Search icon


03rd Jul 2018

World Cup Comments: Japan lost with honour, but in the end honour wasn’t enough

What the Japanese brought to Rostov, turning the status quo on its head, will live long in the memory

Simon Clancy

What the Japanese brought to Rostov, turning the status quo on its head, will live long in the memory

“Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu” is a famous Japanese proverb. It translates as: “If you do not enter the tigers cave, you will not catch its cub.” Simply put, ‘nothing ventured nothing gained.’

When Akria Nishino gave his final speech to his players before they took the field against Belgium in the last 16 of this magical World Cup, he may well have invoked this exact sentiment because his players were on a tiger hunt, and for 93 and a half minutes they were deep in that cave. Only then, when they’d run and harried and passed and moved and battled and fought and played their hearts out did this Little Engine That Could finally put its collective head inside the tigers’ mouth.

As Nishino fell to his knees after Nacer Chadli slid the ball home in the dying embers of this breathless, brilliant clash, he looked ready to commit seppuku, the ritual suicide reserved for samurai to die with honour. Yet he’d already died a death in that moment where time seemed to slow down, when an alert Thibaut Courtois gently rolled the ball to Kevin De Bruyne who carried it fifty, sixty yards deep into Japanese territory like a fresh racehorse rather than the exhausted water carrier he’d been for much of this contest. An overlap to his right, a pair of slide rule passes, first from the Manchester City star, then from PSG fullback Thomas Meunier, a dummy from Romelu Lukaku and there was Chadli, a tiger on the prowl to finish the game. Time re-started. Belgium were through. Japan were gone.

Nothing ventured. Everything lost.

There was something inevitable about what happened in the ten seconds it took the ball to leave Courtois’ hands and end up in the Japan net. Helpless Japanese players who realised they’d pushed on too much for a meaningless corner given their lack of height at set pieces, were now left flailing behind the racing De Bruyne. Some jogged. Some stopped. All knew what was coming. The skipper, Makoto Hasebe who’d tried to lose Chadli at the aforementioned corner only moments before found his legs wouldn’t work on the eighty-yard chase back to his own goal, the gap between him and the West Brom midfielder widening with every stride. There was chaos. Yet in the midst of this chaos was opportunity. It knocked for a man who’d played just twice for the Baggies since Christmas. Here he was sending Nishino to his knees.

Everything lost.

Yet the Japanese manager need not fear the sword. His honour is fully intact, as is that of his players. From the sparkling Inui, one of the players of the tournament who buzzed and buzzed, to the industry of Haraguchi, the deftness of Kagawa who rolled by the years to his finest days at Dortmund, and even a late cameo from the greatest of them all, Keisuke Honda who almost won it at the end with a dipping, swerving free kick that had no right to go in and yet almost did, they were to a man, magnificent. And yet in the end they threw it away, losing concentration for a brief moment as the tiger turned its back.


The tournament will go on without them of course. But what they brought to this night in Rostov when they turned the status quo on its head, will live long in the memory. The sense of what might have been replaced by the sounds of what was: Belgian fans in tears of joy, the screams of the Japanese fans replaced by their silent whimpers. It begs the question: would you rather lose with honour, knowing that you had that tiger cub in your hands, or, much like the hosts on Sunday afternoon, lack the bravery to venture inside the cave and advance to the quarter finals?

The World Cup is a poorer place for the Japanese departure, deceived by the tiger in ten fateful seconds of naivety. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.