Japan's players traipsed out of the Arena Pantanal and boarded the bus bearing expressions of understandable dejection, having seen their chance at escaping Group C slip through their fingers.
At half-time in Cuiaba, against an already-qualified Colombia, there looked to be hope. Having levelled the score at 1-1 with the last touch of the first period, and with Côte d'Ivoire trailing to Greece, it meant all they needed was a goal. Unfortunately for the reigning Asian champions, that necessity was ultimately their undoing, as the South Americans roared to a 4-1 victory against their over-committed and exposed opponents. Shinji Okazaki, whose header had given Japan a twinkling of belief that they could overcome a disappointing previous pair of results to reach the Round of 16, found the final score tough to take.
“All we could do was try to win and score as many as possible,” he told FIFA. “It was disappointing that we conceded early but we fought for goals after that. However, I cannot face the fact that we lost with a score of 4-1 at this very moment.”
They found themselves in their all-or-nothing position after falling to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of *Les Elephants *in their opening game, before playing out a goalless draw with the eventual second-placed qualifiers. The failure to take their chances and get points on the board stung for captain Makoto Hasebe.
“In the football world, it's all about results,” he told FIFAonce their fate was confirmed. “After four years of effort, we could not achieve positive results in the end. I feel responsible as the captain.
"I am proud of everyone in our team, not only including the players but also the coaching staff and of course the manager. But, in the end, we could not get through the group stage. So I feel very sorry for all the supporters.”
Hasebe believes the brand of football Japan adopted and developed under Alberto Zaccheroni, building upon the Japanese approach of slick interplay, is one that needs to remain for them to come back stronger in four years' time. Having produced arguably their best football of the tournament against Colombia, rediscovering some of the cohesion they lacked in their first two games, Hasebe felt it showed the potential their system holds.
“I think it's important for Japan's football to keep the same image and plan for the future," he said. "In terms of that, I think we could show some of the images in today's match. However in terms of the whole group stage in this World Cup, it was disappointing.”