The clock was nearing midnight when Takuma Asano rifled Japan’s winner into the roof of the net at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha – a result that had seemed impossible after a poor first half from Japan, playing in their seventh straight World Cup.
For fans over a certain age, the comeback 2-1 victory went some way towards banishing painful memories of another decisive match in Doha almost three decades ago. It was there that Japan came within minutes of qualifying for their first World Cup, only to be denied qualification for USA 1994 by a stoppage-time equalizer by their opponents, Iraq.
Wednesday’s victory sparked impromptu celebrations at the famous scramble crossing in Shibuya and calls for the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, to follow Saudi Arabia’s example by calling a public holiday.
Yui Sasaki, a Tokyo office worker, was among hundreds of fans who watched the match at a public viewing venue in the capital. Fighting back tears, Sasaki told the Asahi Shimbun: “Honestly speaking, before the match I thought it would need a miracle for Japan to win.”
Kishida invited derision on social media after a tweet appeared on his official account while the match was taking place in which he mentioned his visit earlier in the day to the imperial palace. “I expressed my gratitude for a bountiful harvest and prayed for the prosperity of the imperial family and the peace of the nation,” he wrote. The response from social media users: why aren’t you watching football?
But Kishida, whose approval ratings are at a record low over his party’s ties to the controversial Unification church, managed to capture the national mood on Thursday morning. “I watched the match on TV … it was a wonderful victory,” he told reporters. “I hope they can keep going and make it to the knockout stages.”
Among the Japanese public figures congratulating the team on Twitter was the tennis player Kei Nishikori, who simply posted a row of eight Hinomaru flags.
The victory was the lead story in broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, with some noting that the agony of 29 years ago had been replaced in the national consciousness by the “Miracle of Doha”.
Beneath headlines marking Japan’s “momentous” and “stunning” victory over the four-time World Cup winners, media reports heaped praise on coach Hajime Moriyasu – a member of the team whose dreams had been shattered in Doha 29 years earlier – whose five half- time substitutions proved to be a stroke of genius.
Social media lit up with praise for Asano, who plays for the German Bundesliga club VfL Bochum, and Japan’s other goalscorer, Ritsu Doan, who also plays his club football in Germany with SC Freiburg.
Some credited Japan’s victory to Taiyo, a river otter at a Tokyo aquarium that had predicted the result the day before the match after placing a miniature football in a blue bucket marked with the Japanese flag, snubbing a red one with the German flag and a yellow one that was labeled “draw”, according to the Kyodo news agency.
Yujiro Nakao, a Tokyo businessman and lifelong Samurai Blue supporter, said the team had shown courage by refusing to give up after a “hopeless” first half. “In the second half, they changed their tactics and started attacking more,” said Nakao, who watched the match at home with his wife.
“Moriyasu has been criticized a lot in the past, but he showed he can be a good strategist. I predict – I hope – that we can beat Costa Rica and draw against Spain. I’ll be cheering them on.”
Misae Minami, a teacher in Osaka, said she had a feeling that Japan would prove the pundits wrong. “Most people expected Germany to win, but I was hopeful because Japan’s young players have improved dramatically, and quite a few of them play for German clubs. You could see that our players are getting stronger mentally and physically because they refused to give up even after Germany scored first.”
Japan are now dreaming of a place in the last 16 for the fourth time, and of making the quarter-finals for the first time. While the Germany match kicked off at 10pm local time on Wednesday, the time difference will be kinder to Japanese fans when their team meets Costa Rica early on Sunday evening.
“I can’t wait for the next match,” Minami said. “We’re going to win that one too!”