DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Japan reached the round of 16 for the fourth time at a World Cup. It got knocked out in the round of 16 for the fourth time in a 3-1 loss to Croatia on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw in regulation and extra time.
EXPECTATION VS. PERFORMANCE
Coach Hajime Moriyasu said for months that the Japan team's goal was to reach the quarterfinals for the first time. So by that standard, Japan under-performed.
However, 2-1 victories over former World Cup champions Spain and Germany in the group stage showed Japan has improved enough to compete with top soccer nations.
“Even though we could not break the wall of the round of 16 again, players demonstrated a new era of our soccer,” Moriyasu said.
Moriyasu talked of still needing to improve, but the coach said his players "can look eye-to-eye with anyone now.”
Fullback Yuto Nagatomo, 36, and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, 39, have each been on four World Cup squads and certainly will not return. Nagatomo played in all four games, but Kawashima never left the bench. Instead he served as a veteran mentor to the young team.
Captain and defender Maya Yoshida was in his third World Cup and, at 34, most likely his last.
“I’m having trouble finding words to describe how I feel," Nagatomo said after the loss to Croatia. “We did everything we could until the very end. I trust that younger players, driven by this sense of regret, will make a better future for Japanese soccer.”
Three names come immediately to mind.
Midfielder Ritsu Doan, who plays at German club SC Freiburg, scored two goals and will certainly be a backbone of future teams. Another is midfielder Kaoru Mitoma, who is having at stellar season at Brighton & Hove Albion in England's Premier League.
Mitoma was one of three Japanese players who missed their penalty kick in the shootout loss to Croatia.
The third is another midfielder, Takefusa Kubo, a 21-year-old at Spanish club Real Sociedad.
Japan has qualified for the Asian Cup, a tournament it has won four times. The event, scheduled for January 2024, was moved to Qatar after China withdrew, citing COVID-19.
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Stephen Wade, The Associated Press