DOHA, Qatar – Ao Tanaka is sure of his place in Japanese football folklore.
That much was certain from the moment the midfielder bundled the ball over the line at the Khalifa International Stadium on Thursday in what proved to be a crucial win for Japan in a stunning 2-1 win over Spain and secured their place in the round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup 2022.
Wild celebrations ensued, both immediately after the goal and after the video assistant checked that it would stand, as well as after the final whistle as Samurai Blue progressed to the knockout stages for the second straight season confirmed – where they will now meet Croatia at the Al Janoub Stadium on Monday night.
The passion flooded the stands with some fans delirious with joy while others were simply rooted to the ground and sobbing to themselves – either with relief or disbelief.
All around iconic images that should be remembered for a long time. Why has it already faded for the man who scored the goal that made all of this possible?
“All of us (on the team) have forgotten everything (about that win),” said a concentrated Tanaka when asked by ESPN after Japan’s training session on Saturday if he relived that moment two days later.
“Obviously we were so happy to have won the last game, like the one against Germany (in the Group E opener), but we don’t care anymore.
“Japan has never reached the quarter-finals (of the World Cup), so the next game is the most important for us. We have to prepare and focus on the next game.”
Despite his crucial contribution in Japan’s previous game, Tanaka is not a guarantee to face Croatia as coach Hajime Moriyasu has already shown his willingness to change not only his squad but also his formation.
However, Tanaka started both games against Germany and Spain while surviving the 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, suggesting he is not only part of the strongest squad Moriyasu has in mind, but also one Lucky charm if he is in the starting XI.
“We have good players in every position,” Tanaka added.
“Obviously I’d like to start every game, but we don’t know who the manager will play in the next game.
“If it’s me, you can be sure that I’ll give my best on the pitch.”