Well, what can we expect when they hold the World Cup in the desert in late autumn? Form chart? What form chart? Of course Saudi Arabia shocks Argentina. And of course Japan topples Germany. We’re only four days into the tournament in Qatar, and the minnows are devouring the sharks.
This was undoubtedly the finest moment in their soccer history for the resilient Japanese, who scored two late goals to stun the Germans, 2-1, in Al Rayyan Wednesday.
And it was the continuation of a global nightmare for the Mannschaft, who now on Sunday have to beat Spain, which demolished Costa Rica, 7-0, to avoid going three-and-out for the second straight time.
“It’s ludicrous that we’re left with a defeat here,” said a disgusted Thomas Mueller, who’s playing in his fourth Cup.
“DEBAKEL-START fur Deutschland!” declared the Bild newspaper after the Germans again dropped their opener. Four years ago, after the Mexicans blanked them, they were knocked out by the South Koreans, who scored two stoppage-time goals in their group finale.
This time, having taken the lead in the 33rd minute on Ilkay Gundogan’s penalty kick, the Germans were caught flat-footed by Japan’s assault in the final quarter-hour.
After Ritsu Doan scored off a rebound in the 75th minute, Takuma Asano tracked down a long free kick and roofed the ball above keeper Manuel Neuer in the 83rd.
“The players came together as one team, we prepared well and we stuck in there,” said Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu, “and that’s what led to the win.”
It was the first time that the Samurai Blue ever won a Cup match after falling behind and the first time since 1978 that the Germans had lost after leading at halftime. Credit Japan’s boldness in going for 3 points when it appeared early that they’d be more than content with 1.
But their comfort with taking risks in a Cup opener says much about how the planetary landscape has changed over the last couple of quadrennia.
The Japanese, who’ve qualified for every tournament since 1998, believe that reaching the quarterfinals is a realistic goal after just missing last time. And the Germans, who hoisted the trophy in 2014, now simply hope to advance.
Nobody’s afraid of the Mannschaft any more. After their failure in 2018, the Germans were shut out two years ago by the English in the second round of the European championships. In this year’s Nations League competition, they won only one of six matches and were beaten by the Hungarians. When you lose at home to North Macedonia, as Germany did during qualifying, the invincibility vanishes.
If the Japanese, who’ll advance by beating the Costa Ricans Sunday, weren’t intimidated by the Germans, it may be because they know them so well. Seven of them — including Doan and Asano — play in the top-level Bundesliga .
Two decades ago, when Japan co-hosted the Cup, all but four of their players came from the domestic J League. This time, 19 of them play in Europe for clubs like Arsenal, Celtic, Sporting, and Monaco.
The Japanese now expect to get out of their group, and they’re tactically savvy enough to know how to do it. They understood that they couldn’t go on the attack against Germany for a full 90 minutes, so they didn’t.
They stayed in their end during the first half, relying on an absorbent defense backed by keeper Shuichi Gonda and stressed dispossession and discipline over daring.
And when Gundokan’s goal made them chase the game, the Japanese had a plan for that.
“We wanted to start playing aggressively,” said Moriyasu. “We wanted to dominate the match.”
Before long, the Japanese were coming in numbers and had the Germans backpedaling. When Doan, who’d come on only a few minutes earlier, banged home the equalizer, his mates were in position to grab the point they needed.
But they sensed that they could get 3, so they went after them directly with Asano dashing down the right side, gathering in Ko Itakura’s soaring kick, and taking a sharply angled strike that Neuer couldn’t reach.
“We made it too easy for them, especially the second goal,” said Gundogan. “I don’t know if an easier goal was ever scored at a World Cup. That shouldn’t happen.”
For the Japanese, it was a lovely bit of karma in the same vicinity where their hearts were broken in 1993 when they gave up a last-second draw to Iraq and failed to qualify for the Cup in what still is known as the “Agony of Doha.”
“I could see the World Cup right in front of me,” said Moriyasu, who was a midfielder on that team. “But when I went to grab it, it vanished into thin air.”
Now the agony is Germany’s, a sickening spectre from 2018.
“With this defeat and zero points, we are under pressure, no question about it,” acknowledged manager Hansi Flick. “We can only blame ourselves. It’s a great disappointment.”
And it’s a cautionary tale for the other contenders, as it was for Argentina. There’s never been a Cup that was held in a time and a place like this, so it’s reasonable to expect unreasonable results.
Brazil had best start the match on time against Serbia Thursday and step lively throughout. The sharks haven’t been faring so well in the sand.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.