Their remarkable comeback last week has electrified Japan, where hardcore and casual fans alike stayed up until midnight to watch their victory over the four-time world champions.
“We’re just one game in, but Japan are already exceeding expectations,” said Dan Orlowitz, a sports reporter with the Japan Times. “I would have been more than happy with a draw against Germany, but to actually get the win is phenomenal.”
Japan’s travelling fans have already endeared themselves to their hosts, not least for cleaning up after themselves following the Germany match – a ritual that stretches back decades. That goodwill extends to the team, who left stadium staff gifts of origami paper cranes in their spotless dressing room.
Japan’s players, who are up against Costa Rica today, say they are spearheading an Asian challenge to football royalty from Europe and South America – a mission whose accomplishments include Saudi Arabia’s shock win over Argentina.
“It certainly feels like this could turn out to be a great tournament for Asian countries,” said Jeremy Walker, editor of Sporting Asia, the Olympic Council of Asia’s official magazine. “The wins for Saudi Arabia and Japan were a huge step forward for Asian football, especially in the Middle East,” said Walker, who has reported on Japan at three World Cups and is now based in Kuwait.
“The locals here were cheering for Japan, too, so there is a strong feeling of pride that Asian teams have beaten two superpowers in Argentina and Germany. Qatar and Iran were disappointing in their first matches, but Saudi Arabia and Japan have changed the atmosphere. But can an Asian team reach the semi-finals, like South Korea in 2002? That’s going to be very tough.”
Orlowitz agrees the tide has turned for Asian teams after Qatar and Iran lost their opening matches. “I think there was a lot of concern among Asian football watchers early on with Qatar and Iran, but since then Asia has had a very respectable showing. The challenge will be getting into the quarter-finals. It may be too early to start thinking about that, but there’s room for hope.”
Japan’s coach, Hajime Moriyasu, could cement his newfound status as national hero if he achieves his goal of taking Japan to the last eight for the first time since their World Cup debut at France 1998, and four years after they came agonisingly close in Russia.
“I believe it’s a historic moment, a historic victory,” he said after the Germany game. “If I think about the development of Japanese soccer, thinking of the players, for them this was a big surprise.”
While Moriyasu revelled in his players’ heroics, fans back home were awaiting the next appearance by Taiyo, an eight-year-old river otter at an aquarium in Tokyo, which predicted Japan would beat Germany the day before the match.
If they repeat the feat against Costa Rica, they could make the knockout stages irrespective of the result of their final group match against Spain. But as the team’s fans anticipated a second raucous night of celebration this weekend, the players were trying – with little success – to play down their prospects.
“We haven’t changed history yet, but I think it was a historic match, so I celebrated with my teammates,” said Ritsu Doan, who scored Japan’s first goal against Germany. “But from today, I’ve changed my mindset and am preparing for the Costa Rica game. It’s important not to get big-headed.”