Japan vs. Belgium: The Greatest World Cup Match Ever.

By Kiche Rubalcava and Mariam Bulin-Diarra

Belgium’s thrilling 3-2 win over Japan was defined by a final gallop up the field, the elegance of letting a pass go, so a teammate can make the final strike in the last breath of the game. Five goals were scored in the second half. The win for Belgium was fundamental. Outplayed for 60 minutes, Belgium showed a grit and a commitment to excellence that is exclusive to champions. According to ESPN, Belgium became the first team to win a World Cup knockout round match after being down at least two goals since West Germany in 1970. It was the greatest World Cup match.
There is a truism in World Cup soccer: no team is invincible. Ranked 58th in the World, according to FIFA, but armed with an iron discipline, Japan was on the brink of sending the Belgians home.  Adhering to principled tactics and wearing their jersey with a sense of honor rarely seen today, Japan held Belgium scoreless for the first half. Japan bristled with intelligence and strength, defending their goal against 12 shots in the first half. Deflecting the Belgian strikes with skill, the Japanese defense kept the ball out of the net. That ball, like the Belgian’s aspirations, kept crashing down. Belgium, the third-ranked team in the world, according to FIFA, was in an existential crisis. The Belgian faces became somber. This mood followed the Belgians into the second half. On the other side, Japan came out with a surgical counterattack. The result: Japan scored twice in five minutes. In the 48th minute, Genki Haraguchi cut to the right past Thibault Courtois and found the far post with a precision shot. A few minutes passed, then Shinji Kagawa served a ball for Takashi Inui, and he sent a knuckleball into a far corner past the goalkeeper Courtois. Japan had never scored a goal in the World Cup’s knockout stage. Now Japan was painting a masterpiece. The only problem: there were 30 minutes left in the match. Down two goals to nil, Belgium lost its air of invincibility. And maybe they had nothing to lose. Needless to say, Belgium’s existential angst turned on a trifle: a gentle loopy header by Jan Vertonghen was Belgium’s first goal in the 69th minute. This is when things turned strange. It is not clear if it was a strike or a pass. While looking away from the goal, Vertonghen headed the ball from 14 yards out; it had the trajectory of a leaf falling in autumn. It fell just beyond Kawashima’s hands, finding the far side of the net. Nothing is impossible.
Belgium’s equalizing goal was also a header, this one courtesy of a fruitful substitution, namely the six-foot-four Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini towered over the Japan defense to knock in an uncontested goal.
It was the remarkable home stretch run that put the stamp of greatness on this World Cup knockout match. With 93:30 on the clock, the goalkeeper Courtois secured a lazy corner kick and rolled it on the ground to midfielder Kevin De Bruyne who ran down the final stretch and passed it to Thomas Meunier. Meunier crossed it to Romelu Lukaku, who let it pass through his legs for Nacer Chadli, who simply touched the ball past Eiji Kawashima. This blow was conclusive: Belgium advances to play Brazil. Japan has already transcended the tragedy of that furious and fatal rush down the field. After this World Cup loss, Japan left a thank you note and a spotless locker room.
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