The sight of coach Takeshi Okada seeking solace with his players after yesterday's penalty shootout loss to Paraguay told its own story. Having come so close to reaching the last eight for the first time, Samurai Blue’s bid ended abruptly when Yuichi Komano’s penalty struck the crossbar before Paraguay’s Oscar Cardozo slotted home the winning kick.
With the jubilant Paraguayans plunging into wild celebrations, Okada - who normally conveys steely image regardless the outcome - rushed on to the pitch to hug his players one by one. “He didn’t blame anyone for the defeat,” Kengo Nakamura, a late substitute, told FIFA.com. “He just told us, ‘thank you, thank you all for working so hard to take us to this stage’.”
This emotional outpouring from a normally calm coach emphasised how far Japan had come in making their historic breakthrough in South Africa. Both Okada and his team entered the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ under a cloud following a series of losses in the build-up, with their goal of a semi-final place ridiculed by domestic and international media. Okada’s last-minute tactical change of pushing Keisuke Honda up front as the lone striker sparked further criticism, with even their own fans left to wonder if their team would survive the group stage given the fact they had never won a single game on foreign soil.
It was against these odds that Japan got off to a bright start with a single-goal victory over Cameroon. Then, after losing to Netherlands by the narrowest of margins, they rounded off their group campaign with a resounding 3-1 victory over Denmark. The doubters had been proved wrong therefore, and despite the heart-breaking loss to Paraguay, midfielder Daisuke Matsui told FIFA.com that the team can feel proud of their achievements.
“We were really tired going into the game,” said the 29-year-old, who set up Honda for the winning goal against Cameroon and rattled the crossbar in the first half against Paraguay. “But we continued to work hard and play our way of football. We lost the game but we showed the watching world we have a competitive team. We did our utmost but today was not our day. This is fate and we can do little to change it. The only thing we are able to change is our way of thinking.”
For the Grenoble star, Samurai Blue’s memorable campaign served to turn a page in their history. “Today will be a turning point for Japanese football,” he said. “The team’s performance will provide youngsters with inspiration to improve. We have showcased the progress of Japan football and I expect more and more of our players can realise their dreams of moving to top overseas leagues. In general, we must learn from our experiences in this World Cup what we need to do to improve in four years’ time.”
Okada had urged his players to make history before the penalty shootout, and despite their near-miss, he lauded their efforts. “They represented not only Japan but also Asia and they played hard until the end,” he concluded. “I’m proud of them.”