The night began in Group E with many possibilities, but a very probable scenario where Germany and Spain could both score early and take control of their matches.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why sport is not always based on probabilities... sometimes the possibilities take over, and it produces chaos. Beautiful, heartbreaking, unimaginable chaos.
While Germany and Spain did score early goals against Costa Rica and Japan respectively – a set of results that saw them both going through as it stood at half-time in both matches – things went on a wild rollercoaster in the second half.
At the start of the night, before a ball was kicked, Spain and Japan were going through. Then expected order was restored when Germany and Spain were progressing for the most part. At one point in the second half, Japan and Spain were going through. At another point, for a few glorious minutes, Japan and Costa Rica were No 1 and No 2, dumping the former world champions out. In the end, it would be Japan and Spain going through in that other, while Germany and Costa Rica bowed out.
Al Bayt Stadium was witness to history even before kickoff. When Stephanie Frappart led the team of female referees out on to the pitch, the night already had a sense of a grand occasion. For the first time in 92 years of Fifa World Cup history, a team of female officials was in charge of proceedings.
On the pitch, Serge Gnabry headed the ball off a cross from the left flank in the 10th minute after a flowing move. And he immediately picked up the ball from the back of the net and rushed back to the centre circle. It was a sign that Germany had come to play... and to score plenty of goals. They needed at least two for starters, but there was also the mathematical possibility of scoring 8 on the night and guaranteeing a place in the knockouts irrespective of what happened at Khalifa International Stadium. Costa Rica, after all, had lost 0-7 against Spain. Maybe?
Immediately after that goal, Alvaro Morata headed Spain into the lead, this one off a cross from the right flank. The two former winners of this trophy had laid down the markers.
The matches then set into a pattern. Germany and Spain both had chances to extend their lead. While Japan, despite handing the possession dominance over to Spain, threatened in the first half more than Costa Rica. The Central Americans did have a glorious 4v2 situation developing close to half time but spurned that.
Going into the break, things seemed to be in control for the Europeans.
It didn’t take long for all hell to break loose.
Remember Ritsu Doan? Yes, the man who came on as a substitute to score the first goal against Germany now came on a as a substitute to score the first goal against Spain. Japan pressed Unai Simon high up the field, forced a turnover in Spain’s final third and Doan, the No 8, unleashed a shot from distance. In all honesty, it was one that an elite goalkeeper should save. But Simon punched it, only to see the ball into the back of the net. There were tears of disbelief in the stands for Japan fans.
Germany were still ahead against Costa Rica on the night but Japan were inching ahead on the table.
In a couple of minutes, the moment of the night would arrive. Doan was once again involved from the right flank, weaving and cutting before crossing the ball along the ground into dangerous territory... the kind where the goalkeeper can’t come out confidently and defenders dread touching the ball into the net. The ball was seemingly about to roll over the line when Kaoru Mitoma stretched every sinew to chip the ball back towards the goal. Ao Tanaka bundled it in.
After a brief celebration, Japan were told to wait. From the angles we were shown, it wasn’t entirely clear if the whole of the ball had crossed whole of the line. But VAR took a long look at it, and were convinced the ball had stayed in play... the goal stood. Japan celebrated. They had, just like they did against Germany, turned it around in the second half.
With Japan now leading 2-1, Germany’s night was about to get worse. First, Yeltsin Tejeda would equalise for Costa Rica in the 58th minute. And a shell-shocked Germany would trail in the 70th minute in what would be ruled as a Manuel Neuer own goal from a goal-line scramble. The Germans were not just heading home, they were heading home on the back of a defeat.
All this while, Jamal Musiala was doing everything but score on the night. Some sensational dribbles right through the back, and the post(s) or his final shots kept denying him.
For those few minutes that Costa Rica held the lead (three to be precise), the group had turned upside down from any predictions. But Kai Havertz equalised in the 73rd minute to bring Germany back into the match.
Long after this tournament is over, Costa Rica’s fourth-placed finish will be a mere footnote on the table but let it not make you forget that Keylor Navas produced one of the saves of the year, and perhaps already the save of the tournament, to keep the scores level. It was a moment that defied logic when Germany looked all set to take the lead in the 75th minute.
The lead, and the win, would eventually come for Germany. Havertz scored his second for a Super Sub performance and Fullkrug added another. But by then, things were out of their hands. Their job was done with a win. They needed an assist from Spain.
At the Khalifa Stadium, Spain huffed and puffed but Japan stood strong. There was some fabulous defending in the final minutes of the match as the Blue Samurai hung on for a famous win... their second famous win of the tournament.
“The land of the rising sun has never shone as bright at the Fifa World Cup,” said the commentator as they celebrated topping the group that had two European powerhouses.
With that result sealed, Germany’s hopes were now a mathematical possibility. They needed six goals in a few minutes to overtake Spain’s goal difference. Of course, that wasn’t going to happen and when the final whistle went, their campaign ended at the first hurdle for the second time in four years.
Japan, with very little of the ball, had done maximum damage in the group.
In the end, Germany won their match but lost the battle to go through from the group by the barest of margins. Spain lost their match but won themselves a place against Morocco in the knockout stages.
Japan, with another massive upset, topped Group E.
Thank you for the memories, that was a wild ride.