Japan Vs Belgium: The Best Football is Played in Under 90 Minutes

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Japan Vs Belgium: The Best Football is Played in Under 90 Minutes

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Last night’s Belgium vs Japan match had all the recipes for nail-biting drama: Japan, the only Asian team left in the World Cup, dialling up the pressure on Belgium; Belgium scripting a memorable comeback from two goals down and finishing off in style in the final seconds. Thrilling goals (including an unforgettable Fellaini header), solid defending, synced teamwork, and crushing heartbreak ensured the rapt attention of viewers. But most importantly, in the weekend of penalties, this electric knockout match — being hailed the best match of the World Cup so far — was an effective reminder of how some of the best football happens in under 90 minutes (and a little extra time).

Unlike South Korea, Japan, a steady and stable team, didn’t rely on theatrics. Qualifying for six consecutive World Cups, Japan were naturally reputed for playing disciplined football but they never looked threatening. They made it to the round of the 16 mostly due to this cautious approach (and a fair-play advantage) — but were never a swashbuckling crew. Last night’s game changed that: Japan set the pulses racing, outplaying Belgium, the dark horse, at every chance they got.

Belgium, on the other hand, entered the World Cup with a history of doomed teams that had faltered when it had mattered the most. And, midway through the second-half, as Belgium was struggling to keep up with Japan, it did seem like they would join the ranks of big-name casualties like Argentina and Germany and head home. But then came the counter-attack that would prove to be menacing, merciless, and entirely unavoidable.

It was the fourth minute of the extra time that cemented Japan’s fate. The match was still tied 2-2 and Japan had a corner kick. At no point during the fixture, did Japan look like they wanted to play for penalties. After watching a 2-0 lead slip through their fingers, it was evident that they would settle for nothing less than a winning goal, even in the 94th minute. Unfortunately this decision, royally backfired.

That last goal was a costly price that Japan would have to pay for their oversight, but it is also a solid case against penalty shootouts.

When Japan set up for the corner, the team had only five players in the opponent’s box and a sixth outside. Belgium’s goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois didn’t just thwart Japan’s attempt but inadvertently ended up aiding a shocker of a goal in the dying minute. It took just nine seconds for the ball to leave the hands of their keeper and reach the back of the Japanese net, after a touch from substitute Nacer Chadli. It was also the first time in 50 years that a 2-0 deficit was overcome this stirringly in the knockout stages.

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Last night’s match effectively took us back to a time when football stood out for being a fluctuating yet beautiful game.

Image Credits: Getty Images

That last goal was a costly price that Japan would have to pay for their oversight, but it is also a solid case against penalty shootouts. That goal was a rallying cry for football not being reduced to a backyard contest with generous dollops of luck and mind games, and a small helping of talent. Instead, that goal was a lesson in how to raise a game to a sport. For it was a result of a chaotic and beautiful amalgamation of spacing, dribbling, quick thinking and merciless physicality.

What we witnessed last night from both sides was teamwork at its peak; one that made the comfortable predictability that viewers and teams had gotten used to in the last few games seem completely useless. Last night’s match effectively took us back to a time when football stood out for being a fluctuating yet beautiful game that didn’t require fouls, red cards, or even injury time to get exciting.

That’s probably why it was impossible to feel uninterrupted joy for Belgium without feeling devastated for Japan. That’s the power of good football — it makes rooting for just one side an alien concept. It elevates an ordinary one-sided game of win and loss into a sort of a choreographed dance form. And, no amount of penalty shootouts can even get close to that feeling.

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