If we hadn’t had the opportunity to witness their technically astute, precise brand of soccer, powered by an unrelenting belief they belonged on the field with established world powers, we might never have known Japan had visited the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
They left nothing behind to remember them but their athletic brilliance.
Dressing room? Spotless. Their players and staff left each facility immaculate.
Stadium stands? Pristine. The many ardent supporters in Qatar to cheer for Japan stayed after each game and helped cleaning crews to collect trash discarded by others in attendance.
Tidying up after one of their greatest #FIFAWorldCup wins 👏
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) November 24, 2022
Japan won its World Cup group over former champions Spain and Germany. They defeated each of those teams by a 2-1 score. In the Round of 16 on Monday against Croatia, runner-up in this tournament four years ago, Japan were just one goal away from a first-ever appearance in the quarterfinals.
The Samurai Blue could not find that goal in the 76 minutes — a minute of the first half, the entire second half, and two 15-minute extra-time periods — that remained after Daizen Maeda struck just before the break.
MORE: Relive Japan’s dramatic Round of 16 clash with Croatia at Qatar 2022
That meant the game would be decided in a penalty shootout.
It might be just as well if we didn’t talk about how that went. Let us leave it at the basic fact: Croatia won.
It is better to remember the beauty Japan delivered to this World Cup rather than the brutal details of their departure.
“Although the result was not what we expected, I told the players it doesn’t negate everything we did,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu told reporters after Japan’s exit.
“We could not break through the Round of 16, and we could not have a new perspective or see a new landscape, but the Japanese national team won against Germany and Spain, who have been champions in the World Cup.”
The players showed a new era of Japanese football, I think, and they should use this feeling of being upset to try to win the next time — Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu
Although Japan didn’t reach a first quarterfinal, there was the sense that this performance was something different than past efforts. This was the first time in 20 years the Samurai Blue won their group, and they did it this time as significant underdogs while controlling play for extended periods.
Only one of their four games ended with Japan recording an Expected Goals figure under one, that being the puzzling 1-0 loss to Costa Rica. And even then, they had an xG edge of .88 to .11.
The squad included 19 members who play for European clubs, 13 in the ‘Big Five’ European leagues. There was not one specific player upon whom everything was based, but rather a balanced, connected approach that led to four different players producing the team’s five tournament goals.
Takuma Asano struck late against Germany to break a 1-1 deadlock, and it was midfielder Ao Tanaka in the Spain game. No such hero could be located against Croatia.
This is the seventh consecutive World Cup in which Japan has appeared, and this became the third time in the past four they advanced to the knockout rounds. And they never seem to depart without an extra degree of agony born of their ability to remain competitive, no matter the opposition.
In 2010, it was a loss on penalties to Paraguay. In 2018, it was an added-time goal by Belgium to break a 2-2 scoreline just before the final whistle. And now this.
Elation for Belgium, but utter heartbreak for #JPN
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) July 2, 2018
They also leave, though, with ascending respect for the growth of their national team and their comportment throughout the tournament. In four games — one of which went to extra time — Japan players received only six yellow cards. Saudi Arabia earned 14 yellows in only three games. They did not play recklessly at either end.
They will lament the goal by Croatia to level the game in the second half, offering Tottenham’s Ivan Perisic just enough room to launch a powerful header that was ideally placed. They will agonize more over what happened in the penalty shootout.
There were tears in the stands among the Japanese fans. There were tears among the players on the pitch. Only one team ever departs the World Cup genuinely happy, though. Japan can leave with pride.
“Every day, for four years, we worked hard to break this barrier, but we couldn’t get the result we wanted,” veteran captain Maya Yoshida told reporters. “It’s really hard to take.
“We have given everything in this tournament and had great results, coming back against Spain and Germany. I am proud of my team, proud of my teammates.”