Japan’s penalty shoot-out defeat by Croatia, followed by Brazil’s solid 4-1 win over South Korea, has dashed Asian hopes for the World Cup in Qatar.
Australia’s earlier defeat by Argentina in the Group 16 knockout round means that all three Asian Football Confederation teams are now eliminated in the first knockout round of the World Cup.
But the Samurai Blue and Taegeuk Warriors have a lot to be proud of, not the least of which are Japan’s surprising surprises in group stage victories over European heavyweights Germany (2-1) and Spain (2-1) and South Korea’s impressive 2-1 victory against Portugal.
Japan’s Nikkei Asia news agency described Monday’s games as “one of the biggest nights in Asian football in two decades,” while South Korea’s Yonhap news agency wrote of the national team’s unlikely trip to the knockout rounds of the World Cup as a ” memorable underdog story”.
Ultimately, both undaunted campaigns ended as the East Asian soccer giants failed to advance to the quarter-finals.
Japan have reached the first knockout round of the Group of 16 three times in six trips to the finals, but never progressed. Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu had signed his players to put things right in the group stage despite a difficult draw in Qatar.
Group winners in Qatar and beating two former world champions, Japan faced a quick-witted Croatian side on Monday and after 120 minutes of play and a 1-1 draw, the Japanese faltered and lost 3-1 on penalties.
“I think the regret we feel about this loss will lead to something better in the years to come,” said full-back Yuto Nagatomo, who was playing his fourth and likely last World Cup.
“We were able to show the fighting spirit of the Japanese. It was hard to lose, but there’s no doubt that Japanese football is making progress,” he said.
Coach Moriyasu tried to soften the blow of another KO defeat by saying the team had entered a “new era”.
“We can’t be superheroes all at once,” 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 now face everyone as equals and trust who we’re beating,” he said.
Moriyasu had addressed his team in the middle of the pitch after the loss to Croatia. Many players dropped to the ground, others cried, and everyone comforted anyone within reach.
“Even though the result wasn’t what we expected, I told them (the players) that it doesn’t negate everything they did,” Moriyasu later said.
“But we couldn’t break through the round of 16 and see a new landscape.”
Moriyasu praised Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, who saved three of Japan’s penalties in the shoot-out.
“We have to accept this result,” said the coach. “But I don’t think we gave in to the pressure. I think the goalkeeper was great.”
Japan’s goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda addressed the failure directly.
“We fell short,” he said. “We’ve done everything we could for the last four years.”
“You gave everything”
South Korea’s Son Heung-min – a British Premier League superstar and the best Asian player in the world – said his team “gave their all” against Brazil but it wasn’t enough.
“Brazil is the favourite, look at the players. If you give them space, they score,” said Son, who recovered from a fractured eye socket in time to feature in Qatar and wore a mask to protect his face during games.
“I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved and I don’t want to blame any of our players because they gave their all,” he said.
Co-hosting the 2002 World Cup with Japan, South Korea had reached the semi-finals under Dutch coach Guus Hiddink. That year, the team went down in football history as the first team outside of Europe and America to finish in the last four.
South Korea’s Portugal coach Paulo Bento had already dampened expectations ahead of the first game in Qatar, not wanting to put the pressure on his side to qualify for the round of 16 after three group-stage eliminations from previous World Cups.
“I think our participation in the World Cup ended in a very fair way,” Bento said after the game against Brazil, where he also confirmed that he is stepping down from his role as coach of the Korean team.
“I have to thank them for everything, they did their best. I’m proud to be her manager,” said Bento, who has been in his position since 2018.
Although their dreams of winning the World Cup have been dashed, South Korea’s fans have said they are proud of how far their team has 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 victory for Brazil. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that despite snow flurries and sub-zero (32 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures, a crowd of 33,000 fans attended an outdoor game-watching party in the city center.
“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 defeat will not diminish support for the South Korean team.
“I will continue to support the Korean team and I think that one day we can reach the quarterfinals and semifinals if we continue to play our own style.”