‘Simply not meant to be’: Heartbreak in Japan as Samurai Blue exit World Cup, Latest Football News - The New Paper

‘Simply not meant to be’: Heartbreak in Japan as Samurai Blue exit World Cup

TOKYO – At the end of an emotional roller-coaster ride of a football match, Yuki Hosoda sank to the ground, crestfallen, his head held in his hands.

“It was simply not meant to be,” the 25-year-old sales executive told The Straits Times. “But I can only say that this is the cruelty of a knockout stage.”

His sense of resignation was palpable. Japan may be a football-mad nation, but even then they were seen as underdogs by their compatriots.

Few dared to dream, not many expected that it would make it out of what is seen as the tournament’s Group of Death with former World Cup champions Spain and Germany.

Yet they topped the group, raising hopes that perhaps this might finally be the year that the Samurai Blue broke their World Cup jinx: They had never made it past the round of 16 in any of their six previous World Cup appearances.

The sense that Japan might be on the cusp of history despite their underdog status was why Mr Hosoda joined about 450 other fans at an indoor public screening held near the landmark Tokyo Tower.

The event, organised by design and events management firm Pasona Art Now, was at an auditorium at the Starrise Tower with a cinema-size giant screen measuring 7.5m by 25m.

“I knew that if I did not come, I would regret it for life,” Mr Hosoda told ST at half-time.

Wearing the No. 6 jersey of his favourite player, defensive midfielder Wataru Endo, he cut a passionate figure throughout the match.

When Japan scored against Croatia to lead 1-0 in the first half, he leapt up to give nearby strangers a hug. But as the clock inched down to penalties with the score still tied at 1-1, his eyes were shut tight, his hands clasped in prayer.

The fans may have been in an auditorium some 8,239km away from Doha in Qatar, but that did not stop them from trying to fulfil the role of the 12th man and will their team to victory with their cheers and chants from afar.

Time and again, cheers of “Nippon!” would erupt with fist pumps in the air, as well as chants of player names.

At half-time with Japan holding the lead for the first time this tournament – the Samurai Blue had come from behind to beat Germany and Spain 2-1, while they fell 1-0 to Costa Rica – Mr Hosoda said: “The second half is going to be the longest 45 minutes of my life.”

But Japan alas let their lead slip, drawing 1-1 with Croatia at the end of regular time.

And with the score still tied at the end of extra time, the game went into penalty kicks. Japan bowed out 1-3 to Croatia, who were runners-up in the 2018 tournament.

Part-time worker Yumi Ina, 21, said: “It’s such a pity, but the fact we could hold Croatia for 120 minutes and reach penalties is a positive sign that this Japan team can only grow stronger.”

University student Saki Ikegaya, 21, added: “I found it incredibly touching to watch the players run their hearts out.”

The two friends singled out winger Junya Ito as their favourite player, admiring how he is deft on his feet.

Mr Shigeo Ito, 33, who works in IT, likewise expressed gratitude to the players for what has been an exhilarating campaign.

As a supporter of football club Frontale Kawasaki in the domestic J-League, he was watching out for defender Shogo Taniguchi, as well as winger Kaoru Mitoma, a former Frontale player who now plays for Brighton in the English Premier League.

“It is as if there is a wall that is insurmountable for Asian teams like Japan,” he said. “We might not have been able to overcome this wall this year, but I hope we can do so in four years. We beat Spain and Germany after all.”

Mr Hosoda concurred that the future for the Samurai Blue was bright.

“In four years, there will be a new generation of passionate players who will come up through such events as the AFC Asian Cup this year and the Paris Olympics in 2024,” he said. “If a younger generation of footballers can be nurtured by the current players, this team can only get stronger.”

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