It turns out that football miracles can strike twice. In quick succession, and in the same place. After their team’s shock defeat to Costa Rica at the weekend, many Japanese fans were bracing for an early exit from the Qatar World Cup at the hands of Spain on Thursday.
Instead, the Khalifa International Stadium was the backdrop to another extraordinary night for Japanese football, as the Samurai Blue beat the 2010 world champions 2-1 to send them into the last 16 and a meeting with the 2018 runners-up, Croatia. Victory in that match would take Japan to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.
“Doha delights again!” one newspaper headlined its online edition, evoking memories of what the media labelled the “Miracle of Doha” after Japan’s win over Germany.
Much of the post-match punditry centred on Japan’s controversial winner, after the ball was judged by the VAR to have stayed in by a fraction before Kaoru Mitoma crossed it for Ao Tanaka to bundle home, sparking wild celebrations in Doha and Tokyo.
The Daily Sports said Japan had “come within a millimetre” of exiting the tournament. “Luck was on Japan’s side,” the tabloid said. Tokyo Sports, meanwhile, noted that the team had again become the talk of the tournament, days after their giant-killing 2-1 win against Germany, who failed to get out of their World Cup group stage for the second time in a row.
“The foreign media didn’t expect Japan to do well,” the paper said. “But they are all getting excited now, including the BBC.”
The VAR controversy was also the talk of social media, with one account joking that it had spawned a new design for Japan’s national flag.
While Japanese fans have long been praised for tidying up stadiums around the world, on Thursday there was as much online love for the players.
“Not sure I’ve ever been more pleased for any side in any sport,” Seth Levine said in a message to the Guardian’s live blog. “Love the way they play. No s**t-housery. No histrionics. Brilliant fans. Excellent tactically. Manager wears a charcoal three-piece suit. What’s not to love?”
Ben Mabley, who commentates in Japan on Premier League football, had a message for those who doubted Japan’s footballing pedigree. “Ever since I came to Japan, I’ve heard people say that Japan doesn’t have much of a football history. I don’t want to hear that ever again!” he tweeted in Japanese. “An amazing history is unfolding right before your eyes! Congratulations!”
Ken Kawakita, who watched the match at home in Yokohama, said he had almost given up hope after Japan’s poor first half. “Spain looked better in every way, but Japan were a completely different team in the second half,” he said.
“I realised that football is as much about the players’ mentality as their footballing ability. I couldn’t believe the transformation in the second half. It’s been a week-long rollercoaster ride. We were elated after Germany, then in despair after Costa Rica. Who knows what’s going to happen next? Croatia aren’t as good as they were four years ago, but I’m trying not to get carried away.”
Not even the pre-dawn kick-off could deter fans who braved the cold to watch the match together on giant screens, or set their alarms to follow the game from their futons, knowing that they would have little or no time to snooze before getting ready for work.
Fans chanting “Nippon! Nippon!” celebrated before sunrise on the famous scramble crossing in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, and later exchanged high-fives with bleary eyed commuters pouring out of the train station.
“I never thought Japan would finish top of their group. Thank you, Japan! I love you guys,” said 19-year-old fan Yusei Sato.
Takuya Kudo, 23, burst into tears as soon as the final whistle blew. “I’m just so happy,” he said. “Honestly, I never thought Japan would do this well. I’m just really thrilled.”
“Samurai Blue” and “Come-from-behind victory” were trending on Twitter, while one user posted a cartoon of a roaring Japanese dragon flanked by those from a lucky Spain, who also qualified from Group E, and clearly bewildered Germany.
Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka posted a manga-style depiction of the Japanese team, while Elon Musk tweeted: “Congratulations, Japan!”
The prime minister, Fumio Kishida described the victory as “historic”, adding that he had called the team’s coach, Hajime Moriyasu, and the president of the Japan Football Association, Kozo Tashima, to offer his congratulations.
“I told them they gave the Japanese people courage and energy,” Kishida said on Twitter. “We are looking forward to the last 16. Fight on, Japan!”
Moriyasu, who had been criticised for his tactics in the 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica, thanked Japan’s travelling fans and the many more back home who had got up in the middle of the night to watch his team. “This victory is a gift for the people of Japan,” he said.