ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) — Japan came so close to reaching the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time but it was not to be; and coach Akira Nishino did not mince his words talking about how it feels to fail yet again. "I am devastated," he said.
Japan entered Monday's last-16 World Cup match against Belgium in Rostov-on-Don as the clear underdogs, but it surprisingly took the lead early in the second half with a pair of superbly taken goals. Then Belgium dug deep and produced a memorable comeback, scoring its first goal with 21 minutes left and the winner deep in injury time for a 3-2 win and a place in the quarterfinals.
Japan squeezed through to the knockout stage of this World Cup because it had a better disciplinary record than Senegal, after both teams finished the group phase with four points, the same goal difference and the same number of goals scored.
It was the third time Japan has failed to make the last eight in the World Cup and maybe the closest it came to succeeding. The disappointment was obvious, with some of the players falling on their knees in despair after the final whistle, while others just cried.
So shocked the Japanese players were by the defeat they just stood around doing nothing in the locker room after the match. "I told them to take a shower," said Nishino.
"We started off very well, but at the end, right at the end, to have conceded a goal like that, it was not expected," a grim but collected Nishino told reporters. "We were leading and we were going to win, but I didn't expect this reversal of the result. It was the World Cup, and we were faced with the depth and the strength of Belgium. That's how I felt at the end of the game."
Nishino must have been surprised by how well his team was doing until Belgium began its comeback, having fended off the Belgians' usually prolific attack in the first half and scoring two goals early in the next. Only a day earlier, he was rhetorically asking how he would attack a team like Belgium, citing its third place in the world's FIFA ranking and Japan's place 58 places down the list at 61.
The best he could hope for, he said Sunday, was for his players to play "Japan-like" — contest every ball, control the ball, play dogged defense and stage lightening counterattacks. They've done all that, or at least much of it, but, by Nishino's own admission, it did not match what Belgium had in their repertoire.
"It might have been a very small difference, but I felt there wasn't anything between (separating) us. The players throughout this tournament were very positive, better than in the past. Even against the likes of Belgium, they were confident. ... But that little difference has to be filled going forward," he said, offering an honest critique of his team.
"(At the end) I was questioning myself, whether I had control of the game. We were 2-0 up, and still the score was reversed. It wasn't the players. Maybe it was me who lost control of the game. When the (Belgium's third) goal was conceded, I blamed myself, and I questioned my tactics."