will put on a dynamic display that will blow away feelings of hopelessness.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 3, 2022)