Japan claimed what was perhaps the biggest scalp in their 20-year World Cup finals history on Tuesday with a shocking 2-1 victory over Colombia at Saransk’s Mordovia Arena to open Group H play.
Despite a tumultuous two months of preparation which followed Akira Nishino’s appointment to head coach in the wake of Vahid Halilhodzic’s sacking, the four-time Asian champions entered the seemingly match in high spirits, boasting a lineup featuring overseas-based stars Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, and Gaku Shibasaki.
While many favoured the South American side despite Colombian ace James Rodriguez’s presence on the bench, no one could have predicted a chaotic third minute which saw midfielder Carlos Sanchez handed a straight red card for his handball in the penalty area. The kick from the spot was duly converted by Shinji Kagawa, giving the Samurai Blue a 1-0 lead as well as a one-man advantage.
Japan were hesitant at times to press for a second goal, slowly giving way to Colombia’s rapid counters. The lead would not last until halftime, however, as Juan Quintero cleverly sent a 39th-minute free kick from close range under the wall and past aging veteran Eiji Kawashima to tie the match at 1-1.
Nishino’s men were far more composed after the break, dominating possession and repeatedly pressuring Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina. Their efforts paid off in the 73rd minute when Yuya Osako headed in a well-targeted corner kick by Keisuke Honda, the talisman who came onto the pitch just three minutes earlier.
A flustered Colombia were unable to find a second equalizer, making Japan the first Asian country to defeat a South American nation at a World Cup and silencing the sea of 20,000 fans in yellow.
“We were able to create a good rhythm by scoring the opening goal. We didn’t react, we held the ball and looked for a goal,” said Nishino, who also orchestrated Japan’s famous ‘Miracle of Miami’ win over Brazil at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “The players fought well and earned this result.”
“The atmosphere amongst the squad is very good, and this win was a group effort,” defender Yuto Nagatomo commented. “It was tough to play against some of the best players in the world but everyone focused and defended well.”
“They lost a player early, and we knew it’d be a difficult game but it’s great that we held on,” captain Makoto Hasebe added. “Greece also defended hard in 2014 when they lost a player, and it was the same today.”
The result sent Japan to the top of Group H, with June 24 opponents Senegal and June 29 opponents Poland set to face off later in the day.