JAs the match between Japan and Spain drew closer, speculation grew wilder. Spain might lose on purpose, they said. The idea did not only come from the German media, the Spaniards also encouraged it. A TV reporter stood in front of the Khalifa Stadium and asked passers-by what they thought of this theory.
Reasons for an assumption in this direction were not made out of thin air. With a Japanese victory, Spain would have rid themselves of the German team, would have made it into the round of 16 themselves and, coming second, would have taken the supposedly easier route through the rest of the tournament. Morocco instead of Croatia in the next round and then no possible duel with Brazil.
A goal causes discussions
What then happened in the game was not suitable to get rid of these thoughts. On the contrary. Japan won 2-1 after falling behind, won the group and advanced to the round of 16 with second-placed Spain. Above all, the winning goal will be a topic of conversation for a long time to come. Not only in Germany. Before Mitoma tackled the ball into the six-yard box and Ao Tanaka put it in the goal, he crossed the touchline (51st minute). Only whether he did so to the full extent can be debated for all eternity.
The referees ruled that he hadn’t. Depending on the camera setting, you could have this or that view. The only thing that is certain is that it must have been a matter of millimeters.
“Everyone says it’s a miracle, but it’s no wonder,” said goal scorer Tanaka, from Fortuna Düsseldorf’s second division club. “We deserve it. We played more aggressively in the second half and won that way.”
As against Germany, Japan only had a few minutes to turn a game they thought they had lost. Ritsu Doan, playing for Freiburg, equalized immediately after the break (48′). Until then, no one could count on it. Spain completely dominated the first half. The statistics called up 83 percent ball possession and 566 passes played. But only one goal. Alvaro Morata scored with a header (11th).
Morata, who scored his third goal in his third World Cup game, was one of five newcomers called up by coach Luis Enrique. In the back line alone, Spain’s coach swapped three out of four positions. The team could hardly be well-rehearsed. There had never been so little flow and so much patchwork as in the second half against Japan in a Spanish World Cup match. Even during the dominant first half, the team happily managed the lead, the more time went on the less the Spaniards invested.
Enrique defended his rotation against the Japanese. “You’re always smarter afterwards,” said the Spanish coach, adding that he “would do it again because I had 100 percent faith in these players.”
Equally difficult to explain the reaction after going behind. When Tanaka’s goal finally came after watching TV for a long time, Spain had well over half an hour to spare, but for a very long time the team were unable to create a scoring opportunity. That only changed in the final phase. Dani Olmo, who plays for RB Leipzig in Germany, missed miserably (89th) free in front of the Japanese goal. His shot was no problem for goalkeeper Gonda.
Much of this game has a stale aftertaste, not just the lethargic demeanor of the Spaniards. The two association presidents Luis Rubiales and Kohzo Tashima met in Doha in the afternoon and decided to cooperate between the associations for the coming years. This includes playing international matches against each other and a close exchange in women’s football and refereeing.
Spain hopes that the cooperation will provide support in Asia for their own World Cup bid in 2030. The intention is to hold the tournament together with Portugal and Ukraine. The timing of the collaboration announcement might have seemed unfortunate ahead of the game. In hindsight, he did it all the more.