Japan arrived in Qatar hoping to atone for their most infamous of visits to this country, when a stoppage-time equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Iraq on neutral ground during the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup denied them their first-ever place at a finals. There have been seven consecutive qualifications since – a remarkable rise to becoming an established footballing nation – but if they leave without reaching the knockout stages of this tournament, they will be left to lament this defeat as their new ‘Tragedy of Doha’.
After their exceptional win in the first round of group games, not to mention Costa Rica’s 7-0 defeat, this was a chance for Japan to all but secure a place in the last-16 and pile pressure on Germany before their meeting with Spain later this evening. Instead, Keysher Fuller’s 81st-minute winner has turned Group E on its head and produced a plausible scenario where all four sides go into the final round level on points.
Hajime Moriyasu may try to look on the bright side and philosophise that three points after two games is par for the course. But in the cold reality of a World Cup, while witnessing Moriyasu and his players bow apologetically to their supporters at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the only conclusion to be drawn from a scrappy contest with a sensational finish is that his side have wasted the golden opportunity that beating Germany presented.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, are still just about alive thanks to Fuller. The right-back’s looped, slightly mishit shot only just made it through goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda’s outstretched palm. The chance had only come his way because Yeltsin Tejeda capitalised on a mistake by Hidemasa Morita. It was an ugly goal to win an uglier game but just about what Luis Fernando Suarez’s side deserved for a disciplined gameplan.
It is not as though Japan are not used to having the weight of expectation on their shoulders and therefore needing to break down deep-set defences. The first round of their qualifying campaign saw Hajime Moriyasu’s side score 46 times and concede just twice while registering two double-digit wins. But Costa Rica are more formidable opponents than the likes of Myanmar and Mongolia, even if they did not look it against their opening game opposition.
Aside from a brisk start, when Ayase Udea almost made a telling connection with Yuki Soma’s corner inside the first minute, Costa Rica were more resolute and organised than in defeat to Spain. With a five-man defence rather than a four, Los Ticos had no intention of allowing Japan to simply put one foot in the last 16. Except it was not clear what their actual intentions were either.
With Germany to come in Group E’s final round, a win over the third seeds still represented Costa Rica’s best chance of prolonging their stay at the tournament, but their best chance of troubling Gonda was an outside-of-the-foot shot from one-time Arsenal winger Joel Campbell. It was speculative, at best, and well off target. Their counter-attacking approach produced little else.
It is difficult to have a half of football at this World Cup so devoid of action, so absent of incident, that it only produces one minute of added time. This did not even produce that. Referee Michael Oliver mercifully blew up with around 20 seconds of that additional minute still remaining, leaving even Fifa’s stadium announcer to admit that the opening 45 minutes had been “relatively quiet”.
Something had to change if Japan were going to seize the moment. Moriyasu matched up with Costa Rica, switching to a back three with the potential to become a five, and introduced Takuma Asano, the match-winner against Germany. Again there was a fast start, with Morita forcing Keylor Navas to parry the first shot on target of the afternoon, but again that early pressure was not sustained.
Japan were at least unmistakably in the ascendancy now and Moriyasu continued to turn to his bench in search of finding an edge. One of his substitutes, Junya Ito, might have found the breakthrough had he not been cynically pulled down by Francisco Calvo when on the edge of Costa Rica’s box. It appeared to fit the red card criteria of denial of a goalscoring opportunity, but Oliver only saw fit to show a yellow, and Soma wasted the subsequent free-kick.
It was one-way traffic by that point, until suddenly it wasn’t. When it came, Fuller’s goal was Costa Rica’s first shot on target. Japan scrambled for an equaliser – quite literally, when an inviting cross from Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma was almost forced in by Daichi Kamada, sparking the mother of all stramashes inside Costa Rica’s six-yard box. They survived, and remain standing at this World Cup, while Japan snatched another tragedy from the jaws of triumph.