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Japan loses but wins hearts in World Cup

by Ron Poblete

Japan’s amazing run in the 2022 Qatar World Cup has come to an end. But the Blue Samurai has won the hearts of millions of fans all over the world with their tenacity, never-say-die attitude, most importantly their character and show of respect for the sport, competition and their fans.

Japanese fans who were caught in a viral video cleaning up in the stands after a game also gave their country so much pride. It is a testament to the world how unique and extraordinary Japanese culture is.

Japan supporters clean the stands at the end of the World Cup group E soccer match between Germany and Japan, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. Japan won 2-1.(AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

As for the match, they were ready for battle from the get go. Pressing the 2018 World Cup Runners-up Croatia tirelessly in the first half. 

For the first 45 minutes, you would think that this Japan team who experienced heartache in the hands of the Belgians at almost the same stage in 2018 are on a mission to better their performance the last time no matter the competition. They have beaten top teams Germany and Spain on their way to the final 16 so going up against Croatia is not as daunting and may not need anything as controversial as AO Tanaka’s goal against Spain. 

They did have a breakthrough right before the end of the first half from a set piece. From a short corner kick, forward Ritsu Doan sends in a cross which central defender and team captain Maya Yoshida wins a header towards the path of striker Daizen Maeda for a clinical finish.

The fans erupt and hopes of another upset seem underway. The optimism was short lived though as play resumed for the final 45 minutes. Croatian star player Ivan Perisic tied the game with a bullet header from a precise cross.

Japan’s Takuma Asano, left, and Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol challenge during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Japan and Croatia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

The game was up and down with the Blue Samurais trying hard to nick the game in regular time even as Croatian captain and talisman Luka Modric who earlier had a chance to take the lead with a powerful volley outside the box saved and the 2nd best player of the team Mateo Kovacic, were withdrawn before the end of 90 minutes of regular time. 

The game went into extra time with a few chances spurned by the Japanese. Everyone was waiting with bated breath for another miracle to continue this unprecedented run by a team that seemed destined for glory against all odds. In the end, it just was not to be. Croatia beat Japan on a penalty shoot out 3 -1 with keeper Dominik Livakovic making 3 outstanding saves for the win.

Japan had 13 shots to 17 from Croatia. Both had 4 shots on target with Croatia having much more of the ball at 58% possession to Japan’s 42%. The game is indeed about moments and opportunities. Japan had both but Croatia were just a tad better when everything was on the line. 

Next time perhaps the Japanese will come back better in penalty shoot outs as it is almost certain that they will be much improved and ready.

Japan’s head coach Hajime Moriyasu bows after losing the penalty shootout of the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Japan and Croatia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The Japanese performance in this World Cup may be their best yet. Tears were shed, embraces shared and the hopes of Japanese fans and new supporters from all over the world may have been dashed but just the sight of the Japanese team and their coach bowing down to the stands to show gratitude, give the world hope that we could, like the Japanese, be as classy and honorable in the face of heartbreaking defeat.

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