5 reasons why Japan has won Asian hearts
If only there were points for sheer bravado and pure footballing performances. Alas, there are not, and Japan have come second-best in a football match for the ages under the lights in Rostov.
Belgium will rightly be praised for their indelible spirit in coming back from two goals down to clinch a memorable victory and it will give them an electric morale-boost ahead of a tasty encounter with Brazil.
Yet, let us take a few moments to eulogize the Samurai Blue, who were mesmerizing at times today. Although South Korea reached the semis in '02, I don't remember, in pure performance terms, many better Asian displays than what Hasebe & co. showed today (maybe, North Korea in '66 against a Eusebio-led Portugal is the only one that comes close).
#5 - Hasebe's Exemplary Leadership
“The only true captains I have ever worked with are Paolo Maldini and Hasebe”, quipped the ex Japanese national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni when talking about this guy. Not bad company to be mentioned in, eh?
To be fair, today Makoto Hasebe showed why he has garnered such glowing praise. Yes, even in a game glittered by the likes of Inui, Kagawa, and Haraguchi, it was the veteran Japanese skipper who was the true fulcrum of this very special Japanese performance. For a team to switch between attack and defense as seamlessly as Japan were able to do, you need an extremely-skilled pivot. With his surgical tackles, key interceptions, and nerveless passing, Hasebe, in what is very likely his last World Cup game, showed us why he is exactly that.
He perhaps deserves to be right up there in the conversation of the greatest Asian midfielders of all time.
#4 - A Newfound Physicality
Coming into the tournament, very few doubted the technical ability of the Japanese – what was glaring, however, was their tendency to be outmuscled by the more physical teams. Their inability to compete with the fitness and raw strength of European, South American, and African teams was predicted to be their undoing yet again.
In this World Cup, though, Japan unearthed the brawn to match their panache. We sensed reverberations of this newfound physicality against Colombia and Senegal but, today, they clocked into a higher gear against a team bursting at the seams with athletic brilliance.
Whether it was through their hunter-like tracking of the Belgian wide-players, or through them holding their own in shoulder-to-shoulder tussles against players much more imposing than them, or through their lung-busting runs forward to flood the Belgian defence, Japan has showed that you don’t necessarily need to be the biggest lads on the pitch to outgun your opponents, and that you can get very far with focused diligence topped with a whole lot of heart.