• Soccer World Cup

Fans applaud hard-charging Samurai Blue

Keita Iijima / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Fans react after Croatia defeated Japan on penalties in a round-of-16 World Cup match in Al Wakrah, Qatar, on Monday.

From joy, to nervousness, to disappointment, fans of Japan’s national team were on an emotional roller coaster during Samurai Blue’s World Cup match against Croatia.

When striker Daizen Maeda scored late in the first half to give Japan a 1-0 lead, jubilation erupted among fans inside Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, on Monday. Those who weren’t already standing rose and cheered. Many hugged those beside them and waved Hinomaru national flags.

In the second half, Croatia, runner-up at the 2018 World Cup, showed its soccer mettle by equalizing just 10 minutes after halftime. Anxiety set in among the Japan fans.

As extra time ended with the score still 1-1, penalties were to decide the match. First up was Takumi Minamino, Japan’s No. 10. When his spot kick was saved by Croatia’s goalkeeper, some fans buried their heads in their hands. After Dominik Livakovic further saved attempts by Kaoru Mitoma and captain Maya Yoshida around a successful conversion from Takuma Asano, despair set in among the Japan fans.

Japan’s defeat to Croatia 3-1 on penalties meant history would not be made for the men’s team seeking its first taste of the quarterfinals at a World Cup. Despite more agony in Qatar, fans applauded the members of Samurai Blue, with some shedding tears along with the devastated players.

A 21-year-old fan from Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, was so disappointed with the result that he remained standing where he was when Croatia converted its winning penalty, until he was urged to exit the premises by stadium staff.

 The man had extended his stay in Qatar following Japan’s advancement to the round of 16 but stayed at the airport the day before because hotels were too expensive.

 “I was glad to see two come-from-behind victories against powerhouse opponents,” he said, referring to Japan’s identical 2-1 triumphs over Germany and Spain in the group stage. “I really hope to see them advancing to the quarterfinals at the next World Cup.”

‘Bravo’ from Japan

At a public viewing venue near Tokyo Tower, about 400 supporters gathered to watch the match in the early hours of Tuesday. Some held their hands in prayer during the penalty shootout.

There were loud groans the moment Japan was defeated, but soon the fans applauded Samurai Blue for their spirited showing.

“They played well until the very end. The result was a defeat, but I can only say ‘bravo’ about the way they played,” said a 35-year-old man from Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. “They gave me the sense that a new age is dawning on Japan’s soccer.”

In Nagasaki, about 30 fans watched the match at a bar run by Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu’s childhood friend Norihiko Higuchi.

 The supporters applauded the team once the match ended.

 “These have been great matches,” Higuchi said. “I want to say a heartfelt thank-you and good job to Hajime-kun.”