Everything was going to plan for Japan and forward Yuki Otsu. A winning start against Spain in Group D, sealed by a solitary strike from Otsu, set the tone for a faultless run to the semi-finals and an encounter with Mexico. And all without conceding a single goal.
Things then got even better for the Samurai Blue. With 11 minutes on the clock against El Tricolor, Otsu picked up a low pass and allowed the ball to sit up slightly before crashing a 20-yard half-volley into the top corner.
Otsu’s brilliant effort sent the Wembley crowd into raptures. And, with their defence so impressive since the start of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, Japan must have felt they were on their way to the final. Just over a year had passed since the Japanese women won the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™, and history seemed destined to repeat itself with a new team of heroes.
But it was not to be, as Mexico hit back with three goals of their own to shatter Japan’s dreams of gold. Otsu, Japan’s leading scorer at London 2012, found the defeat particularly painful, but summoned the strength to speak to FIFA.com nonetheless. “We came here to win gold, right from the start,” he said. “Our objective never changed, although it did become a bit more achievable with each match.”
Japan’s ambitions of winning gold appeared anything but unrealistic, particularly given the recent rise of Japanese football and the national team’s impressive run at London 2012. Mexico’s progress has been less eye-catching, but Otsu knows that, in the end, results are all that matter. “It’s not the result we’d hoped for, but we still have the chance to win a medal,” he said.
Semi-final defeats at major tournaments are always hard on the losers, who have less time than other sides to pick themselves up and focus on their next challenge. In Japan’s case, the next test is an all-Asian bronze medal match against Korea Republic at Cardiff’s Milennium Stadium on Friday.
The South Koreans, who were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Brazil in the other semi-final, have found the going tougher than Japan so far. But they are a side Otsu knows well, and the Borussia Monchengladbach forward believes they pose as much of a threat as A Seleção. “Brazil and South Korea are two very strong teams,” Otsu warned before the pair’s semi-final. “We want to win at all costs and leave with the bronze medal.”
The problem for Japan, however, is that Korea Republic have exactly the same idea. If Otsu and Co are to finish on a high, they will not only have to get over their semi-final heartbreak and find fresh motivation, but also rediscover the same sparkling form that kept their golden dreams alive for so long. “The semi-final defeat mustn’t make us forget all the good performances that came before it,” Otsu said. “Our team is young and has a great future.”
Victory on Friday may not bring the colour of medal Otsu and Japan had hoped for, but it will certainly put them in great heart for their next challenge.