World Cup fever finally struck Japan with vengeance Tuesday night following the Samurai Blue’s surprising victory over much higher ranked Colombia in Japan’s opening game in the tournament.
The streets in Shibuya, Tokyo, were a sea of blue as hundreds of fans wearing replica shirts descended on the world-famous scramble crossing to celebrate their team’s victory until the early hours on Wednesday.
Each time the traffic signal turned green, throngs of fans would cross the busy intersection chanting, “Nippon! Nippon!” and high-fiving as many other fans as possible passing in other directions.
The football madness was all skillfully kept under control by Shibuya’s famed “DJ Police” who instructed the fans through a megaphone from a deck atop their vehicles and in doing so ensuring that the masses and the cars trying to pass are all kept safe.
“Japan was just fantastic,” Shiori Fujita, a project manager at a design firm in Harajuku, told Xinhua from a nearby sports bar after the game. “I’m so happy now, I’m just going to drink and cheer until the early morning,” the young lady in her 20s, told Xinhua early on Wednesday.
Her coworker, Niki Kawada, also in her 20s, was following Japan’s victory, equally as thrilled (and drunk), “We were really nervous before the game because the team had not been performing well and we have a new manager, but it’s all come together perfectly. We beat Colombia and looked as good as some of the top teams,” she beamed.
Japan had gone into the World Cup competition as underdogs in their group, which includes Colombia, Poland and Senegal, with Japan ranked a lowly 61 by FIFA, compared to Poland who are ranked at 8, Colombia at 16 and Senegal ranked at 27.
Rankings aside, the team, and vice-verse, had little time to adapt to their new coach following the abrupt ousting of Vahid Halilhodzic, who had guided Japan to their sixth straight appearance in the finals, and the selection of former Gamba Osaka boss and Japan Football Association (JFA) technical director Akira Nishino to take over just weeks before the tournament in Russia.
“I thought at best Japan might have squeezed a draw from their game against Colombia, but they matched the South Americans both technically and physically. They didn’t shy away and were prepared to put in big tackles and even pick up yellow cards, which is very unlike Japan,” Sid Lloyd, Managing Director of Footy Japan, told Xinhua on Wednesday.
“They got off to a lucky start with a penalty kick within five minutes of the start,” Lloyd, who runs the biggest amateur international football league in Japan, the Tokyo Metropolis League (TML) along with the acclaimed British Football Academy schools, for budding young football stars here, added.
Following a deliberate Colombian handball reducing the South American side to 10-men, Shinji Kagawa cooly placed his penalty straight and low, and sent Colombia’s David Ospina the wrong way.
And even though Colombia equalized through a cheeky Juan Quintero free kick before halftime, Japan sealed the deal with a late header by Yuya Osako from a pinpoint Keisuke Honda corner and took all three points and, in doing so, perhaps vindicating those who had railed against Halilhodzic for not using his veteran players like Yuto Nagatomo, Honda and Kagawa.
“The three were all instrumental in Japan’s win against Colombia,” Lloyd said, adding, “you can’t teach experience. These ‘veterans’ have all played overseas at a much higher standard than the J-League and have a lot to offer the team. We saw that last night,” Lloyd concluded.
It was not just the fans in their replica blue jerseys in sports bars and on the streets celebrating on Tuesday night through the early hours of Wednesday, even Japan’s top government spokesperson showed his regards.
“This is the first time that an Asian team has beaten a South American opponent at the World Cup,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a press conference at the prime minister’s office on Wednesday.
“The veterans and the younger players joined forces and demonstrated Japanese characteristics,” he said.