- Japan squeezed through to the last 16 yesterday
- They will now face Belgium in Rostov
- Nagatomo assesses their chances and campaign thus far
By Hidetoshi Suzuki with Japan
It isn't often that a defeat ends in celebrations, but Japan yesterday emerged as the exception to the rule. Although the Samurai Blue lost 1-0 to Poland in Volgograd, their exploits earlier in the campaign - and a superior Fair Play points balance to Senegal - saw them advance ahead of the Poles and Lions of Teranga, both of whom sit higher in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
For Yuto Nagatomo, who is playing in his third FIFA World Cup™ with Japan, that achievement of reaching the Round of 16 is more than worthy of rejoicing in.
“The other three teams in the group have more quality than us and every game was difficult," Nagatomo told FIFA.com. “The result (qualification) is something we can be glad about."
Nagatomo knows better than most not to take such achievements for granted. At Brazil 2014, he was part of a Japan team that fell at the first hurdle after one draw and two defeats. So, what has the difference been between that campaign and this one?
“We acknowledge what we are capable of now, and we have played tenaciously," he said. "This time, every player has done the basic thing of keeping running until the end of the game. And we have been united as a team. I think that’s the main reason why we've gone through this time."
Asked about his own development since 2014, he was more modest. “Personally speaking, I have not improved a lot but I’m always helped and supported by my team-mates, and that feels wonderful," he said. "I would like to thank them for that.”
Japan will now face Belgium, who sit a lofty third in the latest World Ranking, on 2 July in Rostov. Nagatomo believes it's a match Japanese fans should look forward to and relish, particularly if the team continue to display the teamwork and hard work he believes has got them this far.
“It will definitely be a hard match. Belgium are a better team than us," he admitted frankly. "However, Japan can now play with confidence. We have nothing to lose."