DOHA – Japan will have much to remember from the World Cup, not least stunning upsets of Germany and Spain in the group stage, but ultimately they fell short of their cherished goal of making the quarter-finals for the first time.
The heartbreaking loss on penalties to Croatia on Monday will not entirely erase the memory of beating two former world champions for the first time but another loss in the last 16 will hurt a team who had been looking to make history.
The Samurai Blue had been to the first knockout round three times in six trips to the World Cup finals but had never gone any further, a state of affairs coach Hajime Moriyasu had committed his players to rectifying despite a tough draw.
It looked a distant goal for the first hour of their Group E opener against Germany as the four-times champions took the lead and dominated a Japan side who barely made it out of their own half.
Moriyasu transformed the game with five substitutions and was rewarded with late goals from Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano for what was probably Japan’s greatest victory on a football pitch.
The enigmatic coach, the subject of much criticism back home during his tenure, was applauded in and out of his post-match press conference and promised that this was just the start for Japan in Qatar.
There was some consternation then when Moriyasu named a much-changed team for the next match which was clearly set up not to concede a goal to a Costa Rica side that had been pummelled 7-0 by Spain in their opener.
Ultimately, Moriyasu was denied even the point he set out to get as a defensive lapse allowed the Costa Ricans to score the only goal of the game with their first shot on target of the tournament.
Moriyasu was unapologetic as Japan went from the brink of going through to the last 16 with a match to spare and were plunged back into the morass of goal difference and fair play points for the final round of group matches.
His confidence in his players was rewarded as lightning struck twice in their final group match against 2010 champions Spain.
Japan again went a goal down having conceded all but a tiny bit of possession to the Spanish, but again snatched a 2-1 victory after a flood of substitutes with Doan and Ao Tanaka scoring on smash-and-grab raids in the second half.
As group winners, they went through to face a streetwise Croatian team in the last 16 with the golden uplands of the quarter-finals within their grasp.
Unlike against Germany and Spain, they gave as good as they got throughout the 120 minutes for a 1-1 draw but their old mental frailties returned when faced with a penalty shootout, in which they barely fired a shot to go down 3-1.
“I think the regret we feel with this loss will lead to something better in the years to come,” said fullback Yuto Nagatomo, who was playing his fourth and probably final World Cup.
“We were able to show the Japanese people’s fighting spirit. It was difficult to lose but Japanese soccer is without a doubt making progress.”