Football, unlike faith, may not have the power to move mountains. It does however, possess the ability to elate or deflate depending on a mental punt taken prior to the game.
A side taken is perhaps the best way to enjoy the beautiful game, leaving oneself fully invested from minute 1 to 90. The Fifa World Cup 2018 has provided many a moment, with the mighty hearts of Iceland holding Argentina and a plucky Mexico taking the champions Germany apart. Troubled Argentina became the movement of the masses when taking on France. The home crowd wept in joy as Sergio Ramos and Spain went home.
The World Cup had some tears left to extract, and they did drop, contrasting ones as they were, on Monday in Rostov and elsewhere. Belgium vs Japan circa 2018 had no losers; the former qualified to the quarter-finals and the latter united an entire continent like no other.
Surely, Japan weren’t supposed to pull this off – defeat world number three Belgium and their glitzy array of stars, with their 22-match unbeaten streak. Belgium had three solid outings in the group stages and, with the exception of conceding twice in a three goal-win over Tunisia, had little to complain about till they reached Rostov. They were cruising, and Brazil’s win earlier on Monday meant that an exciting quarter-final clash was in the offing.
The Blue Samurai had sacked Valid Halilhodzic 71 days prior to the commencement of the tournament. In stepped Akira Nishino, the technical director and former AFC Champions League-winning manager with Gamba Osaka. Nishino had come with limited international experience but had coached the Japanese Under-20 and U-23 teams, the last of those stints ending in 1996.
The 63-year-old owned up to the enormity of making the World Cup’s third lowest-ranked team competitive. “The original task assigned to me as the technical director was to support the national team coach, and I feel deeply responsible for the current situation,” he had said. “It is a very difficult task to undertake the position of the coach at this timing, but I have felt the need to set the priority of the team above myself to break through the current situation.”
Friendly results had only served to provide naysayers with extra ammunition; twin 2-0 defeats to fellow World Cuppers Ghana and Switzerland were followed by a 4-2 win over a young Paraguay side, as a 3-4-2-1 system was tried and scrapped.
A 2-1 win over Colombia had been unconvincing despite being a man up for 87 minutes, followed by glimpses of their qualities and fallibilities in a draw against Senegal. A 1-0 loss to point-less Poland had cast the spotlight firmly on Nishino as they whimpered into the Round of 16 on the basis of fair play points. Six changes had clearly unsettled the team and Nishino admitted to having played a less-than-enterprising style in order to go through.
Belgium had scored nine goals in three games. What chance did Japan, twice having fallen at this level in 2002 and 2010, have? Except the Samurai Blue were unaware of the circumstances prior to their Rostov rendition.
Belgium had arrived, expecting a toothpick. They ran into a sledgehammer.
Nishino was no stranger to scripting an upset. At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, a Japan team consisting of only underage players and a precocious 19-year-old Hidetoshi Nakata had stunned a Brazilian team containing Bebeto, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Dida, and managed by World Cup-winning coach and player Mario Zagallo.
That 1-0 win had been dubbed the “Miracle of Miami” as 46,713 watched Japan’s biggest performance at a major tournament at the Orange Bowl. Biggest performance that is, until Belgium showed up.
“We must challenge them in every way possible as they are an opponent where we must create and exert extra strengths that we may not even have at this point,” Nishino had quipped in the build-up to the game. “The opportunities are lying somewhere on the pitch, and we just have to find them as a team.”
Extra strength they reserved as the first half started with them attacking Belgium up wide but opening themselves up to the threats of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne among others. Maya Yoshida, often derided at Southampton for his penchant for a mistake, was at the heart of defence, blocking and fending Lukaku and the Belgian attackers off.
Thibaut Courtois had almost let the ball slip between his legs, for his very own de Gea moment, but by and large, nothing had prepared viewers for what would follow in Rostov.
For the neutrals, the start of the second half was the endocrine shot that the game was crying out for. Jan Vertonghen, big man at back for club and country, let a simple through pass reach Genki Haraguchi.
Haraguchi held his position before selling a dummy to the last defender. He pulled a shot across goal, which saw the Asians drawing first blood.
Belgium would be hit twice in the space of five minutes as Takeshi Inui’s goal set the cat among the pigeons. Inui, snapped up by Real Betis for close to nothing in the summer, received the ball just outside the box and drilled it past Courtois.
Courtois had been critical of Jordan Pickford after the England game. Here, he was having a shaky game as the World Cup exit loomed large for Roberto Martinez and his men.
Belgium, however are contenders for being among the best in the business, and Martinez rang in the changes. Nacer Chadli and Marouanne Fellaini were introduced to bring in additional threats to Japan’s defence.
Vertonghen would eventually atone for his error when his headed cross-shot looped over everybody, including the keeper Eiji Kawashima to nestle in to a corner of Japan’s net. Fellaini’s was more straight-forward, a header from a Hazard cross that drew Belgium level.
Japan were naive but brave. On the loss of their two-goal lead, they attacked in numbers to try and get a third. They almost succeeded too, but they had made their final move as six blue shirts tried to storm the box for a final corner.
Sensing the kill, Belgium sprang, like a team that would step up only during chaos to get the ball to the other end within ten seconds. Lukaku, invisible for the most part, pulled off a world-class dummy in the heat of the moment as Chadli finished with ease following a lung-bursting 70-yard run.
Getting to watch this World Cup classic almost – ALMOST – made up for the pain of having to see Neymar roll around on grass earlier on in the day.
A kamikaze-style had been followed till the end; an uncompromising Japan had pushed Belgium all the way. The latter should feel lucky to progress at the expense of their combatants. Brazil await, but a test of character had been overcome. Belgium had lived to tell the tale.