Japan head home on wave of sympathy
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At five to eight on Sunday, when referee Roberto Garcia blew for full-time in the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 quarter-final between Japan and Brazil, the South Americans punched the sky in delight, but the Asians collapsed to the turf as if struck by lightning. Just half an hour earlier, few could have imagined it would end this way, but the match offered increasing drama and thrills as the second half wore on.

The junior Seleção were seemingly cruising to victory in the first hour. Japan failed to muster a shot at goal in the opening 45 minutes, as Brazil waltzed to a 3–0 lead through Leo, Ademilson and Adryan to close in on a semi-final berth.

Powered by the crowd
But what happened next was enough to rouse even the most football-sated fan out of their torpor. Shoya Nakajima scored what initially appeared a mere consolation with barely a quarter of an hour to go, but the loud and passionate 30,000 crowd at the Estado Corregidora in Queretaro urged the Japanese on. The Samurai Blue responded magnificently and suddenly had Brazil on the rack. With cries of “Japan, Japan" ringing round the venerable arena, a venue for the 1986 FIFA World Cup™, and every attacking move frenetically cheered to the rafters, a shock suddenly seemed a possibility.

When Fumiya Hayakawa succeeded in pulling another goal back with two minutes to go, the stadium erupted in a cauldron of noise. Were Japan about to achieve the impossible and come back to level terms from three goals down? The fans certainly believed it, and the feeling clearly transferred itself to the players out on the field. But the late rally was ultimately in vain, and Brazil scraped through to the last four, sparking the contrasting display of jubilation and devastation at the final whistle.

“First of all, a huge thank-you to the fans, who made it a magnificent atmosphere at the stadium today. We've had lots of energy and support from the supporters throughout the tournament," commented Japan coach Hirofumi Yoshitake at the start of the post-match news conference.

We've had lots of energy and support from the supporters throughout the tournament.
Japan's U-17 coach Hirofumi Yoshitake



His approachable and ever-polite players had by now finished a lap of honour, before unrolling a huge banner thanking the crowds for their support. The message was intended to express gratitude to the entire footballing family for its solidarity and practical support in the aftermath of the natural catastrophes in March this year, another reason why the team benefited from such huge sympathy during their five matches in Mexico.

Japan beat Jamaica 1–0, Argentina 3–1 and New Zealand 6–0, drew 1–1 with France, and fell to the narrow defeat against Brazil. The Queretaro crowd remained behind for many minutes after the final whistle, hailing the team in blue. The players stopped in front of each of the grandstands, bowing to the crowds and clapping. Goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura was unable to hold back the tears and gave free rein to his emotions. He was consoled by team-mates and members of the coaching staff, so that he too eventually took his leave of the fans with a wave and a half-smile.

Winners Brazil set off back down the tunnel to a round of polite applause. “Japan never gave up. At some point the fans got right behind them and cheered them on. They had a chance to equalise in the last minute, and we were lucky to get away with it. That's what makes football so wonderful," observed Brazil coach Emerson Avila, acknowledging the role played by the Queretaro crowd.

Worth more than victory
The record books will show that Brazil moved on to the last four and Japan packed for home, but there was much more to this game than just the result. The evening brought to mind the words of FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, expressed on a visit to Japan on 23 May this year: “Football creates hope and stirs the emotions. We hope our sport can make a contribution to the smiles returning to the faces of Japanese kids very soon."

The FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 may be over for the Samurai Blue, but they can look back on a major achievement. They have awakened hope, stirred the emotions, and ultimately earned a place in the fans’ hearts.