Following coach Rui Ramos' orders to the letter, the Japanese gave absolutely everything in the first semi-final of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, Rio de Janeiro 2005. Clearly exhausted, though, they were unable to live with the pace and power of a France team operating on another level. Still, both sides could go down in beach soccer history tomorrow - one by securing the first-ever World Cup title and the other by taking third place.
"With three players out injured, it wasn't easy for us to be competitive," admitted Japan's coach Rui Ramos after the match. "As soon as I had to make changes, the standard of the team dropped. But I'm not looking to make excuses, France are far better than us. I'd like to congratulate them, Eric Cantona has done an excellent job."
The sun beat down hard on the players as they made their way out for the morning kick-off. Already drained by their heroic efforts earlier in the competition, Japan unsurprisingly began to go about their task with measured caution. Cantona's response was typically astute; sending on Mendy for Cardoso to shake things up in the well-organised Japanese defence.
Seconds later, the France striker met Samoun's corner with a crisp volley to open the scoring (1-0). It was just the start Cantona had hoped for, and although the Japanese created a number of chances, they struggled to beat Aubry in the French goal. Japan nonetheless stepped up their pressure, and in the early stages of the second period Les Bleus made only rare incursions into their opponents' half.
They still looked threatening when they did, however, and Kato had to be alert to turn Sciortino's header wide. But from the resulting corner, Mendy was on hand to net his second goal of the game slightly against the run of play (2-0). For once, and for perhaps the first time since the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup began, Japan appeared to be in real trouble.
Rui Ramos's men were not about to give up hope yet, though, and as the final period got underway, there were still only two goals in it. The Japanese no doubt had their epic quarter-final on their minds, when they had managed to pull back three goals against Uruguay in just five minutes. But the injury that forced Makino out of the match seemed to sum up their struggles with fitness, and Japanese legs began to look heavy. Meanwhile, France were firing on all cylinders, and they gave themselves an insurmountable lead when Sciortino and Cardoso both hit the target (4-0). Desperate to save his team's honour, Kawaharazuka had the last word with a consolation goal two seconds before the final whistle (4-1).
His team through to the final, Eric Cantona could reflect on a successful day's work: "Luckily, we approached this semi-final very seriously in our preparations. I'm extremely satisfied with the performance of my players because they stayed concentrated at all times. We learnt a lot from what went wrong for America and Uruguay, and here we are in the final. Now we just have to win it."
Referees: José Luis Rosa (URU), Pedro Infante (VEN), Joao Alberto (BRA).