IAN HERBERT: Minimal songs, no heroes and a relentless metronomic drum beat


It was a not a conventional kind of support from the Nippon Ultras and the many others who gathered here to drive on Japan.

There were few of the ebbs and flows of emotion we are accustomed to in football. Minimal songs. 

No heroes. Just a relentless, metronomic drum beat and chant which, like the one the Senegalese had delivered up the road at Al Bayt the night before, bore no reference to what was actually taking place on the field. 

It was a not a conventional kind of support from the Nippon Ultras, as Japan crashed out

Japan were knocked out of the World Cup in the last-16 with a penalty shoot-out loss to Croatia

Japan were knocked out of the World Cup in the last-16 with a penalty shoot-out loss to Croatia 

At one stage the Croatian fans, becalmed by the struggle their players were having, starting clapping too, just off the Japanese beat.

This was the story of a national team which has simply not had the same legends to sing about since the peak Shinji Kagawa fays and, long before him, Hidetoshi Nakata and Keisuke Nonda. 

But despite a finale which left the team down on their haunches – beyond consolation – there are certainly heroes today for a nation which has seen many of its players disappear into the German leagues and reaped the rewards.

Daizen Maeda celebrates opening the scoring for Japan against Croatia with his team-mates

Daizen Maeda celebrates opening the scoring for Japan against Croatia with his team-mates

Ivan Perisic (pictured) celebrates after levelling the score at 1-1 for Croatia in the last-16 tie

Ivan Perisic (pictured) celebrates after levelling the score at 1-1 for Croatia in the last-16 tie

Ritsu Doan, a Freiburg player and one of eight members of this squad to play in the Bundesliga, proved above all others that this was not a nation intent on survival against the previous tournament’s finalists, for all that defender Yuto Nagatomo had invoked of the Samurai warrior spirit before the game.

The cross Doan zeroed in after a short corner had been worked, bundled into the net by Diazen Maeda to send Japan ahead, typified the way he seized the game for Japan in a first half when they were at their best. 

Doan operated all over the Croatia half and was at his most dangerous in the small pockets just behind the forwards, at the apex of a network of rapid, accurate exchanges.

Japan's Ritsu Doan proved that they were not intent on survival against the 2018 finalists

Japan’s Ritsu Doan proved that they were not intent on survival against the 2018 finalists

He shipped the ball around, most effectively off his left foot. He traced a route through the defensive lines with his incisive dribbling. And he tackled, it has to be said, like a samurai.

In Tokyo, where they tuned in at midnight and were aware that this might not be over until 3am, there has always been a feeling that Japanese diffidence might have prevented their team’s progression. 

The sight of their manager, Hajime Moriyasu, formally attired in black suit and polished shoes, arms folded behind his back, did not suggest a firebrand.

But Japan were not here to make up the numbers, as they sought to go beyond this stage for the first time. They refused to settle into the 20 per cent possession statistics and demonstrate something about themselves.

Few did so more than 24-year-old Doan – the man with the bleached hair, who had inspired the win over Spain which brought Japan here – gesturing to team-mates, making his feeling known to officials and seizing on a leggy, leaden Croatia.

There will be abiding regret that a huge opportunity wasn’t taken while Japan had the chance and the superiority. 

Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic (pictured) saved three penalties into the shoot-out

Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic (pictured) saved three penalties into the shoot-out

Daichi Kamada’s angled strike from inside the box sailed over when Maeda – who put in the huge shift that he’d promised – was better positioned. It was a moment – and there were others – when the fractional lack of class and experience told.

The shootout was a calamity which will be hard to live with. A fourth last-16 defeat for Japan and a second on penalties, to go with the heartache against Paraguay 12 years ago, as well as the defeat to a 94th minute Nacer Chadli goal after they lead Belgium 209, four years ago.

But Japan depart as the surprise of the tournament; a probable force to be reckoned with in the US, four years from now.

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