The irony was lost on few as Poland allowed Japan to keep possession for the final 10 minutes of their game, ensuring the Samurai Blue progressed from Group H at the expense of Senegal. The Poles had taken the lead, potentially sending Japan home. The Japanese needed a point to ensure they qualified for the last 16, but events elsewhere conspired to put them back in the driving seat.
Colombia’s 74th-minute goal against Senegal meant Japan — level on points, goal difference and head-to-head with Senegal — were now second in the group on the Fair Play rule. Japan’s players were clearly instructed by head coach Akira Nishino to take no risks as the game moved towards its conclusion, despite the fact that a goal for Senegal would have sent them out.
A flaw in the rulebook
It was a huge gamble, and it paid off, aided and abetted by the complicit Poland side who had no need to chase a game they were winning.
But it certainly left a slightly sour taste to see the two teams bring back memories of the infamous West Germany-Austria game in 1982 when the sides tamely settled for a 1-0 German win, a result that saw both sides progress.
That game prompted the decision to play the final group games simultaneously, but teams can still work within the rules by refusing to compete when the in-play result suits both parties. The flaw in the system means that even the Fair Play rule can be exploited, with a toss of a coin the next option to separate the teams.
On paper, using the Fair Play rule might sound a reasonable way to avoid the complete game of chance that is flipping a coin to see which side it lands on. However, Fair Play is a completely subjective concept that cannot be measured in yellow cards. Refereeing is theoretically standardised, but clearly ‘discretion’ is often used, as evidenced by the number of fouls that go unpunished because it’s ‘early in the game’ or the fact that a push in the chest is sometimes a yellow and sometimes not.
Senegal have every right to feel aggrieved that they have been punished on the basis of having received more yellow cards when the context of these bookings cannot be measured.
There is, of course, an argument that Japan deserve reward for fair play that goes way beyond this competition. They are generally one of the fairest footballing nations and will never be in the same category as the likes of Uruguay and Portugal when it comes to the game’s dark arts. However, this is irrelevant when it comes to the matter of how progress in this tournament was decided. And the Japanese demonstrated that, while they may not be purveyors of what has become popularly known as ‘shithousery’, they are not above playing the system to their benefit.
Looking objectively, Nishino deserves great credit for leading his team to four points from the first two games, having been written off by many after selecting an experienced and uninspiring squad with several exciting young talents left at home. Japan needed just one point from the game against Poland to progress to the last 16, but Nishino inexplicably made six changes to a side that had played well for most of the previous two games.
There followed a disjointed performance against an already eliminated Poland side that did not appear especially motivated to go home on a high. When the Poles took the lead on 59 minutes, Japan looked like joining Poland in exiting the tournament until Colombia’s intervention.
Nishino’s gamble paid off
In many ways, it was brave of Nishino to decide to gamble on Senegal not finding the net in the final 10 minutes, but his bizarre team selection had put them in this position. Sticking with most of the same men that brought them into the final group game just a point from the last 16 may well have been a better bet.
But the end justifies the means in football and Nishino got his reward. There may now be renewed debate about the wisdom of using Fair Play to separate teams, but it is too late now for Senegal.
Japan also had their share of luck on Matchday One when Colombia were reduced to 10 men in the third minute of their clash, with the Japanese going on to win 2-1.
Nishino’s men now face Belgium in the last 16 and they will certainly need to raise their game if they are to emerge victorious. Whatever the result, Japan have proved a lot of people wrong by getting this far and banishing the ghosts of a dreadful 2014 campaign that saw them take just one point – from a 0-0 draw with 10-man Greece.
Nishino should get great credit for taking Japan this far, but it also has to be acknowledged that the methods used to secure qualification for the last 16 would not fall into most people’s category of Fair Play.