The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 has truly come alive with Japan upstaging giants Germany with a come from behind 2-1 victory in their Group E opener at the Khalifa International Stadium on Wednesday.
Japan became the second Asian team in consecutive two days following Saudi Arabia’s upset of Argentina on Tuesday to stamp their superiority on the World Cup.
“Germany are among the favourites,” former Germany coach Joachim Loew had stated before the match, perhaps undermining the Samurai Blue capabilities. Many, in fact, also did with Germany leading 1-0 at half time after Ilkay Gundogan scored off a ‘controversial’ penalty in the 33rd minute.
The hardworking-as-ever Japan staged comebacks repeatedly raiding the rival citadel and trying to make good of the rebounds. In the 75th minute, forward Ritsu Doan capitalized on a fine rebound inside the box to level the scores.
The threat loomed large for Germany and the fear turned into reality just eight minutes later (83’) as Takuma Asano scored from an acute angle from the right for spectators at the stadium to erupt into a mix of celebration and wonder.
Coming in as a substitute Asano, who now has two goals in four Japan caps, immediately ran over to the photographers in the corner of the stadium in sheer delight and even before the ball could fall from the roof of the goal net and many could realise that it had gone in.
A frantic Germany tried hard till the end of a frenetic and exciting seven minutes of added time but to no avail as Japan reigned supreme in the clash.
Speaking immediately after the match, Japan’s captain Maya Yoshida expressed his delight but in typical Japanese tradition chose to stay grounded. “This is the beauty of football, sometimes it happens! Now the spotlight is on our side, it’s time to dance.
“But we have to be humble. We saw what Saudi Arabia did yesterday. Today we worked hard to win, so we are very happy,” he said.
Asked about ‘Japan’s Messi’, midfielder Takefusa Kubo, Yoshida said, “He had a difficult time last year, was struggling after an injury and was under pressure. But he made it good today. I am happy for him.”
With Asian teams making their mark on the biggest stage of football (there are five Asian nations at this World Cup), Saudi Arabia and Japan’s victory have set the tournament on fire early on.
“We are representing Japan but at the time we are representing Asia,” said Yoshida, “We have supporters from all over Asia and we are grateful.”
How does Japan look to the tournament ahead? “We go into the next match and hopefully the next round and make history for Japan,” stressed Yoshida.
Japan went top in Group E which also features Spain and Costa Rica who were set to meet later in the day. Germany are last for now after losing their opener as in 2018 - 1-0 against Mexico - when they went on to exit in the group stage as title holders.
Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said: “The wasted chances and not good defending cost us. We didn’t have the patience at the back in the second half. We should have played better and with better confidence up front.”
Germany survived a big early scare when Gündogan lost the ball in midfield and Daizen Maeda slotted home. But the offside flag went up, and there was another let-off after Nico Schlotterbeck lost possession.
Germany soon gained control, with Bayern Munich’s gifted teenager Jamal Musiala seeing plenty of the ball but it took a 33rd-minute penalty for them to take the lead.
Joshua Kimmich chipped the ball across the defence to the completely unmarked left back David Raum, who was then clipped by goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, allowing Gündogan to convert from the spot by sending the keeper the wrong way.
A second goal from Kai Havertz on the stroke of half-time was disallowed for offside and Gündogan fired against the outside right post on the hour.
But Japan started to sense their chances and became more aggressive in the German half but the latter could have wrapped up matters in the 70th when substitute Jonas Hofmann and twice Serge Gnabry were denied by Gonda.
Neuer made a huge save against Junya Ito with Hiroki Sakai firing over on the rebound but three minutes later Doan smashed home after Neuer had palmed away a sharp cross from the left into his path.
In the 83rd, Asano took up a long ball, and with Schlotterbeck not challenging him decisively, he fired high into the net at the near post.
“This is a huge disappointment,” Neuer said. “We made the opponent strong. The final desire made the difference. Japan believed they could win while we thought we could preserve the lead.”
Germany now face an uphill battle against Spain on Sunday and Costa Rica next Thursday to stay in the tournament as forward Thomas Müller conceded: “We wanted to ease the pressure with a victory.”
Interestingly, just before the match, one of the two pandas Thuraya and Suhail, gifted by China to Qatar especially on the occasion of FIFA World Cup 2022, had picked Japan as the winner.
Some television experts even wondered how a panda would know exactly! But then they admitted that they have been proved wrong. For the record, the panda had also picked Ecuador as winner against Qatar for the inaugural game.
True to themselves, hundreds of Samurai Blue fans in Qatar have already impressed one and all with their impeccable behavior and discipline. Just like at the 2022 World Cup (hosted by South Korea and Japan), their fans leave the stadium picking up litter around them.
Wednesay at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha it was no different after the match even as the Japan fans rejoiced in what was a fantastic win.