Japan Through to Knockout Stage with Controversial Strategy

Japan reached the knockout stage of the World Cup on June 28th for the first time since 2010. But it did so in controversial fashion.

Japan entered the game needing at least a draw to keep its chances of advancing in its own hands. A loss would have meant its fate would depend on the result of a game between Colombia and Senegal.

Japan was the better side early on. Shinji Okazaki came close to opening the scoring. At the other end, Eiji Kawashima kept Poland out just after the half-hour mark. But in the 59th minute, Jan Bednarek broke the deadlock.

Towards the end, word of the Colombia goal reached the Japanese coaches, and the team's play changed noticeably. The Japanese players started passing the ball around, making no attempt to attack. Fans in the stadium were not happy, and they booed until the final whistle.

The game ended 1-0 to Poland -- but Colombia's win put Japan in second place in the group. The Samurai Blue finished with the same number of points as Senegal, but it was able to advance to the next round on the fair play rule because it had fewer yellow cards.

Debates take place on social media

Opinion was divided on the team's performance. Some defended the Samurai Blue, saying, "The players must have wanted to attack. It was probably difficult for them to play with such loud booing.” Another tweet said, "Globally speaking, the tactic is normal. They couldn't have helped it."

Some severely criticized the team. One tweet said, "They lacked sportsmanship. Japan chose to lose.” Another said, "The players probably weren't happy either. The team must become stronger so that it doesn't have to make the same choice again."

"Necessary to Progress"

After the game, Japan coach Akira Nishino said, "I wasn't happy that we chose to lose. It's not how you're supposed to play the game. But it was necessary to progress." Nishino added that the experience was inevitable for the team to grow.

Goal keeper Eiji Kawashima said, "The result was not good, but I'm relieved that we got through."

Captain Makoto Hasebe said, "It might have been frustrating for the spectators, but this is the reality of the competition. We'll do our best in the next round.”

"Ultimate decision"

NHK soccer commentator Hiroshi Hayano says Nishino was forced to make an "ultimate decision." He notes that Nishino sent in team captain Hasebe after Poland scored. He says Nishino conveyed to the other members through Hasebe that they were to keep going as is, no matter what the outcome. He says that kept the players unified until the end.

Hayano also says Nishino probably envisioned all possible scenarios before the match, and ended up placing his bets on the option with the highest probability of getting Japan to the knockout stage.

He says it's understandable that the team would want to score another point to advance to the knockout stage by its own doing. But he says minor differences can mean life or death at the World Cup games, and that Nishino made what can be described as an ultimate, and good, decision.

Japan to Face Off with Belgium

Japan's first match in the knockout stage is against Belgium on July 2nd. Belgium collected 3 points in the group matches, beating England 1-0, and secured first place in group G.

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez commented on Japan, saying, "It will be a difficult game. Its players managed to play a disciplined game and they have good techniques. We will need to prepare well."

Japanese fans are sure to be glued to the screen.