When Japan led Belgium 2-0, courtesy two sensational strikes, the world rubbed its eyes in disbelief. Was history happening here? Every football romantic prayed for the Asian team. Nobody was expecting such a turn of events, especially since the Samurai Blue had sneaked into the pre-quarters dishing out strategically defensive football in the tricky group game against Senegal. Even their fans had booed them. But the world saw a different Japan, especially in the second half, on Monday night.
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The dream ended heartbreakingly in the last second of injury time. Every football romantic mourned their exit. In India, many felt a sense of shared Asian pride and solidarity due to the bold and beautiful performance of coach Akira Nishino’s boys.
In a World Cup where no African team reached last 16, the Japanese had struck a blow for Asian football. They were not alone – South Korea had defeated holders Germany 2-0, Iran had held Ronaldo’s Portugal 1-1 and Saudi Arabia had beaten Mo Salah’s Egypt 2-1.
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Of course, it can be argued that Korea had reached the semis in 2002 as co-hosts. Japan too had entered the knock-out round in 2002 and 2010. But this was different. This was more.
This was more than even North Korea’s 3-5 loss to Eusebio’s Portugal in 1966. This was a moment when Japan, World No. 61, had an in-form Belgium, World No. 3, on the mat and ready for the count. This is a match of which millions will replay the last few seconds and long for an alternate ending. This is a match that will be archived forever in our memories as a sporting masterpiece of melancholy.