RAYYAN, Qatar — At times on an impish Thursday night it did seem possible to feel the roiling, quaking and cogitating of the stomachs, nerves and brains of so many of the 124 million Japanese, 84 million Germans, 47 million Spanish, 5 million Costa Ricans and several billion others who had no allegiance but labored breathing. So many poor souls tried to process World Cup Group E.
Without even the courtesy of free airsickness bags, Group E took a rapt planet on a ride through its closing night with permutations gushing out of the concurrent matches and partial scores of Japan’s 2-1 upset of Spain and Germany’s 4-2 comeback through Costa Rica. It began with Spain with four points, Japan three, Costa Rica three and Germany one; reached the halftimes looking like Spain with seven, Germany four, Japan three and Costa Rica three; moved in early second halves to Japan with six, Costa Rica six, Spain four and Germany one; and wound up with Japan with six, Spain four, Germany four and Costa Rica three.
“I am not happy at all,” said Spain Manager Luis Enrique, who saw his team “dismantled” even as his team did pip Germany on goal differential to join Japan in breathing into the 16-team knockout stage of this bumpy World Cup.
“If I had known, I’d have had a heart attack,” he said also, a reference to a point when things went especially upheaved.
That would be the moment Japan led Spain 2-1 while Costa Rica led Germany 2-1, meaning the two underdogs with leads could have ousted both European titans, and Costa Rica might have advanced further than a Spain team that beat the Ticos, 7-0, earlier in group play. Nobody told Enrique of the lunacy going on way up the road in Khor. Whew.
When Germany beat Costa Rica, 4-2, that rescued Spain, which could begin sending flowers, thank-you notes and gifts for future offspring to Kai Havertz, age 23, a pup of a sub who repaired Germany’s 2-1 deficit with goals in the 73rd and 85th minutes.
And when Spain couldn’t catch Japan, that failed to rescue Germany, when a draw would have left the batty group with Spain at five, Germany at four (but ahead of Japan on goal differential), Japan at four and Costa Rica at three.
Any night that includes Germany missing the knockout stage for an unthinkable two World Cups in a row yet renders that one of its secondary impressions does qualify as madcap.
Then there’s the matter that all of it hinged on a Japan goal set to go disputed much of the way into forever.
Khalifa International Stadium alone reached its closing whistle with Japanese players charging euphorically from the bench to the pitch, Spanish players frowning while relieved and some Japanese fans just going ahead and having an understandably good sob. Their team had taken them on a path inexplicable to the speckled human mind: a 2-1 toppling of Germany from a 1-0 deficit, a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica and a 2-1 toppling of Spain from a 1-0 deficit.
It made little sense, as do so many of the best things.
“For Asia and for Japan,” Japan Manager Hajime Moriyasi said through an interpreter in the post-match news conference, “our victories over Spain and Germany, two of the top teams in the world, is something that gives us great confidence and we are very pleased. Of course, there are still many things we have to learn, but Asia can win in the world stage. Japan can win in the world stage.”
It can win, and it can jar.
Spain, a young team at the outset of its search for another national pinnacle 12 years after a breakthrough World Cup title from a previous generation, looked comfortable, often a terrible idea in sports. It assumed its 1-0 lead on Japan in the 11th minute when Cesar Azpilicueta directed a seeing-eye ball well into the middle in front of the goal and Alvaro Morata used his head to redirect it into the goal past harried keeper Shuichi Gonda.
Things went along with calm Spanish control and heavy Spanish possession right into halftime, when Moriyasu, a substitution maestro this World Cup, sent in Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma and Japan’s attack began to get furious.
The first gloom and glee, depending on allegiance, came in the 48th minute when Spain got a bit too la-de-da with a clearance. The ball wound up out yonder on the left just beyond the box, where Junya Ito and Alex Balde briefly scrapped for it before it caromed to Doan, who had scored the equalizer against Germany, also as a substitute.
Now Doan worked his way to the top right portion of the box and drilled a left-footed screamer that curled right and seemed to catch goalkeeper Unai Simon slightly wrong-footed. It went to Simon’s left and glanced off his hand on its trip to both the top right corner of the net and to gathering bedlam all told.
Madness budded into craziness 142 seconds later (as counted by the BBC), when a fine long pass from Japanese goalkeeper Gonda led to some fine passing from Ao Tanaka and Ito, when led to Doan, again, looming from the right. Doan slid a shot around solid defense across the front of the goal to the left side, causing a mad chase from at least two Japanese players trying to keep it from crossing the byline, where Mitoma lunged and redirected it back across. That enabled Tanaka, having moved in tight, to sort of knee it easily into a gaping goal, even if it all looked quite possibly unlawful, and the next few minutes passed waiting for video review to determine whether Mitoma had snagged it on time.
Once VAR came back with a yes that sent different kinds of surprise ricocheting through the stadium, a video screen in the stadium showed the ball still perhaps clinging to the last edge of the line. Still photos looked more inconclusive the more one stared at them. Other still photos showed a ball clearly out.
“From my angle,” Tanaka said in the news conference, “The ball was clearly half-out, but more than that I could not see because of the speed. I was concentrating on scoring. There was always a possibility that it was out. . . . But in the end it was a goal, so it was great.”
Japan led 2-1 and led Spain right into danger. Spain tried to mount charges to get the goal that could get the draw that could win the group, but Japan’s defense cracked only twice and only mildly. “They were defending aggressively,” Enrique said, “and they were closing down the spaces.” It went on and on like that until it ended, until two stadiums 32 miles apart had some corners of the world into a bit of a tizzy.
World Cup in Qatar
World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.
Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.
Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.