An Ode to Japan, Which Lost Because It Tried to Win

Japan's defender Gen Shoji (L) and Japan's goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima react after Belgium's players scored their winning goal during the Russia 2018 World Cup round of 16 football match between Belgium and Japan at the Rostov Arena in Rostov-On-Don on July 2, 2018. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
It was a loss to be proud of. Jewel Samad/Getty Images

When Japan attempted its final, fateful corner kick during Monday’s World Cup Round of 16 match against Belgium, it had five players in its opponent’s box and a sixth lurking just outside it. Despite letting a 2–0 lead slip away, Japan wasn’t trying to run out the clock and play for penalties. It was going for the win in the 94th minute. The decision backfired spectacularly.

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois caught Japan on its heels, and it took only nine seconds from the moment when the ball left his hands to when it hit the back of Eiji Kawashima’s net.

The Belgian counterattack was both remarkable and completely avoidable. Had Japan trapped the ball by the corner flag and milked the clock, I’d be writing about what happened in extra time and possibly penalty kicks right now.

Japan is not known for its swashbuckling spirit on the pitch, and it got to the knockout round partly due to its cautious approach. It was the first team ever to progress thanks to FIFA fair play points, as Japan had accumulated fewer yellow cards than Senegal during the group stage. Against Belgium, however, Japan’s attacking players looked anything but scared, and they outshone their celebrated counterparts in the early stages of the the second half.

Both of Japan’s goals came in a shocking four-minute span, and each was positively splendid. The first came in the 48th minute, when Takashi Inui, the country’s standout star this tournament, found Genki Haraguchi streaking down the right flank. Haraguchi’s little stutter-step was perfectly off-rhythm, and the syncopation opened a path for him to shoot.

Inui topped his inch-perfect assist with a blistering shot in the 52nd minute. The goal was set up by Shinji Kagawa’s impromptu juggling show outside Belgium’s box, and it marked the precise moment when the match revealed itself to be an ayahuasca hallucination.

Belgium responded with two quick goals of its own, but Japan did not relent. It played with stylish abandon for most of the second half, and a dipping, 35-yard Keisuke Honda free kick forced a save from Courtois in stoppage time. Japan threw all but two of its outfield players forward for the resulting corner kick, but this valiant attempt to win in the most exciting way possible resulted in a thrilling loss.

Playing to have no regrets sometimes ends in regretful fashion. We should all thank Japan for learning this lesson the hard way.