Japan’s penalty shootout defeat to Croatia followed by Brazil’s solid 4-1 win over South Korea have ended Asian hopes at the World Cup in Qatar.
The earlier loss by Australia to Argentina in the group of 16 knockouts means that all three Asian Football Confederation teams have now been eliminated in the first knockout round of the World Cup.
But the Samurai Blue and the Taegeuk Warriors have much to be proud of, not least Japan’s shock upsets in winning matches against European heavyweights Germany (2-1) and Spain (2-1) in the group stage, and South Korea’s stunning 2-1 win over Portugal.
Japan’s Nikkei Asia news organisation had described Monday’s games as “one of the biggest nights in Asian soccer for two decades” and South Korea’s Yonhap news agency wrote of the unlikely journey of the national team to the knockout stage of the World Cup in what had become a “memorable underdog story”.
Ultimately, both intrepid campaigns came to an end as the East Asian footballing giants were unable to progress to the quarter-finals.
Japan have been to the first group-of-16 knockout round three times in six trips to the World Cup finals but have never gone any further, a state of affairs Japan’s coach Hajime Moriyasu had committed his players to rectifying in Qatar despite a tough draw in the group stage.
As group winners in Qatar and defeating two former world champions in the process, Japan went through to face a streetwise Croatian team on Monday and after 120 minutes of play and a 1-1 draw, the Japanese faltered and went down 3-1 on penalties.
“I think the regret we feel with this loss will lead to something better in the years to come,” said fullback Yuto Nagatomo, who was playing his fourth and probably final World Cup.
“We were able to show the Japanese people’s fighting spirit. It was difficult to lose but Japanese football is without a doubt, making progress,” he said.
Coach Moriyasu tried to soften the blow of another knockout loss, saying the team had entered a “new era”.
“We cannot be superheroes in one go,” Moriyasu said. “We have to improve step-by-step. But Japan is reaching a level where we can play on the world stage.”
“These players can look eye-to-eye with anyone now and take confidence in who we beat,” he said.
Moriyasu had addressed his team at the centre of the field after their loss to Croatia. Many players slumped on the ground, others cried, and everyone consoled anyone within reach.
“Although the result was not what we expected, I told them (the players) that it doesn’t negate everything they did,” Moriyasu said later.
“But we could not break through the round of 16 and see a new landscape.”
Moriyasu praised the Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic who stopped three penalty shots by Japan in the shootout.
“We have to accept this result,” the coach said. “But whether we succumbed to pressure, I don’t think so. I think the goalkeeper was great.”
Japan’s goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda addressed the failure directly.
“We came up short,” he said. “We did everything we could the last four years.”
‘They gave everything’
South Korea’s Son Heung-min – a superstar from the United Kingdom’s Premier League and the best Asian player in the world – said his team “gave everything” in the battle against Brazil, but it was not enough.
“Brazil is the favourite, look at their players. If you give them spaces they score,” said Son, who recovered in time from an eye socket fracture to feature in Qatar, wearing a mask to protect his face during matches.
“I’m so proud of what we’ve done and I don’t want to blame any of our players because they gave everything,” he said.
As co-hosts of the World Cup with Japan in 2002, South Korea had reached the semi-finals under Dutch coach Guus Hiddink. That year the side and went down in football history as the first team from outside Europe and the Americas to reach the last four.
South Korea’s Portuguese coach Paulo Bento had moved to temper expectations even before the first game in Qatar, not wanting to burden his side with the pressure of having to qualify for the knockouts after three group stage exits at previous World Cup tournaments.
“I believe our participation at the World Cup has ended in a very fair manner,” Bento said after the Brazil match, where he also confirmed that he was leaving his role as the Korean team’s coach.
“I have to thank them for everything, they gave their best. I have been proud to be their manager,” said Bento, who had been in his position since 2018.
Though their dreams of a World Cup win have ended, South Korea’s supporters said they were proud of how far their team had come.
Thousands of fans in Seoul braved the cold and snow in the early hours of Tuesday morning to watch their side’s World Cup run end in a 4-1 win for Brazil. South Korea’s news agency Yonhap reported that a capacity crowd of 33,000 fans attended an outdoor match-watching party in the city centre, despite snow flurries and temperatures that dropped below zero (32 degrees Fahrenheit).
“The result is not important,” 22-year-old student Lee Hyun-seo told the Associated Press at the outdoor event.
“Thanks to our players, it was really cool and proud just to have reached the round of 16.”
Kim Jae-cheol, 25, another student at the event, said the Brazilian team’s victory was expected and the loss would not diminish support for the South Korean side.
“I will keep supporting the Korean team and I think we will be able to go to the quarter-finals and semi-finals someday if we continue to play our own style.”