By STEPHEN WADE, Associated Press
DOHA, Qatar — In Japan’s fourth appearance in the round of 16 at the World Cup, the team was knocked out for the fourth time. The Japanese lost to Croatia in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw. The Croats won the shootout 3-1.
Japan also reached the round of 16 in 2002, 2010 and four years ago in Russia.
EXPECTATION VS. PERFORMANCE
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said for months that the 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.”
Moriyasu’s contract expires at the end of the World Cup. Japan soccer association president Tashima Kohzo said in Doha that Moriyasu was likely to be a candidate to continue. He gave no more details.
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 in Qatar, 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 on Monday. “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 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 English club Brighton in the 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, 21-year-old Takefusa Kubo, who plays 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.